Monday, March 21, 2016

Anne Bradstreet: A Puritan Progressive

  Anne Bradstreet is easily one of the most recognizable names in early North American
literature. She was the first person to have their poetry published. She was born Anne Dudley in
1612, into a nonconformist Puritan family who were all planning for the settlement of
Massachusetts Bay Colony. She married Simon Bradstreet, another nonconformist, in 1628. Her
extraordinary love and open accessibility for education was unusual for a young woman of her
time. The poetry of Anne Bradstreet challenges the traditional role of women in the seventeenth
century while still remaining true to strict gender biases within the Puritan faith.

     Bradstreet is famous for many of her works, and some of the most well-known include The
Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit
and Learning, The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Prose and Verse, The Works of Anne Bradstreet,
and The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet. Her poems do vary in subject matter, but they
unfailingly express “the Puritan spiritual and communal vision that informed her life” (419,
Cowell). The underlying themes of family, love, sorrow, nature, faith, and resignation are all
exceptionally prevalent in her verse.

     The Prologue [To Her Book], is one of her most famous pieces, and it most likely stood as an
opening section in The Tenth Muse. Bradstreet is discussing the notion that there are certain
topics that she should not write on. She says, “For my mean pen are too superior things;” (420,
Bradstreet line 3). A couple more lines down in the same stanza she says “Let poets and
historians set these forth, /My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth” (420, line 5). It is
exceptionally ironic and bold of her to immediately begin by openly doubting if it was truly her
place to write poetry, in a poem, in the introduction to her poetry book.

     In the sixth stanza, Bradstreet uses a Greek mythological example and discusses a group of
nine women, The Muses. The majority of Greek men were still not particularly open-minded
about women's rights during this time. Bradstreet makes mention of her right to have a voice and
perceives her domestic life as a treasured inspiration for verse. The last line in the stanza reads,
“The Greeks did nought, but play the fools and lie” (421, line 36). She does not, however, make
mention of gender equality or ever once reject the patriarchy. In fact, she holds exceptionally
true to her belief that men are the stronger sex. The next stanza reinforces the fact that she truly
believed that men were superior, and women knew this. “Let Greeks be Greeks, and women
what they are, / Men have precedency and still excel, / It is but vain unjustly to wage war; / Men
can do best, and women know it well” (421, line 37). She merely discusses that women are
capable of generating work that is worthy of “some small acknowledgment” (421, line 42).
Although she is asking for more acceptance as a female intellectual and writer, she wholly
accepted the Puritan designations of gender roles.

     To My Dear and Loving Husband is another poem that holds much significance in the themes
of love, family, and spirituality. Bradstreet sets the piece up very personally, with the title written
similarly to the opening of a letter. It is twelve lines long and bears a resemblance to a
Shakespearean sonnet. The two opening lines are “If ever two were one, then surely we. / If ever
man were loved by wife, then thee,” (430, line 2). Simplistic, succinct, and understandable, it is
relatable to the interactions of marital love.

     Her messages to her husband are raw and emotional. She is saying that there is no wife that
loves their husband more than she does.  The next two lines begin to become spiritual, and even
more so at the very end of the piece. She says “Thy love is such I can no way repay, / The
heavens reward thee manifold, I pray” (431, line 10). At the very end of the poem, she becomes
exceptionally spiritual. She writes “Then while we live, in love let’s persevere, / That when we
live no more, we may live ever” (431, line 12). This can be interpreted that while she and her
husband are still living, they should love each other to their fullest and deepest potential, so they
can go to Heaven, and their love will live on even after they have died.

     Bradstreet’s message is logical and true to Puritan values. People were married young, and
they were expected to stay together until death. Divorce and adultery were not accepted in
Puritan society. This poem is both religious and secular. It does recognize the importance of
Puritan religious beliefs, but it is also centralized around Bradstreet’s amorous attraction to her

          The major themes of Puritanism, accompanied with a desire for eternal life, are both very
prevalent in all of her work. She speaks a lot about motherhood and matrimonial love. Some may
interpret her work as some of the first feminist writing. She accepts that men and women fulfill
separate but important roles, because she believes that that is what God wanted. She does
however, make the statement that women are knowledgeable and talented, and their
achievements and writing should not be censored or suppressed. Although she understood that
she was not the best writer, she wanted her work to be appreciated for what it was. She did not
want people to reject it because it was written by a woman. She also did not want people to think
that only men could write.

     Bradstreet’s poetry is very much so influenced by the personal and intimate aspects of life. If
someone was to read these poems, and the author’s name was missing, it should not be difficult
for them to tell that they were written by a woman. For example, when expressing ones love for
their significant other, it is only honest to say that a man does not express it the way a woman
does.  It is naturally easier for women to relate and empathize. Especially in To My Dear and 
Loving Husband, Bradstreet does an impeccable job letting her femininity surface in her verses.

     These emotionally fervent words are important to American history and the progression of
literature because they are the first of their kind.  As the first woman poet and writer to be
published in British North America, her writing should be interpreted as the inauguration of
women’s writing and literature. If this woman never wrote the pieces that she did, our basis of
comparison would be vastly askew. The things she has written about and the way she wrote
should both be examined and analyzed. Scholars and readers, especially females, should be
scrutinizing how the differences between men and women’s thoughts and expressions are
translated into written language.

     Although Bradstreet was exceptionally conflicted and clearly felt a deep internal struggle
about whether or not it was acceptable for her to write poetry, there does not seem to be any self
loathing coming through in her words. Her modesty illuminates all of her poems. Some readers
may interpret this as paranoia; or possibly as a fear of surpassing certain gender limitations.
Others may see it as a part of a linguistic practice of modesty that many poets of both genders of
the time practiced. Puritans valued unpretentiousness. Although her existence as a poet was
contradictory, it does not seem like Bradstreet is unaccepting of her completely evident talent
because she does make mention of her confidence in her work. By doing what she did, she
challenged one of the main aspects of her faith and societal norms of the time period, while also
staying true to her beliefs and lifestyle.

Works Cited
Lauter, Paul, and Bruce-Novoa. "Anne Bradstreet." The Heath Anthology of American
 Literature. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1990. 418-37. Print.

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