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Bradstreet was America’s first published poet and the first woman to produce an eduring volume of poetry in the English language. Although quite popular during her lifetime, she was largely ignored by subsequent generations of critics. Only in recent decades have scholars returned to her work to reexamine its worth as literature and not just for its historical significance.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised amid Aristrocracy
Anne Bradstreet was born in England to a Puritan family. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was steward to the Earl of Lincoln, a leading nonconformist in the religious strife of England. Puritans believed that the Anglican Church—the official church of England—had become too similar to the Catholic Church in some ways, and sought to create a “purer,” separate brand of Christianity for themselves. Since they had disavowed the official church of the land, they were often persecuted by government and religious officials.
Because of Dudley’s high position, his daughter received an education befitting aristocracy. The availability of the Earl’s extensive library provided her the opportunity to read the works of Plutarch, Edmund Spenser, Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas, Francis Quarles, and Sir Philip Sidney, with whom her father claimed kinship.
Move to the New World
In 1630 Bradstreet moved with her parents and husband, Simon Bradstreet, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where her husband and father served as governors of the struggling settlement. As a New England colonist, Bradstreet encountered a life of hardship to which she was unaccustomed. Bradstreet had eight children between the years 1633 and 1652, which meant that her domestic responsibilities were extremely demanding. Still, she wrote poetry in spite of frequent illness and the difficulties of raising a family in the American wilderness.
The Bradstreets shared a house in Salem for many months with another family and lived in spartan style. In the winter the two families were confined to the one room in which there was a fireplace. The situation was tense as well as uncomfortable, and Bradstreet and her family moved several times in an effort to improve their worldly estates. From Salem they moved to Charlestown, then to Newtown (later called Cambridge), then to Ips wich, and finally to Andover in 1645.
Throughout her life in the New World, Bradstreet was concerned with the issues of sin and redemption, physical and emotional frailty, death and immortality. Much of her work indicates that she had a difficult time resolving the conflict she experienced between the pleas ures of sensory and familial experience and the promises of heaven. As a Puritan, she struggled to subdue her attachment to the world, but as a woman she sometimes felt more strongly connected to her husband, children, and community than to God.
The Tenth Muse and Beyond
When her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, returned to England in 1647, he took with him the manuscript of Bradstreet’s poems. Without her knowledge, he published them, entitling the collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650). The volume met with immediate success as one of the ”most vendable” books in London. Bradstreet was pleasantly surprised by the reception of The Tenth Muse, but she was dissatisfied with its unpolished state. In subsequent years, she undertook to revise the poems, though some of these alterations were lost when her home burned in 1666.
Six years after her death the revisions, along with a number of new verses, were published under the title Several Poems; this volume includes Bradstreet’s most celebrated poem, ”Contemplations.” Not included were some prose meditations and reminiscences that, along with some later poems, were not printed until 1867, when John Harvard Ellis published Bradstreet’s complete works, including materials from both editions of The Tenth Muse as well as ”Religious Experiences and Occasional Pieces” and ”Meditations Divine and Morall.”
Works in Literary Context
Bradstreet’s first poems were published in London under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America and created great curiosity as the first significant literature to emerge from New England. Of even greater interest to Bradstreet’s contemporaries was the fact that The Tenth Muse was the work of a woman, authorship being a most disreputable occupation for women of the time. Yet, Bradstreet apparently was not subjected to personal disparagement because of her compositions in The Tenth Muse, which are long, formal pieces deriving from well-worn poetic stock of the Renaissance. Admired as a successful example of standard poetic fare, the poetry of The Tenth Muse was probably composed by the time Brad-street was thirty years old. Her later poems, however, departed from convention, displaying a sensitivity and love of beauty not usually associated with New England Puritans.
From Convention to Introspection
There is, in the words of Ann Stanford, ”a great rift that all critics have noted” in Bradstreet’s work. The early poetry is characterized by convention and imitation, the later by introspection and personal expression. The early work consists primarily of the Quaternions: four long poems of four parts each, which treat the humours, elements, seasons, and ages of man. They are cast in the form of argument, with each humor, element, season, and age personified as a sister who argues her case for preeminence.
Bradstreet’s later work is quite different. It has been suggested that The Tenth Muse would be of only superficial historical significance if not for the lasting quality of Bradstreet’s later poetry. Here, Bradstreet turned to a more personal style of expression. Thoughts on her ill nesses, the death of loved ones, the raising of her children, and anxiety for her husband away on business are expressed in poems written over a period of thirty years. While she had begun poetizing her reflections on personal subjects before the publication of The Tenth Muse, it was not until its publication that this type of expression came to dominate her work. Bradstreet also began to write prose works in this later period: autobiographical reminiscences intended for the benefit of her children, and her ”Meditations Divine and Morall,” often considered among the finest aphorisms on the human condition predating those of Benjamin Franklin.
Both the reminiscences and the ”Meditations” offer a valuable personal perspective on Bradstreet’s life and poetry. Exemplifying her personal reflections is the poem ”Contemplations,” now considered her masterpiece, which records the poet’s thoughts on a walk along a river. Observing nature with sensitivity and humility, she considers the transience of human existence. Some critics have seen in ”Contemplations” a foreshadowing of the Romantics, for it expresses tenderness, a celebration of beauty, and honest emotion. To many commentators, these characteristics markedly differ from common perceptions of Puritan severity and insensitivity to feeling. Others see ”Contemplations” as a warm and graceful view of life by a devout Puritan.
Works in Critical Context
The publication of The Tenth Muse created an immediate sensation in London. Bradstreet was praised in her own time for the formal, courtly aspect of her poetry. In a statement of extravagant praise Cotton Mather (1663 1728) concluded that her poems have ”afforded a grateful Entertainment unto the Ingenious, and a Monument for her Memory beyond the stateliest Marbles.” Eight years after The Tenth Muse appeared, it was listed by William London in his Catalogue of the Most Vendible Books in England, and George III is reported to have had the volume in his library.
What was most noteworthy to her contemporaries, however, was that this sophisticated poetry was produced in the wilds of America by a woman. Subsequently, she appears to have been all but ignored by critics until the late nineteenth century, when she was criticized for a ”lack of taste and for following the example of such ”fantastic” poets as Richard Crashaw, John Donne, George Herbert, and Francis Quarles. Considered but a relic of America s earliest literature, her poetry was seen as a slight exception to what the nineteenth-century reader perceived as the artless, repressive nature of Puritanism.
With the rise of the feminist movement in the middle of the twentieth century, there was a surge of interest in the study of Bradstreet s work. Her formal poetry, while drawing the least comment, sparks the most disagreement. Many critics consider it forgettable; others praise it for technical, if not imaginative, skill. More attention has been paid the later lyric poems and with far more critical agreement; though differing in degree, admiration is the common response to Bradstreet’s later work. Yet, much of the critical study exhibits a greater interest in Bradstreet herself, her feelings and personal growth, than in her writing. Seeing in her a figure of inspiration, many feminist critics have focused on her womanhood and her place in the history of female authors, looking upon her production of poetry under conditions of illness, pioneering, and mothering as a Herculean effort.
They perceive in her a spirit of uncommon independence within a man’s world; numerous critics, feminist and otherwise, have seen in Bradstreet’s poems evidence of personal rebellion against God, against a male-dominated society, or against Puritan social strictures in general. Others have noted that modern readers still labor under the nineteenth-century prejudice against Puritanism and claim that what is expressed in Brad street’s poetry is a humble avowal of Puritan belief, rather than rebellion. These critics stress that there was probably more depth and variety to Puritanism than one previously comprehended and that a better understanding is necessary if one is to accurately appraise Brad-street’s writings.
What is certain is that Bradstreet’s work has endured. Her poetry has continued to receive a positive response for more than three centuries, and she is still considered to be one of the most important early American poets and one of the most important American women poets of all time.
- Campbell, Helen. Anne Bradstreet and Her Time. Boston: Lothrop, 1891.
- Gilber, Sandra and Susan Gubar, eds. Shakespeare’s Sisters. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1979.
- Martin, Wendy. The Lives and Work of Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
- Piercy, Josephine K. Anne Bradstreet. New York: Twayne, 1965.
- Stanford, Ann. Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan. New York: Burt Franklin, 1974.
- White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Eberwein, Jane Donahue. ”The ‘Unrefined Ore’ of Anne Bradstreet’s Quaternions.” Early American Literature 9 (1974): 19-24.
- Hildebrand, Anne. ”Anne Bradstreet’s Quaternions and ‘Contemplations.”’ Early American Literature 8 (1973): 117-125.
- Laughlin, Rosemary M. ”Anne Bradstreet: Poet in Search of Form.” American Literature 42 (1970): 1-17.
- Requa, Kenneth A. ”Anne Bradstreet’s Poetic Voices.” Early American Literature 9 (1974): 3-18.
- Richardson, Robert. ”The Puritan Poetry of Anne Bradstreet.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 9 (1967): 317-331.
- Rosenfeld, Alvin H. ”Anne Bradstreet’s ‘Contemplations’: Patterns of Form and Meaning.” New England Quarterly 43 (1970): 79-96.
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