Anne Bradstreet: Contribution as American Poetess

Also Read

      Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) proves the contrary, and in doing so she proves how the love of beauty can manage to bloom under the bleakest skies. Her talent was assuredly a “flower in a crannied wall.” She was born in England in 1612 and was married at the age of sixteen, as girls often were in those days, to a man several years older, Simon Bradstreet. In 1630 she came to Massachusetts with her husband and her father. Both became eminent in the affairs of the colony. In the family they were doubtless sober and probably dull. Mrs. Bradstreet kept house under pioneer conditions in one place after another, and when still less than forty years old had become the mother of eight children. Yet somewhere in the rare moments of her crowded days—and one can imagine how far apart those moments must have been—she put into verse “a compleat Discourse and Description of The Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year; Together with an exact Epitome of the four Monarchies, viz., the Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, Roman” (this means five long poems, and not two); “also a dialogue between Old England and New concerning the late troubles; with divers other pleasant and serious poems.” All these she wrote without apparent thought of publication, for the purely artistic reason that she enjoyed doing so; and in 1650—halfway between “The Bay Psalm Book” and “The Day of Doom"—they were taken over to London by a friend, and there put into print as the work of "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America.”

Poetry was more than a diversion for Anne Bradstreet; it must have been a passion. As a girl she had been allowed to read in the library of the Puritan Earl of Lincoln, over whose estate her father was steward. And here she had fallen under the spell of the lesser poets of her age, naturally not the dramatists, whom the Puritans opposed.
Anne Bradstreet

      Poetry was more than a diversion for Anne Bradstreet; it must have been a passion. As a girl she had been allowed to read in the library of the Puritan Earl of Lincoln, over whose estate her father was steward. And here she had fallen under the spell of the lesser poets of her age, naturally not the dramatists, whom the Puritans opposed. So, after their fashion, and particularly in the fashion of a Frenchman, Du Bartas, whose works were popular in an English translation, she wrote her quaint “quarternions,” or poems on the four elements, the four seasons, the four ages, and the four “humours,” and capped them all with the four monarchies. These are interesting to the modern reader only as examples of how the human mind used to work. Chaucer had juggled with the same materials; Ben Jonson had been fascinated with them. It was a literary tradition to develop them one by one, to set them in debate against each other, and to interweave them into corresponding groups: childhood, water, winter, phlegm; youth, air, spring, blood; manhood, fire, summer, choler; and old age, earth, autumn, melancholy.

      Yet her chief claim on our interest is founded on the shorter poems, in which she took least pride. In these she showed her real command of word and measure to express poetic thought. Her “Contemplations,” for example, is as poetic in thought as Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” or as Lanier’s “The Marshes of Glynn,” to which it stands in suggestive contrast. The former two are on the idea that nature endures but man passes away. This was never long absent from the Puritan mind, but when it came to the ordinary Puritan it was likely to be cast into homely and prosaic verse, as in the epitaph:

 The path of death it must be trod
 By them that wish to walk with God.

      Anne Bradstreet, taking the same observation, wrote with noble dignity:

 O Time the fatal wrack of mortal things,
 That draws oblivions curtain over kings,
 Their sumptuous monuments, men know them not,
 Their names without a Record are forgot,
 Their parts, their ports, their pomp’s all laid in th’ dust
 Nor wit, nor gold, nor buildings, scape time’s rust;
 But he whose name is grav’d in the white stone
 Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.

      Yet as a strictly Puritan poetess she did only one part of her work. She was even more interesting as an early champion of her sex. She did not go so far as to assert equality of the sexes; that was too far in advance of the age for her imagination. But she did contend that women should be given credit for whatever was worth “small praise.” This appears again and again in her shorter poems.

 Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are
 Men have precedency and still excell,
 It is but vain unjustly to wage warre;
 Men can do best, and women know it well;
 Preheminence in all and each is yours;
 Yet grant some small acknowledgment of ours.

      Naturally she was full of pride in the achievements of Queen Elizabeth, a pride which she expressed in a fine song “In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess”:

 From all the Kings on earth she won the prize.
 Nor say I more then duly is her due,
 Millions will testifie that this is true.
 She hath wip’d off th’ aspersion of her Sex,
 That women wisdom lack to play the Rex:
 Spains Monarch, sayes not so, nor yet his host:
 She taught them better manners, to their cost.
 The Salique law, in force now had not been,
 If France had ever hop’d for such a Queen.
 But can you Doctors now this point dispute,
 She’s Argument enough to make you mute.
 Since first the sun did run his nere run race,
 And earth had once a year, a new old face,
 Since time was time, and man unmanly man,
 Come shew me such a Phœnix if you can?

      Then follows a recital of Elizabeth’s proudest triumphs, and assertions of how far she surpassed Tomris, Dido, Cleopatra, Zenobya, and the conclusion:

 Now say, have women worth? or have they none?
 Or had they some, but with our Queen is’t gone?
 Nay Masculines, you have thus taxt us long,
 But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
 Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
 Know tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

      Anne Bradstreet foreshadowed the “woman’s movement” of to-day by two full centuries, and thus showed how even the daughter of one Puritan governor of Massachusetts and the wife of another could be thinking and aspiring far in advance of her times.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions