September 16, 1672
North Andover, Massachusetts
Colonial American poet
"All things within this fading world hath end,/Adversity doth still our joys attend. . . . "
From Anne Bradstreet's poem "Before the Birth of One of Her Children."
Anne Bradstreet is considered one of America's most important colonial poets. Born in England, she was one of many Puritans (a religious group who believed in strict moral and spiritual codes) who emigrated to North America in 1630. Despite having to endure a difficult life in the New World (a European term for North America and South America), Bradstreet still managed to write poetry. In fact, she achieved many important firsts. Along with being the first published poet in colonial America, she was also the first American woman poet. In addition, her collection of verse, The Tenth Muse (1650), was the first written in America. Her poem "Contemplations" (1645) was the first poem to be inspired by the American landscape. Today, Bradstreet's work remains as a tribute to her intellect and passion and as a valuable source of information about the role of women in Puritan society.
Receives excellent education
Anne Dudley Bradstreet was born in Northampton, England, in 1612. She was the second of six children born to Thomas and Dorothy Dudley. Her father was a clerk and a member of the gentry (upper or ruling class). In 1619, when he became steward (one employed in a large estate to manage domestic concerns) to Theophilus Clinton, Earl of Lincoln, he moved his family to the earl's estate in Sempringham. At the time the estate was one of the centers of Puritan learning and activism. Leading Puritan ministers often preached in the earl's chapel, and many of the Puritan gentry and nobility met there to have discussions. As a result, the Dudley family was exposed to some of the finest preaching and intellectual debate in England.
Bradstreet received an excellent education at the earl's estate. She had private tutors, and she read many books from the earl's extensive library. The ambitious young pupil studied theology, philosophy, and literature, and she learned to appreciate music and art. At nine years old, she met her future husband, Simon Bradstreet, who was the son of a Puritan minister and a graduate of Cambridge University. He had come to Sempringham to be an assistant to Thomas Dudley. The couple were married in 1628, when Anne was only sixteen.
Travels to the New World
The newlyweds moved to the estate of the dowager (a widow holding property or a title from her deceased husband) countess of Warwick, where Simon had become steward. They did not remain there for long, however, because the religious situation in England had begun to worsen for Puritans. In 1625 King Charles I inherited the throne from his father, James I. Charles I favored William Laud, a bishop in the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church, the official national religion), who used his influence to exclude Puritans from holding political office. As part of his effort to limit the role of Puritans in government, Charles I suspended parliament (the supreme legislative body) in 1629. All Puritans in England, including the Bradstreets and the Dudleys, were now forced to recognize that they were losing influence in the government and could possibly be in danger.
In response to this challenge to their power, Puritan leaders hoped to influence England to reform by establishing a Puritan settlement in America. In 1630 the Bradstreets and the Dudleys joined other Puritans, including lawyer John Winthrop Jr. (see entry) and preacher John Cotton (see entry), and set out aboard the ship Arbella for North America. Along the way they formed the Massachusetts Bay Company. Bradstreet's father was elected deputy governor, and her husband became an assistant. Having begun their journey in April, they arrived at Salem harbor in June.
"Before the Birth of One of her Children"
Modern readers marvel at the ability of Anne Bradstreet to find time to write poetry while taking care of eight children. However, judging from the subject matter of much of her poetry, the two experiences were similar. Bradstreet often wrote about her personal life, which sometimes included the fear of death in childbirth. An example of this is the following poem, titled "Before the Birth of One of Her Children":
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death's parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon't may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend thee,
That when that knot's untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that's due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel'st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or love'st me,
These O protect from step-dame's injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy love's dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.
This poem is a prime example of the hardship that Bradstreet portrays in her work. Since much of her poetry was introspective (an examination of one's own thoughts and feelings), it reveals how she felt about life in the New World—an existence so unpredictable and harsh that love was the only thing people could depend upon. Published in 1678, "Before the Birth of One of Her Children" was written sometime between 1640 and 1652.
Settles in Massachusetts
Bradstreet was surprised by the harsh climate and rustic (very simple) surroundings she encountered when she arrived in North America. She realized immediately that it contrasted starkly with the privileged existence she had known in England. Yet, "convinced it was the way of God," she "submitted to it." After the families settled in Newtowne (now Cambridge), Massachusetts, Bradstreet joined the church in Boston. Since her husband and father held high positions in the Massachusetts Bay Company, Bradstreet led a relatively comfortable life, despite her difficult surroundings. She apparently found time to write because the earliest of her surviving poems, "Upon a Fit of Sickness," dates from 1632. Composed while Bradstreet was ill and hovering near death, this poem reflects the somber reality of the New World.
The Bradstreet family moved several times over the next two decades. During this period Bradstreet devoted herself to domestic life and gave birth to eight children. She had her first child, Simon, in 1633. Later Bradstreet described her family in a poem titled "In Reference to Her Children" (1678): "I had eight birds hatched in one nest/Four Cocks there were, and Hens the rest." In 1635 the Bradstreets moved from Newtowne to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Here, despite her demanding domestic responsibilities and the hardships of frontier life, Bradstreet began to write poetry in earnest. She also continued to grow intellectually in Ipswich, where she had contact with colonial leaders such as John Winthrop Jr., son of Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop, and Nathaniel Ward. In 1645 the Bradstreets moved to North Andover, Massachusetts. Finally settled, Bradstreet lived there for the rest of her life.
The Tenth Muse published
Even though it was unusual for women to follow intellectual pursuits at the time, Bradstreet's family took great pride in her work. They encouraged her to continue writing, and in 1647 her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, brought a manuscript of thirteen of her poems to England. The book was published in 1650 without Bradstreet's knowledge. Titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, it was the first collection of poetry written in America. Although The Tenth Muse is an important piece of American literature, there is very little mention of the New World in the poems of the collection. In fact, the many classical allusions (references to ancient Greek and Roman literature) in the poetry harken back to the days when Bradstreet studied in the comfort of the earl's library in England. The Tenth Muse is not considered to be her best work, because many critics believe that she did not find her true poetic voice until later.
Among the poems in The Tenth Muse are elegies (pensive or reflective poems that are usually nostalgic or melancholy) and historical poetry, which reveal Bradstreet's intellectual interests. Although she read science and literature, she was mainly drawn to history—possibly because she participated in the great Puritan migration to the New World. The Puritans believed their journey was part of God's plan to banish evil from the world. She modeled much of her poetry on John Sylvester's translation of Divine Weeks and Works (1621) by French Calvinist poet Guillaume Du Bartas. (The Calvinists were a religious group that placed strong emphasis on the supreme power of God, the sinfulness of mankind, and the doctrine of predestination, which states that all human events are controlled by God.) Another major influence was History of the World (1614) by the English soldier and author Walter Raleigh, who sponsored expeditions to Virginia. Both books provided support for the Puritans' beliefs in their destiny. Bradstreet wrote an elegy to Du Bartas, and one of her historical poems was inspired by Raleigh.
Other poems in The Tenth Muse include "A Dialogue Between Old England and New" (1642) and the elegy "In Honour of Queen Elizabeth" (1643). Bradstreet wrote "A Dialogue" about the 1642 Puritan uprising led by English revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell against the Royalists (supporters of the monarchy) of King Charles I. In the poem, Bradstreet claimed that until England was rid of Roman Catholicism (a branch of Christianity headed by a pope in Rome, Italy), New England colonists should have no connection with their homeland. "In Honour of Queen Elizabeth" is an example of how Bradstreet constantly challenged the tolerance of the Puritan community. Many men believed that women should not have intellectual interests, especially politics. Bradstreet opposed that line of thinking, and in her elegy she cites the high stature and accomplishments of British queen Elizabeth I as "argument enough to make you mute."
Writes private poetry
After The Tenth Muse was published, Bradstreet continued to write poetry. None of these later poems appeared in print in her lifetime, and they have come to be known as her private poems. While The Tenth Muse was concerned primarily with history and politics, the private poems are about everyday life in the New World. Because this work is introspective, it reveals deep personal feelings. For instance, the poems about the relationship between Bradstreet and her husband express her love and devotion to him. In 1664 she also began a prose series (nonpoetic work in the language of everyday speech) titled "Meditations Divine and Moral." Written for her son Simon, this work reflects a warm, spirited dimension of Bradstreet that contrasts with the cold Puritan world.
The private poems also reveal that Bradstreet had difficulty submitting to Puritanism. The Puritans believed that every moment spent on earth was merely a preparation for life in Heaven after death. They preferred the wilderness because they believed that the more they suffered in their earthly life, the higher the reward would be in the afterlife. Some of Bradstreet's private poems suggest that she was unhappy in the New World, and she missed the luxury of her previous existence in England. "Contemplations," however, suggests that she was happy in New England. Probably written when the Bradstreet family settled in North Andover in 1645, it was the first poem of the New World to be inspired by the American landscape. In "Contemplations," Bradstreet views nature as a manifestation of God's glory and a symbol of the afterlife. The poem contains almost no classical allusions (references to ancient Greek and Roman literature) like The Tenth Muse, and it is a good example of simple Puritan style.
Another well-known colonial American woman poet was Ruth Belknap (dates unknown). Like Bradstreet, Belknap was a member of a privileged family. Being the wife of a minister in Dover, New Hampshire, kept Belknap from being poor. However, like Bradstreet, she still had a difficult life. In her poem "The Pleasures of a Country Life," she described in detail all the chores she had to accomplish as a typical housewife.
All summer long I toil & sweat,
Blister my hands, and scold & fret.
And when the summer's work is o'er,
New toils arise from Autumn's store.
Corn must be husk'd, and pork be kill'd.
The house with all confusion fill'd.
O could you see the grand display
Upon our annual butchering day,–
See me look like ten thousand sluts,
My kitchen spread with grease & guts.
In the same poem, Belknap goes on to describe the difference between people who live in the country and those who live in town. She portrays the latter as lazy and much less industrious than colonists who were forced to labor on the farm.
Leaves great legacy
As Bradstreet grew older, she finally became resigned to the will of God. Her last known poem was "As Weary Pilgrim." Written in 1669 and published in 1876, it is evidence that her spiritual struggle was over—Bradstreet says she is anxious to enter the next world. She died in North Andover in 1672, shortly after completing the poem. Bradstreet left behind many works, which were ultimately published. John Foster (who set up the first printing press in Boston) released Several Poems (1678), the first American edition of her poetry. Then John Harvard Ellis published The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Poetry and Prose (1867). In addition her poetic legacy, Bradstreet also had famous descendants. Among them were abolitionist Wendell Phillips and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
For further research
"Anne Bradstreet" in The Puritans: American Literature Colonial Period (1608-1700).http://falcon.jmu.edu/-ramseyil/amicol.htm Available July 13, 1999.
Dunham, Montrew. Anne Bradstreet; Young Puritan Poet. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.
James, Edward T., and others, eds. Notable American Women, 1607–1950, Volume I. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 222–23.