Bradstreet, Anne (1612–1672)

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Bradstreet, Anne (1612–1672)

America's first woman poet, who broke into a male-dominated avocation by writing epic and lyric poems, excelling in expression of feeling for life, nature, and love of family. Pronunciation: BRAD-street. Born Anne Dudley in 1612 in Northamptonshire, England; died on September 16, 1672, in Andover, Massachusetts; daughter of Thomas Dudley (steward for a landlord in England and later governor of Massachusetts) and Dorothy Yorke; married Simon Bradstreet, in 1628; children: Samuel, Dorothy, Sarah, Hannah, Simon, Mercy, Dudley, and John.

Came to New England with family and parents (1630); wrote first poem (1632); moved to Agawam (Ipswich), Massachusetts (1635); resided in Andover, Massachusetts (early 1640s–72); collected poems published in London by her brother-in-law, Rev. John Woodbridge (1650); wrote last extant poem, "A Weary Pilgrim, now at Rest" (1669); six years after her death, a second edition of her work, with poems added to those of the first edition, was published in Boston (1678).

Anne Bradstreet led the way in proving that women could achieve fulfillment in marriage and family and still pursue their creative intellectual talents. What made Bradstreet's accomplishments all the more remarkable was that she lived in a strict Puritan society, which denied women identity beyond their domestic duties, and that she and her family arrived in America at the beginning of settlement in the wilderness. Anne Bradstreet, however, had advantages not usually afforded members of her sex in either England or America, a sound book learning as well as kinfolk and friends, themselves well educated, who encouraged her literary endeavors.

Bradstreet's father and husband became powerful political figures in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, each serving as governor. Thus Anne considered herself relatively free from pressures of censorship, not that she veered far from established mores or values, but she did emphatically sound the message for equality between men and women and even implied criticism of church and political authority. Although Bradstreet never confronted the establishment head-on, as did Anne Hutchinson , she let it be known that women's voices should be heard.

One of six children and first daughter of Thomas Dudley and Dorothy Yorke , Anne was born in Northamptonshire, England. Thomas Dudley, who in his youth did stints as a soldier and a law secretary to an English judge, married into a family of moderate wealth. When Anne was seven years old, Thomas became the steward (manager) for the estates of Theophilus Clinton, the earl of Lincoln, and the Dudley family lived at Tattershall Castle. Anne was brought up in the strict Puritan households of her father and the earl of Lincoln. Taught by tutors, she was allowed to study in a broad field of learning and to read from the tomes of literature, history, and the sciences in the castle library. Bradstreet absorbed Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and studied the Genevan (Calvinist) version of the Bible. She had a special fondness for Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World and the translated poetry and prose of French Huguenot writer Guillaume Du Bartas; both sources provided inspiration and information for Anne's early poems.

Into Anne's quiet and aristocratic environment appeared 18-year-old Simon Bradstreet, an orphan and fresh graduate of Cambridge University who functioned as her father's assistant from 1621 to 1624. Simon left the Lincoln household to serve as steward to the future Countess of Warwick , and the Dudleys moved to nearby Boston [in England], with Anne's father continuing to serve the earl of Lincoln. At Boston, the Dudleys formed close ties among the congregation of Reverend John Cotton, vicar of St. Botolph's Church. One can assume that Simon Bradstreet regularly visited the Dudley home. In 1628, Anne, age 16, wed Simon, nine years her senior.

The late 1620s was an uncomfortable time for Thomas Dudley and other Puritans who wished to strip the Anglican Church of its Catholic trappings and to base religious doctrine and practice solely on the Bible. Attracted to the New World, in search of greater economic opportunity and latitude to be unmolested in their religious beliefs, a group of Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Company. Dudley and 11 other Puritan members of the company signed the Cambridge Agreement, whereby it was arranged that they could establish the company's government in America. Thus Anne, her husband Simon, and the Dudleys made the journey on the Arbella in 1630 and joined in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bradstreet at first considered the pioneering life a liberating experience but soon realized that her new community was to be closely linked to religion. She wrote at the time: "I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. After I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined the church of Boston."

The Bradstreets settled at Newton (modernday Cambridge) in 1631; after four years, they moved to Ipswich and then, about a decade later, went further north on the frontier to Andover, on the Merrimac River, where Anne lived the rest of her life. It is recorded that during the first year at Ipswich, Anne, always of weak physical strength, "fell into a lingering sickness like a consumption, together with a lameness." Earlier in England, she had battled smallpox. Bradstreet had doubts about her religious faith, and she despaired of having children. But finally, in 1634, she gave birth to her first child Samuel. During her despondency, Anne had written her first poem: "Upon a Pit of Sickness" (1632). Like most of her early short poems, this devotional verse, with couplets of alternate eight- and six-syllable lines, had little literary merit. With a sense of futility, she says: "But what's this life, but care and strife?/ since first we came from womb,/ Our strength doth waste, our time doth hast,/ and then we go to th' Tomb."

The major part of Bradstreet's writings before 1650 consisted of two categories: elegies (memorializing dead heroes or heroines) and quaternions (relating to four-part phenomena). In her poems, she leans too much on prose and poems of other authors, without considering her own feelings and experience. Besides imitating the stilted Elizabethan style, with its profusion of alliteration and metaphors drawn from mythology and nature, Bradstreet gleaned information from ancient literature and contemporary historians, such as Raleigh, John Speed (Historie of Great Britaine, 1611) and William Camden (Britannia, English translation from the Latin in 1610). One of the elegies, "In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth," posits that women should have a place in worldly affairs along with men. Thus, Bradstreet declares: "Nay Masculines, you have thus tax'd 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 also honored Du Bartas and Sir Philip Sidney, soldier and poet who was killed at the battle of Zutphen in 1586. Two modern commentators, Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford note that "there is a little heaven in Anne Bradstreet's elegies. The apotheosis for the three characters she celebrates is not a higher Christian transformation, but fame."

Like the elegies, the quaternions are also in iambic couplets. "The Four Humours in Mans Constitution"—Blood, Choler (yellow bile), Melancholy, and Phlegm (respiratory mucus)—are depicted allegorically as female figures, quarreling with each other as to whom is superior to the others in relation to the body. Melancholy, though a state of mind, claims physical importance. Phlegm (or as Anne spells it, "Flegm") at the end of the poem asks for cooperation, and thus "This loving counsel, pleas'd them all too well/ That flegm was judg'd for kindness to excell." "The Four Elements" again has members of the sisterhood arguing: "The Fire, Air, Earth, and Water did all contest/ Which was the strongest, noblest, and the best."

Anne Bradstreet … reached heights of feeling and controlled expression not attained by an American poetess prior to Emily Dickinson.

—John C. Miller

"The Four Ages of Man" has as its speakers a small boy and three men. Childhood tells of "the sins and dangers I am subjected to"; Youth admits to being "as wild as is the snuffing Ass:/ As vain as froth, or vanity can be." Middle Age contends that "Man at his best is vanity." Old Age expresses a strong sense of values and speaks of his accomplishments, concluding that he shall see "My strong Redeemer, coming in the skies:/ Triumph I shall, o're Sin, o're Death, o're Hell,/ And in that hope, I bid you all farewell." The characters of "The Four Seasons of the Year" correspond to the figures in the "Four Ages."

"The Four Monarchies," also in the quaternion series, was Anne's longest poem, 5,000 lines in iambic rhyming couplets. Largely an adaptation from Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World, the poem covers 15 centuries of ancient history before the birth of Christ, in the context of the Assyrian, Persian, and Roman empires. There is a pattern of degradation and brutality as the monarchies unfold. From a providential view of history, there is hope for a better world with the advent of Christianity. The more Bradstreet progressed in writing this epic poem, the more frustrated she became. Rearing her children and maintaining a house were not conducive to the serious scholarship she sought to attain. Her prologue in "The Four Monarchies" is both apologetic for shortcomings and an assertion of the right of herself and other women to be contributors to literature. She complained that "If what I do prove well, it won't advance,/ They'l say it's stoln, or else was by chance. … Men have precedency and still excell. … Yet grant some small acknowledgment of ours."

Anne Bradstreet was the first American writer to suggest that the American colonists were mature enough to give advice to the mother country. "A Dialogue between old England and New," finished in early 1643, when Bradstreet learned of the beginning of civil war in England, has two female figures conversing with each other, a mother (England) in ragged royal clothes and her daughter (New England) in neat homespun attire. Old England bemoans the devastation and plunder in her homeland, while the daughter tells her to be cheerful for the future. Bradstreet lets it be known which side she prefers in the war between king and Parliament. The poem concludes: "Farewell dear Mother, Parliament prevail,/ And in a while, you'le tell another tale." When the poem was published in a second edition, with the Parliamentary rule ended and the monarchy restored, Bradstreet substituted "rightest cause" for Parliament. A century later, New Englanders in a revolutionary mood would make the same substitution to justify greater independence from England.

Bradstreet intended that her poems be solely for the enjoyment of family and friends. Her brother-in-law, Reverend John Woodbridge, however, was eager to have them published. Without her knowledge or consent, he took copies of the poems on a visit to England and the collection was published in London in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately sprung up in America. In the Preface, Woodbridge wrote:

Had I opportunity but to borrow some of the Author's wit, 'tis possible I might so trim this curious Work with such quaint expressions, as that the Preface might bespake thy further perusall; but I feare 'twil be a shame for a man that can speak so little, to be seene in the title page of this Womans Book, lest by comparing the one with the other, the Reader should passe his sentence, that it is the gift of women, not only to speak most, but to speake best.

For her later poems, Bradstreet turned away from her bookish sources, and wrote from her own feelings and experience. In July 1653, her revered father, whom Anne had always sought to please, died. Anne expressed her grief in the writing of "To the Memory of my dear and ever honoured Father, Thomas Dudley." Other emotional poems followed during the free time that Anne, now in declining health, had in caring for a houseful of children. The poems were in iambic rhyming couplets as her earlier work had been. Bradstreet's love for her children is evident in the poem "In reference to her Children," which begins:

I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,
Four Cocks there were, and Hens the rest,
I nurst them up with pain and care,
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare,
Till at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the Trees, and learn'd to sing.

The short poems touching family members and events are among the best of Bradstreet's poetry. She likens her husband's love to Christ's love and the bond between herself and her husband as a union in Christ. Thus in "To My Dear and Loving Husband," she says, "If ever two were one, then surely we. … Then, while we live, in love let's so persever,/ That when we live no more we may live ever." "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment" carries the same theme: "Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,/ I here, thou there, yet both but one."

In "Flesh and the Spirit," like one of her earlier poems "Of the Vanity of all Worldly Creatures" (based on the Old Testament book, Ecclesiastes), Bradstreet declares her Christian faith. "Flesh and the Spirit," according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, was "one of the best expressions in English literature of the conflict described by St. Paul" in Romans, chapter eight. Of the two sisters in the poem, Spirit triumphs over Flesh: "If I of Heaven may have my fill,/ Take thou the world, and all that will."

At last Bradstreet found expression for the beauty and joy of the New England landscape. "Contemplations," probably her best poem, consisting of 32 seven-line stanzas, rhyming ababccc, and a final stanza of eight lines in rhyming couplets, anticipated the sonnets of the later English romantic poets. The poem, inspired by an October walk through the countryside, meanders in references to the Creation and the Garden of Eden. Like other Puritans (contrary to their modern-day image), Bradstreet had a love for music, and in the "Contemplations," she frequently reflects on the pervasiveness of melody in nature. In one charming passage, she says: "I heard the merry grashopper then sing,/ The black clad Cricket, bear a second part,/ They kept one tune, and plaid on the same string,/ Seeming to glory in their little art."

Anne Bradstreet died in 1672, but no gravestone that marked her final resting place remains in an Andover burial ground. A few months before her death at age 60, she had mourned the passing of the only one of her eight children who did not survive her, Dorothy , who had married Reverend Seaborn Cotton. Four years after Bradstreet's death, her husband Simon remarried; he lived to be 94.

In 1678, a second edition of Bradstreet's poems was published in Boston by John Foster: Several Poems compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning full of Delight. This work consisted of all the poems of The Tenth Muse and those "found amongst her Papers"; a few were from the early period, but most were written after publication of the first edition. Bradstreet also left a small body of prose work and several more poems that were not included in the first two editions. John Harvard Ellis' Works of Anne Bradstreet's Prose and Verse (1867) contains for the first time the prose and 19 previously unpublished poems and verse fragments.

Bradstreet's brief spiritual autobiography, as well as "Religious Experiences," "Occasional Meditations" (poem), and "Meditations Divine and Moral" (prose), form the bulk of the new material in the 1867 edition. The "Meditations Divine and Moral," in 77 segments, intended as instruction for her son Samuel, comprise the best collection of aphorisms by an American before the appearance of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack. A sampling of Bradstreet's pithy observations attest to her human understanding: "A ship that bears much sail, and little or no ballast, is easily overset"; "Fire hath its force abated by water not by wind, and anger must be allayed, by cold words and not by blustering threats"; "A sharp appetite and a thorough Concoction, is a signe of an healthful body, so a quick reception and a deliberate cogitation argues a sound mind"; or "Authority without wisdom, is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish."

Critics long viewed Anne Bradstreet mainly as a curiosity, a well-educated English gentlewoman on the frontier writing poetry largely of the Elizabethan genre, derivative and imitative of a few other authors. Scholars in the 20th century, however, have shown that her poems were influenced by a great variety of sources and had a creativity that reflected her own individuality. Modern readers have been attracted to Bradstreet's writings because of the superb quality of those poems that reveal the intimate, caring side of the American Puritans. Even the formal poetry has been reassessed as capable work. Bradstreet's celebration of the feminine mystique and advocacy of expansion of women's horizons have contributed to her current appeal. In his introduction to a published selection of her poems, Perry Miller provided a fitting tribute. If Bradstreet's formal poems, said Miller, showed "that a Puritan could combine deep piety with a genial culture, more importantly [the] occasional lyrics, inspired by the native setting or the homely incidents of her daily life [demonstrated] that a Puritan could further combine piety with sexual passion, love of children and good furniture, humor—that a female Puritan, in short, could be both a Puritan and a woman of great charm."

Although adhering to conventional literary style, Anne Bradstreet exhibited a transition from Elizabethan-Renaissance poetry to what would become Romanticist expression. She left a body of work, diverse and touching the human spirit, that stands on its own as literary achievement. She was, as she said of mankind, "made for endless immortality."


Cowell, Pattie, and Ann Stanford, eds. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1983.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Builders of the Bay Colony. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.

Rosenmeier, Rosamond. Anne Bradstreet Revisited. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1991.

Stanford, Ann. Anne Bradstreet, The Worldly Puritan: An Introduction to Her Poetry. NY: Burt Franklin, 1974.

White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet: "The Tenth Muse." NY: Oxford University Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Berryman, John. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1956.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. and Allan P. Robb, eds. The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1981.

Piercy, Josephine K. Anne Bradstreet. New Haven, CT: College & University Press, 1965.

related media:

Cohen, Hennig. Anne Bradstreet (43-min. lecture), recording and sound cassette, De Land, FL: Everett-Edwards, 1976.

Harry M. Ward , author of Colonial America, 1607–1763 (Prentice Hall, 1991) and The American Revolution, Nationhood Achieved, 1763–1788 (St. Martin's Press, 1995)

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Bradstreet, Anne (1612–1672)

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