rebel with a cause.

Anne Bradstreet, although now a respected early American poet, was considered a rebellious woman by her contemporaries— for simply writing poetry in her spare time. A proper 17th century Puritan woman was expected to take care of her house, husband, and children; not waste time with non life-sustaining activities. However, this remarkable woman was able to fulfill all her familial and household duties, and take her place in history as North America’s first resident poet, England’s first significant female poet, as well as the first woman to be published in any area of literature in the New World. Bradstreet stood her ground in the face of critics discounting her abilities, questioning the possibility and permissibility of a woman being a writer, and some even questioning the very relevance of literature in America. Bradstreet remained true to her passion amidst sickness, a joint paralyzing illness, the loss of her home and possessions, a child and several grandchildren, and finally, tuberculosis. Unlike many, instead of losing faith when struck with so many adversities, Bradstreet would find inspiration, inspiring her to write some of her most poignant prose, such as “In Memory of My Dear Grand-Child Elizabeth Bradstreet…,” “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House,” and “Contemplations.” In fact, this truly extraordinary woman made her mark on history quite ironically: by both listening and not listening to those who would have her remain in the small box in which society would have her and others of her “kind” remain forever.

The 17th century devout Puritan Christian woman was expected to be a wife, a mother, and a homemaker, no more, no less. This system of beliefs was firmly rooted in a few excerpts of the Christian Bible. Above all else, Puritan wives were to “submit to your husbands” (Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:22). This pressure to conform to a religious and cultural mold would keep many talented Puritan women from realizing talents and dreams of being anything other than simply that. According to the strict conservative religious beliefs of the devout Puritan, women were to be a “helper” to their husbands (Genesis 2:18). The standard by which a prudent woman was to live was clear: wives should “love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home” (Titus 2:4-5). This involved many things, but it not include writing and other artistic pursuits. Importance was placed on cultivating the land and the home in order to sustain life; cultivation of the mind was merely a pleasure in which one should only indulge in their spare time.

Early feminism would greatly enhance Bradstreet’s thinking, which would shine through her writings. In fact, decades after her death, she would be viewed as one of the earliest American feminists. However, these feminists would not look like the feminists of today; they would have to keep many of their political and social views hidden due to the very aggressive repercussions dealt out by their communities. Anne Hutchinson, a close friend of Bradstreet’s, would make the mistake of letting her voice be heard, and as a result was excommunicated from her community. Harsh reactions were normal and expected to any clear feminist movements or vocalizations among Puritan women. For example, Governor Winthrop said of a woman in 1645, five years before Bradstreet’s text would be published:

Mr. Hopkins, the governor of Hartford upon Connecticut, came to Boston, and brought his wife with him, (a godly young woman, and of special parts,) who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books. Her husband, being very loving and tender of her, was loathe to grieve her; but he saw his error, when he was too late. For if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her. <!–[if supportFields]> CITATION Pie65 \p 110 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Piercy 110)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>

Governor Winthrop spoke for the majority of society at that time. One can only wonder what he would have said had he lived to see and read Bradstreet’s published manuscript. Such extreme views that if a woman should give herself to “reading and writing,” it would cause her to become ill and lose her “understanding and reason” seem silly to readers today, but were neither extreme nor silly to Bradstreet or any of the Puritans of her day. These views had been carefully reasoned through Biblical study. The Puritans did not jump to conclusions or consequences without thorough examination. There obviously were men and women who did not hold these beliefs as strictly, but even the men in Bradstreet’s family, and likely Bradstreet herself held to at least a modified version of the same religious standard. She was careful to “[attend] to her household affairs” at the same time as she defiantly “[meddled] in such things as [were] proper for men.” She most certainly walked the fine line of maintaining her Puritan beliefs and following her heart. She undoubtedly succeeded in this, since it was her family and not Bradstreet who took pains to have her manuscript published – without her consent or knowledge. However, in her poem “The Prologue,” she would subtly express a frustration with the inequality of women in literature: “Men can do best, and women know it well / Preheminence in all and each is yours; / Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.” <!–[if supportFields]> CITATION Gun94 \p 177 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(177)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> In her final line, “Yet grant some acknowledgement of ours,” Bradstreet asks for at least the smallest recognition of ability, if nothing else. Even through these suppressed frustrations, Bradstreet managed to uphold her to embodiment of the righteous Puritan woman, serving her family, the farm, and the church. All the while she was breaking the mold of the typical Puritan woman by expressing herself through the arts, regardless of what critics of the free-thinking woman may have said.

This standard was not simply for women; the Puritan standard of beliefs did not involve frivolous hobbies in art and literature that did not serve as an evangelical tool by men either. As the Puritan woman was expected to be a diligent wife and mother, every Puritan was held to a standard of extreme purity. The truly pure Puritan was to always think on higher things, not on the things of this world. This standard was held true for all good Puritans, especially those who dared to try their hands in artistic endeavors. Also, because of the need for every able body to operate farms and maintain houses, time for such indulgences was essentially left behind in Europe. While Bradstreet had many disbelievers, she successfully managed to portray her faith and her heart in her poetry. In her essay, “To My Dear Children,” she states “I have not studied in this you read to show my skill, but to declare the truth, not to set forth myself, but the glory of God” (189). After her death, she was even honored with the appointment of a stained glass window in St. Botolph’s Church in Lincolnshire, England. <!–[if supportFields]> CITATION Whi71 \p 7 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(White 7)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> Bradstreet’s faith would shine through her prose, even as she pursued those things which were not deemed holy and righteous by the church for Puritan women of her time.

Bradstreet’s cultured environment throughout her childhood would attribute much to what she would become as an adult. Daughter of Thomas Dudley, a colonial magistrate and a governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, she was unusually well-educated for a woman of her time. She was introduced to literature and reading probably around the age of 3 or 4, and wrote her very successful poem “Of the four Ages of Man,” in which she introduced the first allegorical speaker, while in school at a young age.<!–[if supportFields]> CITATION Whi71 \p 44 \l 1033 <![endif]–> (White 44)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> Bradstreet recorded that she was reading and studying the Puritan bible by the age of 6 or 7. Based on the family’s social standing, her father’s position, along with his slightly more enlightened views, she was most likely allowed to study secular literature in her spare time as well. <!–[if supportFields]> CITATION Whi71 \p 57 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(White 57)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> All these opportunities would shape Bradstreet’s literary horizons to no end.

While Bradstreet was the first woman published in colonial America, she did not make advances personally to have her work published. In 1647 her brother-in-law, Rev. John Woodbridge, took a book of her poetry from the first 20 years of her life to Europe, unbeknownst to Bradstreet. It would be published under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up into America, by a Gentlewoman in such Parts in 1650. She While Bradstreet revised added to her book of poetry throughout her life, she still did not have this edition published either, as it was published posthumously by her family in 1678, six years after her death. <!–[if supportFields]> CITATION Whi71 \p 4 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(White 4)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> She clearly took her duties to her family first and foremost, since she did not try to advance her poetry; it was for her own enjoyment, as well as that of her family, and perhaps close friends.

Bradstreet found her inspiration through daily life: the good, the bad, and everything else in between. In “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House,” she bears the raw emotions that come from such an event frankly: “And to my God my heart did cry” (187) and “My pleasant things in ashes lies, / and behold them no more shall I.” (188) Yet, through all this, she can stay true to her God and to her diligent faith that all things are God ordained. However, true to her Puritan beliefs, she could not help but also feel these troubles were, at least in part, also due to some fault of her own. She chides herself for placing too much importance on these temporal, material things, asking herself, “The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?” (188) Because of this brilliant hope, faced with the loss of everything she and her family possesses, she can still confidently proclaim in her final phrase, “My hope and treasure lies above.” She steadfastly relied on her faith and her God to help her in these times of great trials and tribulations. In her poem entitled, “In Memory of My Dear Grand-Child Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who Deceased August, 1665, Being a Year and Half Old,” her sorrow upon the loss of this dear grandchild is intermingled with the firm belief that the babe in held safe in heaven: “Blest babe why should I once bewail thy fate, / Or sigh the days so soon were terminate; / Sith thou art settled in an Everlasting state.” (187) Truly, she was a woman of great faith. If ever she did waiver in her belief, it was never shown in her writings.

Bradstreet also expressed her humanity and quiet sexuality in such poems as, “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Publick Employment,” as well as “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” She dared to write these love poems to her husband, Simon Bradstreet, in a time when any display or vocalization of human desires was seen as sinful. Much of the inspiration for these poems to her husband would be found during his extended absences on business travels, as he was called away often because of his position as an envoy to the court of Charles II, as well as being heavily involved in the founding of new towns in the colonies. In “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Publick Employment,” she wrote, “I wish my Sun may never set, but burn / Within the Cancer of my glowing breast” as she ached for her husband to return from abroad. She ends her poem with the deeply complex prose “Flesh of they flesh, bone of thy bone, / I here, thou there, yet both but one.” (186) Here, she unites Genesis 2:23 (“And Adam said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ ”) with a beautifully passionate sensuality. It is not as if she had masked her passion for her husband behind scripture, rather she found harmony between the two. In “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” she bears he heart, showing her deep love for her husband; “I prize thy love more then whole Mines of gold, / Or all the riches that the East doth hold.” (185) This true love stood out as somewhat unusual in a time when marriages were often merely unions for money, power, and/or social status. She boldly ventured to a prose that united faith and sexuality. This is in stark contrast to the common suppression of anything of the sort within the Christian Puritan faith. Brilliantly, Bradstreet included all of herself in her poetry, not just the side which the Puritan society considered proper.

Bradstreet struggled with illness throughout her 60 years. Having contracted smallpox as a child, after recovery she would be forced to live with a permanently weakened immune system for the rest of her life. Bradstreet somehow maintained her household and found time for her poetry to flourish. She contracted a joint paralyzing disease which would surprisingly keep her from neither her household chores, nor would it stop her from continuing to write. Eventually, she would also contract Tuberculosis, which would eventually take her life on September 16, 1672. In these years of failing health, she would see more beauty in nature than ever before, writing “Contemplations” sometime between 1662 and her death. No other of her poems would deal so greatly and so positively with the natural world than this:

The higher on the glistering Sun I gaz’d,

Whose beams was shaded by the leafie Tree,

The more I look’d, the more I grew amaz’d”

And softly said, what glory’s like to thee?

Soul of this world, this Universe’s Eye,

No wonder, some had made thee a Deity:

Had I not better known, (alas) the fame had I. (180)

Her stunning prose glorifies the natural world, a far cry from her Puritan heritage’s belief in the inherent wickedness of nature. It seems that when faced with her own mortality, suddenly Bradstreet would cherish the natural world God had given her, not merely the spiritual realm. She allowed herself to question her standard of beliefs, even if just for a moment in her statement, “what glory’s like to thee?” She finds God in nature, but catches herself “Had I not known better,” and becomes hesitant to state that He may truly be in or of it. Her failing health caused this meditative prose, perhaps her finest work, although one her last works of her life.

Anne Bradstreet stood up for her passion in the face of adversity. She made her place in history, becoming a significant female writer in American literature, yet staying true to her faith and her family. She would break literary ground in colonial America for both women and men, as the first resident poet. She found a way to express not only her faith, but also her subtle feminism, and the nuances of daily life in her poetry. She wrote of things which people dared on speak, and bore emotions which people could not express. Bradstreet may not have accepted her role as only a homemaker, but she did not forget her responsibilities to her family either. She managed to do all that was needed and expected of her and follow the desires of her heart. She overcame these adversities on nearly every side; instead of crushing underneath the weight, she turned them into inspiring prose. Bradstreet was, is, and forever will be a cornerstone of American literary history, without ever knowing or aspiring to such an elevated title.

“Anne Bradstreet.” Early American Writing. Ed. Giles Gunn. London: Penguin Group, 1994. 173-192.

Piercy, Josephine K. Anne Bradstreet. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965.

White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet “The Tenth Muse”. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.


~ by Mary Christa on November 26, 2008.

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