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Bradstreet, Annefree

(1612–16 September 1672)
  • Robert Daly

Bradstreet, Anne (1612–16 September 1672), poet, was born in England, probably in Northampton, the second child and eldest daughter of Dorothy Yorke and Thomas Dudley, steward to Theophilus Clinton, the earl of Lincoln. No state records remain of Bradstreet’s birth or marriage, and no one knows the location of her grave. Yet she came from a prominent family and attained individual fame. Her mother’s extraction and estate were described by Cotton Mather as “considerable,” and her father served as deputy governor and, later, governor of Massachusetts. She did not attend school but was well and widely educated at home. From about age six to age sixteen, she lived at Sempringham in Lincolnshire and had the run of the earl of Lincoln’s vast library. Her poems reveal a wide range of specific references to the Geneva Bible, the Greek and Latin classics, and to such later writers as Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Elizabeth I, and Francis Quarles. Her historical poems benefit from a detailed knowledge of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614), and she acknowledged as an inspiration for her own poetry Joshua Sylvester’s translation of The Divine Weekes and Workes (1605) of the French Calvinist Guillaume Du Bartas.

During Bradstreet’s early years, according to her letter “To My Dear Children,” she “began to make conscience of my ways” and to find “much comfort in reading the Scriptures, especially those places I thought most concerned my condition,” a focus that characterized her religion throughout her life. There was little eschatology in Bradstreet’s writing and no asceticism. Though she prayed that God would “wean” her affections from an immoderate love for the things of this world, her attention remained on them as both facts and metaphors, “for were earthly comforts permanent, who would look for heavenly?” In adolescence, “about 14 or 15, I found my heart more carnal, and sitting loose from God,” but “vanity and the follies of youth” were repented of at sixteen, a remarkable year in which she survived smallpox, experienced conversion, and married Simon Bradstreet.

In 1630 Bradstreet and her husband journeyed with the Winthrop party on board the Arbella to Salem, “where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose.” Whatever the precise cause of her anger, her life in this new world was far from easy. She “fell into a lingering illness, like a consumption,” and in convalescence she wrote her earliest extant poem, “Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno 1632. Aetatis suae, 19.” That same year, she became pregnant with Samuel, the first of her eight children. Though this second mode of production was more conventionally approved than the first, Bradstreet linked the two. In the early years of her marriage, she worried that her apparent barrenness might result from God’s displeasure. Those fears were eased by pregnancy and promptly replaced by another, the fear of dying in childbirth. At such times, it was prudent to leave behind some record for one’s family. And Bradstreet’s description of her message to her children might serve just as well for her poetry: “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.” Writing poetry was a form of meditation, a way of acknowledging God’s metaphoric linking of this world with the next, and one way to make somewhat more durable a world both beautiful and transient, “No sooner blown, but dead and gone, / ev’n as a word that’s speaking.” For the next thirty-seven years, she continued to write poems, which she sometimes enfigured as children.

The years were filled with public event. Bradstreet was among the founders of Newtowne (later Cambridge) in 1631, lived at Ipswich (1635–1645), and was among the settlers of North Andover, where she lived from 1645 until her death. Her husband held a series of public offices as judge, agent, and commissioner during her life and would later become governor, yet hers were not occasional or public poems.

By 1642 she had completed her “Quaternions” on the four elements, humors, ages, seasons, and monarchies. These erudite poems ranged over science, religion, and history, yet they were dedicated to her father in thanks for his part in the education here displayed, and they were focused on what such knowledge might teach a soul journeying through time on the way to eternity.

In 1650 Bradstreet’s poems became public when John Woodbridge, the husband of her sister Mercy, took her poems to London, where they were published by Stephen Bowtell, apparently without her permission. However conventional such disclaimers of authorship might have been in her time, there is no evidence that Bradstreet had a chance to edit the manuscript before publication, and it is not likely that she would have chosen the title, The Tenth Muse Lately sprung up in America. Or Severall Poems, compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning … By a Gentlewoman in those parts. The book was well received and listed in 1658 in William London’s Catalogue of the Most Vendible Books in England. In subsequent years, Bradstreet revised these early poems and added eighteen others for a second edition, published in Boston in 1678 as Several Poems … By a Gentlewoman in New England.

Bradstreet was the first American to publish a book of poetry. Her work was highly valued in her time (hers was the only book of poetry found in Edward Taylor’s library at his death), devalued in the nineteenth century, and appreciated anew in the twentieth. It is avowedly Puritan but multivocal, sometimes patriarchal, sometimes feminist. Her “Prologue” humors masculine supremacy ironically, while her poem on Queen Elizabeth is more direct and explicit:

Nay masculines, you have thus taxed 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.

Her later poems are more personal in their subject matter, but throughout Bradstreet’s work the largest issues and greatest truths find expression in humble details, and those details are in turn examined for what they will reveal of God. For that reason, her speakers are humble but not patient: “But he’s a beetle-head that can’t descry / A world of wealth within that rubbish lie.” Her work enacted the quest to find the wealth within the rubbish. For all her doubts about God’s will and human actions, Bradstreet was no rebel. Unlike her younger sister Sarah, she was never accused of “irregular prophecying.” Indeed, her contemporaries and such successors as Cotton Mather heaped praises upon the poetry in which their own beliefs were so profoundly questioned.

In Bradstreet’s work, such paradoxes argue not hypocrisy but integrity. She was what she appeared to be—a poet, a woman, and a Puritan—and her work continues to suggest how complex such categories can be.

Bibliography

A small notebook containing poetry and prose not in the first two editions of Bradstreet’s work belongs to the Stephens Memorial Library in North Andover, Mass. Part of it is in Bradstreet’s own handwriting and part of it in the hand of her son Simon. The Houghton Library at Harvard University owns another manuscript of the same material in the same order, except for a passage dated “May 11, 1661”; it is in the hand of her daughter, Sarah Hubbard. This material was first published in The Works of Anne Bradstreet, in Prose and Verse, ed. John Harvard Ellis (1867). The best modern editions are The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Hensley (1967), and The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Allan P. Robb (1981).

An early account of Bradstreet’s life is Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). A good modern biography is Elizabeth Wade White, Anne Bradstreet: The Tenth Muse (1971). See also Ann Stanford, Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan (1975), for an overview of Bradstreet’s reading and a suggested chronology of her writings; Robert Daly, God’s Altar: The World and the Flesh in Puritan Poetry (1978), for the role her poetry played in her life, in “weaning” her affections from the love of this world; Ivy Schweitzer, The Work of Self-Representation: Lyric Poetry in Colonial New England (1991), for Bradstreet’s challenge to conventional readings of gender; and Rosamond Rosenmeier, Anne Bradstreet Revisited (1991), for the best reading of Bradstreet’s life and work in light of current knowledge and theory, and for an annotated bibliography.