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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise Anne Bradstreet (c. 1612-1672)

[1219] Anonymous, The Mason Children: David, Joanna, Abigail (1670), courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1979.7.3.

Anne Bradstreet was born in England in 1612 to well-connected Puritan parents. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was unusual in his commitment to teaching his daughter literature, history, and philosophy, and Bradstreet benefited from an extensive classical education such as was usually reserved only for male children. Her sixty years of life were troubled by recurring sickness and ill health, beginning with an attack of smallpox when she was sixteen. Shortly after recovering, she married her father’s assistant, Simon Bradstreet. She immigrated to America with her husband and parents in 1630 as part of the group that sailed with John Winthrop on the Arbella. Although she later admitted that her “heart rose” in protest against the “new world and new manners” she encountered when she landed in Massachusetts, Bradstreet overcame her resentment and made a life for herself as a dutiful and respected Puritan daughter, wife, and mother.

Bradstreet and her family moved frequently, living in Boston, Newtown (modern Cambridge), and Ipswich before settling in North Andover. While her father and husband embarked on long and successful careers in public service, both would eventually occupy the position of governor, Bradstreet raised eight children and composed poetry. In 1650, her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, brought a manuscript of her work with him on a trip to London and had it published without Bradstreet’s knowledge. The volume, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up In America, was the first published collection of poetry written by a resident of America, and met with popular and critical success both in England and among the Puritan patriarchy. While Bradstreet did not publish again within her lifetime, a posthumous collection containing her corrections to the original volume and several new poems was printed six years after her death. The fact that she took the time to rework and correct the original volume suggests that she was planning for further publication and provides evidence that she took her vocation as a poet very seriously.

Bradstreet received acclaim in her own time for her long meditative poems on classical themes, but the poems that have interested modern readers are the more personal and intimate ones, reflecting her experiences with marriage, motherhood, childbirth, and housekeeping. This personal poetry is notable for the tensions it reveals between Bradstreet’s affection for the things of this world�home, family, natural beauty�and her Puritan commitment to shunning earthly concerns in order to focus on the spiritual. Her evocations of the passion she felt for her husband and her children are poignantly balanced by her reminders to herself that such attachments should remain secondary to her love for Christ. Bradstreet’s reflections on the issue of women’s status within the Puritan community and on her own role as a female writer also create tensions within her poetry. Her self-conscious musings about her claims to literary authority and intellectual equality in “The Author to her Book” and “Prologue” provide rare insight into the pressures inherent in being both a woman and a writer in Puritan New England.

Teaching Tips

  • When John Woodbridge, Bradstreet’s brother-in-law, compiled her poetry for publication, he included a preface vouching for the book’s authenticity and for his sister-in-law’s character:

    …the worse effect of his [the reader’s] reading will be unbelief, which will make him question whether it be a woman’s work, and ask, is it possible? If any do, take this as an answer from him that dares to avow it; it is the work of a woman, honored, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions, and more than so, these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments.

    Read this prefatory material aloud to your class and ask students why Woodbridge felt compelled to include it. What does this preface reveal about women’s status in Puritan society? What does it tell us about the kinds of anxieties Bradstreet probably felt with regard to her poetry and its publication?

  • Have students read aloud “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment.” While students may initially respond to this as a conventional love poem, try to stress how unusual its secular tone is within the corpus of Puritan poetry. Even though some of the imagery has spiritual and biblical resonance, what emerges in this poem is Bradstreet’s erotic attachment to her husband, not her understanding of her marriage as a metaphor for her union with Christ. Her reliance on pagan imagery (the sun god, the zodiac) is notable in this context.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Bradstreet’s seventeenth-century language and syntax can be confusing. Pick one of her poems and write a line-by-line paraphrase of it in contemporary American English. What difficulties did you encounter in rewriting Bradstreet’s images and ideas? What has the poem lost in translation?
  2. Comprehension: Anne Bradstreet composed a number of “elegies,” that is, poems that relate the experience of loss and the search for consolation. In an important sense, elegies are designed to defend the individual against death. Whose loss is mourned in “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” and how does Bradstreet console either the mourners or herself?
  3. Context: What are some of the recurring themes and images in Bradstreet’s poetry? How does she balance abstract, theological concerns with personal, material issues? What does Bradstreet’s poetry tell us about motherhood and marriage in Puritan New England?
  4. Context: In the poem “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House,” how does Bradstreet struggle with her Puritan commitment to the doctrine of “weaned affections” (the idea that individuals must wean themselves from earthly, material concerns and focus only on spiritual matters)? How does she turn the experience of losing her possessions to spiritual use? Does she seem entirely resigned to casting away her “pelf” and “store”? In what terms does she describe the “house on high” that God has prepared for her?
  5. Exploration: How sincere is Bradstreet’s evaluation of her poetry as the “ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain”? Should we read this kind of self-abasement as a calculated rhetorical pose, a poetic convention, a defensive maneuver, or as evidence of extreme insecurity? Why does she make a point of avowing “Men have precedency” and “Men can do best”? Keep in mind that Bradstreet was writing in the immediate aftermath of the Antinomian controversy and the banishment of Anne Hutchinson. How might a consciousness of the dangers of female speech and female writing inform her work?
  6. Exploration: Anne Bradstreet’s poetry has often been compared to that by Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, the first female poet to write in the Spanish American colony of New Spain (the area that is now Mexico and the southwestern United States). How does Bradstreet’s “Prologue” compare to Sor Juana’s “Prologue”? What justifications does each poet give for women composing poetry? How do their attitudes toward death compare?

Selected Archive Items

[1219] Anonymous, The Mason Children: David, Joanna, Abigail (1670),
courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1979.7.3.
This rare early New England portrait of children offers insight into the life of the merchant class. Children were considered small, sinful adults, hence the adult head-to-body ratio, clothing, and posture. The lack of sensuality reflects the religious mores and plain style of the time.

[6728] Arthur C. Haskell, Gov. Simon Bradstreet House,159 Osgood Street, North Andover, Essex County, Massachusetts (1934),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, MASS,5-ANDON,1-].
The stateliness of this house reflects the prominence of the Bradstreet family, and its clean lines and balanced composition reflect the Puritan plain-style aesthetic.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6