The best poems by America’s first poet selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first person in America, male or female, to have a volume of poems published. She herself wasn’t American and had been born in England, but she was among a group of early English settlers in Massachusetts in the 1630s.
In 1650, a collection of her poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America, was published in England, bringing her fame and recognition. This volume was the first book of poems by an author living in America to be published. She continued to write poetry in the ensuing decades. Below we’ve chosen five of the finest Anne Bradstreet poems.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can …
Like many of Anne Bradstreet’s poems, the language of this poem is relatively plain: Bradstreet praises her ‘dear and loving husband’, whom she regards as her complement, the one who completes her. His love is more valuable to her than all the riches of the East, all the gold in the world. Her love for him, too, can never be exhausted.
Note the images of money and wealth that populate the poem: ‘gold’, ‘riches’, ‘recompence’, ‘repay’, possibly picking up on the faint pun of ‘dear’ in ‘dear and loving husband’ (not just loved, but valuable to her – in a way that exceeds any monetary value).
Bradstreet and her husband lived among the early colonies of Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century, where life was hard. It was a nascent civilisation still developing. It’s hardly surprising, then, that love and support are worth more than gold or treasure in such an environment.
2. ‘The Author to her Book’.
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view …
This poem was directly inspired by the news that Bradstreet’s poems had been published, as The Tenth Muse, by her brother-in-law … without her consent. Bradstreet laments the fact that her ‘ill-formed’ verses have seen the light of day and blushes and cringes at them, but this may partly be female modesty. Bradstreet also claims the volume as her ‘child’, casting herself as the mother – if not the midwife – to the book.
3. ‘The Flesh and the Spirit’.
In secret place where once I stood
Close by the Banks of Lacrim flood,
I heard two sisters reason on
Things that are past and things to come.
One Flesh was call’d, who had her eye
On worldly wealth and vanity;
The other Spirit, who did rear
Her thoughts unto a higher sphere …
This poem features a conversation between Flesh and Spirit, which are personified as two sisters who engage in a dialogue about where true sustenance lies – with the flesh (the body and worldly existence) or the spirit (the soul and the afterlife). This poem might be compared with Andrew Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body’.
In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice …
In 1666, a great fire consumed much of the considerable library of books owned by Anne Bradstreet. This happened in July 1666 – two months before that other great fire that would destroy much of London and that John Evelyn would chronicle in his diary – and it occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts.
But Bradstreet accepts the loss of her house and possessions with stoicism, detecting God’s hand in the disaster and interpreting the fire as a sign that she doesn’t need such worldly possessions.
When sorrows had begirt me round,
And pains within and out,
When in my flesh no part was found,
Then didst Thou rid me out.
My burning flesh in sweat did boil,
My aching head did break,
From side to side for ease I toil,
So faint I could not speak …
Life in the early colonial settlements in the New World was hard, and many people didn’t live to see old age. Many of Bradstreet’s poems highlight the hardships faced by her and her fellow settlers, and ‘For Deliverance from a Fever’ is a fine example of this sort of poem. Bradstreet addresses God and asks to be relieved of the fever – this poem, like a number of Bradstreet’s, reads like a prayer.
This poem followed an earlier poem about illness, ‘Upon a Fit of Sickness’, which Bradstreet had written; in this poem, she is cured of her fever, and thanks God for delivering her from it. Many, after all, were not so lucky.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.