By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy Lot to lose thy friend,
We are both ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none …
As well as penning a touching poem about her husband, Bradstreet also wrote this poem, written before one of her children was born. Bradstreet addresses her husband (‘my Dear’), acknowledging that Death may soon walk with her and take her from this world. He will lose his ‘friend’, who also happens to be his wife. They are both ‘ignorant’ of when this will happen.
Once her husband is happy to recall the joyous memories of times he spent with his wife, who is no longer around, he should look to their children and protect them. The reference to a ‘step Dame’ implies that the husband may remarry after Anne’s death; if so, she hopes that her husband will protect their children from any harm their new stepmother may seek to do them.
Most truly honoured, and as truly dear,
If worth in me or ought I do appear,
Who can of right better demand the same
Than may your worthy self from whom it came?
So begins this tribute to a parent: Anne Bradstreet offers herself as her father’s humble and grateful daughter in this poem, knowing she is unable to repay the debt she owes him in giving her life and support, but willing to do what small amount she can to show her gratitude through writing a poem.
8. ‘The Prologue’.
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance …
This poem is known as ‘The Prologue’ (or sometimes simply ‘Prologue’) because it prefaced the volume of her poems which was published in 1650 as The Tenth Muse. Bradstreet is thus explaining why she, a woman, is not only writing but daring to publish her own poems, at a time when female poets were fairly rare in Christian society.
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.