A Short Analysis of Anne Bradstreet’s ‘The Author to Her Book’

A reading of a poem by America’s first poet

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first person in America, male or female, to have a volume of poems published. She’d been born in England, but 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. In ‘The Author to Her Book’, one of Bradstreet’s most widely studied and analysed poems, she addresses The Tenth Muse. Here’s the poem.

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,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ’mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

In heroic couplets (rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter), Bradstreet addresses her book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. In summary, she calls likens the book to a child or ‘offspring’, produced by her weak brain. Her poems were ‘snatched’ from her and taken away to be published without her consent, like somebody kidnapping her child.

When the poems were published, they were full of errors, which embarrassed Bradstreet as the author of them. She resolved lovingly to correct the ‘blemishes’ or faults within the printing of the book, like a mother dotingly improving her child. Sadly, in trying to correct these faults, she only succeeded in making it worse. When she writes:

I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;

She is making a pun on ‘feet’: the image calls to mind a mother trying to correct a child’s flat feet, but she’s also referring to the ‘feet’ or metre of her poems (with ‘run’st’ providing an additional pun in the following line). If we read ‘hobbling’ as trisyllabic, we also get a nice hobbling effect in the line, as the iambic ‘feet’ are disrupted by the awkwardness of the word. But we digress…

Bradstreet says she wanted to dress her child in nicer clothes – i.e., she wanted further editions of her book to be more presentable. But as we’ve already seen, every attempt to improve the state of her book has only made things worse. Oblivion and obscurity, Bradstreet decides, is the best fate for her book.

Female modesty? Perhaps. As a female writer published in the mid-seventeenth century, Anne Bradstreet may have felt the need to play down her own (obvious) talents as an accomplished poet; she was a wife and mother living in the new American colonies, and her duties, society would believe, were chiefly to her husband and children.

Yet Bradstreet overdoes such modesty (false modesty?) when referring to her ‘feeble brain’, and the idea that in trying to correct the flaws in her book she only succeeded in adding more casts her as a cack-handed and barely competent versifier, and her verse itself tells a different story. Is she pulling our leg here?

Other aspects of the poem, especially when we compare them with the book she’s referring to, suggest she may be. Throughout ‘The Author to Her Book’, Bradstreet compares the writing of her book to motherhood: her book is her ‘offspring’ to which she gave ‘birth’; she refers to herself as ‘thy mother’.

She is reminding us that she’s a woman, true, but she’s also slotting herself into an established tradition of male writers who had likened poetic creation to siring (or, occasionally, bearing) a child: Sir Philip Sidney (from whom, incidentally, Bradstreet could claim descent) talks of himself as ‘great with child’ in the opening sonnet of his sequence Astrophil and Stella.

Similarly, Elizabethan sonneteers often referred elsewhere to ‘begetting’ their poems (a usage which strengthens the theory that the ‘onlie begetter’ to whom the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets was dedicated, ‘Mr. W. H.’, is none other than Shakespeare himself, who ‘begat’ or sired the sonnets that follow).

But there’s a problem here. Early in the poem, Bradstreet implies that her poems had been ‘snatched’ from her and taken away without her consent, and yet in the final line she tells us that she willingly sent her book out into the world (implying with the word ‘poor’ that she did so in order to raise a bit of money through publishing it):

And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

Is this the final comic twist of the knife, like the delayed punchline to a joke? Bradstreet was in on it all along after all: her brother-in-law was given her blessing to take her poems and publish them in England. America’s first published poet was also a canny publicist, and knew how to market her books for readers ‘back home’.

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