By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Anne Bradstreet (1612-72) holds a special place in American literature, and has a notable claim to fame. Her life as one of the first immigrants to the New World in the 1630s helped to inform the poetry she wrote, which often deals with everyday themes: family life, her marriage and her children, and the various challenges and tribulations faced by early colonial settlers in America.
Below, we summarise some of the most significant – and interesting – details from Bradstreet’s life in 10 curious and notable facts.
1. Anne Bradstreet was the first published poet in America – male or female.
Although it would not appear in print in America until 1678, six years after her death, Bradstreet’s poetry collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America was published in London in 1650, making her the first poet living in the New World to have a book of poems published.
So she wasn’t just the first published female poet from America – she was the first published poet of either sex.
2. She emigrated to the New World in 1630 on the Arbella, the ship whose passengers founded the city of Boston.
William Blaxton, an early colonial settler, was on board the same ship, the Arbella (named after his wife), which carried Bradstreet and her husband and parents across the Atlantic. Blaxton would found Boston that same year, 1630, naming it after the Lincolnshire town in England from which he hailed.
The Bradstreets, meanwhile, settled at Cambridge (also named after an English city) and later moved to North Andover, Massachusetts.
3. Anne Bradstreet the poet should not be confused with another famous Anne Bradstreet, the wife of a Salem ‘witch’.
Anne Bradstreet was also the name of a woman, born in around 1650 who died in 1707, who was the wife of Dudley Bradstreet in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1692, after he refused to issue warrants for the arrest of those accused of witchcraft, Dudley Bradstreet was himself accused of witchcraft, and he and Anne fled the area to avoid arrest.
This Anne Bradstreet was actually the daughter-in-law of the poet Anne Bradstreet: Dudley was the son of Simon and Anne Bradstreet (poet).
4. In fact, even her own husband was married to two women named Anne (Bradstreet).
After Anne died in 1672, her widower, Simon Bradstreet, married another woman, also named Anne. She was Anne Gardiner, but obviously took her husband’s name when she married him, so she became, as it were, ‘the second Mrs Anne Bradstreet’.
5. Her father and husband played an important role in the founding of Harvard University in the 1630s.
Both Anne’s father and her husband were instrumental in the founding of Harvard University in 1636, and two of the poet’s sons would later be graduates, of the college: Samuel (1653) and Simon (1660). Anne lived with her husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time that Harvard was founded.
6. Her poems were originally published without her consent – at least, so she claimed.
When The Tenth Muse appeared in England in 1650, it was claimed that Bradstreet’s brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, had published them without her permission. Bradstreet later wrote a poem, ‘The Author to Her Book’, addressing this:
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 …
However, later in the poem she implies that she ‘sent’ her poems out into the world because she needed the money, so it was probably authorial modesty – as befits a seventeenth-century women writing poetry for public consumption – which occasioned this myth about her poems appearing without her consent.
7. Her family claimed to be related to Sir Philip Sidney.
The Dudley family – Anne was ‘Anne Dudley’ before she married Simon Bradstreet – claimed to be related to the Sidney family, whose most famous scion was Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), the Renaissance man who was poet, courtier, and soldier, among much else. Bradstreet later wrote a poem about Sidney, in which she praises him:
But yet impartial Fates this boon did give,
Though Sidney di[e]d his valiant name should live:
And live it doth in spight of death through fame,
Thus being overcome, he overcame.
8. Although she’s best-known for her short lyric poems, Anne Bradstreet also wrote much longer, more ambitious works.
One of Bradstreet’s earliest works, written in 1646 or possibly earlier, was a long poem called The Foure Elements, which discussed the virtues of the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water. She also wrote a similarly structured poem on the four seasons of the year.
And one of her highly regarded long poems is Contemplations, a meditation on man’s place in the world, and a poem which reflects Bradstreet’s Puritan background. The poem begins with a walk through New England, which inspires her meditations on nature:
When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth, though old, still clad in green,
The stones and trees insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come, and greenness then doth fade,
A spring returns, and they’re more youthful made.
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he’s laid.
9. She wrote a touching poem about married love.
In ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’, perhaps Bradstreet’s most widely anthologised poem, Bradstreet pays tribute to her husband and the love they share together:
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.
10. In 1666, her house was destroyed in a fire.
In the same year that the famous Great Fire of London destroyed much of the old capital of Bradstreet’s home country, a fire ravaged her home in Massachusetts, destroying her family’s library containing some eight hundred volumes – no small amount for a seventeenth-century household.
Characteristically, Bradstreet wrote a poem about the event. ‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’ concludes with Bradstreet pointing out that a nobler house – a place in heaven – has been reserved for her, so she has no need to lament the loss of her worldly possessions:
It’s purchased and paid for too
By Him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by His gift is made thine own;
There’s wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell, my pelf, farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.
11. Bradstreet died in 1672, reportedly of consumption.
Anne Bradstreet died, aged sixty, in 1672. Her son recorded that the cause of her death was ‘a consumption being wasted to skin and bone’. ‘Consumption’ was an old term for tuberculosis, so it’s possible that this was the cause of her death; she certainly appears to have suffered from tuberculosis later in life.