Anne Bradstreet (c. 1612-72), who was the first poet, male or female, from America to have a book of poems published: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America appeared in 1650.
Although she had been born in England in 1612, by the 1660s Bradstreet was living in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1630, just ten years after the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from England to the New World on the Mayflower, Anne and her husband left behind Boston, England and travelled across the Atlantic on the Arbella to establish a new settlement in Massachusetts.
They named this new settlement after the English town they had left behind, and thus the city of Boston was founded. Later that year, the Bradstreets moved a few miles north of Boston and settled ‘the newe towne’, later named Cambridge, where Harvard University would be founded a few years later.
Below, we select and introduce some of the best and most illustrative quotations from Anne Bradstreet’s work.
‘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.’
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.
Curiously, there had been female poets before Bradstreet: indeed, the very first sonnet sequence written in English was by a woman. But Bradstreet was aware of the criticism she would receive from certain (especially Puritan) quarters by publishing her poems, so her ‘Prologue’ modestly – but also wittily – addresses any criticism before it arrives.
‘Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are.
Men have precedency and still excel;
It is but vain unjustly to wage war.
Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.’
Another quotation from ‘The Prologue’: Bradstreet states that men are superior and she should not pick fights with them over this. Women know men produce the best poetry. She acknowledges this. All she asks is that men return the favour by acknowledging the fact that women, too, can write (albeit not as well as men, Bradstreet states).
‘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, ‘The Author to Her Book’, was directly inspired by the news that Bradstreet’s poems had been published, as The Tenth Muse, by her brother-in-law, supposedly 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.
‘I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet’.
This is another quotation from ‘The Author to Her Book’. Here, Bradstreet 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 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.’
Here’s another quotation from ‘The Author to Her Book’, and one which reveals Bradstreet’s quiet irony. She concludes her poem by saying she sent her manuscript outdoors and into the world (to be published) because she is poor and needed the money from its publication, but earlier she had protested that the book was secretly published behind her back.
Obviously, it can’t be both. This inconsistency is doubtless deliberate, and tips a wink to the reader: Bradstreet is performing the part of a ‘feeble’ woman penning verses because it’s what her society expects of her, but really she knows what she is doing – as her verse amply demonstrates.
‘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’.
This is perhaps Bradstreet’s best-known poem: the short lyric ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’. 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.
‘Then while we live, in love lets so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.’
This quotation forms the concluding couplet of her poem ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’, and sees Bradstreet appealing to the spiritual union she shares with her husband: now they share their temporal lives together, but when they are together in heaven after their deaths, they will ‘live’ forever in heaven if they remain faithful to each other here on earth.
‘And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.’
As well as penning a touching poem about her husband, Bradstreet also wrote this poem, written before one of her children was born. ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’ is another poem addressed to Bradstreet’s husband, but this time motherhood is one of the themes, as well as marriage.
Bradstreet imagines a day when she dies and her husband has to live without her. When he has ceased to grieve for her, just as she, being dead, is safe from all harms, she hopes he will love her and remember how often she lay in his arms.
‘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?’
Many of Bradstreet’s poems are addressed to family members, such as her husband. Here is a poem she wrote to her father: ‘To My Father with Some Verses’ sees Bradstreet giving thanks to her father for all he has done for her.
‘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.’
‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666’ was written in response to the fire that destroyed Bradstreet’s home in Massachusetts.
She concludes the poem by reflecting that her place in heaven provides a richer kind of ‘wealth’, so she need not yearn after earthly possessions. She can bid farewell to her ‘pelf’ and she doesn’t have to love worldly things, because all her hope, and her treasure, are in heaven, waiting for her.