A Summary and Analysis of Anne Bradstreet’s ‘The Prologue’

‘The Prologue’ is a poem by 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.

Bradstreet’s ‘The Prologue’: background

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.

Bradstreet’s ‘The Prologue’: summary and analysis

The best way to offer an analysis of Bradstreet’s ‘The Prologue’ is to go through the poem, stanza by stanza, summarising what Bradstreet says in each stanza of the poem.

To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings,
Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun,
For my mean Pen are too superior things;
Or how they all, or each their dates have run,
Let Poets and Historians set these forth.
My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth.

Bradstreet begins by humbly and modestly declaring herself, and her ‘mean [or mediocre] Pen’, not great enough to tackle the ‘big’ subjects which other poets write about. These heroic subjects are above her, so her ‘obscure lines’ of verse will not bring shame to those great subjects by attempting to describe them.

But when my wond’ring eyes and envious heart
Great Bartas’ sugar’d lines do but read o’er,
Fool, I do grudge the Muses did not part
’Twixt him and me that over-fluent store.
A Bartas can do what a Bartas will
But simple I according to my skill.

Bradstreet refers to Guillaume du Bartas (1544-90), a French writer whom Puritans (such as Bradstreet herself) admired. He wrote numerous grand or heroic poems, including an epic poem about Christian history titled The Divine Weeks. Bradstreet admires the sweet and melodious lines of verse which Bartas wrote, and (like a naïve fool) wishes that the Muses, those goddesses who are in charge of the arts according to classical myth, had split the ‘store’ of inspiration equally between Bartas and herself.

But they didn’t, so Bradstreet must make do with the small ‘skill’ or talent she has for writing verse.

From School-boy’s tongue no Rhet’ric we expect,
Nor yet a sweet Consort from broken strings,
Nor perfect beauty where’s a main defect.
My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings,
And this to mend, alas, no Art is able,
’Cause Nature made it so irreparable.

We don’t expect a mere schoolboy to be able to speak or write perfect rhetoric or carefully constructed argument, nor do we expect a musical instrument with broken strings to produce a sweet sound or harmony (‘Consort’). Where there is a chief blemish in something otherwise beautiful, we know it cannot then be perfect.

Bradstreet’s own poetry is so ‘broken’ and ‘blemished’, imperfect and ‘foolish’ or naïve. No art is so great that it could ‘mend’ or fix the defects within her poetic skills. It was created imperfect and beyond repair by Mother Nature herself.

Nor can I, like that fluent sweet-tongued Greek
Who lisp’d at first, in future times speak plain.
By Art he gladly found what he did seek,
A full requital of his striving pain.
Art can do much, but this maxim’s most sure:
A weak or wounded brain admits no cure.

Now Bradstreet alludes to an ancient Greek orator, Demosthenes (c. 383-322 BC), who had a lisp but overcame this speech defect in order to become both ‘fluent’ and ‘sweet-tongued’. (He supposedly did this by shoving pebbles in his mouth, and this did the trick.) His painful struggle to overcome his defects paid off in the end.

But the problem with her own verse, Bradstreet implies, is not a speech defect but a limitation of her ‘weak’ and ‘wounded’ brain: put simply, she doesn’t think she is clever enough to create great poetry.

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.

Bradstreet, being a woman, offends many people who complain that she’d be better off sewing or knitting with a needle than writing with a pen. These people have nothing but ‘despite’ (i.e., contempt or outrage) for a woman who has ‘wits’ or intellect.

She can’t win with such people: if she succeeds in writing well, it still won’t do her any good, since these complainers will claim that she stole the good writing from someone else, or otherwise, that she managed to fluke a good poem by chance.


But sure the antique Greeks were far more mild,
Else of our Sex, why feigned they those nine
And poesy made Calliope’s own child?
So ’mongst the rest they placed the Arts divine,
But this weak knot they will full soon untie.
The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie.

Bradstreet counters the idea that women should have nothing to do with poetry. She points out that the ancient Greeks were far more accepting of the idea of female poets than seventeenth-century Christians: why else did they come up with the nine Muses, all of them female, and why did they make poetry itself the child of one of these female Muses?

The Greeks placed the arts amongst other important subjects, such as science, by having the nine Muses look after them all. But the men of Bradstreet’s day will sever or untie’ the ‘weak knot’ which links women and the arts together. They’ll claim that the Greeks were lying, or else playing at being foolish, when they suggested women could have something to do with the arts.

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.

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).

And oh ye high flown quills that soar the skies,
And ever with your prey still catch your praise,
If e’er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,
Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bays.
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glist’ring gold but more to shine.

Bradstreet concludes ‘The Prologue’ by requesting that, if those truly great (male) poets should lower their sights and agree to read her verse, they will give her a wreath made of some common herb, rather than laurel bays (which are reserved for the greatest poets: hence ‘poet laureate’, or a poet crowned with the laurels of distinction).

Bradstreet ends her poem with a clever couplet which makes a witty argument: her poetry is of baser stuff than the poetry written by male poets, so reading hers will only make their superior work seem even greater by comparison.

Bradstreet’s ‘The Prologue’: form

A note on the structure of ‘The Prologue’: the poem is written in six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter rhymed ababcc. Curiously, this is sometimes known as the ‘Venus and Adonis stanza’, because it was used by William Shakespeare in his poem 1590s narrative poem Venus and Adonis.

The effect here is to show Bradstreet’s mastery of this form – thus proving to her readers that, despite being a lowly woman, they are in safe hands with her – and to bring each stage of her ‘argument’ to a witty and resounding conclusion with the rhyming couplet that completes each stanza.

Comments are closed.