Portrait of Anne Bradstreet by Robert Carter
It was early morning when Anne Bradstreet looked out on the pile of ashes that the night before had been her home for 20 years. She had given birth to three children there, cooked in the same kitchen day after day and watched her eldest son’s marriage ceremony take place within its walls. All her material possessions were destroyed. For a colonial woman in the late 17th century, the idea of beginning life over again must have been devastating.
But Anne, the first published poet of the new world, not only mourned the loss of her household goods. All her papers, books and manuscripts were gone. Later she penned her sentiments of loss in a poem describing the calamity and God’s providence in saving her and her family.
But ‘fore I could accomplish my desire,
my papers fell a prey to th’ raging fire.
And thus my pains (with better things) I lost,
which none have cause to wail, nor I to boast.
Instead of using the calamity as a reason for bitterness and frustration, Anne rebuked herself sharply for her attachment to physical possessions. She viewed the fire as a second test of her obedience to God’s will. She had long ago relinquished her worldly luxuries when she arrived in the new world at the tender age of 18, realizing that a life focusing on heavenly wealth was her calling.
Thou hast an house on high erect,
framed by that mighty Architect
with glory richly furnished,
stands permanent though this be fled.
A Strong Foundation
To liberal scholars it may be disconcerting that the first published poet living in the new world was a godly woman devoted to her husband and eight children. Surely she must have been a feminist ahead of her time, limited by the male-dominated Puritan traditions and expectations, and burdened by the obligation to bear many children. But her poetry is a testimony to the exact opposite. It portrays a woman of faith and courage, submissive to God and her husband, and devoted to the rearing and happiness of her children.
When she was eight her father became the steward to the Puritan inclined Earl of Lincoln. With the position came the privilege for his children to read literature, history and religious works from the Earl’s expansive library and benefit from the same tuition given to the Earl’s younger sisters. In a time where higher education was not considered necessary for women, the countess placed a high emphasis on women’s education. For Anne it was the beginning of a life-long love of learning. During this time the family’s location in Boston, England, allowed Anne to hear the preaching of John Cotton at St. Botolph’s Church. Cotton’s preaching proved to have an influence on Anne’s later beliefs regarding her personal relationship with God and her confession of sins. She later recorded that even at the age of six or seven she was pressed with an earnest desire to confess her sins and would not be able to rest until she had done so.
At 14 and 15 many young girls of the time would have been preparing for marriage. But Anne was lying in bed, literally fighting for her life. She had caught smallpox. For many months she waited for God’s will and prayed for mercy that she might be spared. She later wrote: “When I was in my affliction I besought the Lord and confessed my pride and vanity, and he was entreated of me and again restored me.” The Lord had further plans for her.
Marriage and a New World
A year later her life underwent another great change. At 16 she married a young, devoted man of Christian ideals, Simon Bradstreet, the assistant to her father. It was the beginning of a relationship of love and devotion. They would learn to be a great source of comfort and strength to each other as they faced a rough, unknown world and the challenges it brought.
John CottonIt was an unusual situation for the new couple. Two years following their marriage they stood looking out upon a wilderness which would be their new home. England and the refined life they knew was only a distant memory.
Under the reign of Charles I, the Puritans began to be pressured into taxations and numerable pressures. Finally, relatives within the Earl of Lincoln’s family decided to finance a Puritan colony in the new world, following the example of the pilgrims on the Mayflower. Eleven ships made up the fleet with the Arabella, Anne’s vessel, leading the expedition.
Even on the journey across the Atlantic, Anne would have quickly seen how her sheltered life was morphing. By the time she and her husband, along with her father’s family, arrived, there would have been 17 deaths and a stillborn child among the ships.
In later writings she confessed she found that the horrors of her circumstance caused her heart to rise in rebellion against covenanting with the new congregation.
“I came into this Country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston.”
And in her first few years of colonial life, something even more than her growing interest in writing occupied her thoughts. After years of marriage she and Simon could not conceive a child.
Her later writings on the subject leave little room for an argument that she was a feminist saddled with children. She wrote that, “It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtained one.”
Like Hannah of the Old Testament she prayed that God would give her a child and after six years of marriage, most likely in 1633, they were blessed with a son. Fittingly, she named him Samuel.
He was the first of a large and healthy family, which would grow to be eight children, four sons and four daughters.
While Samuel was still a toddler, the extended family, including the Bradstreets, made the move from Boston to Ipswich where they would stay for about ten years.
While Anne had recognized God’s will for her to join the colony in peace, there was another Anne who didn’t think so. She was creating mischief and held meetings with ideas challenging the ideas of pastors and spiritual leaders in the community.
Today often confused with Bradstreet, Anne Hutchinson was by no means a submissive woman. Actually a close friend of Anne’s younger sister, she held meetings in her home and challenged local preaching. Governor John Winthrop, who would write the famous Model of Christian Charity, wrote in his The Journal that Hutchinson was a woman of ready wit and a bold spirit who brought with her dangerous errors.
Leaders in the colonies made it clear that challenging and undermining pastors was not going to be tolerated. No doubt for Anne poetry writing would have been a private matter. The questions raised in the community regarding feminine behavior might have caused Bradstreet some concern. For her the question might have been: as a Puritan woman should she endeavor in her writings?
For the Puritans there was considerable thought and intent of motive in the decisions and endeavors they made and undertook, even ones that might seem trivial like writing a few lines for enjoyment. It’s clear Anne was no feminist intent on publishing fame or declaring her opinions in verse. But no doubt she would have considered her own motivations for doing it. “…No Puritan took up a literary vocation without accepting a heavy responsibility, and there was no precedent in the history of Puritanism to undertake such a burden. Only a conscious ardent desire to become a poet combined with a strong sense of spiritual dedication give the necessary courage for a Puritan woman of 1636.”Stained glass portrait of Anne Bradstreet at St. Botolph’s Church. Photo courtesy of St. Botolph’s, Boston, Lincolnshire, England.
In her later writings she clarified the reasons why she had begun to write. “I have not studyed in this you read to show my skill, but to declare the Truth – not to sett forth myself, but the Glory of God.”
Besides her intentions, Anne did struggle with her own theological questions. “Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures, many times by Atheisme how I could know whether there was a God; I never saw any miracles to confirm me and those which I read of how did I know but they were feigned. That there is a God my Reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the Earth, the order of all things, night and day.”
In the beginning it seems that she received support from her pastor Nathaniel Ward. And poetry was not exclusively a delight of Anne’s. Her father Thomas had dabbled in verses and produced a few poems of note.
Like her father, one of her first works was a quaternion, a four part poem in which she used the four elements of fire, air, earth and water as the theme.
The Fire, Air, Earth and Water did contest
which was the strongest, noblest and the best,
which was of greatest use and might’est force:
in placid terms they thought now to discourse.
She would eventually write four of these quaternions. And ‘eventually’ would probably be an apt word. The strenuous and constantly physical aspects of colonial life would have demanded much from her.
Her duties were to run the household, often with the absence of her husband. There were no longer just a few colonists scattered along the coast of the New World. From 1630 to1640 many ships brought immigrants seeking a new way of life and religious freedom. From about 1638 to 1642 Simon became involved in diplomacy to join the various groups into a “Union of Colonies.”
As a young mother not always having all the answers, it makes sense that many of her writings are directed in forms of prayers to God for strength against the waves of anxiety.
By night when others soundly slept
and had at once both ease and rest,
my waking eyes were open kept,
and so to lie I found it best.
I sought him whom my soul did love
with tears I sought him earnestly:
With Simon’s absences also a pressing matter on her heart, she learned to channel her longing into written words. Writing verses on their marriage and her devotion to him would become consistent through the course of their marriage.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man, Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
Publishing and Popularity
On behalf of Parliament, Anne’s brother-in-law John Woodbridge left for England to negotiate with the imprisoned King Charles. It must have been during this time that Anne gave him a collection of her poems. Why or how he came in possession of the poems is not clear, but while he spent some time in England he made plans to have Anne’s work published without her knowledge.
Woodbridge began to collaborate with her friend Ward who was currently in England as well. In his prologue for the first edition, her brother-in-law banished any doubts that the collection of verse had been written by a woman.
“…It is the work of a woman, honored and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor … for her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet management of her family.”
Long after English readers were finishing her collection of poems, Anne was opening the cover and turning the pages of her first book, The Tenth Muse: lately sprung up in America. There was only one problem: she had not had a chance to edit her own work. She considered it far from ready for publication and voiced these sentiments in a poem, “The Author to Her book.”
But it is perhaps that her brother-in-law had seen in her the stubborn attachment of a writer to her work, unable to have it voluntarily published. In his prologue he made a note that the writer would perhaps never have let the poems see the light of day.
England certainly agreed with Woodbridge on her talent to construct beautiful verse. Readers in London soon clamored for multiple printings of the work of this unknown woman who wrote such accomplished poetry, all the while living in the wild and rugged new world.
Anne was 38 when The Tenth Muse premiered. The title referenced Woodbridge’s suggestion that Anne herself was the tenth muse ofthe nine in Greek mythology, referenced in Anne’s own poems.
No doubt it stirred the communities in the colonies. Not only was Anne the first female poet of the new world to be published, she was also the first poet of the Americas to be published at all—a paramount accomplishment for a woman during that time. Even her friend Ward, who was adamant that Anne’s work should be published, was known for having a generally low opinion of women.
Trials and Reflection
Following the publication of The Tenth Muse, Anne’s poetry focused chiefly on lyrical poetry with topics related to friends and familial relations. Following the birth of her eighth child named John (it seems any resentment she might have harbored towards Woodbridge had dissolved) Anne’s health began to fail. During this time, she wrote verses in supplication, battling not only failing health, but faintness of spirit. The result was verses which confirmed an even greater faith in God to deliver her from her depression and sickness.
Thou heard’st, thy rod thou didst remove
and spared my body frail,
thou show’st to me thy tender love,
my heart no more might quail.
O praises to my mighty God!
With all but two of her children either away at school or married and with families of their own, Anne found that the later years of her life allotted more time for meditation and reflection. During this time she lived through a fire, experienced the loss of grandchildren (which she penned her sentiments about), fell to serious illness several times over again and all the while continued in her poetry writing.
After her daughter-in-law Mercy died in childbirth, she wrote to her son Samuel (on his way to Jamaica) to break the news. Accompanying her words were some verses, offering her sympathy and condolences on the great loss.
Oh, how I sympathize with thy sad heart
and in thy griefs still bear a second part;
I lost a daughter dear, but thou a wife.
Shortly following Mercy’s death, Anne, at the age of 58, suffered from a severe illness yet again. But her spirits did not fail as she neared the end. In her prayers she petitioned God to prepare her for when the Bridegroom would come to take her. She passed in 1672 with Simon at her side, which must have been a great comfort after all the time he had been absent from her.
Title page, second (posthumous) edition of Bradstreet’s poems, 1678.
Six years following her passing, a new volume hit the shelves of England libraries. Anne’s second published volume was entitled Several Poems, a much more humble choice of title than her brother-in-law had chosen for her.
After the second volume was published, her poems continued to grow in demand both in England and the colonies.
Anne represented a strong example of Christian piety, all the while filled with strong convictions. She also set a precedent in the new world that a woman could be both a godly, submissive wife who desired to care for her children and yet aspireSimon Bradstreet and cultivate her own talents. In a biographical account left for her children and family, Anne admitted that throughout the course of her life she had questioned her faith many times. She questioned the existence of God, His requirements of her, the losses she endured and a belief that Christ was the only way to salvation. But she accounts that God was the one to pull her through these moments.
Sometimes I have said, ‘is there faith upon the earth?’ and I have not known what to think; but then I have remembered the words of Christ that so it must be, and if it were possible, the very elect should be deceived. ‘Behold’ saith our Savior, ‘I have told you before.’ That hath stayed my heart, and I can now say, ‘Return, O my Soul, to thy rest, upon this rock Christ Jesus will I build my faith, and if I perish, I perish’; but I know all the powers of hell shall never prevail against it. I know whom I have trusted, and whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that I have committed to his charge.
The key was that Anne did not set out writing for fame or personal satisfaction. It is impossible not to read even her more classical early works without recognizing the clear intent of her writing: to glorify God in her words.
Cook, Faith, Anne Bradstreet: Pilgrim and Poet (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2010)
Gordon, Charlotte, Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005)
White, Elizabeth Wade, Anne Bradstreet: The Tenth Muse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971)