Because Thanksgiving season is upon us and because I will soon be travelling to Boston, I am continuing my series highlighting early American writers. Yesterday, I wrote about the literary duel between Thomas Morton (the bad boy of early New England settlers) and William Bradford, the long-time governor of Plymouth Bay Colony.
Today, I am focusing upon the first English-speaking poet published in America: Anne Bradstreet. As you might guess from her name, she was a woman. She was also a devout Puritan who married at age 16 and raised eight children in the howling wilderness of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Managing to become the first published poet of North American while being a female Puritan makes Anne Bradstreet distinctly Badass, in my humble opinion. Bradstreet lived from 1612-1672, and she published her collection of poetry called The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650.
During this time period, women—to put it mildly—were considered inferior to men and were expected to conform to female duties of running a household and raising children. They were not expected to become published poets.
To give a example of the cultural attitudes that the prevailed, one historical document suggested to women readers that they should “derive their ideas of God from the contemplations of her husband’s excellencies.”
[Excuse me while I gag.]
So it was against strong odds that Bradstreet managed to publish a book of poetry. It helped that her brother-in-law was a strong advocate of her work; he took a copy of her work to London to get it published.
The preface her brother-in-law wrote to the book explains much about the attitudes of the time:
.. .the worst effect of his [the reader’s] reading will be unbelief, which will make him question whether it be a woman’s work, and ask, is it possible? If any do, take this as an answer from him that dares avow it; it is the work of a woman, honored, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions, and more than so, these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments. (my emphasis)
In other words, it is hard to believe that a woman could write poetry. It is also rather disgraceful. But, since the woman still managed to be well-behaved and did her domestic duties, I guess we can allow it.
Bradstreet tended to write about issues dear to many women’s hearts: her husband, her children, her home, and her struggle to reconcile her faith with her more worldly desires. People today who read her work out of context probably find it conventional and unremarkable. (I know that was my first reaction to it.)
However, given her time period and her context as a Puritan settler in North America, her choice of subject matter was actually quite rebellious. The Puritans in America were generally quite literate and promoted reading and writing—up to a point. The only subject matter they really approved of was religious subject matter. If a person was going to write poetry, they should be sure to write poetry in praise of God. There was no other point in writing.
Bradstreet was a religious woman and she did often write about God. But she also wrote about private, domestic matters. For many of her fellow Puritans, such topics were considered frivolous or inappropriate. But that did not stop Anne Bradstreet.
In one of her poems, for example, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” she wrote a poetic letter to husband. In this poem, she expressed her fears that she might die in childbirth (a realistic fear at the time) and hoped that her husband would remember her lovingly. She also hoped that he would raise their children well, and not let any wicked stepmother abuse them:
“And when they loss shall be repaid with gains,
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thy self, or loved’st me,
These O protect from step-dame’s injury”
Other topics of her poetry include love poems to her husband, poems in memory of a deceased young grandchild, and even a poem lamenting the loss of her house to fire. She often wrote about her faith, but when she did so, she highlighted the very real struggles she often faced in trying to understand why thing happened the way they did.
Despite the centuries that separate contemporary readers from the 1600s, I think most women can relate to at least some of Bradstreet’s poems. Reading her poetry helps me to understand early Puritans as full-blooded human beings, rather than just one-sided symbols of early America.