When the eighteen year old Anne Bradstreet first arrived in the New World in 1630, she confessed that “her heart rose.” She had made the voyage on the Arbella from England to Salem, Massachusetts with her extended family as part of the Puritan “Errand into the Wilderness.” But now, instead of a life of comfort and considerable luxury on the Earl of Lincoln’s estate, where her father had been Manager and her husband had been his assistant, she had to contend with muddy paths instead of streets and a cramped house with no privacy. No longer could Anne spend leisurely hours reading such classic authors as Virgil, Homer, and Ovid as well as more contemporary writers like Spenser, Sidney, and Milton in the Earl’s grand library; instead, she had a household to manage for her extended family, which would later include the eight children born to her and Simon Bradstreet in rapid succession. However, in spite of her demanding domestic responsibilities, Anne Bradstreet somehow managed to find the time to produce a collection of poems that her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, arranged for publication as The Tenth Muse in London in 1650 when Bradstreet was thirty eight years old.
Anne Bradstreet’s early work was often slavishly imitative, focusing on public and political issues that preoccupied her male peers; however, as she grew more confident, she became committed to writing about her own experiences. “Meditations Divine and Morall” (1664) underscores this powerful shift in in the focus of Anne Bradstreet’s work; as she explains to her son Simon, this volume consists of “nothing but myne owne.” This declaration of independence makes it clear that Bradstreet is no longer relying on the literary authority of the male poets who had preceded her. Instead, Bradstreet will write of her own experiences as a daughter, wife, and mother— as a woman in seventeenth-century New England.
The sonnet, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” boldly expresses Anne Bradstreet’s intimate feelings as a wife for her husband which many Puritans would have seen as heretical:
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.
And “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” gives voice to her concerns as a mother for her children’s welfare, should she die in childbirth:
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’t me,
These o protect from step Dames injury.
Anne Bradstreet’s journey from deferring to traditional male social, religious and poetic authorities to writing poems that foreground her experience as a woman in the domestic sphere is representative of the trajectory of many American women writers who followed her. By resisting the prevailing ethos of her time which included very little support for women writers, Bradstreet paved the way for poets like Emily Dickinson in the 19th century and Adrienne Rich in the 20th. Bradstreet’s resolution to write from her personal experience as a woman is the wellspring of her most memorable poetry—poetry which has emphatically established her place in American literature.
Featured image credit: Title page of The Tenth Muse, a 1650 collection of poems and writings by Anne Bradstreet by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.