Celebration Edition # 300:
"Several poems compiled with great variety of wit and learning, full of delight..."
By Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612-1672).
Boston: Printed by John Foster, 1678.
Numbers are funny things: meaning is often arbitrarily attached to them. Celebration Edition #300 is not particularly more important than #299 or #301. But to have republished 300 books by women feels like a significant accomplishment, so I wanted Edition #300 to be something particularly important.
It seemed fitting to choose Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), both the first published woman writer in the American colonies, and the first published American poet, male or female. Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, had her poems published in England under the title "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts" (1650). The 1650 collection appeared without Anne's knowledge or preparation. She was not entirely pleased, and lamented that her "children" had been sent off "in raggs" though she would have wished "in better dress to trim thee". Her second published book of poetry, "Several poems compiled with great variety of wit and learning, full of delight..." appeared after her death. It includes versions of the 1650 poems which she edited for republication, additional "public" poems which she planned to add, and some "private" poems, which her family chose to publish after her death.
Anne Dudley was born in Northampton, England in 1612, and raised in an elegant, cultured, literary household by her parents Thomas and Dorothy Dudley. She had an unusually close relationship with her father, who encouraged her to read history and classics at an early age. Devout Puritans, the Dudleys made prayer and theological discussions part of their daily life. Sensitive and intelligent Anne often found herself oppressed by a sense of her failings and fear of damnation. She was encouraged by the cheerful presence of Simon Bradstreet, who joined the family as her father's assistant. Later, as she matured, she agonized over her "carnal" attraction to the charming young man. At the age of sixteen, after she recovered from an attack of smallpox, Anne and Simon married in a union of both passion and intelligence.
Her marriage would bring Anne great joy throughout her life. Her tribute, "To my Dear and loving Husband" rings out clear and triumphant, celebrating their passion on earth, and hope of its continuance hereafter:
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 then whole Mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love lets so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
Another poem, lamenting Simon's absence, is both playful and plaintive:
As loving Hind that (Hartless) wants her Deer,
Scuds through the woods and Fern with harkning ear,
Perplext, in every bush & nook doth pry,
Her dearest Deer might answer ear or eye;
So doth my anxious soul, which now doth miss,
A dearer Dear (far dearer Heart) then this.
Still wait with doubts, & hopes, and failing eye,
His voice to hear, or person to discry. ...
In 1628, while Anne was happily exploring the legitimate joys of marriage, others were increasingly distressed by political and religious tensions. Charles I's Catholic sympathies aroused fears of a return to the violent religious conflicts of Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth. Fearing persecution and desiring to create a "holy community", Puritans began considering a mass migration to the new world. Two years after Anne's marriage, in 1630, the Bradstreets and the Dudleys emigrated to New England as leaders of one of the first Puritan groups attempting to establish a plantation colony. More than 700 men, women, and children, with livestock and supplies, sailed in eleven ships. They knew they faced death and hardship. For all that her heart "rose" against it, Anne boarded the Arbella for New England.
Life in Puritan New England was hardly conducive to literary work, least of all by a woman. It is easy to undervalue Bradstreet's achievements if we do not recognize the difficulties and dangers that she faced in choosing to write. Her time was more than taken up with running a household and raising children in a harsh new land. Her husband was frequently absent, leaving her to handle many of his responsibilities. Yet, in the quiet of the night, with Simon away and her children asleep, Anne did not lie down to rest -- she picked up paper and pen and wrote.
I imagine her as evening fell, turning away from the unpleasant realities of Indian raids, a harsh climate, uncertain health, and colony politics, and finding through her poetry an escape and a return to the civilized standards of the world she had left. More, poetry afforded her an intellectual outlet that her intelligence and humour demanded. Her Quaternion of "The Four Elements", the four "Humours", the four "Ages of Man", and finally "The Four Monarchyes" (a poetical account of the Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires) is a monumental undertaking, covering the full range of classical knowledge. Such an achievement is remarkable. She gave her poems to her history-loving father, an appreciative reader who encouraged her, her husband, and other family members.
Focusing on the Old World, and staying within her family, were much safer than becoming too political, too personal, or too outspoken. Anne was quite aware of what could happen to a woman who acted in ways "not fitting for her sex". Examples which closely concerned her included a respected neighbour from England, Anne Hutchinson; a contemporary mother, Mary Barrett Dyer; and closest of all, her sister, Sarah Keayne.
Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), a midwife who led religious meetings for women, was expelled and excommunicated from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her "voluable tongue" and her religious beliefs. In 1637, while Anne Bradstreet was at home in Ipswich caring for her small children, her father, Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley, and her husband, Simon Bradstreet, served as magistrates at Hutchinson's civil trial in Boston. Dudley was aggressive in prosecuting her. Later, on March 22, 1638, Hutchinson was excommunicated. Not long after, she suffered through a horrific miscarriage, now suspected to have been a hydatidiform mole, a precancerous growth which produced exaggerated symptoms of pregnancy. This was seen as a judgment of God against her.
At Hutchinson's excommunication, a young woman named Mary Barrett Dyer rose and accompanied her out of the church in a silent show of solidarity. "A stranger observing, asked another what woman that was, the other answered, it was the woman who had the Monster..." Anne Hutchinson had delivered Mary Dyer of a misshapen, still-born baby, five months before, and quietly arranged its private burial. Overhearing the comment, Governor Winthrop had the baby exhumed, considering it evidence of divine punishment for the Dyers' support of Hutchinson. The Dyers too were excommunicated and banished. Mary Dyer repeatedly defied Massachusetts’ anti-Quaker laws over the next 20 years by returning to Boston, and was hanged for it on June 1, 1660.
Anne Bradstreet's younger sister, Sarah Dudley, married Benjamin Keayne in 1638, the same year that Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated. In 1645, Benjamin abandoned Sarah and went to England. Sarah followed him, surviving a shipwreck on the way, and apparently became inspired by religious fervor. After she returned to the colony without her husband in 1646, Keayne attacked her in letters to Thomas Dudley and others. Her husband accused Sarah of preaching, of not listening to instruction, of poor church attendance, and of having "impoysoned" his body with syphilis. Thomas Dudley obtained a divorce for his daughter, but in spite of his influence as governor of the colony, Sarah was excommunicated in 1647. Laurel Ulrich notes, "Sarah may have been visionary, or rebellious, or simply unlucky."
To the extent that any woman could be, Anne was in a privileged, even protected, position. Her father, Thomas Dudley, and later her husband, Simon Bradstreet, were governors and magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But as the case of her sister Sarah shows, their position was not enough to protect a woman of their family. Speaking out was a dangerous, potentially heretical act. One can speculate that the selection of some of Anne's poems, and their unprecedented publication in England, may have been in part an attempt to protect her and her family; to preemptively establish her as a "proper" Puritan voice, and not a heretical one.
Extensive male attestations at the beginning of "Tenth Muse" assert that Anne Bradstreet was a poet far beyond the normal abilities of women. (Joanna Russ characterized this attitude in "How to Suppress Women's Writing" as "She wrote it, but she's an anomaly".) They also describe her as the epitome of proper female virtue: "gracious", "pious", "courteous", diligent, "in her place", and "discreet", all implying that she is contained safely within the boundaries of her house and her family. The selection of private poems in the 1678 edition reinforces this vision: the poems, which are both strong and heartfelt, speak of her love for father, mother, husband, children and grandchildren; and the strength of her faith, even when facing adversity, loneliness, illness, and the deaths of those she loved. They are well worth reading. One wonders, though, what poems were not included.
For at times, in Bradstreet's work, a strong and assertive voice rings out, direct, clear, wryly humorous. Who can surpass the biting tone of her Prologue, when she says?
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poets 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'l say it's stoln, or else it was by chance.
Her desire for a world in which women's abilities are recognized and valued is most clearly expressed in her tribute to Queen Elizabeth, "of happy memory", who she presents as the "Pattern of Kings":
Now say, have women worth? or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is't gone?
Nay Masculines, you have thus taxt us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,
Know tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.
But happy England, which had such a Queen,
O happy, happy, had those days still been, ...
In earlier lines, Bradstreet writes of Elizabeth:
She hath wip'd off th' aspersion of her Sex,
That women wisdome lack to play the Rex: ...
Anne, like Elizabeth, achieved a position of wisdom in a masculine-identified sphere. "The Tenth Muse" was listed among “the most vendable books” in London. Anne had a long and happy marriage and a supportive family, and remained well-regarded in the critical Puritan community. In accounts written for her children, she described her religious uncertainties, and her achievement of a spiritual balance which valued both this world and the next. Her poem "Contemplations" opens with a serene assertion of the excellence of God, as revealed through the wonders of New England's autumn.
Sometime now past in the Autumnal Tide,
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed,
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o're by his rich golden head.
Their leaves & fruits seem'd painted, but was true
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hew,
Rapt were my sences at this delectable view.
I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is he that dwells on high?
Whose power and beauty by his works we know.
Sure he is goodness, wisdome, glory, light,
That hath this under world so richly dight:
More Heaven then Earth was here, no winter & no night. ...
When read with an understanding of their historical context, Bradstreet's poems are often rich with deep and complex meanings. Her writing is worthy of careful attention. Charlotte Gordon's autobiography, "Mistress Bradstreet", discusses specific poems, as do many articles in print and on-line journals. Read and enjoy.