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.
It may be disconcerting to liberal scholars 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 of the 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 an influence on Anne’s later beliefs regarding her personal relationship with God. 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.”
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. Two years following their marriage, they stood looking out upon a wilderness that 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 were pressured into taxations and innumerable religious stresses. 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.”
In her first few years of colonial life, something even more than Anne’s growing interest in writing occupied her thoughts: her infertility. Her later writings on the subject leave little room for an argument that she was a feminist saddled with children.
She wrote, “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.”
Anne and Simon would eventually have eight children.
For the Puritans, there was considerable thought and intent of motive in the decisions and endeavors they made, 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. 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.
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 Atheism 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.”
The strenuous and constantly physical aspects of colonial life demanded much from Anne. 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 to 1640 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. 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.
Anne’s most famous testify to her devotion:
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.
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, which he made planned to have published without Anne’s knowledge.
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. 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.
Following the publication of “The Tenth Muse,” Anne’s poetry focused chiefly on topics related to friends and familial relations. Following the birth of her eighth child, named John, Anne’s health began to fail. During this time, she wrote verses in supplication, battling not only ill health, but faintness of spirit. The result was verses that 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.
She passed in 1672 with Simon at her side, which must have been a great comfort after all the time he had been absent. Six years following her passing, a new volume hit the shelves of England libraries, and her poems continued to grow in demand both in England and the colonies.
Anne represented a strong example of Christian piety and conviction. 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 aspire to cultivate her own talents.
In an autobiographical 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.”
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.
To read more about Anne Bradstreet, visit Leben’s website.