Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet
In 1630, Anne Bradstreet and her husband Simon sailed from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Aboard the Arbella, she witnessed fellow passenger John Winthrop’s famous “city upon on a hill” address, a context that would to a large extent define Anne’s life. She raised eight children in the New World, and in between feeding, disciplining, and educating them, penned dozens of poems that demonstrate a well-educated mind, a heart turned to God, and a gentle but innovative spirit.
Why read the words of this nearly 400-year-old Puritan woman? In her recent book, Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet, Dr. Heidi L. Nichols, an English professor at Lancaster (Pa.) Bible College, argues that Bradstreet deserves to be read, not just for historical record and literary value—both of which are significant—but primarily because of what she has in common with modern readers. Nichols calls her poetry a “record of her wrestling through spiritual issues.” Bradstreet suffered loss of health, loss of material possessions, loss of family. She had times of loneliness. She prayed for her children. She found solace in the beauty of nature. She raised her motherless granddaughter. Despite the contextual differences, she was, like evangelical women today, active in her family, her community, and her work. In her case, that work was a life of reason and rhyme.
In Part 1 of the book, Nichols introduces Bradstreet with a well-researched but brief and easy-to-read essay on her life and works. After summarizing her background, early years, and settling in Massachusetts, she discusses Bradstreet’s influences as a writer, as well as her responses to contemporary critics who, common in that age, objected to women writers. (John Winthrop criticized another colonial settler Anne Hopkins, saying, “if she had attended her household affairs and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her.” Bradstreet responded to such comments firmly but indirectly, as in her epitaph for Queen Elizabeth, where she writes, “Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason, / Know tis a Slander now but once was Treason.”)
Part 2 consists of selected works, annotated and grouped thematically to demonstrate the many facets of her writing. One of those facets is her ability, like her contemporary John Donne and other Puritan writers, to tell biblical history through poetry. “Contemplations” chronicles the fall of humanity. Some of her poems are paraphrases of Scripture, such as the lovely “Davids Lamentation for Saul and Jonathan” (2 Samuel 1) and “The vanity of all worldly things” (Ecclesiastes).
She also uses poetry as an introspective device, a practical theologian applying her Puritan theology to everyday life. When their home burned to the ground in 1666, for example, she recorded her devastation in a poem. The fifth stanza reads:
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest;
There lay that store I counted best:
My pleasant things in ashes lye,
And them behold no more shall I,
Under thy roof no guest shall sitt,
Nor at the Table eat a bitt.
But by the seventh and eighth stanzas, she is seizing the learning opportunity to turn from material concerns to eternal ones:
Then straight I gin my heart to chide,
And did they wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye
That dunghill mists away may flie.
Thou hast an house on high erect
Fram’d by that mighty Architect.
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent tho’ this bee fled.
It’s purchased, and paid for too
By him who hath enough to doe.
Some of her most moving poems are those to her children or grandchildren, like a lengthy one that begins “I had eight birds hatcht in one nest,” and goes on to describe her desire for her kids to grow in wisdom and fly away to build nests of their own. After burying two granddaughters, both toddlers, and later their month-old brother, she writes for her grandson:
No sooner come, but gone, and fal’n asleep,
Acquaintance short, yet parting caus’d us weep,
Three flours, two scarcely blown, the last i’th’ bud,
Cropt by th’ Almighties hand; yet he is good,
With dreadful awe before him let’s be mute,
Such was his will, but why, let’s not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouth put in the dust,
Let’s say he’s merciful as well as just.
He will return, and make up all our losses,
And smile again, after our bitter crosses.
Go pretty babe, go rest with Sisters twain
Among the blest in endless joyes remain.
She applied her skill to romance, too, writing love poems to her husband, Simon, with a passion that would surprise those who hold to sweeping misperceptions of the Puritans as cold and stiff-collared. Consider these lines from “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment,” in which she compares his going away with the loss of the sun in winter:
My Sun is gone so far in’s Zodiack,
Whom whilst I ‘joy’d, nor storms, nor frosts I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now nummed lye forlorn;
Return, return sweet Sol from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
In addition to poetry, she also wrote a statement of her Christian testimony, as well as a book of aphorisms dedicated to her son Samuel. These include: “Downey beds make drosey persons, but hard lodging keeps the eyes open. A prosperous state makes a secure Christian, but adversity makes him Consider. ” And: “Authority without wisedome is like a heavy axe without an edg, fitter to bruise then polish.”
The publisher should have proofread the back cover, which lists an incorrect death date for Bradstreet (Nichols provides the correct date, 1672, in her text). But the slim volume is laid out in a helpful format and includes illustrations of people and manuscripts, a timeline, and a bibliography.
This is a welcome and accessible introduction to Bradstreet’s remarkable work. Prior to reading this, I knew little about this woman who has the distinction of being, not the first female American poet, but the first American poet. Thanks to Nichols’ contribution, I now agree with her opening assertion:
Why wouldn’t we want to read Anne Bradstreet, or anyone else for that matter, who reminds us that in spite of our twenty-first-century context, we face the same realities of life—of mortality, of redemption, and of the role of grace? Perhaps Bradstreet’s probing and self-reflection in light of these, a characteristically Puritan discipline, will inspire us toward the same, whether through literature or otherwise.