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.
Those lines, written in Massachusetts Bay colony before 1650 and referring to Queen Elizabeth I, are a gentle but firm response to those who believed that women have inferior minds and have no place in the realms of literature. The poet was reminding her readers that within the lifetime of many of those who would eventually read it, they had honored and been ruled by . . . a woman.
The lines were written by the first American to become a published poet, Anne Bradstreet. Her collection of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in London in 1650. Her volume of verse became wildly popular first in England and eventually in America, where, it was said, that every household that had any books at all — and most of them in Puritan America at that time had book — had a copy of Bradstreet’s poems.
Bradstreet was born Anne Dudley in 1612, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, in Northampton, England. Thomas Dudley was a Puritan and a steward for the Earl of Lincoln. She was tutored by her father in history, languages, politics, and a variety of other subjects. Dudley took great pride in his daughter’s education and in her quick and absorbent mind. When she was 16, she married Simon Bradstreet, also a leader in the growing Puritan movement.
The Dudleys and Bradstreets moved from England to Massachusetts in 1630.
The move was a shock and a sacrifice for the families and particularly for Anne. She left a comfortable life in England to deal with the harsh climate and people of the frontier. During the next 15 years, they moved six times, from Salem to Boston to Charlestown (Cambridge) and finally settling in Andover Parish. Anne bore children all during these years, eventually having eight children in her brood. The Dudleys and Bradstreets were among the most prominent and wealthiest families in the colony, but life was not easy.
Encouraged by her father, Anne began to write poetry, and she became uncommonly good at it. She imitated the style of poets she had read, particularly Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, a poet in public favor at the time. Eventually, she developed a style of her own. Her encyclopedic learning gave the confidence to write about a wide range of subjects, from history to domestic life. Her insights were thoughtful and deep, but while questioning the events and circumstances she encountered, she never strayed from her role as a Puritan wife and mother.
Anne was mentored not only by her father but also by Nathaniel Ward, a well-known Puritan minister and elder statesman in the colony.
We don’t know many of the details of Anne’s domestic life or how or when she wrote her poems. The household with so many children must have been a busy one, and Anne probably did her writing early in the morning or late at night when the children were asleep and the house quiet. Her poems exhibit a wide knowledge of history and literature, so she also spent a good deal of time reading and thinking.
In 1647, Anne’s brother-in-law, Rev. John Woodbridge, was sent to England to help negotiate a peace between King Charles I and Parliamentary forces aligned against him during the English Civil War. Woodbridge was another man in Anne’s life who had read her poetry and had encouraged her to continue to write. Woodbridge carried her finished poems with him to London and found a publisher.
Throughout her writing career, Anne had downplayed her talent and humbled herself as merely a women trying her best — feebly, she would claim — to express her thoughts and feelings. She did this, at least in part, to deflect possible criticism, particularly within the Puritan community.
But the public, both Puritan and non-Puritan, responded to her writings, and her poems were well-received. Within a couple of years of the publication of her book, she had achieved the fame and recognition of her work that she had long sought.
Still, despite the book and its acceptance, the decade of the 1650s was not a happy one for her. She lost her beloved father and a grandchild, and she later fell into a long-term illness. The next decade, the 1660s, was a somewhat happier one. She recovered her health to some extent, and she continued to write. More importantly, she revised and corrected much of the work in the Ten Muses. In 1666 the Bradsteet’s house in Andover burned, and some of her original work as lost.
After that, her health declined, and she died in 1672.
Despite her popularity and the longevity of her work, there are few physical places that mark her life. No statues of her are known to exist.
More information about Anne Bradstreet and her poetry can be found at the following locations:
Wendy Martin, Queens College, Anne Bradstreet (The Poetry Foundation)
Charolette Gordon, Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet
Anne Bradstreet’s poetry
To My Dear and Loving Husband
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved 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.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
You can read more of her poetry at this location.
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