Anne Bradstreet: a true pioneer

Hello everyone,

We, four female bloggers, have the distinct pleasure of presenting to you this week’s blog post. You might not realize it just yet but the fact that we women are permitted to write this is quite extraordinary. The number of female writers during the eighteenth century was fairly low considering the fact that society was mainly dominated by men. Consequently, men (of the upper classes) were also the ones who had access to education. However, Anne Bradstreet can be considered as one of the few females that transgress our general conception of eighteenth century society. Contrary to popular opinion about women writers of that era, Mrs Bradstreet could count on the support of her father, husband and brother-in-law in her literary career. Firstly, she enjoyed the encouragement of her father. He was the steward of the Earl of Lincoln and therefore both Anne and her father had access to the Earl’s extensive library. Accordingly, Anne had thorough knowledge of both classical and contemporary works. Moreover, given the fact that her father was a poet as well, his oeuvre might have stimulated Bradstreet’s own writing. Secondly, one can argue that her work must have had the support of her husband, since her poems circulated freely among family and friends. Thirdly, her brother-in-law was responsible for the publication of her work in Britain. In brief, Bradstreet was able to aspire a literary career with the approval of her family and friends, contrarily to other eighteenth century women.

Possibly as a result of her free access to the Earl’s library, she developed an admiration for Queen Elizabeth I, which she demonstrates in her poem “Elegy on Queen Elizabeth”. Elizabeth I was known for surrounding herself with wise men and good counsel. Interestingly, Bradstreet herself also had an inner circle of strong men to guide her (see above). Even though Elizabeth I proved herself amongst her contemporaries as a capable female monarch, male opinion in Bradstreet’s era seems to have forgotten that she was a woman, as exemplified in the following excerpt:

Nay Masculines, you have thus tax’d 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.

The “masculines” in the citation are reminded by Bradstreet that it was once treason to consider a woman “void of reason”. She accuses her male contemporaries of treating females as a laughing-stock, while this would have been seen as high treason during Elizabeth’s reign. Consequently, one could argue that Bradstreet did not appreciate this male disdain during her lifetime.

Bradstreet seems determined to prove her worthiness (and the worthiness of all women by extension). On the one hand, as mentioned above, she uses Elizabeth as a role model. On the other hand, seeing that the genre of this poem is the epic, we can reason that Bradstreet inscribes herself in the male tradition of writing epics among great names as Milton and Spenser thus proving that women can also write epic and that they are not inferior to men.

Nevertheless, Bradstreet not only excelled at writing epic but demonstrated her competence in local and personal poetry as well. One of her poems we especially like is “To my Dear and Loving Husband”, which we have included here for your enjoyment.

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 woman, 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 aught 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 perservere
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

In this poem, Bradstreet expresses her personal feelings of love for her husband while including a significant aspect of the Puritan religion as well; the afterlife. In the poem she hopes her husband will be rewarded for his love in heaven. Even though the Puritan religion states that its followers will be rewarded in heaven for the adversities they had to suffer on earth, Bradstreet herself does not experience this life as an adversity. According to Puritan belief our existence is a transitional period until we can join Jesus in heaven. However, Bradstreet struggles with the need to balance these ideas and her own happy domestic life. As we can see in this poem, she is happy in her life and genuinely loves her husband. Therefore she wants to “persevere” in her love, she wants to enjoy the here and the now together. And, when death then finally comes, she wants it to be an extension of her earthly happiness.

This need to balance Puritan beliefs and her own personal life is also present in our next poem, “The Author to Her Book”, where another dimension is added to her inner conflict, namely how to balance her writing with the social expectations of her age.

Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to public view,

Bradstreet became a published author, which went against the ruling conventions of her age. The excerpt above demonstrates that she was writing her poems to be circulated among her circle of friends, and when her brother-in-law “snatcht” her work in order to have it published in Britain, she did not consider it a wise choice initially.

She was suddenly a famous author, but the printed work differed from what she envisioned. She was disappointed with the sloppiness of the printed publication: sometimes the meter was off, which Bradstreet laments in the following excerpt:

I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet .

As a result, Bradstreet did not seem impressed with the printed version, but given the fact that it was already printed, no alteration could be made. Possibly Bradstreet herself was not opposed to publication itself, but she would have preferred her work to be published on her own terms. As you have probably already deduced from this poem, Bradstreet was concerned about being a public author. On the other hand, one can also note a preoccupation with the local and personal in the previous poem (“To my Dear and Loving Husband”). This juxtaposition between her private life and her ‘work’ is one we can also find nowadays. Women of the 21st century consider it ordinary to combine a fulfilling career with a satisfying domestic life. However, it is important to realize that this was not always the case and women like Mrs Bradstreet built the foundations of a healthy combination between managing your household and pursuing a profession. Reading her poems for this course has reminded us of the importance of pioneers like her in history.

(All quotes are derived from: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/bradstreet/bradstreet.html)

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