Friday, September 16, 2011

A Puritan Goodwife Becomes America’s First Poet

Despite a near glut of over educated clergy and highly literate laymen, the first poetic voice to emerge from the struggling colonies in New England in the 16th Century, the first published poetic voice to rise from the stony soil was a sickly young woman, the mother of 8, who was discouraged in every way from expressing herself.

Anne Dudley was born in Northamptonshire, England some time in1612.  Her father Thomas was a Puritan leader and her mother Dorothy Yorke was the well read daughter of a noble family. Her parents took Simon Bradstreet, the son of a minister, into their household when his father died.  When she was 16 and he was 25 Anne married the man who had been a virtual brother to her.

Young Bradstreet became a junior officer of the Massachusetts Bay Company and her father an investor and supporter.  In 1830 the whole extended family boarded the Arabella, the flagship of the Winthrop Fleet of 11 vessels that brought the first large wave of the great Puritan Migration to re-enforce the tiny, struggling colonies planted two years earlier.

Dudley soon became Governor John Winthrop’s Deputy and Bradstreet took up the third ranking post of administrator.  Frail young Anne had suffered on the arduous sea voyage and found the primitive life of a frontier village hard.  She suffered from a variety of ailments, including small pox which scarred her face, and a joint condition, probably rheumatoid arthritis.  Both her husband and father were frequently traveling to other Puritan villages in their duties.  She passed the times when she was bed ridden by studying her father’s extensive library.  She mastered not only the Bible, as expected, but dense theological texts and works in Latin, French, and German.  She also read and adored poetry and began to compose verse of her own which she shared privately with her family.

Despite her frail health and scholarly bent, Anne was a devoted wife.  She gave birth to eight children, on all of whom she doted.

As the Colony prospered, so did her family’s prospects.  The helped establish the new principle city of Boston and in a few years were established across the Charles River in New Town, soon to be renamed Cambridge.  In 1636 both her husband and father became founders of Harvard University, from which two of her sons would later graduate.

The following year Anne received a strong lesson on the perils of being caught public expressions when her close friend, Anne Hutchinson, with who she shared many opinions, was brought to trial before Governor Winthrop and sentenced to exile from the colony, expected to be a death sentence of starvation among the “savages.”

The family moved twice more, first to Ipswich and finally to North Andover in 1640.

It was with some consternation that Anne learned that her brother-in-law the Rev. John Woodbridge had secretly copied her poems and taken them to London where they were published in 1650 under the title, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, by a Gentlewoman of those Parts.  None the less, she was proud of the accomplishment, and the laudatory interest with which it was received.  Anne continued to write, although not for publication.  Here themes were as wide ranging as her reading—by this time she had amassed a personal library of perhaps 800 books, perhaps the greatest such depository in the colony.  She touched on religious themes, but also closely observed nature, politics, and domestic life.  She wrote both short pieces and long, almost epic verse dense with allusion.  For her family’s private use she composed a series of devotions.

Increasingly crippled and bed ridden more frequently, Anne suffered the loss of a beloved daughter and other relatives and a devastating 1666 house fire that destroyed virtually everything the family owned, including Anne’s precious library.  Despite these reversals she continued to passionately embrace life and thank God.
Due to her family’s prominence, they were able to rebuild a comfortable home.  Anne died there in on September 16, 1672 at the age of 60.  

An expanded American edition of The Tenth Muse including several unpublished poems was published posthumously in 1678 in Boston as Several Poems Compiled with Great Wit and Learning.  Despite the lingering Puritan disdain for expression by women no less an august personage than Cotton Mather himself admired the work.

In the mid-19th Century the religious poems she composed for her family were published as Contemplations and brought about renewed interest in her as a poet.  By the early 1900’s, however, work was dismissed as a historical curiosity rather than as a substantial contribution to literature.

The rise in women’s studies set off a re-assessment of her work, which is now regarded as bother highly original in many respects and well constructed within the poetic disciplines of her time.

Anne Bradstreet made another contribution to American letters through her many descendents who include Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Jr., Richard Henry Dana, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and Sarah Orne Jewett.

Sometime after the London publication of The Tenth Muse Anne wrote her thoughts of mingled shame and pride in a poem, naturally.

The Author to Her Book

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i' th' house I find.
In this array 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

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