In which we experience a simply beautiful artistic vision of early American life.
—What are we doing today, Mr. K?
Well, Sadie, I wanted to say a little more about Anne Bradstreet.
Sure. Why not?
—Well, I mean there’s a lot of stuff to cover. Don’t get me wrong: I really like Anne Bradstreet. But aren’t there other people so to talk about?
More than we can ever hope to get to. And it’s a problem: we have so little time together relative to what we’re supposed to cover. Coverage: the bane of a history’s teacher’s job. But every once in a while I think we need to pause and look at someone, at something, closely. Otherwise it will all go by in a blur.
—Plus Mr. K. has a crush on her.
Yeah, Emily, I kinda do. I’m not the only one who has. There was a poet named John Berryman about a half century ago who got a little carried away, in my opinion. There’s a lot to like with Anne Bradstreet. Maybe you’ll fall in love with her, too. Or maybe not. Either way, she’s worth considering.
The Tenth Muse, which we talked about the other day, was the only book that Anne Bradstreet published in her lifetime. In an important sense, though, that was just the beginning. It was only after the publication of that collection that she embarked on the period of greatest creativity in her life.
To at least some extent, that flowering happened because of her book. Its initial publication spurred her to write more poems for a second edition, which would not appear until 1678, six years after her death. One such poem, “The Author to Her Book,” was a direct response to the publication of The Tenth Muse—and an indication of where her work was heading. Read along with me:
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 Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge Where errors were not lessened (all may judge)
You tell me, kids: what’s happening here?
—She’s talking about her baby.
—No she’s not.
—Yes she is. She’s talking about her “offspring.”
—She doesn’t mean that literally, Jonah. It’s the offspring of her brain. In other words, her book.
What’s she saying about the book?
—That it’s not very good.
Right. What do you make of the “friends less wise than true?”
—That her friends are being nice to her, even though the book isn’t very good.
—I don’t get the rags thing.
Paper at the time was made from rags. She’s a little embarrassed by how her ideas—her brainchild, as it were—looks once it gets published. “Yet being my own, at length affection would / Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.” She’s embarrassed, but she can’t help love the offspring of her brain. The artist was at heart a mother.
Which points to an irony that I want to talk about today. Bradstreet’s emergence as a transcontinental artist, at a time when England and the colonies are gradually growing more stitched together, coincide with a turn toward home in her work. Remember: this is a woman who never wanted to come here. But by now she’s made a life and made a home on this side of the ocean. This is a story that would be repeated many times in the next four centuries among men and women of all ages, races, and nations. The locus of Bradstreet’s work became a domestic drama, as the experiences—the mysteries—of everyday life moved to the center of her imagination.
—You’re saying she’s an immigrant.
Exactly. Nice job, Brianna.
Bradstreet was an immigrant, but she was also a Puritan immigrant, and her experience of everyday life was filtered through this lens. The key virtue at the heart of the Puritan imagination was simplicity: in the words of a much-repeated adage, “God’s altar needs not our polishings.” The challenge at hand was achieving artlessness, which she achieved with striking visual images, like these opening lines from “Contemplations,” which affirm the majesty of nature in a way that would become characteristically American for centuries to come:
Some time now past in the autumnal tide, When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride, Where gilded o’er by his rich golden head. Their leaves and fruits seems painted, but was true Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue; Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.
That’s an interesting expression on your face there, Sadie. What are you thinking?
—I like that: “trees richly clad, yet void of pride.”
—Because it’s simple and it’s beautiful.
Right. Simply beautiful. That’s Bradstreet.
The most important dimensions of this domestic turn, however, were cast in terms of the relationships in her life. Her love for her husband could be feverishly frank: “I wish my Sun may never set but burn / within the Cancer of my glowing breast / the welcome house of him my dearest guest,” she wrote in “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Among Public Employment.” (People wrongly believe the Puritans were sexual prudes relative to their peers.)
—I don’t get it. Why is that sexy?
—Because she talks about her breast.
—Actually, I think it’s the thing about the house. She’s letting him in.
Ahem, let’s move on.
As I was saying….
As a young woman, one of the greatest sources of anxiety in Bradstreet’s life is that she would be deprived of the experience of motherhood—“It pleased God to keep me a long time without child,” she wrote after her eight were grown. Her affection for them, and her grandchildren, especially four who died in rapid succession, are the focus of her late work.
Death, especially the prospect of her own, suffused the work of her later life. That many of her poems celebrate the “return” of relatives suggests the degree to which this was something she never took for granted. However badly she wished for children, every pregnancy carried with it the prospect of her own demise. In one of her most famous poems, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” she addressed her fears and hopes to her husband, pre-emptively asking for charity in her memory:
The many faults that well you know I have Let be interred in my oblivious grave; If any worth or virtue were in me, Let that live freshly in thy memory
Part of what made Bradsreet’s poetry so emotionally charged is not simply an awareness of death, but the way that awareness was also accompanied by an acute consciousness of a (Christian) afterlife. This religious consciousness infused even the most ordinary events with psychic intensity. “There is no object that we see, no action that we do, no good that we enjoy, no evil that we feel or fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of all,” she wrote to her son at the end of her life. “He that makes such improvements is wise as well as pious.” This might be boilerplate Puritan rhetoric, but she was capable of expressing collective sentiments in more vivid terms as well: “Iron, till it be thoroughly heat, is uncapable to be wrought; so God sees good to cast some men into the furnace of affliction and then beats them on his anvil into what frame he pleases.”
That’s the idea. The chief furnace of affliction in Bradstreet’s life appeared to be health problems (even if she lived to be sixty). “My race is run, my thread is spun / lo here is fatal death,” she wrote of an illness she experienced in 1632, when she was twenty years old. But such agonies, she reported without fail, were transient given the prospect of salvation: “Yet live I shall, this life’s but small / in place of highest bliss.” She viewed illness in spiritual terms, conveying anguish at her pain but gratitude for the prospect of relief into the afterlife.
In a way, though, she doth protest too much. The Puritans tried hard to live out the biblical injunction to live in the world, but be not of the world. Anne Bradstreet’s later work dramatizes just how hard it was to do this. She loved her life—and her home. Never was this more clear than in what I regard as her greatest poem, when she denied it. That’s where I feel closest to her.
—We going to do that next?
Next: Bradstreet’s burning question