31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Anne Bradstreet, Puritan Poetess

 Anne Bradstreet has been one of my favorite poets since I first “discovered” her in my college sophomore American literature class. She and her husband and her parents emigrated from England to America in 1630 with other Puritans. Her heart and spirit that shines through her poems refute the premise that the Puritans were dour and humorless. She was one of America’s first poets and the first women to have a book published in the United States. She hadn’t sought publication herself, but her brother-in-law collected some of her poems to have them published under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts. Feminists like to claim that she was an early feminist, since poetry writing and publishing was outside the norm in that time, especially for Puritan women, but the content of her poems would contradict feminist leanings.

Probably one of her most well-known and favorite poems is To My Dear and Loving Husband, which begins with the lines, “If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.” Another of my favorites is The Author To Her Book, which begins, “Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain…”  By Night While Others Soundly Slept touched my heart with her seeking communion with her Lord late at night:

By night when others soundly slept
And hath at once both ease and Rest,
My waking eyes were open kept
And so to lie I found it best.

I sought him whom my Soul did Love,
With tears I sought him earnestly.
He bow’d his ear down from Above.
In vain I did not seek or cry.

My hungry Soul he fill’d with Good;
He in his Bottle put my tears,
My smarting wounds washt in his blood,
And banisht thence my Doubts and fears.

What to my Saviour shall I give
Who freely hath done this for me?
I’ll serve him here whilst I shall live
And Loue him to Eternity.

A few years ago my friend Bet pointed me to one of Anne’s poems with which I was not familiar, Verses Upon the Burning of Our House. The title clearly states the subject. The first lines describe the surprise and fear of finding her home in flames with earnest prayer for the Lord’s comfort. Job-like, “I blest his grace that gave and took,” and she acknowledges God’s ownership of all she has and His right to do with it as He will.

Yet she begins to grieve for the special, precious things lost, the particular familiar and treasured bits of a woman’s nesting instinct.

My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.

Then she reminds herself of the impermanence of treasures here on earth and “sets her affection of things above“:

Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy 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 sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Fram’d by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent, though this be fled.
It’s purchased and paid for too
By him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by his gift is made thine own.
There’s wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.

Often as I have read older stories and biographies I’ve been struck by how closely they lived with loss. We have fires, floods, and such now, too, of course, but such catastrophes happen much less often now due to safety factors implemented as a result of previous disasters. Yet even though materials things may last longer now, they still won’t last forever, and our treasures are best laid up in heaven.

A lot of modern online biographical sketches of Anne’s work tend to view her through a modern, biased lens rather than taking her work at face value and in context. Some see her as rebelling against her community and religious restrictions, but she was truly using her artistic gifts to express her faith rather than to rebel against it. One recent article I saw described her as ambivalent about her faith. I had never seen any ambivalence in her poems that I had read. I sent one such link to my friend Ann, who teaches about Anne in her high school English classes and knows much more about her than I do, and asked about the perspective. One of the poems quoted as “proof” in the article in question has this section:

Then higher on the glistering Sun I gaz’d
Whose beams was shaded by the leavie Tree,
The more I look’d, the more I grew amaz’d
And softly said, what glory’s like to thee?
Soul of this world, this Universes Eye,
No wonder, some made thee a Deity:
Had I not better known, (alas) the same had I.

Ann comments, “She’s saying that nature is so beautiful that she could be like others who do worship nature, if she didn’t know better. The fact that Cotton Mather praised her says volumes, as he was a leading Puritan preacher. I think Anne Bradstreet was a strong Christian and the author of this article is trying to weaken that testimony to fit her own purposes.  Yes, that’s from my own biases – but believe the evidence of her life and writings fits that model better.” Ann also recommends Beyond Stateliest Marble: The Passionate Femininity of Anne Bradstreet by Douglas Wilson, which I had not heard of before but have put on my wish list.

I’m thankful and inspired that Anne used her poetry to reflect not only her love of home and family but of her God.

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For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.

9 thoughts on “31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Anne Bradstreet, Puritan Poetess

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Inspirational Biography | Stray Thoughts

  2. I LOVE her poetry and her testimony! I believe she was an unusual lady of her times. She understood how to write very transparently at a time and in a culture that was more impersonal, especially about expressing one’s thoughts about spirituality and love. I think her life story bears out a lovely walk with God, and I’m with you. I think she was a sincere, godly woman.

  3. I’ve never been one much into poetry but I really like these. I am stopping by the library this week to see if I can finds some of her works. I know Grandma would love them.

  4. I had not heard of Anne before! Thankful to find a ‘new’ poet to read! Stopping by from our 31Dayers fb group and I am so glad that I did!

  5. Pingback: Some Bookish Questions | Stray Thoughts

  6. Pingback: Book Review: Beyond Stateliest Marble | Stray Thoughts

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