“Sweet words are like honey, a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach.”
Thomas Dudley, father of Anne (Dudley) Bradstreet was chief steward to England’s Earl of Lincoln; therefore Anne grew up in cultured circumstances. At age sixteen she suffered from smallpox and, shortly after recovering, married Simon Bradstreet, a protégé of the earl. Two years later, the couple, together with Anne’s parents, sailed with other Puritans to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thomas Dudley was the second governor of the colony, and Anne’s husband, Simon, would become governor seven years after her death.
There is little direct historical record of Anne Bradstreet herself. What is known comes from her own writings. However, information about the Dudley family and Simon Bradstreet is available. The Bradstreets’ first child was born seven years after their marriage. They first lived in Cambridge, then Ipswich, and finally Andover, their permanent home. There, Anne Bradstreet raised eight children, was hostess for her husband, and wrote poetry, becoming the first published poet of the American colonies.
Without her knowledge, Bradstreet’s brother-in-law arranged for the publication of Anne’s poems in England under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650). This collection was revised, expanded, and published in America as Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning (1678). Actually, the full title of this edition is: Several poems compiled with great variety of wit and learning, full of delight; wherein especially is contained a compleat [sic] discourse, and description of the four elements, constitutions, ages of man, seasons of the year. Together with an exact epitome of the first three monarchyes [sic], viz, the Assyrian, Persian, Grecian. And beginning of the Romane Common-wealth [sic] to the end of their last king: with diverse other pleasant & serious poems, by a gentlewoman in New-England. 2d ed. corr. by the author and enl. by an addition of several other poems found amongst her papers after her death.
Cotton Mather (1663–1728), the colony’s leading minister and writer, said that “[Anne’s poems], divers [sic] times printed, have afforded a grateful entertainment unto the ingenious, and a monument for her memory beyond the stateliest marbles.” In her longer poems, Bradstreet uses elaborate, extended metaphors (known in poetry as conceits) and shows the influences of Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, and other English poets. Bradstreet’s poetry was only of historical interest until she found critical acceptance in the twentieth century.
Because of her imitation of the great poets, and because Bradstreet relied on the standard poetic conventions of the time, many of the poems in the first edition tend to be long and rather dull. But there are notable exceptions. For example, “David’s Lamentation for Saul and Jonathan” ends with these lines:
Oh! How in battle did the mighty fall
In midst of strength not succored at all.
O Lovely Jonathan! How wast thou slain?
In places high, full low thou didst remain.
Distressed for thee I am, dear Jonathan,
Thy love was wonderful, surpassing man,
Exceeding all the love that’s feminine,
So pleasant hast thou been, dear brother mine.
How are the might fall’n into decay?
And warlike weapons perished away?
Bradstreet’s prose works include a collection of devotional thoughts titled Meditations.
In her foreword to the Harvard Library edition of The Works of Anne Bradstreet, Adrienne Rich writes, “Anne Bradstreet was the first non-didactic American poet, the first to give an embodiment to American nature, the first in whom personal intention appears to precede Puritan dogma as an impulse to verse.”
A scholarly edition of Anne Bradstreet’s work was edited by John Harvard Ellis in 1867, and Conrad Aiken brought Bradstreet into the twentieth century when he generously filled twelve pages of his American Poetry, 1671–1928: A Comprehensive Anthology (1929) with her poems. American historian Samuel Eliot Morison said that Bradstreet’s poetry “has endured and will endure.” Indeed, Bradstreet and Jeremy Taylor (1645–1729) are considered the only true poets of seventeenth-century New England. Taylor’s manuscript, “Poetical Works,” was found after his death. Like Bradstreet, many of his poems are on religious themes. But his were not published until the late 1930s.
Contemporary readers enjoy Bradstreet’s shorter poems. They are not imitative or preachy and are drawn from Bradstreet’s daily life—touching on such subjects as her thoughts before childbirth and her response to the death of a grandchild. She also wrote poems to her husband and children. “To My Dear and Loving Husband” (1678) uses oriental imagery reminiscent of the biblical book Song of Songs. Bradstreet’s theme of love and her idea of comparison—devices popular in Europe at the time—give these lines a pious meaning at the poem’s conclusion:
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 us so persevere
That when we live no more, we may live ever.