Anne Bradstreet: The First American Poet

THE TENTH MUSE Lately sprung up in AMERICA. OR Severall Poems, compiled with great variety of VVit and Learning, full of delight. Wherein especially is contained a com∣pleat discourse and description ofThe Four Elements,

The Four Constitutions,

The Four Ages of Man,

The Four Seasons of the Year.

Together with an Exact Epitomie of the Four Monarchies, viz.The Assyrian,

The Persian,

The Grecian,

The Roman.

Also a Dialogue between Old England and New, concerning the late troubles. With divers other pleasant and serious Poems.

By a Gentlewoman in those parts.

Printed at London for Stephen Bowtell at the signe of the Bible in Popes Head-Alley. 1650.

The full title of Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung up in America, as it appeared on its title page


In the runup to the Fourth of July, fellow writers from the Historical Writers Forum are posting this week about various events in American history. Thus far we have read on some of the more famous moments or those closely related, such as Dr. Joseph Warren’s 1775 Boston Massacre Oration, as well as lesser-known topics, including taxes and people’s attitudes toward them in 1862 America. These glimpses back on our history run the timeline continuum from America in the making to its status as a fully established nation. Today our Blog Hop looks back a bit further, this time to an America in her embryonic stage, when very little really was secure at all, including whether some even wanted to step upon what author Charlotte Gordon refers to as “this hulking continent” (5).

Nineteenth-century depiction of Anne Bradstreet by Edmund H. Garrett. No portrait made during her lifetime exists. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Such was the perspective of eighteen-year-old Anne Dudley Bradstreet on the morning of June 12, 1630, when the Arbella steered into Salem Harbor after seventy-seven days at sea. Expecting soon to see the lively outpost they were on their way to join, Bradstreet and her fellow colonists’ hopes were dashed when they saw for themselves the results of the advance party’s efforts. Only a small amount of acreage had been cleared, and the settlers who greeted the new arrivals turned out to be survivors of a brutal winter of starvation and related illness. Their skin was paper thin and many were invalids, so disoriented and lethargic that they had taken to leaving their own waste behind their crudely constructed homesteads, covering the filth with dirt that failed to disguise the stench (Gordon, 8-9).

The new arrivals did not stay long in what they deemed to be a wasteland, and Bradstreet and her husband, with an ever-growing family, moved a number of instances in subsequent years. Over time she raised eight children, which in itself entailed enormous responsibility, particularly in an era before our own so-called “timesaving devices,” but also when nearly everything they knew to exist in a modern society had to be constructed from scratch. Deprivation was the rule and before the year was out, over two hundred immigrants died and a further two hundred fled back to England. Gordon reports that one colonist, Edward Johnson, testified that in nearly every family “lamentation, mourning, and woe was heard” (13).

Physical hardships, naturally, were not the only drawbacks, and attitudes toward women at the time offered little to encourage intellectual contribution. Moreover, women were raised to be obedient, and Bradstreet was no exception. She had loathed the idea of leaving England in the first place, but followed along. On her father’s orders, she was part of the exploratory group from Arbella, whose plowing ahead into the small skiff bouncing on the waves perhaps provided some reassurance to those who watched them row away, knowing intuitively that some newcomers surely drowned in that short distance to land. Her fear subdued enough to carry on, though through her life she experienced feelings of loneliness, isolation, uncertainty in her relationship with God, and frustration at the societal wall placed before her, despite having been extremely well educated in England.

So it was that in such circumstances Anne Bradstreet carried on with her duties as she also began to write poetry expressing not only her disillusionment or doubts but also, for example, about her love for her husband or admiration for Queen Elizabeth, whose leadership abilities she references in questioning the common view that women were inferior creatures. She wrote about politics, theology, history and, important to the development of her verse, topics related to what is was like to experience life as an American. She was said to have had a collection of books that numbered over eight hundred, though many of these were lost when her home burned down, an event she memorialized in a poem that also reflects her struggle between love for God and her attempts to overcome the pain she feels at the loss.

I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To strengthen me in my distress,
And not to leave me succorless.
Then coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust;
Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.
It was His own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine.

—from “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10, 1666”

Though Bradstreet’s early education was heavily influenced by male authors and was naturally quite English in outlook, she was also inspired by Du Bartas, a French poet whose great, unfinished poem about Creation was beloved by the Puritans. Her love of poetry and skill in assessing it did not at first seem to convince her that she might one day achieve a similar goal;  writing of any kind, let alone what was seen as the exalted art of poetry, was beyond the ability of women. Perhaps her later successes in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beginning with that first, tenuous step into the skiff, served to re-inform her judgement of herself; paired with her suspicions regarding perceptions of women’s intellect and, not unlike girls in later repressive societies who realize their potential after witnessing the foolishness of brothers who are supposedly superior to them, she may have struck out, if only to show herself her own capabilities.

In 1650, The Tenth Muse Lately Come to America was published, ostensibly without her knowledge, to great fanfare and making Bradstreet the first poet, male or female, to publish from the New World. It was widely read in both England and the colonies, and showed up in a number of distinguished libraries. Though taken aback and perhaps embarrassed by the mistakes across the pages of the volume’s first printing (whether hers or the publisher’s), the publication’s success instilled more confidence in the poet moving forward.

Most of what she chose to write about is very personal and important to the development of later American literature, which sought to distinguish itself from its British and European counterparts. A literature that chose to be more than merely the extension of an existing body, works after the Revolution pursued a distinctly American flavor not derivative of its heritage, rather portraying its own society and landscape, on its own terms, depicting such values and themes as rugged individualism, self-reliance and sense of place, resulting from awareness and knowledge of untouched wilderness—political and spiritual in addition to physical—that Old World works did not.

Second (posthumous) edition title page of Bradstreet’s poems. Note her change in title from Tenth Muse to Several Poems. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Later in life, Bradstreet distanced herself from the idea of being a muse, an identity provided with her first publication, as it was a “safer” identity than one such as Anne Hutchinson bore, and paid the price. Instead, Bradstreet preferred to be a woman who wrote poetry. It had been necessary, at first, for “reassurances” to be provided her readers, that she did not neglect her familial and societal duties in order to write poetry. Now she sheds this cloak and goes forth into the world, rejecting, as does her narrator in “The Prologue,” years earlier ~

    I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

    Who says my hand a needle better fits.

    A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,

    For such despite they cast on female wits.

    If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,

    They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.

With her success, Bradstreet had proven wrong those who believed it was all a fluke, or that she could not advance. As with her poetry, this sentiment is linked to that of America itself, and here too Bradstreet played a significant role in proving not only the American spirit but also speaking and writing about it. This understanding changed the course of American literature, an experiment like the nation, that struck out on its own, matured in its own role and provided a say in the world about its own identity and the unique culture it came to represent.

Source

Gordon, Charlotte. Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet. Little Brown, 2005.


Thank you for joining us in our July 4 entry in the American History Blog Hop by Historical Writers Forum

Please check out our many other great posts!

Here presented an introduction to Anne Bradstreet and what she means to American history.

Please stay tuned for more posts with greater exploration of her poetry itself.

Happy Fourth of July!!

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