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Life and Works

 

In 1650, a curious book appeared in London. It was titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts and it marked, in effect, the birth of American poetry. Its author, however, Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), was not even aware of its publication. John Woodbridge, her brother-in-law, had taken a manuscript of her poems with him on a trip to the capital and had arranged its printing, providing both the title and the blurb-like subtitle: "Severall Poems compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning, full of delight".

The volume was widely read. A book of poetry written in the wilderness of America, and by a Puritan woman, was sure to arouse the interest of the English reading public. A second edition of the book was published in 1678, after Bradstreet's death.

It was not a prolific career. In fact, it wasn't a literary career at all (more of her writing, both verse and prose, was published in 1867). Nevertheless, we should always be aware that American poetry, as such, began with a mother (as opposed to a father), even though the midwife in this case was a man. She was born in Northampton, England. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was the manager of the country estate of the Earl of Lincoln. Both men were both devout Puritans. Dudley provided his daughter with private tutors in languages, music and dancing, a level of education that was extremely unusual for girls at that time, and it can be assumed that she had access to the library of the Earl of Lincoln, as well.

At the age of 16, Anne married Simon Bradstreet, nine years older than she and a recent graduate of Cambridge University. Bradstreet, who had taken bachelor's and master's degrees at the strongly non-conformist Emmanuel College, was steward to the Countess of Warwick and a protégé of Thomas Dudley. One year later he was appointed to assist in preparations for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in 1630 both the Bradstreets and the Dudleys set sail with John Winthrop aboard the Arbella for the New World.

The Bradstreets lived for brief periods in Salem, Boston, Cambridge and Ipswich before settling permanently on a farm in North Andover, close to the Merrimac River. Over the course of their lives together, they had eight children (one of which died in infancy) and Simon was constantly active in public affairs, becoming a judge, a royal counsellor involved in the colony's diplomatic missions, and eventually governor of the colony.

Her adaptation to the wilds of America was not, however, an easy one. In a letter written for her children, and intended to be read after her death, she described it thus: "After a short time I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston." Certainly, the transition from being the much-loved daughter of a well-to-do English family to being the mistress of a relatively isolated farm in a struggling American colony cannot have been an easy one. In addition, her health, which had always been weak since childhood, was further debilitated by the rigors of life in the Massachusetts countryside. This was probably the reason for her inability to bear children until around 1633.

Yet she persevered, accepted God's will, prayed and survived. The evidence of her own poems and the tributes to her written by her children indicate that her marriage to Simon was a happy one and that she was a loving, kind-hearted and wise mother and grandmother. The fact that she was able successfully to carry out the duties of the wife of a very public figure, to manage a large household of eight children and to produce, on the earliest American frontier, an exceptional body of poetry -- all within a strict Puritan society that tended to frown on intellectual initiatives taken by women -- bears witness to her talent and to the quality of her character. Who knows what form her work would have assumed had she lived in different circumstances?

Given the circumstances she did live in, the poems that she left us fall into two general categories: those concerned with religious themes, expressing her understanding of her faith and those concerned with her personal emotional life, her love for her husband, her father and family, and her complex reactions to the pain of death. The differences between these categories reflect one of the most interesting qualities of her poetry, which is also one of the central conflicts that energizes American art: the tension between the pressure to conform to the expectations of the collective and the drive toward individuality (or, as we often think of it, the conflict between the mind and the heart).

In her religious poetry she says exactly what her training had taught her to say; she follows the dictates of a conscience that has been formed by Puritan theology. In her personal poems, however, she tries to follow the dictates of her heart. What is striking is that her deepest feelings sometimes lead her to the brink of a confrontation with what she knows she should believe.

It is hard to judge to what degree she was aware of this subtle friction in her personal poetry, which is often expressed through small deviations in form. This unexpected psychological dimension and the uncertainty surrounding it, imbue these poems of her emotional experience with much more interest for readers of today. They offer us a glimmering of that open conflict with the Puritan theocracy that deeply marked the lives of public figures such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams and set the stage for one of the major themes in the literary expression of the United States.

We might also extract from these two categories another kind of poem, mainly represented by "Contemplations", in which she examines and reaffirms her Puritan beliefs through her emotional responses to the beauty of the natural world. She refers to this kind of response to nature in that same letter to her children quoted above: "That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see [...] The consideration of these things would with amazement certainly resolve me that there is an Eternal Being."

This is not an unusual statement for an intelligent Puritan to make. The beauties of a fallen nature should be perceived as a flawed reflection of the infinite glory of the Creator. This sense of amazement -- in all of its complexity -- goes back to William Bradford's report of the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 and looks forward to Jonathan Edwards essentially mystical vision of nature in the following century. But Bradstreet's "Contemplations" provide us with the first poetic description of a rapturous response to the American landscape. And as such, it also looks forward to the great romantic depictions of American nature in the poetry and painting of the 19th century.

Because of the educational advantages her father had given her, Bradstreet was unusually well-read for a woman of her time and place. The influence of Shakespeare and of Guillaume du Bartas can be clearly observed in her early work. Her own influence on later American poetry began quite soon. was the only book of poems contained in Edward Taylor's personal library, and his poem "Upon Wedlock and Death of Children" can be read as a direct response to her poems on the death of her grandchildren. That influence, on both male and female poets, extends well into the 20th century, the most obvious example being John Berryman's Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953). We still read her today, however, not simply because she can be thought of as the mother of American poetry, but because so much that characterizes the development of that poetry can be found, in embryonic form, in the finest fruits of her considerable talent.

 

Autor: Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)