Led by Jeannine Hensley, Foreword by Adrienne Rich
Publisher: John Harvard Library
Review by Kathryn Atwood
Anne Bradstreet is generally considered to be the first serious poet of the American colonies and one of its first female writers. Born in England in 1612, Bradstreet was raised and educated in a comfortable English home before traveling to the New World when she was 16 to seek religious freedom: she and her family were Puritans. Her poems, written in New England and distributed among family members, were taken to England in 1650 for publication without Bradstreet’s knowledge. A second edition, with additional poems (and Bradstreet’s blessing) was published during her lifetime and then a third, with still additional poems, was published posthumously.
Finally, a fourth edition was published in 1867 which included previously unpublished Bradstreet writings known as the Andover Collection. The current John Harvard Library edition, a reprint of its definitive 1967 collection, includes all previously published material as well as an updated bibliography and a Bradstreet chronology.
Understanding the initial poems in this collection is greatly enhanced by the foreword and introduction (by Adrienne Rich and Jeanine Hensley, respectively) which explain that Bradstreet was trying to keep her English education alive in the colonial wilderness by writing extremely long, erudite poems having little to do with her surroundings: “The Four Elements,” “Of the Four Humours,” “Of the Four Ages,” “Of the Four Seasons,” and “The Four Monarchies.”
The first edition also included a fairly lengthy poem praising, in great detail, the reign of Queen Elizabeth while it simultaneously questions the unfairness of gender issues:
. . . Now say, have women worth? Or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is gone?
Nay masculines, you have thus taxed us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex if void of reason,
Know ‘tis a slander now but once was treason.
Apart from several fascinating poems such as this one, many of Bradstreet’s early works, appreciated at the time of their publication, suffer a bit of a disconnect from 21st century readers, especially the lengthy ones previously mentioned. But these writings were apparently essential preparations for the more strikingly personal poems that followed, those that are most often anthologized and known in this century by students of early American literature, such as “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” a poem originally published in the third collection:
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 . . .
Another poem from this collection called “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” reveals Bradstreet’s fear of death only because it means parting from her loved ones:
. . . If any worth of virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in they memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These O protect from step-dame’s injury . . .
“In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet” shows the tension Bradstreet often felt between her love for life and her Christian beliefs:
. . . More fool then I to look on that was lent
As if mine own, when thus impermanent.
Farewell dear child, thou ne’er shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbling heart’s cheered up with this:
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.
Bradstreet’s theological beliefs are further documented in the Andover Collection (the last section of the current edition) and contains various poems and prose, the first of which, “To My Dear Children,” documents Bradstreet’s spiritual odyssey meant to be read after she had died: “The method I will observe shall be this: I will begin with God’s dealing with me from my childhood to this day.”
“The Words of Anne Bradstreet” places all of Bradstreet’s writings clearly within her biographical framework and as such is the definitive tool for understanding this important colonial poet.