Monday, February 18, 2013

Selected Poems by Anne Bradstreet

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

At the outset, I should disclose that “Selected Poems” means that I picked which poems to read. I borrowed the complete poems and prose of Bradstreet, and read all of the shorter poems. I skipped the rather epic “The Four Monarchies,” which clocks in at over 3500 lines. I figure I may read that one later. I also intend to go back at some point and read her prose, which looked interesting as well.

Anne Bradstreet was a fascinating character during an equally fascinating period of history, the Puritan Era in Colonial America. She was born in England in 1612, in a cultured and well-to-do family. She was thoroughly educated - not always common in that era - learning several languages, history, and literature. She caught smallpox as a child, and that event probably weakened her health, which was never good. At age 16, she married Simon Bradstreet; two years later she and her husband moved to the new world along with her father, who would become governor of Massachusetts. (Her husband also assumed that post after Anne’s death.)

It is clear from Bradstreet’s diary that she wasn’t thrilled at going from the intellectual environment of England to Puritan New England, but she adapted. She and her husband had eight children, and she did her best to fit in. She also turned to writing poetry, which she shared with her close friends and relatives.

Later, her brother-in-law took her poems back to England, and had them published there. It is likely that she was aware of this and approved, but she had to make an outward show of shock and dismay that her private creation had been made public. After all, it was not exactly proper for a woman living in Puritan society to seek publicity or show an ambition to intrude on male domains. As a great example of the risk is the incident of Anne Hutchinson, on whose trial Bradstreet’s father sat as one of the magistrates, and her husband Simon took down Hutchinson’s testimony - leaving us with our primary record of the controversy. (I intend to write more about Hutchinson when I discuss The Scarlet Letter later this month for my online book club.) Hutchinson was more of a doctrinal radical than Bradstreet, but it was her outspoken belief in the equality of men and women - and her chutzpah in debating theology with men - that would inspire deep hatred in Governor John Winthrop, who directed some of the most uncharitable possible bile against her in his writings. Bradstreet was undoubtedly aware of this, and would have been legitimately worried about the reception of her poems, despite her political connections.

The Author to her Book

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array, 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

Thus, Bradstreet became the first true American poet and the first female to be published in both England and the New World.

She suffered from ill health and paralysis in her latter days, and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at age 60. However, she left a legacy. Not only would her poems survive as an excellent example of Puritan poetry and a key insight into life in those times, but several of her descendants would gain renown for their literary accomplishments. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., known best for “Old Ironsides,” was one of the “Fireside Poets.” Sarah Orne Jewett would likewise step outside the traditional female role, and write novels and short stories about New England. Richard Henry Dana Jr., would take a break from his law studies to spend time at sea. He would later write about his adventure in Two Years Before the Mast, one of my favorite books - and one that would forever change the culture of seafaring by its unsparing depiction of abusive punishment aboard ship. (He would also fight for the abolition of slavery.) Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and David Souter were also descended from her, as were President Herbert Hoover and senator John Kerry. (As I will note in a later post, Anne Hutchinson also had a long list of notable descendants.)

Bradstreet’s works can be divided into the formal and the personal. The poems initially published were primarily of the first type, while many of the second were written later in her life and only discovered after her passing.

The first type consist of a cycle of four part poems, stemming from, and building out of, the idea of the four elements. Fire, Air, Earth, and Water are the subject of the first poem, “The Four Elements.” In the next, “The Four Humors in Man’s Constitution,” each element is linked to its biological counterpart. Thus, Fire corresponds to Choler (hot and dry), Blood to Air (hot and wet), Melancholy to Earth (cold and dry), and Phlegm to Water (cold and wet). These in turn lead to “Of the Four Ages of Man,” wherein each humor is said to dominate each age from childhood to old age. Likewise, the four humors are linked to the seasons in “The Four Seasons of the Year.” I did not read “The Four Monarchies,” as I noted above, but I suspect that Bradstreet ties the great empires in with the elements as well in some way.

This is all charming in its way, if not exactly transcendent. I had to refresh my memory about all of this ancient theory, and I admit that she does a good job with the material. The poems are formatted as an argument between the things described. Thus, the four elements each have a chance to state why they think they are the best, and the others inferior.

There are some good lines within these poems. Melancholy, for example, answers Choler’s boast of true manliness:

When in Batalia my foes I face
I then command proud Choler stand thy place,
To use thy sword, thy courage and thy art
There to defend my self, thy better part.
This wariness count not for cowardize,
He is not truly valiant that's not wise.

In “Of the Four Ages of Man,” there are some great lines about the afflictions of childhood.

And though I miss the tossings of the mind,
Yet griefs in my frail flesh I still do find.
What gripes of wind, mine infancy did pain?
What tortures I, in breeding teeth sustain?
What crudities my cold stomach hath bred?
Whence vomits, worms, and flux have issued?
What breaches, knocks, and falls I daily have?
And some perhaps, I carry to my grave.
Sometimes in fire, sometimes in water fall:
Strangely preserv’d, yet mind it not at all.
At home, abroad, my danger’s manifold
That wonder ‘tis, my glass till now doth hold.

The author shows her familiarity with the younger set with these words. While I do have two cautious children, the others seem determined to daily attempt to destroy their bodies through accidental trauma. In particular, my second daughter and older son show up regularly with scrapes and dings, blood and bruises. My youngest daughter seems equally impervious to pain, so I suspect that she will be joining the others at the urgent care someday.

In all of this, Bradstreet shows herself to be well versed in classical mythology - and indeed with all of Western thought up to that time. As it is even in our modern times, an intellectual woman will often feel out of place, as Bradstreet admitted she did. It seems to have particularly galled her that men casually dismissed women as intellectual lightweights. In her poetic tribute to Queen Elizabeth (who died less than a decade before Bradstreet’s birth), she compares the late Queen to notable wise and powerful females of mythology: Minerva, Semiramis, Cleopatra, Dido, and Zenobia. She also lets her sharp tongue show in her rebuke to chauvinistic men.

Her personal perfections, who would tell,
Must dip his Pen i' th' Heliconian Well,
Which I may not, my pride doth but aspire
To read what others write and then admire.
Now say, have women worth, or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is't gone?
Nay Masculines, you have thus tax'd us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason.

Her ire is also evident in the “Prologue,” which is worth quoting in full.

To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings,
Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun,
For my mean Pen are too superior things;
Or how they all, or each their dates have run,
Let Poets and Historians set these forth.
My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth.

But when my wond'ring eyes and envious heart
Great Bartas' sugar'd lines do but read o'er,
Fool, I do grudge the Muses did not part
'Twixt him and me that over-fluent store.
A Bartas can do what a Bartas will
But simple I according to my skill.

From School-boy's tongue no Rhet'ric we expect,
Nor yet a sweet Consort from broken strings,
Nor perfect beauty where's a main defect.
My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings,
And this to mend, alas, no Art is able,
'Cause Nature made it so irreparable.

Nor can I, like that fluent sweet-tongued Greek
Who lisp'd at first, in future times speak plain.
By Art he gladly found what he did seek,
A full requital of his striving pain.
Art can do much, but this maxim's most sure:
A weak or wounded brain admits no cure.

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.

But sure the antique Greeks were far more mild,
Else of our Sex, why feigned they those nine
And poesy made Calliope's own child?
So 'mongst the rest they placed the Arts divine,
But this weak knot they will full soon untie.
The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie.

Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are.
Men have precedency and still excel;
It is but vain unjustly to wage war.
Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.

And oh ye high flown quills that soar the skies,
And ever with your prey still catch your praise,
If e'er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,
Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bays.
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glist'ring gold but more to shine.

So many good lines, from the mention that “carping tongues” say that she should stick to her needlework, to the lament that even if she does a good job, they will say she stole it or lucked out. This attitude still today pervades our culture. Successful women either sleep their way to the top, or get there by threatening to sue, right? They couldn’t possibly be truly qualified.

I also should note the reference to Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, a French epic poet of the previous century, whose influence at the time was strong. His masterpiece, La Sepmaine; ou, Creation du monde, related the creation of the world and all the history of man to that point. John Milton would later borrow the concept and many ideas for use in Paradise Lost.

Finally, I love the use of symbolism in the last stanza. She scorns Bay (Laurel), the symbol of glory, honor, and reward - which she knows she will never receive anyway. She chooses instead to embrace a wreath of thyme, which symbolizes courage, activity, and strength; and of parsley, for joy and celebration. And certainly, she shows both courage and joy throughout her poems, particularly in those trying moments of which her life was filled.

There are no actual pictures of Anne Bradstreet, although there are several artists representations. 
Her memorial encapsulates her life and legacy.

It is in the personal poems that we have a glimpse of her personal pain, joys, and fears. As I noted, she was in ill health for much of her life. While her children made it past childhood, several of her grandchildren did not. There are several laments on the deaths of her relatives, with her sorrow mixed with her hope of heaven. There is a certain raw quality about these works, as if they were diary entries rather than poems. The best of the devotional type poems, in my opinion, is her lament on the burning of her house. Bradstreet had a magnificent collection of at least 800 books. Rare enough in Puritan New England, it was her refuge from a hostile culture. She clearly treasured her books in a way that only those of us who ourselves find a calm sanctuary among our books can truly understand. (My wife and I both envisioned a library in our current home when we first toured it. We probably own more than 2500 books between the two of us.) The pain at its loss was almost as sharp as at the loss of her loved ones.

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I waken'd was with thund'ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of "fire" and "fire,"
Let no man know is my Desire.
I starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace 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,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the Ruins oft I past
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.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.
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.

Just a portion of our library. I made these shelves myself, the one on the left during my teen years.

She loved her God, her books, and her children, but it is her love for her husband that I find most touching. Bradstreet was considered mildly scandalous in her time for her rather egalitarian marriage. Her husband loved and respected her as an equal in intellect and capability. By all accounts, they had a happy marriage until her death. His work often took him abroad, and she wrote several poems to him during his absence. In them, she expresses how much she misses him, and how well mated they truly are. “Return my dear, my joy, my only love, / Unto thy hind, thy mullet, and thy dove.”

My favorite of these is “To My Dear and Loving Husband.”

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd 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 recompence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

I love that what they owe each other is love. Not obedience, but love. And this love they both treasure above all on earth.

Both Anne Bradstreet’s poems and her life are worth an examination. She was devout, yet real, and followed God in a way true to her own calling. She reminds us that a woman’s mind and talents have often been wrongly dismissed. However, her courage and joy in the face of a hostile culture, sickness, and tragedy are inspiring. 

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