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The Earliest American Poetess: Anne Bradstreet
Written by: William Andrews
TO Northamptonshire belongs the honour of giving birth to the first woman poet who produced a volume of poetry in America. Her name was Anne Bradstreet. She was born in the year 1612. The place of her birth is not absolutely certain. “There is little doubt,” says Helen Campbell, the author of “Anne Bradstreet, and Her Time,” “that Northampton, England, was the home of her father’s family.” At an early age she sailed with her father, Thomas Dudley, to Massachusetts Bay, he being one of the earliest settlers in New England. For some years he had been steward to the Earl of Lincoln. He was a man of means, and belonged to a good family, claiming kinship with the Dudleys and Sidneys of Penshurst. Literature had for him many charms; he wrote poetry, and, says his daughter, he was a “magazine of history.” He left his native country and braved the perils of sea and land to settle in a distant clime where he might worship God according to his conscience.[Pg 144] This stern, truth-speaking Puritan soon had his sterling merits recognised, and held the governorship of Massachusetts from 1634 to 1650. He closed at the age of seventy-seven years a well-spent life. After death, in his pocket were found some of his recently written verses. His daughter Anne was a woman of active and refined mind, having acquired considerable culture at a time when educational accomplishments were possessed by few. She suffered much from ill-health; in her girlhood she was stricken with small pox, and was also lame. Her many trials cast a tinge of sadness over her life and writings.
She grew up to be a winsome woman, gaining esteem from the leading people of her adopted country, and her fame as a writer of poetry reached the land of her nativity.
She married, in 1629, Simon Bradstreet, Secretary, and afterwards Governor, of the Colony.
Her first volume, published at Boston in 1640, was dedicated to her father. The title is very long, and is as follows: “Several Poems, compiled with great variety of wit and learning, full of delight, wherein especially is contained a[Pg 145] Complete Discourse and Description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, and Seasons of the Year; together with an exact Epitome of the Three First Monarchies, viz.: the Assyrian, Persian, and Grecian, and the Beginning of the Roman Commonwealth to the end of their last King; with divers other pleasant and serious Poems. By a Gentlewoman of New England.” The book met with much favour, and soon passed into a second edition. In the third edition, issued in 1658, her character is thus sketched: “It is the work of a woman honoured and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanour, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet management of her family occasions; and more so, these poems are the fruits of a few hours curtailed from her sleep, and other refreshments.” The work was reprinted and published in London in 1650, with the high-sounding title of “The Tenth Muse, lately sprung up in America.” Compared with much that was written in the age in which she lived, her poetry is entitled to a foremost rank, but it is not sufficiently good to gain for it a lasting place in literature. It mainly attracts[Pg 146] attention in our time as being the first collection of poetry published in America.
Professor Charles F. Richardson, one of the soundest American critics, speaks of some of the poems as by “no means devoid of merit, though disfigured by a paucity of words and stiffness of style.” The estimable writer of this volume won words of praise from her leading countrymen. President Rogers, of Harvard College, himself a poet, thus addressed her:—
“Madam, twice through the Muses’s grove I walked
Under your blissful bowers—
Twice have I drunk the nectar of your lines.”
All her critics were not so complimentary as President Rogers. Some did not think that a woman had a right to produce poetry and to such she adverts in the following lines:—
“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.”
Here are four lines on “The Vanity of all Worldly Things,” which, give a favourable example of her poetic power:—
[Pg 147]“As he said vanity, so vain say I,
Oh vanity, O vain all under sky;
Where is man can say, lo! I have found
On brittle earth a consolation sound?”
The next specimen of her poetry is an “Elegy on a Grandchild”:—
“Farewell, sweet babe, the pleasure of mine eye;
Farewell, fair flower, that for a space was lent,
Then ta’en away into eternity.
Blest Babe, why should I once bewail thy fate,
Or sigh the days so soon were terminate,
Sith thou art settled in an everlasting state?”
“By nature trees do rot when they are grown,
And plums and apples thoroughly ripe do fall,
And corn and grass are in their season mown,
And time brings down what is both strong and tall;
But plants new set to be eradicate,
And buds new-bloom to have so short a date,
’Tis by His hand alone that nature guides, and fate.”
The lines which follow were written in the prospect of death, and addressed to her husband:—
“How soon, my dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon ’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant. Yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That, when that knot’s untied that made us one
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
“And, if I see not half my days that’s due,
What Nature would God grant to yours and you.
The many faults that well you know I have,
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
[Pg 148]If any virtue is in me,
Let that live freshly in my memory;
And when thou feel’st no griefs, as I no harms,
Yet live 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 lov’st thyself or lovest me,
These, oh protect from step-dame’s injury!
And, if chance to thine eyes doth bring this verse,
With some sighs honour my absent hearse,
And kiss this paper, for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell doth take.”
In the year 1666, her house at Andover was consumed by fire, and her letters and papers destroyed, which put an end to one of her literary projects. Six years later she died, at the age of sixty years. It is said of her by an American author: “Her numbers are seldom correct, and her ear had little of Milton’s tenderness or Shakespeare’s grace; yet she was the contemporary of England’s greatest poets, the offspring of that age of melody which had begun with Spenser and Sidney, an echo, from the distant wilderness of the period of universal song.” Several of her descendants are amongst the most gifted of American poets; they include Channing, Dana, Holmes, and others. Her husband nearly reached the age of a hundred years, and was termed “the Nestor of New England.”