What do Bradstreet's "Contemplations" lead her to conclude"?
Anne Bradstreet often contemplates nature, God, and Man in her work. By observing the majesty of her natural surroundings in "Contemplations," she reflects on the greatness of her glorious Creator. This leads her to think about the Fall of Man, and how human beings are abject creatures. Since Cain split the first blood, human existence has been hard and painful. She understands that men are cursed and that their lives are short and characterized by frailty, despair, weakness, and sin. All of man's accomplishments in his mortal life are subject to the wrack of Time. However, if man focuses on Heaven, which "is found with all security," then he may experience the bounty and grace of the afterlife. Bradstreet starts with a celebration of nature and its divine creator, and ultimately connects this idea to advice for her reader. She encourages people to concentrate on Heaven rather than material accomplishments during mortal life.
Anne Bradstreet often drew inspiration from her own life to inform her work. What is so compelling about the way she uses daily issues in her poetry?
Bradstreet's renown as a poet stems from her erudition, and also from her ability to focus on the concerns of her daily life. She could accurately convey those feelings and experiences in a capable and open way, which still resonates with readers today. Bradstreet writes about motherhood, marriage, sickness, family, and religion. She writes emotionally open lines about her feelings - her fear of dying in childbirth and her sadness when her children move away to start their own lives. She shares her sorrow and anxiety at being alone when her husband goes away on long trips. She worries about her health, but also is concerned about what will happen to her soul when her time does come. All in all, she contemplates her role as a poet and as a woman. Her work is organic and heartfelt, which is what allows her to strike an emotional chord in the hearts of readers - both during her time and today.
Anne Bradstreet often refers to her work in her poems. How does she seem to feel about her own work?
Some critics feel that Bradstreet is slightly dismissive of her own work. In "The Author to Her Book," she seems frustrated by the fruits of her labor and keeps noticing flaws. In "The Prologue," she seems to cast aspersions on her talent. However, even though Bradstreet was truly humble about her work, and although she paid lip service to male poets, she was confident in her abilities. In several of her poems, including "The Prologue," she asks men to acknowledge women's accomplishments. Her ragged verse may be flawed in places, but she is still quite clear about her grudging love for her poems. She writes about her poems like any mother who looks at her child - with exasperation mingled with pride. She never apologizes for writing her poems, nor does she provide an explanation of why she does her work. It is a part of her identity and she considers it to be significant. Although she certainly understands the differences between her poems and those written by the men of her time, she argues that they are equally valid.
In "The Four Elements," how do the four describe their merits and their flaws?
The Four Elements are not as contentious with each other as the Four Humors are, but they are certainly more extreme in their claims to superiority and their acknowledgment of their negative aspects. Fire believes that she gives life, animates cooking and chemistry, and provides vigor and energy. She does know, however, that she can reduce men and their worldly creations to ashes, and consume everything like “that great day of Doom.” Earth says she is the substance of man and beast and represents learning and the arts, but she also concedes that her earthquakes and poison can destroy men and monuments. Water is “thy drink, thy blood, thy sap and best” and is beautiful and pleasing. However, she can also cause floods and storms and swallow up countries and islands. Air is “the breath of every living soul” and can become each of the the other elements, but can also cause excessive wind and storms. All four elements exist together on the planet and bring life and death in equal measure.
What do Bradstreet's poems about her husband say about her views on love?
Bradstreet’s poems about her husband are profoundly romantic. Several of them are about the immense grief she feels when he leaves for business, while another one is simply an expression of her undying love and her belief in their eternal unity. She uses nature as a way to compare their deep connection, suggesting that they are two turtledoves or two mullets. She celebrates her husband as the father of her children, even using sensual language to connote the way in which they conceived said children. Most of these poems are not particularly religious, although Bradstreet's viewpoint on love generally aligns with the Biblical tradition of marriage. However, it was unusual for women of Bradstreet's time to allude to the physical expression of love between a man and a woman.
What is the role of death in Bradstreet's poems?
Death is something that all men and women must confront, but during the colonial era, when Anne Bradstreet wrote her poems, it was much more frequent, abrupt, and common. Diseases, Indian attacks, harsh weather, failed crops, and rough sea voyages made colonial life very difficult, and death stalked life closely. Bradstreet confronts the very real possibility of death in some of her works. Two of her poems feature her ruminations on death while being ill ("For Deliverance from a Fever" and "Upon a Fit of Sickness"), and in "Before the Birth of One of Her Children," she realizes that she could die in childbirth, as many women did. In the Quaternions, she also writes about a variety of things that might afflict the body or cause death (natural disasters, war). Bradstreet acknowledges the reality of death, but not its finality. As a Puritan, death is not entirely frightening or unwelcome because of what comes after it. Bradstreet believes in the eternal life, where she might be reunited with her family and friends, and meet her maker. In this way, having faith in the afterlife softened the looming reality of death that existed in colonial times.
How does Bradstreet feel about life on Earth in comparison to the afterlife?
Bradstreet certainly had a deep and abiding affection for her life. She delighted in her husband and her children and lamented the loss of her material possessions when the family home burned down. She enjoyed her perambulations in nature and wrote movingly about her thoughts on the trees, rivers, and the Sun. She worried about leaving her material life if she were to fall victim to sickness or the struggles of childbirth. However, Bradstreet also wrote about how difficult life is for all humans; time ravages bodies and minds, power and wealth are transient, family members die, inclement weather destroys the land, and it is easy to become distracted by the sinful pleasures of the world. Bradstreet understood that the condition of man is an inheritance from Adam and Eve, and also tried to remain focused on life after death, a great gift for everyone who converted to Puritanism. Bradstreet loved her life, but she also knew that it was difficult and recognized that God promised much more to His faithful in the afterlife.
In Anne Bradstreet's poems, what does she believe a woman's role ought to be?
Bradstreet’s view on a women’s role was absolutely a product of her time; she found a great deal of value and emotional sustenance in her life as a wife and mother. She did not complain about maintaining her household and family. However, Bradstreet also frequently expresses her views on what she believes women deserve from men. Women may not have had the same advantages and opportunities as men do (in Bradstreet's time), but they certainly are capable of great things (like Elizabeth I) and should receive acknowledgement for their accomplishments. Bradstreet never apologized for writing poetry, and felt pride in her published poems (although she did not seek out the publishing deal on her own). She may have been firmly ensconced in her home, but she also believed she was fully deserving of a life beyond her duties - like writing poetry and enjoying the love of her husband and children.
Which of Elizabeth's accomplishments does Anne Bradstreet focus on in "Her High...Queen Elizabeth"?
Anne Bradstreet presents Queen Elizabeth I’s accomplishments in her own unique voice. Although Bradstreet claims that she will never attain the public prominence of a Queen, she uses the Queen as a sterling example of what women are capable of when they put their minds to it. Specifically, Bradstreet lauds the Queen for the happy citizens, political peace, wealth, and splendor that flourished under her rule. Bradstreet writes about Elizabeth's defeat of the Spanish Armada, her intensely loyal nobles, and her many victories at home and abroad, all of which are comparable to the accomplishments of any man. Bradstreet writes that Elizabeth was “so good, so just, so learn’d, so wise.” In her elegy, Bradstreet immortalizes Queen Elizabeth I as an example for women everywhere.
What are the tensions between the sisters in "The Flesh and the Spirit"?
Bradstreet depicts Flesh and Spirit as sisters, and the tone in which they speak to one another is certainly reminiscent of real conversation between siblings. Flesh teases her sister, asking why she insists on living in a state of meditation. Flesh tries to call attention to the glorious gifts on Earth in order to get her sister to focus on something else. Spirit, meanwhile, crafts a touchy and rather cruel response, calling her sister an enemy and claiming that she will not join Spirit in eternal Heaven. Spirit calls her sister’s pleasures sinful and states that she would rather wait to experience riches in Heaven rather than pursue temporary pleasures on Earth. The fact that Bradstreet seems to be more sympathetic towards Flesh is indicative of the poet's tension between Bradstreet's love for her life on Earth and her understanding that it is ephemeral.
Anne Bradstreet (1612?-1672)
Contributing Editor: Pattie Cowell
Classroom Issues and Strategies
There are many ways to approach Bradstreet: as a "first" (given that she is the first North American to publish a book of poems), as a Puritan, as a woman. I've found an interplay of all three approaches useful for piquing student interest. Those who are skeptical of my feminist readings may be caught by historical and cultural perspectives. Those who think they want nothing to do with Puritanism may be intrigued by Bradstreet's more personal writings.
Beginning students are generally unfamiliar with the historical and theological contexts in which she wrote. Many close off their reading of Bradstreet and other Puritan writers because they disapprove of what they think they know about Puritan theology. Brief background materials make that context more accessible and less narrowly theological.
Again for reasons of accessibility, I usually begin with the more personal poems from the second edition. The poignancy of Bradstreet's elegies, the simplicity of her love poems, the stark reality of her poem on childbirth, the wit of "The Author to Her Book"--all travel across the centuries with relative ease, even for less skilled readers. When these immediately readable poems are placed in the context of women's lives in the seventeenth century and in the North American colonies, most students find a point of entry.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Thematically, Bradstreet's body of work is both extensive and varied. Teachers will find much that can be linked with other materials in a given course. Bradstreet wrote on culture and nature, on spirituality and theology, on the tension between faith and doubt, on family, on death, on history. I like to suggest the range of her subject matter for students and then concentrate on a single thematic thread (though the thread I choose varies with my interests of the moment). It is a strategy that helps students follow their own interests of the moment at the same time that it allows us (by close reading) to see the skills Bradstreet had developed. "Contemplations" is a fine poem for tracing both thematic threads and poetic technique, though its length and complexity present problems for beginning students. "The Prologue" is more manageable in a single class session, short enough to allow multiple readings to develop but complex enough to tantalize. Many of the other short personal pieces--well represented in The Heath Anthology selections--work effectively with this approach too.
The remarkable nature of Bradstreet's accomplishment is highlighted when students learn the historical conditions women poets struggled with. Women who wrote stepped outside their appropriate sphere, and those who published their work frequently faced social censure. The Reverend Thomas Parker, a minister in Newbury, Massachusetts, gives a succinct statement of cultural attitudes in an open letter to his sister, Elizabeth Avery, in England: "Your printing of a book, beyond the custom of your sex, doth rankly smell" (1650). Compounding this social pressure, many women faced crushing workloads and struggled with lack of leisure for writing. Others suffered from unequal access to education. Some internalized the sense of intellectual inferiority offered to them from nearly every authoritative voice.
Bradstreet's personal situation gave her the means to cope with some of these obstacles. Before she came to North America, she received an extensive education; she had access as a child to private tutors and the Earl of Lincoln's large library. She was part of an influential, well-to-do family that encouraged her writing and circulated it in manuscript with pride. Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, took the manuscript collection to London for publication. Such private support did much to counteract the possibility of public disapproval.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Bradstreet's attention to form and technique is usefully studied in the context of two quite different aesthetics, both of which influence her: Puritanism's so-called "plain style" (marked by didactic intent, artful simplicity, accessibility, and an absence of rhetorical ornamentation) and seventeenth-century versions of classicism (which stressed poetry as imitation, exalted the genres of tragedy and epic, and worked toward unity of action, place, and time).
Discussions of seventeenth-century English and New English audiences allow room for fruitful digressions on colonial literacy, manuscript culture, print culture, publishing, and book distribution. I frequently challenge beginning students to develop a description of Bradstreet's original readers by exercising their historical imaginations. Those who haven't read much history keep running into the barriers I set for them, but the exercise is useful nonetheless. They begin to "see" the circumstances of literate and literary culture in an environment that is sparsely populated, with only a fledgling publishing and book distribution establishment, without libraries, with books as relatively expensive luxuries.
Having imagined how Bradstreet's poems might have fared with her original audience, I ask students to compare themselves with those readers. How well do her themes and strategies travel across time? What elements seem to connect to contemporary concerns? What fails to relate? Why?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Bradstreet can usefully be read in relation to:
- other Puritan writers, especially the poet Edward Taylor.
- contemporary British women writers, such as Katherine Philips.
- the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Bradstreet's contemporary, also heralded as "the tenth muse").
- Phillis Wheatley. Because Wheatley wrote more than a century later, from a Black perspective and in a neoclassical tradition, she provides points of sharp contrast. But on certain themes (humility, the importance of spirituality), their voices merge.
Caldwell, Patricia. "Why Our First Poet Was a Woman: Bradstreet and the Birth of an American Poetic Voice." Prospects 13 (1988): 1-35.
Cowell, Pattie and Ann Stanford, eds. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. " 'No Ret'ric We Expect': Argumentation in Bradstreet's 'The Prologue.' " In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 218-25. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
Kopacz, Paula. " 'Men can doe best, and women know it well': Anne Bradstreet and Feminist Aesthetics." Kentucky Philological Review 2 (1987): 21-29.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "The Puritan Poetry of Anne Bradstreet." In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 101-15. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
Schweitzer, Ivy. "Anne Bradstreet Wrestles with the Renaissance." Early American Literature 23 (1988): 291-312.
Stanford, Ann. "Anne Bradstreet: Dogmatist and Rebel." In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 76-88. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
White, Elizabeth Wade. "The Tenth Muse--A Tercentenary Appraisal of Anne Bradstreet." In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 55-75. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.