Anne Bradstreet: The Heretical Poet
The purpose of this research is to discuss heretical elements in the
poetry of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). This is not to imply that Bradstreet was
a heretic in the sense that American religious reformer Anne Hutchinson was.
Hutchinson (1591-1643) emigrated to Boston in 1634 and preached a doctrine of
salvation through intuitive apprehension of grace rather than by works, and
attacked the rigid moral and legal codes of New England Puritanism. Anne
Bradstreet accepted the tenets of Puritanism and was a very religious person.
Anti-Puritan themes are, however, to be found in her poetry in terms of her
religious doubts, her expression of personal emotions and thoughts, and her
artistry. She did not write to preach or teach,, as Puritan writers were
instructed to, but to express herself. It is this personal expression that
forms the basis of the heretical elements in her poetry.
To understand why personal expression may be considered heretical, the
society in which Bradstreet lived and wrote must be examined in order to
comprehend what kinds of human activities and behaviors were acceptable and how
Bradstreet deviated from these behaviors.
Bradstreet was not truly unorthodox in that she did not dissent from
accepted beliefs and doctrine. She was a woman of the 17th Century and lived in
a male dominated, intensely religious society. She lived within the limitations
not only of the beliefs and standards of her society, but of her sex. A woman's
place was definitely in the home in Colonial America. The experiences of women
were considered narrow and trivial in comparison with men's.
Puritanism was more than a religious belief; it was a way of life. "In
the dozen years before 1640, some 15,000 Englishmen crossed the Atlantic in
order to establish a 'Holy Commonwealth' in which that way of life could
The Puritans were a party in the Church of England that arose in
Elizabeth's reign with the purpose of carrying out the Protestant reformation,
and to base the Church of England on the foundation of the scriptures. Aside
from a literal belief in the Bible, Puritans wholly accepted the doctrines of
John Calvin and his stern legalistic theology. The Puritans held that religion
should permeate every phase of living. The purpose of life was to do God's
will; everything else was subordinate to this basic doctrine.
The Colony set up by the English Puritans was essentially an experiment
in Christian living. Religion and earning a living were the two priorities of
the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In contrast to the Pilgrims, they
were well-off and well-educated men, many of whom were professionals and
university men as was their first governor John Winthrop(Blair 9-10).
The Puritans held that man was wholly vile, corrupt and prone to evil
and could do no good without God's assistance. However, Puritans did not
believe in celibacy but were in favor of wedded love and procreation. Milton's
invocation, "Hail, wedded love!" epitomized this belief. It was also believed
that women had a right to expect something more from their husbands than mere
Puritanism hampered artistic and intellectual activity banning three
forms in which the English excelled: drama, religious music, and erotic
New England was founded at a time when almost everyone who could read at
all, read poetry, and many attempted to write it. Poetry in the Massachusetts
Bay Colony, like other manifestations of intellectual life in the 17th Century,
was dominated by religion. Early New England verse was religious both in motive
and expression, and for the most part was didactic(Morison 216-217).
Anne Bradstreet was one of the two poets of early New England (Michael
Wigglesworth was the other) whose poetry has lasted.
Bradstreet was born in Northamptom, England. Her father Thomas Dudley
was steward of the estate of the Earl of Lincoln and it is presumed that she had
access to the large Library there, and used it. Unlike most young women, Anne
Bradstreet was well educated. At age 16 she married Simon Bradstreet, a
graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and steward of the Countess of Warwick.
Two years later, the Bradstreets and Dudleys came to Massachusetts with John
Winthrop and other prominent settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Anne's
husband became a magistrate, and later a Governor as did her father.
Soon after arriving in Massachusetts, Anne wrote: "I changed my
condition ad 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"(Blair 228).
The Bradstreets had eight children, and Anne was a devoted wife and
mother as well as a busy one. From he start, however, she made the time to
write poetry. Her early work, as is the early work of most poets, was
derivative. Typically, Anne Bradstreet did not seek to have her poetry
published as a male poet would have. Her early poems were published, however,
when her brother-in-law, John Woordbridge, took a manuscript of her poems to
London and had them printed in 1650. The edition contained many errors, and was
the inspiration for a poem on the subject by Bradstreet.
Her first book of poem, The Tenth Muse, was the only book printed during
her lifetime. A second edition of her poetry, "Several Poems compiled with
great variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight" edited by one of her sons
was printed six years after her death in 1678. Many of her best poems, which
her son did not publish as too intimate, remained in manuscript until the 19th
Bradstreet's poems reveal that she valued herself as a woman, as a wife
and mother. She wrote of daily experiences, her love for her children and
husband, the beautiful New England landscape, the small pleasures of life and
domesticity. Religion was a dominant theme in her work , including her
religious doubts. A feminine consciousness can also be found in her work. As
she wrote in "The Prologue" (1650):
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 case 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
The heretical themes in Bradstreet's poetry, however, spring from her
domestic poems which reveal passionate love for her husband, Simon, maternal
devotion and pleasure in worldly goods, and from her religious poems, which
reveal her conflicts and doubts.
Many of Bradstreet's poems reveal that she could not accept in entire
docility the sterner aspects of New England Puritanism. The last stanza of her
poem on the death of a grandchild illustrates this:
By nature Trees do rot when they are grown,
And Plumbs and Apples thoroughly ripe do fall...
And time brings down what is both strong and tall,
But plants new set to be eradicate,
And buds new blown, to have so short a date,
Is by his hand alone that guides nature and fate
Bradstreet's "simplicity of diction and imagery carry a genuine
emotional effect, until, suddenly Anne Bradstreet realizes that she is
perilously close to writing rebelliously against God's decrees. She pulls
herself up in the last line. It falls flat, even metrically, because it is
dictated not by real feeling but by deference to orthodox doctrine"(Spiller 64).
The same process occurs in "Verses upon the burning of our house" one of
her group of poems expressing domestic matters and affections.
For the pioneer Colonists, home was a refuge from the often harsh, new
environment. For Anne Bradstreet, the burning of her home and belongings in
July, 1866 was a great loss fro someone so devoted to her family and domestic
pleasures. The poem, however, contains no self-pitying elements. Instead,
Bradstreet uses the personal loss to reconcile it with her belief in the wisdom
of God's will.
There are two homes referred to in the poem, "my dwelling place," and
the "house on high erect/Fram'd by that mighty Architect." In the poem,
Bradstreet states that both homes are God's.
The first five stanzas of the poem relate the pleasant objects--a trunk,
a chest, a table--that the poet enjoyed in her home. The pleasure is evident.
In the sixth stanza, the tone changes as the poet accepts the fire as the will
of God, acknowledging that earthly objects are vanity, that her wealth on earth
had no real meaning, that real wealth lies with God.
The poem ends:
Farewell my pelf, farewell my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above (Blair 232-233).
The poem can easily be read as a didactic poem, what the poet should
feel, she does feel. Yet, upon re-reading the poem there is a sense of
conflict; the expression of domestic pleasures are rooted in genuine feeling.
It is these private feelings, and enjoyment of domestic details that give the
poem its heretical tone. The dogma is accepted more intellectually than
Anne Bradstreet felt that her love of the pleasant thing of life was
unchristian. She was disturbed by religious doubt. This conflict is clearly
presented in "The Flesh and The Spirit." The Spirit is the victor, but the
Flesh, "even though vanquished, reasserted again and again its claims"(Blair
Flesh is the unsettled, questioning heart, while spirit is the settled
heart. Flesh and Spirit are personified by two sisters:
One flesh was call'd, who had her eye
On worldly wealth and vanity;
The other Spirit, who did rear
Her thoughts unto a higher spere: (Blair 234)
Although Bradstreet presents the correct dogma in her poem, its purpose
is not to instruct but, again, to express her personal feelings. It is the
personal that provides the heretical aspects.
Literary historian Samuel Morison has called "The Flesh and The Spirit"
one of the best expressions in English literature of the conflict described by
St. Paul in the Eighth Chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, "a conflict that
was evidently part of the personal experience of the poetess. The prose
meditation that she left to her children shows that she had often been beset by
doubts 'whether there was a God'"(Morison 220).
"To My Dear and Loving Husband" is a passionate love poem that is
lyrical, lovely, human and simple; it is also free of any religious dogma. For
this reason, it may be considered to have the most heretical elements of any of
her poems. The poem is universal. Except for one obsolete accent (persever
instead of persevere), the poem can be read as a modern one, as well as one from
The poem is openly passionate.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov's 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 (Blair 231-
The only reference to religion is to pray the heavens reward her husband,
hardly a Puritan prayer.
"Anne Bradstreet loved Simon Bradstreet and her children and God with a
troubled realization that she fell short of God's, 'Thou shalt love the Lord
they God with all thy heard'"(Blair 229).
Anne Bradstreet's poetry shows a merging of the private life with the
religious life, but also a rebellious, inquiring spirit. The heretical themes
in her poetry stem from this spirit and her need for self-expression.
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