Anne Bradstreet Poetry Essay Thesis

New England Puritan Female Experience: Anne Bradstreet

In 1568 there was a number of the Anabaptists congregations in London, known as “Puritans” or “the unspotted lambs of the Lord”. During the Elizabethan era (1558-1603) the Puritans grew significantly emphasising the unique Christian values: commitment to Scripture, explanatory preaching, pastoral care, and godliness in every field of life. The word “Puritan” commenced to be used for the people who were rigid about their way of living. Those who cared about the gospel (gospellers) and whose objective was to disseminate it were Puritans. The Scriptures warn that the godly can expect persecution because of their lifestyles. Puritans were ridiculed as killjoy (Hulse 2000: 12).

A new meaning developed due to Calvinism. The name “Puritan” has been a subject of a mockery. In 1641 Henry Parker wrote: “Papists, bishops, court flatterers, stage-poets, minstrels, jesting buffoons, all the shameless rout of drunkards, lechers, and swearing ruffians, and many others took delight in deriding people as puritans” (Hulse 2000: 13). The Puritan claimed that godly people were sober, hard working, and responsible. According to the Puritans foreign influences corrupted society and caused disorder so it needed to be purified. Catholicism had eroded the foundation of the relationship between God and people (Feldmeth 2004: online).

The Calvinist believed in the “Doctrine of the Elect”. It claims that people are doomed to eternal damnation as they are burdened with original sin. According to Calvin people could not be saved apart from a few whom God decided to spare. This group was known only to God. It was called “The Elect”. A member of The Elect could be “dropped” by God if his/her life was improper and deprived of hard work and expiation. If one were the Elect, he would not lose this position (Pidgeon 2007: 178).

The congregation of saints chose its members, hired and fired its ministers, and recognized no other religious authority. Worship should be plain and focused on God with no decorations, instrumental music, or art, however there were much value of education. Every error should be opposed and removed (Feldmeth 2004: online).

The 17th century settlers expected to have a better life than the one they used to have in Europe. They left their countries due to religious persecution, political oppression and poverty. They desired to achieve the personal freedom, self-fulfilment and happiness (Pidgeon 2007: 178).

When the Puritans came to America they brought with them their religion. They also attempted to learn more who the Elect were. They believed that the possession of material things might be an indication. They thought that one who had such items must have had a special God's blessing due to hard work and praying. Affluence became a sign of goodness and proved membership in the Elect.

Wealth did not serve the desire of comfortable life but to erase original sin and earn eternal salvation (Pidgeon 2007: 179).

The Puritans considered order in their communities as a proper way of withholding evil, safeguarding freedom and preventing crime. They believed that freedom was equal to the liberty of doing the right thing and not whatever one pleased. According to the Puritans, people perceived their liberty as protected by boundaries and influenced by responsibility. Children should be submissive to parents, wives to husbands, husbands to Christ and citizens to governments and it was not considered bondage but rather safety and security (Hall 2011:8).

The Puritans of colonial America are studied in all history. The important reason for this attention is a belief that studying Puritanism allows to uncover the roots of American culture. Puritanism, has always struggled to impose its cultural standards. However, in American history there have been many who have considered themselves non-Puritans or anti- Puritans. American Puritanism has been engaged in dialogue with one or more adversaries, such as Anglicanism, the Enlightenment, or southern slave system. Puritanism was one of the strong cultural impulses from which Amcrica historically derived. The Puritans have been Pilgrim Fathcrs to patriotic teachers, courageous rebcls to radical abolitionists, and prudish villains to H. L. Mencken and Hugh Hefner (Howe 1988: 1057).

Historians have made an attempt to consider the mind of a Puritan woman in the seventeenth and eighteenth century America.There are several answers to these questions. Feminist historiography analyses the Puritan woman within the patriarchal system.

An appropriate understanding of a Puritan woman is basic in history of America. Without this understanding, an awareness of American heritage is lost. A historian stated, “Without some understanding of Puritanism, it may safely be said, there is no understanding of America.” The first European-American women are the carriers of significant messages and legacy for their offspring. Primary sources help to understand the women such as Lady Hoby, Anne Bradstreet, Sarah Goodhue and Margaret Winthrop. These women were represented of the Puritan females experience. The fullest descriptions are written by women who delighted in their families and God (Hall 2011: 2).

The Puritan social gospel imposed severe limits on their lives and activity. They were considered inferior parts of every relationship. Those restrictions resulted from Puritan males' belief that they were not only physically but also mentally stronger than women, and their mental capabilities were more appropriate for managing their families, performing ministerial duties and shaping colonial social and political reality. Due to their assumed inborn mental inferiority, women were recognized to be less capable to achieve higher intellectual and spiritual development than men. They were not able to benefit political rights, to speak in public, or to express themselves in writing in a publishable form. Women did not attend colleges, which prevented them from access to a formal education. Differences in education determined a woman's environment, reducing it to the household and its surrounding. Although her position was defined by her husband's social and economic status, in general terms it was usually similar. Puritan daughters were educated by their mothers in housekeeping as well as reading for religious purposes, mainly for studying the Bible. Young girls were sent as servants to other families in order to learn reading and household skills. A popular assumption that women's involvement in mental activities e.g., reading and writing, could be harmful physically and mentally, was clearly expressed by John Winthrop in his 1645 account (Chylińska 2012: 194 -195).

Modesty, charity, Bible reading, prayer and labour protected women from humiliation and accusations of adultery, heresy or witchcraft. Cotton Mather paid special attention to women, and comprised the female social roles within the popular myth of Bathsheba. Mather emphasised the mental and spiritual potentiality of virtuous women who could not not speak in the church and their intellectual activities were limited but due to their piety and industrious labour they responded to the Scriptures and praised Proverb 31. The Puritan preacher recommends women to express their fear of God in all spheres of their lives in order to achieve happiness in this world and ineternal life.

The female emotions were strictly controlled but also their attires which were long, dark and unpretentious. They should cover women's hair and arms. Bright colours and decorative elements were not allowed as well as any jewellery, including a wedding ring (Chylińska 2012: 196).

Gender, apart from race, economic status, age, and religion were the most important categories that determined the New England colonial past; it identified and assessed the role and position of women in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Puritan America, and it significantly defined their place in a history of American women, and in broader terms, in the history of western civilization. Female in early Puritan New England had to follow strictly the godly pattern, established by a Biblical proverb of "a capable wife," which defined the virtues and nature of the ideal housewife (Chylińska 2012: 158).

However, Puritan women did not perceive their roles as bondage. Contrary to many scholars' arguments, most Puritan women were happy, fulfilled and perceived a significant objective in “traditional women’s roles”. After serving Christ, a woman recognized a husband and approved a man’s role as leader, protector and provider. Raising children was joyous privilege. The Puritan woman involved her skills in the home, however, sometimes in education and writing poetry (Hall 2011: 10).

Anne Bradstreet's (1612-1672) was born in England. Her father, Thomas Dudley, was the manager of the estate of the Puritan earl of Lincoln, She received an education which was not available to most of young women of the time. When she was sixteen she married Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Cambridge University, who was also a Puritan involved in management of the earl of Lincoln's estate. A year after the marriage her husband was appointed to assist in the preparations of the Massachusetts Bay Company so that the Bradstreets and the Dudleys sailed to America. When Bradstreet "came into this country" she "found a new world and new manners," at which her "heart rose" in resistance. "But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined the church at Boston"(Baym 2003: 115).

We know very little of Bradstreet's daily life, except that it was a hard existence. The wilderness, Samuel Eliot Morison once observed, "made men stern and silent, children unruly, servants insolent" (Baym 2003: 115).

Anne Bradstreet created many poems regarding hardship or tragedy. Her poetry served her to focus on God and his love for her. Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan woman and she understood fire of her house as a lesson from God. who took all of her material items away. God punished her because she must have been materialistic and did not rely on God as much as she should. God showed her that she needed to focus on Him and her faith by removing all of her distractions with the house fire (Anne Bradstreet; Puritan Wife & Mother: online)

Thou hast an house on high erect

Fram'd by the mighty Architect

With glory richly furnished

Stands permanent though this be fled

It's purchased and paid for too

By him who has 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 Self, farewell my Store

The world no longer let me love

My hope and Treasure lies Above

Anne's father and her husband Simon Bradstreet were very much engaged in the public affairs of Massachusetts Bay Colony and also served as governors so that Anne's household was an influential one. In spite of her daily duties, Anne found time to write poetry. She began to write poems as a young girl to please her father. After she had been married she continued her poetic works. A few of her poems were devoted to her husband and expressed her love and longing for him while he was abroad. He left for England for several months as Massachusetts' representative to the king, Charles II (Baym 2003: 115):

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 ye can.

I prize thy love more than whole

Mines of gold, or all the riches that the East doth hold.

Anne and Simon had eight children. Many of her poems have a character of the prayers in the daily routine of her active family's life. e. g.,:

"Upon my Daughter Hannah Her Recovery from a Dangerous Fever":

Bles't be thy Name who did'st restore To health my Daughter

dear death did seem ev'n to approach And life was ended near.

Grant she remember what thou'st done And celebrate thy praise And let her Conversation say She loves thee all her Days.

Bradstreet's statements in her poems address her husband and are connected with her children. He might remarry after her death so she considers them with love:

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 protect from step-dame's injury.

She refers to her "little babes", describing them as her "dear remains". Bradstreet emphasizes that her children are apart of her in the physical sense. She asks her husband to protect them "from step-dame's injury" (Major 2005:116).

Anne Bradstreet like any good Puritan added the examination of her conscience to the daily routine. She tells us in one of the "Meditations" written for her children e.g.,:

A ship that bears much sail, and little ballast, is easily overset; and that man, whose head hath great abilities, and his heart little or no grace, is in danger of foundering. The finest bread has the least bran; the purest honey, the least wax; and the sincerest Christian, the least self-love.

Sweet words are like honey; a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach. Divers children have their different natures: some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar. Those parents are wise that can fit their nurture according to their nature.

She was distracted many times about the truth of the Scriptures because she never saw any convincing miracles, and was troubled if those of which she read "were feigned." But the evidence of her own eyes prove that God exists e.g.,:

Some time now past in the Autumnal Tide,

When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed,

The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,

Were gilded o'er by his rich golden head.

Their leaves and fruits seem'd painted, but was true

Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue,

Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

I wist not what to wish, yet sure, thought I,

If so much excellence abide below,

How excellent is He that dwells on high!

Whose power and beauty by his works we know;

he is goodness, wisdom, glory, light,

That hath this underworld so richly dight:

More Heaven than Earth was here, no winter and no night.

She is the first among American poets who found their consolation not from theology but from the "wondrous works," as she wrote, "that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the daily providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end"(Bradstreet in Baym 2003: 115).

Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, pastor of the Andover church, brought to London a manuscript of her poetry which was printed there in 1650. The Tenth Muse was the first published poems written by a resident in the New World and soon became very popular. Anne Bradstreet probably took greatest pride in her meditative poems on humankind and on the seasons. However, the more intimate ones which reflect her concern for her family, home and the pleasures of everyday life are the most attractive for contemporary readership. Bradstreet, a firm believer in the Puritan experiment in America, was a poet whose works were based on English religious, political, and cultural history (Baym 2003: 115).


SOURCE: "Anne Bradstreet's 'Contemplations': Patterns of Form and Meaning," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, March 1970, pp. 79–96.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenfeld discusses Bradsteet's "Contemplations" in terms of its similarities with the works of later Romantic poets.]

On first reading, the thirty-three stanzas of "Contemplations" seem to be held together very loosely, if at all, but a closer reading begins to reveal certain patterns of imagery and ideas within the poem. The seasonal metaphor is one of these and contributes significantly to both form and meaning. A second pattern, the daily cycle of morning and night, with its attendant periods of light and dark, obviously ties in closely with the yearly cycle of the seasons. The progression of natural images—directing the poet's vision from tree to sun to river to bird to stone—is a third and needs to be examined carefully. A fourth element of structural and thematic importance involves the elaborate switches in narrative and dramatic time. A fifth concerns the noticeable contrasts between Classical and Biblical allusions. A sixth has to do with tone and mood and the varied uses of the lyrical and elegiac modes together with the larger form of the narrative. All of these factors help to make the poem the rich and complex work that it is. They also lend the poem unity, although it is a unity that is not easily apparent and only becomes so when one isolates some of the patterns of form and meaning and examines them, at first, somewhat apart.

Anne Bradstreet's use of the seasonal metaphor—which moves the poem from autumn through winter to a temporarily realized season of eternal spring and summer—is an anticipation of the English Romantic poets and inevitably provokes parallels with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. As with those poets, her seasons are both physical and spiritual and participate in the same cycle of the waning and revival of life. As more than one critic has already pointed out, several of her lines on the seasons resemble some of the most memorable lines in the poems of Shelley and Keats, a factor that may permit us to read her poetry in the light of what we have learned from theirs.

Particularly appropriate—and helpful—in this connection is the place of the poet as the central figure in the drama of seasonal change. For it is the threat to the poet in his vocation as poet and not just as mortal man that is always crucial in the Romantic's evocation of the seasons. That is true for the Wordsworth of the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," for the Coleridge of "Dejection: An Ode," for the Shelley of "Ode to the West Wind," for the Keats of the great odes—and for the Anne Bradstreet of "Contemplations." A significant part of her poem's theme (and one finds it also in the poems just cited) has to do with the challenge to the imagination of the poet's heavy and constant sense of time, flux, and a final oblivion. A major portion of this theme in "Contemplations" is carried by the seasonal metaphor.

The poem actually begins with it—"Some time now past in the autumnal tide" (1)—and from this point on it is pervasive, appearing explicitly in at least a third of the stanzas and implicitly in many of the others. The poet invokes it immediately when, walking alone in the woods of an autumn day, she quietly gives herself up to the splendid scene and is moved to remark: "More heaven than earth was here, no winter and no night" (2). She is moved by the majesty of the trees and particularly by one "stately oak" which, with its height and strength, seems to defy and transcend a "hundred winters … or [a] thousand." But the lines that most fully express the poet's attachment to the metaphor of the seasons appear later, in stanzas 18 and 28:

When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come and greenness then do fade,
A spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he's laid. (18)

The dawning morn with songs thou dost prevent,
Sets hundred notes unto thy feathered crew,
So each one tunes his pretty instrument,
And warbling out the old, begin anew,
And thus they pass their youth in summer season,
Then follow thee into a better region,
Where winter's never felt by that sweet airy legion. (28)

The Shelleyan note is inescapable in the first of these stanzas, the Keatsian in the second. Anne Bradstreet seems to share with these poets a consciousness of the rejuvenescence of life, of the chance to recover from the old to make always new beginnings, which comes with the cycle of the "Quaternal seasons," as she refers to them in an earlier stanza (6). Stanza 18 ends, however, on a pessimistic note about man's ability to participate in the seasonal cycle, and at this point we have a departure from the later Romantic poet's affirmation of seasonal death and rebirth. Anne Bradstreet was of another age, after all, and she is nowhere closer to that age than here, where she qualifies a strong personal impulse towards Romantic beliefs with the traditional Christian assertion of man's mortality:

By birth more noble than those creatures all,
Yet seems by nature and by custom cursed,
No sooner born, but grief and care makes fall
That state obliterate he had at first;
Nor youth, nor strength, nor wisdom spring again,
Nor habitations long their names retain,
But in oblivion to the final day remain. (19)

Theseus' famous speech in A Midsummer-Night's Dream about the imagination giving to airy nothing "a local habitation and a name" is echoed here, and its implications are that the poet has suffered not only a reversal of her commitment to the seasonal metaphor but of the very quality of her imagination. For although the poem goes on to affirm that "man was made for endless immortality" (20), the kind of immortality referred to and pursued is that of orthodox Christianity and not Romantic renewal on earth. Christianity's idea of resurrection after death is based, in part, upon the symbolism of the seasonal cycle, but its final goal is transcendence of all natural forms to eternal life beyond. A prose passage in Anne Bradstreet's "Meditations Divine and Moral" helps to make this point emphatic:

The spring is a lively emblem of the resurrection: after a long winter we see the leafless trees and dry stocks (at the approach of the sun) to resume their former vigor and beauty in a more ample manner than what they lost in the autumn; so shall it be at that great day after a long vacation, when the Sun of righteousness shall appear; those dry bones shall arise in far more glory than that which they lost at their creation, and in this transcends the spring that their leaf shall never fail nor their sap decline.

This is a graceful description of familiar Christian doctrine and represents, one imagines, what Anne Bradstreet would have claimed to be her final religious position on the questions of life, death, and immortality.

Does it also represent her deepest responses as a poet, one wonders? The question must be asked, and not just for "Contemplations" but for other of her poems as well. For if one closely reads "The Flesh and the Spirit," "Verses upon the Burning of Our House," the elegies on Sidney, Du Bartas, and Elizabeth, the poems to her husband, and "Contemplations," it soon becomes clear that the currents within the poetry itself seem too often to run counter to a position of religious orthodoxy. And if it is finally unfair to throw Anne Bradstreet fully into the camp of the Romantics, so too is it unfair to cast her completely as a traditionally believing "Puritan" poet.

Several critics have called attention to "the clash of feeling and dogma" in her poetry, to the struggle between "how she really feels instead of how she should feel," and that is precisely what we are faced with here. This struggle adds character and strength to her poetry, and one should not attempt to dismiss it, as is sometimes done, by seeing it as merely an incidental flaw in an otherwise clearly defined position of either staunch Puritanism or...


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