Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who is Anne Bradstreet?

Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan woman, an English woman, who emigrated to New England in the 1630s. She was a poet -- the first published poet from the New World, and the first female poet in the English language who took on subjects that were considered at the time to be the purview of men -- subjects like politics and science. She wrote long epics in the grand style of the time -- again, the first woman to do so in the English language. We respect her for her pioneering spirit, even if we don't think much of those epics. Her personal poetry, written in response to events in her life, is easier on the modern ear and closer to the heart.

She was born around 1612 in Lincolnshire, England, to a family that today we could call upper middle class. Her father was the steward for the Earl of Lincoln for many years of her childhood -- which means that he managed the Earl's property, first at Sempringham, later in Boston (the English Boston). Living in the earl's mansion meant that Anne had access to the tutors for his younger siblings and to his extensive library. Anne was very well educated for a woman of her time, and it shows in her poetry.

Anne and all her family were Nonconformists -- or Puritans, as their detractors called them. They believed that the Anglican Church was off track in its form of worship, and that it needed to be purified of all Catholic influences. To escape persecution, 20,000 of them came across the ocean in the 1630s and into the 1640s. Anne was in the first boat of the "Winthrop fleet." Her father and husband were both leaders in the Massachusetts Bay colony, and after a few hard years, she had a relatively comfortable life on the frontier, raising seven of her eight children and living in what was probably one of the finest homes in the colony.

And she wrote poetry. It is an interesting question, one I'd like to kick around on this blog, as to why she chose as she did for her formal topics. And then the menfolk in her life REPRESSED HER! -- ha ha, just kidding, I know you're waiting for that -- actually, the menfolk in her life, her brother-in-law and her husband and probably her father, conspired to send her poetry to England to be published without her knowledge. She was initially chagrined at this, but she also must have been proud, because she reworked some of her stuff for a second edition, and she continued to grow in her craft. But bad health plagued her for her whole life, and she died at the age of 60, in 1672.

If you want to read the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, I would like to make a couple of suggestions. First, avoid the epics on your first time out. Maybe avoid them altogether. Second, take a tour guide. Four-hundred-year-old poetry does not read like the front page. Biographies such as those by White or Stanford are helpful in moving us past our perceptions -- of what we think a poem must be saying -- and help us arrived at a nuanced understanding of what it actually is saying. Annie Ole Girl is full of surprises, for a respectable wife and mother in Puritan America. But more on that later.


  1. ooh, ooh, say more about Annie Ole Girl and her surprises!

    Also, wasn't 60 a ripe old age for colonial life in 1672?

    Also, thanks for the permission to skip the epics. I do, but furtively...

  2. Sixty was pretty old for the time. But people in New England lived longer than they did in Old England. Dying at 60 was on the young side, even then.