Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marrying Dad's Friend

If what I have been saying recently is true – that Anne Dudley and Simon Bradstreet married more for compatibility than love – than on one level, it really stinks. It’s hard for us to bear the idea of a woman – a girl, really – going into marriage with Dad’s Friend, so much her senior, without love.

So in our discomfort we leap at this phrase in Anne’s autobiography and conclude that maybe they really were in love:

But as I grew up to be about 14 or 15, I found my heart more carnal, and sitting loose from God, vanity and the follies of youth take hold of me. About 16, the Lord laid his hand upon me and smote me with the smallpox. . . After a short time I changed my condition and was married, and came into this country . . .

Aha, we say, a carnal heart at 15! And married young (and so soon after a life-threatening disease) at 16 or 17 – that has to mean she had the hots for Simon, and it was mutual, and the family rushed them to the altar to prevent the marriage from being consummated prematurely, if it had not been already.

Sure. Maybe. But, brothers and sisters, we just don’t know. “Carnal” did not necessarily mean sex back in Ye Olde Days. It meant any sin “of the flesh” – greed, living expensively, drunkenness, what have you. Even if the chief of her “follies of youth” was of a romantic nature, Simon may not have been in that picture. Maybe she was flirting with the stable boys, and the family married her off quick before her lustiness got her in trouble.

But that strikes me as such a boring way to tell the story. Another lust story. Does the world really need another lust story? It seems to me that the story can be told in a deeper and more textured way than that, and since the option is open – since we just don’t know the truth of the matter – I propose to tell it in a different way, and as I see fit.

But back to the subject of marrying before falling in love: even though economics and social rank played a large role, everyone knew that the marriage would likely not be successful if the couple was not attracted to each other. As they said back in the 17th century: "Those that marry where they do not affect [have affection], will affect where they do not marry." Given that their marriage became a close and loving one, Anne must have found Simon attractive and likely was quite willing to marry him. I think we can safely dispense with the unpleasant picture of Anne being dragged to the altar, forced to marry her father's friend.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Friends But Not Lovers (At First)

Here’s part of a poem Anne wrote while missing her travelling husband:

. . . I, like the Earth this season, mourn in black,

My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac,

Whom whilst I 'joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,

His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.

My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn,-

Return, return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;

In this dead time, alas, what can I more

Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?

ANNE! I’m blushing! Don’t you know that people who lived A Long Time Ago are supposed to be prudes?

Here’s what’s really interesting: it’s possible that Anne Bradstreet and her husband Simon didn’t love each other at the time they married. I say this not because they were not well matched for each other, but for the opposite reason. Simon may have been too perfect a marriage candidate for Anne to have spontaneously fallen for.

In the seventeenth century, the going wisdom was that you did not marry for love, but rather for compatibility. Love would come later (one hoped).

Simon Bradstreet worked for Anne’s father Thomas Dudley, who was the steward of the Earl of Lincoln. Thomas Dudley trained Simon in the work, and then Simon took over as steward when the Dudleys moved. Like the Dudleys, Simon was a thorough-going puritan. He was also an orphan; likely the Dudleys became a sort of surrogate family. Perhaps he and Thomas Dudley had something of a father-son relationship.

Now I ask you, moms and dads – can you think of any better husband for your darling daughter? The guy has the same life philosophy as you do. He’s a proven bread-winner. You know him very well, since you trained him in his career (a career that he’s doing very well at) and you all lived in the same household for years.

And you’re telling me that Anne conveniently fell in love with Daddy’s perfect candidate? Love is blind. Its true course never has run straight. If she fell in love at seventeen, odds are it would be with the wrong guy – the traditionalist vicar’s son, or a Baptist, maybe – but not Simon. Or so says my gut. You know it happens all the time now, and let me tell you, it happened just as often Way Back When.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Love of Her Life

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved 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,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.
. . .

So says Anne Bradstreet to Simon after many years of marriage, a marriage that involved uprooting and resettlement in the wilderness, troubles and hardship in those first years, and eventually, a snug house sheltering their family of eight children.

What do we know about their relationship? Anne's several love poems to Simon tells us, resoundingly, that theirs was a very happy marriage. We know that Anne married quite young for her time and social status; she was only seventeen, as opposed to the usual marrying age for women of about 24. Simon was a decade older than she. She must have known him first as her father's friend, since he came into their household newly graduated from college (and she a child then) to serve as her father's assistant. After several years, Anne's family moved away, and it appears (from the historical record) that Anne and Simon had little contact with each other until they suddenly got married. In reality, they could have had regular contact with each other. They were both part of a highly interconnected religious subculture that (it appears to me) involved a lot of what we might call "networking" today. Her prominent family likely had regular visits from other puritans, and one can imagine an old family friend like Simon dropping by whenever his business took him through their town.

It is quite possible they were not in love with each other when they married. The going idea of that time was that one sought a spouse to whom one was well suited -- in temperament, in social standing, in economic benefit. You looked for someone whom you could learn to love in time. It rather reminds me of how we go about choosing a career these days. You need a job to pay the bills, yes? And it should be suited to your talents. And you don't want to do something you absolutely hate. So keep that in mind as you choose a career, we counsel our children. If you just have to be an actor -- sigh -- then have a day job that will pay the bills.

Parents of the seventeenth century would be counseling their children in a similar way. Choose someone suited to you whom you think you can learn to love. How did those marriages work out? Maybe about as well as our system. Many declarations of affectionate love between long-married spouses exist from that century. We don't have a wide enough window into that century to determine what percentage were happy, or not. Some were miserable. Some, like Anne and Simon, were happy. I suspect most were in between.

I can feel how unhappy you are about this idea of marrying someone you aren't in love with. Sure, it's possible that Anne and Simon were madly, madly! in love when they married. A popular way to interpret certain parts of Anne's autobiography is that they were so attracted to each other that the marriage was rushed, and that's why Anne married so young. I don't agree, and perhaps I'll talk about why I don't agree in another post later on.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Anne's "Feminism," Part IV

Last time I talked about how Anne expressed some counter-cultural ideas in her poetry, ideas about gender equality that might have been perceived as dangerous, and was not rebuked for them by her authoritarian community. Further, it appears that the men in her life, all prominent community leaders, conspired without her knowledge to get these published. And we have to ask: how did she escape censure?

I haven't really settled on a firm answer for this for myself, but here are some possibilities.

Her high rank and social status protected her. As Thomas Dudley's daughter and Simon Bradstreet's wife, she was the sort that the authorities -- the rest of the authorities, that is -- would think twice about lowering the boom upon.

She wasn't actually doing anything so radical. Maybe she "got away with it" because there was nothing she was really getting away with. Maybe the people of her time did not give a collective, loud gasp when she said hey, folks, women have talent, too. Likely women chiding men was acceptable sport in that day, just as it is in our day; or as those under authority these days chide those who have authority. You've all read "Dilbert" so you know what I'm talking about; we do what the boss-man says, but talk privately about just how pointy-haired s/he can be at times, and that is perfectly acceptable. In the seventeenth century, the lines of authority were much tighter, and something as disrespectful as "Dilbert" would never fly. But whenever we paint an era only in black and white, we get into trouble. English women had an inferior legal and social status at this time, but they were not slaves; they made their will known, and they pushed back.

I think this is the best explanation. It jives nicely with one of my "first principles" of historical interpretation: always assume first that what people in the past are doing is NOT radical or ground-breaking, even if it looks like it at first glance. Often we just don't understand the time or the motivations, and (more important) we have a cultural bias of our own that makes us identify everybody we can as a trailblazer or a radical because we just love superheroes so much. Personally, I don't think Anne had a radical bone in her body. She wasn't made to be a rebel. She may have been spunky or feisty, but rebellious? Not the way I read her.

I think too we need to remember she was not writing to make a public statement. Her poems were for herself and for those in her circle. She didn't plan on The World reading her stuff. And further, let's keep in mind that Englishmen were familiar with the idea that some women were exceptionally talented, the supreme example there being Queen Elizabeth.

The really good question in all of this is, why did her menfolk take such pains to get her work published? This is the part of the story that I will go ahead and say is -- okay -- radical. Sort of. (Thomas Dudley in a Superman suit -- if you knew the man, you'd realize how funny that is.) They would not have done it to bring fame to Anne, never to "get her out there" and "let her talent be seen." Puritans would have regarded such motivations as worldly arrogance and vanity. Instead, they must have seen her poetry as having some role in their life's work, which was to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, and as much as possible, to build a truly godly society in New England.

Hey, I really like that. A woman writing classical-esque poetry based on the science and philosophy of the day, the sort of poetry that usually only men wrote -- and these puritans saw that as, in its own way, having a role in their grand experiment of building a truly godly society. More food for thought in that, eh? But I'm going to leave this particular line of discussion and move on to something else next time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Anne's "Feminism," Part III

Last time, I talked about statements of gender equality that are sprinkled in Anne Bradstreet's poetry and ended with the (I hope) riveting question of: how was she disciplined for her unorthodox comments by the patriarchal community in which she lived?

Answer: She was not disciplined at all. Instead, she was roundly praised for her poetry by puritan ministers and community leaders.

Because it was so unusual for a woman to publish a book of poetry, her work was prefaced by about a dozen recommendations and poems by others, affirming that first of all, she did write them (all by herself), and second, that they're really good. The purpose was the same as today's back-cover praises: to get potential readers to reach into their wallets and buy her book. They were also there to overcome potential buyers' hesitations over buying a woman's work; remember, women were considered to be weaker in the head than men, so one would expect their poetry to be subpar. All of the glittering recommendations that prefaced Anne's work were written by men, and several of them were Massachusetts ministers -- a conservative bunch, one would think, if there ever was one.

And it gets better. Anne never sought publication of her work; the men in her life snuck her manuscripts to London and had them published. Or let me say: she and everyone around her swear she did not seek publication for her work. It is possible that she (and everyone else) was being careful about her reputation, wanting to make it clear that she was first and foremost a diligent wife and mother, and that she would never put herself forward in such a way . . . when in fact (goes the theory) she knew perfectly well that her poems were going to be published. All but one of the historians and literary critics that I've read disagree with that interpretation; they feel that the received story, that Anne's poems were published without her knowledge or consent, is probably the true one. Certainly, her mortified comments in "The Author to Her Book" (included in the second edition) have a ring of truth to them:

"Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Til snatched from thence by friends less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view . . . "

In any case, it appears we have to discard the image of rebel Anne, bravely flaunting the mores of her day in the very teeth of the puritan high guard in order to have her voice heard. Oh, she flaunted -- but it was a group effort; it was she and a surprising supporting cast. That cast included Thomas Dudley, her father, longtime community leader, and by many reports an acerbic and inflexible individual, whose one piece of surviving poetry (he too was a poet) railed against heretics. It included her husband, Simon Bradstreet, governor during the Salem witch trials years after Anne's death. (And I have to add, he strenuously opposed those trials.) But it did not include any of the radicals or rebels that occasionally hung around Massachusetts Bay.

This suggests some interesting points. But I'm trying to keep these posts short, so you can finish them over a cup of coffee, so I'll take up the tale from here next time.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Feminist" Anne, Part II

A couple of weeks ago I started talking about Anne Bradstreet's "feminism" -- the assertions in her poetry of female capability and female equality. I started off with the question, "Was she a feminist?" Let's keep looking at that question.

There is no doubt that Bradstreet disagreed with some popular perceptions of women. In her time, women were seen as spiritually equal to men, but not physically or intellectually equal. So just as most women were not as physically strong as most men, seventeenth-century people argued that most women were not as intellectually strong as most men. Their grey matter just couldn't hack politics, or mathematics, or strenuous study. Women would go mad if they worked their noggins too much. That belief hung on until the nineteenth century. This perception of women's inferiority upstairs was reinforced by cultural norms (what was considered proper women's work, for instance, was invariably light on thinking powers), and lack of education.

Let's hear Anne sing it out one more time: "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 prove do well, it won't advance; /They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance."

Then there was this in her poem to Queen Elizabeth:
Now say, have women worth, or have they none?  
Or had they some, but with our Queen is't gone? 
 Nay Masculines, you have thus tax'd us long,  
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.  
Let such as say our sex is void of reason  
Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason. 
Anne is saying, dissing women is a slander, but remember boys, when that powerful woman was on the throne, dissing her was treason. And indeed, during Elizabeth's reign educated women made some minor steps forward, but under her successors (when Anne was living), they were sliding backwards again.

Then there's this dramatic step: Anne Bradstreet was the first woman poet that we know of (in the English language) who took on the subjects of science, history and religion, and who pursued these themes systematically and wrote long odes about them in the tradition of the time -- and then had her work put in print. No English woman had done this before. Women had written books and published poetry, but Anne's "Tenth Muse" was the first (as far as we can tell) that tackled such traditionally "male" sorts of topics.

So here's Anne, shaking her fist at male superiority. Her book of poems was being circulated and sold. She's living in Puritan Massachusetts, under a government and a people that believed that the men should lead and women should be good wives and mothers. So what happened to Anne? Did she get kicked out? Did they call her a witch? Did they put her in stocks with a sign over her head that said, "carping tongue?"

Next time we will pick up the story there.