Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

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.


  1. I wonder, would we think this way if divorce were as unacceptable now as it was then? Perhaps we consider our careers more irrevocable, in our culture, than our marriages. Certainly the element of pragmatism has been muted. But also, with the expectation of lifelong commitment comes the opportunity to see our love for our spouse grow and mature, be tempered through seasons of dissatisfaction or difficulty. So much of that is bypassed when people see divorce as simply another option.

  2. I think that's a very interesting subject -- how views of marriage have changed over time, and how the high divorce rate (and other changes) has affected that. It was still possible, sometimes, to get out of a stinker of a marriage back in the day. You could desert your spouse, or your family might intervene in certain situations. But it was still almost impossible to get a divorce, even if your spouse disappeared and no one had seen him for years.

    Marriages were broken by death much more often than they are now. Blended families were at least as common in the seventeenth century as now. I've often wondered if our high divorce rate is influenced by the fact that people are simply living longer, and it's a lot harder to put up with the old goat for fifty years instead of maybe ten or twenty!

  3. How does your old goat feel about that?!

  4. I knew I was going to get into trouble for that! In a discussion on divorce, what's going on in the back of my mind is the image of the woman trapped in an abusive marriage, with the law and society making it impossible for her to protect herself and her kids. So not so much putting up with the "old goat" (I put it that way because I couldn't resist being funny) but something a lot worse.

    On a less apocalyptic note: we admire couples who are married for 50 or 60 years and still have a loving marriage. This generation has the opportunity to create many of those, if we take care to keep our marriages in order and growing. "Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that are ruining the vineyards[.]" (Songs 2:15)

  5. In some ways divorce is a cleaner? more manageable? preferable to the infidelity that pervaded a system where divorce was not acceptable. With divorce people have a chance to say I quit in an up-front kind of way before they move on to another relationship. Without divorce, an affair becomes an acceptable means of managing intractable marital problems, which in my mind merely complicates things more.

  6. I think you have a good point, Maria. In seventeenth-century England, divorce was illegal. You could annul a marriage under certain difficult situations, and (I think) only if it had not been consummated. It's interesting that when the puritans set up a new system of laws in the New World -- and their goal, mind you, was to set up a godly, Bible-based commonwealth -- they instituted legal divorce, in cases such as adultery, desertion, extreme cruelty, and a few other tightly defined applications. Having lived in a world without divorce, and even as a people honoring marriage as they did, they preferred the up-front dissolution of marriage in those cases.

  7. In your "Marrying Dad's Friend" post I wondered aloud if maybe her poem was for someone other than her husband. I should have read this post before commenting at all - it sounds like they were very, very happy and her poem was most certainly for hubby. I was suprised to learn here that many arranged marriages also became happy marriages over time.