Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672)
Anne Bradstreet was the first person in America to publish a book of poetry. After making the treacherous journey from England to America with her husband and parents, Bradstreet faced many challenges involved in setting up a new life in a new world. She missed her husband while he was travelling, endured serious illness, lost her daughter-in-law and several grandchildren at an early age, and watched her house burn down. Yet, her poetry shows that she repeatedly recognized God’s providence in these situations; she did not let these trials uproot her faith, but wrangled them to the ground and submitted them to her theology. Hers was not a blind faith, but a cognitively and experientially rigorous one; she admitted to struggling about doubting God’s existence and the legitimacy of Protestantism over Catholicism, but worked through these doubts by writing and praying.
Her poem “Upon the Burning of Our House” shows the instinctive reaction she had to view all life experiences in light of who God is and what he has done. Though the destruction of one’s home would be a difficult trial for anyone, it was especially terrible for Bradstreet. She not only lost the home that she put so much effort into, making it a comfortable refuge for her family in a new place that she didn’t like at first, but she also lost a large library and all of her personal papers, including revisions to her poems. In this poem, Bradstreet records her immediate response to the disaster—she walks through the rubble looking at all of her dearest possessions that had practical and sentimental value and concludes that:
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mould’ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly
Thou hast a house on high erect
Framed by that might Architect
It’s purchased and paid for too
By Him who hath enough to do
A price so vast as is unknown
Yet by His gift it made thine own
The world no longer let me love
My hope and treasure lies above.
Bradstreet’s poetry raises many questions about the Puritan view of women and a woman’s experience in this context. Though these are complex questions, Bradstreet makes it clear that she had no problem addressing the controversies that arose with the publishing of her poetry; in fact, she addressed them head-on, with sophistication and confidence, as well as the support of her husband, father, and pastor. For example, she rejected the idea that women were less intelligent or less capable of writing poetry than men, writing:
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 do prove well, it won’t advance
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.
She also applauded Queen Elizabeth for her skill in ruling over the nation: “She hath wiped off th’ aspersion of her sex . . . was ever people better ruled than hers?” Bradstreet’s poetry is not only a useful source of information about life in seventeenth-century America, but also of a woman’s resolve to understand her life as planned out by God for a good purpose, and thus can bring inspiration and encouragement to Christians today, especially women.
Where to Begin
Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet by Heidi L. Nichols (an accessible book on Bradstreet’s life and work)