Anne Bradstreet was the daughter of Thomas Dudley, one of the founding fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Company, and the wife of Simon Bradstreet (they married shortly before they came to America in 1630 on board the Arbella), Anne Bradstreet was, along with Anne Hutchinson, one of New England’s most remarkable women. At a time when few women wrote anything other than letters, especially in the New World, Bradstreet was writing a long verse The Four Monarchies of the World and poems on the “Four Humours,” the “Four Seasons,” and the “Four Ages of Man,” as well as political poems about England, poems of affliction, and metaphysical and highly rhetorical love poems to her husband. The Bradstreets eventually settled in North Andover, and there, while bearing six children and maintaining all her domestic duties, she wrote poetry and prose meditations until shortly before her death in 1672. Her book of poems, The Tenth Muse lately sprung up in America (London, 1650), appeared in her lifetime; Several Poems compiled with Great Variety and Wit and Learning (Boston, 1678), appeared posthumously. Her career falls into two halves: the first part includes her poetry written before 1650, most of which was published in The Tenth Muse, the first book of poetry written and published by an American; the second part includes her work written after 1650, most of which was published after her death. This division is not merely between poetry that is public vs. poetry that is private. The early poetry is also highly rhetorical and learned, very typical of Renaissance poetry, 1575-1625. It is very eclectic, drawing from Sylvester’s elegies, DuBartas’ histories, and various Renaissance treatises on rhetoric and science. The later poetry conforms to Puritan aesthetics, leaving the more worldly subjects and stylistic devices of Renaissance aesthetics for the spiritual concerns common to the Puritan saint, employing the meditative and emblematic traditions, along with the meter of The Bay Psalm Book and the language of puritan prayer and the Geneva Bible. Thus, we should be aware of these two contrasting traditions when reading her poetry.
Bradstreet is significant for several reasons: (1) she is the first colonial to write out of a conscious desire to be a poet; (2) she was widely read by men and women in England and America; (3) her writing exhibits the tensions typical of American literature, that of wilderness and society, New World and Old, freedom and submission, flesh and the spirit, this world and the next; (4) like Hutchinson, she was an early feminist, writing at a time when not many women published and speaking on a variety of subjects and in poetic genres generally dominated by male writers at that time; and (5) she is the prototype of a Nonconformist literary aesthetic that will come to be dominated by women writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
For collections of her writings, see Jeannine Hensley, ed., The Works of Anne Bradstreet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967); also John Harvard Ellis, ed., The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Prose and Verse (Charlestown, MA: Abram E. Cutter, 1867). For more on her Puritan attitudes and Calvinist background, see Timothy Whelan, “‘Contemplations’: Anne Bradstreet’s Homage to Calvin and Reformed Theology,” Christianity and Literature 42 (1992), 41-68; Timothy Whelan, “‘The Flesh and the Spirit’: Anne Bradstreet and Seventeenth Century Dualism, Materialism, Vitalism and Reformed Theology,” Journal of Ultimate Reality and Meaning 19 (1996), 257-84.