"Prologue" to The Tenth Muse (1650)

This is a forensic poem in which the speaker defends his or her own action(s) or those of another person before a jury of peers. In this case Bradstreet, a woman has written a volume of poetry that will be read largely by a predominantly male audience, an action that in 1650 required a strong defense. The poem reveals much about her Renaissance education, for the poem is highly rhetorical and allusive, demonstrating Bradstreet’s keen awareness of argumentative poetry as she offers an early feminist defense of the right of women to write and publish.

The poem’s first four stanzas contain several instances of the rhetorical device of “affected modesty,” in which the speaker deprecates her abilities before her audience, both as a classical gesture of gaining their goodwill and a way of softening criticism. This practice was common throughout the Renaissance and the long eighteenth century among male and female writers who complained of their “inability” to write, their lack of inspiration and coherence, their “inferiority” to acknowledged masters (such as Bradstreet’s homage to Du Bartas), even while composing some of the most memorable works of all time (cp. Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Sonnet 1). Affected modesty can be seen in Bradstreet’s references to “my mean pen” and “my obscure lines” (stanza 1); “my wond’ring eyes and envious heart” and “simple I” (stanza 2); “My foolish, broken, blemish’d Muse” (stanza 3); “A weak or wounded brain admits no cure” (stanza 4); “obnoxious” (stanza 5) and “these lowly lines” and “This mean and unrefined ore of mine” (stanza 8). How seriously should we take these expressions? Does Bradstreet really believe she is this “simple” and incompetent, unable “To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings, / Of cities founded, commonwealths begun,” when in actuality that is exactly what she proceeds to do in the History of the Four Monarchies of the World (her longest poem in The Tenth Muse)?

Bradstreet is being very clever here and doing what most poets had done before her, both male and female. She is defending her right to be a poet by using the same devices men used but employing an artfulness in her argument that goes far beyond the standard practice. She believes her lines to be anything but “mean and unrefined,” but that will be for others to say about her. At the end of the poem she addresses her critics by turning from her defense of her own poetry and women’s writing in general to a plea (deliberative argument now) that her critics give her a fair hearing. If they do, they will see that she does not seek to win first prize, just second or third will do (this is all tongue-in-cheek). Nor do they need to fear when her volume of poems sits side-by-side with those of male writers. Her poems will merely make theirs shine more. On the surface this seems to imply another moment of self-deprecation, but Bradstreet may be implying something more subtle: without her poems on the shelf the poems of male poets are all somewhat dull and in need of a shine. Her “unrefined” ore is a necessary ingredient to make poetry better for everyone, a kind of rubbing compound that removes the surface scum and reveals something beneath that could not be seen previously without the essence of her “ore.” Given the sophistication of the argument in her poem, she clearly wins her case!

The Prologue

To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings,

Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun,

For my mean Pen are too superior things;

Or how they all, or each their dates have run,

Let Poets and Historians set these forth.

My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth.

But when my wond’ring eyes and envious heart

Great Bartas’ sugar’d lines do but read o’er,

Fool, I do grudge the Muses did not part

‘Twixt him and me that over-fluent store.

A Bartas can do what a Bartas will

But simple I according to my skill.

From School-boy’s tongue no Rhet’ric we expect,

Nor yet a sweet Consort from broken strings,

Nor perfect beauty where’s a main defect.

My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings,

And this to mend, alas, no Art is able,

‘Cause Nature made it so irreparable.

Nor can I, like that fluent sweet-tongued Greek

Who lisp’d at first, in future times speak plain.

By Art he gladly found what he did seek,

A full requital of his striving pain.

Art can do much, but this maxim’s most sure:

A weak or wounded brain admits no cure.

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.

But sure the antique Greeks were far more mild,

Else of our Sex, why feigned they those nine

And poesy made Calliope’s own child?

So ’mongst the rest they placed the Arts divine,

But this weak knot they will full soon untie.

The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie.

Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are.

Men have precedency and still excel;

It is but vain unjustly to wage war.

Men can do best, and Women know it well.

Preeminence in all and each is yours;

Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.

And oh ye high flown quills that soar the skies,

And ever with your prey still catch your praise,

If e’er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,

Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bays.

This mean and unrefined ore of mine

Will make your glist’ring gold but more to shine.