1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anne Bradstreet

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:52-54.



It is with a fine flourish of his learned trump of fame that Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia, introduces Anne Bradstreet, who wrote the first volume of poems published in New England. "If the rare learning of a daughter was not the least of those bright things which adorned no less a Judge of England than Sir Thomas More; it must now be said, that a Judge of New England, namely, Thomas Dudley, Esq., had a daughter (besides other children) to be a crown unto him. Reader, America justly admires the learned women of the other hemisphere. She has heard of those that were witnesses to the old professors of all philosophy: she hath heard of Hippatia, who formerly taught the liberal arts; and of Sarocchia, who, more lately, was very often the moderatrix in the disputations of the learned men of Rome: she has been told of the three Corinnas, which equalled, if not excelled, the most celebrated poets of their time: she has been told of the Empress Eudocia, who composed poetical paraphrases on various parts of the Bible; and of Rosnida, who wrote the lives of holy men; and of Pamphilia, who wrote other histories unto the life: the writings of the most renowned Anna Maria Schurman, have come over unto her. But she now prays that into such catalogues of authoresses as Beverovicius, Hottinger, and Voetius, have given unto the world, there may be a room now given unto Madam Ann Bradstreet, the daughter of our Governor Dudley, and the consort of our Governor Bradstreet, whose poems, divers times printed, have afforded a grateful entertainment unto the ingenious, and a monument for her memory beyond the stateliest marbles."

Thomas Dudley, the father of this gifted lady, had been a soldier of the Protestant wars of Elizabeth in the Low Countries, and afterwards retrieved the fortunes of the Earl of Lincoln by his faithful stewardship of his estates. He came over to Massachusetts with a party of Puritan refugees, among whom was his son-in-law, Simon Bradstreet, from the Earl's county, in 1630; and four years afterwards, succeeded Winthrop as Governor of the Colony. In addition to his various valorous and religious qualities, he would appear from an Epitaph, of which Mather gives us a poetical translation, to have been something of a book-worm.

In books a prodigal, they say;
A living cyclopaedia;
Of histories of church and priest,
A full compendium, at least;
A table-talker, rich in sense,
And witty without wit's pretence.

So that the daughter may have inherited some of her learning. Morton, in his Memorial, has preserved these lines by Dudley, found in his pocket after his death, which exhibit the severity of his creed and practice.

Dim eyes, deaf ears, cold stomach shew
My dissolution is in view;
Eleven times seven near lived have I,
And now God calls, I willing die:
My shuttle's shot, my race is run,
My sun is set, my deed is done;
My span is measured, tale is told,
My flower is faded and grown old,
My dream is vanished, shadow's fled,
My soul with Christ, my body dead;
Farewell dear wife, children, and friends,
Hate heresy, make blessed ends;
Bear poverty, live with good men,
So shall we meet with joy again.

Let men of God in courts and churches watch,
O'er such as do a toleration hatch;
Lest that ill egg bring forth a cockatrice,
To poison all with heresy and vice.
If men be left, and otherwise combine,
My epitaph's, "I dy'd no libertine."

The cares of married life would not appear to have interrupted Mistress Bradstreet's acquisitions, for she was married at the age of sixteen, and her poetry was written in the early part of her life. As she had eight children, and addressed herself particularly to their education, the cradle and the Muse must have been competitors for her attention. Her reading, well stuffed with the facts of ancient history, was no trifle for the memory; but we may suppose the mind to have been readily fixed on books, and even pedantic learning to have been a relief, where there were no diversions to distract when the household labors of the day were over. Then there is the native passion for books, which will find its own opportunities. The little volume of her poems, published in London, in 1650, is entitled The Tenth Muse, lately sprung up in America; or, Several Poems, compiled with great variety of wit and learning, full of delight: wherein especially is contained a complete Discourse and Description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year. Together with an Exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies, viz., the Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, Roman. Also a Dialogue between Old England and New concerning the late troubles, with divers other pleasant and serious Poems. By a Gentlewoman in those parts. A more complete edition was published in Boston in 1678, which contains her Contemplations, a moral and descriptive poem, the best specimen of her pen; The Flesh and the Spirit, a dialogue, and several poems on family incidents, left among her private papers.

The formal natural history and historical topics which compose the greater part of her writings, are treated with doughty resolution, but without much regard to poetical equality. The plan is simple. The elements of the world, fire, air, earth, and water; the humors of the constitution, the choleric, the sanguine, the melancholy, and Phlegmatic; childhood, youth, manhood, and age; spring, summer, autumn, and winter, severally come up and say what they can of themselves, of their powers and opportunities, good and evil, with the utmost fairness. The four ancient monarchies are catalogued in a similar way. It is not to be denied, that, if there is not much poetry in these productions, there is considerable information. For the readers of those times they contained a very respectable digest of the old historians, and a fair proportion of medical and scientific knowledge. It is amusing to see this mother in Israel writing of the Spleen with the zest of an anatomist.

If any doubt this truth, whence this should come,
Show them the passage to the duodenum.

The good lady must have enjoyed the perusal of Phineas Fletcher's Purple Island, a dissecting theatre in a book, which appeared in 1633. Her descriptions are extremely literal. She writes as if under bonds to tell the whole truth, which she does without any regard to the niceties or scruples of the imagination. Thus her account of childhood begins at the beginning somewhat earlier than a modern poetess would tax the memory of the muse; and she thinks it necessary to tell us in her account of winter, how,

Beef, brawn and pork, are now in great'st request,
And solid'st meats our stomachs can digest.

When we come upon any level ground in these poems, and are looking round to enjoy the prospect, we may prepare ourselves for a neighboring pitfall. In "Summer" we set forth trippingly afield—

Now go those frolic swains, the shepherd lad,
To wash their thick-cloth'd flocks, with pipes full glad.
In the cool streams they labor with delight,
Rubbing their dirty coats, till they look white.

With a little more taste our poetess might have been a happy describer of nature, for she had a warm heart and a hearty view of things. The honesty of purpose which mitigates her pedantry, sometimes displays itself in a purer simplicity. The account of the flowers and the little bird in Spring might find a place in the sincere, delicate poems of Dana, who has a family relationship with the poetess.

The primrose pale, and azure violet,
Among the verdurous gram hath nature set,
That when the sun (on's love) the earth doth shine,
These might, as love, set out her garments fine;
The fearful bird his little house now builds,
In trees, and walls, in cities, and in fields;
The outside strong, the inside warm and neat,
A natural artificer complete.

In the historic poems, the dry list of dynasties is sometimes relieved by a homely unction and humor in the narrative, as in the picture of the progress of Alexander and the Persian host of Darius — though much of this stuff is sheer doggrel, as in the Life and Death of Semiramis:

She like a brave virago play'd the rex,
And was both shame and glory of her sex.

* * * * *

Forty-two years she reign'd, and then she dy'd,
But by what means, we are not certified.

If sighs for "imbecility" can get pardon for bad verses, we should think only of Mrs. Bradstreet's good ones — for her poems are full of these deprecatory acknowledgments.

The literary father of Mrs. Bradstreet was Silver-tongued Sylvester, whose translation of Du Bartas was a popular book among Puritan readers at the beginning of the seventeenth century. His quaint volumes, which will be remembered as favorites with Southey's simple-minded Dr. Daniel Dove, were both poetical and devout; and if they led our author's taste astray, they also strengthened her finest susceptibilities. She has left a warm poem "in his honor," in which there is an original and very pretty simile.

My Muse unto a child, I fitly may compare,
Who sees the riches of some famous fair;
He feeds his eyes, but understanding lacks,
To comprehend the worth of all those knacks;
The glittering plate, and jewels, he admires,
The hats and fans, and flowers, and ladies' tires;
And thousand times his 'mazed mind doth wish
Some part, at least, of that brave wealth was his;
But seeing empty wishes nought obtain,
At night turns to his mothers cot again,
And tells her tales (his full heart over glad)
Of all the glorious sights his eyes have had:
But finds too soon his want of eloquence,
The silly prattler speaks no word of sense;
And seeing utterance fail his great desires,
Sits down in silence.

Nathaniel, Ward, the author of the Simple Cobbler of Agawam, in some comic fetches prefixed to the poems, says: "The Authoresse was a right Du Bartas girle."

Mrs. Bradstreet was also a reader of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, which she has characterized with more minuteness than others who have written upon it, in an Elegy which she penned forty-eight years after the fall of that mirror of knighthood at Zutphen.

Ann Bradstreet died 16th September, 1672, at the age of sixty. That she had not altogether survived her poetical reputation in England, is shown by an entry in Edward Phillips's (the nephew of Milton) Theatrum Poetarum, in 1674, where the title of her Poems is given, and their memory pronounced "not yet wholly extinct." A third edition, reprinted from the second, appeared in 1758.