Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.
America's First Poet
Anne Bradstreet was a famous poet from the 17th century. She is the first American poet and the first female poet to be published both in England and America. Bradstreet was born in England, where her father worked as an administrator for an earl. Her parents made sure that she was educated while growing up, more so than most women of the time. She met and married Simon Bradstreet and then moved to America in 1630, along with Simon and her parents.
The Bradstreets moved to what is today Massachusetts. Later, both her father and husband would be governors of Massachusetts, and they were instrumental in founding Harvard University.
Like many of the other settlers in the area, Bradstreet belonged to a devout Protestant community called the Puritans. Among other things, the Puritans believed in predestination, or the idea that God controls the world and the people in it. Every situation, good or bad, was seen as being part of God's plan. Let's take a look at two of Bradstreet's poems and how her religious beliefs informed her writing.
Upon the Burning...
One of Bradstreet's most famous poems is called 'Verses Upon the Burning of our House'. As you might have guessed from the title, this particular poem was written after a fire destroyed the Bradstreets' house in 1666, leaving them with no home and no possessions.
The poem is very long. It begins with a description of Bradstreet waking up to a fire. She escapes and then turns to look at the house as it burns. As she watches all of her belongings go up in smoke, she writes:
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, it was so, and so 'twas just.
It was His own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
Notice that, at a point when she loses all of her worldly possessions, she clings to her faith. She even says that she blesses God's grace and comforts herself with the idea that the belongings now burning belong to God, not to her. Of course, being human, Bradstreet does feel some grief. Later in the poem, she talks of going back to the scene of the fire later and being upset when she thinks about all she's lost. Yet she reminds herself:
Then straight I 'gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on moldering 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
Fram'd by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent, though this be fled.
Here, she's telling herself that her earthly possessions are not nearly as important to Bradstreet as the riches that she'll encounter in Heaven. In fact, she says her earthly house is nothing compared to the house in Heaven that is waiting for her, having been built by 'that mighty Architect,' God.
As you can see, Bradstreet's faith played a key role in troubling times like when she lost her house. This was common among Puritans, whose belief in predestination meant that they were able to face hard knocks with the faith that it was part of God's plan.
Another part of the Puritan belief system that is part of this poem is a focus on the unimportance of earthly goods. Life in 17th century America was difficult at best, and the Puritans believed that luxuries and possessions were obstacles that kept one from Heaven.
However, there were some negative aspects of Puritan faith. Women were not treated as well as men. They were expected to serve the men in their lives and were sometimes kept from education. Despite her faith, Bradstreet acknowledged the problems with Puritanism. In a famous poem titled, 'In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth', Bradstreet attacks the Puritan belief in the inferior nature of women by singing the praises of Queen Elizabeth I of England.
After lengthy descriptions of Elizabeth I's accomplishments, Bradstreet writes:
Now say, have women worth, or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is't gone?
Nay Masculines, you have thus tax'd us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason.
Here, she says that men have 'tax'd us long.' That is, they have placed the burden of being inferior on women for a long time. The accomplishments of Queen Elizabeth prove that women are capable beings, and saying that women are 'void of reason' is 'slander now, but once was treason.' That is, saying that women are incapable is a hurtful lie now, but when Queen Elizabeth was alive, it was actually treason.
Anne Bradstreet was America's first poet and the first female poet to be published in both the Old and New Worlds. Her Puritan faith informed much of her writing, though sometimes in very different ways. In 'Verses Upon the Burning of Our House', she depends on her faith to get herself through the hardship of losing all of her worldly possessions. But, she also criticizes the Puritan belief in the inferior nature of women in her poem 'In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth'.
At the end of this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Outline Anne Bradstreet's history and her impact on American literature
- Express the way in which Bradstreet's Puritan faith influenced her writing
- Summarize two of Bradstreet's famous poems and discuss her inspirations for writing them
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