The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. The Beginnings of Verse, 1610–1808

§ 5. Anne Bradstreet

The most interesting as well as the most pleasing figure in early New England verse is that of Anne Bradstreet, who was “fathered and husbanded” respectively by Thomas Dudley and Simon Bradstreet, both in their time governors of Massachusetts. Born in London in 1612, she emigrated in 1630 with her husband and died in 1672. Although the mother of eight children, she found time to write over seven thousand lines of verse in what must have been, to her, peculiarly uncongenial surroundings. Her brother-in-law, the Rev. John Woodbridge, when on a visit to London in 1650, published without her knowledge her poems under the title of The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, and a second edition followed in Boston in 1678. That her poems were read and admired is attested by such poetic tributes as that of Nathaniel Ward, who affirms that she was “a right Du Bartas girle,” and represents Apollo as unable to decide whether Du Bartas or the New England Muse was the more excellent poet. But Anne Bradstreet was not a poet; she was a winsome personality in an unlovely age. That she should have written verse at all was phenomenal, but that it should have been poor verse was inevitable. Her Exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies, in several thousand lines of bad pentameter couplets, is simply a rhyming chronicle of the medieval type, the matter of which was supplied by Raleigh’s History of the World. Her Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, and Seasons of the Year, almost equally worthless as poetry, is an interesting adaptation of Sylvester’s translation of the Divine Weeks. She repeatedly states her admiration for Du Bartas and her indebtedness to him. Thirteen lines in the second day of the first week of his poem suggested her theme, and this she expands in the form of a medieval debat; other passages from Du Bartas she condenses, expands, or merely paraphrases. She gives only about 1800 lines to the entire exposition of her elements, humours, ages, and seasons; hence she uses but a small part of the encyclopædic material of the French poem. The feeble New England imitation cannot compare with the original. Du Bartas, though often flat and prosaic, is immense in his range, and is at times even a poet; Anne Bradstreet’s range is narrow; her allusions are merely to the best known historical and mythological characters; her descriptions of natural phenomena, though she might be expected to find original inspiration in her New England environment, are vague and conventional. In occasional lines of Sylvester’s translation occurs something of Elizabethan spaciousness; the only meritorious lines of Anne Bradstreet’s poem occur in the Spring;

  • The fearfull 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 compleat.
  • The verse of all her longer poems is precisely that of Sylvester—a couplet, not quite loose, but less compact than the heroic couplet, with the characteristic Elizabethan freedom in rhyme and with the shifting caesura. It is not, however, in these long, dreary, and purely didactic poems that Anne Bradstreet shows her real capacity. When she walks in happier paths, with a song in her heart, remembering Spencer and Giles Fletcher, she shows that perhaps in more fortunate times she might have written poetry. Her Contemplations is a meditative and descriptive poem in thirty-three seven-line stanzas, in which occur passages at least pleasing in suggestion and rhythm, however reminiscent of greater times and talents:
  • When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
  • And then the earth (though old) stil clad in green,
  • The stones and trees, insensible to time,
  • Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
  • If winter come, and greeness then do fade,
  • A Spring returns, and they more youthfull made;
  • But Man grows old, lies down, remains where once he’s laid.
  • Her lines to her husband, though not great poetry, are perhaps the most sincere, and are certainly the most human and touching she ever wrote; and her poem on the rearing of her eight children, while infelicitous in its barnyard metaphor, presents a happy and lovable picture. So lovely and pathetic is the figure of the woman herself, and so remarkable are her achievements in the light of her environment, that one finds it ungracious to speak harshly of her verse.