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Anne Bradstreet: Poet of Purity

A poet who helps you to find goodness, not just to feel good

George M. Ella | Added: Feb 18, 2006 | Category: Biography


It is an ancient maxim in literary criticism that all poets are liars and poetry provides an escape from the humdrum reality of life into the fantasies of Never-Never Land. Such critics have obviously not studied Anne Bradstreet who ranks with Milton, Herbert and Cowper as a poet of pure joy in contemplating God’s amazing grace vouchsafed to believers in order to combat the lies and errors of fallen mankind. Few poets are as uplifting as Anne Bradstreet because few poets have encountered and shared in spiritual truths as much as she. Thus Puritan John Norton is not exaggerating in the least when he says that if Virgil had been privileged to read the seraphic poems of Anne Bradstreet, he would have committed his own efforts in soul-harmony to the flames. Anne Bradstreet had the ‘one thing needed’ to fit a human poet out for the divine task of speaking the unfallen language of Eden. This writer can heartily recommend his readers to sit down in a corner in a moment of prayerful relaxation with a volume of Bradstreet’s in hand. They will soon find themselves thinking, “It is good to be here” as this sweet, hard-working mother of eight children describes her amazement at God’s revelation to her in His Word. As Anne Bradstreet shares her husband, children, adopted grandchildren and household chores with the Lord, she points to the goodness which is found solely in Christ who ever says, “Cast your burden upon Me and I shall sustain you.”

An offspring of Reformation pioneers

Anne Dudley was an offspring of the famous Dudleys who had played such a great role in the history of the English Reformation and Elizabethan Settlement. Her father, Thomas Dudley was a sincere believer and had captained a company of eighty volunteers in the Protestant wars on the Continent. Thereafter, he became steward to Theophilus, the Earl of Lincoln and the close friend of John Cotton, one of America’s earliest and greatest Christian pioneers. Thomas was married to Dorothy, described as “a gentlewoman of good family and estate.” Anne was born in Northampton, England around 1612 and early took a stand for Christ and was thrilled with stories of the opportunities given Christians in the New World. She had the best tutor and mentor humanly possible in her father. Thomas Dudley was a brilliant scholar and lover of edifying literature, history and poetry. Cotton Mather, in his multi-facetted history of North America, writes of Anne’s father:

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.

Thomas Dudley put his own affairs into the capable hands of Simon Bradstreet, son of a Puritan Lincolnshire minister. Simon was only a child when his father died and so Thomas Dudley took care of him and trained him both in the ways of the Lord and in business and land-management. When Anne was sixteen years of age, Simon, nine years her senior, proposed to her and was accepted. Anne was then struck down with smallpox and, faced with the prospect of losing her great beauty and possibly her betrothed through ugly scars, she turned to the Lord in agony. Anne later confessed sadly and humbly, “When I was in my affliction I besought the Lord, and confessed my pride and vanity, and he was entreated of me, and again restored me. But I rendered not to him according to the benefit received.”

True love whose course ran smooth

On Anne’s recovery, the couple were wed and embarked on a life of deep love and mutual understanding and it was through her most romantic and spirit-filled marriage that Anne first took up her pen to praise God in poetry, composing:

To My Dear and Loving Husband
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then, while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

Shortly after their marriage, in 1630, Anne and Simon joined Thomas and Dorothy Dudley and their friend John Winthrop, and sailed in the Arabella to set up a plantation colony along the coast of Massachusetts Bay. Winthrop was appointed Governor, Dudley Deputy-Governor and Bradstreet Chief-Administrator. Dudley was to succeed Winthrop as Governor in 1634 and he also became the colony’s first Major-General. He, in turn, was succeeded by Simon Bradstreet, but this was after Anne’s death.

The journey to the New World was a terrible ordeal. Storms accompanied the vessel almost all the way, scurvy broke out and many pilgrims died. When land was reached at Charleston and tents set up, bad weather, lack of food and continued attacks of scurvy plagued the colonists. The death toll reached all families. Over a hundred previous settlers decided that they had had enough and returned dejected to England on the Arabella.

Even Dudley, disappointed, but not beaten by a long way, wrote to England complaining that all the talk about the new Promised Land had been greatly exaggerated. There must have been some pleasant moments, however, in the long journey to the New World. Times of grace when the sun shone and hopes were raised. Thinking of such times and their temptations, Mrs Bradstreet wrote later to advise Simon, her son:

He that is to sail into a far country, although the ship, cabin, and provisions be all convenient and comfortable for him, yet he hath no desire to make that his place of residence, but longs to put in at that port where his business lies. A Christian is sailing through this world unto his heavenly country, and here he hath many conveniences and comforts, but he must beware of desiring to make this his place of abode, lest he should meet with such tossings that may cause him to long for shore before he sees land. We must, therefore, be here as strangers and pilgrims, that we may plainly declare that we seek a city above, and wait all the days of our appointed time till our change shall come.

A life torn between two worlds

Anne was repulsed at the New World but with her husband and her parents she could not believe that God had deserted them. They pressed on, living from hand to mouth and helped constitute a new congregation at Boston. Yet, they still talked of ‘our Britain’ though realising that they were perhaps cut off from old friends and relations for the rest of their lives. Anne, however, was struck down by a serious illness for the second time in her life and became paralysed in all her joints. By now, however, she had grown very much in grace and merely said of her great infirmities, “I fell into a lingering sickness like a consumption, together with lameness, which correction I saw the Lord sent to humble and try me, and do me good; and it was not altogether ineffectual.”

Both Simon and Anne were very industrious and, despite ill health, soon had a fine house built and prosperous affairs to manage. Anne’s husband was appointed Secretary of the colony’s company and Commissioner for the United Colonies. Though Anne was often ill, she managed to bear and raise a large family so that one day she could thankfully write:

I had eight birds hatch’d in the nest
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest;
I nurs’d them up with pain and care,
For cost nor labour did I spare,
Till at the last they felt their wing,
Mounted the trees, and learned to sing.

Anne Bradstreet’s affections for England often troubled her as, though she praised the faith of the new militant Puritans under Cromwell, she was compelled to condemn their politics and attitude to other believers. In her long poem The Four Ages of Man, the Puritan lady looks back over her life from the failed Romanist attempt to kill James I and his entire Parliament to the foul murder of Charles I, and writes:

I’ve seen from Rome an execrable thing,
A plot to blow up nobles and their king;
I’ve seen designs at Ru and Cades crost,
And poor Palatinate for ever lost;
I’ve seen a prince to live on others’ lands,
A royal one, by alms from subjects’ hands;
I’ve seen base men advanc’d to great degree,
And worthy ones put to extremity:
But not their prince’s love, nor state so high,
Could once reverse their shameful destiny.
I’ve seen one stabb’d, another lose his head,
And others fly their country through their dread.
I’ve seen, and so have ye, for ’tis but late,
The desolation of a goodly state,
Plotted and acted, so that none can tell
Who gave the counsel, but the prince of hell.
Thinking of the golden age of the church in Elizabeth’s reign she could write:
But happy England, which had such a queen,
O happy, happy, had those days still been!

More trials and testings

Not only poor health caused Mrs Bradstreet to grow closer to God but many a material plight which would have caused others to ask why God had forsaken them. After building a spacious house for the large family, Mrs Bradstreet was awakened one night by a terrible roar. A huge fire blazed around her and she could hear the pitiful cries of her terrified family. All dashed out but no worldly goods could be saved. The fire devastated every chair, table and chest that they had possessed. Finding herself briefly cast down at this great loss, Mrs Bradstreet quickly took heart and wrote, after describing the terrible scenes in her:

Verses upon the Burning of Our House:
Then straight I ’gan my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldering dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky,
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast an house on high erect;
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled.
It’s purchasèd, and paid for, too,
By Him who hath enough to do –
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet, by His gift, is made thine own.
There’s wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf;2 farewell, my store;
The world no longer let me love.
My hope and treasure lie above.

Times of loneliness and longing

Simon Bradstreet’s diligence promoted him regularly and he climbed rapidly up the administrative and political ladder. He was now often away from home on diplomatic journeys or on tour throughout the colony as its faithful steward. At times, Anne Bradstreet was very lonely, in spite of her children because she missed Simon dearly. Their honeymoon days never waned. However, Dudley had a large library and, amidst household chores, gardening, acting as sick-nurse and caring for a seemingly ever-growing crowd of children, Mrs Bradstreet found time to read, learn and inwardly digest the literary and spiritual treasures of her father. The history of Britain and the Ancient East thrilled her, as did works on science and medicine. No student ever devoured such literary food as eagerly as Mrs Bradstreet. Few students were so strengthened in spirit and instructed in mind by such a repast. Nevertheless, the periods of parting from her husband forced her to express her love for him in verse as she followed him from place to place with her thoughts and prayers. Daily seeing her husband’s looks and mannerisms in her children, Mrs Bradstreet writes:

In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yields me for a space
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! Now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow, the tedious day so long:
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my sun would never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him, my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever, stay, and go not thence
Till nature’s sad decree shall call thee hence:
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one.

Anne Bradstreet’s mentors in literature and poetry would surprise and even shock those fuddy-duddies who believe blindly that the early American Puritans had no thought for beauty in either expression or art or no longing for the romantic but an unholy fear of expressing emotion. Mrs Bradstreet’s favourite reading was the work of Sir Philip Sydney, one of this writer’s childhood heroes, but so often denigrated by modern would-be Puritans for writing about human love in its reflection of divine affection. This sadly is also the lot of John Donne whose love-poetry opens many windows to heaven. Even Anne Bradstreet’s biographer, James Anderson, who often eulogises his subject, has no sympathy for her when she writes of the great French soldier poet Du Bartas:

Amongst the happy wits this age hath shown,
Great, dear, sweet Bartas, thou art matchless known.

Becoming a public figure

Anne Bradstreet had written her poetry as an expression of the secret feelings of her heart and had no intention of making them public, though in 1642, she did distribute a number amongst her family with a dedication to her father, concluding it with the words:

From her that to yourself more duty owes
Than waters in the boundless ocean flows.

However, John Woodbridge, a minister married to Mrs Bradstreet’s sister Mercy, copied and collected Anne’s poems as secretly as she wrote them. On travelling to London in 1650, he had them published and even wrote in a preface that his sister-in-law had no idea what he was doing and would have forbidden him if she had known. Woodbridge’s lame excuse was that if he did not publish his sister-in-law’s verse, someone else would and thus make a worse job of it. Though we must chide the over-enthusiastic minister for his indiscretion, Anne Bradstreet’s poetry became quite a best seller in Britain and proved a means of great blessing to many. Here was a woman of deep faith and high learning who used the vehicle of poetry, so often discredited by worldly scribblers in rhyme, to reveal what is honest, true, pure, lovely and edifying to the reader and honouring to God. Though now a public figure, Mrs Bradstreet did not change her way of life one bit.

Mrs Bradstreet’s Meditations

Anne Bradstreet is mostly remembered for her poems of experience, yet she was a master of prose, though little of it has been preserved. Simon, her son, asked his mother to leave him a greater inheritance than wealth at her death, indicating that he wished her to draw together all the good advice she had given him as a child and young man. The result was Mrs Bradstreet’s Meditations, compiled from her own writings and put together during March 1664. The work is a box of precious jewels. Here are but a few of them:

The finest bread hath the least bran; the purest honey, the least wax; and the sincerest Christian, the least self-love.

Downy beds make drowsy persons, but hard lodging keeps the eyes open. A prosperous state makes a secure Christian, but adversity makes him consider.

Diverse children have their different natures: some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction; some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar. Those parents are wise that can fit the nurture according to their nature.

A low man can go upright under a door where a taller is glad to stoop: so a man of weak faith and mean abilities may undergo a cross more patiently than he that excels him in gifts and graces.

Few men are so humble as not to be proud of their abilities; and nothing will abase them more than this: “What hast thou, but what thou hast received? Come, give an account of thy stewardship.”

Iron till it be thoroughly heated is incapable to be wrought: so God sees good to cast some men into the furnace of affliction, and then beats them on His anvil into what frame He pleases.

That town which thousands of enemies without hath not been able to take, hath been delivered up by one traitor within; and that man, which all the temptations of Satan without could not hurt, hath been foiled by one lust within.

God hath by His providence so ordered that no one country hath all commodities within itself, but what it wants another shall supply, that so there may be a mutual commerce through the world. As it is with countries, so it is with men: there was never yet any one man that had all excellences. Let his parts, natural and acquired, spiritual and moral, be never so large, yet he stands in need of something which another man hath – perhaps meaner than himself: which shows us perfection is not below, as also that God will have us beholden one to another.

The weary pilgrim rests in peace

Shortly after becoming well-known in both the Old and New Worlds, Mrs Bradstreet, seldom a healthy woman, became terminally ill with tuberculosis. When her daughter Dorothy Cotton, (married to Seaborn, John Cotton’s son), died, rather than allow this to increase her sorrow, Mrs Bradstreet rejoiced to know that she would soon join her in their Father’s mansion. Viewing death with fearless faith, and looking back over all the hardships her family had endured through God’s grace in the past, Anne Bradstreet continued her poem The Weary Pilgrim Now At Rest with the words:

A pilgrim I on earth, perplexed
With sins, with cares and sorrows vexed,
By age and pains brought to decay,
And my clay house mould’ring away.
Oh! how I long to be at rest
And soar on high among the blest!
This body shall in silence sleep;
Mine eyes no more shall ever weep;
No fainting fits shall me assail,
Nor grinding pains, my body frail;
With cares and fears ne’er cumbered be,
Nor losses know, nor sorrows see.
What though my flesh shall there consume?
It is the bed Christ did perfume;
And when a few years shall be gone,
This mortal shall be clothed upon;
A corrupt carcass down it lies,
A glorious body it shall rise;
In weakness and dishonour sown,
In power ’tis raised by Christ alone.
Then soul and body shall unite
And of their maker have the sight,
Such lasting joys shall there behold
As ear ne’er heard not tongues e’er told.
Lord, make me ready for the day!
Then come, dear bridegroom, come away!

Simon, now a qualified physician realised that his mother, though only sixty years of age, had run her course and her goal was in sight. Though but skin and bone and in great pain due to the merciless illness, Anne Bradstreet remained in full assurance of faith and was more concerned in comforting her dear ones than feeling any need for comfort herself. When her eyelids closed in death, Simon wrote, “O that the Lord would give me and mine a heart to walk in her steps, considering what the end of her conversation was; that so we might one day have a happy and glorious greeting!” Throughout her poetry, Anne Bradstreet had always been fascinated by the interplay of eternity on time. The closing words of her long poem Contemplations, on the death and burial of a Christian, serve as a fitting epitaph to her own eternal life, always longing whilst in her time-span to be freed from her earthly burden:

O Time! thou fatal wrack of mortal things,
That draws oblivion’s curtains over kings,
Their sumptuous monuments, men know them not,
Their names without a record are forgot,
Their parts, their ports, their pomp’s all laid in th’dust,
or wit, nor gold, nor buildings ’scape time’s rust;
But he whose name is graved in the white stone
Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.

Anne Bradstreet has certainly a message for today and every day

John Fiske in his important and oft praised work The Beginnings of New England or the Puritan Theocracy in its Relation to Civil and Religious Liberty, pulling, as it were, a drawer out of the cupboard of history, briefly says of Anne Bradstreet that she “was a woman of quaint learning and quainter verse, which her contemporaries admired beyond measure.” He then shuts the drawer and continues in his praise of Mrs Bradstreet’s husband after telling his readers that Anne Bradstreet merely inherited her gifts from her father. Thus the greatest poet the English Puritan Colonies ever produced and one of their finest illustrations of faith triumphing over every human difficulty is squeezed as a tiny ‘aside’ into an account relating the political feats of two men who had so much relied and built on Anne Bradstreet’s faith, comfort and Christian exhortation. Both Thomas Dudley and Simon Bradstreet certainly would not have been the men they were if Anne Bradstreet had not been the woman she was. Far more objective is Cotton Mather in his insistence that, whatever Dudley’s merits, his daughter was his crown and her poetry “a monument for her memory beyond the stateliest marbles.” Mather also reminds men who believe that their sex monopolises the muses that they have due cause to blush with shame when faced with Mrs Bradstreet’s accomplishments. He then joins Benjamin Woodbridge, the first graduate of Harvard in putting such men in their place:

In your own arts confess your selves outdone;
The moon hath totally eclips’d the sun:
Not with her sable mantle muffling him,
But her bright silver makes his gold look dim.

Sadly, our school history books paint a sable-mantled, muffled picture of their imagined dark and dismal Puritans, depicting them as a fog-covered sun set to rise no more. How necessary it is to balance this artificial picture with Mrs Bradstreet’s brave, colourful, cheerful, entertaining and uplifting verse. Her words, reflecting her experience of life give a true and lasting picture of the spirit of Puritan men and women who sought to build heaven on earth against great odds. Her never-dying verse, reflecting her deep taste of God’s eternal love, is still fully equipped to lead and accompany modern mankind on the way to heavenly bliss. It is a great pity indeed that her complete works are scarcely known and have not been reprinted for generations.