Anne Bradstreet: Wife, Mother and Poet
In her anthology The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up In America (1650), Anne Bradstreet focuses on her most dominant concerns, the family and the woman’s roles as wife and mother. Based on Biblical authority, wifehood and motherhood are not only roles but also sacred, spiritual values which are deeply embedded in society. As a Puritan woman, Bradstreet upholds these family values. Owing to belief in the sanctity of marriage, she manifests unwavering devotion to her husband and, in her poems, makes many marital and wifely references. As a mother, her dedication and love for her offspring are unmistakable as she infuses imagery of the mother in her poems. Anne Bradstreet’s poetry reveals the treasured values of wifehood and motherhood as she abides by the standards and principles concerning family typical of the Puritan woman.
Bradstreet’s poems express the most sacred and inviolable oneness in the conjugal relationship. These tenets, which are biblically supported, are reflected in Bradstreet’s poems, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” and “A Letter to Her Husband”. According to author Amanda Porterfield, “Puritan ministers […] invested relationships between husbands and wives with religious meaning. Through this religious interpretation of the relationship between husbands and wives, Puritans established marriages as the basic unit of social order” (4). The Bible, the scriptural authority of Puritans, affirms that “man shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh” (The King James Version Bible, Gen. 2:24). Emphasizing the unity and bond of the married couple, Christ says that “they twain shall be one flesh: so than they are no more twain, but one flesh” (Mark 10:8). Furthermore, in tandem with the theme of marital unity, the Apostle Paul states that husband and wife “shall be one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). Likewise, Bradstreet, in her poems, underlines the oneness and loving bond between her and her husband. In the poem, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” Bradstreet refers to “that knot […] that made us one”(L. 11) The inextricable bond that unifies man and woman in the conjugal relationship draws them together in such a way that both parties are fused as one – not only in body but also in mind and spirit. Bradstreet celebrates this union between her and her husband in “To My Dear and Loving Husband”, as she writes, “for if ever two were one, then we” (L.1). “A Letter to Her Husband” reechoes marital oneness for even though husband and wife are geographically distanced from one another, they are still “both but one” (L. 26). Bradstreet indicates here not only a spiritual unity but also a carnal one.
Bradstreet draws from the paragon of conjugal oneness, Adam and Eve, to celebrate the passionate union between her and her husband. In the Garden of Eden, as Adam is introduced to his wife Eve, he proclaims her as the “flesh of [his] flesh and bone of [his] bones” (Gen. 2:23). Likewise, Bradstreet exults in the marital union and calls herself “flesh of [his] flesh and bone of [his] bones” (L. 25). The ideal union between man and wife is consummated in the act of sexual intercourse and lasts in a faithful, monogamous marriage. The incorporation of Biblical doctrines on marriage into her works consolidates principles of pure love, oneness, and chastity. A natural act of marriage is procreation, hence, Bradstreet goes on to celebrate motherhood.
Bradstreet’s poetry is pregnant with images of the mother which include conception, child-bearing, and child-rearing. According to the article, Negotiating Theology and Gynecology, “The potency of motherhood as a metaphor becomes apparent in Bradstreet’s own writing […] in the discussion of Bradstreet as a woman poet, the mother metaphor has special force since it blends the occupations of mother and poet” (Lutes 310). She loves her children, and affectionately calls them her “little babes” (Before the Birth), “true living pictures of their father’s face” (A Letter L.X), “fruits […] which (she) bore” (A Letter ), and “fair flowers” (In Memory of My Dear Grandchild). It must be noted that during her lifetime Bradstreet bore eight children. For the most part, she rejoices in her children, however, with the joys of motherhood come its attendant sorrows.
Unfortunately, in her life and poetry, there is an undercurrent of tragedy since mortality is high among expectant mothers during pregnancy and childbirth. Death among pregnant mothers is so common that Bradstreet, when she is with child, makes preparations to die by writing a farewell poem to her husband titled, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children.” Another catastrophe of motherhood is the bitter experience of a child’s death. During Bradstreet’s time, infant mortality is also common and from this harsh reality, she is not exempt. Evidence of this tragic circumstance is the dedication of two poems to her deceased children and grandchildren: “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who Deceased Aug 1665, Being a Year and a Half Old,” and “On My Dear Grandchild Simon Bradstreet, Who Died on 16 November, 1669, being but a Month, and One Day Old.” These endearing titles convey Bradstreet’s sentiments of maternal love for her children and grandchildren and add force to the threats in motherhood. Despite these adversities in motherhood, the image of the mother figure continues to recur in her poems.
Bradstreet infuses her poetry with maternal imagery and references. In “The Prologue To Her Book,” Bradstreet alludes to Calliope, the most prominent of the nine Greek Muses of Poetry. According to myth, Calliope was a wife and mother just like Bradstreet. This allusion is certainly apt because Bradstreet herself, as a wife and mother, is endowed with the poetic gift for “poesy made Calliope’s own child” (L.33). Hence Bradstreet creates imagery of a pregnant muse Calliope, giving birth to poems and reinforcing the motherhood theme. In “The Author to Her Book,” Bradstreet likens her criticized and misprinted poems to a bastard, orphan “ill-form’d offspring” (L.1). The conception and publication of her poems are compared to a “birth” (L. 2) and give solid images of motherhood, childbirth and nurture. As the mother anxiously and painstakingly fixes her dirty, unkempt child, so does Bradstreet attempt to amend her misprinted poems. She washes the face, rubs out the spots, dresses, and stretches the joints of the uneven feet (L. 10-20). Here, the child’s feet refers to the iambic pentameter foot of the poem. Hence one can clearly see the references and images of motherhood in Bradstreet’s poems.
In Bradstreet’s society, the ideals of wife and mother are embedded in the Biblical paragon of wifehood and motherhood as defined in Prov. 31: 10 – 29: Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her[…]She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life[…]she worketh willingly with her hands[…]she looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. This passage gives details about the quintessential virtuous woman and effectively sums up the stellar qualities of a virtuous Christian woman in the private sphere. She industriously sees after the home’s needs, maintaining her honour and integrity as a wife, mother, and consummate homemaker. Undoubtedly in Bradstreet’s society, these are the traits which characterize the upright woman. Before Bradstreet’s collection of poems can even be officially published, recognized and respected, the beginning lines affirm that by way of recommendation, Bradstreet, as a poet, does not neglect her domestic duties. The preface, which closely mirrors the Biblical female quintessence, states that, “It is the Work of a Woman, honoured, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions” (Reid 1998).
In sum, Bradstreet – a true Calliope – proved a wise muse who cares for and loves her family remaining true to her duties as wife and mother, yet excelling in poetry and literature. Wifely allusions and maternal imagery reinforce the importance of being a wife and mother – as she sublimates her own experience into her poetry. In her society, there are the expected roles that every woman has to fulfill such as taking care of her husband and children. Her poetic works mainly relate motherhood and wifehood in the Puritan context. In Bradstreet’s world, the woman is confined to the private/domestic sphere. The marital and maternal imageries are utilized to highlight the close relationship between the author and her work and to impress the reader with the gravity with which she treats her role as spouse and mother.
Lauter, Paul. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Houghton. Mifflin Company Boston Press, New York. 2004. 996-98.
Lutes, Jean Marie. Negotiating Theology and Gynecology: Anne Bradstreet’s Representations of the Female Body. Signs, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter 1997. 309- 40.
Porterfield, Amanda. Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism. 1992. 4-6.
Reid, Bethany. Unfit for Light: Anne Bradstreet’s Monstrous Birth. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 4. Dec. 1998. 517 – 42.
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In her anthology The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up In America (1650), Anne Bradstreet focuses on her most dominant concerns, the family and the woman’s roles as wife and mother. […]