The Tenth Muse: The Life of Anne Bradstreet, America’s First Poet

Aboard the Arbella in 1630 were perhaps the most consequential of Puritan New England’s original settlers. As they approached the shoreline of Massachusetts Bay where they would establish a colony nigh present-day Boston, they could not have foreseen their destiny of laying America’s cultural foundation with each cobblestone inside their townships’ streets. While this frightening journey into the unknown was traveled by literate godly people, the taint of intrigue laced with political deceit at times threatened the young settlement’s very survival.

The liberty to establish homogenous communities in an unsettled land imbued the very religious values that defined their culture and America’s conservation. Beginning at Plymouth in 1620 and a decade later with the Arbella’s arrival, life inside the Massachusetts Bay colony at times mirrored the very persecution which they had escaped under the new Stuart monarch, James I, and the reestablished Church of England. By mid-century, the bloody ascent of another puritan commoner, “the kingslayer” Oliver Cromwell, as Lord Protector over England, Scotland and Ireland, as well as the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 forever linked (rightly or unjustly) “puritan” and “puritanical” with ethnic cleansing and genocide in their quest to achieve a religious utopia. But no such atrocities occurred on so massive a scale in New England —  not even the 1692 Salem witch trials, where four adolescent girls stoked the flames of old superstitions that affected the lives of a handful of residents.

The Puritan’s first civic and religious leader was Rev. John Winthrop. While aboard the Arbella, he articulated his vision for the New World to shine a light over the world “as a city on a hill” in a direct reference to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” — a bold, new exceptional model, where “the eyes of the world” would look upon them for inspiration. The austerity of Puritan New England’s cultural veneer inspired through its leaders’ interpretation of the Bible forbade its inhabitants to celebrate Christmas and Easter, which they labeled as sinful pagan holidays embodying the material excesses of the devil. Frequent dissent among the colonists at Massachusetts Bay over these rigid customs led to no fewer than two major exiles — Anne Hutchinson, the founder of Connecticut; and Roger Williams, who established Rhode Island — over irreconcilable disputes incorporating church policies and political intolerance. Harsh winter weather, rocky soils deficient in nutrients that made it difficult to cultivate the land for annual harvests, and constant threats of bloody raids by local Indian tribes were constant threats to the colony’s survival.

Because of the cultural austerity and dogmatic rigidity, few beyond historical and literary academic circles recognize the Puritans’ critical contributions to the early colonial arts. Having honed their skills while still in England, they cut their teeth in their reading of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as the Bible. But the greatest hidden gem of early British America was one remarkable, though reserved, woman named Anne Bradstreet. Credited as perhaps America’s first true poet and unquestionably, female writer and Puritan literary figure, she is renowned for her large volume of work, historical introspective and unique approach at lyrically depicting 17th Century Puritan life. Her most critically acclaimed works, compiled in a sequence of Christian-themed poetry titled Contemplations, were unfortunately never published prior to the 19th Century.

Governor Bradstreet House in Andover Massachusetts

Bradstreet was born Anne Dudley in 1612 in the central English town of Northamptonshire. At age 16, young Anne married local civic leader and Cambridge University alumnus Simon Bradstreet, and two years later, alongside her husband and parents, emigrated to America, eventually settling at their home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where they raised their eight children. Thereafter, Anne quietly earned the distinction as the one of the first English poets to write in verse in British America. At her most prolific period of writing, her brother-in-law collected a sizable number of her works without her knowledge before departing for England where in 1650, he published them under the title The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in AmericaThe Tenth Muse was the lone collection of Bradstreet’s work published at any point during her lifetime, though the first edition was not published until six years following her death under the expanded title, Several Poems Compiled with Great Wit and Learning.

Simon Bradstreet
“Simon Bradstreet,” from Henry W. Smith’s “The Signers to the Declaration of Independence,” published in 1854. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Bradstreet found inspiration across the English Channel in the French writer Guillaume du Bartas along with the usual names associated with the Elizabethan period. Her poetry remains the most quintessential of all early colonial literature for her eloquent interpretation of Puritan culture’s contributions to the modern climate. Her early material, long panned as imitative, conventional and unremarkable due to the perceived cliches and staid form, met the wrath of critics incapable of relating to Puritan culture through the lyrical portraits she painted not with broad strokes, but with pen and paper. Her work consequently was disregarded save for its role as a primary source for research.

Bradstreet’s legacy was finally rehabilitated during the 20th Century upon receiving long overdue critical acclaim for her work, with particular attention paid to her later less derivative and deeply personal works that force readers to empathize with her pain and triumphs due to miscarriages and deaths in the family. In 1956, John Berryman paid her the ultimate tribute with his epic poem, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, incorporating many phrases from her lyrics, especially from To My Loving Husband, which may have been her personal favorite.

Bradstreet’s legacy, despite nearly 300 years of obscurity, is incalculable even lyrically in the stories she tells as wife to the last governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and one of America’s founding mothers.

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