Anne Bradstreet (1612?-1672)

    Contributing Editor: Pattie Cowell

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    There are many ways to approach Bradstreet: as a "first" (given that she is the first North American to publish a book of poems), as a Puritan, as a woman. I've found an interplay of all three approaches useful for piquing student interest. Those who are skeptical of my feminist readings may be caught by historical and cultural perspectives. Those who think they want nothing to do with Puritanism may be intrigued by Bradstreet's more personal writings.

    Beginning students are generally unfamiliar with the historical and theological contexts in which she wrote. Many close off their reading of Bradstreet and other Puritan writers because they disapprove of what they think they know about Puritan theology. Brief background materials make that context more accessible and less narrowly theological.

    Again for reasons of accessibility, I usually begin with the more personal poems from the second edition. The poignancy of Bradstreet's elegies, the simplicity of her love poems, the stark reality of her poem on childbirth, the wit of "The Author to Her Book"--all travel across the centuries with relative ease, even for less skilled readers. When these immediately readable poems are placed in the context of women's lives in the seventeenth century and in the North American colonies, most students find a point of entry.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Thematically, Bradstreet's body of work is both extensive and varied. Teachers will find much that can be linked with other materials in a given course. Bradstreet wrote on culture and nature, on spirituality and theology, on the tension between faith and doubt, on family, on death, on history. I like to suggest the range of her subject matter for students and then concentrate on a single thematic thread (though the thread I choose varies with my interests of the moment). It is a strategy that helps students follow their own interests of the moment at the same time that it allows us (by close reading) to see the skills Bradstreet had developed. "Contemplations" is a fine poem for tracing both thematic threads and poetic technique, though its length and complexity present problems for beginning students. "The Prologue" is more manageable in a single class session, short enough to allow multiple readings to develop but complex enough to tantalize. Many of the other short personal pieces--well represented in The Heath Anthology selections--work effectively with this approach too.

    The remarkable nature of Bradstreet's accomplishment is highlighted when students learn the historical conditions women poets struggled with. Women who wrote stepped outside their appropriate sphere, and those who published their work frequently faced social censure. The Reverend Thomas Parker, a minister in Newbury, Massachusetts, gives a succinct statement of cultural attitudes in an open letter to his sister, Elizabeth Avery, in England: "Your printing of a book, beyond the custom of your sex, doth rankly smell" (1650). Compounding this social pressure, many women faced crushing workloads and struggled with lack of leisure for writing. Others suffered from unequal access to education. Some internalized the sense of intellectual inferiority offered to them from nearly every authoritative voice.

    Bradstreet's personal situation gave her the means to cope with some of these obstacles. Before she came to North America, she received an extensive education; she had access as a child to private tutors and the Earl of Lincoln's large library. She was part of an influential, well-to-do family that encouraged her writing and circulated it in manuscript with pride. Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, took the manuscript collection to London for publication. Such private support did much to counteract the possibility of public disapproval.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Bradstreet's attention to form and technique is usefully studied in the context of two quite different aesthetics, both of which influence her: Puritanism's so-called "plain style" (marked by didactic intent, artful simplicity, accessibility, and an absence of rhetorical ornamentation) and seventeenth-century versions of classicism (which stressed poetry as imitation, exalted the genres of tragedy and epic, and worked toward unity of action, place, and time).

    Original Audience

    Discussions of seventeenth-century English and New English audiences allow room for fruitful digressions on colonial literacy, manuscript culture, print culture, publishing, and book distribution. I frequently challenge beginning students to develop a description of Bradstreet's original readers by exercising their historical imaginations. Those who haven't read much history keep running into the barriers I set for them, but the exercise is useful nonetheless. They begin to "see" the circumstances of literate and literary culture in an environment that is sparsely populated, with only a fledgling publishing and book distribution establishment, without libraries, with books as relatively expensive luxuries.

    Having imagined how Bradstreet's poems might have fared with her original audience, I ask students to compare themselves with those readers. How well do her themes and strategies travel across time? What elements seem to connect to contemporary concerns? What fails to relate? Why?

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Bradstreet can usefully be read in relation to:

    • other Puritan writers, especially the poet Edward Taylor.
    • contemporary British women writers, such as Katherine Philips.
    • the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Bradstreet's contemporary, also heralded as "the tenth muse").
    • Phillis Wheatley. Because Wheatley wrote more than a century later, from a Black perspective and in a neoclassical tradition, she provides points of sharp contrast. But on certain themes (humility, the importance of spirituality), their voices merge.


    Caldwell, Patricia. "Why Our First Poet Was a Woman: Bradstreet and the Birth of an American Poetic Voice." Prospects 13 (1988): 1-35.

    Cowell, Pattie and Ann Stanford, eds. Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

    Eberwein, Jane Donahue. " 'No Ret'ric We Expect': Argumentation in Bradstreet's 'The Prologue.' " In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 218-25. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

    Kopacz, Paula. " 'Men can doe best, and women know it well': Anne Bradstreet and Feminist Aesthetics." Kentucky Philological Review 2 (1987): 21-29.

    Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "The Puritan Poetry of Anne Bradstreet." In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 101-15. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

    Schweitzer, Ivy. "Anne Bradstreet Wrestles with the Renaissance." Early American Literature 23 (1988): 291-312.

    Stanford, Ann. "Anne Bradstreet: Dogmatist and Rebel." In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 76-88. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

    White, Elizabeth Wade. "The Tenth Muse--A Tercentenary Appraisal of Anne Bradstreet." In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, 55-75. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.