by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Many people have the impression that the struggle for women’s equality began in the 19th century, but there is evidence in women’s writing from much earlier that at least these women driving a pen across the page were not content with being subordinate to men, and there were stirrings here and there of rebellion.
Today’s Word Cloud was inspired by the 98th anniversary this coming Sunday of the certification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally granted American women the right as citizens to vote. However, it celebrates the words of a rare woman author from the early days of the American colonies, three centuries before that fateful day in 1920.
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first woman to be recognized as a North American poet, and the first in print. Her book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in London in 1650, where it became a best-seller of the day. In her Prologue to her book, she says, “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/ That says my hand a needle better fits.”
She had been educated by her father, Thomas Dudley, who was the steward of the Earl of Lincoln. He had taken full advantage of his privilege to study the books in the Earl’s extensive library, and shared that privilege with his daughter. Anne was knowledgeable about history and literature, and could read in several languages.
Anne Dudley married Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of England’s Cambridge University, at the age of sixteen. Heeding the signs of rising intolerance against the Puritans, her father and husband decided the families should emigrate to America aboard the Arbella, one of four ships that were part of the Winthrop Fleet which brought Puritans to America. They arrived at Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony on June 14, 1630, but were shocked to find widespread illness and starvation in the village, and quickly moved on. Eventually, they settled in Newe Towne (now Cambridge, Massachusetts), where she gave birth to their first child. Both her husband and her father were involved in the founding of Harvard in 1636, and two of her sons were Harvard graduates. (In October 1997, the Harvard community dedicated the Bradstreet Gate at Harvard Yard, in honor of Anne Bradstreet, America’s first published poet.)
Life in this ‘New World’ was much harder than life had been in England. By the time she was pregnant with her sixth child, her husband moved their family again, this time to help found North Andover in 1646. On July 10, 1666, their family home was lost in a fire that left the Bradstreets homeless and with few personal belongings. Anne Bradstreet’s health was slowly failing. She suffered from tuberculosis and grief over the death of loved ones, but her strong will kept her going until September 16, 1672, when she finally succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 60.
Bradstreet was a loving mother of eight children and the devoted wife of a public official in the New England Puritan community, but she struggled inwardly with the limitations placed on women by the Puritanism in which she had been raised. She wrote her poetry, often late at night, after her familial duties were done for the day. Her poems are mainly about her family, marriage and motherhood, the sufferings of life, and a dutiful religious faith, but a subtle discontent sometimes seeps through, the never-resolved conflict between her ‘place’ and her desire for something more.
Let’s begin with a poem about Anne Bradstreet, a tribute to her enduring inspiration written by Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944 – ):
Becoming Anne Bradstreet
It happens again
As soon as I take down her book and open it.
I turn the page.
My skies rise higher and hang younger stars.
The ship’s rail freezes.
Mare Hibernicum leads to Anne Bradstreet’s coast.
A blackbird leaves her pine trees
And lands in my spruce trees.
I open my door on a Dublin street.
Her child/her words are staring up at me:
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
We say home truths
Because her words can be at home anywhere—
At the source, at the end and whenever
The book lies open and I am again
An Irish poet watching an English woman
Become an American poet.
“Becoming Anne Bradstreet” from Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries, © 2012 by Eavan Boland – Folger Shakespeare Library press
Anne Bradstreet pays tribute to her father in this poem.
To Her Father with Some Verses
Most truly honoured, and as truly dear,
If worth in me or ought I do appear,
Who can of right better demand the same
Than may your worthy self from whom it came?
The principal might yield a greater sum,
Yet handled ill, amounts but to this crumb;
My stock’s so small I know not how to pay,
My bond remains in force unto this day;
Yet for part payment take this simple mite,
Where nothing’s to be had, kings loose their right.
Such is my debt I may not say forgive,
But as I can, I’ll pay it while I live;
Such is my bond, none can discharge but I,
Yet paying is not paid until I die.
And in this poem, to her husband.
A Letter to her Husband, absent
upon Publick employment
My head, my heart, mine Eyes, my life, nay more,
My joy, my Magazine of earthly store,
If two be one, as surely thou and I,
How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lye?
So many steps, head from the heart to sever
If but a neck, soon should we be together:
I like the earth this season, mourn in black,
My Sun is gone so far in’s Zodiack,
Whom whilst I ’joy’d, nor storms, nor frosts I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now nummed lye forlorn;
Return, return sweet Sol from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Then view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living Pictures of their Fathers 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 may 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 natures sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one.
Writing about the loss of the family home, the grief behind her dutiful acceptance of ‘God’s Will’ is apparent.
Note: pelf is a disparaging term for money
Verses upon the Burning of our House,
July 10th, 1666
Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning
of Our house, July 10th. 1666. Copied Out of
a Loose Paper.
In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was his own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle e’er shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom‘s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shalt thou lie,
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide,
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mould’ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Frameed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled.
It‘s purchased 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, farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.
This is my favorite poem by Anne Bradstreet. She has to tread very carefully so as not to offend the stern Puritan precept that women were inferior and put by God under subjugation to men, but she slips in several blows for the so-called weaker sex in her praise of Elizabeth I. She also shows off her extensive knowledge of both Classical and Elizabethan literature, and of history (although it’s a bit biased by her enthusiasm for Elizabeth, who had died just 9 years before she was born.)
Note: Proem is not a misprint – it means ‘a preface or preamble to a book or speech’
In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth
Although great Queen, thou now in silence lie,
Yet thy loud Herald Fame, doth to the sky
Thy wondrous worth proclaim, in every clime,
And so has vow’d, whilst there is world or time.
So great’s thy glory, and thine excellence,
The sound thereof raps every human sense
That men account it no impiety
To say thou wert a fleshly Deity.
Thousands bring off’rings (though out of date)
Thy world of honours to accumulate.
‘Mongst hundred Hecatombs of roaring Verse,
‘Mine bleating stands before thy royal Hearse.
Thou never didst, nor canst thou now disdain,
T’ accept the tribute of a loyal Brain.
Thy clemency did yerst esteem as much
The acclamations of the poor, as rich,
Which makes me deem, my rudeness is no wrong,
Though I resound thy greatness ‘mongst the throng.
No Phoenix Pen, nor Spenser’s Poetry,
No Speed’s, nor Camden’s learned History;
Eliza’s works, wars, praise, can e’re compact,
The World’s the Theatre where she did act.
No memories, nor volumes can contain,
The nine Olymp’ades of her happy reign,
Who was so good, so just, so learn’d, so wise,
From all the Kings on earth she won the prize.
Nor say I more than truly is her due.
Millions will testify that this is true.
She hath wip’d off th’ aspersion of her Sex,
That women wisdom lack to play the Rex.
Spain’s Monarch sa’s not so, not yet his Host:
She taught them better manners to their cost.
The Salic Law had not in force now been,
If France had ever hop’d for such a Queen.
But can you Doctors now this point dispute,
She’s argument enough to make you mute,
Since first the Sun did run, his ne’er runn’d race,
And earth had twice a year, a new old face;
Since time was time, and man unmanly man,
Come shew me such a Phoenix if you can.
Was ever people better rul’d than hers?
Was ever Land more happy, freed from stirs?
Did ever wealth in England so abound?
Her Victories in foreign Coasts resound?
Ships more invincible than Spain’s, her foe
She rack’t, she sack’d, she sunk his Armadoe.
Her stately Troops advanc’d to Lisbon’s wall,
Don Anthony in’s right for to install.
She frankly help’d Franks’ (brave) distressed King,
The States united now her fame do sing.
She their Protectrix was, they well do know,
Unto our dread Virago, what they owe.
Her Nobles sacrific’d their noble blood,
Nor men, nor coin she shap’d, to do them good.
The rude untamed Irish she did quell,
And Tiron bound, before her picture fell.
Had ever Prince such Counsellors as she?
Her self Minerva caus’d them so to be.
Such Soldiers, and such Captains never seen,
As were the subjects of our (Pallas) Queen:
Her Sea-men through all straits the world did round,
Terra incognitæ might know her sound.
Her Drake came laded home with Spanish gold,
Her Essex took Cadiz, their Herculean hold.
But time would fail me, so my wit would too,
To tell of half she did, or she could do.
Semiramis to her is but obscure;
More infamy than fame she did procure.
She plac’d her glory but on Babel’s walls,
World’s wonder for a time, but yet it falls.
Fierce Tomris (Cirus’ Heads-man, Sythians’ Queen)
Had put her Harness off, had she but seen
Our Amazon i’ th’ Camp at Tilbury,
(Judging all valour, and all Majesty)
Within that Princess to have residence,
And prostrate yielded to her Excellence.
Dido first Foundress of proud Carthage walls
(Who living consummates her Funerals),
A great Eliza, but compar’d with ours,
How vanisheth her glory, wealth, and powers.
Proud profuse Cleopatra, whose wrong name,
Instead of glory, prov’d her Country’s shame:
Of her what worth in Story’s to be seen,
But that she was a rich Ægyptian Queen.
Zenobia, potent Empress of the East,
And of all these without compare the best
(Whom none but great Aurelius could quell)
Yet for our Queen is no fit parallel:
She was a Phoenix Queen, so shall she be,
Her ashes not reviv’d more Phoenix she.
Her personal perfections, who would tell,
Must dip his Pen i’ th’ Heliconian Well,
Which I may not, my pride doth but aspire
To read what others write and then admire.
Now say, have women worth, or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is’t gone?
Nay Masculines, you have thus tax’d us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ‘tis a slander now, but once was treason.
But happy England, which had such a Queen,
O happy, happy, had those days still been,
But happiness lies in a higher sphere.
Then wonder not, Eliza moves not here.
Full fraught with honour, riches, and with days,
She set, she set, like Titan in his rays.
No more shall rise or set such glorious Sun,
Until the heaven’s great revolution:
If then new things, their old form must retain,
Eavan BolandEliza shall rule Albian once again.
Here sleeps T H E Queen, this is the royal bed
O’ th’ Damask Rose, sprung from the white and red,
Whose sweet perfume fills the all-filling air,
This Rose is withered, once so lovely fair:
On neither tree did grow such Rose before,
The greater was our gain, our loss the more.
Here lies the pride of Queens, pattern of Kings:
So blaze it fame, here’s feathers for thy wings.
Here lies the envy’d, yet unparallel’d Prince,
Whose living virtues speak (though dead long since).
If many worlds, as that fantastic framed,
In every one, be her great glory famed.
From Anne Bradstreet’s poems, to Abigail Adams’ plea that her husband John Adams “remember the ladies” in the laws being made for a new nation, to the explosion of literary women and pioneering feminists in the 1800s, American women have been dreaming of freedom and equality, and putting pen to paper in quest of it. Let us salute them, and the many women like them across the globe. Then may we honor our debt to them by making good use of our precious right to vote, for which they made great sacrifices and fought so long.
- Anne Bradstreet
- Eavan Boland
- 17th Century Books
- Simon Bradstreet
- Richard Sparrow House in Plymouth Massachusetts- built in 1640
- Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard
Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud