Anne Bradstreet was the first major English-language poet in North America. Her 1650 book of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was critically praised in England and New England. The many poems she wrote across her lifetime—including several epic-length poems on nature and history—feature a number of styles contemporary to the 17th century, including metaphorical conceits (extended metaphorical "concepts") such as were practiced by "Metaphysical" English poets like John Donne and George Herbert, and the "plain style" of middle-class Puritanism.
The poems by Bradstreet that speak most to later popular audiences are her domestic lyrics expressing affection for her husband and family, or the hopes and losses of private life.
As the life-story of a gifted woman in the 1600s, Bradstreet's career is also a testament to the abilities, potential opportunities, and limits for women in Europe and its American colonies. Born in England around 1612 to Dorothy Yorke and Thomas Dudley (1576-1653), who was steward (estate manager) to the Earl of Lincoln, As daughter to a high-ranking manager for a noble estate, Anne found opportunities to study history, languages, literature, and she enjoyed access to the estate library.
The Dudleys were exemplary Puritans in that they themselves were not aristocrats but part of a rising middle-class whose communities encouraged universal education. In 1628 married Simon Bradstreet (d. 1697), and in 1630 the Bradstreets and her parents migrated to New England on board the Arbella, where Puritan leader John Winthrop preached his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity.
The Bradstreets thereafter lived in Boston and other towns in the Massachusetts Bay area and became parents to eight children. Mr. Bradstreet and Mr. Dudley both served as Governors of the Massachusetts Bay colony and helped found Harvard College.
After Bradstreet's death, her Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning was published in1678.
Bradstreet's characterization as a "Tenth Muse" (in addition to the "Nine Muses" of Classical Literature) associates her with her contemporary, Sor Juana de la Cruz (1651-95) of Mexico or New Spain.
Discussion questions for Bradstreet's poems:
1. Compared to the historic narratives, journals, and documents of Early American Literature, what literary pleasures are available in lyric poetry like Bradstreet's?
2. What subjects or stylistic qualities make her poetry either timeless or capable of reaching across centuries? How much of this timelessness owes to Bradstreet's privilege as part of early North America's dominant culture?
3. How do the extended metaphors or "conceits" in many of Bradstreet's poems conform to Baroque aesthetics? How does Verses upon the Burning of our House appear closer to the Puritan "Plain Style?"
Poems by Bradstreet at this site:
Before the Birth of One of Her Children
Verses upon the Burning of our House
Letter to My Children (verse and letter)