The puritan poet Anne Bradstreet holds a special place in American literature as not only its first female writer but also as its first published author. Her book, The Tenth Muse, was the first literary work created in America. I had read some of Bradstreet’s poems in my American lit. class this year in school and I bought of a book of her poetry in the giftshop at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.
The poems of Anne Bradstreet focus on subjects appropriate for a puritan woman: love, family life, and religion and the hardships which women like her faced in 17th century Massachusetts such as such as childbirth, lose of and separation from loved ones, and reconciling these hardships with their religious beliefs. The puritans who colonized New England dealt with a combination of a harsh and difficult landscape and similarly harsh and difficult religious beliefs. The puritan psyche was characterized by a struggle between the flesh, material things of the world, and the spirit, the soul and spirituality. Bradstreet’s poem, The Flesh and the Spirit, deals with this struggle, presented as an argument between two sisters, personification of these two forces. The flesh argues that the spirit can never be sure if what it believes is actually true. One of the most difficult parts of being a puritan is just that, cannot you be sure that your strict religious observance is worth it in the end. The Spirit’s rebuttal to her sister is that she will avoid being troubled by doubt and rely on faith because the rewards given in heaven are far greater than anything on earth. The needs of the flesh distract you from the needs of the spirit and keep you from living a godly life, according to puritan thought.
Another tenet of puritan thought is to dismiss hardship and tragedy as “god’s will.” In her poem, Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666, takes the typically puritan view of misfortune. In describing a fire which destroyed her home, she tries to tell herself that such a tragedy is God’s will and that worldly goods are meaningless. But the reader gets a sense that this only a half hearted way of trying to make herself feel better after losing her home and everything she owns. A difficulty which comes with being a person of faith is reconciling their belief in a just and loving god with the terrible things that can happen to them, and the idea that they “God’s will” is perhaps a way of dealing with profound sorrow.
Bradstreet wrote the poem, As Weary Pilgrim, Now at Rest, towards the end of her life. She compares herself to a traveler who has been on a long and difficult journey and longs for rest For a puritan with strict religious beliefs living in the harsh climate of New England, life would seem like a long and difficult journey. Puritans saw their earthly life as filled with hardships and the only rest they could hope for in heaven after death.
The puritans came to the New World seeking religious freedom, which has become a belief upon which America was, supposedly, founded. But what the puritans meant by religious freedom was religious freedom for themselves and no one else. They were notoriously intolerant of other religious groups and had the protestant fierce hatred of catholics. Bradstreet’s poem, A Dialogue Between Old England and New, is pretty much a long rant against popery. As a confirmed, if not necessarily practicing, catholic, I felt a little bit offended. Puritans such as Anne Bradstreet are fascinating to study because in them, we find the seeds of so much of what makes up the American psyche: our idolization of a strong work ethic (our reality is perhaps less noble), our sense of exceptionalism and curmudgeonly independence, our tendency towards bigotry, and our penchant for literal and figurative witch hunts. Perhaps our modern culture of consumerism, excess, and hedonism is perhaps a reaction against our puritanical roots.
I would recommend reading Anne Bradstreet to anyone interested in American history and literature, specifically of the puritan era.