To My Dear and Loving Husband
Anne Bradstreet 1678
“To My Dear and Loving Husband” was written between 1641 and 1643 by Anne Bradstreet, America’s first published poet. This poem offers modern readers insights into Puritan attitudes toward love, marriage, and God. In the poem, Bradstreet proclaims her great love for her husband and his for her. She values their love more than any earthly riches, and she hopes that their physical union on earth signifies the continuation of their spiritual union in heaven. In this poem, Bradstreet views earthly love as a sign of spiritual salvation. This poem presents a central question in Puritan thought: how do one’s earthly and immortal lives connect?
This poem was first published in 1678, six years after Bradstreet’s death, in an edition of her poems entitled Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight. During Bradstreet’s lifetime, there were almost no women writers, because education was rarely wasted on daughters. Over half of the women in colonial America were illiterate. Bradstreet was very privileged, she but also courageous and dedicated to her art. Despite her culture’s biases, Brad-street wrote poetry that was widely acclaimed and remains relevant today for its emotional honesty and wisdom.
Bradstreet was born Anne Dudley around 1612 in England to a Puritan family. Her father, Thomas Dudley,
was steward to the Earl of Lincoln. Because of Dudley’s high position, his daughter received an excellent education. In 1630, she moved with her parents and husband, Simon Bradstreet, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where her husband and father served as governors of the settlement. As a New England colonist, Bradstreet encountered a life of hardship to which she was unaccustomed. Despite illness and the difficulties of raising her eight children in the American wilderness, she found time to write. By the age of thirty she had composed most of her poetry. When her brother-in-law John Woodbridge returned to England in 1647, he took with him the manuscript of Bradstreet’s poems. Without her knowledge, he published them, titling the collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. The volume met with immediate success in London. Surprised by the work’s reception, but disturbed by its un-polished state, Bradstreet began to revise the poems. Some of these alterations were lost, however, when her home burned in 1666. Bradstreet died in 1672, and six years afterward, the revisions, along with a number of new pieces, were published under the title Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight.
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold, 5
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold I pray. 10
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
The first line establishes the couple’s complete union. The speaker’s confident use of the words “surely” and “we” implies that she can speak for her husband about his feelings because they exactly match her own. In lines 1 and 2, the poet omits an implied last word: “are.” Bradstreet may omit this word to make her rhymes and meter work, to stress the couple in the end words “we” and “thee” (you), or because the lines’ meanings are clear without it.
Line 2 repeats the syntax of line 1. This repetition of structure serves to emphasize the poet’s point: this union in marriage is more harmonious and passionate than all others across all of time. The repetition of “ever” points the reader toward a key theme in this poem: the passage of time. The repetition of the phrase “If .... then” highlights the poet’s intent to persuade her audience of the truth of her claims. Rather than exclaiming “Honey, I love you so much!” the poet conveys her message in a phrase usually reserved for arguing philosophical truths. Bradstreet reinforces the authority of these two lines through punctuation. Whereas all of the subsequent couplets form one sentence, ending with the second line, lines 1 and 2 are each complete sentences with periods at the end. In other words, Bradstreet begins her poem with two bold, independent, declarative statements in order to underscore her confidence in this union of two strong, independent spirits.
In these lines, Bradstreet turns from addressing her husband (“thee”) to address other women with “ye women.” She dares other women to even Page 229 | Top of Articletry to compare their marital happiness with hers. Like the end words of the first two lines, the end words of these lines rhyme to form a couplet. Unlike the first couplet, lines 3 and 4 form just one sentence.
Having compared her love to other people’s relationships, the speaker now addresses her husband again (“thy love”) and compares how much she values his love to the most valued goods on earth: gold and riches. It is common for poets and lovers to place greater value on love than money. While boasting of the extraordinary value of their love, she humbly restricts its value to a human scale of worth so as not to insult her Lord. Gold is only valuable in human society; it has no value after death. Bradstreet may capitalize “Mines” simply to emphasize vast wealth. Until almost the early nineteenth century, rules for capitalization were not standardized, and writers often capitalized nouns for emphasis.
Shifting from how much she values this earthly love, the speaker expresses the scope and insatiability of her desire. By arguing that “Rivers cannot quench” her love, the speaker implies that her love is an ongoing thirst that no amount of water can slake. The metaphors of thirst and rivers introduce the idea that the speaker’s desire can be neither stopped nor quantified (as riches can). These “natural,” earthly images of never-ending desire prepare the way for the speaker’s wish for eternal, heavenly love later in the poem.
This line can be paraphrased as “the only thing on earth that equals or compensates my love for you is yours for me.” By choosing the word “recompence,” Bradstreet returns to the metaphor of monetary exchange. This couplet is the only one in the poem that uses a slant rhyme. The words “quench” and “recompence” do not rhyme exactly as the other end words do. Bradstreet may have paired these slightly ill-fitting sounds to parallel the mismatch of ideas, since comparing love to thirst and then money in the same sentence creates a mixed metaphor.
Line 9 expands the idea in line 8: the speaker cannot “repay” her husband’s love; only heaven can. The first four words of this line rhyme with
those of line 7, “My love is such,” and thereby link the previous couplet to this one through sound. Bradstreet connects the couplets because both develop the metaphor of love as riches. This rhyme reminds the reader of the spouses’ mirrored, reciprocated love. That mirror, however, implies an exact exchange that lines 7 though 10 contradict. That is, the speaker implies she cannot repay her husband’s love exactly, perhaps because she is a woman and therefore unequal to men. The only greater source of love is God, so the speaker prays in line 10 that “the heavens” will reward her husband’s love “manifold,” or in multiple and diverse ways. Note that the word “reward” continues the metaphor of monetary exchange. Bradstreet also invokes the phrase, “our heavenly reward,” which means that one will be rewarded for good works in life with eternal life in heaven.
The closing couplet of this almost-sonnet has stirred much controversy among scholars. Though in line 11 the speaker merely urges the lovers to “persevere,” or persist in loving while they live, in line 12 she dares to wish that their love live on forever. Bradstreet’s wish that love outlive death follows from the poem’s argument that “holy matrimony” on earth is spiritual and may be the vehicle of salvation. In Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, Robert Richardson sees earthly and heavenly love as continuous: “As the poem expresses it, the transition Page 230 | Top of Articlefrom this world to the next involves not renunciation, not a change even, but an expansion.” Many critics observe that Bradstreet’s poems detail great love for the creatures and experiences of this world, but then reassert a Puritan devotion to spiritual existence in their final lines and images. Some critics view these endings as insincere attempts to reconcile wayward feelings with Puritan dogma. Other critics regard these dualistic poems as prayers, in which the speaker explores the limits of her faith in order to reaffirm it more truthfully in the end. However one interprets the last lines of “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” this poem closes on a heartfelt note. In one sense, as you read the poem’s lines, Bradstreet’s wish for immortality is granted.
The speaker of this poem discusses her love in terms of income and wealth for two different reasons. Sometimes, she uses the wealth that is valued on earth to show how insignificant material possessions are when compared to her feelings. She also uses financial imagery to compare her love with that of her husband’s. The first use appears in lines 5 and 6, with her mention of “mines of gold” and “the riches that the East doth hold.” She brings up these extreme examples of wealth in order to belittle them and show that, even though they represent shocking excesses of material fortune in worldly terms, they are worth less to her than the love of her husband. The next set of images from the world of commerce takes money a little more seriously. The poem makes frequent use of nouns that are usually associated with financial transactions: “recompence,” “repay,” and “reward” all suggest resources passing from one party to another, usually to balance out something equally worthy passing in the other direction. This technique is effective for Bradstreet’s purpose, which is to measure the quantity of her love against the quantity of her husband’s. Money, after all, is just a way to measure the material possessions of one person against the possessions of everyone else: if everyone on earth owned the same amount, then exchanging money would be pointless. According to the financial balance sheet that is presented here, the speaker of this poem feels quite satisfied that the love she gives out to her husband is paid back to her, but she fears that he is not being given a fair
repayment for all that he does for her. The balance of their transaction is off because, as she humbly admits, her ability is limited. Her hope is that the love he gives her will receive an equal return when he dies, goes to heaven, and receives the reward that she sees herself as being too weak to provide.
The concept of time introduces several points of contradiction into this poem, and it is these contradictions that make “To My Dear and Loving Husband” as interesting as it is. The first two couplets, with their heavy reliance on the phrase “If ever ....,” imply the concept of eternity, which is an idea that is often associated with the romantic conception of love. Eternity is often used to show, as this poem is attempting to show, the supernatural power that love has. But these lines do not actually say anything about the speaker’s love lasting forever, only that the love between her and her husband are better than other loves throughout eternity. “Ever” here says nothing about how long their love will last, only that there has not been another Page 231 | Top of Articleto match it throughout history. To claim a love that lasts beyond death would contradict the principles of Bradstreet’s strong Puritan faith, which held that personal relations were supposed to end with death, along with all other things of the earth. The spirit would then be able to proceed to heaven unencumbered. As a matter of fact, line 11 does put a time limit on love, saying that it lasts only “while we live” and implying that love will therefore expire when life ends. The last line, though, contradicts this, by saying that love dies not end with death but that it can overpower death, causing life to last for eternity. Critics who are familiar with Anne Bradstreet’s strongly held religious beliefs doubt that she would contradict the teachings of her faith by saying that love lasts eternally, or, even worse, that it would be love of others, and not God’s grace, that creates eternal life. These critics soften the meaning of the word “that” in the last line, making worldly love and eternal love two separate things, with no real connection. If that were Bradstreet’s point, a clearer way to say it might have been, “in love let’s so persever, / And when we live no more, we will live forever.”
It is clear that the speaker of this poem relies on her husband for her sense of who she is; this idea is present in the first line, which tells readers that these two are one. The identity that the speaker willingly assigns to herself is “wife.” In lines 2 and 3, using parallel phrasings, she expresses both her love and then her contentedness with the relationship in terms of being a wife. Both times, however, she using the word “man,” not the corresponding term “husband”; this grants him a degree of independence from the relationship that she does not give herself. The imbalance in this marriage, with her unquenchable thirst for his love, has been called an indicator of the unevenness of gender roles in Puritan culture, in which the wife is vulnerable and subservient to the husband. A similar type of vulnerability, though, has been expressed by men throughout the centuries; it is the identifying trait of romantic love, a tradition handed down from the chivalrous code of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table since the sixth century. In a sense, the fact that the speaker of this poem sacrifices her will for love is a claim for the mental and emotional abilities of women. At a time when women were dismissed lightly by men as being ignorant and shallow, Bradstreet demonstrates, through her poem, a depth and profundity that challenges the stereotypes assigned to her gender.
“To My Dear and Loving Husband” is written in iambic pentameter, which means that five iambs occur in a row in most lines of the poem. A few variations in this rhythmic pattern keep the meter from sounding monotonous. If we mark iambs as unstressed, then stressed syllables, here is how the syllables in the first line are stressed:
If e / ver two / were one, / then sure / ly we.
In addition to regular rhythms, each pair of lines rhymes. These rhymed pairs are called couplets. In this poem, the couplets reinforce the theme of love between two people. There are twelve lines in the poem. It is just two lines short of being a sonnet. A traditional form, the sonnet has 14 lines, follows a regular rhyme scheme and rhythm— usually iambic pentameter—and often discusses love or mortality. This poem is also written in first person point of view, using “I.” Although speakers in poems and stories often represent fictional characters or personas, critics agree that Bradstreet speaks as herself in this and many other poems.
To emphasize the wife and husband’s mutual love, Bradstreet uses internal rhyme, rhymes within the lines, and parallelism, phrases with parallel or repeated syntax. The rhymed and repeated phrases reinforce two ideas: one, that each spouse’s love mirrors the other’s, and two, that this earthly love mirrors eternal love. The first two lines employ a parallel phrase, “If ever ... were / then....” The third word in each line signals key themes: “two, man, wife.” The phrase, “If ... then” is also a rhetorical tool used to persuade an audience of an argument’s truth. Through such repetition of parallel, persuasive phrases, Bradstreet tries to convince both the reader and her husband that their great love may signify salvation. Bradstreet uses additional parallel, rhymed phrases in lines 7 and 9: “My love is such” and “Thy love is such”; and lines 11 and 12: “Then while we live” and “That when we live.”
Anne Bradstreet was the first significant poet living in New England, which developed into the United States. She came from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 as part of the Great Migration of Puritans. Many brief histories of America refer to the fact that the Puritans who left
England did so to avoid religious persecution, leaving the impression that they were a small band with unusual religious practices that the government decided suddenly to hunt down and destroy. Actually, the roots of Puritanism run deep within the Church of England and far back into English history. The defining characteristic of the Church of England, also referred to as the Anglican church, is its opposition to the Catholic rules that require obedience to the pope. Back before 597 A.D., ancient Celtic religious practices were followed in England, but in that year Catholic missionaries from Rome arrived. As Catholicism grew, it created, as any idea brought into a new environment will, a unique blend with the religious notions that preceded it. By the sixteenth century, Catholicism was clearly the single most dominating religion in Western civilization (a term used to indicate the societies of western Europe), but many people were unhappy. They felt that Roman Catholic ceremonies placed too much emphasis on the officers of the church, inserting levels of cardinals, bishops, and even the pope between ordinary people and God. In Germany, Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation when he published his Ninety-five Theses in 1517, objecting to the Church’s practices—especially the way that it collected money. In France, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which emphasized the virtues of hard work and supported a doctrine of predestination, became the most influential work of the Protestant movement. In England, King Henry VIII tried to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the Catholic Church, and when his request was refused, he created the separate Church of England, making the ruler of England the head of the church. When his daughter by Catherine, Mary Tudor, became queen in 1553, she tried to restore Catholicism in England, executing many Protestants and forcing hundreds more to leave the country. She died in 1558, and her sister, Elizabeth, took the throne. Queen Elizabeth restored the Church of England that Mary had, for the most part, dismantled. About a sixth of the Protestants returning from exile, though, did not agree with Elizabeth’s policies, feeling that she was giving too many concessions to the Catholic Church. They felt that the Church of Rome was corrupting the purity of human relations with God, and so they gained the name Puritans.
The Puritans’ doctrine emphasized the belief that all humans are sinners and that man cannot understand God. Their beliefs were unpopular, and the ideas of religious tolerance that we are familiar with, mostly because of the influence of their Page 233 | Top of Articleexperience, were unknown then. The fortune of English politics shifted between Catholics and Protestants, but neither side liked Puritans, who were tortured and jailed. With the development of New England, Puritans saw a chance to get away from the persecution they suffered at home. In 1606, the Virginia Company was organized as a functional corporation to develop the resources of the new land; they settled Jamestown, the first European settlement in New England, in 1607. In 1623, the Reverend John White of Dorchester arrived in America with about fifty Puritans, but the land where they arrived was too hard to cultivate, so most went back to England, leaving a few who, with the help of the Indians, settled Salem, Massachusetts. In 1628, White founded a new corporation, the New England Company, which he later renamed the Massachusetts Bay Company for legal reasons. They received permission from the government to establish the territory of Massachusetts, and, most important, to run the government of the colony from Massachusetts, not from England. The Massachusetts Territory ranged for about sixty miles north and south of Salem (a western boundary was not set, because they believed America only extended a few miles past the Atlantic ocean anyway). In 1630, eleven ships owned by the Massachusetts Bay Company carried Puritans to America. On the flagship, the Arabella, were seventeen-year-old Anne Bradstreet, her husband, and her parents.
The Puritans saw America as a broad, empty wilderness that was open for development. They did not see the indigenous people, the Indians, as being fully human, but as “savages,” and therefore it did not bother them to encroach upon the Indians’ land. The Puritans, who had gotten used to unfamiliar, sometimes deadly, experiences since the first moments of their sea voyage, were for the most part disappointed when they arrived in the New World. They had concentrated on the rich fertility and open spaces of the land and found themselves, cultured and educated urban people for the most part, faced with clearing trees, plowing soil, and building houses. Thomas Dudly, the first deputy governor of the colony in Massachusetts and the father of Anne Bradstreet, explained in a letter back to England that accounts of wealth and easy living in the colony were often exaggerated: “In a word, we yet enjoy little to be envied, but endure much to be pitied in the sickness and mortality of our people.” Before farms were developed, Puritans went hungry; when the first winter came, the weather was harsher than they could have guessed, and sicknesses that they did not recognize infected the colony. Even common illnesses were deadly because of a shortage of medication. Faith kept many working along, and even more stayed because they feared that the ocean voyage back would be just as bad as the one that had brought them. Eventually, cities sprung up and a culture arose, although it was still more than a hundred years until the colonies fought the Revolutionary War and formed their own independent country.
Most critics observe a distinct split between Anne Bradstreet’s early and later poetry. The early poetry, published in the 1650 volume, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, concerns public, formal themes. This poetry demonstrates Bradstreet’s considerable knowledge and poetic skill, but critics prefer her later poetry, published after her death in the 1678 edition, Several Poems. The 1678 volume includes more “private” or personal poems than the earlier volume, including “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” In these poems, Brad-street records her personal experiences as a Puritan woman, wife, and mother. Through these experiences, the poet analyzes her religious faith and draws lessons for living.
Critics agree that “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” along with Bradstreet’s other private poems, offers a unique glimpse into the mind-set of both the Puritans and Anne Bradstreet. The Puritans were not quite the dour, religious fanatics that many people once believed they were. They gratefully celebrated physical love, food, nature, and other worldly pleasures as gifts from God. “To My Dear and Loving Husband” demonstrates that a Puritan woman’s physical passion could be proclaimed as the nearest thing on earth to heaven. However, the speaker’s love for her husband almost seems to outweigh her devotion to God. Devout Puritans tried not to love any earthly thing more than God. The poet wishes for the union to continue after death, even though Christians then and now believe that earthly unions dissolve at death. Critic Robert Richardson, writing in the collection Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, argues that “In this poem, this world and the next validate one another. Love is the way to heaven and the best image of heaven is a realm of eternal love.” Critics disagree over how conventional Bradstreet’s religious beliefs were. Most agree, however, that the Page 234 | Top of Articlepoet powerfully dramatizes tensions between “the flesh and the spirit” in her struggle to interpret earthly signs of God’s will.
In the following essay, Stafford summarizes Bradstreet’s poetic achievements.
The poetry of Anne Bradstreet has two claims upon the reader of American literature. The first grows out of her place as the earliest poet to produce a large body of original work in America; the second, by far the more important, comes from the high quality of the poetry itself. Hers is a voice which overleaps the limits of an age and speaks in fresh and vibrant tones of human concerns. In recognition of such timelessness at least one edition of her poems has been published or reprinted in each century of our history.
Given its place and merit, the poetry of Anne Bradstreet deserves the scrutiny of a full-length study, for her accomplishment becomes clearer in the light of the circumstances, both literary and ideological, under which she wrote. Her work is influenced, first of all, by the ideas circulated generally among all educated people of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, ideas of the nature of man and the universe and of politics that differ markedly from those we hold today. Beyond these, her work reflects the Puritan religious concepts with which she was thoroughly indoctrinated; it shows, too, a remarkable sensitivity to the forms and genres which she inherited from the Elizabethans and which were being developed by other seventeenth-century writers.
But above all, Anne Bradstreet’s entire canon represents the struggle between the visible and the invisible worlds. Earth and the things of earth had on her a solid grasp. Though the spirit might point out the virtues of the unseen, Anne Bradstreet was always most conscious of the pleasures and rewards of earth—love, family, comfort, learning, fame. Even the harsh realities of the new world, this wilderness in which she made her home, were preferable to the gold and jewels of the invisible kingdom. Her argument was a constant one, conducted life-long; the voice of the world was never quite overwhelmed even in her most religious poems. In keeping with her long inner dialogue, most of her poetry takes the form of argument—in the early poems, between characters; in the later, between the two parts of herself. During the first half of her career, the world is clearly supreme; during the latter part, the invisible wins, but never a clear victory.
The poet’s involvement in the world is symbolized by the wide range of forms in which she cast her writing and the influences we can see in them. Her range included the encyclopedic quaternions, rhymed history, metrical prayers, formal memorial eulogies, elegies of personal grief, political broadsides, Biblical paraphrases, love poems, meditative poems, and in prose, a personal journal and meditations. All these she wrote in “a few hours snatched from sleep and other refreshment,” and all these she wrote in styles varied according to the purpose of each, as dictated by the literary decorum of her day. But though she was familiar with the general current of ideas and with the work of many of the then popular writers, she did not slavishly follow any master. She rearranged and synthesized the literary forms she encountered to serve her own purposes. Despite its roots in the baroque, her work is essentially pragmatic and realistic as befits a writer so admiring of the world. In part these qualities grew out of the poet’s character. But they may also have come from her experience of the American wilderness, where, severed from the full impact of changing literary fashions, she developed her own responses to those events which touched her most.
Like other true poets, she enlivened the conventions she received, transforming them into a unique and vigorous instrument. But she did not use that instrument for small or temporary ends. Her work is very much a whole.
Source: Ann Stanford, preface to Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan, New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1974.
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly explains the reasons we want to believe that a poet like Bradstreet, unlike modern poets, is entirely open, but then he raises doubts about whether this poem really is as simple as it seems.
What draws me to Anne Bradstreet’s poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” is the directness of the poet’s expression of her love. We don’t see that in literature, especially not in twentieth-century literature, where authors have learned to Page 235 | Top of Articletell about a thing by talking about anything but the thing. By modern standards, a poem that claims to be about a woman’s love for her husband would really intend to suggest her childhood traumas, or the husband’s personality, or just about anything except what it seems to be about. Not that complexity, though sometimes frustrating, is bad. Overall, I’m glad when a work of literature tries to keep a few steps ahead of its readers, dodging and hiding behind whatever camouflage it can muster and leaving us wondering where it is going and where it has been. Life would be a lot less interesting if poems said things flat out, such as, “This is a tree, and I like it.” The human mind will wander anyway—twentieth-century authors prepare for that curiosity and write their poems mindful of the fact that people are going to want to know more about what a poem is telling them than just what it says. They program clues into the blank spaces to indicate who is telling us this and why they like the tree. Some of this comes from the rise of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the century and its theory that the subconscious creates events that we cannot see; some of it is the result of stratospheric jumps in the numbers of educated people, especially in the college-educated since World War II, which has given us a huge army of literary critics trying to gouge even the tiniest clues out of a poem. Once in a while, after pondering poetry for a long time, it is nice to just sit down with a poem like “To My Dear And Loving Husband” that has a thing to say and says it, then lets its readers go off to new pursuits.
I should say, it would be nice, but unfortunately a good poem never releases its grasp, and any good poem deserves study. The basic questions are answered within this poem—the person speaking is Mistress Bradstreet herself, and the “why” for her writing is that she loves her husband very much and wants him to know about it. Even these simple answers, though, raise further issues. Who is this Bradstreet woman? The normal, dismissive answer is that she is a Puritan, followed by a long essay about who the Puritans were and what they stood for. Why is she so bent on telling her husband how much she loves him, especially since Puritans were a notoriously tight-lipped and unemotional bunch who generally are not considered the type to pour out their emotions? The conventional answer is that she was a poet, and this is what poets do—pour out their feelings on the page for all to see.
In her book Anne Bradstreet Revisited, Rosamond Rosenmeier raises the question of whether
“To My Dear and Loving Husband,” or any of the other four that make up the group we refer to as “The Marriage Poems,” was actually meant for the public to see. The Marriage Poems were added to the 1678 edition of her poetry after Bradstreet’s death; there is no way of determining what her Page 236 | Top of Articlewishes were about their publication—whether she meant them only for her husband (but he felt they were so good he had to share them with the world), or if she meant all along to use them as part of her overall message to the world (addressing them to him as a literary device). On the one hand, there seems to be no reason to question the poem’s sincerity when it speaks to Bradstreet’s husband, Simon: as mentioned before, the demand for irony and complexity that has intensified over the past hundred years had not come to bear on Bradstreet in the seventeenth century, and, besides, her staunch religious beliefs would make her unlikely to bend the truth too far in the name of “art for art’s sake.” On the other hand, as Rosenmeier points out, there are signs within the Marriage Poems, such as Biblical allusions and recurring imagery from Renaissance science, that make it seem clear that these poems weren’t just pleasant, colorful little gifts for Simon Bradstreet—they were written with the public in mind.
At this point, the question seems entirely academic (which is to say that it’s the sort of thing that only a college professor with too much time to kill and an itch to stir up controversy might raise). It is a sweet poem, and a lot of readers would probably like to leave it at that. But once the question is raised about whether what we see in this poem is Anne Bradstreet talking to her husband or a character named “Anne Bradstreet” talking to us readers, then there is no way to read the poem well without feeling confident about one answer or the other.
Since historians and Anne Bradstreet’s biographers have never been able to settle on a satisfactory answer—there is neither a journal entry saying, “Am working on a poem about marriage, but I’ll address it as a letter to Simon,” nor a note on the original poem telling her husband, “Don’t show this to anyone!”—the best place to look is at the five Marriage Poems. These poems were probably written within a close time frame, and they address events in the author’s life, ranging from the birth of one of her children (she had eight) to her husband’s travels on political business (he was a governor of Massachusetts and had to leave their home in Ipswich to spend time 200 miles away in Boston).
The first poem in the set is titled, plainly enough, “Before the Birth of One Of Her Children” and is addressed directly to her husband. Of the group, this one seems most likely to have been meant for his eyes only and not for public display. I say this because it contains orders about what he should do if she should die during childbirth, which was a likely enough possibility in those days. She asks to remain in his memory, while, at the same time, encouraging him to go on with his life “when the knot’s untied.” She tells him to watch after their children, but then adds that he is not to let a new wife have them (“These O protect from step-dame’s injury”), presenting him with a complex mixture of permission and threat. The mixed emotions throughout suggest—though of course there is no way to prove it—that this is a personal poem, or is at least spun from emotions that Bradstreet herself experienced, with no tradition to defend it.
By contrast, “To My Dear and Loving Husband” seems stiff and formal. The imagery—mines of gold, riches of the East—is standard and unoriginal, the kind of stuff that can be appreciated equally by a great number of people. Perhaps Simon Bradstreet was an unoriginal thinker, and his wife knew that the way to praise him in a poem was to address him in the broadest terms possible, but the evidence leans toward her having at least one eye on her literary reputation here.
“A Letter To Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment” takes a personal situation—it even mentions that she is at Ipswich, rather than vaguely defining the situation with two unnamed places—and uses a more universal condition, the winter sun’s absence, to broaden it. Is this a letter? As with “Before the Birth of One Of Her Children,” the references seem to be personal and even sexual (“His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt / My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn”). Of all the marriage poems, this one seems the most careful balance of public and private, describing a situation that lovers everywhere cope with and also Anne Bradstreet’s situation in particular. If “To My Dear and Loving Husband” is pure poetry, the kind of thing a wife might use to engrave a clock or raise a glass to toast with, “A Letter To Her Husband” offers the kind of personal expansion on her husband’s life that we have come to expect of poetry.
The last two Marriage Poems are both called “Another” in the authoritative version of Bradstreet’s collected works, although the first of them is sometimes known as “Phoebus,” which is its initial word. This one is addressed to Phoebus, the Middle English name for the Greek sun god Apollo, asking the sun to carry her love to her husband, far away, conveying to him the darkness she lives in while they are apart. It is the only one of the Marriage Poems that is not addressed to her husband, Page 237 | Top of Articleyet there is a vulnerability to it that is missing from “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” as in the qua-train before last: “Tell him I would say more, but cannot well / Oppressed minds abruptest tales do tell.” The second “Another” seems like a creative writing exercise in the device of the simile, comparing her marriage to two deer, some mullet, and turtles. The comparisons are more developed than “mines of gold” and “riches of the East,” but that could merely be because more time is spent in them.
The older a poem is, the less credit we give its writer for cleverness and diversity. In Anne Bradstreet’s case, the historical facts help to scatter readers’ expectations: often, more attention is given to the social circumstances that limited a woman in colonial Massachusetts, and not enough is paid to what her overall plan was. I do not think she had a hidden agenda in writing “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” and I do think that too much time can be wasted in treating this poem as an archeological artifact, a signifier, rather than taking her at her word. It wouldn’t bother me, though, to know if her audience was the wide world of readers, as I think the polish of the poem implies, or if it really was meant just for her husband.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Stafford discerns Bradstreet’s views on love and marriage as evidenced in her poems to her husband.
Anne Bradstreet had small patience with the Petrarchan convention in which a poet adores his lady from afar.....
For Anne Bradstreet, the ideal love finds its consummation and continuation in marriage.
The importance of marriage for her as for all Puritans, was increased by the belief in the family as the basic unit of government in both the state and the congregation. Especially in New England the state was considered to be made up of families, who were expected to exercise control over their members. Thus marriage was important to the state, but essential to marriage was love. God had commanded man and wife to love one another; hence the duty to love was a part of the marriage contract. Though marriages were usually arranged by Puritan families on the basis of social rank, young people were not forced to marry where they felt love would be impossible. That a tender relationship was achieved among many Puritan couples is attested by such writings as the letters of John Winthrop to his wife, Thomas Shepard’s references to his wife in his Autobiography, and the poems Anne Bradstreet wrote to her husband. Four of these are love poems. The first, twelve lines titled “To my Dear and loving Husband,” comes as close to being a sonnet as anything Anne Bradstreet wrote. But it rhymes in couplets and the syntax is simple and direct, without the involution of phrase or meaning to be found in most sonnets. The other three are letters “to my husband, absent upon Public Employment.” Since they bear the same title, I shall distinguish them by terms prominent in them, as the “Ipswich,” the “Phoebus,” and the “Loving-hind” poems.
Just as, thematically, the poems express a love exactly opposite to the Petrarchan ideal, so the methods, characters, and imagery differ. Here is no oxymoron, no freezing while burning, as in the Petrarchan conceits, but a straightforward analogy— the author is cold when her husband is away and warm when he is there, regardless of the season. Neither lady or love is idealized or distant; rather the marriage is happy in its consummation.....
The Petrarchan love poem tended to blend with Neo-Platonism, and the final outcome of Petrarchan love was the approach to heavenly or ideal beauty through a series of steps beginning with physical love. For the Puritan, such an approach to heavenly beauty was not possible. Love was not used for the purpose of striving for ideal beauty, since the ideal was to be achieved by other means— the regenerate heart was given the power to see the “beauty of holiness” and the world as an expression of God’s glory. The Puritan attitude toward love was more utilitarian. Married union was a near necessity. Love, both for Puritans and many other Elizabethans, when consummated by marriage, was to issue, not in aesthetic appreciation, but in the procreation of children. From the Epithalamion of Spenser, which closes with several references to fertility and procreation as the hoped-for outcome of the joys of the wedding night, to Milton, who couples marriage and procreation in the lines “Hail wedded Love, true source / Of human offspring,” the theme recurs. Nor does Anne Bradstreet divorce her love for her husband from a consciousness of love’s utilitarian functions. In the Ipswich poem she says “In this dead time, alas, what can I more / Then view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?” Here married love, while treated metaphorically, is nevertheless approached in a straight-forward, almost sensuous manner.
The four lyrics are bound together around a central idea—the union of husband and wife and the insistence on that unity despite physical separation. The first poem states the theme: “If ever two were one, then surely we.” The Ipswich poem continues, inquiring “If two be one, as surely thou and I, / How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lye?” The poet addresses her husband as Sol and begs him to return northward; while he is in the south, the day is too long. In the Phoebus poem she reflects this idea in the first line (“Phoebus make haste, the day’s too long, be gone”) before proceeding to ask the sun to carry a message to her husband. The Loving-hind poem, which compares the poet to a hind, a dove, and a mullet, repeats the idea which concludes the second poem of the series (“I here, thou there, yet both but one”) by stating “I here, he there, alas, both kept by force” and ends by asking him to return so they may browse at one tree, roost in one house, glide in one river. Its last line echoes the first line of the first poem by “Let’s still remain but one, till death divide.” Thematically, then, the poems are closely knit. The expression of sorrow over separation controls them as each moves toward the conclusion that the division should be ended by the reunion of the spouses.
The linking of the love poems by reiteration of a common theme illustrates a practice Bradstreet followed in several genres. The early elegies, for example, though written at different times, coalesced around the theme of fame, heightened in each case by the central technique of showing the subject outdoing other great figures. Later, “Contemplations” and the personal elegies, written as successive pieces of a long work or as single poems, were to be connected by central themes. Bradstreet’s poetic canon shows a remarkable wholeness. Themes and images recur, often controlling the structure of all the poems in a single genre, or like the concept of the four elements, being repeated as motifs throughout her work. The four poetic letters to her husband, are the most conspicuous example of Bradstreet’s ability to unify separate pieces of her work, but the tendency persists throughout.
Within the letters themselves, movement occurs by a method characteristic of other lyrics of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when poetry was considered a branch of rhetoric..... The three letters of Anne Bradstreet were all written with the ostensible purpose of persuasion. Their method is not to describe realistically the state of her mind, but to move her husband by a series of arguments. Puttenham in his discussion of “that form of Poesie in which amorous affections and allurements were uttered” comments on the appropriate language for love poetry: “it requireth a forme of Poesie variable, inconstant, affected, curious and most witty of any others.” Anne Bradstreet’s language and metaphors in general conform to the rules of poetic decorum described by Puttenham. Certainly these love poems are the most “curious and witty” of her work.
The three love letters may have been written between 1641 and 1643, a period of high poetic excitement for Anne Bradstreet. Possibly she wrote them soon after the re-reading of Du Bartas in 1641, for they represent her closest approach to the use of exaggerated comparisons. By the time she wrote another poem to her husband a few years later, she had completely abandoned the “witty” style and adopted the more direct manner of her later poetry.
The language of “Before the Birth of one of her Children” is completely straightforward. Writing with great seriousness, the poet suggests that she may die in the coming childbirth. She asks her husband to forget her faults and remember what virtues she may have had, and to protect her little children from “step Dames injury.” She is aware that life is fleeting but she also says
love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s unty’d that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
It was the Puritan belief that a marriage was dissolved at death. Marriage was for the earthly life only, and in any after life any union between spirits was no longer in effect. Perhaps partly for this reason the regenerate spirits in Wigglesworth’s poem The Day of Doom (stanzas 195–201) could watch without a quiver while their spouses, children, or parents went down to everlasting hell. God had said that a person must not love any earthly thing inordinately, and even excessive grief for a departed spouse was contrary to God’s command. Anne Bradstreet voiced the Puritan view when she spoke of untying the knot “that made us one,” just as she expressed it in the last line of the Loving-hind poem, “Let’s still remain but one till death divide.” But she tries to get around the idea of the complete severance of death by writing lines so that “I may seem thine, who in effect am none.” She wants to be remembered. Admitting that her husband will probably marry again, she still hopes that
if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,Page 239 | Top of Article
With some sad sighs honour my absent Herse;
And kiss this paper for thy loves dear sake.
Further, she requests him
when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
In its emotional content, the poem—one of Bradstreet’s several farewells to the world—tries to gain for its author earthly continuance in the memory of the living. In the earlier love poems, also, the poet attempted to circumvent the finality of death. Throughout, they reflect a love that goes beyond the merely rational and dutiful. “To my Dear and loving Husband” ends:
Then while we live, in love lets so persevere,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
The turn of phrase here reminds us of Cavalier poetry, though the lines themselves are ambiguous. They may mean that the loving couple will produce descendants, so that they may live on in their line. Or the couplet may mean that the two will become famous as lovers and live on in that fame. And the fame will come in part through the exertions of Anne Bradstreet’s muse.
Such might be the whole import of these lines had they been based completely on the commonplaces of Renaissance sonneteers. But the intensity with which the Puritans focussed on grace and divine love adds religious overtones to this poem. The word love is played upon. As Saints, the lovers must persevere in the consciousness of the divine love within the covenant of grace in order to live ever. The love between husband and wife in the ideal state of marriage may be considered an analogy for the love between Christ and the soul or Christ and his Church. So the “Argument” preceding the Song of Solomon in the Geneva Bible explains: “In this Song, Salomon by moste swete and comfortable allegories and parables describeth the perfite love of Jesus Christ, the true Salomon and King of peace, and the faithful soule or his Church, which he hath sanctified and appointed to be his spouse, holy, chast and without reprehension.” Even so, the ardor with which Bradstreet addresses her husband in this “sonnet” and the three love poems threatens to overshadow a proper love of God by placing so high a value on one who is a mere creature.
Source: Ann Stanford, “The Poems to Her Husband,” Anne Bradstreet: The Worldly Puritan, New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1974.
Bremer, Francis J., The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976.
Carroll, Peter N., Puritanism and The Wilderness: The Intellectual Significance of the New England Frontier, 1629-1700, New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
Kenyon, J. P., Stuart England, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
Morison, Samuel Eliot, Builders of the Bay Colony, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1930.
Richardson, Robert D., “The Puritan Poetry of Anne Brad-street,” in Critical Essays on Anne Bradstreet, edited by Pattie Cowell and Ann Stanford, G.K. Hall & Co., 1983, pp. 101-15.
Rosenmeier, Rosamond, Anne Bradstreet Revisited, Boston: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1991.
Stanford, Ann, Anne Bradstreet, The Worldly Puritan: An Introduction to Her Poetry, Burt Franklin & Co., 1974.
For Further Study
Douglas, Emily Taft, Remember the Ladies: The Story of Great Women Who Helped Shape America, New York: Putnam, 1966.
As the title indicates, the tone of this book is quite more patronizing toward female authors than is generally seen in more contemporary studies; still, the sheer range of women covered here, putting Brad-street in a category with Eleanor Roosevelt and Isadora Duncan, makes this source worthwhile.
Dudley, Thomas, “Problems of Settlement,” The Puritan Tradition in America, 1620-1730, edited by Alden T. Vaughan, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972. pp. 59-63.
This brief excerpt, written by Anne Bradstreet’s father (who came from England with her) describes the starvation and freezing faced by the Puritans on their arrival. This whole book consists of first-person accounts of America’s early days.
Dunham, Montrew, Anne Bradstreet: Young Puritan Poet, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.
Although this book is actually written for children in primary school, it is one of the few sources to concentrate on the poet’s childhood before she left England.
Hammond, Jeffrey, Sinful Self, Saintly Self: The Puritan Experience of Poetry, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Hammond’s book explores the religious determinism that shaped Bradstreet’s thought and defined her experience.
Miller, Perry, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650, Evanston, IL: Harper Torchbook, 1933.
The interesting thing about this history is the way that it treats religion as a political tool, showing how the Puritan way of thought evolved into the American way of social interaction.
Piercy, Josephine K., Anne Bradstreet, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965.
This is a very thorough and basic overview of Bradstreet’s life and the critical reception of her oeuvre.
Rosenmeier, Rosamond, Anne Bradstreet Revisited, Boston: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1991.
A companion piece to Piercy’s book, this corrects some historical inaccuracies and takes a more psychological approach to Bradstreet, using newer materials.
Stanford, Ann, Anne Bradstreet, The Worldly Puritan: An Introduction to Her Poetry, New York: B. Franklin, 1975.
A respected survey of the poet and her work that is written at a level appropriate for readers who are not familiar with Bradstreet.