Anne Bradstreet: Before the Birth of One of her Children

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A Quick Look

I keep the poetry of Anne Bradstreet close by. She is America’s first poet writing in English Bradstreet's First Editionand she was the first to publish a book of poetry in America. I’ve read various dismissive comments directed at her poetry, but I don’t share those opinions. Her poetry may lack the clever cosmopolitan  imagery, metaphor and conceit of other poets, but her peers weren’t living in the wilderness of Massachusetts. Her best poetry, her later poetry, is intensely direct, honest, heartfelt and tender in a way that none of her Jacobean peers, still in London, ever equaled. It’s tempting to say there’s something already uniquely American about her voice. With an ocean between her and Europe, her poetry and thoughts (initially written in the schoolish, conventional and literary mode of her peers and upbringing) turns to the every day fact of love, life, motherhood and family. Her thoughts turn from what she has left behind, to what she has created in her new world.

Adrienne Rich, in her introduction to Bradstreet’s works, states that she arrived in America in 1630. She was eighteen years old and had been married since sixteen. Rich writes:

Her father, Thomas Dudley, a man of education and worldly experience, had been steward to an earl; her mother, by Cotton Mather’s account, “a gentlewoman whose extraction and estates were considerable.” Her own education had been that of a clever girl in the cultivated seventeenth century house: an excellent library, worldly talk, the encouragement of a literate father who loved history. Her husband was a Cambridge man, a Nonconformist minister’s son. Her father, her husband, each was to serve as Governor of Massachusetts; she came to the wilderness as a woman of rank.” Younger, Anne Bradstreet had struggled with a “carnall heart.” Self-scrutiny, precisianism. were in any event expected of Puritan young people. But her doubts, her “sitting loose from God,” were underscored by uncommon intelligence and curiosity.

Before the Birth

In terms of meter, Bradstreet’s Iambic Pentameter is fairly strict. To be fair, the meter was still very new. Many among the generation who first established Iambic Pentameter as the standard meter of the English language were still  alive. One wonders exactly which poets Bradstreet was exposed to. Shakespeare? Doubtful, since his most famous works of poetry, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, were both considered borderline erotica. Sidney? Possibly. Spenser. Very likely. John Donne?

The poem itself is written in open heroic couplets. I’ll point out some probable differences in pronunciation and some variant feet. Bradstreet was born and England and spoke with an English accent. Besides that, the American accent didn’t exist yet.) The first two lines that might trip up a modern reader are the following. The modern American might be tempted to read them as follows:

The sen|tence past |is most ir|re-vo |ca-ble,
A com|mon thing, |yet oh, |in-ev |i-ta-ble.

Here’s how Bradstreet probably expected them to be read:

The sen|tence past |is most |irrev|ic’ble,
A com|mon thing,| yet oh, | inev | it’ble.

The British, then as now, tend to clip irrevocable, putting the stress on the second syllable. Here are another two lines Americans might be tempted to misread – this being more out of a misunderstanding of meter.

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love | bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

And here’s how Bradstreet intended them to be read:

We both |are ig|norant, |yet love |bids me
These fare|well lines |to re|commend |to thee,

The emphasis is on me, not on bids. Similarly, another two lines are apt to be misread:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

And here’s what Bradstreet intended:

If an|y worth |or vir|tue were |in me,
Let that |live fresh|ly in |thy mem|ory

There are a couple of variant feet. Although it’s possible to read the first foot of the following line as Iambic, my feeling is that the first foot serves an expressive purpose in being read as a trochaic foot. Look, she cries, look to my children. There is no greater love than a mother’s for her child and it is the emotional zenith of the poem – her cry at the close of the poem: “if thou love thyself, or loved’st me”  protect and love our children!

Look to| my little babes, my dear remains.

More metrical variants quickly follow, as if to express Bradstreet’s emotional terrain:

And if | change to |thine eyes |shall bring |this verse,

And if change

The nice touch here is that the pyrric first foot adds emphasis to the trochaic change – meter underscores the meaning and content of the poem.

The last line that might be misread is due to differences in pronunciation. Honour, in Bradstreet’s time, was still probably pronounced with a French inflection – empasizing the second syllable rather than the first. So it was probably read as follows:

With some |sad sighs |honour |my ab|sent hearse;

All the rest of the poem is standard Iambic Pentameter – which is to say, all the other feet are Iambic.

The Poem

Most poems on childbirth, these days, are mawkish, sentimental verses. But childbirth, in the absence of modern medicine,  was a frightening experience. It might promise new life, rebirth and joy; but it could also end in death – both the child’s and the mother’s. No poem, to my knowledge, captures both this mixture of fear, anticipation, and love for the children already birthed, as this poem. It is, in its way, the greatest and most memorable poem of its kind.

Before the Birth of One of her Children

Anne_Bradstreet PortraitAll things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow is sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when that knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
That many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me
These O protect from step-dame’s injury.
And if change to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honour my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy love’s dear sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.

bradstreetFor the complete works of Anne Broadstreet, if you’re curious, try The Works of Anne Bradstreet. I thought my edition was out of print, but I just found it (same title):  The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Both come with Adrienne Rich’s introduction. At Amazon, at least, the editorial review for both books is the same. The newer issue, however, has more pages. Maybe the newer issue includes more of her prose? If I find out, I’ll add an addendum to this post.

For a website dedicated to Anne Bradstreet and her poetry, try AnneBradStreet.Com. However, detailed biographical information, on the web at least, seems to be sparse.

Perhaps Anne Bradstreet’s most famous poem is the following:

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize they love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere
That when we lifve no more, we may live ever.

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8 responses

  1. Hi Patrick
    “Before the birth of one of her children”, does capture every emotion that a mother to be could have, as you read it, you can feel the words coming through.

    I am not to sure if you have read my poem on my blog “What…..you don’t use Metaphors?”

    http://poetry-by-stacey.blogspot.com/2008/07/whatyou-dont-use-metaphors.html

    If you have then you will know how I feel about others judging poets for how they choose to write poetry.
    Gosh…..shock, horror she did not use Metaphors….so what, she didn’t need to, her words were her own and they really shone through.
    So you have probably gathered that also like you I do not agree with those that wrote dismissive comments about her poetry.

    • Hi Stacey. It’s so nice to have readers like you check in every now and then. I’m especially glad that you liked Bradstreet’s poetry. Her personality really shines through. I love that about her.

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  3. I think that although, ostensibly, Bradstreet’s Before the Birth of One of Her Children, is about childbirth, it’s also about the issues that women writers faced during the Renaissance period. For me, this makes it much more interesting.

    • Sorry for the long wait. Hope my first comment didn’t seem rude – that wasn’t the way I intended it. (:

      At the time Bradstreet was writing, it was very difficult for women to be authors – there was a lot of suspicion regarding women, because they were ‘Daughters of Eve’ and were controlled by their ‘temperamental’ wombs, they were seen as being hysterical, obstinate and deceitful (until they’d been tamed by men, of course). Because of this, the act of women writing became a serious threat to patriarchy. (However, there was a dichotomy of beliefs regarding women’s behaviour – humility, obedience, patience, chaste behaviour, meekness, were all traditionally female virtues).

      It was very dangerous for a women to become an author (unless she was translating religious texts, which was a harmless thing to do) – it was believed that women belonged in the ‘private’ sphere and if she came out into the ‘public’, she faced serious opposition – using the word ‘public’ of women often implied prostitution. Female publishers faced life sentences in prison and sometimes death.

      Of course, this is my own personal opinion, but when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work. These links that Bradstreet makes between giving birth and writing is significant – she is stressing her role as a wife and mother. It almost seems to say to critics that, even though she is writing, because she is a woman, she poses no threat – her intentions are completely innocent. By drawing attention to this act of conceding, Bradstreet is emphasising again the difficulties that women face. Again, in The Author To Her Book, Bradstreet almost apologises for her ‘unruly’ behaviour –
      “If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
      And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
      Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.”
      This act of apologising for their writing was common with women authors – however, rather than conceding to patriarchy, it could be argued that they were drawing attention to the problems they faced.

      Bradstreet also refers to religion and the unfair punishment that women face –
      “The sentence past is most irrevocable”

      Here, Bradstreet is referring to the sin of Adam and Eve which brought about the downfall of man. She goes on to say that it is “a common thing, yet oh inevitable” . Here, Bradstreet is lamenting the sin, but questioning why women are still being punished for it.
      Bradstreet’s relationship with her husband also seems to be challenging widespread beliefs about men and women. She often refers to her husband as a close friend,
      “How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend;”
      Women were seen to be the property of a man, in the same way that people were subject to the monarch – “…the growth of patriarchy was deliberately encouraged by the new Renaissance state on the traditional grounds that the subordination of the family to its head is analogous to, and also a direct contributory cause of, subordination of subjects to the sovereign.” In Bradstreet’s writing, she never refers to herself as man’s subject.

      It could be argued that many women writers of the time were openly challenging patriarchy. Their first challenging act was simply the writing – many male poets believed that poetry should shape and change the world, so the idea of a hysterical women trying to do this was inconceivable. Secondly, although many of these women wrote poetry that was ostensibly innocent, for example, poetry that was very domestic in tone, or the apologies that always cropped up, they were in fact cleverly subverting the system. When they wrote apologies in their work, it was not necessarily to apologise but to clearly emphasise the difficulties and the risk that they faced from the male poets. They can be seen as actively challenging the patriarchal system. Other notable female writers of the time are Anne Askew (burnt alive as a heretic) and Aemilia Lanyer.

      Sorry if this is a bit garbled – I hope I got everything in. I apologise for putting in that bit about The Author To Her Book – I’ve just realised that the post is about Before the Birth of One of Her Children. I have more on Lanyer and Askew. I do think it’s all very interesting though – it could be said that these women were the founders of modern feminism.

    • Thanks Bean! Wow. That was worth the wait.

      Here’s what I would say: First, I love your interpretation. Second, there are some areas where I would be somewhat circumspect.

      It was very dangerous for a women to become an author…

      I am, perhaps, a bit more hesitant to paint such a bleak picture of women in the late 16th, early 17th century. It was a dangerous time to be a writer no matter what your sex. There were men, as well as women, who were burned at the stake for the ill-advised word. Even Shakespeare was very nearly caught up in the dangers of political censorship. Imprisonment and execution were a very real threat to any and all writers who wrote unwisely.

      The talents of women writers did not go unrecognized or uncelebrated. Consider this paragraph from the introduction to Elizabeth Cary: The Lady of Falkland – The Tragedy of Miriam:

      “Although her mother might not have approved of Elizabeth’s devotion to books, it was evidently admired — or considered a possible source of patronage — by others. In 1597, Michael Drayton dedicated two of the poems of his Englands Heroicall Epistles to Elizabeth and praised her wisdom, reading, and skill in languages. Later, in 1624, Richard Belling would dedicate to her the sixth book of his continuation of Sidney’s Arcadia. She herself apparently thought that her great-uncle, Sir Henry Lee, could appreciate her talents, since she dedicated to him, as a “humble presente, the fruites and endeavurs” of her “younge and tender yeares,” her translation of Abraham Ortelius’s Le Miroir du Monde. In translating that book about geography (which includes descriptions of China, India, “Turkie,” and America), she anticipates the fascination with “other worlds” displayed by such later English women writers as Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, who published her Description of a New World, Called a Blazing World, in 1666, and Aphra Behn, who translated Fontenelle’s Discovery of the New Worlds in 1688, the same year she published her novella Oroonoko, based on her youthful visit to South America.”

      Elizabeth Cary would have been a contemporary of Bradstreet. And don’t forget Mary Sidney and her grand funeral at St. Paul’s, in which she was celebrated (in no small part) for her literary accomplishments. Also notice how, in the paragraph above, it was Cary’s mother who most actively attempted to crush Cary’s budding literary talents. It was the men who dedicated and encouraged her. Just one, example, I know, but representative.

      …it was believed that women belonged in the ‘private’ sphere and if she came out into the ‘public’</blockquote>

      I don’t think this is altogether true or, at least, deserves some qualifications. There were a number of women (among nobility) whose manuscripts were sought by publishers. The problem in these cases wasn’t that they were women, but that they were aristocrats. (The whole case for the silly Earl of Oxford rests on this proscription.) It was considered uncouth for a nobleman, let alone a noblewoman, to see their works published among the common crowd:

      [Cary] no doubt shared to some extent a view articulated by Davies and held by many prominent persons in Tudor-Stuart England that the emerging institution of publishing was an unsuitable arena for aristocrats in general and for noble ladies in particular. The “Presse,” remarks Davies in the very poem ostensibly urging Cary to publish her plays, is frequented by “abject Rimers” and other “base” types.

      While translation was considered within the sphere of the feminine, there was no bar against women publishing other works. A poet like Cary was, in fact, encouraged to do so and, among many of her male peers, praised for doing so.

      …if she came out into the ‘public’, she faced serious opposition…

      I think that assertion needs some steep qualifications. There were many women who published their work and enjoyed considerable encouragement and recognition among their male peers.

      Female publishers faced life sentences in prison and sometimes death.

      Men also faced life sentences in prison and sometimes death. Publishing was still very new and it was probably a very messy business. Mary Sidney edited and published her brother’s works and the 18th century saw many women publishers. None of this isn’t to say that women didn’t face a steeper terrain than their male peers, but I would careful as to how bleak to paint the picture.

      Of course, this is my own personal opinion, but when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work.

      I like this interpretation very much. The only aspect of it that makes me hesitate is that it risks being anachronistic. Reading the poem this way is a very 20th/21rst century way to do it. And it’s a way of writing poetry that, as far as I know, was foreign to 17th century poets. I would probably want to see more examples from Bradstreet or other poets whom she might have been familiar with before considering such an interpretation. She would be, I think, at least 300 years before her time.

      Bradstreet also refers to religion and the unfair punishment that women face – “The sentence past is most irrevocable”

      My own thought is that she’s referring to death. Being expelled from Eden brought the pain of mortality. “Mortality” is the irrevocable sentence. Admittedly, that’s reading it straightforwardly.

      It is worth mentioning though, that Bradstreet was a Puritan and that Puritan proscriptions surrounding literature and art were much stricter and close-minded than England’s. It’s really remarkable that Bradstreet’s writings survived to the extent they did. Her marriage and husband must also have been unusual. She, along with her husband and father, were highly educated and perhaps not so close minded as some of their Puritan peers in England.

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