Heretical Elements in the Poetry of Anne Bradstreet Free Essay Example

September 28, 2021 by Essay Writer

A discussion of heretical elements in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

The purpose of this research is to discuss heretical elements in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). This is not to imply that Bradstreet was a heretic in the sense that American religious reformer Anne Hutchinson was. Hutchinson (1591-1643) emigrated to Boston in 1634 and preached a doctrine of salvation through intuitive apprehension of grace rather than by works, and attacked the rigid moral and legal codes of New England Puritanism.

Anne Bradstreet accepted the tenets of Puritanism and was a very religious person. Anti-Puritan themes are, however, to be found in her poetry in terms of her religious doubts, her expression of personal emotions and thoughts, and her artistry. She did not write to preach or teach,, as Puritan writers were instructed to, but to express herself.

It is this personal expression that forms the basis of the heretical elements in her poetry. To understand why personal expression may be considered heretical, the society in which Bradstreet lived and wrote must be examined in order to comprehend what kinds of human activities and behaviors were acceptable and how Bradstreet deviated from these behaviors.

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Bradstreet was not truly unorthodox in that she did not dissent from accepted beliefs and doctrine. She was a woman of the 17th Century and lived in a male dominated, intensely religious society. She lived within the limitations not only of the beliefs and standards of her society, but of her sex.

A woman’s place was definitely in the home in Colonial America.

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The experiences of women were considered narrow and trivial in comparison with men’s. Puritanism was more than a religious belief; it was a way of life. “In the dozen years before 1640, some 15,000 Englishmen crossed the Atlantic in order to establish a ‘Holy Commonwealth’ in which that way of life could flourish”(Hall 1). The Puritans were a party in the Church of England that arose in Elizabeth’s reign with the purpose of carrying out the Protestant reformation, and to base the Church of England on the foundation of the scriptures. Aside from a literal belief in the Bible, Puritans wholly accepted the doctrines of John Calvin and his stern legalistic theology.

The Puritans held that religion should permeate every phase of living. The purpose of life was to do God’s will; everything else was subordinate to this basic doctrine. The Colony set up by the English Puritans was essentially an experiment in Christian living. Religion and earning a living were the two priorities of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In contrast to the Pilgrims, they were well-off and well-educated men, many of whom were professionals and university men as was their first governor John Winthrop(Blair 9-10). The Puritans held that man was wholly vile, corrupt and prone to evil and could do no good without God’s assistance.

However, Puritans did not believe in celibacy but were in favor of wedded love and procreation. Milton’s invocation, “Hail, wedded love!” epitomized this belief. It was also believed that women had a right to expect something more from their husbands than mere duty(Morison 9-11). Puritanism hampered artistic and intellectual activity banning three forms in which the English excelled: drama, religious music, and erotic poetry(Morison 12). New England was founded at a time when almost everyone who could read at all, read poetry, and many attempted to write it. Poetry in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like other manifestations of intellectual life in the 17th Century, was dominated by religion. Early New England verse was religious both in motive and expression, and for the most part was didactic(Morison 216-217).

Anne Bradstreet was one of the two poets of early New England (Michael Wigglesworth was the other) whose poetry has lasted. Bradstreet was born in Northamptom, England. Her father Thomas Dudley was steward of the estate of the Earl of Lincoln and it is presumed that she had access to the large Library there, and used it. Unlike most young women, Anne Bradstreet was well educated. At age 16 she married Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and steward of the Countess of Warwick. Two years later, the Bradstreets and Dudleys came to Massachusetts with John Winthrop and other prominent settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Anne’s husband became a magistrate, and later a Governor as did her father. Soon after arriving in Massachusetts, Anne wrote: “I changed my condition ad was married, and came into this Country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God”(Blair 228). The Bradstreets had eight children, and Anne was a devoted wife and mother as well as a busy one. From he start, however, she made the time to write poetry. Her early work, as is the early work of most poets, was derivative. Typically, Anne Bradstreet did not seek to have her poetry published as a male poet would have.

Her early poems were published, however, when her brother-in-law, John Woordbridge, took a manuscript of her poems to London and had them printed in 1650. The edition contained many errors, and was the inspiration for a poem on the subject by Bradstreet. Her first book of poem, The Tenth Muse, was the only book printed during her lifetime. A second edition of her poetry, “Several Poems compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight” edited by one of her sons was printed six years after her death in 1678. Many of her best poems, which her son did not publish as too intimate, remained in manuscript until the 19th Century(Morison 219).

Bradstreet’s poems reveal that she valued herself as a woman, as a wife and mother. She wrote of daily experiences, her love for her children and husband, the beautiful New England landscape, the small pleasures of life and domesticity. Religion was a dominant theme in her work , including her religious doubts. A feminine consciousness can also be found in her work. As she wrote in “The Prologue” (1650): I am obnoxious to each carping tongue Who says my hand a needle better fits; A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong, For such despite they case on female wits. If what I do prove well, it won’t advance; They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance (Hensley 16).

The heretical themes in Bradstreet’s poetry, however, spring from her domestic poems which reveal passionate love for her husband, Simon, maternal devotion and pleasure in worldly goods, and from her religious poems, which reveal her conflicts and doubts. Many of Bradstreet’s poems reveal that she could not accept in entire docility the sterner aspects of New England Puritanism. The last stanza of her poem on the death of a grandchild illustrates this:

By nature Trees do rot when they are grown, And Plumbs and Apples thoroughly ripe do fall… And time brings down what is both strong and tall, But plants new set to be eradicate, And buds new blown, to have so short a date, Is by his hand alone that guides nature and fate(Spiller 64). Bradstreet’s “simplicity of diction and imagery carry a genuine emotional effect, until, suddenly Anne Bradstreet realizes that she is perilously close to writing rebelliously against God’s decrees. She pulls herself up in the last line. It falls flat, even metrically, because it is dictated not by real feeling but by deference to orthodox doctrine”(Spiller 64). The same process occurs in “Verses upon the burning of our house” one of her group of poems expressing domestic matters and affections.

For the pioneer Colonists, home was a refuge from the often harsh, new environment. For Anne Bradstreet, the burning of her home and belongings in July, 1866 was a great loss fro someone so devoted to her family and domestic pleasures. The poem, however, contains no self-pitying elements. Instead, Bradstreet uses the personal loss to reconcile it with her belief in the wisdom of God’s will. There are two homes referred to in the poem, “my dwelling place,” and the “house on high erect/Fram’d by that mighty Architect.”

In the poem, Bradstreet states that both homes are God’s. The first five stanzas of the poem relate the pleasant objects a trunk, a chest, a table that the poet enjoyed in her home. The pleasure is evident. In the sixth stanza, the tone changes as the poet accepts the fire as the will of God, acknowledging that earthly objects are vanity, that her wealth on earth had no real meaning, that real wealth lies with God. The poem ends: Farewell my pelf, farewell my store. The world no longer let me love, My hope and treasure lies above (Blair 232-233).

The poem can easily be read as a didactic poem, what the poet should feel, she does feel. Yet, upon re-reading the poem there is a sense of conflict; the expression of domestic pleasures are rooted in genuine feeling. It is these private feelings, and enjoyment of domestic details that give the poem its heretical tone. The dogma is accepted more intellectually than emotionally. Anne Bradstreet felt that her love of the pleasant thing of life was unchristian. She was disturbed by religious doubt. This conflict is clearly presented in “The Flesh and The Spirit.” The Spirit is the victor, but the Flesh, “even though vanquished, reasserted again and again its claims”(Blair 229).

Flesh is the unsettled, questioning heart, while spirit is the settled heart. Flesh and Spirit are personified by two sisters: One flesh was call’d, who had her eye On worldly wealth and vanity; The other Spirit, who did rear Her thoughts unto a higher spere: (Blair 234) Although Bradstreet presents the correct dogma in her poem, its purpose is not to instruct but, again, to express her personal feelings. It is the personal that provides the heretical aspects. Literary historian Samuel Morison has called “The Flesh and The Spirit” one of the best expressions in English literature of the conflict described by St. Paul in the Eighth Chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, “a conflict that was evidently part of the personal experience of the poetess.

The prose meditation that she left to her children shows that she had often been beset by doubts ‘whether there was a God’”(Morison 220). “To My Dear and Loving Husband” is a passionate love poem that is lyrical, lovely, human and simple; it is also free of any religious dogma. For this reason, it may be considered to have the most heretical elements of any of her poems. The poem is universal. Except for one obsolete accent (persever instead of persevere), the poem can be read as a modern one, as well as one from early America.

The poem is openly passionate. If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were lov’s 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, Or all the riches that the East doth hold. My love is such that Rivers cannot quench (Blair 231-232). The only reference to religion is to pray the heavens reward her husband, hardly a Puritan prayer. “Anne Bradstreet loved Simon Bradstreet and her children and God with a troubled realization that she fell short of God’s, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heard’”(Blair 229). Anne Bradstreet’s poetry shows a merging of the private life with the religious life, but also a rebellious, inquiring spirit. The heretical themes in her poetry stem from this spirit and her need for self-expression.

Works Cited

  1. Blair, Walter, T. Hornberger, R. Stewart and J.E. Miller, Jr. The Literature of the United States, 3rd ed. New York: New York University Press, 1966.
  2. Bowtell, Stephen. The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. By a Gentlewoman in those Parts. London, 1650.
  3. Hall, David D. Puritanism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts, New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
  4. Hensley, Jeannine, ed. The Works of Anne Bradstreet, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1967.
  5. Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, 4th ed. New York: New York University Press, 1970.
  6. Spiller, Robert E., W. Thorp, T.H. Johnson, H.S. Canby and R.M. Ludwig, Literarty History of the United States, 3rd. ed. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1963.
  7. Stanford, Ann. Anne Bradstreet: The Wordly Puritan. New York: Burt Franklin, 1974.
  8. Unger, Leonard ed. American Writers: Supplement I. Part I. NY: Charles Scribrer’s Sons, 1979. 8 vols.
  9. White, Elizabeth Wade. Anne Bradstreet: “The Tenth Muse.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.


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