The Posture of Humility in Anne Bradstreet’s ‘Prologue’

November 23, 2021 by Essay Writer

In keeping with tradition, Anne Bradstreet like several other Renaissance writers, introduces her work The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), through a prologue. Not only does it serve the purpose of acquainting the reader with the subject of the quaternions (set of four interrelated poems) but also allows the poet to “address the reader directly about the craft, or about the likely reception of the work that she expects” (Dasgupta, 16). Much like her other public works, the Prologue too adopts the tone of humility that is characteristic of Bradstreet’s writing style. What strikes one as unusual her is the excessive nature of her modesty that borders on self-deprecation. One must be advised against taking the poet’s words at face value. This paper attempts to determine if the supposed tone of humble compromise in the Prologue is, in fact, a posture assumed by Bradstreet to facilitate “affect” (Isobel Armstrong) among her readers, thus, convincing them of her skills as a writer.

Although often understood as reflecting the “ethos of Puritan self-effacement” (Dasgupta 8), the Prologue is actually a clever ploy that is used to appropriate Bradstreet’s craft while appeasing the predominantly male conservative audience who read it. As stated by Eileen Margerum, “In the classical poetic tradition, a poem’s success depended not on the validity of the poet’s sentiments but on her successful use of prescribed formulae” (152). Anne Bradstreet, as a 17th century poet, draws on the classical poetic tradition of her predecessors as well as the Puritan narrative tradition which compels her to include the “formulae of humility” in her works, irrespective of her personal feelings (Margerum 152). The incorporation of both these conventions is evident in the following lines from the Prologue:

“To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings, Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun, For my mean Pen are too superior things; Or how they all, or each their dates have run, Let Poets and Historians set these forth. My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth.”

The above mentioned Refusal delineates the fact that her poetry does not extend to history writing, a male-dominated sphere, quite like poetry composition. Her seemingly meek stance results in a certain degree of ambiguity surrounding the idea that she moulds her public persona to fit what she perceives to be a man’s world. She further goes on to point to her poetic ancestry by mentioning Guillame de Salluste Du Bartas (a French protestant poet) and referring to Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy frequently. This act highlights her insecurities as a writer stemming from the lack of a lineage of women poets. It is on this basis that, later, prominent feminists Gilbert and Gubar argue that just as male writers experience an “anxiety of influence” as proposed by Harold Bloom, so do female writers undergo an “anxiety of authorship” (“The Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship”, 25). Bradstreet’s work dramatically identifies itself as an example of this phenomenon, therefore, feeding into the idea that this too is pretence and that she is very consciously constructing an image that is anxious and insecure of the process of creation.

We witness a transition from the Rhetoric of Impossibility to the Rhetoric of Deception, which is carried out through the heavy employment of irony. Judith Butler’s concept of the performance of the self comes into play as we see Bradstreet engaging in the use of the first person as a means of persuasion and several figures of speech and tropes featuring in the Prologue. Her self-fashioning, through the management of the narrative and plea for the absence of criticism, clamours for attention, thus, adding to the performative nature of the work. One begins to comprehend the nature of the Prologue as a response to pre-existing literary traditions which were masculine, as Bradstreet casts off this tone of humility and delves into the usage of satirical devices. A clear instance of this is seen in line 36 of the Prologue, “The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie”, where she calls the Greeks fools for possessing fanciful ideas, such as women being “capable of producing knowledge and art” (Dasgupta 18), which were held in contempt by future civilizations. Thus, this ironic tone implies that the humility is a performance and therefore the poem is a performance of the self.

“Men have precedency and still excel; It is but vain unjustly to wage war. Men can do best, and Women know it well. Preeminence in all and each is yours; Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.” (Bradstreet quoted in Dasgupta, 19)

There are different interpretations of the above lines presented by Anannya Dasgupta. One is consistent with the tone of humility Bradstreet apparently adopts to indicate the threats posed to a woman who tries to navigate the male dominated space of poetry. It is based on the superficial meaning of the lines that convey her acceptance of the gender inequalities in which the politics of poetry are embedded and she grants the superiority and privilege that men claim for themselves while submitting to “just a little bit of acknowledgement” (19). The second chooses to read between the lines and points to the ironic humorous play that Bradstreet continues to indulge in. This reading is more empowering as it challenges men to be able to grant even a small acknowledgement, while looking beyond their own greatness, to women who quite clearly deserve more. Bradstreet quite effortlessly leaves her mark in literary history as the first American poet to be published in Europe, despite being a gendered subject. She effectively wields the one of humility as a rhetoric tool and is able to create the desired impact on most readers, at least those who are able to overcome the challenge she poses to them too. Hence, one can agree that this Prologue is more than a humble submission of Bradstreet to the weighty lineage of male writers that preceded her. It is, in fact, the laying of a foundation for women to have a literature of their own in America.

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