English 220 – Survey of American Literature I

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Anne Bradstreet – Discussion Questions

 

Bradstreet’s poems deal with the simple events in a woman’s life: a fit of sickness; her son’s departure for England; the arrival of letters from her absent husband; the burning of her house; a child’s or grandchild’s death; or a walk in the woods.  Anne Bradstreet was the first non-didactic American poet, the first to give an embodiment to American nature, the first in whom personal intention appears to precede Puritan dogma as an impulse to verse.

 

In her essay “The Tensions of Anne Bradstreet,” feminist scholar Adrienne Rich poses the following questions concerning America’s first published poet:

 

·        What did it mean for a woman to come to the “New World?”  In what sense and to what extent was it “new” for her?

·        Bradstreet’s father was a magistrate at the trial of Anne Hutchinson in 1636 for heresy.  John Winthrop wrote of Hutchinson in 1645 that she was “a godly young woman, and of special parts, who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding, and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and written many books.”  What did the warning of the midwife heretic Anne Hutchinson’s fate mean for Anne Bradstreet?

·        Bradstreet’s father wrote back to England only a year after their arrival in America:  “If there be any endued with grace…let them come over…For others, I conceive they are not yet fitted for this business…There is not a house where is not one dead, and some houses many…the natural causes seem to be in the want of warm lodging and good diet, to which Englishmen are habituated at home, and the sudden increase of heat which they endure that are landed here in summer…for those only these two last years died of fevers who landed in June or July, as those of Plymouth, who landed in winter, died of the scurvy.”

·        Do the lives of the women of a community change simply because that community migrates to another continent?

·        What has been the woman poet’s relationship to nature, in a land where both women and nature have, from the first been exploited?

·        Compare this quote by Bradstreet with a much later poem, “To a Waterfowl” by William Cullen Bryant”

 

“That there is a God my reason would soon tell me by the wondrous works that I see, the vast frame of the heaven and the earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the daily providing for this great household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all to its proper end.”


 

 

·        Much has been written about the influence of the frontier (or landscape) on the emerging “American” literature.  Were the difficulties of living and writing at the edge of the wilderness the same for women and men?  How “heroic” is Bradstreet’s poetry?

·        To what strategies have women poets resorted in order to handle dangerous and denigrated female theses and experiences?

·        To what extent is Bradstreet’s marriage poetry an expression of individual feeling, and where does it echo the Puritan ideology of marriage, including married love as the “duty” of every god-fearing couple?  Remember that the Puritans perceived even the most trivial event as a divine message (typology), every disappointment as a judgment from God or as a disguised blessing if the disappointment was used to correct a sin.

·        Can you identify stress marks of anger, strains of self division in her poetry?  Is her voice ever angry?  Do you sense any outrage against God?  Any doubts?  Upon the grounds of a Puritan aesthetic, poetry was judged solely through doctrinal effectiveness.  So how do you judge Bradstreet’s poetry?