Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book” and Poetry to Match the Passion of What Would Become the United States
What does it mean to be an “American writer?” A “Chilean poet?” A “Martian poet?” (I wrote a short story about that last one.) I don’t really know. I think that these delineations are as fuzzy as they are useful. Americans, Chileans, and (future) Martians have virtually everything in common; they’re human beings. We all feel hunger, love, and fear. We all seek to address these feelings in similar ways.
On the other hand, culture is influenced by climate and geography and food and a million other factors that add spice to the human experience. Why wouldn’t there be some kind of cultural flavor baked into the poetry a person creates? It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure, judging a poet on the basis of such a label.
Anne Bradstreet is considered the first American poet. Though she died a century before Lexington and Concord, the sixty years of her life took place during the time when the ethos of the United States was still coalescing. Mrs. Bradstreet (she was a 17th-century Puritan…something tells me she would prefer “Mrs.” as an honorific) arrived in Massachusetts when she was 18 and spent her life in the colony. Her Puritanism definitely influenced her worldview and her work; as Charlotte Gordon asserts:
Anne Bradstreet’s work would challenge English politics, take on the steepest theological debates, and dissect the history of civilization. She would take each issue by the scruff of the neck and shake hard until the stuffing spilled out; no important topic of the day would be off-limits, from the beheading of the English king to the ascendancy of Puritanism, from the future of England to the question of women’s intellectual powers. Furthermore, she would shock Londoners into enraged attention by predicting that America would one day save the English-speaking world from destruction. Hers would be the first poet’s voice, male or female, to be heard from the wilderness of the New World.
Okay, enough of that stuff. What do we care about? Her writing and what we can learn from it! I was quite charmed by “The Author to Her Book,” a poem that I can reproduce here because it’s obviously in the public domain.
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
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.
Notes for those who may not be comfortable with old-timey early modern English yet: I know. It looks weird. But the writing is almost 400 years old. Your writing will look weird 400 years from now, too. Some things to remember:
- Spelling was not yet standardized and words were assembled letter-by-letter by a compositor who built the movable type on the page. So when you see “joynts” or “hobling” instead of “joints” or “hobbling,” just go with it.
- Old-timey people would capitalize nouns, (as is the practice in German).
- The apostrophe in “caus’d” does the same work an apostrophe does now: it replaces a missing letter or letters. (In that case, the “e.”)
- Most of all, just go with it. This is not a complicated poem.
Okay, so what do we have going on here? Iambic pentameter. Rhymed couplets. Should we be surprised? Not really. Christopher Marlowe had popularized the use of iambic pentameter in poetry; Ben Jonson called it “Marlowe’s mighty line.” Bradstreet was born when Shakespeare was winding down and Jonson was still trucking along. (Marlowe was dead…or at least that’s what they want us to believe…) Mrs. Bradstreet did not reinvent the wheel. She made use of the conventions popular in poetry at the time. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. First of all, you can’t innovate until you understand how writing works. Second, you’re producing work that your audience can understand. Finally, working within a structure allows you to stretch out and do something different in a different area of your work.
Mrs. Bradstreet indeed tackles an “unusual” subject in her poem: authorship. (And authorship by a woman, which was uncommon at the time!) It’s hard to believe now, but people didn’t see “authors” in the same way they do now. Copyright was a joke. There was no “Author! Author!” The aforementioned Ben Jonson was one of the first to write about the concept of the author. And look what Mrs. Bradstreet wrote decades later! A poem that oozes with a writer’s love for and regrets about her work! (It is also clear that Mrs. Bradstreet felt the same way about her work as we often do upon publication: we love the piece, but we still see its flaws.)
Importantly, this is not just a poem about poets. Mrs. Bradstreet keeps the poem relatable by making a comparison that we can all understand. Don’t we all think of our poems, short stories, essays and novels as our babies? Whether or not they have children of their own, non-writers can also relate to the comparison. See how this idea is useful, especially in a short poem like this? Mrs. Bradstreet did not overcomplicate things. I’d wager that if you could ask her about her poem, she would not say it was “about the incalculable search for understandingness in a worldrealm unfeeling to the now” or some such opaque twaddle. Remember; reading is not supposed to be homework. We do the reader a disservice when we encode meaning so deeply that the work is confusing and requires the reader to get out a pen and paper to chart what is happening in the poem.
Look at the world in which Mrs. Bradstreet was creating. This is a map of what the east coast of North America looked like around the time the poem was written:
Isn’t it amazing? Mrs. Bradstreet was in a world greatly in flux. Everything was changing and little was set. Childbirth was a real nail-biting experience and the elements were a real danger instead of an inconvenience. I suppose the biggest lesson we should learn from the author is that we should put aside the concerns of the day when we write. Authorship is our stab at immortality. It may not help the plants in your garden to grow or lure small game into your traps, but it is a reflection of personal identity in addition to national identity. Even though we all have a million problems on our minds and we’re trying to build our own figurative country (just as Mrs. Bradstreet was trying to build a literal one), the writing we do about ourselves and what we think and how we feel can matter a great deal.
Especially if we have something meaningful to say.