Anne Bradstreet: The Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet
For some, far too many school children and public leaders still believe in a Creator. With their creeds of intolerance now bestsellers, noted atheists decry the "flagrantly irrational" idea of a God-created universe. One such atheist, Sam Harris, laments the "failure of many brilliant attacks upon religion." In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he stands dumfounded by Americans' stubborn "muddling over God."
Effective dialogue with this increasingly militant atheism calls for sturdy logic and apologetics to be sure. But sincere spiritual testimonies are valuable as well, not only to foil caricatures and hasty generalizations but to encourage us fellow irrationalists. Of particular worth, then, is a timely book on America's first published poet--a woman who, far from muddling over God, wrote of her faith in vivid verse and prose.
Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet is true to its title. At 210 pages, Heidi L. Nichols' paperback is accessible, a delightful excursion into Anne Bradstreet's own testimony of faith. Nichols, assistant English professor at Lancaster Bible College, is a qualified guide. She does not, however, restrict her book to academia. Her tour is not a collection of critical essays. Instead, she writes for her husband Stephen Nichols' popular guided tour series, which summarizes the lives and works of such influential Christian intellectuals as Machen, Edwards, and Luther.
Nichols allows Bradstreet's writings to speak for themselves. Yet her book remains an apt introduction for those who cannot recall Bradstreet or who remember her only as the author of a couple of poems between Bradford and Jefferson in a college anthology. Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour is a valuable resource for students and teachers of American literature as well. The book contains the proper contexts for Bradstreet's poetry, including illustrations and a timeline.
Nichols opens her book with an explanation of why we should begin such a tour at all. She believes that understanding Bradstreet "helps flesh out the historical record" of early colonial America (13). Not only was Bradstreet the daughter of a Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, but she was the wife of a colony steward and magistrate. Further, Bradstreet's deep intellectualism alongside her deep love for her husband and children defy common misconceptions of the Puritans as a dour, narrow-minded people.
As a devout Puritan, Bradstreet is a significant woman in church history. As America's first published poet, Bradstreet is noteworthy in literary history--her poems are "rich in intellectual and aesthetic rigor" (14). For Nichols, however, Bradstreet is most valuable for her ability to speak to twenty-first century readers. Bradstreet searched for "God's sovereign hand" during times of joy as well as great personal tragedy (14). The God of Abraham and Isaac, no less the God of Bradstreet, remains the same God still. Bradstreet's work, then, "reminds us that we face the same realities of life--of mortality, of redemption, and of the role of grace" as did she (15).
Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour begins with the historical and biographical context of Bradstreet's writings. Bradstreet survived smallpox as a child, then England's religious and political turmoil under James I and Charles I. She lived to see the New World, despite threats of sickness and scurvy aboard the Arbella. She felt the tensions of colonial life and politics--the external strain of relationships with English monarchy and Pequot Indians, the internal religious debates that brought divisions and banishments. Bradstreet, mother of eight, also faced life-threatening sicknesses, a devastating house fire, and fear of death during childbirth.
After providing this proper historical context, Nichols offers a literary context, which proves particularly helpful in understanding Bradstreet's poetry. She summarizes both the British Renaissance and the British Reformation, direct influences on Bradstreet's poetry, as well as critical responses to Bradstreet's work. Bradstreet's early poetry echoes Renaissance epic styles and classical themes, exhibiting her love of learning. Yet her work also reflects the Puritan emphasis on human nature as fallen, and the meditative nature of her work is in keeping with Puritan writing and poetry. Early critics of Bradstreet's poetry expressed admiration that such poetry could be written by a woman. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century critics often read Bradstreet dismissively. During the twentieth century, however, critical interest returned, focusing on "a number of different facets of [Bradstreet's] life and writing," sometimes to the neglect of others (61). Nichols believes that only a proper understanding of all these facets--Bradstreet as a colonial wife and mother, as a poet influenced by the British Renaissance, and as devout Puritan--lends to a proper reading of Bradstreet's poetry.
Nichols' tour then takes the reader to Bradstreet's own writings, where Nichols groups Bradstreet's work thematically, first showing us Bradstreet as apprentice and bard. In a number of her early poems included in these sections, Bradstreet follows literary conventions by acknowledging influences and apologizing for imitations. She also defends her ability as a woman to write poetry. In her well-known "Author to her Book," she expresses embarrassed surprise at first seeing her poetry in print. For the reader's understanding of Bradstreet as bard, Nichols includes a well-chosen selection of Bradstreet's formal poetry, all classical, biblical, and political in theme--poetic dialogues between Old England and New, between the flesh and the spirit, a poem about Queen Elizabeth, and another about David's lament for Saul and Jonathan.
After these poems, Nichols shows us Bradstreet as lover and sufferer. The poems that comprise these sections are Bradstreet's most well-known. These verses, beautiful with simplicity, tender and poignant with affection, are her best. She composes passionate lines to her "dear and loving" husband Simon, mourning his absences and praying for his recovery from sickness. She writes a poem before childbirth in fear of dying and leaving her children to the care of a cruel stepmother. In others, she writes prayers for her son's safe travels. As sufferer, Bradstreet composes a poem upon the burning of her house to remind herself that all is vanity apart from God's eternal promises. She pens poems during times of sickness and while mourning the deaths of grandchildren and a daughter-in-law. These poems reveal that in moments of acute sadness, Bradstreet turned to God for solace, to find comfort in His goodness and His sovereignty. As she concludes in a poem to her son, "What though thy strokes full sad & grievous be/ He knows it is the best for thee and me" (151).
Nichols looks next at Bradstreet as sage. This section contains Bradstreet's original wisdom sayings--a treat often missing from anthologies. Written at her son Simon's request, Bradstreet's seventy-seven aphorisms "epitomize early American roots of wisdom" as found in Franklin's Poor Richard (153). Bradstreet's Christian worldview, however, distinctly influences her "vision of human nature" (153). In one aphorism, she writes that a true Christian is "proficient" in both theory and practice (155). In another, that "as the purest honey" has "the least wax," then "the sincerest Christian the least self love" (158). She reminds the reader that adversity makes prosperity more joyful. She warns against pride and sloth and encourages gratitude and wise talent-trading. Throughout her meditations, Bradstreet points the reader heavenward. She believes that "all the Comforts of this life may be compared to the gourd of Jonah," for though we "find" the "shadow very comfortable, yet there is some worm or other of discontent" (175). Bradstreet tells us why--"well it is that we perceive a decay in their greennes, for were earthly comforts permanent, who would look for heavenly?" (175).
For the remainder of the tour, Nichols shows us Anne Bradstreet as pilgrim. She provides the reader with Bradstreet's own spiritual autobiography, intended by Bradstreet to encourage her children's spiritual pilgrimages. Here, Bradstreet does not shy from sharing the difficulties of her life--illnesses, her long wait for children, times when she questioned the truth of Scripture. Yet as she testifies, God "by one affliction or other hath made me look home [. . .] I have found them the Times when the Lord hath manifested the most love to me" (184-185). She observes too that when she questioned the very truth of her faith, the world's order and beauty proved the existence of a Creator.
Nichols concludes this section and the book itself with a poem Bradstreet wrote at the end of her life. For Bradstreet, the weary pilgrim would find everlasting rest because death was not the journey's end:
A Corrupt Carcasse downe it lyes
a glorious body it shall rise
In weaknes and dishonour sowne
in power 'tis rais'd by Christ alone. (196)
Throughout her life, Bradstreet looked to a better country. She believed that there, in the city built by God, promises awaited richer than any the New World offered.
Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour provides a fine walk through the historical and literary backdrop of Bradstreet's writings. From such a place, we can then best read her poetry and prose. For, it is often through the particulars that we most clearly perceive the universal. In understanding something of one Puritan woman's life in New England, we sense the spirit in which Bradstreet penned her ideas. Her testimony resonates, and her convictions affect us.
House fires, fevers, the deaths of grandchildren--Bradstreet, as a wife and mother, saw all these circumstances in light of eternity, through the grace and redemption that she experienced as a pilgrim on road to Zion. For her, such trials confirmed the realness of sin's curse. But even more, finding the grace and joy to persevere proved the realness of God's mercy. Anne Bradstreet's writings are her letter to our nation. And, hers is a faith that speaks still.
Review by Sarah Grafton, M.A. in English, American Literature, University of Southern Mississippi