Monday, February 18, 2013

More Than a Puritan Valentine: Remembering Anne Bradstreet

In honor of Valentine’s Day, a couple of friends posted a funny meme. It had to do with “Puritan Valentines” and showed a series of cards designed as though written by Puritans, things along the lines of “Roses are red, violets are blue, and both of those things are completely frivolous and useless.” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)

I’m all for a little good-natured snark on Valentine’s Day – I had another friend post something about how strange it is we honor St. Valentine the martyr by buying chocolates – but giggling over Puritan Valentines, I suddenly remembered Anne Bradstreet’s touching love poem to her husband.

Why don’t we remember Anne Bradstreet more often?

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was a Puritan and a poet. She was also a dedicated wife and mother to eight children.

Her’s was “an authentic Puritan voice” and she was also “the first notable poet in American literature” ~ to quote what I think of as the liner notes in my Norton American Literature anthology.

Stop and ponder the coolness of that for a moment. “The first notable poet in American literature” was not a wealthy, elite, highly educated man making his living as a writer of literature, but a relatively well-educated Puritan woman who got married at 16, shipped out to the Massachusetts Bay Colony at 18, and spent many years reading and writing in the crevices of a pioneering farm life while she raised eight children.

Stop also to consider that she was a pioneer 230 years before the Ingalls family headed west, and that she lamented “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits” more than 150 years before Jane Austen had Captain Wentworth drop his pen in Persuasion, right before Anne Elliot declared that “…Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story…the pen has been in their hands…”

What I like about Bradstreet is that she built her poems out of the real pieces of her life. She writes about giving birth and about watching her children grow up and fly away from the nest. She writes about her love for her husband and how much she misses him when he has to travel. Yes, she writes love poems – less sentimental than Valentines, more true to the kinds of daily loving and living we all know. One of my favorite lines comes in the poem where she’s missing her husband while he’s away (he was a magistrate and often traveled on business) and misses him most poignantly when she looks around the house at her children and notices they are “true living pictures of their father’s face.” She concludes that poem simply but eloquently: “Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,/I here, thou there, yet both but one.”

She also writes movingly of sadness and hardship. The poems that mark hard events are especially touching. She often includes important dates in the title, so you feel as though you’re getting a peek into her diary. “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who Deceased August, 1665, Being a Year and a Half Old” is the title of one, and “Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666” is another. That was clearly a very hard year. In that last poem, she spends several stanzas lamenting the loss of their house, which lies in smoldering ruins she vividly recreates in words. The she turns her words to prayers and gratitude, remembering she has a more permanent home “on high erect/Framed by that mighty Architect…”  She then added this wonderfully real and homey detail to her theology: “It’s purchased and paid for too/By Him who hath enough to do.” 

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