Voices from the Past: A Woman. A Poet.

What do you do when you are terribly ill and racked with pain?  When your child is so ill she faces death? When your husband is away on business for months, leaving you with the children and household affairs?  When your house burns down?  The seventeenth century Puritan Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), facing these and many other trials, turned to the Lord for help, comfort, and strength – and she wrote poetry.

In 1630, when she was eighteen, Anne, along with her parents Thomas and Anne Dudley and husband Simon Bradstreet, sailed to America with John Winthrop’s fleet. Only two years before, when she was sixteen, Anne had married Simon Bradstreet, the son of a Puritan minister.  The Dudleys and Bradstreets, left behind positions of wealth in England when they sought to establish a colony in America.  The families became leaders in the Massachusetts colony; Anne’s father and husband both served as governor of Massachusetts several times.  In the midst of establishing a home in the American wilderness, bearing and raising eight children, and her many household duties, Anne wrote poetry which continues to edify and inspire today.[1]            

Many of Anne’s poems were spiritual meditations and reflections on events in her life.  Often the poems were a way of focusing her attention upon God in difficult times. She did not complain of adversity, but sought the Lord’s purposes when difficulties arose.  She wrote, “If we had no winter the spring would not be so pleasant; if we do not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome!”

In “Verses upon the burning of our house, July 18th, 1666” Anne looked beyond the ashes of her home and memories of pleasant events the house had held.  She was not angry or despairing, but looked beyond the loss of her worldly goods to God’s grace:

            And when I could no longer look,

            I blest His grace that gave and took,

            That laid my goods now in the dust.

            Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.

            It was his own; it was not mine,        

            Far be it that I should repine.

She ended her meditations by reflecting on her heavenly home gloriously furnished by a mighty Architect:

Farewell, my pelf, farewell, my store.

The world no longer let me love;

My hope and Treasure lies above.

Within a span of about ten years, Anne had eight children, all of whom lived to adulthood, a very rare occurrence in a day when most families lost several children to disease.  Though Anne’s children did become seriously ill, they recovered, as Anne wrote in “Upon My Daughter Hannah and Her Recovering from a Dangerous Fever”:

Bles’t be Thy Name who dids’t restore to

      health my Daughter dear

When Death did seem ev’n to approach

And life was ended near.

Grant she remember what thou’st done

And celebrate thy praise

And let her conversation say

She loves Thee all her days. 

Several of Anne’s poems were about her husband Simon, who frequently was absent on government business.  “To My Dear and Loving Husband” reads

            If ever two were one, then surely we. 

            If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;

            If ever wife was happy in a man,

            Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

            I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold

            Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

            My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

            Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.

            Thy love is such I can no way repay,

            The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Anne never intended these poems to be published.  She thought of them very much like diary entries, recording how God was working and present in her life.  Unknown to her, however, her father and brother-in-law collected her early poems and published them in England in 1650 as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, making Anne Bradstreet New England’s first published poet. In the preface, Anne’s brother-in-law wrote that the poems were

“the Word of a Woman, honoured, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet, managing of her Family occasions, and more than so, these Poems are but the fruit of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments.”

Though remembered for her poetry, Anne did not consider poetry writing her primary occupation.  Her life before God was primarily as a wife and mother.  When Anne wrote an autobiography for her children, she never even mentioned her poetry!  Writing in her journal near her death she concluded, “Upon the Rock Christ Jesus will I build by faith, and if I perish, I perish.  But I know all the powers of Hell shall never prevail against it.  I know whom I have trusted, and whom I believe and that he is able to keep what I have committed to his charge.”

Anne’s beautiful trust in her Savior through all the varied circumstances of life is a testimony and challenge for all of us to seek and trust the Lord’s purposes and ways throughout our days. While you may not be a poet like Anne, you do have the opportunity to chronicle God’s faithfulness in your life for the next generation.

 

Dr. Diana Severance is the Director of the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University and the author of Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History (Christian Focus, 2011).  She has taught courses in the history of Christian women at SWBTS since 2004. Her greatest joy, besides the Lord Jesus, is being married to Gordon.


[1] This treatment of Anne Bradstreet is adapted from Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History  (Christian Focus, 2011), pp. 190-192.  Selected poems by Anne Bradstreet may be found at  The Celebration of Women Writers, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bradstreet/1678/1678.html .