I first “discovered” Puritan poetess Anne Bradstreet in a college American Literature class, and loved her work. I focused on her for one of my 31 Days of Inspirational Biography series a couple of years ago. So when I heard there was a good biography of her life, I put it on my Christmas “wish list.”
I finally got to it this past month: Beyond Stateliest Marble: The Passionate Femininity of Anne Bradstreet by Douglas Wilson. The title comes from a quote by Cotton Mather, leading preacher of the day, saying that Anne’s poetry provided a “monument for her memory beyond the stateliest marbles.”
In all honesty, I spent the first 3/4 or so of this book being aggravated at it for what it lacked as a biography. It took that long for me to realize it’s not really a biography. Wilson says near the end it’s a tribute to her. It’s part of a “Leaders in Action” series, so it’s presenting that aspect of her. And the great bulk of it is a treatise. So once I realized and acknowledged those things, I was able to relax and take it for what it was.
One of Wilson’s biggest purposes in writing the book (what I called his treatise) is to defend against two erroneous suppositions: that the Puritans were dour, repressed, cheerless, unimaginative, legalistic people as a whole, and, 2) that Anne was anything but a thoroughgoing Puritan. Many modern treatments of Anne will portray her as a closet feminist, or an anomaly, or as having written such bright poetry in spite of her setting and position as a wife and mother rather than her Puritans beliefs, community, and calling as a wife and mother being the springboard from which she wrote. I do believe these misunderstandings at best, or false accusations at worst, do need to be shown as mistaken and wrong, and this book does a very good job of that.
The book is divided into three parts: her life, her character, and her legacy. The chapters are generally thematic rather than linear. We do get some of Anne’s background in the first section: the kind of family she grew up in, the times and setting, her marriage to Simon Bradstreet, their decision to sail from England to America, the voyage, the adjustments for a cultured woman in a non-settled area, her children, and her writing. She had no intentions of publishing her work, but her brother-in-law took copies of her poems and had them published in 1650 in England under the title The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (or, to be exact: The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America, or Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight, Wherein especially is Contained a Complete Discourse and Description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year, together with an exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies, viz., The Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, Roman, Also a Dialogue between Old England and New, concerning the late troubles. With divers other pleasand and serious Poems, By a Gentlewoman in those parts.)
It was well-received, to say the least, and her poetry has been well-read ever since.
The second section deals with about 30 different character traits (each chapter focusing on one and only about three pages) with Wilson illustrating those traits in Anne’s life either through her poetry or others’ comments about her. And the last section contains four chapters dealing with her legacy.
Though I appreciated what I learned about Anne in this book, overall I felt it contained too much of Wilson and not enough of Anne. I know that “show, don’t tell” is a mantra of fiction rather than non-fiction, but I felt Wilson spent too much space telling his opinions about Anne and what he thought was right and wrong and not enough of showing her through her own writings. I also didn’t like his tone, which I felt was condescending towards those he disagreed with. He faults others for the broad brush strokes with which they portray the Puritans, but then he does the same towards other groups. But most of the reviews I perused on Goodreads voiced high praise for this book, so don’t take my word for what I consider its problems. Maybe our personalities just don’t mesh: in his chapter on humor, I didn’t think anything he brought up as an example of humor was remotely funny (for instance, he says that when Christ brought up to the woman at the well in John 4 that she’d had five husbands and the man she currently had was not her husband, that he was teasing her [p. 163]. I don’t think Jesus would tease people about their sin, and she certainly didn’t seem to take it as a joke.)
However, I do agree with him that Anne is a worthy subject, and that the Puritans were not what people think of them today, and that Anne was content as a wife and mother within a conservative Christian setting and wrote from that setting contentedly, not rebelliously.
One quote of Anne’s that stood out to me was in reference to her children: “Diverse children have their different natures; some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction, some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar…Those parents are wise that can fit their nurture according to their nature.”
Though some of her poetry’s subjects include theology and even the Queen, my favorites are the ones dealing with her walk with God, and her home, and family. I’ll close with my favorite two:
By night when others soundly slept
And hath at once both ease and Rest,
My waking eyes were open kept
And so to lie I found it best.
I sought him whom my Soul did Love,
With tears I sought him earnestly.
He bow’d his ear down from Above.
In vain I did not seek or cry.
My hungry Soul he fill’d with Good;
He in his Bottle put my tears,
My smarting wounds washt in his blood,
And banisht thence my Doubts and fears.
What to my Saviour shall I give
Who freely hath done this for me?
I’ll serve him here whilst I shall live
And Loue him to Eternity.
To My Dear and Loving Husband
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.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)