the first american poet was a woman -- 9/21/18

Today's selection -- from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich. Anne Bradstreet was born in 1612 in Northhampton, England, to an affluent family. She was well-educated, which was atypical for a woman in the late 17th century. In 1630, she immigrated to America aboard the Arbella with her husband and parents. Once in America she recorded the hardships she suffered in the new world through her poetry. In 1650, her brother-in-law returned to England carrying with him a manuscript of her poems, which he succeeded in getting published.  At the time, it would have been unthinkable for a woman to show any ambitions outside of her home and family, let alone write for publication. She seemed perturbed about the publication of that manuscript, titled The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, writing in her poem "The Author to Her Book" that "she had not given the 'rambling brat' leave to stray beyond the family circle." Bradstreet was the first female poet to be published in both England and the New World, and is considered America's first poet:

"Anne Bradstreet was the first nondidactic American poet, the first to give an embodiment to American nature, the first in whom personal intention appears to precede Puritan dogma as an impulse to verse. Not that she could be construed as a Romantic writing out of her time. The web of her sensibility stretches almost invisibly within the framework of Puritan literary convention; its tex­ture is essentially both Puritan and feminine. Compared with her great successor, Taylor, her voice is direct and touching, rather than electrifying in its tensions or highly colored in its values. Her verses have at every point a transparency which precludes the metaphysical image; her eye is on the realities before her, or on images from the Bible. Her individualism lies in her choice of material rather than in her style.

"The difficulty displaced, the heroic energy diffused in merely liv­ing a life, is an incalculable quantity. It is pointless, finally, to say that Poe or Hart Crane might have survived longer or written differently had either been born under a better star or lived in more en­couraging circumstances. America has from the first levied pecu­liarly harsh taxes on its poets -- physical, social, moral, through absorption as much as through rejection.

 Anne Bradstreet's first work published in London as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America 'by a Gentlewoman of those parts'.

"John Berryman admits that in coming to write his long poem, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, 'I did not choose her -- somehow she chose me -- one point of connec­tion being the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse at all in a land that cared and cares so little for it.' Still, with all stoic recognition of the common problem in each succeeding century including the last half-hour, it is worth observing that Anne Brad­street happened to be one of the first American women, inhabiting a time and place in which heroism was a necessity of life, and men and women were fighting for survival both as individuals and as a community.

"To find room in that life for any mental activity which did not directly serve certain spiritual ends, was an act of great self­-assertion and vitality. To have written poems, the first good poems in America, while rearing eight children, lying frequently sick, keeping house at the edge of wilderness, was to have managed a poet's range and extension within confines as severe as any American poet has confronted. If the severity of these confines left its mark on the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, it also forced into concentration and perma­nence a gifted energy that might, in another context, have spent itself in other, less enduring directions."

Click to read Mrs. Bradstreet's poem Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th 1666.



Adrienne Rich


On Lies, Secrets, and Silence


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 


Copyright 1979 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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