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Picture of Anne Bradstreet, poet; seventeenth century British Literature / English Literature and poetry

September 16, 1672
Anne Bradstreet, John Berryman
Bradstreet, Berryman, Wheatley
by Steve King

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On this day in 1672 Anne Bradstreet, the first published poet of the American colonies, died. Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively privileged life in England, but at the age of eighteen she, her husband, and her parents sailed with John Winthrop for the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts Bay. Her first book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published back in England in 1650 -- by her brother-in-law and apparently without her knowledge, Bradstreet expressing embarrassment that the world should see the "ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain." These first poems are sometimes candid and immediate, but more often they are conventional in style and on accepted topics -- her love for husband, children, God, etc. Later poems can show a different attitude, one far from embarrassment:
    I am obnoxious to each carping tongue,
    Who sayes, my hand a needle better fits,
    A Poets Pen, all scorne, I should thus wrong;
    For such despighte they cast on female wits:
    If what i doe prove well, it wo'nt advance,
    They'l say its stolen, or else, it was by chance.
John Berryman's first fame was for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a series of fifty-seven, eight-line verses in which he comments on, converses with, courts, and speaks as a woman locked away by gender and circumstance. The historical Bradstreet wrote about a disastrous fire; Berryman's Bradstreet writes, "I sniff a fire burning without outlet, / consuming acrid its own smoke. It's me." The following is section 31, in which Berryman has Bradstreet moving away from "the proportioned, spiritless poems," and towards him:
    --It is Spring's New England. Pussy willows wedge
    up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed
    yellow, in heaven, eyed
    by the melting hand-in-hand or mere
    desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,
    make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt--
    the hefty pike shifts, sheer--
    in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge--
A century after Bradstreet, the first book by an African-American was published, the author also a woman. Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped into slavery and "brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa" (a notice from her publisher) at age seven. She was purchased by John Wheatley, a prominent Boston tailor; he educated her, recognized her talent, and helped her get published. Most of her poetry is also conventional, along religious-classical lines, but here too there can be protest:
    On Being Brought From Africa to America

    "Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
    Taught my benighted soul to understand
    That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
    Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
    Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
    "Their colour is a diabolic die."
    Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
    May be refin'd and join th'angelic train.

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Related authors:  Aphra Behn, John Berryman, Anne Bradstreet, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath
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January 16, 2018
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