Poetry Wednesday: Anne Bradstreet and Queen Bess

In 1630, at the age of eighteen, Anne Dudley Bradstreet emigrated to the New World with her parents and husband of two years, Simon Bradstreet.

Anne was not in the best of health—she suffered from the aftereffects of smallpox for most of her life—but still managed to bear, raise, and educate eight healthy children and manage both household and estate while her husband—who had become the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like his father-in-law before him—was away on Colony business.

She also wrote poetry.

Very, very good poetry.

In fact, the only collection of poems published during her lifetime—succinctly titled 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 pleasant and serious Poems, By a Gentlewoman in those parts* (1650)–was the first book published by a woman in the New World, though she wasn’t free to acknowledge it as her work at the time.

Her best known poems are mostly about how much she loved her children** and her husband, as well as other appropriate subject matter for a “Gentlewoman of those parts.”

Anne always put her own stamp on things, though, and her work shows flashes of intuition, earthiness, and impatience that don’t quite fit with our modern ideas of the Puritan wifely mindset.***

And occasionally, she lets herself go, and you realize that this was a woman who never allowed outward restrictions to bind her.

I shared one of these amazing poems way the heck back in April.   It’s about the frustrations of writing and releasing a manuscript and while I didn’t know who exactly Anne Bradstreet was when I first read it, I knew I liked her.

Another favorite is an ode to Queen Elizabeth the First, who died nine years before Anne was born.   Anne wrote several smaller epitaphs to Her Majesty as well, and she doesn’t hide her admiration of a woman who did a man’s job, and did it very, very well.

I believe that like called to like and strong called to strong.

I’m not sharing the Prologue here, because this is already a long poem for a blog.^  But I’m also not going to italicize the parts that I think rock hardest because—unlike a certain 1844 reviewer of Irish poetry—I trust that you’ll know ’em when you read ’em.

In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth
(Anne Bradstreet)

No Phoenix Pen, nor Spenser’s Poetry, 
No Speed’s, nor Camden’s learned History; 
Eliza’s works, wars, praise, can e’re compact, 
The World’s the Theater where she did act. 
No memories, nor volumes can contain, 
The nine Olymp’ades of her happy reign, 
Who was so good, so just, so learn’d, so wise, 
From all the Kings on earth she won the prize. 
Nor say I more than truly is her due. 
Millions will testify that this is true. 
She hath wip’d off th’ aspersion of her Sex, 
That women wisdom lack to play the Rex. 
Spain’s Monarch sa’s not so, not yet his Host: 
She taught them better manners to their cost. 
The Salic Law had not in force now been, 
If France had ever hop’d for such a Queen. 
But can you Doctors now this point dispute, 
She’s argument enough to make you mute, 
Since first the Sun did run, his ne’er runn’d race, 
And earth had twice a year, a new old face; 
Since time was time, and man unmanly man, 
Come shew me such a Phoenix if you can. 
Was ever people better rul’d than hers? 
Was ever Land more happy, freed from stirs? 
Did ever wealth in England so abound? 
Her Victories in foreign Coasts resound? 
Ships more invincible than Spain’s, her foe
She rack’t, she sack’d, she sunk his Armadoe. 
Her stately Troops advanc’d to Lisbon’s wall, 
Don Anthony in’s right for to install. 
She frankly help’d Franks’ brave distressed King, 
The States united now her fame do sing. 
She their Protectrix was, they well do know, 
Unto our dread Virago, what they owe. 
Her Nobles sacrific’d their noble blood, 
Nor men, nor coin she shap’d, to do them good. 
The rude untamed Irish she did quell, 
And Tiron bound, before her picture fell. 
Had ever Prince such Counsellors as she? 
Her self Minerva caus’d them so to be. 
Such Soldiers, and such Captains never seen, 
As were the subjects of our (Pallas) Queen: 
Her Sea-men through all straits the world did round, 
Terra incognitæ might know her sound. 
Her Drake came laded home with Spanish gold, 
Her Essex took Cadiz, their Herculean hold. 
But time would fail me, so my wit would too, 
To tell of half she did, or she could do. 
Semiramis to her is but obscure; 
More infamy than fame she did procure. 
She plac’d her glory but on Babel’s walls, 
World’s wonder for a time, but yet it falls. 
Fierce Tomris (Cirus’ Heads-man, Sythians’ Queen) 
Had put her Harness off, had she but seen
Our Amazon i’ th’ Camp at Tilbury,
(Judging all valour, and all Majesty) 
Within that Princess to have residence, 
And prostrate yielded to her Excellence. 
Dido first Foundress of proud Carthage walls 
(Who living consummates her Funerals), 
A great Eliza, but compar’d with ours, 
How vanisheth her glory, wealth, and powers.
Proud profuse Cleopatra, whose wrong name, 
Instead of glory, prov’d her Country’s shame: 
Of her what worth in Story’s to be seen, 
But that she was a rich Ægyptian Queen. 
Zenobia, potent Empress of the East, 
And of all these without compare the best 
(Whom none but great Aurelius could quell) 
Yet for our Queen is no fit parallel: 
She was a Ph{oe}nix Queen, so shall she be, 
Her ashes not reviv’d more Ph{oe}nix she. 
Her personal perfections, who would tell, 
Must dip his Pen i’ th’ Heliconian Well, 
Which I may not, my pride doth but aspire 
To read what others write and then admire. 
Now say, have women worth, or have they none? 
Or had they some, but with our Queen is’t gone? 
Nay Masculines, you have thus tax’d us long, 
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong. 
Let such as say our sex is void of reason 
Know ’tis a slander now, but once was treason. 
But happy England, which had such a Queen, 
O happy, happy, had those days still been, 
But happiness lies in a higher sphere. 
Then wonder not, Eliza moves not here. 
Full fraught with honour, riches, and with days, 
She set, she set, like Titan in his rays. 
No more shall rise or set such glorious Sun, 
Until the heaven’s great revolution: 
If then new things, their old form must retain, 
Eliza shall rule Albian once again. 

Sing it, sister.


*Titles became somewhat shorter once book flaps were invented, and if someone can find the name of the person who first decided to move the blurbs undercover, I’d like to put up a statue or a plaque somewhere on behalf of all librarians and bookstore clerks everywhere because Holy Cow.

**Which for me are bracketed by a rather grim one written just prior to the birth of one of her children—proving what a strange place one’s mind becomes those last few weeks—and a wistful one that might very well be the first empty-nest poem on record (e-mail me if I’m wrong).

***Ideas that, I’m thinking, would have had Anne grinding her teeth and writing quite a pointed poem indeed.

^I know it’s never stopped me before.  Hush and count your blessings.