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America’s first poet was no stranger to suffering. To escape persecution by the Church of England’s Archbishop Laud, she left her native land where she had lived on the estate of the Earl of Lincoln, where he father was the steward in charge. At the age of eighteen she was one of the Puritans who braved the Atlantic Ocean in the Arabella with her husband, her parents, and other pioneers. Three sickening months at sea, surviving on salt meats, brought them to meet starving survivors when they reached Salem.
One year after their arrival in the New World her father warned friends still at home in England:
If there be any endued with grace, let them come over. For others, I conceive they are not yet fitted for this business. There is not a house where is not one dead, and some houses many. The natural causes seem to be in the want of warm lodging and good diet. Those who landed at Plymouth in winter died of scurvy. Lady Arabella herself, who was aboard their ship which was named for her, died on land just months after they arrived.
These devout Puritan dissenters settled near the Charles River on land first called New Towne, later Cambridge. The cow pasture adjoining the space where they built their houses is now called Harvard Yard. The Bradstreet’s house was located at what is now the corner of Brattle Street and John F. Kennedy Street, otherwise known as Harvard Square. After their most welcome first child, Samuel, was born in Cambridge, the family moved to a wilderness called Ipswich. After several years there, they moved to their permanent home in the still more remote wilderness which they developed and named Andover. Here America’s pioneer poet found strength in spite of many illnesses to write increasingly excellent poems. She now also bore and cared for eight children in spite of the fact that the father’s role as Governor of the community required much travel.
Anne Bradstreet’s brother-in-law, the Reverend John Woodbridge– with or without her permission– released a series of her early poems for publication in London in 1650 titled: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. Her finest poems, however, were created later in the wild New World despite her lameness and death-threatening illnesses. The John Harvard Library edition of The Works of Anne Bradstreet published by Harvard University Press carries an introduction by Adrienne Rich.
Among her descendants are William Ellery Channing, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Richard Henry Dana, and Wendell Phillips.
No portrait of Anne Bradstreet exists; her burial site is unknown. America’s first poet remains an unforgettably alive artist.
The Poetry of Anne Bradstreet
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 cloth 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 persevere
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
FOR DELIVERANCE FROM A FEVER
When sorrows had begirt me round,
And pains within and out,
When in my flesh no part was found,
Then didst Thou rid me out.
My burning flesh in sweat did boil,
My aching head did break,
From side to side for ease I toil,
So faint I could not speak.
Beclouded was my soul with fear
Of Thy displeasure sore,
Nor could I read my evidence
Which oft I read before.
“Hide not Thy face from me!” I cried,
“From burnings keep my soul.
Thou know’st my heart, and hast me tried;
I on Thy mercies roll.”
“O heal my soul,” Thou know’st I said,
“Though flesh consume to nought,
What though in dust it shall be laid,
To glory I shall be brought.”
Thou heard’s”, Thy rod Thou didst remove
And spared my body frail
Thou show’st to me Thy tender love,
My heart no more might quail.
O, praises to my mighty God,
Praise to my Lord, I say,
Who hath redeemed my soul from pit,
Praises to Him for aye.
Though children Thou has given me,
And friends I have also,
Yet if I see Thee not through them,
They are no joy, but woe.
O shine upon me, blessed Lord,
Ev’n for my Saviour’s sake
In Thee alone is more than all,
And there content I’ll take.
O hear me, Lord, in this request
As Thou before hast done,
Bring back my husband, I beseech,
As Thou didst once my son.
Ev’n while my days shall last
And talk to my beloved one
Of all Thy goodness past.
So both of us Thy kindness, Lord,
With praises shall recount
And serve Thee better than before
Whose blessings thus surmount.
But give me, Lord, a better heart,
Then better shall I be,
To pay the vows which I do owe
Forever unto Thee.
Unless Thou help, what can I do
But still my frailty show?
If Thou assist me, Lord, I shall
Return Thee what I owe.
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