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Feminist Themes in the Works of Anne Bradstreet

June 24th, 2010


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Anne Bradstreet’s "The Prologue" was intended to introduce her lengthy epic poem entitled Quaternions and by doing so, persuade male readers that she, although a woman, possessed enough talent to be worthy of their attention and contemplation. In this poem Bradstreet defended her sex against the disdain that men had shown toward female writers as a whole. The basic theme of her well-known text was the ability of female poets and their lack of acknowledgement by men. Much of the poem was self-deprecating, echoing the kind of criticism aimed at female poet like herself. She seemed to accept reluctantly the general attitude toward female authors, although demonstrating that she could use poetic devices with skill and had a firm grasp of a broad range of literature, including classical Greek and that of Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas, a writer of religious epics from France.


Much tension between different systems of values was expressed in Bradstreet’s poem, "The Prologue," reflecting the nature of her Puritanical background. Personally Bradstreet views herself as an equal to any male writer of the day, but is forced by society to remain submissive and humble, systems of values clashing at this epicenter. In one instance on the third line, Anne begins, "For my mean pen. " (stanza 1, line 3), emphasizing that she viewed her ability to write about war and other manly ideas as "lowly or humble. " She was claiming that since she was a woman, she would be unable to write about great events that concern male poets "of wars, of captains, and of kings, Of cities founded, commonwealths begun," (1,1-2).

Anne Bradstreet refused to pretend to be a man but rather profess herself as an educated woman of the world, not feeling the need to hide her identity. On the fourth line Bradstreet continues, "Nor can I, like that fluent, sweet-tongued Greek Who lisped at first, in future times speak plain. By art he gladly found what he did seek;" (4, 19-21), referred to Demosthenes, an ancient Athenian who overcame a speech impediment by practicing with a rock in his mouth. Practice or as stated "art" could not make up for the lack of talent or for the fact that nature had made her a woman. Each critic said that Bradstreet should tend to her knitting and be content doing the typical work of a Puritan woman as stated on lines twenty five through twenty six, "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue Who says my hand a needle better fits;". Many other instances of tension are well noted including the idea that all nine of the Greek Muses were female deities.

Calliope was the muse of heroic or epic poetry, a form of expression that Anne Bradstreet was attempting in he Quaternions. By stating, "But she the antique Greeks were far more mild; Else of our sex why feigned they those nine, And Poesy made Calliope’s own child? " (6, 31-33) Bradstreet further affirmed her belief that women should be treated as equals for if the muses were female, then women should possess this ability. In lines thirty-seven to forty two she says, "Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are; Men have precedency and still excel. It is but vain unjustly to wage war; Women can do best, and women know well. " Here she deferred to male superiority but insists that she has her place also. Men need not be threatened by her works and poetic abilities, although her strong tone and apparent attitude towards Puritan traditions may bring about another conclusion.

The tension displayed in Anne Bradstreet’s poem was a direct consequence of her Puritan up-bringing; therefore many Puritanical elements can be found in her poetry with metaphysical qualities. Members of the Puritan society understood that all men and women were not equal. Men were given dominion over their families, ministers and church leaders exercised authority over communities, and women ruled over children and servants. A woman’s power came from her position in the community due to her husband’s social status, her personal character, and her roles as a wife, mother, and church member. Bradstreet’s social authority comes from her role as a daughter and wife of two Massachusetts leaders and wealthiest men, not her own talents for writing. Anne Bradstreet’s poem contained many metaphysical qualities, including her reacting against the traditions of Puritanical society and writing with witty, ironic and passionately intense verses. "The Prologue" shed light on the injustices happening to female poets in the 17th century as we view them today.

Anne Bradstreet used "The Prologue" to defend herself against the views of influential Puritan leaders and to show that through her literary style, she was worthy of respect. Bradstreet used her understanding of modern and ancient poetic devices to display that she was an educated, well-read woman of her time. Among these devices were rhyme-pattern, rhythm, and tone. The last word of the first line of every stanza rhymes with the last word of the third line.

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