Anne Bradstreet’s poetry as a medium to express her personal view on women’s confines in Puritan society
In the Puritan society of the 17th century America women occupied a special role and had only limited room for action. The notion of the submissive “Puritan Goodwife” was the common picture given by society by which married women should live and behave. As a result, this also meant that women were not allowed to participate in public affairs. Furthermore they were not seen as equal to men but rather as appendages, because they had to submit to their husbands as these had to submit to God. Anne Bradstreet however, who was one of the first female Puritan poets, shows in her works that she does not completely go along with the image of women which was given by Puritan society. The following lines are an excerpt out of Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Prologue”:
From schoolboy’s tongue no rhet’ric we expect,
Nor yet a sweet consort from broken strings,
Nor perfect beauty where’s a main defect:
My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings,
And this to mend, alas, no art is able,
‘Cause nature made it so irreparable. (13-18)
Although the Puritan poet claims in “The Prologue” (1650) that women have a “main defect” in the domain of literature which is even “. . . irreparable”, she demonstrates by her own contradictory way of writing that she is aware that there are women who can actually do equal to men. Anne Bradstreet thus uses the poetic form as an instrument of hidden critique against the common picture of women in Puritan society, who were deeply dependent on the male sex.
In the course of this paper, her poems “In Honor of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory” and “The Prologue” will serve as a medium to demonstrate the writer’s view on the way women were portrayed.
At the very beginning of “The Prologue” Bradstreet claims that she is not able to write about male literature: “For my mean pen are too superior things” (line 3). However, she demonstrates that she can actually do the opposite. While she proclaims that she cannot write about epic topics, she uses the epic form to start her poem: “To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings” (1). This is how a poet who wanted to write an epos would usually start his introduction. By opposing content and formal style she shows that she could actually write about these epic topics if she was allowed to.
In her elegy to Queen Elizabeth this contradiction develops even further. While in “The Prologue” she claims that she cannot write about “wars, captains and kings”, all these motives now appear in her elegy. Bradstreet mentions the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which resulted from the Spanish War that was fought between King Philip II and Queen Elizabeth. “Spain's monarch, says not so, nor yet his host; She taught them better manners, to their cost” (31-32). Although she does not mention the word “war” explicitly in this passage, it is quite obvious what she is talking about. In addition, the term “captains” can be found in line 59: “Such captains . . . never seen”, where Bradstreet describes the quality of Queen Elizabeth’s sailor men. Also, some “kings” are mentioned, namely “Spain's monarch” (31), i.e. King Philip II, “Don Anthony” (48) and “Frank's brave distressed king” (49), i.e. King Henri IV. By taking all these motives into account, Bradstreet’s poem does not only remind of an elegy but also of an epos, which at the same time reassures the interpretation of Bradstreet as a competent writer.
To bring these two contradictions to a climax, Bradstreet starts at the beginning of “The Poem” with the naming of several male writers: “No Phoenix pen, nor Spenser's poetry, No Speed's nor Camden's history” (19). She claims that none of them had ever been able to write down all the things Queen Elizabeth I. did. She even goes further and says that they will never be able to do so: “. . . , can e'er compact” (21). She thus emphasizes on the one hand the Queen's magnificence, but on the other hand her own writing as well, because her elegy on Queen Elizabeth represents exactly what in her opinion these writers were not able to do: It compacts all the great achievements that Elizabeth I. has made during her lifetime.
By her smart way of writing Bradstreet proves “. . . [h]er ability to navigate within the narrow boundaries of prevailing opinion [which] speaks to her poetic talent and intellectual abilities far more than the postures of absolute rebellion or submission . . .” (Hutchins 43).
The way the Puritan poet portrays the deceased Queen of England in her poem “In Honor of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory” gives insight about how Bradstreet uses the Queen deliberately to prove that it is not a natural fact that women are inferior to men. A close look on Bradstreet’s famous poem shows that for her, Elizabeth I. stood for female qualifications, skills and wisdom, equal to the ones of men, as also the author Zach Hutchins claims in his article: “. . . the Queen’s success, Bradstreet argues, proves that women can fill roles traditionally occupied by men” (48).
What is striking is the fact that the poet describes Elizabeth I. by male nouns and attributes, such as “virago” (line 52) which stands for “female warrior” and contains “vir”, the Latin term for “man”. On the same page she considers the English Queen an “[a]mazon” (73), which reinforces the interpretation of Bradstreet’s picture of her as a strong, independent and skilled woman. Another male attribute can be found in line 106, “She set, she set, like Titan”, where Elizabeth is compared to a male Greek god, as well as in her second “Epitaph”: “Here lies the envied, yet unparalleled prince” (129). The word “unparalleled” indicates that Bradstreet did not simply perceive the Queen as equal but even as superior to other male rulers. Another passage where Bradstreet distributes a male attribute to the queen appears in line 26: “From all the kings on earth she won the prize”. She could have chosen another word for 'kings”, such as “rulers” or “sovereigns” but instead she selectively picked a male noun. This choice of words shows that Bradstreet depicted Elizabeth I. as a woman who did not need a man because she herself incorporated male qualities. In addition, Bradstreet gives in her poem numerous examples to show what exactly Elizabeth I. was able to do and what kind of skills she embodied. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, for instance, where she proved her knowledge of warfare strategies and crowed over men or the help towards the Netherlands (cf. 50) as well as her support towards the “distressed king” (49) of the Franks.
All those little hints in Bradstreet’s poem point to the fact that she wanted to show men’s dependence on Queen Elizabeth I.
Furthermore, Anne Bradstreet draws a comparison between several queens of the past and the Queen of England, that show once more why for the Puritan poet, Elizabeth I. in particular represented the proof for women’s wisdom and success. In this passage Bradstreet defines her own understanding of the term “glory”, which vanished in the case of the other queens due to certain defects (cf. 80). Semiramis, for instance, tried to keep her glory upright by constructing worldly things, such as the Tower of Babel, which according to Bradstreet does not compete at all with the glory of Queen Elizabeth, the “Phoenix Queen”, who kept her fame and glory because of her wisdom. With the example of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who was a remarkable and successful woman until she suicided because of her desire for Aeneas, who had left her, Bradstreet tries to underline the special strategy Queen Elizabeth pursued to stay strong, that is to say to never build up any dependence on a man. Bradstreet even calls Dido “a great Eliza” (78), which shows that in contrast to the Virgin Queen the only failure she had made, was to be dependent on a man. By the poet’s view this was part of the fierce Queen’s secret of success, which of course stands in total contradiction towards the picture of the “Puritan Goodwife” that portrays women as being submissive and dependent on men. This sort of hidden critique is also being commented on in Ann Stanford’s article about Bradstreet’s rebellious tone: “It was a quiet rebellion, carried on as an undercurrent in an atmosphere of conformity” (378).
By bringing up all these contradictions Anne Bradstreet shows that she can actually compete with other male writers, although she never openly professes so. With her poems Bradstreet probably intended to make a first attempt to demonstrate women’s qualities, while she tried to stay within the confines of Puritan doctrines, as Ann Stanford puts it: “Thus, because she did observe in her conduct an exact conformity to the mores of her community, Anne Bradstreet was able to continue to write though the practice of writing by women was disapproved of by many in the community and by the governor himself” (377).