Anne Bradstreet wrote poems to those she loved and admired, she wrote poems to express anger and sadness, she wrote poems about events past and present that had bearing on her, but Anne never wrote poetry to be published. Although she wrote almost two hundred poems, only one book of her poetry was published in her life time: "The Tenth Muse…" was published in England, without her knowledge, by her brother-in-law. It is important to remember, when reading and/or studying Anne Bradstreet’s poetry that she wrote it only for the eyes of family members who approved of her writing, not for a general public.
Anne Bradstreet dealt with a wide range of ideas, presented in a range of styles. Her early poetry—primarily that found in "The Tenth Muse…"—is written in heroic couplets, imitating the style of the 16th century French poet Du Bartas. She later branched out into abab form, ababccc form, lyric form (A form developed in ancient Greece: originally the poems were sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument called a lyre; lyric poems tend to be melodic and focus on producing a single, unified emotional effect.), Puritan "plain style" (didactic, simplicity, accessibility, and a lack of rhetorical ornamentation) and 17th century versions of classicism (emphasised imitative poetry and worked toward an over-all unity of elements; traditional subjects were tragedy and epic), but couplet remained her primary form.
Anne wrote quite a bit about her experiences as a wife, mother, grandmother, and as a settler in colonial America. She also wrote about nature, science, religion, the social and political happenings of the time, and about her feelings towards the biases women of her time faced.
Anne Bradstreet was, in some ways, an early feminist. Through her poetry, she asserted the right of women to learning and expression of thought. The belief at that time was that a woman's place was in the home attending to the family and her husband's needs. Women were generally considered intellectually inferior. (For this reason, some critics believed that Bradstreet had stolen her poems from men.) If a woman wrote and stepped outside her appropriate sphere, and if she published her work frequently, she would face social censure. The attitude of Anne’s day was accurately expressed by Reverend Thomas Parker, a minister in Newbury, Massachusetts, in a letter to his sister, Elizabeth Avery, in England: "Your printing of a book, beyond the custom of your sex, doth rankly smell" (1650). In the prologue of "The Tenth Muse…" Anne expresses her angry towards those stereotypes:
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits;
A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.
If what I do prove well, it won't advance;
They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance.
When "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America" was released, the idea that she was a virtuous women had to be stressed. John Woodbridge, her brother-in-law, had to write: "By a Gentle Women in Those Parts" on the title page in order to reassure the readers that Anne didn’t neglect her duties in order to write. Woodbridge made it clear that she found time for her poetry by giving up sleep and using what little leisure time she had in order to write.
As if the social pressure wasn’t bad enough, many women faced crushing workloads and a severe lack of free time, as well. Some women suffered from the lack of an education. Others internalized the belief in intellectual inferiority Western society tried to push on them from nearly every authoritative voice. It was Anne’s personal situation (an extensive education, support of friends and an influential family) gave her the means to cope with some of these obstacles. One of her later works, "In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory", defiantly proclaims that women are worth more than a man’s servant.
Many of Anne’s poems centered around her husband, Simon Bradstreet. She wrote love poems about him when he was at home, but wrote them most often when he was away on trips. Her poems reveal a deep and passionate love that continued throughout her life, and reveal the fear she had that her soul-mate might someday not return from one of his business trips. Her religious poems often contain passages where she asked God to watch over her children and husband. These poems have drawn criticism in recent years, saying that they prove that she was not really Puritan because she loved her husband so much. However, the love described by historians and by Anne herself that existed between she and her husband was the ideal of the love the Puritans believed should exist between a husband and wife. The Bible said that a husband and wife should love each other, so couples—not even couples in arranged marriages—were not forced to marry if they felt there was no way they could love their spouse.
She wrote many poems, and one work of prose, to her children. Because her health was so poor, and because of the harsh frontier life she lived in, there was always the very real possibility that she could die, and it was this possibility that inspired her to write poems to her children. If something happened to her, she wanted to be sure that her children would grow up knowing that she loved them.
Anne wrote poems about her grandchildren, children-in-law, and parents, as well. She had been uncommonly blessed to have all eight of her children live to maturity, but her children were not as fortunate with their own families. Three of her grandchildren died in infancy or early childhood, some within only months of the others. Their mother, Anne’s daughter-in-law, only a month after the death of the last child. Anne’s poems convey the grief and angry she felt at having those family members taken away so early, but they always end with an expression of faith that she will see them again someday, in Heaven.
Another major theme in Anne's poetry is her religious experiences. Almost all of her poems could be placed under the category of "Christianity". No matter what the subject of her poem was—family, community, current events—there was very often a phrase or two leading back to her faith in God. Her love letters ask God to reunite her with her soul-mate; her poems regarding the death of her grandchildren resonate with her belief in Heaven and eternal life.
Her writing gives modern-day readers a glimpse into Puritan views of salvation and redemption, and reveal a faith that continued even in the midst of doubt. Even when she was asking why, she still had the faith that there was answer. She was secure enough in her relationship with God to be able to ask Him why bad things happened to her, and to be able to tell Him that she had doubts. Anne writes about how sometimes she felt that God punished her through her sicknesses and her domestic problems. The Puritans believed that suffering was God's way of preparing the heart for accepting His grace. Anne had difficulty reconciling herself with this idea, and she wrote about how she struggled to do everything that she could to give into His will. She thought that God was hard on her because her soul was too in love with the world. Her poems show the cycle of angry, doubt, and reaffirmed faith that an honest Christian goes experiences.
Anne was deeply interested in relating the arduous life of the early settlers in her poems. Her work provides an excellent view of the difficulties she and her fellow colonists encountered. From the loss of a house to fire, to the risks and difficulties of child-bearing, to the pain of loosing children, Anne described such situations with deep emotion and faith.
In "Contemplation’s" (1678), Anne wrote of her admiration of the natural world. She examines how humans fit into the natural world. She is particularly interested in the cycle of the seasons. She uses winter and spring as metaphors for death and rebirth. She also examines the life cycles of animals and human beings.
Anne wrote about the burning of her house, the civil war in England, the building tensions between England and her American colonies amongst other subjects. The best known of these is "Dialogue between New England and Old England," in which England and the colonies are personified as mother and daughter. The daughter, the strong, young woman, continuelly asks the mother, the old, faded glory, why she is upset with her. Anne makes it clear that she feels the reason for all of England’s problems is that it’s staying in the past, and not moving forward.
A number of Anne’s poems concern history, ranging from ancient history (as in "Four Monarchs") to more recent history (the wars between England and France/Spain), along with her theories on why historical events occurred as they did. She wrote elegies to historical figures she admired, such as Du Bartas and Sir Philip Sidney.
"The Tenth Muse…" generally considered the first book of original poetry written in colonial America. It was also the only book of Anne’s poetry published in her lifetime. Although some of her verse is conventional, much of it is direct and shows sensitivity to beauty. However, it did not due very well when it was first published. "The Tenth Muse…" was highly criticized in its own time because not only was it written by a woman, but by a woman who had the nerve to proclaim that women might be equal to men. In the Prologue of "The Tenth Muse," Anne makes a claim for the attention she believed women deserve. She makes the bold statement a woman’s true abilities in "Happy Memory of Queen Elizabeth," the only poem in The Tenth Muse which is not apologetic. Not only was her poetry controversial, but it was not at all her best work; in fact, all of the poems contained in it were written before she was thirteen. The first edition of "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America" was not very well received by critics. However, the publication of her first poems did gave her the confidence to develop her own style. In her later works, she began to write solely in her own style, and began to express her emotions more clearly. The use of her emotions in her writings is the technique that changed Anne Bradstreet from a good writer into a great writer.
After her death, a second edition was published. It is clear that this edition contains the poet's own corrections, made because she was dissatisfied the "The Tenth Muse…" More poems were added, and these later poems show that she had learned to look directly at nature and human life, as well as into her own heart, and she learned to write with the imaginative vision of a poet. Much of her later work was based on her experience as a wife, as a mother, and a woman in seventeenth-century New England.
" Several Poems (Contemplations)" was published in Boston in 1678. Anne’s second collection of published poems are scholarly poems, in a formal style such as one would expect more from a European court-poet than from an American Puritan woman on the frontier. Unlike "The Tenth Muse…", Anne wrote "Contemplation’s" with her own style, instead of imitating someone else’s. Many of the poems are lengthy treatments of subjects dealing with the number four, such as the four ages of men, the four monarchies of Daniel, and the four seasons. The potential her poetry displayed in "The Tenth Muse…" bloomed in "Contemplation’s": her poetry is graceful and pleasant; original and deep. Many of the poems are personal reflections, and contain a warmth and candid humanity that contradicts the cold, rigid Puritan stereotype. (Webster's American Biographies 129). The book was well-received in America and England; John Newton (author of "Amazing Grace") highly praised Anne's work.
"The Flesh and the Spirit" was also published in 1678, and centered around Anne’s faith. Strict Calvinistic doctrine created a conflict for her between living a pleasant life and living a Christian life. She found accepting such ideas as predestination difficult, as well, and through her poems she explained her doubts and what she did to resolve those doubts.
"Meditations Divine and Moral" is Anne Bradstreet’s sole work of prose. She wrote it to her children—specifically to her son, Simon—telling them of her experience as a Christian: her faith, her doubts, her renewed faith, and begs her children not to let doubts end their own faith. Although Anne wrote "Meditations…" in 1664, it was not published until 1867, almost two centuries after her death. "Meditations…" gives readers a clear view of the Puritan faith, without the confusion poetic interpretation might cause in "The Flesh and the Spirit".