Massachusetts, 1642—a devoted Puritan wife and mother has a taken to writing poetry in her spare time, most likely because, well, she’s read so much of it, and in so many languages, that she thought she’d try her hand at it. While she uses some of her poems for teaching purposes in the small school that serves her community, the rest she keeps quietly tucked away. A Puritan writing poetry, not to mention a woman? Now that was definitely not very seemly. At least, that’s how most folks looked at it.
At some point in 1647, one of this woman’s sneaky relatives discovers the poems while rummaging in the young woman’s desk (why he was doing that, we have no idea). He peruses them, realizes they are exceptional, copies them out, takes them with him to London and has them published three years later in 1650.
Neat story, huh? You could probably make a movie out of it. It’s true too. At least, for several hundred years that has been the accepted story of the publication of Anne Bradstreet’s first (and only—at least during her lifetime) book of poems, entitled The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America. (The title is actually much, much longer; you can check it out here.) Anyway, the story goes that Bradstreet’s brother-in-law, one Thomas Woodbridge, stole the poems, or copied them, and then had them published in England in 1650, much to his sister-in-law’s dismay (so it seems). (Still, some people don’t buy this story in its entirety.)
So, why didn’t Bradstreet go ahead and publish those poems if they were so great? Well, as we said, that wouldn’t have been very appropriate. On top of that, however, we suspect that Bradstreet wasn’t very proud of her poems, or felt that they weren’t good enough, or was more concerned about raising her children in, and teaching others about, Puritan ideals than selling books of poetry. A lot of this stuff—the theft of the book, fears about her artistic ability—appears in “The Author to Her Book,” a poem that was first published in 1678 (after Bradstreet’s death) in a collection that is sometimes referred to as the “second edition” of the Tenth Muse, even though it was just called Several Poems. You can check out a very fine version of this later volume right here.
The biggest irony about this whole business, however, is the book’s title. For a poet that wanted to keep quiet, and wasn’t interested in publishing, the branding of herself as the tenth muse is pretty darn bold. In Greek and Roman mythology, the muses were a group of nine deities that inspired art of all kinds (painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, etc.). Even after the Greek and Roman cultures were wiped out, the whole idea of being inspired by a muse continued. Anyway, Bradstreet’s title says, essentially, “I’m not just any old poet, I’m the newest muse, and I live here in America.” It’s both a claim to superior artistic ability (I’m on par with the patron deities of art) and a claim to American, as opposed to European, artistic fertility (America as the new place for great poetry).
Ever sing in the shower? Doodle in a notebook? How about danced in a mirror when you knew no one was looking? Sure you have. We’ve all been there, Shmoopers. The question is, why not do those same things in front of other folks? Why not put your talents out on display?
Well, we’re guessing that one reason is that cranky, little, invisible gnome who sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear that you’re not good enough. Sure, you’d love to tell him to stuff his hat where the sun don’t shine, but honestly it’s not an easy thing to do, right?
Well, if you’ve ever had an experience even remotely like this, you know EXACTLY how the speaker of “The Author to Her Book” feels. Sure, this poem is about an author, who wrote a book of poems, but clearly her feelings about her poems are the same as yours towards your own talents: a sense that they aren’t quite good enough, that no amount of revision can make them better, and an extreme fear of showing them to anybody.
Never been much of a poet, or an artist? That’s no matter. The sentiments of our little artist and the speaker of “The Author to Her Book” can apply in any number of situations. Let’s say you’re an amateur chef, or baker. Well, making cakes and cooking stir fry require a certain amount of artistry. Perhaps you’re shy when it comes to letting people try your food, for fear that they’ll either gag or only pretend to like it. What if your mother stole some of your cookies that you had just made and let the neighbor lady taste them? You wouldn’t be happy, would you?
Here’s the bottom line: We are all our own worst critics, and no more so than when it comes to anything that can be remotely considered artistic (cooking, baking, origami, knitting—whatever). It’s frustrating to feel like we can’t make anything better (by our own standards), and it’s especially frustrating when somebody decides share our business without asking. Just ask the speaker of “The Author to Her Book.”