Anne Bradstreet was America's first published poet, and when you consider the fact that she was a woman living in the seventeenth century, that's quite a feat. After all, female poets back then were thin on the ground.
In fact, the more you learn about her life, the more impressive she is. Bradstreet was born in England in 1612 and emigrated (left her home country) to America in 1630, about ten years after the first pilgrims came over in the Mayflower. Yeah, we know! Back then, Boston was little more than an outpost in a wild country, where everyone struggled just to survive.
Our girl was lucky, though. She came from a pretty good family, and was very well-educated as a child (most women at the time were not). She read widely (religious books, poetry, history), knew several languages, and was all-around a pretty smart lady. So it's no wonder, then, that she turned to poetry in her free time, which can't have been all that plentiful considering she had – count 'em – eight kids.
Eventually, though, she had enough poems to fill an entire book. Either she or somebody else (we're not sure) named the book, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. Okay, that's not entirely true. The actual title is The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America, or Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning, Full of Delight, Wherein especially is Contained a Complete Discourse and Description of the Four Elements, Constitutions, Ages of Man, Seasons of the Year, together with an exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies, viz., The Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, Roman, Also a Dialogue between Old England and New, concerning the late troubles. With divers other pleasant and serious Poems, By a Gentlewoman in those parts. Yikes! It just might take the cake for longest title ever, but Shmoop is not about to find out. So from here on out, we'll just call it The Tenth Muse.
In the literature of ancient Greece and Rome there were, traditionally, nine muses, mythological figures who were thought to inspire art and poetry. The title of Bradstreet's book adds a tenth to the list, and boldly claims that Bradstreet herself is the tenth muse – the American one.
This is a very brave move: It would have been like adding yourself to the list of "founding fathers." But then again, Bradstreet herself wasn't planning on publishing the book. Her brother-in-law snagged a copy of her manuscript, took it to England with him in 1647, and had it published in 1650, apparently without her knowledge. The Tenth Muse was the first book of poetry published by someone living in the New World, giving her the unique distinction of being America's first poet. You go girl. The Tenth Muse was Bradstreet's only publication during her lifetime. After her death in 1672, a second edition was printed, which contained more poems than the first edition. "To My Dear and Loving Husband" first appeared in this second edition, which came off the presses in 1678.
Bradstreet loved her husband very much, and wrote scads of poems about him. In many ways, despite the fact that it's two lines short of being a traditional sonnet (which has fourteen lines) "To My Dear and Loving Husband" reminds us of many classic love sonnets by, say, Shakespeare. All you need to do is compare "my love is such that rivers cannot quench" (7) with Shakespeare's remark in Sonnet 23 about the power of his love: "And in mine own love's strength seem to decay, / O'ercharged with burthen of mine own love's might." See? It's pretty clear that Bradstreet is working in a long tradition of love poems, and she can totally hold her own against the big guys.
Let's face it. Dating is hard. Relationships are tough. People get together and break up all the time. That's just the way it goes. Every once in a while, however, two people meet and something amazing happens. It's like they've been looking for each other their entire lives. They have chemistry, and other people can tell just by looking at them they are very deeply in love.
If you've ever met a couple like this, you're probably familiar with the kinds of things they say. "Oh, it's amazing how well we get along. It's like we're the same person." Sometimes it's, "Oh I can't even tell you how much I love so and so. There just aren't any words that describe my emotions." People also love to play the what-would-you-do game: "If somebody offered me billions of dollars to divorce my husband, I wouldn't do it. I value his love more than money, wealthy, riches, etc." At other times, people speak of the love they've received from The One as a gift: "There's no way I can ever repay so and so for how good he or she has been to me." All very sweet (and sometimes nausea-inducing).
"To My Dear and Loving Husband" is about what happens when you meet that perfect person. Anne Bradstreet felt that her husband was that perfect guy – her one and only – and she says all the things that people still say to this day: ooey-gooey love stuff. One thing's for sure: these two have a Great Love.
But still, even when we meet Mr. (or Mrs.) Right, it can be tough to find the words to express how we feel, and Bradstreet can totally relate. The whole poem is, essentially, is one gigantic statement about how much the speaker loves her husband. But then why does it take twelve lines to say? Simply because love is so powerful, and so complicated, that it defies words. It is impossible to talk about love without saying fifty different things. There just aren't words to describe it. If you haven't experienced this yet, just be patient. You will! In the meantime, read Bradstreet's poem and you'll have an idea of what it will be like.
Anne Bradstreet Online
Here's a totally awesome website about Bradstreet that includes a biography, poems, links, and more
A lengthy biography of the poet can be found here, and will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about our poet, and then some.
In case you just want the highlights, here's a timeline of Bradstreet's life from the website of a college American Literature course
Bradstreet's Page at poets.org
Yep, she's kind of a big deal.
Just Some Commentary
A guy (with a great 'stache!) talks about Anne Bradstreet for two minutes.
Bradstreet: Weekend Edition
Radio interviewer Scott Simon interviews poet and author Charlotte Gordon, who wrote a biography of Bradstreet in 2005. This segment is full of interesting insight about Bradstreet's life, Puritan culture, and what it was like to be a female poet in the 1600s. It's awesome stuff, so enjoy listening.
A brief overview of Bradstreet's life, complete with stirring music.
A Reading of the Poem
A woman named Liza Ross reads the poem. It's kind of neat to hear it in a woman's voice, and to imagine what Bradstreet herself might have sounded like.
Poetry Out Loud
For all you Charmed fans out there (if there are any of you left), here's Alyssa Milano's reading of the poem, which was included in the Poetry Out Loud compilation CD, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.
Here's a famous painting of the poet in typical Puritan garb.
A drawing of Bradstreet's "dear and loving husband," Simon.
Title page of The Tenth Muse
Check out the title page of the first edition (1650) of Bradstreet's book. When you read the whole title, you'll be glad things are a bit shorter these days.
A picture of Bradstreet's headstone in North Andover, Massachusetts. While the words on the stone are nice, we wish they had put one of her own poems up there.
Anne Bradstreet Gate
This gate at Harvard University is named after Anne Bradstreet. Talk about living "ever."
Bradstreet's Own Handwriting
Here's a manuscript version of a poem Bradstreet wrote for her son, complete with ink smudges.