Anne Bradstreet: the Heretical Poet

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Anne Bradstreet: The Heretical Poet

Greg Saxon

The purpose of this research is to discuss heretical elements in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). This is not to imply that Bradstreet was a heretic in the sense that American religious reformer Anne Hutchinson was. Hutchinson (1591-1643) emigrated to Boston in 1634 and preached a doctrine of salvation through intuitive apprehension of grace rather than by works, and attacked the rigid moral and legal codes of New England Puritanism. Anne Bradstreet accepted the tenets of Puritanism and was a very religious person. Anti-Puritan themes are, however, to be found in her poetry in terms of her religious doubts, her expression of personal emotions and thoughts, and her artistry. She did not write to preach or teach,, as Puritan writers were instructed to, but to express herself. It is this personal expression that forms the basis of the heretical elements in her poetry.

To understand why personal expression may be considered heretical, the society in which Bradstreet lived and wrote must be examined in order to comprehend what kinds of human activities and behaviors were acceptable and how Bradstreet deviated from these behaviors.

Bradstreet was not truly unorthodox in that she did not dissent from accepted beliefs and doctrine. She was a woman of the 17th Century and lived in a male dominated, intensely religious society. She lived within the limitations not only of the beliefs and standards of her society, but of her sex. A woman's place was definitely in the home in Colonial America. The experiences of women were considered narrow and trivial in comparison with men's.

Puritanism was more than a religious belief; it was a way of life. "In the dozen years before 1640, some 15,000 Englishmen crossed the Atlantic in order to establish a 'Holy Commonwealth' in which that way of life could flourish"(Hall 1).

The Puritans were a party in the Church of England that arose in Elizabeth's reign with the purpose of carrying out the Protestant reformation, and to base the Church of England on the foundation of the scriptures. Aside from a literal belief in the Bible, Puritans wholly accepted the doctrines of John Calvin and his stern legalistic theology. The Puritans held that religion should permeate every phase of living. The purpose of life was to do God's will; everything else was subordinate to this basic doctrine.

The Colony set up by the English Puritans was essentially an experiment in Christian living. Religion and earning a living were the two priorities of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In contrast to the Pilgrims, they were well-off and well-educated men, many of whom were professionals and university men as was their first governor John Winthrop(Blair 9-10).

The Puritans held that man was wholly vile, corrupt and prone to evil and could do no good without God's assistance. However, Puritans did not believe in celibacy but were in favor of wedded love and procreation. Milton's invocation, "Hail, wedded love!" epitomized this belief. It was also believed that women had a right to expect something more from their husbands than mere duty(Morison 9-11).

Puritanism hampered artistic and intellectual activity banning three forms in which the English excelled: drama, religious music, and erotic poetry(Morison 12).
New England was founded at a time when almost everyone who could read at all, read poetry, and many attempted to write it. Poetry in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like other manifestations of intellectual life in the 17th Century, was dominated by religion. Early New England verse was religious both in motive and expression, and for the most part was didactic(Morison 216-217).

Anne Bradstreet was one of the two poets of early New England (Michael Wigglesworth was the other) whose poetry has lasted.
Bradstreet was born in Northamptom, England. Her father Thomas Dudley was steward of the estate of the Earl...
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