ENGLISH READING CIRCLE ON POETRY AND PROSE POETRY – POEM OF THE MONTH ANALYSIS: “To My Dear and Loving Husband” by Anne Bradstreet
This month, the English Reading Circle: Poetry and Prose Poetry group is going back to the beginning. We’ll be travelling back in time to the beginning of America, the beginning of American poetry, and the beginning of American women’s writing, with Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband.”
In 1650, Bradstreet’s volume of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in London, making her not only the first American colonist to have a book published, but also the first female American colonist to have a book published. And yet, Bradstreet’s status as the first published American is a neat little act of literary retrofitting; she was, strictly speaking, not American, but English. In 1630, she and her family joined the many other Puritans who emigrated to the English colonial territory in what is today Massachusetts; she would remain in Massachusetts until her death in 1672. For all that Bradstreet has been claimed in the name of American writing – and American women’s writing, at that – her poetics are English, through and throughout; how could they have been anything otherwise? “To My Dear and Loving Husband” expresses an idea that had long been examined in English poetry: immortality through love, loving, and being (be)loved.
In a way, Bradstreet’s “American-ness” is an attempt to reconstruct the story of her life in order to make it suit the literary and cultural tastes of later ages. Such reconstructions and multiple interpretations are possible because of the precarious historical position she was writing from. No longer English, but not yet American; a woman writing in a male tradition, Bradstreet appears conventional until we take a closer look.
Is she a dutiful Puritan woman, the goodwife who obediently followed her parents and husband to a unknown, hostile new world? Or, is there a spark of passion and daring behind her words, a subtle defiance in the face of convention? How far does she veer away from spiritual goodness and towards the carnal joys of the flesh? There is, after all, a somewhat grandiose exhilaration at play in the lines, “If ever wife was happy in a man, / Compare with me ye women if you can” (emphasis added), that challenges, defies, our very ideas of wifely submission. “Hey ladies,” she’s not afraid to say, “you think you’re happy with your man? Think again. Mine’s the real deal. I love him more than all the riches in the world.” Bold words, indeed, from a woman gave birth to eight children in a New England wilderness where food and material comforts were often scarce.
Listen to her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” being read out loud, and read along as you listen. The annotated version of the poem on poetryfoundation.org offers some helpful explanations and definitions of words that are not so commonly used in English today. As you read and listen, do so carefully, but above all, have fun. Do some retrofitting and modernizing of your own. Who is this woman? What were her joys and sorrows? Why did she write this poem? How is it still relevant to us today?
Happy Reading, and see you on Monday,