History, Literature

Occasional Quote of the Day: By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts

“If we had no winter the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” — Anne Bradstreet, Meditations Divine and Moral

So, there I was, looking for a quote about Spring, about how glad I am that the cycles go on, and that this fact has finally been borne out for this year, that the crocuses have finally emerged from their chilly beds, and that the hyacinths, daffodils and tulips are on their way, and I fell over this little treasure from Anne Bradstreet. The name was vaguely familiar, so I looked her up, and found that my recollection was correct: She’s an early American poet (born 1612, died 1672), and her claim to fame is that she’s the first published Puritan author of any substance. And, hey, she’s a woman! (That wasn’t such a big deal, the last time I ran across her, which I think was in a 1973 Survey of American Literature class, but I bet that makes her the bee’s knees now.)

Well, perhaps not.

Anne Bradstreet, you see, was largely content with her lot in life. Which included being endowed with a functioning brain which she was not afraid to use, being the beneficiary of some excellent “home-schooling” in a family that valued the education of all its children, being the mother of eight promising children herself, and serving as the wife of a prominent public official. You go, girl!

She was born in the North of England in 1612, in comfortable circumstances and got married at the age of 16 to Simon Bradstreet. The young couple, along with Anne’s parents, emigrated to the New World in 1630 (Anne was 18), ultimately moving to Cambridge, MA in 1632 where Anne, despite lifelong poor health, accommodated herself to her new and very different life (including early years of hardship and privation), and had the first of her eight children.

Eventually, the family settled and prospered, and both her husband and father served, at one point or another, as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and were instrumental in the founding of Harvard University, from which two of Anne and Simon’s sons graduated.

She died at the age of 60, in 1672, from tuberculosis, and after a long struggle with increasing paralysis and pain, the aftereffects of a childhood bout of smallpox and a subsequent go-round with scarlet fever. Too short a life, and one which demonstrates, if any proof of such were needed, that being born into comfortable circumstances is no guarantee of a particularly comfortable life.

But, upon my re-acquaintance with her the other day, it was her writings which struck me. She’s well-educated. And she speaks her mind, and writes about whatever pleases her. The only book of poetry published in her lifetime, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up In America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts, was first published in England, anonymously (because, you know, woman), and contains a series of poems in the Elizabethan tradition on subjects which interested her. They’re technically good, but rather imitative, and it’s not until her later poems, many of which were not published until the mid-nineteenth century, that she really finds her voice, writing in a deeply personal, sometimes questioning, vein about her life, her struggles, her accomplishments and her faith. The full text of all her works (poor formatting) can be found here. As I skimmed through, I felt her reaching across the centuries, and I found myself wishing I’d known her. I think I’d have liked her.

Today’s quote comes from a series of meditations on the order of Anne Bradstreet’s personal Book of Proverbs. She kept them, in her own handwriting, in a journal which she added to over time. They were first published in an edition of her writings, in 1867.

As with many such writings, Bradstreet’s Meditations focus on juxtapositions: Darkness and light, joy and sorrow, love and hate, sweet and sour, pride and humility, faith and despair. And so I finish up with a musical interlude I think she might have liked:

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Thank God.

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