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The purpose of this research is to explore the presence of heretical elements in the poetry of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). While it is not our intention to label Bradstreet as a heretic in the manner of figures like Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), who espoused unorthodox religious views, this study aims to shed light on the heretical themes found within Bradstreet's poetry. Bradstreet, a devout Puritan, expressed religious doubts, personal emotions, and thoughts in her work, deviating from the conventional Puritan writing style that focused on preaching and teaching.
This essay delves into the societal norms and religious context of Bradstreet's time, examining how her personal expression could be perceived as heretical.
Anne Bradstreet lived in a 17th-century society that was not only deeply religious but also predominantly male-dominated. Colonial America in her era placed strict limitations on the roles and behaviors of women. Women were expected to confine themselves to domestic responsibilities, and their experiences were often considered inconsequential when compared to those of men.
Puritanism, the prevailing religious belief of the time, encompassed not only faith but also an entire way of life.
The Puritans, who were a faction within the Church of England, aimed to reform and base their faith on the scriptures. Their religious convictions went beyond mere belief; they permeated every aspect of daily life. To the Puritans, the purpose of life was to carry out God's will, with everything else considered secondary. This religious fervor was the foundation upon which the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established, as English Puritans crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of a "Holy Commonwealth" where their way of life could flourish (Hall 1).
Central to Puritan doctrine was the idea of man's innate corruption and his dependency on God for any good deeds. While they did not embrace celibacy, Puritans valued wedded love and procreation, as illustrated by John Milton's famous line, "Hail, wedded love!" (Morison 9-11). The faith also emphasized that women, as wives, could expect more from their husbands than mere duty(Morison 9-11). Puritanism hampered artistic and intellectual activity, banning forms of expression such as drama, religious music, and erotic poetry (Morison 12).
In this context, early New England poetry was predominantly religious and didactic in nature. It revolved around religious motives and sought to impart moral lessons (Morison 216-217). Anne Bradstreet, one of the two enduring poets of early New England, had a unique background. Born in England, she enjoyed access to a sizable library during her youth, which contributed to her education. Her marriage to Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, brought her to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, where she began to write poetry (Blair 9-10).
Bradstreet's poetry was a blend of personal expression, religious contemplation, and domestic themes. Her work encompassed a wide range of subjects, from her love for her husband and children to her observations of the New England landscape. Yet, what sets her apart in terms of heretical elements is her willingness to challenge some of the stricter tenets of Puritanism and to express her innermost doubts and conflicts.
"The Flesh and The Spirit" is a notable example of Bradstreet's exploration of heretical themes. In this poem, she personifies two sisters, the Spirit and the Flesh, who engage in a theological debate. The Spirit represents the conventional Puritan doctrine, emphasizing the importance of spiritual matters and divine salvation. The Flesh, on the other hand, embodies worldly desires and pleasures. While the Spirit ultimately triumphs, the poem reflects Bradstreet's own internal conflict, as she grapples with the tension between spiritual devotion and earthly desires (Blair 234).
Another prominent poem, "To My Dear and Loving Husband," stands out for its passionate and lyrical expression of love. Unlike many Puritan works, it is free from religious dogma and instead focuses on the intensity of emotional love. The poem's universality and timeless appeal make it relatable even to modern readers. Bradstreet's poetic voice in this work transcends the confines of her era, reflecting her deeply personal and heretical expression of love (Blair 231-232).
In "Verses upon the burning of our house," Bradstreet mourns the loss of her home and possessions in a fire. While she accepts this tragedy as the will of God, her focus on the tangible pleasures of her domestic life and her attachment to worldly goods deviate from the austere Puritan ideals. The poem encapsulates her ability to reconcile personal experiences with religious doctrine, highlighting the heretical undertones of her poetry (Blair 232-233).
Anne Bradstreet's poetry reveals that she could not accept in entire docility the sterner aspects of New England Puritanism. Her personal expressions, often rooted in genuine feelings and experiences, provided the heretical elements in her work. While she presented the correct Puritan dogma in her poems, their primary purpose was not to instruct but rather to express her personal feelings.
Bradstreet's exploration of her doubts and conflicts is evident in her poem on the death of a grandchild. While the poem begins with a stoic acceptance of mortality, it gradually reveals her struggle with the concept of God's will. She navigates the fine line between genuine feeling and deference to orthodox doctrine, often expressing her genuine emotions before pulling herself back into the confines of accepted beliefs (Spiller 64).
Similarly, in "To My Dear and Loving Husband," Bradstreet presents a passionate love poem devoid of religious dogma. The poem's openly emotional and universal themes, along with its timeless quality, make it one of the most heretical pieces in her body of work. The absence of religious references in this context marks a departure from conventional Puritan poetry (Blair 231-232).
Anne Bradstreet's poetry provides a unique window into the intersection of her personal life, religious faith, and heretical themes. While she did not openly dissent from Puritan beliefs, her works reveal a complex and sometimes rebellious spirit. Bradstreet's willingness to express her doubts, conflicts, and emotions set her apart from many of her contemporaries.
Living in a society that constrained women's roles and behaviors, Bradstreet found a means of self-expression through her poetry. Her exploration of personal love, domesticity, and her struggles with religious doctrine gave voice to a more human and heretical aspect of Puritanism. It is through these heretical elements that Anne Bradstreet's poetry continues to resonate and captivate readers, bridging the gap between the deeply religious world of 17th-century America and the universal themes of human emotion and expression.
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