The poet does not think she will write about wars, captains, kings, or cities of commonwealths. She believes that these topics are too "superior" for her pen, and should be written by historians. Her lines, meanwhile, would be too "obscure."
However, when she lets her eyes wander over Bartas' work, she wishes the Muses had not given him so much more talent. She feels that her work is simple compared to the work of that great man. She claims that readers do not expect fancy words from schoolboys or sweet music from broken instruments, and blames her Muse for giving her "broken, blemished" words.
She does not think she is capable of ever harnessing Bartas' talent, and feels that a "weak or wounded brain admits no cure." She is angry, however, with people who tell her that her hand is better with a needle in it, and advise her to scorn the "poet's pen." Even if she does write something worthy, she knows that critics will say she copied it with or that her success is just due to luck.
The poet thinks that the Greeks must have been more "mild" toward feminine achievement because of all the powerful female characters in mythology. However, she criticizes Greek men, saying the "play the fools and lie." She just asks for Greeks to be Greeks and for women to be women. She accepts that men "have precenency, and still excell," and feels that there is no point for women to wage war on that reality. She hopes, though, that women will get some small acknowledgment. She does not want "bays" but will be content with a "thyme or parsley wreath." She knows that her ore is "unrefined," but knows that she can still make "glistening gold" shine.
“The Prologue” is one of Bradstreet’s most intellectually stimulating poems because she invokes a historical and global context. The poem contains allusions to the Greeks, Christianity, contemporary poetry, feminism, and psychology. While many critics have assumed that this poem serves as an admission of Bradstreet's ambivalence about her work, it is actually a bold assertion of the poet’s skill and her right to compose verse in an era when feminism was far from becoming a political movement.
In the first stanza, the poet writes that she does not discuss the same topics as elite male poets, like kings, commonwealths, and cities. Her lines are more “obscure” than theirs and she focuses on more personal, intimate matters. Although she does not even claim the title of poet, her rhyme scheme and meter are perfect; she uses precise iambic pentameter, rhyming ABABCC. In the second stanza, Bradstreet compares her work to the great French historian and poet, Guillaume DuBartas, whose work was popular with Puritans because of its emphasis on Christian history. Bradstreet does not aspire to his equal, but rather, to be simple and true to her skill.
In stanza three, she evokes the Muses for the first time. She claims a “foolish, blemished Muse so sings” to her. One critic notes a prescient statement of Freudian psychology when the poet compares herself to a schoolboy. He writes, “the imagery of this stanza suggests a profound envy for the more obvious parts of the male anatomy, without which the poet… feels inadequate for the task at hand…[and] no art can make up for this irreparable fact of nature.”
In stanza four, the highly educated Bradstreet alludes to Demosthenes, the famed Greek orator who overcame a lisp to achieve great prestige. Bradstreet, however, does not feel that it is possible to overcome “a weak or wounded brain.” In stanza five, Bradstreet stands up for her right to write poetry. She excoriates those who tell her that her hand is better suited for a needle than a “poet’s pen” and laments the fact that even if her poems do attain prominence, people will claim that she either stole them or chanced upon them by accident.
In stanza six, she returns to the topic of the Greeks. Bradstreet explains that the Muses, a group of nine females, occupy an exalted strata in Greek mythology. Unfortunately, most Greek men were still not particularly open-minded about women's rights, and instead, “did naught but play the fools and lie.” Bradstreet claims her right to have a voice, and upholds domesticity as a valuable source of verse. As is indicative of her time period, Bradstreet does not make claims of gender equality or suggest that patriarchy ought to be discarded, but argues that women are capable of producing worthy work, and that critics and readers alike should offer “some small acknowledgment” for a female poet's right to express herself.
In the last stanza, Bradstreet conveys that she believes her work is humble. Her poems are not “bays” but rather, they are “thyme or parsley wreath[s],” which are simple, unimpressive household plants. Jane Donahue Eberwein claims that Bradstreet’s witty and charming poem demonstrates that “masculine pretensions to intellectual superiority are fundamentally unnecessary, as the two sexes complement each other like the humors of the body and tend ideally toward that ‘perfect amity’ described by Phlegm” (see the "Quaternions" for more information).
Critic Eileen Margerum considers "The Prologue" to be in the tradition of humility that was common in the poetry of Bradstreet’s time. Margerum refuted some critics’ claims that Bradstreet was unhappy with her own work and was too deferential to male poets and figures in her life, like her father. Instead, she elucidates that Bradstreet was actually writing within the traditions of the time. Humility and submissiveness towards the audience was common in Latin poetry, and that was a holdover from the Roman oratorical tradition. Bradstreet dedicated "The Quaternions" to her father, assigning him traditional roles of worthy patron and senior poet. In the classical tradition, a patron was usually a person of rank who supported a young poet, and protected him financially and politically. Bradstreet also makes sure to credit the poet DuBartas, because he has served as an inspiration to her.
Many of Bradstreet’s word choices in "The Prologue" exemplify her position of humility: “mean” “foolish, broken, blemished," and “weak or wounded” are all part of the traditional self-deprecating style. Bradstreet continues this theme throughout "The Quaternions" and “Dialogue Between Old England and New.” Overall, as Margerum notes, Bradstreet never “uses her sex as an excuse for writing poor poetry” and never offers apologies for writing poetry in the first place. She did not think it sinful or uncouth for her to write, but rather, her humble remarks “are creative applications of conventional and obligatory poetic formulae, and not as expressions of self-doubt or deprecations of her poetic abilities.”