Anne Bradstreet's work is renowned for her technical accomplishment, her deep engagement with religious faith and doubt, her personal insights on life in the New World in the 17th century, and her ruminations on a woman's role in a patriarchal society.
Bradstreet fervidly read Greek and Roman poetry as well as the great poets of her generation, like Milton, Spenser, and DuBartas. Her literary explorations influenced her early poetry, which some critics claim is too derivative. Regardless, Bradstreet demonstrates her vast intellect and expansive knowledge in her early works.
Bradstreet published her first poem, "Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno. 1632" when she was only sixteen. It evinces traditional Puritan concerns, like the ephemerality of life, the certainty of death, and hope for salvation in the afterlife. Religion is a major theme in Bradstreet's work, but she does not demonstrate utter certainty in her faith. Instead, she subtly explores the tension between faith and existence, and weighs the pleasure of earthly things against the need to self-abnegate in order to be worthy of Heaven.
Publishers often sort Bradstreet's poems into her early, public work and her later, more private writing. Her early poems include the Quaternions: "The Four Humours," "The Four Ages of Man," "The Four Elements," and "The Four Seasons." These poems originally appeared in The Tenth Muse, Bradstreet's only published volume of poems during her lifetime. Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, was the one who took the volume to a publisher, but he also took pains to assure readers that Bradstreet was pious, virtuous, and certainly not shirking her domestic duties in favor of composing verse. He wrote, "these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from sleep and other refreshments."
In the volume, Woodbridge included two of Bradstreet's elegies to public figures as well as "Dialogue Between Old England and New," which addresses contemporary problems in England, where Bradstreet was born (she immigrated to New England in 1633). In poems such as "In Honor of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory" (1643), Bradstreet lauded the Queen's accomplishments and used her as an example of a woman's capability to achieve success.
Bradstreet's later, private poems are rooted in her experience as a Puritan, a woman, a colonist, and a 17th century mother and wife. Most of these poems appeared an expanded reissue of The Tenth Muse, published six years after Anne Bradstreet's death in 1678. In poems like "A Letter to Her Husband, absent upon Publick Employment" and "Letter to Her Husband," Bradstreet extols her deep matrimonial love. In "In Reference to Her Children," she contemplates her children's passage into adulthood and how much she will always care for them, and in "Verses Upon the Burning of Our House," she tries to reconcile her profound sense of loss with her understanding that God desires his children to relinquish their earthly possessions and cares. Bradstreet's most famous poem is probably "Contemplations," in which she expresses her struggle between her love for the sublunary world and her desire for eternal life.
This later poetry does not contain any allusions to public figures, history, science, or philosophy; rather, Bradstreet draws her inspiration from her everyday concerns, feelings, and personal relationships. The Poetry Foundation explains that in Bradstreet's private work, "in place of self-conscious imagery is extraordinarily evocative and lyrical language," and that the most important aspect of Bradstreet's evolution as a poet is "her increasing confidence in the validity of her personal experience as a source and a subject of poetry."
In 1867, John Harvard Ellis issued the first collection of Anne Bradstreet's complete works.