Over the past four centuries, Anne Bradstreet has received a number of accolades from literary scholars and critics. She has been called one of the greatest Puritan/New World poets, the first female poet in America, and some even consider her the best female poet of all time. Feminist literary critics, American historians, and scholars of English literature regularly examine, anthologize, and discuss her work. She is renowned for both her erudite public poems and her compellingly personal and honest private poems. Her musings on religion, motherhood, marriage, and the vicissitudes of life are both timeless and memorable.
Anne Dudley Bradstreet was born in 1612 in Northampton, England. Her father, Thomas Dudley, home-schooled her. She was fortunate enough to be born into an Elizabethan society that valued female literacy, even though Bradstreet herself did not receive a formal education. However, she had access to her family’s library and she devoured books, favoring such luminaries as Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Pliny, Homer, Spenser, and Milton, among others. In 1628, when Bradstreet was 16 years old, she married Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Cambridge University who helped Anne's father manage his estate at Sempringham. The Bradstreets remained happily married until Anne’s death.
In 1630, Anne, Simon, and her parents immigrated to the New World. They traveled on the Arbella, the ship famous for carrying John Winthrop, the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop's speech exhorting Puritans to remember that they were like a “city upon a hill” in comparison to the rest of the world is one of the most famous speeches in American history. Bradstreet, however, found herself dismayed at the conditions the Puritans faced in Massachusetts, and spent her life reconciling all of her worldly and spiritual conditions.
The Bradstreets' first child was born in 1633, and seven more followed between 1635 and 1652. The family’s first house was small and very sparsely furnished. As they improved their lot, though, the Bradstreet family moved several times (all within Massachusetts). They lived in Salem, Charleston, Newtown (which later became Cambridge), Ipswich, and finally Andover, where they settled in 1645.
Anne Bradstreet wrote her first poem when she was sixteen, called “Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno. 1632.” However, she only published one collection of poetry during her lifetime. Bradstreet's brother-in-law took several of her poems to England, purportedly without her knowledge, and published The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America. The volume made Anne Bradstreet the first female poet to be published in England, and later, in America. She dedicated the compilation her father. The most famous poems in The Tenth Muse are the quaternions, including “The Four Elements,” “The Four Humours,” “The Four Seasons,” and “The Four Ages of Man.” Bradstreet kept her later work private, because the content is much more personal. It deals with sickness, marriage, faith, and religious doubt. Anne Bradstreet's most famous poem is “Contemplations.”
Anne Bradstreet died in 1672 at the age of 60. The Tenth Muse was published in America in 1678, six years after her death. Critics tend to regard her later verses as more impressive than her early published work, and her reputation is primarily based on those more personal poems. The site of Anne Bradstreet's burial remains unknown, although many historians believe that she lies in the Old Burying Ground at Academy Road and Osgood Street in North Andover, Massachusetts.