Marriage and family form a major thread throughout Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. She wrote touching and beautiful poems to her husband and about her children. She also wrote letters and journals of collected wisdom specifically for her sons and daughters to read and benefit from long after she passed on to glory. Living in what modern feminists might class an oppressively patriarchal society, it boggles the minds of some scholars how Anne Bradstreet could be so progressive yet so contentedly traditional as a woman, mother, and wife. She was a poet—at a time when few women were—who wrote on a range of subjects: history, politics, religion, culture, spirituality. Yet, she also wrote tenderly about the blessings of marital and maternal obligations.
The 20th-century American poet, Adrienne Rich, writes that Anne was “devotedly, even passionately married” to Simon Bradstreet. Many contemporary readers of Anne Bradstreet are surprised by this. She was only 16 years old when she married Simon while still living in England. Though he was nine years her senior, he was well known to Anne because he worked with Anne’s father and had spent considerable time with Anne’s family over the years. Simon had much to recommend him to her as well: he was the son of a minister, he was a Cambridge man, and he was highly esteemed by both his employers and the family. One of Anne’s biographers notes that despite their age difference, there is every indication that Simon had only respect for Anne’s intellect and opinions. His love for her is evident in their forty-four-year love story that defies modern mistaken views of Puritans and their attitudes toward marital life.
A number of Anne’s best poems corroborate the depth of their relationship, revealing her unwavering love and commitment to her husband. Despite Bradstreet’s love poetry and the effusive personal love letters of other Puritans, there persists a negative view of Puritan matrimony, that they were literally “puritanical” in the pejorative sense—that is, stodgy, stifled, and opposed to sex. The use of the word “puritanical” is actually an anachronistic, inaccurate, and derogatory term that is more reflective of Victorian society than English Puritanism. On the present-day view of Puritans as “moss-backed moralists,” Church historian Bruce L. Shelley writes, “In modern times, marked by zeal for individual rights and sexual freedom, ‘puritan’ has come to mean ‘holy Joe,’ a religious snob, filled with fears of sex, who does his best to keep people from having fun.” Nothing is further from the truth.
Anne’s love poems—written originally for her husband’s eyes only—indicate a genuinely loving relationship with Simon, which seems to have included a healthy sex life. Bradstreet’s love poems are powerful and, at times, sexually charged. The poems are not erotic, nor are they crass or graphic; however, her poetry exudes a beautiful and intimate affection for her husband. The style and tone is in keeping with the visceral and affectionate love exchanges found in the Song of Solomon. For example, in “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon public employment,” she makes reference to her husband as a “magazine.” A magazine is a military warehouse for securing explosive materials, such as gunpowder. Although the metaphor is hyperbolic (i.e., using exaggeration for effect), it does allude to an explosive emotional and physical relationship. She goes on to describe her children as the “fruit of thy heat”—that is her husband’s heat as the metaphorical sun—as well as other references to physical closeness that she has with Simon. This and her other love poems reveal the intimacy and genuine pleasure Anne and her husband enjoyed together. Anne’s transparency of her relationship with Simon should not be surprising; these endearing love poems were not intended for publication, but rather they were meant for Simon’s eyes only. Thankfully these beautiful albeit private love poems were published posthumously with the permission of Anne’s heirs. Nevertheless, her descriptions are mild compared to today’s penchant for being explicit and shocking, but they still reveal the high view Puritans had for matrimony and their appreciation for sexual relations within the marriage bed. The Editors of Christian History Magazine concur, noting that Anne Bradstreet’s “writings debunk the myth of the stodgy, prudish Puritan so long a part of the American psyche.”
The love Anne and Simon had for each other is further acknowledged by Simon’s four-year delay in remarrying after the death of Anne in 1672. To our contemporary society, four years isn’t very long at all. But for 17th-century New England, four years was an unusually long gap for a widower to remain unmarried. Part of the reason most people had speedy remarriages in those days was because a spouse was an essential partnership for survival; wives in particular played a crucial role in managing all aspects of the household operations as well as rearing the children. Simon’s delay is a testimony of his heartbreak and his great love for Anne.
Another indicator of their loving relationship was the fact that Simon encouraged Anne to exercise her gifts as a writer and poet. Although life was demanding and difficult, Simon was supportive of Anne’s writing, which she began in earnest when they moved to the fledgling wilderness community of Ipswich in 1635. The remote village was surprisingly fertile ground for her writing, and “she wrote most of her poetry while living there from 1635 to 1644.” The isolation from social engagements as well as the beauty of nature gave Bradstreet ample opportunity to read and to write. In the book, American Puritans, the authors note that “Anne did not relish the fact of moving yet again, especially to the far-flung outreaches of the colony, but she would soon discover that her greatest writing would come to fruition in this new wilderness.” That was indeed the case. The bulk of her first published book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), was written during the Ipswich stage of her life. Over the course of their life in the New World, the Bradstreet family moved to two wilderness communities; first Ipswich and finally to Andover (1644–1672). While in Andover, Bradstreet not only revised her first published book but also wrote some of her best poems, which would be published after her death in 1672.
Not only was Simon supportive of Anne’s poetry, but it seems the Puritan community on both sides of the Atlantic praised her talents as a poet as well. Many subsequent critics have made much ado about Bradstreet exerting “rebellious” qualities by becoming a poet and going against the supposed puritanical patriarchy. However, the overwhelming support of many Puritan leaders and ministers for Anne’s writing contravenes this presumption. In the 1650 edition of her book of poems, there are no less than twelve pages of endorsements by fellow Puritans and several “prefatory verses by admirers.” The praise for Anne and her poetry is overwhelmingly positive and effusive. Although the Puritans did have clearly defined roles for men and women within their community, it was within the biblical concepts of submission and sacrifice articulated not only for families and marriages, but society as a whole. For example, children submit to parents (Proverbs 6:20; Colossians 3:20), wives respect and submit to husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 33; Colossians 3:18), husbands love their wives and submit to elders, employers, governments (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:18; Romans 13:1; 1 Corinthians 11:3), the church submits to each other and to Christ (Ephesians 5:21–24), and Christ submits to God (1 Corinthians 11:3; Philippians 2:5–9; Hebrews 5:8). The Bible views submission as a beautiful and profoundly Christian concept modelled perfectly in Jesus Christ himself. The Puritans sought to live out this vision of sacrifice, submission, and love in all levels of their society. This isn’t to say that the Puritans didn’t miss the mark on certain areas of community life. American Puritans have a controversial and mixed record with the way they addressed religious differences (e.g., Quakers, Baptists), outspoken outliers (e.g., Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson) and, of course, the infamous Salem witch-hunts and trials. Nevertheless, viewing the Puritans though the lens of the simplistic paradigm of oppressor and oppressed fails to incorporate the rich reality of life as “worldly saints”—Christians who sought to live Christ-centric, biblical, God-honouring, and abundant lives both in this life and hoping in the next (John 10:10).
Despite their flaws, the Puritans were a remarkable group, who helped to produce the ideals of the America nation, as well as produce remarkable poets on both sides of the Atlantic, including Anne Bradstreet, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Edmund Spenser, and John Bunyan. It’s important to note that Bradstreet as a female poet did not emerge in spite of her puritan upbringing, but in many ways, because of it. C.S. Lewis writes, “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear the name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date.” Without a doubt, Lewis’s description of Puritans describes very well the person and work of Anne Bradstreet.
 Adrienne Rich, “Anne Bradstreet and Her Poetry” in The Works of Anne Bradstreet Edited by Jeannine Henley (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard UP, 2010), xi.
 D. B. Kellogg, Anne Bradstreet (Nashville: Nelson, 2010), 12
 See, for example, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon public employment,” “Phoebus, make haste,” and “As loving hind” included in this volume.
 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 292.
 For a refreshing overview of the positive and rich view of Christian marriage in church history, see the collection of love letters edited by Michael A.G. Haykin and Victoria J. Haykin, titled The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009).
 Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds., “Anne Bradstreet: America’s First Poet,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Holman, 2000), 153.
 D. B. Kellogg, Anne Bradstreet (Nashville: Nelson, 2010), 62.
 Dustin Benge and Nate Pickowicz, The American Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020) 110.
 See pages 3–14 of Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (London, UK: FORGOTTEN Books, 2012).
 C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 121.
Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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