An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich

An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich

An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich

An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich

Synopsis

Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich share nationality, gender, and an aesthetic tradition, but each expresses these experiences in the context of her own historical moment. Puritanism imposed stringent demands on Bradstreet, romanticism both inspired and restricted Dickinson, and feminism challenged as well as liberated Rich. Nevertheless, each poet succeeded in forming a personal vision that counters traditional male poetics. Their poetry celebrates daily life, demonstrates their commitment to nurturance rather than dominance, shows their resistance to the control of both their earthly and heavenly fathers, and affirms their experience in a world that has often denied women a voice. Wendy Martin recreates the textures of these women's lives, showing how they parallel the shifts in the status of American women from private companion to participant in a wider public life. The three portraits examine in detail the life and work of the Puritan wife of a colonial magistrate, the white-robed, reclusive New England seer, and the modern feminist and lesbian activist. Their poetry, Martin argues, tells us much about the evolution of feminist and patriarchal perspectives, from Bradstreet's resigned acceptance of traditional religion, to Dickinson's private rebellion, to Rich's public criticism of traditional masculine culture. Together, these portraits compose the panels of an American triptych. Beyond the dramatic contrasts between the Puritan and feminist vision, Martin finds striking parallels in form. An ideal of a new world, whether it be the city on the hill or a supportive community of women, inspires both. Like the commonwealth of saints, this concept of a female collectivity, which all three poets embrace, is a profoundly political phenomenon based on a pattern of protest and reform that is deeply rooted in American life. Martin suggests that, through their belief in regeneration and renewal, Bradstreet Dickinson, and Rich are part of a larger political as well as literary tradition. An American Triptychboth enhances our understanding of the poets' work as part of the web of American experience and suggests the outlines of an American female poetic.

Excerpt

When Anne Bradstreet (1612-72) dedicated her "Meditations Divine and Morall" to her son, Simon, on March 20, 1664, she told him that because this material was deeply personal, it contained no references to the work of other writers: these reflections, she confided to the fourth of her eight children, contain "nothing but myne owne." This is a declaration of strength by a seasoned writer who felt less dependent on literary and religious authorities to buttress her ideas or substantiate her perceptions than she had in her youth. In contrast to her earliest poetry, which closely followed male poetic models, Bradstreet's later work was rooted in her actual experience as a wife, as a mother, and as a woman in seventeenth-century New England.

Much of the material in the first edition of The Tenth Muse, published in 1650 when Bradstreet was thirty-eight, was formulaic and divorced from her personal observations and feelings. The often wooden lines and forced rhymes of her early poems reveal Bradstreet's grim determination to prove that she could write in the lofty style of the established male poets, but her deeper emotions are obviously not engaged in the project. After the publication of her first volume, Bradstreet gained confidence in her own responses as a source and subject for her poetry, and as she began to write of her desire for artistic achievement, her love for her family and temporal life, as well as her ambivalence about the religious issues of faith, grace, and salvation, her poetry became more finely honed and emotionally powerful.

As a child, Bradstreet was bedridden with rheumatic fever; as an adolescent she almost died from smallpox. As a young woman she endured a three-month ocean crossing from England to the New World, the dangers of starvation, disease, and Indian attacks, and the hazards of eight pregnancies and deliveries. As a mature woman, she mourned the deaths of her parents and would live to grieve deeply over the untimely loss of three grandchildren and a beloved daughter-in-law. Bradstreet left the comforts . . .

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