Academic journal article Early American Literature

The Influence of Anne Bradstreet's Innovative Errors

Academic journal article Early American Literature

The Influence of Anne Bradstreet's Innovative Errors

Article excerpt

The question of Anne Bradstreet's value as a poet has often receded behind the more certain fact of her value as a pioneer. This means that, while generations of students have read Anne Bradstreet's work on the basis that she was the first American poet, and a woman at that, many have emerged from the experience unconvinced of her poetry's intrinsic worth. John Berryman, who wrote a book-length homage to Bradstreet, denies all anxiety of influence by proclaiming his allegiance to this camp of skeptical readers: for him, Bradstreet was a "boring, high minded Puritan woman who may have been our first American poet but was not a good one" (Freedom 328). Alan Golding takes him at his word, using Berryman as a keystone in his argument that poets are often drawn to write about other poets for reasons that have nothing to do with style. This argument depends on a wholehearted disparagement of Bradstreet's artistic merit, to which cause he recruits a small army of willing critics such as Carol Johnson, who asserts that Bradstreet is "an undistinguished versifier" characterized by "endearing incompetence," and Joel Conarroe, who describes Bradstreet's work as "tedious" and "extraordinarily dull" (Golding 58-59). According to Golding and his assembled chorus, Berryman's homage to the inept Bradstreet proves that "poets do not always respond to other poets chiefly on the basis of style. Berryman responds to Bradstreet's social and historical position" (Golding 59). In the face of such certain criticism, the only question that seems to remain is why, if Bradstreet is so clearly a poet who can only be valued by her sociological role, do we continue to force generations of young readers to toil through her "tedious" Quaternions?

Since the days of Berryman's equivocal homage, an impressive mass of critics have come to Bradstreet's rescue, arguing that she developed a simple but vibrant style that is expressive in its terse revelations. These are critics Golding carefully avoids in his review of Bradstreet's critical reception; still, the camp of critics who enjoy reading Bradstreet is strong. Adrienne Rich, an early Bradstreet proponent, describes her late poetry as delicate and reticent: "neither bathos nor self-indulgence cloud the economy of these lines; they are honest, tender and homely as a letter out of a marriage in which the lovers are also friends" (xvii). Deanna Fernie also praises Bradstreet's late poetry for its stripped-down refinement: "the simple language and 'fourteener' structure of such lines isolates and electrifies words in a way that anticipates Emily Dickinson, as well as the dramatic urgency of her poems, placing Bradstreet within a larger American tradition of abstract and internalized verse" (28). Eavan Boland similarly describes the development of a mature and artistic style in Bradstreet's later work: "The music shifted: the volume was turned down; the voice became at once more private and more intense. A quick-walking cadence accompanied the neighborly, definite voice in which she now told her story. These were cadences that came from the New England moment in which she lived. At last the complicated England of her youth was receding" (913).

These critics are united in their respect for the stylistic merit of Bradstreet's late, domestic poetry. They are also united in their unwillingness to extend such a courtesy to Bradstreet's early lyrics? Boland argues that the early poems are "only partially successful. A heavy Spenserian shadow hangs over them, as if her girlhood ghost were haunting the paneled rooms of Sempringham. They pay elaborate and conventional tribute to the old heroes and graces of her past: the language rarely shines" (913). Fernie writes that Bradstreet only finds "a true instrument with which to convey her metaphysical and spiritual concerns" when she is "released from the didactic aims of the 'Quaternion' poems (28). For Rich, the early poems can only be described as "long, rather listless pieces [that] seem to have been composed in a last compulsive effort to stay in contact with the history, traditions, and values of her former world" (Rich xiv-xv). …

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