Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Domestic" Writing

I just read (again) To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet. 12 lines of praise for her spouse, written in heroic couplets. I quote it herein:

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor aught but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
The while we live, in love let's so persérver
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Reading the poem made me think about her life, how she became a poet despite the prohibitions imposed upon women of her era. She was an amazing writer, found the space in her days to write while taking care of a household that included a husband and several children. Women of her day "knew their place" and didn't stir the waters. The writing arts were thought to be, for women, a pleasant hobby, something to do once the household work was done. Anne did just that, producing poems seen as "domestic" and written to instruct her children in the ways of good Puritans, in order to lead them to God. She found time in the harshness of a land where heroism was an essential virtue for survival of individuals and communities. Caring for eight children and her frequent illnesses did not deter the expression of self-assertion and literary vitality. Indeed, I believe, it energized her whole life and attitude toward her lot in life.

In normal circumstance, Anne would not have been able to find publication for her writing and indeed intended it for private reading. However, since her poetry was seen as domestic writing, there was interest in it, even liberal praise for her turn of phrase, her rhyme. For the men of her husband's circle, there seemed no hint of scandal or subversion of the politics of the day in her poems, no threat to the status quo. Her writing was duly praiseful of her husband, thus honoring him. No times did she make overt complaint or show disappointment in her station. This was a typical stance for Puritan women where husband was head and sun and an arbiter of holiness for his wife. Domestic writing was, to polite society, an amusing pastime for women, no threat at all to the social order.

But look at the poem again. Look hard. She is suggesting that her station of life is satisfying, but her comparison of her husband to money is telling. She mentions money 4 times in 12 lines. She allows her paucity to show and does this by saying she has no need of any "thing" but her husband's love. She budgets her words carefully and lets her female readers know they are not as well off as she, because she has this perfect man to care for her heart. She extends this notion of love to the ultimate permanence, love even in the afterlife. Will the woman not claim even the privacy of the grave? We might read the last lines as ironic, that her life is so overburdened by service to this husband that her duty might extend beyond death. Does this mean that Anne did not love her husband fully and dearly? Not at all. She was clearly and absolutely devoted to him and to the family they made. She was able to use these acceptable emotions in a way that may be seen in some light as highly impersonal (set against the remarkable Puritanical standards of the day) while seeming personal and waxing praiseful of her spouse. What I love about the scope of poetry is its ability to become a platform for irony. The poet's message can be neatly embedded in the lines of innocuous versifying, appealing to like-minded readers in its codifications. It is my belief that Bradstreet took full advantage of this facet of writing poetry. She used it to comment on love, loss, and indeed the society in which she found herself thrust by her husband's public service as Governor.

In fact, Anne did not seek publication of her work, thought herself that the writing was not that accomplished. I wonder if she was up to something here, some brand of reverse psychology.  Did these poems, ostensibly written for family and friends, carry an overt shyness that led to her brother-in-law carrying her writings to England where he sought publication on her behalf yet without her knowledge? Did she in fact set him up to do exactly that? Was it his idea based upon his notion that poems by an American woman would be of curiosity to the British? He received praise for the curiosity of her work, and the work itself was deemed thusly:

[the book] is the Work of a Woman, honoured, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanour, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her Family occasions, and more than so, these Poems are but the fruit of some few houres, curtailed from her sleepe and other refreshments. (Nathaniel Ward 1650)

Anne Bradstreet was duly modest about the acceptance of her work abroad in England. But she was aslo understandably proud of herself, allowing for the creation of more poems, poems of deeper refinement in revision. To be sure, the early poems were not finely crafted. Bradstreet's early poems were certainly the work of a self-taught amateur. But it is this very quality that endears her to us even now. The early work was a sign at the fork of the road for women. We are led to other work and to other women writers by Bradstreet and her domestic writing. Adrienne Rich says of feminist writing, of writing that breaks out of the domestic into the world political:

any woman for whom the feminist breaking of silence has been a transforming force can also look back to a time when the faint, improbable outlines of unaskable questions, curling in her brain cells, triggered a shock of recognition at certain lines, phrases, images, in the work of this or that woman, long dead, whose life and experience she could only dimly imagine. (Rich, postcript, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence 1979)

Rich's The Works of Anne Bradstreet shows a connection with and an admiration for the assigning of place to women. She says: Like her, I had known the ambiguities of patronizing compliments from male critics. She goes on to say that her essay (about Bradstreet and her writing) shows the limitations of a point of the condescending references... limitations of a point of view which took masculine history and literature as its center and which tried from that perspective to view a woman's live and work. (Rich)

From my own perspective, Anne Bradstreet did three things that influence my work today:

1. she took on topics that might seem of little interest to men (childbirth for example) and made them acceptable topics for writing

2. she allowed herself the time to write despite her life in the mundane world

3. she opened up irony as a stance for women

In her male-centered world, literary pursuits were not common. Women were set down where their husbands or fathers put them — Anne was taken to America, expected to do her duties as a Puritan woman and wife, acting as a beacon or conduit for her family to the eternal God as represented on earth by husband. But Anne had a mind to bloom differently in this new land. She did. We should thank her.

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