Bradstreet & Berryman

September 16: On this day in 1672 Anne Bradstreet died. The first published poet of the American colonies, Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively privileged life in England, but at the age of eighteen she, her husband, and her parents sailed with John Winthrop for the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts Bay. Her first book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published back in England in 1650—by her brother-in-law and apparently without her knowledge, Bradstreet expressing embarrassment that the world should see the “ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain.” These first poems are sometimes candid and immediate, but more often they are conventional in style and on accepted topics, her love for husband, children, God, etc. Later poems can show a different attitude:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue,

Who sayes, my hand a needle better fits,

A Poets Pen, all scorne, I should thus wrong;

For such despighte they cast on female wits:

If what i doe prove well, it wo’nt advance,

They’l say its stolen, or else, it was by chance.

John Berryman’s first fame was for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a series of fifty-seven, eight-line verses in which he comments on, converses with, courts, and speaks as a woman locked away by gender and circumstance. The historical Bradstreet wrote about a disastrous fire; Berryman’s Bradstreet writes, “I sniff a fire burning without outlet, / consuming acrid its own smoke. It’s me.” The following is section 31, in which Berryman has Bradstreet moving away from “the proportioned, spiritless poems,” and towards him:

—It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge

up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed

yellow, in heaven, eyed

by the melting hand-in-hand or mere

desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,

make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt—

the hefty pike shifts, sheer—

in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge—


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.