Strength Through Words:
Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley
While their lives were vastly different in many ways, Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley are two poets that share the experience of writing through some of life's most difficult circumstances. Both women faced new beginnings in the New World, although these experiences could not be more different. Bradstreet's experience was as a colonist thrust in to a new world facing hardships previously unknown. Wheatley was also thrust into the New World but she was brought as a slave, with no rights and no hope. Each experience meant survival in some way and writing became a form of salvation for these women as they penned their thoughts and feelings for the world to see. Because they did take the time to express their thoughts, they contributed to the fabric of their society more than they could know. Bradstreet's poetry covers more that her struggles, she also discusses religion, love and spirituality. Wheatley also delves into the spiritual aspects of this life, finding a connection between her experience and hope. In fact, love and hope emerge triumphant with these poets as they come to appreciate what they have, teaching the rest of the world to be grateful for what life gives them.
Both poets share the common denominator of facing adversity and attempting to overcome as best as they could. As a result, poetry becomes an outlet for both of them. Anne Bradstreet's life symbolizes the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity. She was actively writing poetry when it was probably the last thing she, or any other woman, was expected to do. Bradstreet was a pilgrim in the new world and this circumstance gave her plenty of topics to discuss. The contrast between her past life in Britain and her new life in the colonies was certainly one worth exploring. Bradstreet's life was overwhelmed with motherhood and the inner turmoil she felt toward sin, salvation, religion, and redemption. She was mother to eight and incredible busy with the responsibilities of running a household. These pressures only compounded the pressures of adjusting to living in the colonies. There can be no doubt Bradstreet was committed to writing because she clearly had to make time for it in her busy schedule. She explores womanhood from a Puritan viewpoint but she knew how to stand her ground and speak what she thought about things. Slavery overshadowed Wheatley's life in a way that many would find debilitating but she discovered how to turn that oppression into something she could use. Wheatley discovered God after she was turned to slavery and that became something for which she could actually be thankful. There might be plenty of reasons to hate slavery and every few, if any reasons, to look for the good in it but that is exactly what Wheatley does as she realizes without being brought to America, she would have missed discovering God.
Bradstreet did not attend school but that does not mean she was uneducated. Wendy Martin writes Bradstreet received an "excellent education from her father, who was widely read" (Martin). According to Martin, Cotton Mather claimed that Thomas Dudley (Bradstreet's father) as a "devourer of books'" (Martin). Bradstreet inherited this trait from her father, as she was attracted to words and she had a knack for writing. Her life provided her with numerous topics to explore and one was colonial life. Bradstreet was "not happy to exchange the comforts of the aristocratic life of the Earl's manor house for the privations of the New England wilderness, she dutifully joined her father and husband and their families on the Puritan errand into the wilderness" (Martin). When the Bradstreet's arrived in Massachusetts in July 1630, life was nothing if it was not distressing. Life was at best distressing as families struggled with lack of food and the "primitive living conditions" in New England. This was no life of comfort and Bradstreet's "heart rose' in protest against the 'new world and new manners'" (Martin). She "ostensibly reconciled herself to the Puritan mission" (Martin) but "submitted to it and joined the Church...
This struggle is evident in many of her poems as she attempts to work through tough issues like redemption and salvation. For most of her life she remained "ambivalent" (Martin). This ambivalence was no doubt worked out through writing. Other topics of poetic interest included pleasure from the human experience. Things may have been tough but this did not stop Bradstreet from writing. Martin says, "Perhaps the most important aspect of Anne Bradstreet's poetic evolution is her increasing confidence in the validity of her personal experience as a source and subject of poetry" (Martin). She was looking for some form of enrichment in almost every circumstance. Jeannine Hensley adds that Bradstreet is the "first in a long line of American poets who took the consolation not from theology but from the 'wondrous works'" (Hensley 200) she observed while living. She may have been surrounded by bleak situations at times but this did not stop her from appreciating what beauty there was in life. Her poetry exposes a sense of serenity regardless of topics and it is "graceful and pleasant" (Pilgrim New Media) and "deeply moving in its simple beauty" (Pilgrim New Media). Bradstreet could tackle any subject and the best thing about this is the fact that she did.
Wheatley was also a woman thrust into a new world in which she was forced to make accommodations for herself. Wheatley spoke out about the disgust of slavery and called everyone to be hopeful. Like Bradstreet, she had a knack for writing. She tempered her passion wisdom, which is difficult for many people in oppressive situations can do. She wrote about slavery, worshipping God, and government issues. She knew slavery was bad but America, as a country, was not. She was able to separate the two and see that slavery was the result of something within mankind. She knew it was wrong to own slaves but held men accountable for their actions, not the country in which they lived. She also learned that if slavery did not break you as a person, it can be turned into a positive experience to help others get through tough times. Her heart was sincere and she wanted to help others in this way. Her experience was one of the worst but her hope was powerful. Wheatley uses her poetic voice in a unique way by combining her Christian viewpoint with her dehumanizing experience. The speaker in many of Wheatley's poems is "resolute" (Adeeko) of the New World, according to Adeeko. Her voice is new and extremely independent; it only seeks to be heard. This voice is also very personal, which makes it even more compelling. One poem that demonstrates the power of her voice is "On Being Brought from Africa to America," which depicts the poet's "most symbolic spaces as polar opposites" (Adeeko). The journey moves from being pagan to Christian. In the pagan world, the poet sees "ignorance, damnation, and complacency" (Adeeko) and in the American world, she sees, "salvation, and the thirst for newness" (Adeeko). This poem is representative of Wheatley's sense of hope. She is looking for hope from dire circumstances as she leaves Africa behind, says Adeeko. This is a different way of looking at the situation but this way ushers in hope where it is needed. Hope is significant in Wheatley's poem because hope is essential for survival.
Religion surfaces in these women's poem in some untraditional ways. In "To My Dear and Loving Husband," the poet revels a wondrous love through symbolism. She writes her love is like the "riches that the East doth hold" (Bradstreet To My Dear and Loving Husband 6) and it is so powerful "rivers cannot quench" (7) it. She is confident with her love and even asks her husband to compare her love and devotion to others but he will never find anyone that loves him as much as he does. The metaphor of the wealth of love is likened to the wealth of riches. Another interesting aspect of this poem is the brave step Bradstreet was taking by expressing such thoughts in a Puritan environment. This type of expression seemed forward for its day but Bradstreet felt secure enough to explore it regardless of what her community might think. Another significant aspect of Wheatley's passage is religion. As we have discussed, Christianity was a surprising result of Wheatley's experience. We read, "mercy brought me from my Pagan land" (Wheatley On Being Brought from Africa to America 1). America was a blessing to her because she found God and, had she not found God, she would still be worshipping pagan gods. This discovery is critical because it changed her spiritual life and outlook on the world. She did not see America as an evil empire that stripped her of her family; she saw the good thing that happened to her. Living with racism and prejudice…
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