Massachusetts, 1642—a devoted Puritan wife and mother has a taken to writing poetry in her spare time, most likely because, well, she’s read so much of it, and in so many languages, that she thought she’d try her hand at it. While she uses some of her poems for teaching purposes in the small school that serves her community, the rest she keeps quietly tucked away. A Puritan writing poetry, not to mention a woman? Now that was definitely not very seemly. At least, that’s how most folks looked at it.
At some point in 1647, one of this woman’s sneaky relatives discovers the poems while rummaging in the young woman’s desk (why he was doing that, we have no idea). He peruses them, realizes they are exceptional, copies them out, takes them with him to London and has them published three years later in 1650.
Neat story, huh? You could probably make a movie out of it. It’s true too. At least, for several hundred years that has been the accepted story of the publication of Anne Bradstreet’s first (and only—at least during her lifetime) book of poems, entitled The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America. (The title is actually much, much longer; you can check it out here.) Anyway, the story goes that Bradstreet’s brother-in-law, one Thomas Woodbridge, stole the poems, or copied them, and then had them published in England in 1650, much to his sister-in-law’s dismay (so it seems). (Still, some people don’t buy this story in its entirety.)
So, why didn’t Bradstreet go ahead and publish those poems if they were so great? Well, as we said, that wouldn’t have been very appropriate. On top of that, however, we suspect that Bradstreet wasn’t very proud of her poems, or felt that they weren’t good enough, or was more concerned about raising her children in, and teaching others about, Puritan ideals than selling books of poetry. A lot of this stuff—the theft of the book, fears about her artistic ability—appears in “The Author to Her Book,” a poem that was first published in 1678 (after Bradstreet’s death) in a collection that is sometimes referred to as the “second edition” of the Tenth Muse, even though it was just called Several Poems. You can check out a very fine version of this later volume right here.
The biggest irony about this whole business, however, is the book’s title. For a poet that wanted to keep quiet, and wasn’t interested in publishing, the branding of herself as the tenth muse is pretty darn bold. In Greek and Roman mythology, the muses were a group of nine deities that inspired art of all kinds (painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, etc.). Even after the Greek and Roman cultures were wiped out, the whole idea of being inspired by a muse continued. Anyway, Bradstreet’s title says, essentially, “I’m not just any old poet, I’m the newest muse, and I live here in America.” It’s both a claim to superior artistic ability (I’m on par with the patron deities of art) and a claim to American, as opposed to European, artistic fertility (America as the new place for great poetry).
Ever sing in the shower? Doodle in a notebook? How about danced in a mirror when you knew no one was looking? Sure you have. We’ve all been there, Shmoopers. The question is, why not do those same things in front of other folks? Why not put your talents out on display?
Well, we’re guessing that one reason is that cranky, little, invisible gnome who sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear that you’re not good enough. Sure, you’d love to tell him to stuff his hat where the sun don’t shine, but honestly it’s not an easy thing to do, right?
Well, if you’ve ever had an experience even remotely like this, you know EXACTLY how the speaker of “The Author to Her Book” feels. Sure, this poem is about an author, who wrote a book of poems, but clearly her feelings about her poems are the same as yours towards your own talents: a sense that they aren’t quite good enough, that no amount of revision can make them better, and an extreme fear of showing them to anybody.
Never been much of a poet, or an artist? That’s no matter. The sentiments of our little artist and the speaker of “The Author to Her Book” can apply in any number of situations. Let’s say you’re an amateur chef, or baker. Well, making cakes and cooking stir fry require a certain amount of artistry. Perhaps you’re shy when it comes to letting people try your food, for fear that they’ll either gag or only pretend to like it. What if your mother stole some of your cookies that you had just made and let the neighbor lady taste them? You wouldn’t be happy, would you?
Here’s the bottom line: We are all our own worst critics, and no more so than when it comes to anything that can be remotely considered artistic (cooking, baking, origami, knitting—whatever). It’s frustrating to feel like we can’t make anything better (by our own standards), and it’s especially frustrating when somebody decides share our business without asking. Just ask the speaker of “The Author to Her Book.”
The Author To Her Book
- Length: 1318 words (3.8 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Writing poetry can be a deeply personal (and sometimes painful) process. If talent and luck prevails, the poet will actually produce a something that reflects the inner workings that first motivated their pen to meet paper. Through struggle and sweat a poem is born, and for better or for worse the creator is responsible for the subsequent journey that it will take throughout it’s poetic life. In it’s infancy, it might seem a miracle of creation, but like most parents the writer will work at maturing the verse and rhyme so that it can defend itself when it eventually leaves home. The world that it will one day enter is a cold and critical one, and few will understand the true meaning and depth of the poem’s soul like it’s parent does.
Anne Bradstreet beautifully demonstrates the intimate relationship that exists between an artist and her work in the poem The Author to Her Book. In the poem she directly addresses the book that was published without her consent, referring to it as her child, kidnapped and exploited in a world of criticism. By exposing the her work to the world, she feels that her own inadequacies are revealed as well, thus creating an internal struggle between pride and shame. This paper will take a detailed look at the poem line by line, and draw out the deeper meanings that Bradstreet injected in regard to the book The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, her illegitimate brainchild.
In the first line Bradstreet refers to the book as an “ill formed offspring of [her] feeble brain.” This not only expresses her opinion of the work, but also that of her own abilities as a poet. She seems to feel no confidence, and says so upfront, as if to apologize to anyone who might have encountered her work. Although its flaws embarrass and shame her, she understands that her book is the offspring of her own "feeble brain", and the lamentable errors it displays are therefore her own.
In lines two through four she shows that her ‘child’, once safely kept close to her side, suddenly “snatched” away by friends “less wise than true,” and then “exposed to public view” before it had a chance to mature in her care. It’s in Bradstreet’s strong descriptive language that she is able to express her feelings of betrayal. Though she doesn’t outright say it, she obviously felt deceived, and suffered the same exposure that the book had.
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She seems to feel defenseless in this experience.
Lines five and six illustrate her published poems as dressed in “rags”, using the word “press” not only in the printing sense, but also in the context of meaning a clothes closet. She knows that the “errors were not lessened”, and feels frustration at her lack of control over the situation. This could be compared to the embarrassment a mother might feel if her child were taken to a fashion show in dirty rags before she had a chance to properly groom and dress her, (hence her likening the poem to being dressed in rags). Bradstreet feels that the publishing was done in haste without any thought to its preparation, nor was it done with regard for the poet’s sense of ownership.
In lines seven and eight, Bradstreet equates the embarrassment she feels due to her as-yet-unperfected work to the shame a parent feels due to an ill-tempered child. She calls the book of poetry a “rambling brat (in print)” reinforcing the author’s feelings of incapability to change the untamed nature of what is now in print. It has been published and all may see it, whether she likes it or not. Worse yet, any criticism that it takes will be directly aimed at her, the mother, despite her innocence in the matter.
Lines nine and ten express her disappointment in the immaturity of the published poems. She deems them “unfit for light” and even goes on to say that they are “irksome in [her] sight”. One has to wonder if she is merely offended by the rawness of the work, or if reading the work reminds her of her own insecurities and creates an urgent need to put them out of view. Either way, she wishes that she could banish them from her sight, as well as the sight of everyone else.
But alas, she knows that she cannot abandon her work. The poems bear her name, which will forever tie them to her. In lines eleven and twelve she softens a bit, acknowledging her role as the creator and the affection that she feels toward the poetry. She wants to clean them up, wiping away the “blemishes”, hoping that she can somehow amend the situation. She knows that whether she likes it or not, these poems are a reflection of her heart and soul, and she must show them some compassion.
Lines thirteen through sixteen describe her attempts to clean up and perfect the child of her brain. Using beautifully crafted words, she personifies the book of poetry, giving it a face to wash, with joints and feet. Tenderly she tries to create perfection by performing some talented word-smithing, all the while trying to kill her own insecurities in the process. But with every washing a new flaw is uncovered. She attempts to even the ‘feet’ of the poem, but it still seems to limp around with inadequate balance. She feels it’s hopeless.
Though not completely obvious, lines seventeen and eighteen are written entirely to be self-depreciating. She wanted to prove her worth as a poet by improving the current state of the poetry, but feels that she lacks the talent to do so. “But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find” implies that she feels her creative mind (the “house”) is lacking in adequate tools to get the job done. Bradstreet doesn’t seem to feel that she is educated properly to perform the work of a poet
Line nineteen through twenty-one express her fear and sadness that the work will be rated among common people, and not as special as it was intended. The book is now in the hands of strangers who do not know or care about the nature of the poetry. As a parent I know that one of my biggest fears is for my daughter to be placed among people that do not know her, with no one to care for her. Bradstreet’s sense of motherhood over the subjugated book must leave her feeling helpless, as if it were a child from her loins and not her brain.
In the last three lines, twenty-two through twenty-four, Bradstreet leaves her child with an apology of its existence. The poem ends on a defeated note, almost as a plea for anyone reading to forgive her for the inability to be a master. She implies that she did her best, but could not measure up to her own imagined standards.
The poem as a whole was written in iambic pentameter with the line organization of a heroic couplet, (i.e., aa,bb,cc,dd…). The poet’s most remarkable poetic device is the use of metaphors. Through her deft use of extended metaphor, Bradstreet weaves an intricate web of parallels between parent and author and between child and book--both relationships of creator to creation. This use of metaphor allows the reader to relate emotionally to Bradstreet’s situation.
“The Author to Her Book” reveals a deeper, unnamed feeling, which many of us have experienced. Having one’s inner-self exposed to the world for all to view and critique is a situation to which every writer can relate. Bradstreet’s poem makes us understand not only her nature but also our own. She uses her poem to interpret her hidden emotions and to give them a voice. By analyzing Bradstreet’s poem, we are better able to explore the words to see how they move and how they move us.