Poem Guide

Anne Bradstreet: “To My Dear and Loving Husband”

Anne Bradstreet became a cultural icon for speaking out. Anne Hutchinson was banished.
Portrait of Anne Bradstreet

On an icy November afternoon in 1637, in the thatch-roofed Cambridge meetinghouse of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 40 magistrates sat ready to pass judgment on a woman whom they believed posed the gravest threat yet to the fragile social and political order of the seven-year-old colony: Anne Hutchinson, a 46-year-old mother of 12 living children and the foremost female Puritan intellectual and spiritual leader. Her ostensible crime? Holding weekly meetings with other women to discuss Scripture. Hutchinson’s biblical exegesis and spiritual advice had grown so popular that the crowds had swelled to include one-fifth of Boston’s population. Counted among them were many men who were political opponents of the current governor, John Winthrop, the lead prosecutor.

For the two days preceding the judgment Anne Hutchinson had outwitted the magistrates, successfully questioning their logic and command of Scripture, as well as the legal basis for the charges against her. Her testimonial tour de force is, despite her years of teaching and advising women, now the only written record we have of her teaching. This testimony was taken by Simon Bradstreet, the “dear and loving husband” of the poet Anne, an ironic connection between two women who have come to represent two distinct, often competing ways of challenging the prevailing views of women.   

Hutchinson’s verbal performance proved that she was the magistrates’ intellectual equal—if not their superior—but it had hurt her case. Prevailing attitudes toward women at the time held that female minds were too weak to tackle complex thought: Governor John Winthrop once publicly claimed that a woman had committed suicide because she read and thought too much.

The model Puritan woman, according to Hutchinson’s biographer Eve LaPlante, was “modest, meek, submissive, virtuous, obedient, and kind” and “solely occupied with supervising and maintaining the home, cooking sometimes brewing and dairying, and bearing and rearing children. She was expected to suffer all these in silence. . . .”

Nonetheless, after two days of Hutchinson’s parrying, no charge would stick. Since women had no public role and could not vote, the magistrates could not disenfranchise her. During this standoff, and with victory within her reach, Hutchinson behaved in a then-unthinkable way: she began to publicly teach her interpretation of Puritan doctrine to the magistrates. Preaching that salvation depended on grace, not works or obedience to religious laws, she voiced beliefs that Governor Winthrop’s supporters thought heretical, though they were nearly identical to the reasons the Puritans had fled England. She was subsequently banished from the colony.

Many historians think Hutchinson’s real crime was to expound publicly on sacred texts, breaking limits that bounded female speech and threatened male authority. The magistrates’ decision to banish her from the colony made those limitations explicit for other Puritan women. Prefiguring the Salem witch trials, the magistrates based their decision on the view that such bold talk must be the work of the Devil.

In 1650, fewer than 15 years later, Anne Bradstreet became the first colonial settler and first woman to ever publish a book of poetry in England. In The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, she displays an intellect on par with Hutchinson’s, easily covering subjects thought too difficult for a woman’s frail mind. Though she wrote long, often didactic, clunky poems about history and science, she also versified about anatomy, physiology, Greek metaphysics, theology, and family life. Unlike Hutchinson’s speeches, Bradstreet’s poetry shattered 17th-century attitudes toward women, and both she and The Tenth Muse became enormously popular on both sides of the Atlantic. According to one of her biographers, Charlotte Gordon, “her words would catch fire and she would become the voice of an era and of a new century.”

Why was Anne Hutchinson punished for being outspoken about religion and politics, while Bradstreet became a cultural icon? One answer can be found in Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” From our contemporary perspective, it reads like a traditional Elizabethan love sonnet (though it’s composed of 12 lines instead of 14). Compared to Bradstreet’s earlier discourses on science, religion, and politics, it is written in a relatively plain style and unabashedly declares her abiding love for her husband. Formally and thematically, it echoes Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?,” in which the poet promises immortality to his young lover, and also Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet “My True Love Hath My Heart,” which celebrates a perfectly balanced marital union from the woman’s perspective.

Seventeenth-century readers, however, familiar with Puritan theology and the tricks, tropes, and conceits of metaphysical poetry could read her poem as a rhetorical argument intended to persuade them of her position on the schism that had threatened to tear apart the colony at Hutchinson’s trial. Bradstreet’s poem speaks obliquely to the competing beliefs on how to conduct one’s life on earth given the contradictory nature of Puritanism: even though God had predetermined, or elected, those who would attain salvation, one still had to conduct one’s life on earth so as to prepare to receive grace, or salvation, in the hereafter. The early American historian Edmund Morgan coined the term “the Puritan dilemma” to describe this conundrum:

Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him he was helpless to do anything but evil. Puritanism required that he rest his whole hope in Christ but taught him that Christ would utterly reject him unless before he was born God had foreordained his salvation. Puritanism required that man refrain from sin but told him he would sin anyhow.

The extent to which individual Puritans pinned their hopes on being counted among the elect is impossible to underestimate. Puritans engaged in a continual and exacting introspection in which all personal and national events were interpreted as signs of their readiness to receive grace. For example, when she was 14 years old, Anne fell in love with her father’s assistant, Simon Bradstreet, whom she married two years later. Believing such feelings were sinful outside of marriage, she prayed unremittingly to be rid of her carnal lust. When she fell ill that same year with smallpox, she viewed it as God’s punishment for her sinful ways.

In “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” written many years later, God doesn’t make an explicit appearance. Instead of painstakingly estimating whether she is worthy to receive grace, Bradstreet estimates her power to reciprocate love. What’s changed in the intervening two decades? Since her arrival in America at age 18, she had given birth to all but one of her eight children, buried numerous relatives and friends, and singly managed a pioneer homestead while her husband traveled on colonial business throughout New England and across the Atlantic.

During this period, she found time to write poems and letters, and to keep a diary. Instead of the religious conversion narratives many Puritan women wrote, her work as a whole tells of her conversion to the joys and suffering of ordinary life. After The Tenth Muse was published, Bradstreet turned to poetic subjects that seemingly show her fulfilling a Puritan woman’s duty—raising (and burying) children, contemplating God, and loving her parents and husband. Yet within the context of being dutiful and celebrating ordinary joys, these more domestic poems display her capacity to argue theology and invent lasting art.

In “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” Bradstreet persuasively presents her views on how to resolve the basic contradictions of Puritan faith—in other words, how to live in this world while keeping an eye on heaven.

In the opening quatrain, her ability to reason, to construct an argument, commands center stage. Turning to anaphora, a rhetorical device that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses, thereby lending them emphasis (and perhaps in a nod to future computer programmers), she opens with a series of logical “If then” statements:

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.

She boasts that if a core human paradox is true (“If ever two were one,”)—if it is possible that love can wholly join two singular individuals—then she and her husband have achieved a perfectly balanced union. Her husband is as loved by her as she is by him. Bradstreet breaks the symmetry of her syntax and argument in the second couplet, in which, instead of addressing her husband, she directly addresses “women,” the same audience to whom Anne Hutchinson was punished for dispensing spiritual advice: “If ever wife was happy in a man, / Compare with me, ye women, if you can.” Unlike Hutchinson, she can address other women publicly because she does so within the context of being a loving Puritan wife.

Having established the value of her love through the power to reason in the first quatrain, she offers proof that its value is beyond compare in the second quatrain through the use of monetary metaphors and scriptural imagery: 

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 ought but love from thee give recompense.

In claiming to value her husband’s love more than “whole mines of gold,” Bradstreet echoes Psalm 19 (“The judgments of the Lord are truth; / they are righteous altogether, / And more to be desired than gold,”), a reference that would have resonated with Scripture-steeped 17th-century audiences, yet she subverts the imagery’s traditional Puritan religious use. Instead of instructing readers to prize their love for God more than material riches, she instructs them to prize earthly love more than earthly riches. Because her emphasis might have seemed blasphemous, or at least risqué, to fellow Puritans, it would have definitely snagged their attention. With that in hand, she begins to shape her monetary metaphor into a metaphysical conceit, which she uses to resolve the duality, or value, of earthly and heavenly love, husband and wife, and God and man.

Thus, in the second quatrain, the monetary imagery with which she extends the metaphor (“the riches that the East doth hold” and “the mines of gold”), coupled with the scriptural imagery, inflate the value of her human love by giving it religious significance. The riches from the mythic East most likely refer to the equally mythic, godly society on earth that she is devoted to building. And water (that “rivers that cannot quench”) was a common figure of speech for salvation, or union with Christ. Loving her husband, then, is a spiritual as well as an earthly reward. Her nimble weaving of religious and monetary language implies that just as there is no greater reward for humanity than receiving Christ’s love, there is no greater reward for her (“Nor ought but love from thee give recompense”) than receiving her husband’s love.

Interestingly, ending the eighth couplet on an unstressed rhyme (“recompense”) creates a hesitancy that musically emphasizes the inadequacy she feels in finding a way to compensate, or “repay,” her husband’s love. She turns to heaven, something greater than herself, for his reward:

Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

The final couplet completes the poem’s theological argument by claiming that it is possible to realize, rather than transcend, duality through achieving a balance between earthly and heavenly love. Deeply felt human love, she seems to be saying, is a kind of salvation, one so fulfilling here on earth that she hopes it is a glimpse of the hereafter where it will live forever (“That when we live no more, we may live ever.”). As Bradstreet scholar Robert D. Richardson Jr. writes: “The union of the lovers in eternity is the outcome of their earthly love. . . . As the poem expresses it, the transition from this world to the next involves not renunciation, not a change even, but an expansion.”

This is tricky religious ground that mirrors Hutchinson’s faith in a living spirit that works within and outside of the religious traditions—in daily family life—a spirit that is inseparable from Christ’s spirit. At the same time, Bradstreet’s hope that marital love is a foretaste of heaven’s love argues against one of the primary beliefs for which Hutchinson was excommunicated—that on dying, the body is not resurrected with the soul.

In either case, Bradstreet succeeds in resisting the constraints of female speech, made explicit by Hutchinson’s banishment, by arguing her views on Puritan theology in the guise of a poetic love letter to her husband.

Originally Published: November 11th, 2009

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...

  1. November 14, 2009
     Valerie Trueblood

    Wonderful. Maybe this will send people
    back to Bradstreet, and then to "Homage
    to Mistress Bradstreet," one of the most
    surprising of long American poems. I
    hope we'll see more of the wise argument,
    frank interest in meaning, and bright
    thought in Warn's essay.

  2. December 5, 2009
     D. Palmer

    What a beautiful analysis! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I want to read Hutchinson, Bradstreet, and Warn.