What have you done recently to conquer your fears? Maybe, stick your hand in a jar of spiders? Personally, mine was blindfolded indoor rock climbing which really helped me challenge my fear of heights. However, not everyone can easily accomplish this, but what if you could? French surrealist writer and poet Rene Dumal once said: “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above.” This quote by Dumal speaks on the art of taking risks, of stepping outside of your comfort zone, and challenging yourself to push your limits. In early America, everything was outside of a comfort zone. Early settlers were at risk for disease and murder, but in some cases, they were also at risk for religious conversion, primarily through the Puritan settlers. One particular Puritan, Anne Bradstreet, wrote excessively, however, not without feeling the regular shame that comes with criticism and public opinion. “The Prologue” by Bradstreet was written in 1650, and was published in The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung up in America by her brother-in-law, John Cambridge, without her consent.
The poem serves as an introduction to the rest of the text, while also pushing the boundaries of female literature within a Puritan society. Bradstreet, although she knew death, despair, and sorrow, she definitely tackled all of these topics with the courage and ferocity only someone with a true will could possess. Forged in the flames of a Puritan fire, Bradstreet openly addresses her faults, her insecurities, and her doubts, while coming into her own as a prolific author and woman. In “The Prologue,” readers witness Bradstreet challenge her anxiety of writing in the public eye, when she uses perfect iambic pentameter in the poem and stellar diction in the verse, showcasing her immense talent as a female writer in a masculine period. Writers typically follow standardized writing styles when it comes to their work, which although fine, it tends to conventionalize and standardize writing, taking away from the artistic interpretation that comes with writing. However, in Bradstreet’s writing, she follows perfect iambic pentameter, a feat that is not easily achievable. Iambic pentameter, for those that are not familiar, is a line of verse that includes five feet with unstressed and stressed syllables. As any writer would know, iambic pentameter can be hard to achieve, especially in a tight structure, such as the one found in “The Prologue”. As a woman in a Puritan society, Bradstreet struggled to find her artistic voice, which still resonates today within her writing.
In “The Prologue,” Bradstreet use perfect iambic pentameter, which would have been super challenging for anyone of her status, but it is even more so since she is a woman. This highlights her education, and her ability to become a literary giant with Shakespeare and Chaucer. A line of perfect iambic pentameter follows, with the stress being marked in bold: “Or how they all, or each their dates have run, / Let Poets and Historians set these forth” (Bradstreet Lines 4-5). Although these lines do employ perfect iambic pentameter, it also employs other tactics, such as the perfect use of the pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables. By doing so, Bradstreet shows her perfect capability of using iambic pentameter, in the same way that other poets do. A noteworthy portion of this line can be pinpointed when Bradstreet emphasizes the poets and historians that came before her. This is later furthered when she showcased just how talented she is and how that talent compares to the ‘rules’ that are pre-established. By showcasing her ability to follow a pre-established pattern, Bradstreet begins her first public work by highlighting her talent, and how much she has to offer. In a society that ridiculed women on every aspect of life, this would have been difficult to accomplish, but Bradstreet overcame that fear, when her works were abruptly (and without her consent) released. As a writer in a society before her time, Bradstreet not only faced criticism of the highest order, but also extreme ridicule, which would have contributed to her general anxiety about the public eye. Another aspect of iambic pentameter (although not necessarily required), is a rhyme scheme. Sonnet form typically requires rhyme scheme, whereas other works of verse do not. Bradstreet however, does choose to employ a rhyme scheme within her writing, as evident in “The Prologue”. An example of this can be seen through the following lines: “To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings, / Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun, / For my mean Pen are too superior things; / Or how they all, or each their dates have run” (Bradstreet Lines 1-4). Rhyme is evident in these lines, and in this poem, as evident through the ABABCC pattern, with the previous A rhyme in the quote being red, and the B rhyme being blue. This pattern is present throughout the remainder of the poem, which helps to establish an easy rhythm and tone. The level of skill and knowledge that goes into crafting a rhyme and rhythm, within a tightly structured verse, only furthers the notion that Bradstreet is a writer of stellar proportions.
Within the literary canon of the time, Bradstreet faced ridicule of a massive proportion, primarily due to her role as a woman within the Puritan society, but also because of her extensive education. Within the same vein, Bradstreet challenged the societal expectations that were thrust upon her and overcame every single barricade that was thrown her way, but not without recognizing the blockade for what it was: a speed bump on her path to greatness. Words are hard. With so many options, and so many variations, finding the right word to convey emotions within a tight structure such as iambic pentameter can be tricky. Diction can be defined as: “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness” (Merriam Webster). This definition can be expanded to include the process of choosing a word, and why a writer chooses a word. Equipped with the education only a rich family could provide, Bradstreet “is the first in a long line of American poets who took their consolation not from theology but from, as she wrote the ‘wondrous works, that I see, the vast from of the heaven and the earth…” (Norton Anthology of American Literature 218). With this education in mind, it only shows the level of expertise that Bradstreet employs when she authors her works, but also specifically in “The Prologue”. Bradstreet carefully chooses her words when she writes: “For my mean Pen are too superior things;” (Bradstreet Line 3). This line of the poem has so much going on that it would be difficult to unpack it in a short paper such as this. Essentially Bradstreet is saying that her pen is not good enough to make her as good as other writers, which may be a result of the gender norms of the time.
Bradstreet utilizes diction, when she chose the word ‘mean’ because it symbolizes her ability as an author, because she does not trust her skill as an author, although she should. In his article “Advertising the Domestic: Anne Bradstreet’s Sentimental Poetics” documenting Bradstreet’s experience as a female poet in early modern America, Abram van Engen writes: “Like many women writers in the nineteenth century, Bradstreet used print to publicize the supposedly private experiences of a woman. Moreover, her poetic scenes shaped the public arena in which they appeared: Rather than allow the state to oversee and govern the domestic, she used the domestic to comment on the status of the state. Her poetry thus offers an early example of a woman strategically employing publicly sanctioned private roles to engage in cultural politics” (Van Engen 48). Van Engen emphasizes the gender norms that Bradstreet was expected to follow, which although not tying directly into diction, it does emphasize the point that women were held to a higher standard than men, which shows in Bradstreet’s writing. Authors struggle everyday to express themselves, and in a society that is so fond of artistic expression, artist have the innate ability to do amazing things, and to create, innovate, and explore the boundaries of the human consciousness. However, 369 years ago, when Bradstreet released “The Prologue” in 1650, society was not as willing to hear from a wannabe writer, especially a random Puritan woman who migrated to the New World. Although her work was met with much criticism, Bradstreet has grown into a literary landmark that is now a staple within not only the early American canon, but also within British literature as well.
Bradstreet, a renowned author in society today, openly challenges her fear of writing within a public setting, when she employs iambic pentameter and diction within her verse, challenging any expectation that was set upon her, and blowing them all away. By using iambic pentameter within “The Prologue,” Bradstreet showcases her literary expertise, especially when she takes a strict structure, and then employs it within her writing. All around the world, writers struggle to conform to societal rules and expectations, however, Bradstreet takes those rules, and throws them out of the window. With her courage and strength on display, Bradstreet challenged her fear by pushing herself to do better, to write better, to be better, and to not let society push her around. “The Prologue,” on top of using iambic pentameter, also employs stellar diction, primarily by using metonymy and allusion to reference other works, all by changing words around to fit her demands. By pushing herself to employ certain words, Bradstreet openly embraces the uncertainty of writing, as well as her own anxiety within her work. Words mentioned in line 6 such as “obscure lines” (Bradstreet) show that although her work may be unknown, or even dark in tone, that she still accepts her work for what it is worth. From personal experience, I know how hard it can be to produce a piece of art, primarily because there is always an expectation to do better, which I struggle with myself, as the more you grow, the more you want to change. Overall, Bradstreet openly embraces the unknown certainty of writing, and imbibes a little bit of herself within everything she writes, which is what makes it so powerfully emotive and distinct. Revisiting the Dumal quote from earlier on, he furthers his earlier statement of embracing your fears by stating: “One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know” (Dumal). By embracing the unknown, as Bradstreet did, you keep that experience and that knowledge within yourself, and fold it into every essence of your being, and use it to grow and change. As a Puritan mother, wife, and daughter, Bradstreet had a slew of rules and expectations to follow, which although she did, she also used them to grace the world with her own thoughts and feelings, whatever they may be. As a woman writing in a predominantly male-centered culture, Bradstreet challenges every single stigma of feminine writing, and takes up the torch to promote equality, at least within a literary atmosphere. So, take a piece of Bradstreet with you, keep “The Prologue” close to your heart, and challenge yourself to try new things, and to step outside of your comfort zone, because, in a society that openly embraces new cultures and experiences, why not try? If Bradstreet could challenge her own anxiety and fears, so can you.
- Bradstreet, Anne. “The Prologue.” Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton and Company, 2017, pp. 219-220.
- “Diction.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2019. Web. 8 March 2019.
- Van Engen, Abram. “Advertising the Domestic: Anne Bradstreet’s Sentimental Poetics”. Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Published by University of Nebraska Press. vol 28, no 1. 2011. pp. 47-68. DOI: 10.1353/leg.2011.0016.