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  • "Let no man know":Negotiating the Gendered Discourse of Affliction in Anne Bradstreet's "Here Followes Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666"
  • Allison Giffen

Much of the scholarship that addresses the work of Anne Bradstreet takes its cue from a binary articulated as early as 1966 by Ann Stanford. Is Bradstreet a dogmatist or a rebel? Is her relationship to Puritanism exemplary or does she offer us one of the earliest examples of a subversive feminist voice? The first wave of feminist scholarship on Bradstreet sought to illuminate this feminist voice, celebrating her later, more personal, poems and identifying in them a voice of resistance and critique.1 In Selected Poems and in those from the Andover manuscripts first published in 1867, such as "Upon the Burning of Our House," the grandchildren elegies, and "Before the Birth of one of Her Children," these scholars read a tension between faith and feeling, a "quiet rebellion" and a "forced resignation [that] barely conceals her anguished rage" (Stanford 378; Martin 18).

We can also trace an alternate track in Bradstreet scholarship that has sought to contextualize more deeply the poet's relationship to Puritanism. Like much of the early feminist work, this criticism identifies a sense of struggle within the poetry that is not in tension with Puritanism but exemplary of it.2 For example, Paula Kopacz notes, "While modern sensibility sees 'tension' between emotion and doctrine, the Puritan viewed them as integrally related" (183). In one of the more extended examples of this approach, Jeffrey Hammond points out that by reading the poems that express rebellion and anger outside of their Puritan context, we misunderstand the function and significance of this expression. Hammond reads moments of tension within Bradstreet's poetry as demonstrations of how one appropriately responds to the Puritan dictum for honest self-examination. Rather than being subversive, the tensions in Bradstreet's [End Page 1] poetry dramatize how one can never resolve the struggle to be in this world but not of it. Indeed, the self-conscious experience of such a struggle specifically marks one as being on the proper path toward sainthood.

Hammond's Bradstreet is an exemplary Puritan poet whose poems of personal loss present didactic enactments of struggle written for the spiritual edification of her family. Given his reading of the poems as carefully orchestrated dramas, he finds that early feminist approaches strip the poet of a certain degree of agency. Rather than reading Bradstreet as a poet who presents a self-conscious dramatization, these critics, he claims, read her as "a naive artist who blurts out spiritual insufficiencies in an unintended contradiction of what she wants her poems to do" (140). Moreover, he asserts, the project of seeking a voice of resistance is anachronistic:

[I]f we exaggerate [Bradstreet's] sense of alienation from Puritan religion or society, we unintentionally undermine the artistic and psychological integrity of her work. . . . By connecting her apparent vacillations between piety and doubt to post-Romantic modes of personal expression, we assume that she was unable to reconcile opposing forces within herself simply because we cannot do so.


Certainly Hammond's move to historicize is important, but instead of casting Bradstreet as a post-Romantic rebel whose poetry seeks to critique the patriarchal constraints of her cultural moment (as he claims feminist critics do), he offers us an ideal Puritan who engages in an uncomplicated relationship with Puritan discourse and its specifically gendered tropes and topoi. Hammond's approach, like some of the early feminist approaches, is caught in a morass of intentionality. Both approaches work within a critical frame that posits an a priori writing subject; consequently, Bradstreet emerges as either (carefully) rebellious or, as Hammond would have it, "predictably and depressingly normal" (136).

I seek to sidestep this binary by redirecting our attention from what Bradstreet was, examining instead the complex relationship the woman poet necessarily had with the gendered religious discourse of her day. While this enterprise is deeply indebted to early feminist criticism on Bradstreet, I am also influenced by Foucauldian scholarship that emphasizes the gendered and historically contingent production of subjectivity and the subject's complex, often contradictory, relationship...


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