Virginia U. Jensen – “The actions of righteous women ripple on through time and space and even generations. ” In “The Prologue,” Anne Bradstreet writes a poem that seeks to understand her role as a female poet in a male-dominated Puritan society. She knows that her poetry is perceived as inferior because it was considered the province of men and appear to humble herself within the context of the poem by indicating her unworthiness, yet through the subtext, Bradstreet craftily challenges men and proves her poetic prowess.
With an eloquent mixture of apologia and verbal irony, Anne Bradstreet produces a powerful poem that displays her creative talents and raises questions about the role of women in a patriarchal society without directly threatening her male audience. “The Prologue” serves as an introduction to Anne Bradstreet’s poems under a collection of her poetry titled The Tenth Muse. This poem functions to explain to her audience the topics her poetry will and will not address: “To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings/ Of cities founded, commonwealth begun/ For my mean pen are too superior” (1-3).
She sets the apologetic and self-effacing tone with these first few lines by saying that songs of “wars, of captains, and of kings” are too superior for her modest, “mean” pen to write about. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “mean” can be defined as “humble” or “intermediate. ” Bradstreet purposely displays humility in order to avoid offending her audience. In fact, she spends the first four stanzas of the poem describing what an inferior writer she is compared to all the others before her.
However, upon closer inspection, Bradstreet is setting the stage for her argument by acknowledging her faults and others’ criticisms and slides in a few retorts. She says, “Great Bartas sugared lines do but read o’er/ Fool I do grudge the Muses did not part ‘Twixt him and me that over fluent store” (8-10), referring to one of the most respected poets whom the Muses endowed with an apparent “over fluent store” of “sugared lines. ” Her own, Muse Bradstreet says is, “foolish, broken, blemished” (16).
With that being said, she gently yet firmly declares, “A Bartas can what a Bartas will/ But simple I according to my skill” (11-12), meaning that while ‘great’ men may write as they will, so will she and that does not diminish her value. In the fifth stanza, Bradstreet directly answers her male critics. She says, “A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong/ For such despite they cast on female wits” (27-28). Her verbal irony is clear when she refers to herself as “a poet”, saying that her critics would ignore the poetry because of her “female wits. She chides the “obnoxious” (25) nay-sayers for their “carping tongues,” (25) pointing out that it is the men who are acting in the supposed vindictiveness of women. “Carping”, harping, nagging and malice are the supposed traits of women, while it is the men who act in this manner by spiting the poetry simply because of its author. Bradstreet says: “If what I do prove well, it won’t advance/ They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance” (29-30). In her ironic manner, Bradstreet says at the beginning of the sixth stanza, “the antique Greeks were far mild” (31), noting that even an “antique” civilization had a more open attitude.
She says of the attitudes of Puritan men in relation to the Greek value of women, “Let Greeks be Greeks and women what they are,” (37), meaning that the men think that if the Greeks treated women with greater respect, that was the Greeks but the Puritans have their own ideas of the nature and place of women. Bradstreet says with veiled sarcasm, “Men can do best and women know it well” (40) since that was what the women were taught to “know,” but she appeals “grant us some small acknowledgement of ours” (42). She continues, “give thyme or parsley wreath, I ask no bays,” (46).
Bay leaves were used by Greeks to make wreaths for those worthy of the highest honors; Bradstreet says she would be content with a wreath made of the cooking leaves thyme or parsely, indicating that she would like at least some concede some credit for her and her work. Anne Bradstreet realizes that people in her Puritan society will be prejudiced and skeptical of her poetry because she is a woman; she anticipates the fact that being a female poet will challenge the gender roles within her society, since poets of her time were primarily men.
Therefore, Bradstreet utilizes her poetic skills of apologia and verbal irony, and satire to avoid overtly threatening the male audience. At times she even appears ambivalent, yet this is her greatest achievement, to argue for her rights as a woman and credit as a poet with clever diplomacy and eloquence. Citation Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol A. 7th Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007