You never know what you might find in your family tree.
Passionate about genealogical research as I sense the gratitude that I owe to my ancestors, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to find among them a celebrated poet! I discovered that my tenth great-grandmother is Anne Bradstreet, who is called America’s first poet. Whether birth records can be trusted or not and, so, “nature” certified, I know that she was part of my ancestry, shaping the “nurture” of my family experience. … Shaping me? Even if I had never written a poem, poor or otherwise, I’ve always known that poetry — the poetic way of seeing and hearing life — is in my blood. Perhaps, in a way, it is. Literally.
In 1632, at the age of 19, my great-grandmother suffered a gripping illness in frontier New England and wrote a poem about it.
Upon a Fit of Sickness
O Bubble blast, how long can’st last?
That always art a breaking,
No sooner blown, but dead and gone,
Ev’n as a word that’s speaking.
O whil’st I live, this grace me give,
I doing good may be,
Then death’s arrest I shall count best,
because it’s thy decree.
When I was 19, I also suffered a frightening illness, but I don’t remember writing about it then. Not poetically or otherwise. If I had, I would have expressed a similar love of life and loathing of leaving. But, at that age, I would not have had the resignation to God’s will that my Puritan ancestor expressed. Although I am now a Christian writing poems that express my faith, I highly doubt that any poem of mine will last as long as those of Anne Bradstreet.
Although her title of “America’s First Poet” could be disputed (for the first poet was surely the first human who stepped upon these continents and breathed a sigh of marvel at the wonders here), Anne Dudley Bradstreet was the first colonial settler, male or female, to ever have published a book of poetry in England. The first Puritan literary writer, my ancestor was also the first female poet to be notably published in the English language. This accomplished “New World” poet is unquestionably considered to be one of the most important poets of early America.
She was also a wife who was passionately in love with her husband and a loving mother of eight children. Anne had great devotion and attachment to her family, committed herself to her Christian faith, was deeply moved by the beauty of the natural world, and diligently expressed herself through the written word. Maybe apples don’t fall far from trees, even if it’s 350 years later and I am but an amateur poet, as well as someone that her Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor husband and Harvard-founding father (also my ancestors, remember) would have considered a pagan papist probably condemned to hell.
I do wonder, though, if Anne might not have known a deeper faith and felt freer to enjoy the beauties of the Earth and the delights of married love without the fear of heresy had she been a Catholic of today like me. Her biographers and scholars say that she struggled against the constraints of Puritan Christianity. I wish that she had known and openly embraced the purging fire of the Sacred Heart and the holy sacrament of bread and wine that is the body and blood of our self-giving God. I wish that she had known how Christ agrees that all of Creation is beautifully sacred, and that union with Him can be richly fulfilled through self-giving love for particular human beings. I think that she did know, in the way of poets, pondering truth in her heart.
To My Dear and Loving Husband
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.
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.
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.*
Through Anne’s Dudley ancestry, I’m also supposedly descended from William The Conqueror and Charlemagne through a well-known mistress of King John (again, if birth records can be trusted). But I’m much happier and satisfied with my antecedent, Anne. Her tender heart, strength of perseverance, feminine bold brilliance, and beautiful words of wisdom are happily with me — a far removed grandchild — through the gift of her writing.
© 2021 Christina Chase
Read what is considered grandma Anne Bradstreet’s best poem, Contemplations HERE. (I am no scholar of poetry. I confess that I have not read it all, yet!)
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.