Four centuries ago, Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem, a love poem, for her husband whom she misses every time he leaves for work. The public employment in the poem’s title is not just a simple hour’s drive away from home, but—(because he is a governor in one of England’s colonies, while she is at Ipswich, Massachusetts with the kids)—miles and miles of cruel oceans raging between them. Today that ocean, though not entirely negligible, is at least manageable. In their days, however, one can only imagine the agony of waiting for a loved one to cross safely to the other side.
And yet Anne Bradstreet’s voice in A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment is calm and very much self-assured. No worry or anything, no pacing across the room back and forth at all. Yes, there is the sadness in her voice:
I like the Earth this season, mourn in black/
My Sun is gone so far in's zodiac.
But it is far from being the resigned sadness of a domestic wife waiting powerless by the door. On the other hand, the sadness is regal and dignified, a necessary sadness only people in love get to share and cherish, and which she now gives her readers the privilege to glimpse.
This is a woman who was raised and lived in a Puritan society where roles between men and women were strictly delineated. Any boundary crossing was censured. Men brought home the bacon, while women were expected to do housework, take care of the children—not compose poetry. It was a time when a Reverend Thomas Parker, for example, a minister in Newbury, Massachusetts, might be heard to say to his sister Elizabeth Avery in a letter: "Your printing of a book, beyond the custom of your sex, doth rankly smell" (qtd. In Cowell, n.d.).
Anne Bradstreet’s poems were strictly personal then: just for herself, her husband, her family and friends. She certainly wasn’t writing to wow an audience. When we think of it, her defiance is what makes A Letter to Her Husband all the more touching and honest and intimate. Here is a woman who, after the day’s work has been done, snuck in some spare time to write poems, never mind the male chauvinist pigs of her time so engrossed in do’s and don’ts.
In A Letter to Her Husband, Bradstreet employs astronomical and sea-faring terminologies, amazing for a woman of her time. She lovingly calls her husband as the heat-bearing sun, her sweet Sol, who has left her now-frigid earth. Interestingly, in the 1600s, laws and resolutions regarding the scope of women’s rights had clauses like these: “A wife how gallant soever she be, glistereth but in the riches of her husband, as the moon hath no light but it is the sun's” (Brown, 2005, p. 73.). In her poem though, Bradstreet does not idolize/glorify her husband to the point of blind dependency. She, after all, being the poet, is the one who appoints her husband as sun.
Meanwhile, the belts lie between them, the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, starting and endpoints of her husband’s journeys. In referring to them, Anne befriends the elements of the sea. For her, the uncertainty of the sea is not an enemy of love. Rather, Anne Bradstreet accepts that such journeys through dangerous waters and treacherous terrains are necessary.
Considering the time it was written, Puritanism’s tendency towards modesty and plainness, A Letter to Her Husband is unapologetically lyrical and rich. Anne Bradstreet’s rhymes are careful and solid, the iambic feet of her lines flow, just like a journey. It is as if the poem is meant to be read in a twofold manner simultaneously. On one end, as Bradstreet composes it, searching for the right words that will sing on paper, and on the other, as her husband reads her love letter from the other side of the ocean, the poem unfolding line by line as he gets to the end. In this way, she has lets us eavesdrop on her personal love letter, lets us know the sadness of absence, the struggles of waiting, and above it all, the willfulness of love.
Anne Bradstreet’s choice of words, her command of the terminologies, her beautiful juxtaposition of the temporary body against the unwavering elements of nature that beat it—her chilled limbs, her glowing breast, her heart, her children’s father’s face, flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone, the storms, frost, the burning sun, the Earth’s seasons—all these show not the whimpers of a woman, a mere wife tied to her husband, but the strong voice a woman at par with her man, her husband’s partner.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone/
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
Yes, Anne Bradstreet exposes her sadness. She is not ashamed to admit her dependency, because she is also a person after all. But just for having written her poem, she has bridged the distance between her and her husband.
I here, thou there, yet but both one.
What more decisive declaration of love do we need than this?
The beauty of Anne Bradstreet’s poem is that, four centuries later, lovers are still saying goodbye to each other because we all have to leave for work, for our office cubicles or factories, wherever—and there, be eaten by capitalism, or whatever ism lies in there. Some of us think employment was a far-fetched concept for women in the 17th century, and that it was women’s fate to wait for their returning husbands. But according to historian Rosalind Miles (1988), women have been hard at work since prehistoric times, even more so than men. Anne Bradstreet has written a poem that shows that. Her theme is simple: the sadness of absence. And yet despite it all, Bradstreet remains hopeful.
After all, the return trip is always the sweetest.