Anne Bradstreet's "The Author to Her Book": A Close Reading
If our words could walk and talk...
As I recently rediscovered Anne Bradstreet and her seventeenth-century poetry, I found “The Author to Her Book” in particular accessible and something I can relate to. Many writers can probably understand the struggle it is to write and then the fear of sharing what they have written. Of course, Bradstreet sounds like she is being a little too hard on herself, but her poem is touching in its slightly self-deprecating humor. I get the sense that Bradstreet was trying to make the best out of an embarrassing situation by acknowledging her feelings and actually scolding her poem.
Bradstreet’s poem “The Author to Her Book” examines the author’s chagrin at having her work published without her knowledge and exposed to the critical public. In an extended metaphor, the author’s book becomes her child; hence, she is embarrassed when it is snatched from her and reflects on her as the mother.
The child’s flaws are so glaring to the mother; she characterizes the book by describing its unwashed face, its rags, and its ungainly limbs. However, a mother’s affection makes the author protective and sympathetic to her creation, as she tries to clean it up and warns it not to fall into critics’ hands. Despite the author’s attachment to her “offspring,” she is still ashamed to send it out the door (only she is poor and needs the money). I can almost hearing Bradstreet sighing and shrugging, as if to say, “Well, what else can I do?” as she sends her poetry off into the world.
The poem’s form is a heroic couplet, a rhyming pair of lines. Almost all the lines of the poem are end-stop, meaning they have some sort of punctuation at the end. As a result, the poem has a quick-paced, clipped rhythm broken up by pauses, or caesuras, in the middle and end of each line.
There are only two instances of enjambment, or a thought running over more than one line without a punctuation break. Often enjambed lines add emphasis and make the speaker sound more urgent, as if the author is speaking something so important that she cannot stop for breath. For instance, the author tells her child: “Yet being mine own, at length affection would / Thy blemishes amend, if so I could” (Bradstreet 11-12). The enjambed lines highlight the author’s simultaneous love and loathing she feels for her poetry.
When the author later says, “And take thy way where yet thou art not known / If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none” (21-22), there is a sense of wearied shame in her instructions to her illegitimate offspring. I know some parents who have half-jokingly told their children not to say what family they come from when they leave the house; Bradstreet echoes that sentiment, but she may be more serious than jesting.
As a pentameter couplet, each line has ten syllables with alternating stresses. The meter is steady in this matter and matches the warning tone of the poem. As a mother to her work, the author speaks directly to her work as if it were a real child: “Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain” (1). This form of apostrophe, or addressing an object as if it were a person, personifies the author’s poetry and gives it human-like characteristics. The book trudges, rambles, hobbles, and roams.
The author effectively compares her poetry to an awkward wayfarer, both having uneven feet (another clever play on words): “I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet, / Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet” (15-16). The word “meet” here means "appropriate," yet it also sounds like “meter,” as the author is indeed tinkering with the meter of her poetry.
The process of tweaking her work sounds difficult and even painful, as she describes rubbing the “child’s” face and stretching its joints, making it sound almost crippled by her efforts. She apparently gives up and tells her child to roam “[i]n this array ‘mongst vulgars” (19) rather than among sophisticated people, which seems the opposite of what most poets would desire.
Don't be too hard on yourself!
Bradstreet may sound like she is exaggerating her shame and blowing the whole situation out of proportion, but it is important to understand that authors generally like to polish their work before having it published. Is Bradstreet sincere in her self-deprecation? She refers to her feeble brain and her poetry as being unfit for light. She may be showing extreme modesty in earnest or for comedic effect. Either way, Bradstreet captures the feelings of frustration and self-doubt that writers sometimes feel. Perhaps it would help those writers to imagine their works as wayward children who need to be whipped into shape.
Read Anne Bradstreet
Bradstreet, Anne. “The Author to Her Book.” Strand, et al: 123-124.
Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland, eds. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.