“If Ever Two Were One”: Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband”

by Charlotte Gordon
Second edition of “Several Poems,” by Anne Bradstreet, published posthumously in Boston in 1678. (Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

Anne Bradstreet is famous for being the first American poet. But she did not think of herself as either “first” or “American.” She did not even think of herself as a poet. We would call her a Puritan, a term adopted by their enemies for members of the most radical branch of the English Reformation. Like most seventeenth-century English immigrants to America, Bradstreet regarded herself as English, or at best as “New English.” For Bradstreet, writing poetry was a way to serve God and the community, not to further a career. The problem was that she was a woman, and women were not supposed to write poetry.

The eighteen-year-old Bradstreet sailed to America in 1630 on the Arbella, the flagship of the great Puritan migration from England. Years later, when she looked back on her arrival in America, she said, “When I saw the new world with its new manners, my heart rose up.”[1] In seventeenth-century vernacular, this meant that she felt nauseous, as though she were going to throw up. One can hardly blame her. The sight that greeted the settlers when they disembarked was horrific. Only a few stragglers remained of the group the Puritans had sent over the year before to prepare the way for their arrival. The rest had died of starvation. Those who were left had dug holes in the dirt for shelter or else erected flimsy shacks. They were ill, dirty, and unkempt. The governor of the expedition, John Winthrop, and his assistant, Bradstreet’s father, Thomas Dudley, took one look at this sorry state of affairs and moved the enterprise south to a new settlement the Puritans would call Boston and another small village they named New Town, known today as Cambridge, the seat of Harvard College.

Although Bradstreet suffered during her first years in New England, she eventually adjusted to her new surroundings and wrote poems on behalf of the colony, producing a volume of poetry, The Tenth Muse (1650), the first published book of poems by a New England author. Her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, had arranged for its publication in London where he promoted the book by saying that Bradstreet had no knowledge of his plan, thereby saving her from condemnation as a woman writer. However, today, Woodbridge’s scheme seems, as one scholar writes, “suspiciously contrived,” and in fact Bradstreet was probably fully aware of the plan to publish her book. Her poems demonstrate her ambition to participate in the debate about the future of the colony. However, having watched other women, such as Anne Hutchinson, suffer for being too public with their views, Bradstreet  knew that she could not promote herself as a writer if she wanted to have people read her words.[2]

The Tenth Muse was well received and sold briskly on both sides of the Atlantic. Against all odds, Bradstreet had become a spokesperson for the New World—important publicity, as many people in England believed that once the settlers were removed from civilization, they would slip into savagery. If a woman, generally considered weaker than a man, could produce a volume of such learned and sophisticated poetry, then maybe life in New England would not harm the settlers. In fact, according to Bradstreet and the other New English Puritans, life in New England could only improve them. New Englanders were on a mission from God to purify the church, whereas, in Old England, the congregations were corrupt and the church leaders misguided. As a result, New Englanders believed they were blessed. In America, the babies were healthier, the crops more plentiful, and the people richer.

Bradstreet’s most famous poem, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” is an example of the kind of masterpiece that impressed her readers in the seventeenth century and helped the New World Puritans assert their claims of ascendancy over the Old World. The poem’s wit and metrical elegance have given it such lasting appeal that it is still read at weddings today, and was even featured in a Hollywood movie, Le Divorce (dir. James Ivory, 2003).

On the surface, the poem appears to be a simple twelve-line lyric about a wife loving a husband—charming, but fairly unremarkable. Bradstreet starts the poem as though it is a logical problem, a geometrical proof, with three “if / then” statements:

If ever two were one then surely we,
If ever man were loved by wife then thee.
If ever wife were happy with a man
Compare with me ye women if ye can.

The “if ever” of the opening line introduces an impossible mathematical proposition, that two can become one, a paradox that the human couple overcomes, or, at least, almost overcomes as Bradstreet leaves the line dangling in the realm of the impossible “if.” The repetition of “if ever” in the second and third lines—two anaphoras (the repetition of a grammatical figure)—complicates the first line, as each “if ever” has a slightly different meaning. We know that men have been loved by wives before, and that wives have been happy. But the repetition allows Bradstreet to lift her love out of the commonplace. In this time and in this case, this man is loved by this particular wife. Together, the couple prove the impossible possible; love has worked its magic and two have become one, breaking the rules of the natural universe.

Bradstreet turns next to worldly comparisons: her husband’s love is worth more than “the riches of the East.” Her love for him is unquenchable, implying that their love is not simply a spiritual union, but a physical one; she has a “thirst” for his love. This combination of materialistic and sensual imagery often surprises those who think that the Puritans were “above” caring about wealth and condemned sexuality. However, the Puritans acknowledged the importance of love, as long as one did not lose sight of God, and they believed that wealth—Bradstreet’s “riches of the East”—could be a sign of being among God’s chosen. But wealth, like love, came with a caveat. The Puritan ministers cautioned the devout to remember that though a rich man might well be blessed by God, he had to be careful not to forget his soul. Accordingly, when Bradstreet’s house burned down, she wrote a poem in which she thanked God for reminding her not to set too much store on earthly things. But since her home mattered to her, she consoled herself by saying that God would provide her with a better one in heaven, one with the mortgage already paid: “Thou hast an house on high erect / Fram’d by that mighty Architect, / With glory richly furnished . . . Its purchased and paid for too.”[3]

Furthermore, the Puritans were not the dour figures of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Nor were they prim nineteenth-century Victorians. They were an earthy people, only one generation removed from Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. As long as they never forgot from whence their pleasures came, the Puritans believed they had God’s blessing to enjoy sex, that is, as long as the sex took place in a marital context. Indeed, procreation was one of the most crucial duties for a Puritan couple. If a woman had many children, she was praised as “a fruitful vine.” In addition, since many Puritans believed that a woman could only get pregnant if she had pleasure during sex, love-making was considered an essential skill and was discussed frankly. The Puritans translated heaven and God into concrete worldly terms, and so one startling consequence of their sexual candor is their application of sexuality to the divine. In one of her final poems, “As Weary Pilgrim,” Bradstreet imagines her union with God in the afterlife as an actual marital embrace between herself and the Eternal Bridegroom.[4]

Bradstreet makes this correlation between humanity and divinity at the end of “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” connecting the love between husband and wife with divine love. If she and Simon “persevere” in their love, they will live forever. Puritans believed that they had no control over their final destiny. Their fate was in God’s hands, but Bradstreet suggests that by loving one another, she and Simon will earn a place in heaven. Their love is a blessing in this world and the next. Eternal love will be the return on their investment. The paradox of the first line, that two shall be one, has been transfigured into the divine paradox, Christ’s death and redemption. It follows, then, that if Bradstreet and Simon truly love another, they will triumph over death; the dead shall live; love becomes Love, a divine transformative agent.

The complexity of Bradstreet’s message, the engaging language, and the imagery are all reasons why this poem has stood the test of time. Furthermore, Bradstreet calls attention to her poetic skills by writing in rhyming couplets—a rhyme scheme that is at once insistent and readily apparent to the reader. She employs a metrically sophisticated iambic pentameter, establishing a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, until lines 10, 11, and 12, when she adds an extra unstressed syllable, an anapest, varying the meter with the dexterity of an accomplished craftsman.

But it is precisely this kind of virtuosic display that suggests the poem is more than an elegantly composed love lyric. After all, Bradstreet was not supposed to be able to write like this. Most people believed that women’s brains were too small to allow them to read, let alone write, poetry. John Winthrop observed that one woman had read so much that it overtaxed her abilities and she plunged herself into a well. Bradstreet was fully aware that her poetry was controversial. In the “Prologue,” she declares “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits, / A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong . . . / If what I do prove well, it won’t advance, / They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.”[5] She refused to be written off. In one of her first poems, an elegy for Queen Elizabeth, she argues with misogynistic critics:

Now say have women worth? Or have they none?
Or had they some but with our Queen is’t gone?
Nay masculines, you have thus taxed us long
But she though dead, will vindicate our wrong.[6]

In such a climate, Bradstreet’s dexterity as a poet cannot be taken at face value. Each rhyme and each witty paradox of “To My Dear and Loving Husband” is an assertion of the poet’s ability and acute intelligence. In her earliest poems Bradstreet had apologized for her “weakness” as a woman. She wrote an elegy to the famous poet Sir Philip Sidney that ends with the nine muses of classical fame driving her off Mount Parnassus. Although this appears to be a confession of inadequacy, Bradstreet implies that she has found a better guide than the pagan goddesses—the Christian God. Her self-deprecation becomes an implicit assertion, marking her identity as both a woman and a Christian at the same time that it causes her to revisit and re-envision old conventions.

By the time she writes “To My Dear and Loving Husband”—fifteen or so years later—Bradstreet does not apologize for being a woman. Just the opposite. She emphasizes that she is the wife, Simon the husband. Man and woman, husband and wife—two separate entities merge, rendering them one in love, in death, and in rebirth. What better claim for equality could there be? Thus, in this poem “two becomes one” is not simply a lover’s truism. It is actually a declaration that celebrates the egalitarian nature of love. Gender, age, education, wealth—these distinctions vanish when the lovers unite. Since, in Bradstreet’s eyes, God’s love was more powerful than even the most passionate lover’s, His love, by definition, was the most transformative. When gathered in His embrace, it no longer mattered if one was a man or a woman; one had, at last, joined with the divine. It was this faith in the transformative nature of divine love that inspired Bradstreet to write the poems she was not supposed to write and to speak the words she was not supposed to speak as a woman. She composed poems that she hoped would help her live forever, both in heaven and in this world.

[1] Jeannine Hensley, ed. The Works of Anne Bradstreet (1967; repr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 263.

[2] Kathrynn Seidler Engberg, The Right to Write: The Literary Politics of Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley (New York: University Press of America, 2010), 2. For more on the publication “story” of The Tenth Muse, see Charlotte Gordon, Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet (New York: Little Brown, 2005), 240–254.

[3] Hensley, 319.

[4] Hensley, 322.

[5] Hensley, 16.

[6] Hensley, 212.

Charlotte Gordon is a writer of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. She has published two books of poetry, When the Grateful Dead Came to St. Louis and Two Girls on a Raft, and a biography of the seventeenth-century poet, Anne Bradstreet, Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet (Little Brown, 2005). Her most recent book is The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths (Little Brown, 2009).

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