When Anne Bradstreet wrote her first book in 1650, Puritan sensibilities concerning the woman’s role were stringently defined. Women were considered subordinate to men and intellectually inferior. As a result, women were largely confined to their domestic roles. This did not include writing literature, and certainly not publishing it, so when Anne Bradstreet published The Tenth Muse she was acutely of aware of the challenges she faced as a woman writer. However, it is her response to these social constraints that provides one of the most dynamic elements in her writing. In the “Prologue” that introduces The Tenth Muse, Bradstreet anticipates the skepticism of her audience and skillfully forestalls it by using satire to both prove her poetic skill and to consol a threatened male audience .
Satire, as a rhetorical device, has been used by authors for centuries to mask truth in humor, and has often been used out of necessity as well as for its effect. Author’s such as Jonathon Swift and Voltaire would have found their very lives threatened for espousing their political views had they not been cleverly disguised within the humor of their work. For they as well as Bradstreet understood that the safest way to undermine suspicious authorities was to make them laugh. Bradstreet does this brilliantly in the “Prologue” by using satire to produce a feigned humility that seems to concede to the male’s superiority in one stanza, only to subtly deride it in the next. In this way, she uses satire to confuse the gender issue, and ultimately to gain some ground for her cause.
In doing this, however, Bradstreet is careful to tread lightly at first so as not to offend her audience too soon. In the first stanza she writes, “To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings, / Of Cities founded, Commonwealths began, / For my mean Pen are too superior things.” Here Bradstreet humbly acknowledges those subjects which she does not consider herself worthy to write on, which in effect is the equivalent of a curtsy. She politely acquiesces to her male readers by telling them what they want to hear. She chooses the most revered topics in literature, and in a sense consoles her male audience by promising to leave such subjects for the “Poets and Historians.” Bradstreet is picking her battles by knowing what she is capable of accomplishing within reason. As a result, this first stanza plays an important part in establishing the scope of her endeavor for the “Prologue” and also in setting up her reader for the more direct praise of women that is to come later.
Similarly, in the second stanza Bradstreet acknowledges her limit capacity in comparison to the male poet Bartas. She praises his skill and wishes that she possessed the same. However, she does not accredit his skill solely to the fact that he is a man. Rather, she very subtly excuses their differences on the basis of the portion of skill given her by the Muses. By doing this she carefully circumvents the gender issue by making the writer’s ability dependent on the Muses rather than gender.
However, in the third and fourth stanzas Bradstreet does implicate her gender as having something to do with her inability. She writes, “My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings, / And this to mend, alas, no Art is able, / ‘Cause Nature made it so irreparable.” Though to some degree she is faulting her gender, she is also faulting her Muse and the Nature that has made it impossible for her to be an equal. Even so this portion of the “Prologue” does seem to be the most defacing. Bradstreet clearly acknowledges an intrinsic difference between her and her male counterparts that leaves her disadvantaged. Nonetheless, when these two stanzas are considered within the whole of the “Prologue” they seem more strategic than factual. In other words, it is doubtful that Bradstreet actually believed she was inferior, but rather that she had more going against her.
Finally in the fifth Stanza Bradstreet specifically confronts those that would oppose her vocation as a writer, and it is here that the “Prologue” takes a more direct approach at the gender controversy. She cuts to the quick by addressing the issue of domesticity versus a writing vocation, and in doing so seems to disagree with her opposition. She writes, “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits.” She carefully phrases her disapproval so as not to be too defiant, but seems to simultaneously regard those opinions as entirely other than her own. Furthermore, later in the stanza, Bradstreet alludes once again to the futility of her predicament as a woman (not a poor writer) when she speaks of the credit that would never be bestowed upon her. This seems to be the center of her frustration, and possibly the reason why she does not use the “Prologue” to make a more pronounced argument for woman writers. She recognizes her ability to “prove well” in writing; however, there would be little use in heralding the fact if it was only going to be seen as stolen or by chance.
Nonetheless, in the following stanza Bradstreet does make her most pronounced argument for the value of women in the arts. She does this by appealing to the respect that male writers of the time held for the Greeks. Many writers regarded the Greek’s classical style of writing as an authoritative measure of artistic worth, but paid little or no attention to the value they placed on women. However, Bradstreet identifies this difference and is able to use it as a logical conundrum that supports her new role as a writer. She states that even the Greeks readily accepted the woman’s role in the arts, but takes it a step further by forcing her audience into a false dichotomy. Either her male readers will have to accept the Greek position as well, or they will have to accept that “The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie,” which would also subtly deride the reader who has chosen to exalt the Greeks. It is not the strongest argument, but it is the clearest indication of Bradstreet’s true mind on the matter. The directness with which she pursues the argument for women writers and identifies their equality in Greek culture somehow seems to undermine the apologies she makes elsewhere in the “Prologue.” All the preceding stanzas seem merely to soften her audience for this one allowance of unmistakable support for women in the arts.
However, the purpose of her prologue is not to argue the equality of women. She understands what is within the scope of reason as she suggests in the first stanza, so in the seventh stanza she relents, and reverts back to a more submissive tone before her audience has time to be too offended. But it is in this stanza that she clearly defines the purpose of her prologue saying, “Preeminence in all and each is yours; / Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.” Having used the Greeks to show the full extent to which women could be endowed, she now acquiesces and makes a much simpler request. This rhetorical stratagem does an effective job of making her request look humble, while simultaneously allowing her to speak the truth. The directness of the preceding stanza effectively makes her request in the seventh stanza seem more reasonable, and thus more likely to be received.
In reading Bradstreet’s “Prologue,” one immediately notices its careful construction. Bradstreet was treading on unfamiliar and even hostile territory as a pioneer of women’s literature, and this required her to give special consideration to the land’s inhabitants. It was a difficult task that required a low, even humble, profile, and an abundance of rhetorical wit. Though someone of less skill may have simply submitted in full to such opposition, Bradstreet was able to pacify her audience’s worries and simultaneously advocate women’s abilities in writing. The “Prologue” is thus a testament to both her rhetorical skill as a writer, and her advancement of women’s literature.