In ‘The Prologue’ the poet investigates her own writing ability, her role as a female poet, and the topics she feels she’s capable of writing on or not. The language is fairly straight forward with a few allusions that provide the reader with more details about how the poet views herself.
Table of Contents
Summary of The Prologue
The poet takes the reader should several different reasons and ways that her poetry, as a woman, is inferior to male writing. She believes, as women were taught to in her time, that she has a weaker brain. This keeps her from attempting to write on historical topics or anything of worldly importance. There are a few arguments within the poem for a woman’s ability to write but she always comes back around the placating the men who might be upset by her choice to writ rather than sew.
Structure of The Prologue
‘The Prologue’ by Anne Bradstreet is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. In amongst several other literary devices, Bradstreet makes use of iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed.
Literary Devices in The Prologue
Bradstreet makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Prologue’. These include but are not limited to, caesura, allusion, and alliteration. The first of these, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. Fr example, like four of the first stanza which reads: “Or how they all, or each their dates have run”.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. There are several examples throughout this poem, for instance, the reference in the second stanza to “Bartas”. This refers to the French Protestant poet Guillaume du Bartas whose poetry Bradstreet admired.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Captains” and “Common-wealths” as well as “broken, blemished” in line four of stanza four.
Analysis of The Prologue
To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings,
Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun,
For my mean Pen are too superior things;
Or how they all, or each their dates have run,
Let Poets and Historians set these forth.
My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth.
In the first stanza of this ‘The Prologue,’ the poet makes use of several capital letters. Like other poets, such as Emily Dickinson, Bradstreet used capitalization in order to draw greater attention to words that she found to be the most important in a line or phrase. Most of these words are nouns, such as the case in the first stanza. The first words that she capitalizes are “Wars,” “Captains,“ and “Kings“.
She is describing how as a writer she is not going to try to attempt to write about these three important things. She adds onto this by saying that she will also stay away from the beginnings of civilizations and cities. These are wide-ranging topics which at a time, were some of the most popular to write about. She says that from her pen specifically, these things are “to superior“.
As a woman, she believes that she should leave these “superior things to men. “Let poets and historian set these forth“. She believes that as a woman she is lacking something that allows men to write successfully about these historical topics. She does not go into detail about what these things are exactly.
But when my wond’ring eyes and envious heart
Great Bartas’ sugar’d lines do but read o’er,
Fool, I do grudge the Muses did not part
‘Twixt him and me that over-fluent store.
A Bartas can do what a Bartas will
But simple I according to my skill.
In the second stanza of ‘The Prologue’, she expresses her disappointment in the fact that she was not given the same skills as other people were to write successfully about large important topics. She would like to have the ability to do justice to these periods of history that she’s interested in. She believes that the “Muses” did not give her what she needs to write successfully. The word “Muses” refers to Greek mythology and the belief that there were goddesses of the arts and sciences who bestowed abilities onto the lucky few. One person that she compares herself against is Guillaume du Bartas a French Protestant poet.
By alluding to this specific writer, the poet reveals to the reader that this is the kind of writer that she would like to be. She admires the kind of works that he completed. In the fifth and sixth lines of this stanza, the speaker says that she’s going to do what she will “according to” her “skill”.
From School-boy’s tongue no Rhet’ric we expect,
Nor yet a sweet Consort from broken strings,
Nor perfect beauty where’s a main defect.
My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings,
And this to mend, alas, no Art is able,
‘Cause Nature made it so irreparable.
In the third stanza of ‘The Prologue’ the speaker outlines how the poet is going to be contented with her own, as she believes, meager skills. Just as we don’t expect a young boy to write impressive words so too does society not expect a woman like Anne Bradstreet to write as a male poet would. here is a “main defect“ in the poet’s nature. She is a woman. This means that she is always going to have the lowest of expectations set for her. Whatever the muses gave her, it was not very much.
Nor can I, like that fluent sweet-tongued Greek
Who lisp’d at first, in future times speak plain.
By Art he gladly found what he did seek,
A full requital of his striving pain.
Art can do much, but this maxim’s most sure:
A weak or wounded brain admits no cure.
In the fourth stanza of the poem, there is an allusion to Demosthenes, a Greek. He was orator famous for having overcome a speech impediment. He “lisp’d” (an example of syncope) at first but then learned to “speak plain”. In the same way that he worked to overcome his speech impediment, Bradstreet worked to become a poet in a male-dominated world. She may see herself as less in some ways but she has made an accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked. The poet pushed through the “pain” just as much as he did.
She admits in the last lines of this stanza that she’s not entirely sure that the power of “Art can do much” for her. The poet returns to the idea that she is lacking in some way that this man, and other men, are not. She uses the words “weak” and “wounded” in the last line of this stanza when speaking about her own brain. This is a trouble depiction of the poet’s mind, but one that a reader should consider in full. This is how most men, and many women of her time saw themselves.
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,
For such despite they cast on female wits.
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.
She adds in the fifth stanza of ‘The Prologue’ that she is “obnoxious” to some. There are many, as mentioned above, who don’t believe that a woman should write. They think her hand would “better fit” a sewing needle. The men who speak about her this way believe she is going to mess up poetry in some way. This isn’t something that’s specifically targeted at Bradstreet but at all women who try to step out of their predetermined roles.
If she’s successful, she knows that they’ll never admit that they were wrong. Her writing could be as good as a man’s but she’s never going to get the credit that she deserves. They will say that she was successful by “chance”.
But sure the antique Greeks were far more mild,
Else of our Sex, why feigned they those nine
And poesy made Calliope’s own child?
So ‘mongst the rest they placed the Arts divine,
But this weak knot they will full soon untie.
The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie.
The poet brings back in Greek mythology in the sixth stanza with a reference to the “nine” muses. She believes that the Greeks were better than today’s men in this very obvious way. They knew that women had something to give to the arts and sciences and therefore made them the muses and not men. A reader should make sure to take note of the use of enjambment in this stanza and in other stanzas that flow throughout the poem. There is a good example between the second line and the third in stanza six.
The poet believes, despite what feels like a good argument that the stronger “male” brains will “untie” it. They will soon find a way around her idea about the muses. They’ll say something like the Greeks were “fools” and liars.
Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are.
Men have precedency and still excel;
It is but vain unjustly to wage war.
Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.
Just as in the second stanza when she mentioned Bartas, Bradstreet now says that Greeks should be Greeks and women should be women. There is no way to change one’s nature. Men are going to have “precedency” and outperform their female counterparts, that’s just the way the world is, she says. She doesn’t believe a war fought to change this fact would result in anything.
Speaking directly to the men, likely those who critique her, she tells them that they are smarter. They’re always going be in charge. but, she’d like some “small acknowledgment of ours,” of women’s successes.
And oh ye high flown quills that soar the skies,
And ever with your prey still catch your praise,
If e’er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,
Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bays.
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glist’ring gold but more to shine.
There is a good example of anaphora in the first two lines of this stanza with the word “And”. This word starts both lines as the poet brings the poem to a conclusion. She uses a metaphor to call the men “high flown quills” in the first line. The poet is showing off some of her skills using techniques like internal rhyme to finish the poem off strongly.
A reader should have realized by this point that this poem goes against everything the poet is actually saying within it. With these eight stanzas, she is proving the opposite of her conciliatory agreement with men. She can write, as well or better than any man of her time or any time.
She asks that if the high flying men ever take the time to read her verse that they treat it accordingly. The poet isn’t looking for anything grand, just a simple acknowledgment is all. In the final two lines, she suggests that her poetry is “ore” next to the “gold” of male poetry. This is meant to pacify the men who might’ve been upset by her desire to write at all. But it also ends the poem with a clever bang, once again showing off her skill.