From heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, to bouquets of roses and pre-written Hallmark cards, Valentine’s Day today is saturated in commercialism and decadence. It will probably come as no surprise that New England’s seventeenth-century Puritans did not celebrate Valentine’s Day. In fact, under the influence of our modern interpretation of the Puritans, imagining how they might have celebrated Valentine’s Day can be comical. Search “Puritan Valentine Cards” and you’ll get images like these ones, posted by College Humor in 2013:
While it’s easy to laugh at the Puritans for their tight-laced lifestyles and incessant sanctitude, it is also important to note that, generally, the above sentiments simply aren't all that historically accurate. In fact, our modern perception of Puritans as sexless, emotionless, infinitely pious beings was a Victorian invention. Perhaps it stems from Victorian morality and a kinship they saw with the Puritans as a result of that sort of social behavior, but nonetheless, that depiction endured, and has seeped into our modern views.
Looking back, before the Victorians filtered the Puritans through their eyes, you will realize that the Puritans were real people, with real emotions and desires. Anne Bradstreet’s poetry paints a different picture of romance and desire than the one typically imagined—one that challenges our modern perception of New England in the seventeenth-century.
“To My Dear and Loving Husband”
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.
In 1628, at the age of sixteen, Anne Dudley married twenty-five year old Simon Bradstreet. Shortly thereafter, in 1630, the Bradstreets set off on a three month journey aboard The Arbella to settle in the New World. The journey was rough, and did not exactly fall into our twenty first-century ideas of a happy honeymoon for the young couple. When they finally started their lives in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne and Simon were frequently separated due to Simon’s influence and governmental positions. This was hard on Anne, who displayed sentiments of deep pining for Simon to return home in her poem “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment.”
O strange effect! now thou art Southward gone,
I weary grow, the tedious day so long;
But when thou Northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest.
Where ever, ever stay, and go not thence,
Till natures sad decree shall call thee hence;
Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,
I here, thou there, yet both but one.
Anne Bradstreet lived in a vastly different world from our own, but poems like this remind modern readers of Anne’s humanity, and remove that disconnect initially felt due to her Puritan beliefs. The emotions Anne puts down on the page are ones of someone who is deeply in love. She refers to herself and Simon as “one,” and remarks that the days seem to drag on forever when she is away from him. In both “A Letter to her Husband,” and “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” Anne maintains a strong theme of unity, and a deep sense of wholeness between herself and Simon.
Although the Puritans had different ideals about life than the majority of us do today, Anne Bradstreet helps us find the connections over time that may not be immediately apparent. Today, love is widely considered essential for marriage. The Puritans felt similarly, however, the order of operations was reversed—marrying for love is a newer concept. The Puritans saw love as essential to a marital union, but it was not the reason for it. Marriage was meant for security, community, and procreation—love is what came after. In Anne and Simon’s case, the love they felt was clearly strong and passionate.
Despite the love and devotion Puritans often felt for their spouses, it was common practice for Puritans to remarry quickly after their spouse died. Anne Bradstreet died in 1672, and Simon remarried a woman named Ann Gardner in 1676. The four years that Simon waited to remarry after Anne’s passing was much longer than typical in his time. It is difficult to decipher Simon’s thoughts, his journals are rather morbid, relating who in the towns had died and when rather than discussing personal matters. As far as I have looked, I have not been able to find a single reference to Anne in his writing after her death. People handle grief in different ways, in Simon’s case, perhaps speaking about Anne was too painful. In any case, Anne’s deep words of affection for her husband live on in her writing.
Anne and Simon had eight children together. Although Simon was away for long periods of time during their marriage, in the loving manner Anne writes about him, it is clear that the two had a happy union. Anne and Simon’s romance was a very seventeenth-century one, but was it all that different from romantic popular media today? Instead of buying your significant other a pre-written card for Valentine’s day this year, read them some Anne Bradstreet poetry, trust me, they’ll like it better.
Hensley, Jeannine, et al. The Works of Anne Bradstreet. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
Love and Marriage Among the Puritans. 17 Aug. 2015.
Robinson, Christy K. A Puritan Valentine.
Rogers, Alexander Zane. “Puritan Valentine's Day Cards.” CollegeHumor, CollegeHumor, 12 Feb. 2013.
Woodlief, Ann. Biography of Anne Bradstreet.