The Role of Women Expressed Through the Poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson

Throughout history, women have been looked upon with a certain perception of the role that they should have in society and at home, they have struggled to have rights and were often treated like second class citizens. Emily Dickinson and Anne Bradstreet were two women who knew just this; they wrote captivating poetry that expressed how they felt about the role women played in society, and in life, while also being as Ralph Waldo Emerson would say “transparent eyeballs” in their work as poets.

Many of the poems Anne Bradstreet wrote reflect the struggle women had in society; one of the best ones in particular is “The Prologue”. In this poem she feels that women have been perceived to have no means to create beautiful literature and if they did it was mere luck or copied from a man’s work. She knows she won’t be as good as the men but she wants to prove herself. In the first stanza the narrators says:

To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings,

Of cities founded, commonwealths 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.

(Ln. 1-6)

In this stanza, she is clearly stating that she’s not worthy to write, she is saying that her poetry is not good enough to talk about war or kings, she can only write poetry at her meager level, and because she is a woman her work would not be appreciated.

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stanza 8, when she describes male poetry, she starts having a change in tone For example:

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;

In this mean and unrefined ore of mine

Will make your glist’ring gold but more to shine. (Ln. 43-48)

In this stanza I believe the narrator changes to a more sarcastic tone, especially in line 43 where she states “And oh ye high flown quills that soar the skies”(43). She is suggesting throughout this stanza that men are writing for many vanity reasons such as flattery.

Another poem by Anne Bradstreet that expresses just how difficult life was for women in history is the poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband”. In the first line, where the narrator says, “if ever two were one, then surely we” (1). This line is suggesting that the Husband and Wife are equal partners, which in those times a wife was not seen as an equal to her husband. She is saying that she equal because her husband lets her write poetry and in those times most women were not permitted to write, since her husband allows her to write she feels equal because he doesn’t treat her like a piece of property.

Another poem that also expresses the hardships women have gone through in history is poem 251 by Emily Dickinson. In the first stanza the narrators says:

Over the fence –


Over the fence-

I could climb- if I tried, I know –

Berries are nice! (Ln.1-5)

In the first line it is again dealing with gender stereotypes of the 19th century; the fence is a border separating the narrator from the tree and because she is a woman, she cannot jump over the fence like a boy would. The berries I believe symbolize sin as if almost relating to the bible when Adam and Eve could not eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of life. In the next stanza the narrator says:

But- if I stained my Apron-

God would certainly scold!

Oh, dear, I guess if He were a Boy-

He’d-climb-if He could! (Ln.6-9)

In line six the narrator is saying “But if – I stained my Apron -“, she is basically saying that the berries can lead to a stained apron in a way symbolizing the hymen being broken with stained blood. In the last three lines the narrator is basically challenging God saying, if he was a boy he’d probably climb if he could. I believe that this poem is saying as a whole that if God were a human boy he’d climb the fence, but since God is not a human boy, he cannot climb that fence of sin, because he is above that.

Boys can climb that fence of sin and are even encouraged, but girls cannot and are scolded, therefore girls are closer to God. By this I believe she means that males are often encouraged to have many sexual encounters even before marriage and yet women may not and must remain pure until marriage, if they were to act in the same manner that males would they would be scolded and looked down upon.

Both Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson not only wrote amazing poetry but were also “transparent eyeballs” in their writings. In one of Emerson’s most prominent essays called “Nature” he emphasizes how one becomes a transparent eyeball, he says “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” (657)

In this quote he is saying that being a transparent eyeball is seeing everything as a part of everything instead of as him looking out, he places an emphasis on being one with nature and so as a transparent eyeball, he sees everything and exists as everything else exists around him. Bradstreet is a transparent eyeball in her poem “The Prologue” because she is describing the struggle that women go through not being able to write and how lucky she is as a woman that her husband lets her write when many women aren’t permitted too. In the fourth stanza the narrator says “Nor can I like that fluent sweet tongued Greek,/ Who lisped at first, in future times speak plain./ By art he gladly found what he did seek,/ A full requital of his striving pain.”(Ln. 5-8 )

In these lines Bradstreet is a transparent eyeball because the narrator is being used as an instrument of sight to show an example of the bigger picture that is being reflected on which is the struggle of women in everyday life and society, meaning that the narrator in question has become so self effacing that she exists only as an instrument of sight. Although she sees all, she does not intrude her opinion upon the view; she merely faithfully reflects back the view as she sees it.

A great example depicting Emily Dickinson as a transparent eyeball is in the poem 324; because she is expressing what she sees in everyday life and translating that into her poetry without intruding her biased opinion. An example of this is in her poem where she says “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church-/ I keep it, staying at Home-/ With a Bobolink for a Chorister-/ And an Orchard, for a Dome-“, (Ln. 1-4) in these lines she is saying that church is not a place you have to go to, to worship, church can be inside of you.

In the last two lines she says “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last-/ I’m going, all along.”(Ln. 11-12) here she is saying that she’s enjoying her life and might already be experiencing heaven on earth, and God is all around her already. Much like Emerson she is saying throughout the poem that you can find evidence of God in everyday life, just as Emerson found a connection to God in nature and in everyday life.

In conclusion, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson expressed greatly just how difficult and restraining the role of women was in the 19th century, they understood that life for a woman had certain expectations and regulations and they bravely expressed that in their poetry during a time when it was not appropriate for women to do so. Their poetry was alluring because it described the hardships that played out in the role of being a woman in society, and in life, while also being transparent eyeballs and translating their connections through their poetry.

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The Role of Women Expressed Through the Poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. (2023, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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