‘Bitter Sister, Victim!’—Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

  • John Haffenden


John Berryman was very fond of declaring that it took him exactly five years to write Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,1 from 22 March 1948 until 22 March 1953. One of the earliest of his journal references to the poem occurs on 4 April 1948, the next not until 1 August 1949, when he ‘drafted half a dozen stanzas for “Bradstreet poem”.’ He determined at that time to ‘fool’ the poem into ‘being and beauty’, but he was not to do so until 1952. Elisabeth Bettman remembers his torment from the time when he first got down to the work in earnest early in 1952:

He talked of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in terms of his doubts as to being able to complete the work; he worried about a poem of that length, could he sustain its tone of intensity? Would it be of the quality he hoped it would be? He felt the strain of overwork very keenly … He discussed his creative difficulties at length and in detail … feeling that he couldn’t sustain the burden of trying to be scholar, teacher, poet.2

Anne Bradstreet was a real presence in his life. It was almost as if he was ‘in love’ with this dead woman. Whatever, she haunted his nights and days, and sometimes he could talk of nothing else. He worked in spurts. Sometimes he could go for hours on end, into the night without any sleep. At other times he would have a dry run that lasted for days. He was in torment at those times.3


Critical Commentary Local Distraction Fictitious Drama Reactor Pile Green Office 
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  1. 4.
    See Ralph Wilson Rader, Tennyson’s Maud: The Biographical Genesis ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963 ).Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    J. M. Linebarger, John Berryman ( New York: Twayne, 1974 ), p. 72.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Alan Holder, ‘Anne Bradstreet Resurrected’, Concerning Poetry vol. II (Spring 1969), p. 11.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Gabriel Pearson, ‘John Berryman—Poet as Medium’, The Review vol. XV (April 1965), p. 10.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    See John Berryman, ‘One Answer to a Question: Changes’, The Freedom of the Poet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976 ), pp. 328–9.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Gary Q. Arpin, ‘Mistress Bradstreet’s Discontents’, John Berryman Studies, vol. I, no. 3 (July 1975), p. 2.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    From an interview with Berryman: Peter A. Stitt, ‘The Art of Poetry XVI’, Paris Review, no. 53 (Winter 1972), p. 196.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    John Berryman, ‘Introduction’, in Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk ( New York: Grove Press, 1952 ), p. 13.Google Scholar
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    G. R. Levy, The Gate of Horn (London: Faber & Faber, 1948), p. 306. (The internal quotation is from Empedocles, ap. Ammon, in Arist., De. Interp. p. 199.)Google Scholar
  10. 24.
    Helen Campbell, Anne Bradstreet and Her Times ( Boston: D. Lothrop Co., 1891 ).Google Scholar
  11. 37.
    Carol Johnson, ‘John Berryman and Mistress Bradstreet: A Relation of Reason’, Essays in Criticism, vol. XIV (October 1964), p. 390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 44.
    Ian Hamilton, ‘John Berryman’, London Magazine, vol. IV n.s. ( February 1965 ), p. 98.Google Scholar
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    Richard Kostelanetz, ‘Conversation with Berryman’, Massachusetts Review, vol. XI (Spring 1970), p. 345.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Haffenden 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Haffenden

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