Category Archives: Uncategorized

Book Launch: June 23rd, 2014

Hester Pulter Conference

Rebekah King, Animals in the Poems of Hester Pulter

Dickens_dreamIn the well-known painting Dickens’ Dream by Robert William Buss, the artist depicts the author in his study, deep in thought, and surrounded by the illustrated fumes of his own imagination, brimming with that panoply of characters for which he is so famed. Were we to repeat the somewhat sentimental exercise for our seventeenth century poet Hester Pulter, we might wonder what the vapours of her portrait would reveal. Images of those she knew or knew of in her own era would undoubtedly abound: her family, her friends, her politicians, her king. Various pagan gods would join the pageant, from classical deities like Aurora to the spirits of her local streams. Yet alongside these human or seeming-human figures, a great quantity of animals would surely find their way amongst the haze for, as it is impossible to picture Dickens without his fair young heroines and grimy orphan boys, so it would be quite remiss to illustrate Pulter’s mind without her vast poetic zoo.

From lamb to eagle, lion to unicorn, hare to hydra, the works of Pulter throng with animal life. There are industrious insects like the ants who lug their “flatuous issue” up and down, wild birds like the halcyon who “calms the ruffling seas” and monsters like the whale who “plays in sports and makes mad reax in Neptune’s azure courts.” We are told of ravenous ravens, stately harts, humble tortoises –and even the likes of the basilisk, the phoenix and the chimera make an appearance.

Animals are, of course, present in the work of many of Pulter’s contemporaries but for her they take an unusually central role, particularly in the poems she calls her “emblems”. Popular seventeenth century emblem books, like that of Francis Quarles, are filled, not with animals, but with images relating to man: globes, crowns, haloes, hearts, hands, human beings and personified concepts like Love or Death. In a digression from the norm, Pulter uses animals in the majority of her emblem poems, marrying Aesop-like fables to a genre whose focus was always the spiritual dimensions of the human experience.

If we unpack the function of Pulter’s animals further we find that two distinct types (or, perhaps, breeds) of creature emerge.

The first breed is the ‘bad’ animal. In a world where Genesis decreed that man was created superior to the beasts, many early modern moralists used animals as a standard of sub-morality to which the upstanding Christian should be careful not to drop. Animals represent vices: the wrathful lion, the cunning fox, the greedy crane—in fact, one imaginative Elizabethan text depicts the various states of drunkenness in the form of different beasts.

In keeping with this convention, Pulter’s emblems occasionally utilize bad animals to criticise particular behaviour. We meet the dubiously maternal ape who shows her care for her children by “huggling that she loves until it die, the other [wrawling] at her back hangs by” and who thus becomes a warning to human parents that favouritism is not only a vice but an apeish vice and one which they should scorn to imitate. Similarly, vanity is embodied by the tiger whose “self-loved beauty makes her in a maze”, and who is subsequently caught by the hunters. Though an unflattering comparison to those accused of similar vices, this ‘bad’ breed of animal is essentially unthreatening; these creatures merely remind us that man is morally superior to the beasts and that he should, at all costs, avoid a close resemblance to these his natural inferiors.

More abundant and more challenging in Pulter’s work is that other breed of animal, the ‘good’ animal. It is surely a far more dangerous suggestion (and a digression from much early modern discourse) to imply that beastly nature might at times excel that of human beings, yet this is precisely the statement which many of her poems make. In emblem 24, for example, the conjugal bliss of the marmottanes (a large rat-like rodent) is held in scathing contrast to the unhappy love of human couples. Pulter says of human men that “most to taverns or to worse will roam, or else they’ll always tyrannize at home” adding “if such do read these lines to them I say; the rat of Pontus’ lovinger than they”.

Stern criticism indeed. And all the more stern for its implication that man, through his failings, has lost the right to call himself the moral superior even of a lowly rodent. This troubling use of ‘good’ animals to highlight human error also assumes a political purpose in Pulter’s work as, writing with Royalist sentiment during the years of civil war, she praises the natural loyalty of animals whilst men themselves have spurned their rightful king. The elephant in emblem 19, for example, humbly bows its knee to its proper sovereign, the sun, whilst a lack of such steadfastness in man “did make us bleed in our brave king. For had you valiant been, so sad a change as this we ne’er had seen.” Man has not sunk to the level of the beast, rather, the ‘good’ animals have come to surpass him in virtue, transgressively reordering God’s intended hierarchy of living things.

It is a startling feature of her work then, that Pulter not only brings animals to centre-stage in poems explicitly concerned with human nature, but that she makes challenging use of them to draw unflattering comparisons between beasts and man and constantly asks the reader to reassess their moral position in relation to the animal world. There is a huge amount of research yet to be done on this unique seventeenth century poet, but of all the aspects of Hester Pulter’s work, the menagerie of her imagination is clearly crucial to the critical and symbolic function of her poems. When drawing that fond, Dickensian image of Pulter at her desk, we would do well to remember that it is not just the human silhouette that may be found strolling through the vapours of her mind.

Elizabeth Clarke, ‘There is a great deal of research to be done on Hester Pulter’

Imagine my excitement when a friend told me in 1996 about the discovery of a miscatalogued manuscript by a woman in the Brotherton Library at Leeds –one that had never been read! And one accompanied by a rather dodgy family tree –at least we knew who wrote it, although Hester Pulter’s pen name was Hadassah, a biblical name for Esther, taken we think from Francis Quarles’ 1621 Hadassa: or The history of Queene Ester. She had certainly read Quarles as so many seventeenth-century women did — in fact it soon became obvious that Hester Pulter was very well read indeed, imitating many contemporary poets such as George Herbert, and prose writers such as John Ogilby. It was obvious from her poems and biography that she had been brought up in the literary environment of the early Stuart court and although we have not found any evidence that she wrote in a coterie she was clearly immersed in courtly
literary culture. From the first time I saw the handsome folio manuscript it became clear that here was the kind of woman writer that we had hoped to find in the Perdita Project—a serious writer who wrote in many genres and in many moods—and who actually had a sense of humour!

Up until now there are very few poems in print by Hester Pulter—there are a couple in Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson’s Oxford Early Modern Women Poets; An Anthology (2001) and eight in the Perdita Project’s anthology of early modern women’s manuscript verse (2005). Nevertheless much to my delight undergraduate students are already being taught her poems—in Warwick (of course), in Florida and Canada, in New Zealand. My students like her work because it is so personal—unlike the masterly rhetoric of male poets in the seventeenth century, Hester Pulter’s poems about the deaths of thirteen of her children, or the loss of Charles I, or simply about looking in the mirror when she is 47 years old, have the ring of bitter experience. The interesting thing about Pulter, though, is that she does not only write from personal experience. She was clearly an expert in alchemy, as Jayne Archer has shown. She writes many poems about astronomy and in her poem ‘This Was Written 1648 When I Lay In With My Son John, Being My 15th Child, I Being So Weak That In Ten Days And Nights I Never Moved My Head One Jot From My Pillow, Out Of Which Great Weakness My Gracious God Restored Me That I Still Live To Magnify His Mercy, 1655’ is not only about lying-in but on what she does to distract herself from childbirth—she observes the heavens. The poem seems committed to a knowledgable view of Copernican astrophysics, something that Milton, a close contemporary, does not seem sure about in 1667. Her poems include a wealth of specialised vocabulary and knowledge as Sarah Ross has shown. Sarah was the first person, at Oxford, to include a chapter on Pulter in her doctoral thesis and it was with her that I first explored the Hertfordshire Hester Pulter had known. On the map there was the name of her mansion, Broadfield Hall, and as we approached it, near the village of Cottered, expectations were high. Sadly although the stables by Hawksmoor are still there and still impressive the house as Hester knew it was knocked down and rebuilt less than a century ago. At least I managed to find a seventeenth-century print in a local antique shop that is Broadfield Hall dating from the 1680s—not long after Hester Pulter’s death in 1678.

There is a great deal of research to be done on Hester Pulter, which will be made possible by this lovely new edition. I hope to see articles on her political involvement, her scientific knowledge and not least on her sense of humour which in the verse epistle to Davenant is sharp, well-informed and surprisingly crude. I hope someone will explore her personal voice, which is strong and individualistic, and which contrasts with the seventeenth-century poetry that we know. Most of all I hope readers will be struck by the unashamed femininity of her voice, recording events, thoughts and feelings as they happened. In a way I think Hester Pulter is the female poet many of us have been waiting for. She insists that her poetry is private, and we currently know of no mentions of her poetry, yet she describes herself as ‘enfranchised’ by her verse. She writes on many of the same topics as her younger contemporary Katherine Philips, but in a very different way. The manuscript also includes a fascinating unfinished romance which I hope will be studied during the new interest in early modern romances. There are many subjects for research that this edition will make possible and I hope there will be a real flowering of research on Hester Pulter.

University of Warwick


Welcome to the blog for the ‘Lady Hester Pulter: Digital Companion’. Pulter-related news will be appearing here together with general posts relating to Pulter’s poetry and prose. If you would like to submit a blog post, please get in touch.