- Poet in the Making:How Hester Pulter Read the Digital Age
Hester Pulter, Pulter Project, Poetics, Seventeenth century, Early modern England, Editing, Digital humanities, Women's Writing, Materialism/Materiality, History of Science
"Revolution," writes seventeenth-century poet Hester Pulter, "Is the preserving of the universe / From dissolution."1 Pulter's words seem prescient since her poems, hidden away and unread for over 250 years, were brought to light only in 1996, when the University of Leeds Library undertook a digital cataloguing project of its manuscripts: a revolutionary transformation of their material form. Since that time, Pulter has been gradually gaining international attention at scholarly conferences, in publications, and in classrooms, a process greatly facilitated by Alice Eardley's 2014 print edition of her works. Composed in the tumultuous middle decades of the seventeenth century, these poems reveal that a woman who described herself as homebound on a rural estate in Hertfordshire was also a prolific writer passionately involved in the latest trends in science, politics, religion, and literature. The intensity and scope of Pulter's poems—which imagine the elemental dissolution of the universe as readily as they portray personal anguish, space travel, verbal creativity, and intellectual curiosity—have captured the attention of readers; her works are now the subject of dozens of scholarly articles, theses, book chapters, and editions, ranging from selections in early twenty-first century printed anthologies to our open-access digital collaboration showcasing variant editions of her poetry (The Pulter Project: Poet in the Making) and this special issue of the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies.2 Pulter—who complained, "Why must I forever be confined / Against the noble freedom of my mind?"—might be reassured by the eventual end of her confinement: through the media revolution of our times, her works are not only preserved [End Page 1] but continue to amplify and evolve, moving among radically new sites, audiences, and interpretive frameworks ("Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined" [Poem 57], lines 1–2).
The vibrant and expanding body of work on Pulter offers us an opportunity to reflect on how her poetry can refine and (as she might say) "revolve" understandings of seventeenth-century physics, ecology, philosophy, theology, mourning, astronomy, gender, political protest, poetics, and natural history. In recent decades, scholars have recognized that accounts of the early modern period have traditionally been made on the basis of a limited range of printed sources. Widening the archive to include manuscripts and previously undervalued genres (especially by women and non-elite men) crucially enables a more inclusive rethinking of our narratives about seventeenth-century history, intellectual life, and literary production.
Although Pulter never published her works, and they appear to have had extremely limited circulation in her lifetime, she carefully collected the poems she had written over decades, and had a scribe copy them into a bound manuscript volume, which she then appears to have meticulously corrected and edited. One of the volume's titles declares her authorial avatar: Poems Breathed Forth By The Nobel Haddassas (a name for the biblical heroine Queen Esther), identified elsewhere in the manuscript as "Lady Hesther Pulter." The sixth daughter of James Ley, a judge who later became the first Earl of Marlborough, the author was born in 1605 and, at the age of fifteen, married Arthur Pulter, a Cambridge-educated man who served as a county sheriff until he withdrew from political life during the Civil War.3 Over a quarter century, she gave birth to fifteen children (requiring eleven years of pregnancy), all but two of whom died before her. Pulter's sister Margaret had connections to Milton, though there is no evidence of communication between Pulter and Milton. Little else is known about her except for what we glean from intrinsic textual evidence: that she was often ill and felt isolated in her country estate; was a staunch Royalist before, during, and after the Civil War; and read prolifically in authors ancient and modern. Nothing specific is known of Pulter's education, though some of her reading material as well as the intellectual matters alive in her social circle may be cautiously deduced from aspects of...