Natural philosophy, Materiality, Transformation, Esther/Haddassa, Revolution
When Hester Pulter's Poems Breathed Forth by the Nobel Hadassas was rediscovered in 1996, readers focused on the author's gender and biography, locating the volume within the (putatively domestic) setting of her home, Broadfield Hall in Hertfordshire, and the political circumstances in which the manuscript was written: the English civil war and the semi-exile it imposed on her family. (The manuscript was composed primarily in the 1640s and 50s, and includes poems about the death of the king and notable royalists.) Early readers paid close attention to the manuscript itself as well, noting its multiple hands (scribal, editorial, and belated), its record of a payment to a midwife, and the traces of what seemed to be a child practicing her handwriting (Eardley).1 The essays collected here, however, are less interested in reading Hester Pulter's work biographically, politically, or book-historically than materially. While earlier criticism focused on the "Haddassas" of the manuscript's title, reading Pulter as a kind of Esther empowered to engage publicly only because of special political circumstances, these essays are more interested in the "Breathed forth" of the title.2 They hone in on the poems' keen interest in mortality and mutability both in terms of the "divine breath" that animates all matter ("dust") in Genesis, and the natural philosophies ranging from astronomy and alchemy to ecological husbandry and vitalist materialism that fired Pulter's imagination. Rather than seeing the poems as somehow transparent to their author's biography, or pinning them closely to the telos and losses of her life, the essays focus on the "circles," "revolutions," "eclipses," and "involvement" that characterize their engagement with and revisioning of natural philosophical ideas and debates, and provide models for understanding the poetics of the collection as a whole. Where some have sought to identify her textual sources and intertexts, and others have seen "spiritual optimism" [End Page 192] (Hutton para. 4) in Pulter's work, these essays see philosophical and metaphysical interrogation in full-frontal relationship with what Milton called the "Wild work" of fancy (Paradise Lost, 5.110), or what the ancients called the "fantastic," even as they argue for coherence in her poetics. Pulter refers to fancy throughout her volume—she writes in one poem that "fancies are my soul's sole joy"—and the essays in this collection illuminate how much that fancy was fed by new and controversial ideas in natural philosophy and her own deeply idiosyncratic eye-to-the-ground and beyond-the-stars optic.3
Many of the essays illustrate the ways in which Pulter's poems engaged with those of her contemporaries—Sarah C. E. Ross is particularly good on the relationship between Pulter's complaints and those of George Herbert—but they also make it clear that she was neither emulating the "metaphysicals," nor, in Elizabeth Scott-Baumann's particularly thoughtful essay, failing to write the sonnets that many critics still see as the sine qua non of seventeenth-century literature. "My thoughts being free I bid them take their flight," Pulter writes in one poem, "Round the circumference of the illustrious sun," and she invites her readers to take their own elliptical and provisional trips alongside her.4 As Lara Dodds and Victoria Burke point out in their essays, Pulter's heliocentrism does not result in an orthodox, centralized, or hierarchized sense of the world. She is as interested in possible worlds ("We give a being to another world") and other suns as she is in the "lugger[ing]" ants in her backyard (which she rather winningly throws herself down on the grass to watch), and her marvelously bracing sense of her own eventual dissolution to atoms ("For I no liberty expect to see / Until to atoms I dispersed be").5 As Scott-Baumann quite beautifully shows, Pulter even spurns the urns of other poets' more self-aggrandizing fantasies of monumentalization to configure poems as mini-laboratories, vessels less of containment than radical dissolution and transformation.
The Pulter in this collection certainly draws attention to the "country grange" in which she lives—I personally am struck by one poem's reference...