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“Mee thinks I play at football withe the stars”:
Lady Hester Pulter’s Unpublished Devotion

Adviser: Nigel Smith

Rachel E. Dunn

English

“But I soon learned that writing a thesis is like wading one’s way across a river: The path is constantly changing, so you must and can learn things as you go.”

dunn-rachel-elizabeth

Everything worthwhile has already been written. That’s right. An English department thesis is utterly superfluous, one more unread addendum to the already-overloaded body of literary criticism (just peruse the endless shelves of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen commentaries on the B level of Firestone Library for verification). But what can one expect? After all, an English thesis is nothing but lots and lots of reading—with nothing new to show for it. 

This is what I initially thought when I became an English major; I considered the inevitably redundant thesis requisite payment for the guilty pleasure of reading novels. Yet while an English thesis may be more difficult to concretize than psychological experiments or political policy recommendations, it is not the dead product of studying dead people’s writings—far from it! No, for me it was an opportunity to explore untrodden territory both hundreds of years old and yet integrally related to our own contemporary issues. I signed into the English department with only the vague desire to juxtapose literary analysis and British history; I left it a “Pultergeist,” a primary excavator of the remarkable vision and poetry of Lady Hester Pulter. 

I became one of the small, but growing network of “Pultergeists” through my adviser, Professor Nigel Smith. We met for the first time when I began work on my second junior paper (JP)—for which, I informed him, I wanted to study either Sherlock Holmes or Shakespeare. Clearly, neither of these topics proved promising. Instead, I have a recollection of Professor Smith pulling a gleaming copy of Hadassas Chast Fancies from behind his desk, its poems copied in a beautiful scribal hand. The accompanying heavenly chorus and beam of light compounded my conviction: I had found my topic. 

Okay, perhaps the experience was not quite as dramatic as that. But given the manuscript’s discovery in 1996 after hundreds of years collecting dust at the University of Leeds, Pulter’s poetry held incredible scholarly potential, potential that was further augmented by subsequent knowledge of the author and her background. Lady Hester Pulter (1605–1678) had 15 children; all but two of them predeceased her. Such cold biographical facts form an unmistakable undercurrent that give Pulter’s poetry a ringing sincerity. Pulter’s laments of being “alive thus buried” are perfectly understandable when one considers that 17th-century pregnancies required a month-long period of solitary confinement—two weeks of it spent in a close, darkened bedroom. Similarly, an elegy has striking poignancy when written by a woman grieving for the premature death of her 20-year-old daughter. 

Yet Hadassas Chast Fancies are more than the musings of a grieving country housewife. Before marrying and moving to her husband’s estate in Hertfordshire, Pulter was none other than the daughter of Sir James Ley, first Earl of Marlborough and Lord High Treasurer of King James I. Her personal connections reached into the heights of English society; John Milton himself even addressed a sonnet to her sister on Ley’s virtues. This political awareness, fomented by her ardent royalism in the midst of the English Civil War, is another potent presence in her poetry.

Yet is this not at odds with the distinctly personal, apolitical verse responding to her life and family? Are Pulter’s desires for the earthly restoration of the Stuart monarchy not opposed to the dreams of heavenly, Christian bliss where she will see her children again? Pulter’s poems are a jumble of what we would consider to be the individual and communal, the public and the private, the sacred and the secular—dichotomies that, incidentally, we are still dealing with today in the age of Internet privacy laws and controversial Islamic centers. How does one reconcile such dissonance apparent in Pulter’s poetry if we have not even figured it out hundreds of years later? Who is the self-styled “Hadassah” who emerges from this web of contradictions in Hadassas Chast Fancies? Was she the same person as the woman who lived at Broadfield estate, or was she a created, literary persona?

These were the major questions behind my thesis, and because of Pulter’s relative obscurity, I got to be among the first to posit an answer. Funded by various Princeton sources, I was able to travel to the United Kingdom to read the manuscript in situ. The few documents chronicling Pulter’s life in places like the Bodleian and British libraries were completely open to me, allowing me the freedom to form my own interpretations. 

But working on an unpublished manuscript is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the limited amount of secondary material provides an inimitable scholarly opportunity. Professor Smith, offering constant encouragement and support throughout the process, generously pored over page after page of drafts filled with requisitely original criticism when I started writing. It is an absolutely thrilling experience to be, perhaps, the first person to ever write on a particular poem.

But this also heightened the pressure to be absolutely sure of my own interpretations. Did a given couplet imply that the speaker herself was enclosed within crystal, or were beams of light enclosed within a crystal mirror she was holding? Did Pulter mean an image of a wounded stag to be read in a political context, or had she envisioned a Christian one, or even just a literary one? Mundane as they appear, such minutiae were important enough to send me into frenzied spirals when I thought I had misinterpreted a passage. And there were no critical commentaries to guide me! 

But I soon learned that writing a thesis is like wading one’s way across a river: The path is constantly changing, so you must and can learn things as you go. I had the benefit of working on Pulter’s manuscript for over a year because of my JP. But that does not mean I had any foresight in how the finished product would look when I sketched my first outline in the fall of my senior year. It was an altogether fluid process, involving both painful excises and exhilarating moments of inspiration. This very mutability, though, is part of what makes writing a thesis so powerful. As I continued to wrestle with the material and Professor Smith pressed me to challenge my own interpretations, I learned to read and communicate at higher and higher levels.

Furthermore, while critical commentaries may not have existed, Princeton has a support network fully prepared to help approximately 1,200 thesis pregnancies come to term every year. I can never thank Professor Smith enough for his guidance throughout the process, from that first gleaming moment to all those read-throughs in the final days. I urge each and every senior writing a thesis to actively seek his or her adviser’s advice and support. Professor Smith had ideas and relationships to people I could never have foreseen, and only by meeting and talking with him was he able to relay these. Advisers, furthermore, want their advisees to succeed, and many will be able to sense and respond eagerly to their students’ needs. How comforting to have an adviser who contacted me to see if I needed help over Christmas break! 

But professors are not the only human aspect of the Princeton support network. When I thought I had made a particularly egregious mistake, Lyra Plumer, an English graduate student, was there to comfort me. Having become the idol of my English department thesis writing group due to such interventions, Lyra worked through the problematic passage with me while stuffing me with homemade cookies and pumpkin pie. Lyra was pivotal not only in crisis moments like these, but throughout the year in bringing together groups of students (and professors) to discuss, critique, and form friendships that will likely continue years after our theses were bound. 

I often joked with my friends that writing a thesis is like giving birth: Both involve around nine months of work culminating in a frantic period of labor in late spring. Senior-parents bring their thesis-children home from Pequod or Triangle and show them eagerly to everyone they meet—friends, acquaintances, random tour groups (the latter perhaps slightly terrified at the wild-eyed, unkempt appearance of the new parents). I will not lie: The thesis is difficult, hence, seniors’ seemingly incomprehensible joy at completion. But, like my mom always said when recalling her pregnancies, the end result makes all the pain worth it. Come April or May, that thesis baby emerges, fully formed, duly paid, and gold-embossed. And when it does, it will seem anything but redundant.

“Mee thinks I play at football withe the stars”:
Lady Hester Pulter’s Unpublished Devotion

Rachel E. Dunn

Nigel Smith

Professor of English

“I was immediately struck in reading the chapter drafts as they arrived with how like a detective Rachel worked, sensibly following potential leads ...”

Rachel Dunn and Hester Pulter (1605–1678) will never meet in person on this earth, but I’ve come to think that they were made for each other. Until 1996, Pulter was entirely unknown. Her manuscript, the single surviving collection of her poetry, had lived unnoticed in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, where it had never been given a shelf mark. No one knew it was there. A scholar stumbled upon it 14 years ago and I was one of the first few people to see copies of some of the poems, the best of which began to appear in poetry anthologies of the period. Pulter’s unusual and sometimes wonderful poetry had begun the long journey of finding a readership and, more than that, a reputation and a place in the literary canon: the right to be read, discussed, assessed, and perhaps venerated in the future.

Rachel was looking around for a thesis topic. She had worked mostly on 19th-century literature, including some detective fiction. Without seeing any obvious connection with the business of sleuthing, I suggested that she might want to look at some poems by a 17th-century woman poet, whose works had never been printed, and may not have circulated very widely in her own circle of family and friends.

Rachel left my room with copies of some of the poems and came back hooked, both with a liking of the poetry and a desire to understand quite what it was that had made them, and what they amounted to as a collection. There had been some cursory comment on Pulter here and there in recent literary anthologies of the 17th century and a couple of short, exploratory critical essays. The challenge in this project was that one had to find nearly everything out for oneself. This is usually a task undertaken by an experienced literary scholar, but here it was a Princeton English major, Rachel Dunn, who was going to make this act of discovery the subject of her senior thesis.

For me, one of the great gifts of a senior thesis is that it enables Princeton undergraduates to go into the territory that is usually regarded as the most difficult but most rewarding in literary history: encountering lost or hitherto unknown works of literature for the first time, or very early in the time after their recovery. It is assumed that only those with much training and territory should be doing this. It also is the way in which much of the culture of our civilization has become known to us, since many works from classical antiquity have been recovered in this way at later points in time. We had discovered a way to partake of the Pulter retrieval project, and it was Rachel’s task to consider Pulter’s poems, and set out why they are so distinctive and worth reading today.

Rachel spent the summer between her junior and senior years reading Pulter’s poems in great depth, realizing that her collection was large and that it needed to be broken down into several areas to be discussed. She needed to find out about Pulter’s life and how she came to write her poems. In what terms might someone so obscure be regarded as remarkable? It was a journey that began with a careful poring over of some photocopies, but it would involve a detailed research trip to Leeds and to London between the two semesters of last academic year, and it would end with the production of a notable piece of literary detective work and criticism.

By a careful analysis of the poetry, Rachel was able to establish that although Pulter was a married gentlewoman, she regarded herself as a kind of Protestant “anchoress”—a secluded hermit whose life was dedicated to God, and where her poetry was a record of that devotion. Nonetheless she had many children, but it was precisely her role as mother that kept her confined to her Hertfordshire country house (about 25 miles to the northeast of London). Her poems are a record of how she understood that confinement, and what Rachel discovered was Pulter’s distinctive ability as a modern “anchoress” to write at once about the most private and intimate matters (in poems on her daughters, and notably elegies on a dead daughter) and very public ones (it was the traumatic era of the British Civil War, and Pulter writes movingly on King Charles I in the immediate aftermath of his execution). Her sense of a mystical union with God was her way of finding a freedom from worldly affairs in order to write about the world’s complications, disappointments, and tragedies.

I was immediately struck in reading the chapter drafts as they arrived with how like a detective Rachel worked, sensibly following potential leads in matters of biography and literary interpretation, always using the library catalogue or a search engine to find information. But there was something very artful in this, as Rachel, empathizing with Pulter’s imagination, saw the image of the cage in her writing: how she vividly saw her plight in very sharp, material terms, like painting in words. Indeed, Rachel was able to give much attention to a long series of very short poems by Pulter called “Emblems,” which accompanied no real drawings but which expressed moral dilemmas in visual terms. These had drawn almost no comment from anyone. Further chapters dealt with Pulter’s treatment of the circle (“the circle is Pulter’s instrument of power. As she overcomes enclosure by reworking figures of astronomical and alchemical circularity, she manifests her own agency as a poet and Christian”) and the role of place (her own house and the interesting geography of its location) in her poetry. The cage and the circle are part of Pulter’s vocabulary of symbolic expression, by which she finds unending spiritual renewal. It is a most impressive art. Rachel’s final judgment seems to sum up Pulter’s achievement: “Pulter’s manuscript demonstrates just what can be accomplished from within the poetic anchorhold, a literary world that reveals itself ‘as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.”’

Because Rachel gave in her chapter drafts punctually, we were able to discuss the drafts in detail and this enabled her to make many revisions, always for the better. The final version, as its first reader acknowledged, was a masterpiece of informed, tight critical writing, with a level of scholarship and insight that we more usually find among mature scholars. It was no surprise to me that Rachel should choose to study after graduation in Oxford, pursing literary detective work with a master’s degree, and with a view to entering a Ph.D. program after that. What she had accomplished suggested to me not necessarily an academic career, but, with such a facility for canny discovery, deft organization of intractable information, and fine, crystal-clear argument and expression, a career in many different paths. Students, if you are looking for a topic, ask your adviser to point you to something that’s yet unexplored. Firestone Library is continually acquiring literary papers that will be the bedrock of future research. Your senior thesis topic may be waiting for you right there.