By Briana Wheeler
Excited chatter filled the ordinarily quiet Convocation Hall as students, faculty and community members eagerly waited for the 2018 Haines Memorial Lecture to begin. An anticipatory hush fell over the crowd when Dr. Maha Jafri of the Sewanee English Department stepped up to the podium to introduce her friend and former colleague, Dr. Wendy Wall.
An esteemed professor from Northwestern University, Wall holds many distinguished titles and has earned many official accolades for her work, perhaps most notably a feature on the front cover of The Sewanee Mountain Messenger.
To start her lecture, “Poet in the Making: Salvation, Poetics, and Cosmology in the Poetry of Hester Pulter,” Wall herself gave a sort of introduction to the life of Hester Pulter. A female seventeenth-century writer and poet, Pulter’s manuscripts remained unknown to the world until they were rediscovered in 1996.
Pulter’s work, a body of approximately 120 poems, includes pastorals, political protest poems, satires, animal fables, and English elegies among other familiar forms of the Renaissance period. “Types of poetry that we didn’t think would be available to a woman who declared herself homebound,” Wall explained.
“Pulter is unusual [because] one, it is weird that she sees radical and violent alterations of matter as a means to salvation. And two, of her embrace of the productive possibilities of dissolution,” she added.Even more so, Wall stated, Pulter’s chosen subjects interest scholars. “Sweeping from telescopic to microscopic lens, Pulter poetically refracts the world through lens of alchemy, physics, cosmology, herbalism, and horticulture,” Wall said.
Pulter’s works reflect an intense and cohesive knowledge of her time’s scientific literature. She wrote poems that commented on planetary motions, atomic particles, and Jupiter’s moons. Wall posited the theory that women pondered these sprawling questions about the universe while pursuing everyday tasks, such as distillation. Oftentimes, mentions of Pulter’s homely duties appear in her poetry.
Wall informed the audience that Pulter wrote many of her poems as complaints, which often sparks the question: What is the matter with Hester Pulter?
Wall illuminated three reasons: Pulter had 15 children (which equates to 135 months of pregnancy), all of whom survived infancy, but only two of whom survived her. So, for much of her life, Pulter was either pregnant, grieving a beloved child’s death, or both. Moreover, Wall claimed, she was a defeated royalist who lived in seclusion.
When Pulter was rediscovered, scholars were thrilled to have a female voice from a period dominated by male voices. “The very first poems that were chosen to be anthologized were those that were reflections of motherhood or those that reflected the feminist testimonial,” Wall explained.
Unsatisfied with limiting analysis of Pulter’s work to discussions strictly about a Renaissance female, Wall suggested that “we instead edit and publicize and annotate her works in ways that reflect the kaleidoscopic variety of her works, their profound engagement with the physical and scientific ferment of the day, and their strategic self-representation.”
She stressed not ignoring Pulter’s poetic contemplations of femininity as a form of overcorrection, but to study her entire body of poetry and celebrate its diversity of subject matter. To explicate her point, Wall asked several members of the English Department to read poems aloud for the audience.
One of the poems concerns Pulter’s idea of celestial breathing, or the universe as a cosmic respiration. Wall selected the poem to demonstrate Pulter’s scientific versatility. She explained, “the poem offers a world formed by transcendent spirals that present an alternate perspective on the afterlife.”
She continued, “Rather than the transcendence of the body, Pulter airs her dream of an intermolecular limbo, where she is not a woman, not an ethereal, non-terrestrial, but still matter. She does not convert into a glorified body as in Christian writing, but a material substrate. Pulter constructs a vitally unstable theological and cosmological world system whose friction is precisely what allows her artistic exploration.”
Wall also enthusiastically informed the crowd about “The Pulter Project,” a website intended to provide several additions and annotations of each of Pulter’s poems. Wall works with other international scholars in an effort to pull back the editorial curtain for non-specialists. They want to display the decisions that go into publishing a poem for the general public.
Wall ended her lecture with the declaration that Pulter’s rediscovery “affords a rare opportunity to examine pathways by which an author is ushered into the cannon in the 21st century.”
As such, transparency with the public and formulating thought-provoking questions are crucial steps. Rather than ask “what is the matter with Hester Pulter?” Wall said, perhaps one should ask, “What is matter for Hester Pulter in this age of scientific, religious, and political change?”
After the lecture, Syd Baker (C’19) commented, “It’s nice to know that there’s a female Renaissance poet who wrote about real, worldly things. No untouchable beloveds or endless categorizations—just someone’s thoughts and questions.”