Hester Pulter’s Well-Wrought Urns: Early Modern Women, Sonnets, and New Criticism

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Accounts of Hester Pulter’s life often open with John Milton’s poem to her sister, Margaret Ley (Milton, 45). Yet the form in which he wrote – a sonnet – was not one Pulter chose to write in, and indeed relatively few seventeenth-century women did so. In her essay ‘Where had all the flowers gone?: The Missing Space of Female Sonneteers in Seventeenth-Century England’, Diana Henderson suggests that we should read as sonnets many poems by women which have some sonnet qualities. Hester Pulter’s short poems, including ‘The Circle [2]’, ‘Immense fount of truth’ and ‘The Hope’ draw the reader into a dizzying landscape of circles, revolutions, centres, stairs and urns. For Pulter, poetic form is evoked and redefined through these visual and physical forms; it is a part of her poetry’s investigation of contemporary philosophies of materiality. More specifically, these material forms represent Pulter’s deep and rebarbative interaction with the sonnet tradition. Reading Pulter’s poems in this way challenges versions of literary history that suggest women did not write sonnets for a century after Mary Wroth (and barely even before her). This essay will suggest that seeing Pulter’s poems as critical sonnets also allows us to place her work in dialogue with the New Critics, those great readers of form. While Cleanth Brooks of course never read Hester Pulter, her metaphors of form provide a proleptic critique of the New Critics’ own use of formal metaphors to write literary history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)120-143
Number of pages23
JournalJournal for Early Modern Cultural Studies
Issue number2
Early online date25 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Feb 2021


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