How hopeful is “The Hope”? Or rather, for what is it hopeful? The conventional wisdom is that, as a citation of The booke of the common prayer,1 “The Hope” refers to the “certain hope of resurrection” at the Final Judgment. However, the poem also indulges itself in a fantasy of total personal dissolution, on par with the Universal Dissolution6 imagined earlier in Pulter’s manuscript, but here writ small into the confines of her body. She imagines being dissolved into dust, then broken down into salt (potentially a component of dust), then completely annihilated—but then reminds us that God, somehow, will be able to recreate enough matter to resurrect her: “I know not how.” These four words, placed after the poem’s only period, are the crux of the poem. Do they gesture to a boundless faith (I don’t know the science behind how he will do it, but I know he can because “He . . . hath supported me till now”)? Or do they gesture to a different kind of hope: a hope that maybe her death will not be the seed of a future resurrection, but an end? “I know not how” he could possibly bring me and my body (see The Perfection of Patience and Knowledge39) back from the complete material dissolution I have just imagined: maybe I can hope that he won’t, that death will actually just be the end.2
This is one of three interrelated Amplified Editions of Pulter’s poem: Version B [The Uncertain Hope], Version C [The Hope for Resurrection], and Version D [The Hope for Final Death]. The editorial strategy underlying these three separate editions has been specifically designed to demonstrate this poem’s fascinating ambiguity, its ability to be read either as a poem hoping for final, absolute death, or as a poem hoping for resurrection. As I will discuss in this headnote, the ambiguity of the poem’s argument comes in large part from the almost complete lack of punctuation in the original manuscript. This headnote explains how it is that punctuation can so radically alter the meaning of Pulter’s “The Hope”; the end of the headnote describes the editorial principles and punctuating choices I have adopted for this particular Amplified Edition (Version C [The Hope for Resurrection]). If you wish to skip to the section of the headnote particular to this Amplified Edition, you can find it at the bottom of this headnote, after the three asterisks (***).
“The Hope” is unusual in comparison to other poems in Pulter’s manuscript collection in that it has especially sparse punctuation. In the original manuscript in which this poem (and all Pulter’s poems) can be found, “The Hope” has six punctuation marks in total: two parentheses enclosing a phrase, two commas used to break up a list, one comma used to break up a line, and one period before the final four words (“I know not how”).3 In addition, the relative scarcity of punctuation in this poem may be authorial. While the majority of the manuscript is written in a neat (and likely professional/scribal) roundhand, this poem, and a few others, are written in a spiky italic hand that also has made frequent corrections to other poems in the manuscript. Though we don’t know for sure to whom any of the hands belong, most editors assume that the spiky hand that makes corrections throughout, and that writes “The Hope” (Poem 65) and The Weeping Wish61, is Pulter’s.4
Deciding where and how to punctuate this poem has the potential to radically change the argument of the poem. The poem moves from imagining death to imagining increasingly small dissolutions, to the burning even of atoms, to the turn to God’s abilities, in what Alice Eardley refers to as the poem’s “fluidity and gathering momentum"5—but, crucially for these three Amplified Editions, where one might punctuate the poem to pause that momentum radically changes the message. Adding a hard stop (e.g., a semi-colon or period) after line 6, for example, makes a poem unambiguously about the promise of resurrection. With a hard stop after line 6 the poem would divide into two parts, each of which would end with resurrective optimism: even after dissolution into dust, the still-more-essential “vital salt” can “be found out” (ll. 1–6); even when the world is turned into chaos, God will raise me unto life (ll. 7–15). If, on the other hand, one reads the first ten lines as a consecutive accumulation of destruction on increasingly minute scales (where lines 7–8 do not change the subject from line 6, but go on to destroy even the vital salt that has been “found out”), the poem seems to build instead to a darker hope, conjuring image after image of destruction only to end with the (ill-supported) idea that God may, nevertheless, find something to recover.
I believe, therefore, that it is impossible for a modern editor to punctuate this poem in a way that preserves the question (What is the hope?) that I take to be constitutive of the poem itself.6 And this belief underlies the editorial strategy for these three editions.
One option for an editor trying to decide what the poem means would be to consider it in light of other poems in the manuscript. Unfortunately, moving out to the rest of Pulter’s corpus only complicates the question of what “The Hope” hopes for. She is a pious poet, and many of her poems share the conviction that God’s “blessèd influence / [will] Triumph o’er Death, her impotence” (Dear God, Turn Not Away Thy Face20, ll. 21–22). However, for every poem that trusts in God, there is a poem that fantasizes about the possible absoluteness of physical dissolution. In The Eclipse1 she reminds the Earth of its “irrevocable dissolution, / As well as mine” (ll. 22–23), and Universal Dissolution6 ends with the following unsettling advice: “Then my unsettled soul, be more resolved, / Seeing all this universe must be dissolved” (ll. 175–76). In The Circle 17 she cries, “Then, gracious God, in Thee I’ll trust, / Although Thou crumble me to dust” (ll. 15–16): is the trust despite God’s crumbling ambitions, or because of them?7 The impossibility of pinning down “The Hope” is best embodied in the following paradox from her Universal Dissolution6: “When all’s to chaos turned, there will be peace” (l. 152). My Curation for this poem, Wishing for the End, provides other examples of the somewhat unusual desire for absolute and final death, as well as examples of nihilism, in seventeenth-century poetry.
In editing the poem, therefore, I have pursued the editorial strategy that I believe makes it most possible to experience the poem’s ambiguity to the fullest. This strategy has resulted in three separate Amplified Editions of the poem, which differ only in punctuation: Version B [The Uncertain Hope] contains only the manuscript’s punctuation, which allows readers to insert their own punctuation and to gauge their own readings of the poem; Version C [The Hope for Resurrection] is punctuated to bring out the resurrective reading; and Version D [The Hope for Final Death] is punctuated to bring out the reading that shows her yearning for a final death without resurrection.
In the version you are currently reading—Version C: The Hope for Resurrection—I punctuate the poem to bring out and make more readily available the reading that makes it seem as if Pulter unambiguously desires and hopes for a final resurrection after her death. This reading relies on the parts of the poem where Pulter openly announces both her prayers to and her trust in God (“God . . . Will raise me unto life”), and reads those frank protestations of trust as overwhelming any seeming kernels of doubt (“I know not how” God will manage to resurrect me when the matter that makes up my body has been dissolved—but I have faith he will manage).
As mentioned above, the most crucial punctuation decision in this version is the addition of a full stop at the end of the sixth line, which breaks the poem into two equal parts, each of which takes its own journey down into doubt and then back up into reassurance. If there is a full stop at the end of line 6, then Pulter twice worries about physical dissolution, but each time comforts herself with the knowledge that even if she does not know the exact mechanics of how it will happen, God will find a way to resurrect her. This repeated journey—down into doubt about physical dissolution and then back up into faith—parallels that taken in other poems, including especially Dear God, From Thy High Throne Look Down63, which worries about her body being burned into dust, dissolved into tears, and sighed away into air, only to constantly reassure herself each time that no matter what dissolution she may experience, she can still trust in God.
My other punctuation decisions in this edition also reinforce this reading of a faith in resurrection, and in addition to the basic glosses that appear in each version, I have added notes to this edition that highlight how specific punctuating decisions create a poem longing for resurrection. I encourage the reader to compare the alternate versions using The Pulter Project’s versioning tools, to see how the punctuation differs across versions, and to consider what difference those changes make; if you would prefer to read the unpunctuated version first, read Version B before reading this one.
- See Elizabeth Scott-Baumann’s curation for this poem, Dust, and her note on the title in A065a (Hester Pulter, “The Hope. January 1665” [A065a], ed. Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, The Pulter Project: Poet in the Making).
- I am indebted for my reading of this poem to Marshelle Woodward, who argued for this poem’s ambiguity in a paper entitled “The Dissolving Worlds of Margaret Cavendish and Hester Pulter” at the International Margaret Cavendish Society Conference in 2017. The argument will be published as Marshelle Woodward, “Hester Pulter’s Dissolving Worlds,” in Worldmaking Women: New Essays on the Centrality of Women in Early Modern Literature and Culture, ed. Pamela Hammons and Brandie Siegfried (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, in progress).
- This count does not include apostrophes.
- Stefan Christian in his dissertation edition merely refers to the second, editorial hand; see Hester Pulter, “The Poems of Lady Hester Pulter (1605?–1678): An Annotated Edition,” ed. Stefan Graham Christian (PhD diss., University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2012), 3–6 for his discussion. Alice Eardley in her edition asserts confidently that the hand is Pulter’s (Hester Pulter, Poems, Emblems, and the Unfortunate Florinda, ed. Alice Eardley [Toronto: Iter, Inc. and the Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies, 2014], 32–33, 180 n. 825), while Knight and Wall note that the hand is “probably Pulter’s”; see Hester Pulter, “The Hope” (Poem 65, Elemental Edition), ed. Leah Knight and Wendy Wall, The Pulter Project: Poet in the Making, note on title.
- Alice Eardley, “‘I haue not time to point yr booke . . . which I desire you yourselfe to doe’: Editing the Form of Early Modern Manuscript Verse,” in The Work of Form: Poetics and Materiality in Early Modern Culture, ed. Ben Burton and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 166; see Scott-Baumann’s Curation Knowledge, Faith and Doubt for an excerpt from Eardley’s essay.
- It is of course impossible to say whether Pulter intended her punctuation (or lack thereof) to function this way; early modern punctuation worked differently than modern punctuation. For an overview of early modern views on punctuation, see Alicia Rodríguez-Álvarez, “Teaching Punctuation in Early Modern England,” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 46 (2010): 35–49; see also my Curation Punctuating Poetry.
- One could accumulate many more examples: at times she imagines dust as the end of everything (see The Circle 21, ll. 13–14: “So man, the universe’s chiefest glory, / His primitive’s dust (alas) doth end his story”), and at other times she worries at the absolute finality of dust: “Should all annihilated be, / Which is as easy unto Thee; / Oh what would then become of me?” (see The Revolution16, ll. 22–24).