This poem brings together in intriguing ways two poetic modes or forms common in seventeenth-century poetry: the complaint and the dialogue poem. The mode of complaint can be broadly understood as the “woe is me” posture and the rhetorical exposition of emotion deriving from it; typically, complaint is an open-ended expression of woe, in which the grief-stricken speaker expands in an exorbitant way on their lamentable circumstances. Complaint is pervasive in seventeenth-century literature, with foundational examples such as Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint and Spenser’s volume of Complaints (1591) influencing a plethora of amatory, religious, and political applications. For definitions and influential discussions of complaint, see John Kerrigan, Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and "Female Complaint": A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); Katharine Craik, “Spenser’s ‘Complaints’ and the New Poet”, Huntington Library Quarterly, 64 (2001): 63-79; Rosalind Smith, Michelle O’Callaghan, and Sarah C. E. Ross, “Complaint”, in Catherine Bates (ed.), A Companion to Renaissance Poetry (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018), pp. 339-52.
Complaint is often female-voiced, and Pulter’s poem bears multiple markers of the mode. Here, the two speaking virgins occupy a landscape that reflects or shares their woe; they help “poor Philomel”, the nightingale, a common poetic figure for sorrow, to sing a lamenting song; and their sad songs are sung “in vain” (“Then let us cease in vain to make our moan”, line 53). While the reason for the sisters’ woe is not explicitly identified, the poem is a broad complaint against the times, the “base world” offering only “wants and losses” (lines 50, 12). Pulter’s wider body of work suggests a political context for this: the poem’s complaint elements can be usefully read alongside The Invitation into the Country2, The Complaint of Thames, 16474; To My Dear Jane, Margaret, and Penelope Pulter, they Being at London, I at Broadfield38, and several other of Pulter’s poems that construe Broadfield as a landscape of loss and loneliness.
At the same time as the poem is a clear example of complaint, its title and form mark it as a dialogue poem, another mode with a “dizzying array of precedents” in the early modern period. (For dialogue poetry, see W. Scott Howard, "Milton’s ‘Hence’: Dialogue and the Shape of History in ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’, in Printed Voices: The Renaissance Culture of Dialogue, ed. Dorothea Heitsch and Jean-François Vallée (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), pp. 157-74). Pastoral dialogues are the clearest precedent here, in the broad tradition of Spenser’sThe Shepheard’s Calendar, and the poem reflects the proximity of pastoral and complaint that can also be seen in Spenser’s work (see Craik, “Spenser’s ‘Complaints’ and the New Poet”). Spenser is a likely influence on Pulter’s poetry, with commonalities also evident between “The Complaint of Thames, 1647” (Poem 4) and The Ruines of Time, which was published in Complaints (1591). The Spenserian text closest to “A Dialogue Between Two Sisters” is another poem published in the same volume, The Tears of the Muses.
Pulter’s placement of complaint in a dialogue between two sisters is, however, divergent from dominant traditions. Female complainers are most frequently heard in dialogue with a framing male narrator, whose understanding of the complainer’s (or complainers’) plight is limited, and who is unable to offer any consolation. Kerrigan has reflected productively on the “compulsive dialectic” of framed female-voiced complaint, with a “sense of distortion” and an “interpretative instability” emerging between the woman’s grief and the masculine framing narrator’s incomprehension (p. 12). Pulter’s dialogue, in contrast, is between two female speakers who share and understand each other’s grief, sympathising with each other. Their woes are shared not only with each other, but with all aspects of the landscape around them: “For all things here which do in order rise, / Methinks in woe with us do sympathise” (lines 13-14). And at the end of the poem, the sisters turn to their mother (the implied author of the dialogue poem), promising to go and mitigate her sorrowful loneliness. In its dynamic of female woes shared, the poem can be compared to “The Complaint of Thames, 1647” (Poem 4), in which the woeful Thames outlines her sorrows to the implicitly female framing speaker of the poem. Beyond Pulter’s oeuvre, another female-authored, female-voiced complaint in dialogue is Anne Bradstreet’s A Dialog ue Between Old England and New.