This lyrical poem resonates with Pulter’s three elegies on Charles I, which were influenced by the culture and aesthetics of kingship and martyrdom in the wake of the regicide (1649). In an age before political parties, royalism—which is on full display in Pulter’s poetry—emerged as a political, cultural, and literary phenomenon that resisted Cromwellian rule while upholding monarchical authority. Composed c. 1651, “And Must the Sword this Controverse Decide” reflects on the British civil wars, the ongoing political and civil disputes, and on the persistence of royalist sentiment and the value of literary production well after the regicide, implied by the reference to the king’s death, which “hath been deplored / So long by us.”
The tone of Pulter’s royalist verse is serious, and not reflective of the Anacreontic mid seventeenth-century literary mode, which emerged in the experience of royalist defeat, and which represents one branch of the heterogeneous Cavalier poetic tradition. Anacreon, the ancient Greek poet known for his drinking lyrics, was the inspiration for the witty, masculinist verse of some English Cavalier lyricists. Unsurprisingly, neither Pulter nor her like-minded (female) contemporaries, notably Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips, indulge and toast the courtly ideals of fine living, drinking, socializing, and versifying in the spirit of sprezzatura (a casual grace). Among the Cavalier poets who produced meditative verses on retreat, loss, exile, and death, which may have influenced Pulter, was Thomas Carew. His posthumous 1640 volume, titled “Poems,” is assumed to be among Pulter’s library holdings. Pulter likely also possessed a copy of Robert Herrick’s Hesperides or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (1648) among whose poetic themes are the civil wars and Charles I’s stellification. “To the King,” for example, describes “my Charles [who] shines here, / A Publike Light (in this immensive Sphere).” Herrick’s Noble Numbers: or, His Pious Pieces (1647) in Hesperides (1648) contains various poems hailing the king, including “Good Friday: Rex Tragicus; or, Christ Going to His Crosse,” which eerily predicts Charles’s execution and prophesies his ascent: “begin, great King! Ascend Thy throne, / And thence proceed, to act Thy Passion / To such an height, to such a period rais’d, / As Hell, and Earth, and Heav’n may stand amazed.” Pulter’s Poem 64 will also commemorate and raise Charles to the spheres.
Pulter’s pro-monarchy poems are solemn, biblical, and formal—in line with many of the elegiac works composed in response to the regicide and the release of the most popular book of the seventeenth century, Eikon Basilike, a copy of which Pulter probably owned. Purportedly in prayer, Charles I appeals in Eikon Basilike to a higher form of truth and justice, and performs acts of self-examination and devotion, for which James I, John Donne, and George Herbert had supplied examples. Pulter also adopted these writers as literary models, and in Poem 64, in the role of “Time’s fair Virgin Daughter,” unsheathes not a sword but a stylus to justify the legitimacy and legacy of kingship. The poet-speaker opens by asking Job’s question to God about whether “the sword this controverse [must] decide.” In the course of the poem, she demonstrates—as in the Epistle to the Hebrews 4:12 and in a contemporary book Pulter likely owned, Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy—that “It is an old saying, A blow with a word, strikes deeper then a blow with a sword.” Poem 64 delivers a blow in verse form.
“And Must the Sword” resonates with other poems in Pulter’s oeuvre, including the tearful On the Horrid Murder of that Incomparable Prince14, Let None Sigh More for Lucas or for Lisle [On the Same ]15, which takes up the theme of Poem 14, and On the King’s Most Excellent Majesty27. Pre-1649 Pulter poems that set the scene and supply interpretative frames for those on the regicide are Upon the Imprisonment of his Sacred Majesty13, written in 1647, and On those Two Unparalleled Friends, Sir George Lisle and Sir Charles Lucas7, written c. 1648. These royalist poems provide her with a venue for political commentary, an uncharacteristic mode of expression for a female poet whose repertoire consists largely of personal poetry. However, she (Hester) identifies herself repeatedly in her oeuvre with and as the Noble Hadassah, a savior of her chosen nation.
- Karen Britland, “Conspiring with ‘friends’: Hester Pulter’s Poetry and the Stanley Family at Cumberlow Green,” The Review of English Studies, NS, 69.292 (2018): 846-49 (832–54).
- Ann Baynes Coiro, “The Personal Rule of Poets: Cavalier Poetry and the English Revolution,” The Oxford Handbook of Literature and the English Revolution, ed. Laura Lunger Knoppers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 206-37. The poems by Cavendish and Philips post-date Pulter’s Poem 64, but they display similar convictions. Pulter likely owned a copy of Cavendish’s Poems, and Fancies written by the Right Honourable, the Lady Margaret Newcastle (London, 1653). Philips defended the (dead) king’s reputation against the libel of Fifth Monarchist and Approver of Ministers, Vavasor Powell, in “Upon the Double Murther of K. Charles I,” which was not published until 1667, but was written in the early 1650s. See Philips, Poems by the most deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda (London, 1667), 1-2.
- Herrick, Hesperides or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (London, 1648), 278; His Noble Numbers: or, His Pious Pieces, in Hesperides, 74.
- Stefan Graham Christian categorizes Eikon Basilike as a “possible” holding in Pulter’s library. See Christian’s authoritative and valuable list of Pulter’s library books, certain and probable, in Christian, “The Poems of Lady Hester Pulter (1605?–1678): An Annotated Edition” (2012), 60–64. Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3545910. Pulter was introduced in London to William Dugard, the printer of Eikon Basilike (Sarah C. E. Ross and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, eds., Women Poets of the English Civil War [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018], 90). Charles’s book is heavily reliant on the Psalms, as is Pulter’s poetry; in the case of Poem 64, note, for example, the indebtedness to Psalm 137.
- Refer to the Curation entitled Pulter reads Eikon Basilike for the foldout and title page of Eikon Basilike. Authored by Charles I and John Gauden, Eikon Basilike. The pourtraicture of His sacred Majestie in his solitudes and sufferings was printed by William Dugard (London, 1649). Charles was indebted to Sandys’s metrical translation of the psalter, A Paraphrase Upon the Psalmes of David in A Paraphrase Upon the Divine Poems (London, 1636, rev. ed. 1638, rpt. 1648), which was dedicated to the monarch and his spouse, and intended for singing in the Chapel Royal.
- Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford, 1621), 18.104.22.168, p. 196.