Pulter’s poems are full of gardens. In some poems, such as “The Lark,” the poet observes something in the garden that prompts an extended meditation.
Emblem 53 offers a complex political allegory masquerading as a fable about a “covetous” honey bee, a patient snail, and a “painted” tulip. Alongside the poem’s political themes, Pulter raises questions about gender, science, and nature that echo her interest in these topics throughout the manuscript. Most significantly, there are glimpses in this poem of Pulter’s clever theorization of poetry itself—her ongoing exploration of how poetry makes meaning.
Three distinct, but related, mottoes drive this emblem. The first motto—”then let impatient spirits here but see / what ’tis to struggle with their destiny” (lines 37–8)—concludes the story Pulter tells of a honey bee, enticed by the poet’s sumptuous garden, who tries to gather more “nectar” than she can carry. Straying from the hive for far too long, the bee lands in a tulip alongside a snail just as the sun goes down and the tulip closes its petals. The second and third motto come in sequence at the poem’s end: “’tis valianter by far to live than die” (line 50) and “then if no hope of liberty you see, / think on the snail, the tulip, and the bee” (lines 51–52). These mottoes follow a catalogue of examples from classical history, mostly warnings about excessive pride and arrogance. Three mottoes is a lot for one emblem, which raises interesting questions as we read this poem. How do the three mottoes work together? Do the stories seem to unfold logically into their concluding mottoes or do the mottoes seem incongruous? How does Pulter use these multiple mottoes to invite us to consider the function of the motto as a feature of emblems?
Pulter’s emblem poems are “naked emblems,” as Millie Godfrey and Sarah C. E. Ross explain in their introduction to Mighty Nimrod (Emblem 1)67. Revising the traditional tripartite structure of the emblem (motto, visual image, and short epigrammatic verse), Pulter omits the visual image (pictura) element such that the reader must glean meaning solely from words. But Pulter’s language in this and many of her emblems is meant to help the reader paint their own picture. Here, for instance, Pulter references specific flowers, tracks the bee’s movements as it flits around the poet’s garden, and fills her lines with evocative descriptions (the morning sun is “lapped in a robe of silver mixed with gray” [line 5]). The emblem’s central characters—the snail, the tulip, and the bee—would also have been easy visual reference points for Pulter’s readers. All three figures were frequently portrayed in early modern emblem books, textual illustrations, and artwork.
All three figures are also at the center of early modern debates surrounding gender and sexuality. Even though none of the poem’s mottoes directly concern these topics, this emblem has much to teach us about Pulter’s interest and intervention in these debates. I track this theme throughout my annotations on the poem, noting, for instance, that Pulter’s description of the bee as “the active Amazonian maid” (7) refers to a community of warrior women in Greek mythology (the Amazons), who were notoriously complicated gendered figures in early modern culture. “Demonstrating that women and men might be performatively interchangeable,” Kathryn Schwarz explains, “Amazons at once substantiate the signifiers of masculinity and threaten to replace the bodies to which they are attached.”1 Amazons were often at the center of crossdressing plots (Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia), tales of women’s military leadership (Margaret Cavendish’s Bell in Campo), and stories about the relationship between desire and power (William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Pulter’s comparison of the bee to an “Amazonian maid” draws on this popular trope, but we might also read the comparison as an opening nod to the poem’s formal structure. The poem’s first half outlines a distinctly female garden community, populated by “fair Aurora” (1), the “Amazonian” bee” (7), the poet herself (17), and even the snail that slides about “upon her unctuous breast” (29). When the bee’s plot ends at line 37, though, the poem shifts to solely male reference points. Pulter mentions Biron (39), Belisarius (41), Bajazeth (43), and Callisthenes (47) as she guides the reader toward the poem’s concluding motto. But, shifting once more in the final couplet, Pulter ends by reminding us to “think on the snail, the tulip, and the bee” (52), a return to the female cast of the poem’s first half. In the formal structure of her poem—the gender-bending shifts in metaphors—Pulter brings to mind the threat posed by the figure of the Amazon: the possibility “that women and men might be performatively interchangeable.” In both the content and form of this poem, Pulter raises questions about how gender signifies, and particularly how emblematic, gender-specific metaphors signify.
To most seventeenth-century readers, Hester Pulter’s bee in Emblem 53 must have seemed unusual indeed. While the vast majority of her contemporaries praised bees for “their labour and order at home and abroad,” which made them “so admirable, that they may bee a pattern unto men,”1 Pulter’s bee is greedy, and her “labour” is anything but admirable. Yet comparing Emblem 53 to early modern accounts of bees (both real and metaphorical bees) reveals that Pulter reinforces seventeenth-century knowledge about the characteristics of bees, and that her bee’s deviation from “appropriate” bee-behaviour allows Pulter to emphasize the dangers of solitude, particularly solitude from a community of other women.
Bees were a common metaphor, symbol, or analogy in classical and early modern literature, with Shakespeare’s Henry V and Milton’s Paradise Lost two familiar examples. Indeed, Pulter would not have been able to use bees as a metaphor without contending with the vast scope of bee literature and bee metaphors that had come before her. Of course, this assumes that Pulter had read “bee literature” and was acquainted with honeybees in some fashion. In his reading of Shakespeare on bees, Richard Grinnell confronts a similar question: how much did Shakespeare know about bees? His answer is worth quoting at length: “Shakespeare keeps bees the way any well-read and urbane writer might have been able to—building his metaphors and analogies from books at hand. Even when he moves beyond the classics, for example, in his description of Hal as a beekeeper willing to kill the bees to get the honey, he is clearly working with material that was common knowledge in his day” (850). Beekeeping during the early modern period was also an occupation and even obligation for both men and women. Treatises on caring for bees are often addressed to both sexes, and women feature prevalently in stories about bees, honey, and hives. William Lawson, writing in 1623, states in his treatise on gardening that he “will not account her any of my good Housewives, that wanteth either Bees or skilfulnesse about them.”2 Pulter would certainly not be unusual if she knew something—or even much—about the care and characteristics of honeybees.
Pulter’s bee (in contrast to the industrious and virtuous bees of most of the literature that predates Emblem 53) is greedy and grasping, and her bee’s struggle against confinement causes her exhaustion and death. According to Nicole A. Jacobs, another outlier in early modern bee imagery is John Milton, who compares the devils in Pandemonium to a swarm of bees in Paradise Lost. In her monograph Bees in Early Modern Transatlantic Literature: Sovereign Colony, Jacobs emphasizes the weight of literary tradition that any negative depiction of bees would have to shrug off: “The image of the humming collection [in Paradise Lost] resonates with the early modern reader, trained by tradition to imagine humanity as an orderly hive.”3 The same “tradition” and “train[ing]” would have applied to Pulter’s readers, which perhaps explains why, although the snail (with its patient endurance) seems to be the positive exemplar for the reader, the “moral” of the emblem does not urge readers to imitate the snail necessarily. Instead, Pulter advises that we “think on the snail, the tulip, and the bee” (line 52). Indeed, while the bee causes her own unnecessary death in Pulter’s poem, the common literary symbolism of worker bees in the seventeenth century was so overwhelmingly positive that readers must have resisted, even a little, the idea that they should be the greasy snail rather than the “active Amazonian maid” (line 7).
If a honey bee is separate from its colony, it is soon to die. In 1657, beekeeper Samuel Purchas wrote baldly, “one Bee, is no Bee.”4 Joseph Campana quotes from Purchas as well to emphasize the apian–and more general–early modern anxiety with solitude, segments, and fragmentation in the commonwealth. “For bees,” Campana concludes, “singularity is unbearable.”5 Keith Botelho summarizes early modern beekeepers’ attitudes towards individual and collective bees: “early modern bee treatises often spoke of bees in the collective, not necessarily concerned with the individual bee (other than the Queen) but rather with the maintenance of the stock of bees in the hives, of the swarm, of the many.”6 Not only beekeepers, but also early modern writers of fiction or moral instruction generally referred to bees in the plural, and James Howell’s 1660 The Parly of Beasts; or Morphandra Queen of the Inchanted Island is a notable example. In Howell’s dialogues, the characters Morphandra and Pererius speak to a number of animals (who were once human) in turn, beginning with an Otter, then an Ass, an Ape, a Hind, a Mule, a Fox, a Boar, a Wolf, and a Goose. In the first ten sections of the book, the animal interlocutor is singular, but not so in the final dialogue, in which Morphandra and Pererius converse with “a Hive of Bees” (my emphasis), for bees were thought to exist only in a collective. All this is to say that when Pulter’s bee diverts from her voyage back to her hive, she is doing something unusual and potentially deadly: separating herself from the collective that gives her life.
Emblem 53 uses a number of means to create and maintain female community, whether real or imagined. The bee is an “Amazonian maid,” which of course places her in the well-known society of Amazons, but it also reminds readers that bees themselves live in a society that is predominantly female. Christina Luckyj and Naimh J. O’Leary assert that “classical models of segregated female communities could serve as code for political protest.”7 Natural models–the model of the beehive–could also serve as such a “code,” especially when Pulter compares the bee and snail to Biron, Belisarius, Bajazeth, and Callisthenes. The four men are associated with the military, which may remind readers of the military connotations of bees in early modern England. Butler, for instance, writes that “Besides their Soveraign, the Bees have also subordinate Governours and Leaders, not unfitly resembling Captains and Colonels of Soldiers.8 With her references to women and military might, Pulter may be subtly gesturing towards a political protest, one that gives communities of women classical, natural, and even military power.