Hester Pulter’s manuscript divides her work into poems (“Poems Breathed Forth by the Noble Hadassas”) and emblems (“The Sighs of a Sad Soul Emblematically Breathed Forth by the Noble Hadassah”). “Upon the Crown Imperiall” (Poem 53) (a reference to the Corona imperialis flower), could have been placed with the emblems, and yet it is not. Like emblems, this poem has a moral; but it is personal.
In “Upon the Crown Imperiall,” Pulter does not merely recycle contemporaries’ conventions; she refashions them for herself: although “corona” is grammatically feminine in Latin, seventeenth-century English herbals and garden manuals present the crown imperial flower as neuter or masculine;1 Pulter makes it feminine. The flower’s name invites comparison to the imperial crown, a comparison upon which many contemporary writers rely, although Pulter does not. In Ben Jonson’s Loues triumph through Callipolis (1631) and James Shirley’s The triumph of peace (1634), the flower appears as “an emblem of royal power able to provide peace and protection.”2 Conversely, it figured in anti-royalist critiques, as in George Herbert’s poem “Peace,” in which the speaker “sp[ies] a gallant flower”, and then digs into the dirt to find “a worm devoure what show’d so well.”3 While Pulter’s poetry suggests she read Herbert’s work and was familiar with contemporary herbals and garden manuals, she draws an entirely different picture. Pulter’s flower is not just royal, but also feminine, heroic, and stoic.
The poem’s conceit rests on an intimate connection between the heart and the eyes. The whitish “faire Orient pearles” of “most cleere shining sweet water” (to quote John Gerard’s Herbal) contained within the flower’s characteristic hanging bells are the “Tears,” the “imergenties” of her sad heart. Rather than openly shed them, the flower holds her tears still in her eyes, hidden from plain view. Phœbus—the classical sun god and god of poetry—“courts” the flower and “essais” (assays, i.e. tests, or tries to seduce her) her with his “burning kisses”; not being heliotropic, the flower does not turn to him. Instead, by hanging her head, she turns away from his kisses and averts her gaze, blocking the route to her heart.
The connection between her heart and eyes reveals the flower’s uniquely feminine, stoic heroism, in which a delicate and precise balance is struck between feeling profound emotions and expressing them, avoiding excessive emotional display and indulgence. In early modern England, tears were gendered and important but troubling humoral phenomena, especially for women, for whom both crying and not crying could be suspect. By demonstrating quiet crying without shedding tears, the flower has negotiated a modest constancy. The heart is the source of her tears, which “rise” to her eyes; but the heart is also the (etymological) root of courage.
The speaker, unlike the flower, is not able to strike this balance and is prone to excess: as Knight and Wall note in the headnote to their Elemental Edition, the poem does not stick to rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. It includes an odd line4 and lines “flush with syllables,” with the exception of the final couplet: “But shee Remains oh that my soul did soe / Ever Brimfull yet never overflow.” Pulter’s manuscript almost entirely lacks punctuation; in their Elemental Edition, Knight and Wall add punctuation to these final two lines: “But she remains; O, that my soul did so, / Ever brimful, yet never overflow.” But these lines might be punctuated differently: “But she remains—O, that my soul did so— / Ever brimful, yet never overflow.” This alternate punctuation makes clearer the speaker’s plaintive desiring of the flower’s virtues for herself and confirms that the flower remains brimful but not overflowing, unlike the speaker who has presumably shed too many tears, a demonstration of emotional excess. Ironically, it is in these final two lines—the only lines that unambiguously adhere to the poem’s implied structure—that the speaker reveals her own lack of emotional restraint. And yet, it is the speaker’s emotional interjection that strikes the balance between restraint and indulgence, equalizing the line with the ‘right’ number of syllables.
As much of Pulter’s poetry is autobiographical and about her struggles with grief, we are tempted to read the speaker’s voice as Pulter’s own. In such a reading, one might recall that Phœbus is not just the god of the sun, but also the god of poetry, perhaps tempting Pulter to use poetry to stoke, rather than soothe, her grief. In this metaphor, her pen’s ink flows as readily as her tears.
Dunn, Rachel. “Breaking a Tradition: Hester Pulter and the English Emblem Book.” The Seventeenth Century, 30.1 (2015): 55-73.
Gerard, John. The herball or Generall historie of plantes. 1633. (STC 11751)
Knight, Leah and Wendy Wall. “Headnote” (Poem 53, Elemental Edition). In The Pulter Project: Poet in the Making, edited by Leah Knight and Wendy Wall, 2018.
Playfere, Thomas. The meane in mourning. Widow Orwin: London, 1595. (STC 20015)
Primrose, Gilbert. The Christian mans teares and Christs comforts. London, 1625. (STC 20389)
Young, R.V. “A Note on the ‘Crown Imperiall’ in Herbert’s ‘Peace.’” George Herbert Journal, 21:1-2 (Fall 1997/Spring 1998), 89-92.