Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Lucy Hutchinson, Gender and Poetic Form

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Lucy Hutchinson, Gender and Poetic Form

Article excerpt

In a 1996 lecture, J. Paul Hunter commented that

As recently as ten years ago, it was widely assumed that women poets were considerably less likely to employ heroic couplets than men, largely because of differences in temperament and interests. But now that more women's poems of the period have become available, we can see that such was not the case. It turns out that the few poems by women that have been valued and anthologized over the years were singled out precisely because of their difference and what that presumably told us about women's sensibilities, but really about ourselves. These poems represent what we moderns have valued and isolated as distinctively feminine, not what women typically wrote and not what they themselves then valued most.1

As they sought to include poems by women, pioneering anthologies of the 1980s and 1990s had often reproduced poems that reflected characteristically female experiences such as childbirth and wifely devotion, poems which seemed to convey emotion "uncontorted by demands of rhyme or metre" (though these poems are often in rhyming couplets, such as Anne Bradstreet's on both these topics).2 The practical demands of anthologisation may be as much to blame as inadvertent sexism, as lyrics such as Mary Wroth's sonnets or Aphra Behn's odes can be included whole while lengthy biblical or historical couplet poems require strategic excerpting. In the almost two decades since Hunter 's remark our knowledge of what women wrote has increased sharply and there are now very few genres or forms (if any) in which we can say that women did not write. As Danielle Clarke and Marie-Louise Coolahan have articulated it, the rediscovery of many early modern women poets reveals writers "highly conscious of form, and of which forms are appropriate for which kinds of utterance."3 Lucy Hutchinson's works alone encompass tetrameter and pentameter couplets, three- and four-line stanzas of various metres, and poetic genres from epitaph to parody, elegy, estate poem, meditative epic and Horatian celebration of retreat.

With an ever-increasing body of poetry by women in various forms being rediscovered, scholars are asking not whether but how women used them. In the case of pentameter couplets, it seems difficult to imagine a time when we did not think of this as the major mode in which women wrote in the seventeenth century. As many of the essays in this volume suggest, Hutchinson's works question many of our assumptions about women's writing and the methodologies through which it is commonly interpreted. Hutchinson's major Genesis poem, partially published as Order and Disorder in 1679, is structured according to vacillations between the order and disorder of its title. Hutchinson interprets Genesis as a cyclical narrative of God's goodness followed by man's sinfulness, redeemed by God's goodness, and so forth. Jonathan Goldberg writes of the poem's binary outlook:

Order and Disorder is the story over and again of the chosen seed, the holy seed, and how it regenerates itself, how these seeds of light separate from the seeds of darkness. . ..4

This movement drives the narrative rhythm of the poem, and it can be seen to inform the rhythm of individual passages and even lines as well. Hutchinson uses the idea of order very clearly to connote divine control and creation. At the fall, with God seemingly absent, it is His order that is dramatically missing:

And while he seemed withdrawn whose grace upheld

The order of all things, confusion filled

The universe. The air became impure,

And frequent dreadful conflicts did endure

With every other angry element;

(5. 321-325)5

Without the order brought by God's grace, the world is all confusion, impurity and conflict.

The first use of the poem's second title word, "disorder," happens at the fall, as Hutchinson describes Adam and Eve's changed perception of the world around them; they see it now as "disordered" (4. …

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