Julia Palmer’s manuscript represents a very early collection of poetry by a middle-class, self-taught woman. A fervent Presbyterian, she lived in Restoration Westminster and was very aware of the embattled state of Nonconformists under Charles II. The poems were probably circulated or sung among Nonconformists in her own and possibly other congregations as a source of encouragement to the faithful. Her personal, emotional spirituality was to become typical of Dissenting poetry in the eighteenth century, but is extremely unusual in religious poetry of the seventeenth century.These poems offer a full illustration of the idioms, doctrine and Biblical interpretation characteristic of Presbyterian Calvinism. They were written at a time of unprecedented religious and political activity, and are evidence of the reaction of the Nonconformist ‘middling sort’, whose resistance was so feared by the King and his ministers, to the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672. They represent a style of religious poetry considered to be unrhetorical and therefore less likely to be contaminated by self-display, particularly if the author were a woman. Clearly valued within this community – the manuscript was left to a wealthy Dissenter and preserved long enough to be collected by the antiquarian Sir Thomas Phillips in the nineteenth century – the rhetoric of Palmer’s poetry is very different from that of the literary elite in her period, but it deserves attention in any account of literary activity in seventeenth-century England.
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