The Puritan Epic Poetess: Why Christians Should Read Lucy Hutchinson’s ‘Order and Disorder’

Concluding Thoughts:

J. I. Packer was one of the most influential evangelical theologians of the mid-twentieth century, and he has done much to popularise the Puritans in his lifetime. It has been said of him that his love for them was not due to a love for old things but to a “burning conviction that there was gold in the Puritan hills.”[22]

Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder is certainly valuable, but she is much less known than many of her contemporaries, and her epic is harder ‘ore’ to extract gold from. Poetry by nature is more difficult than ordinary prose writing. It requires flexibility in its sentence arrangement so that it can choose its emphasis and (if applicable) maintain its rhyming sequence. Poetry also utilizes a wider vocabulary than many people are used to, to express what it wants to in the way that it needs to. Yet poetry is valuable because it helps us to imagine and feel more about a subject than prose is often able to. Through her poetry, Hutchinson teaches us theology and scriptural interpretation, and these not only as subjects to understand, but also to feel and to be moved by and instructed in. If we are going to take from her poem the gold that can be mined from this Puritan hill, we need to get at it through the medium of poetry.[23]

By using poetry, Hutchinson’s reflections on the first chapters of Genesis draw out the theological and practical implications, and lead us toward an appropriate emotional response. They also provide considerations for Christian preaching. Admittedly these are not things invented by her, nor were they lost to Christianity after her death! But her epic does provide a stirring reminder of them, and demonstrates valuable methods of presenting scriptural concepts that could be useful for Christians today. In light of these things I commend Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder to Christian readership.


[1] A further fifteen cantos were also written, continuing through Genesis 4-32. However, these were preserved only in manuscript form until published in 2001 in David Norbrook’s edition. This essay will be limited to the first five cantos covering Genesis 1-3, which work out to be about sixty printed pages and are available online at www.bartleby.com/239/.

[2] Norbrook, “Order and Disorder: The Poem and its Contexts” in Lucy Hutchinson, Order and Disorder (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers), xv. Norbrook’s introduction can be found online at https://zdoc.site/order-and-disorder-blackwell-publishing.html.

[3] A modern English edition has published this with the title Biblical Theology.

[4] In style, it poetic verse is comprised of rhyming pairs of ten syllable lines. Numerous biblical texts also appear in the margins. For further details on Hutchinson’s life and writings, see Norbrook, “The Poem and its Contexts”, xii-xxi. 

[5] For discussion on gender issues in Hutchinson and her epic, see Norbrook, “The Poem and its Contexts”, xiii-xv, xliii-lii.

[6] For discussion on the political undertones of Order and Disorder, and the scripture glosses in the margins, see Norbrook, “The Poem and its Contexts”, xxvi, xxxv-xliii. 

[7] Hutchinson’s meditations elsewhere finds promises within the words of Genesis 1-3 (e.g. I.119-30; I.312-30; V.243-58).

[8] E.g. Gal. 4:4-6; Eph. 1:3-14;1Pet. 1:2.

[9] “Jn. 1:3; Heb. 1:2; Jn. 5:19 &c.; Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13.”

[10] Here she seems to understand Gen. 1:26f in light of Gen. 2:8. By having Adam created alone first rather than both ‘male and female’, her poem is able to save for later the special introduction she gives to Eve starting at III.229.

[11] There are similarities between the presentation of man here and in Calvin’s Institutes I.XV, which she is known to have studied in 1667-68. Further statements on human nature are made elsewhere in Order and Disorder, e.g. V.467-470.

[12] We must remember that the knowledge of the animal kingdom was not as extensive in seventeenth century England as is common today.

[13] The name Adam comes from the Hebrew word for ‘ground/dust’ (ădāmāh) and is also translated ‘Man’.

[14] We see this treatment of OT texts frequently in the NT, such as in Matthew’s interpretation of the ‘virgin will be with child sign of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt. 1:23), Paul’s understanding of the ‘water from the rock’ narrative (1Cor. 10:1-4) and the typologies that the book of Hebrews finds in the Levitical priesthood.

[15] Other examples include the animal skins of Gen. 3:21 as foreshadowing atoning sacrifice (V.267-280), the ‘promised seed’ of Gen. 3:15 as the first proleptic hint of the gospel, from which Hutchinson draws out the suggestive contours of what would come from this seed (V.64-78).

[16] In the margins to these lines are the following verse references: “1Jn. 5:3; Prov. 1:10 &c; Eph. 5:11; 1Tim. 6:12”. These help us to understand what Hutchinson had in mind in this ‘first injunction’.

[17] Hutchinson presents a surprisingly bleak view of marriage and motherhood for women (V.127-180), and spends more time here than on Adam’s curse (V.181-192). Given her elegies and her biography of her husband, her thoughts on marriage (even if not her motherhood) do not seem to be a reflection on her own experience. Further discussion on Hutchinson as a woman writer in her time can be found in Norbrook, “The Poem and its Contexts”, xliii-li.

[18] In V.399-400 Hutchinson writes “Methinks I hear sad Eve in some dark Vale, / Her woeful state, with such sad ‘plaints, bewail,” which initiates the remainder of canto V. This final section has no biblical mandate but may have been inspired by John Milton’s similar (and dissimilar) treatment of Adam and Eve’s dialogue outside the garden in his epic poem Paradise Lost, which covers the same subject material and was published only twelve years before Hutchinson’s epic. In any case, this section allows Hutchinson the poetic freedom to reflect on Adam and Eve’s possible response to their turn of affair and present a touching conversation between the fallen couple.

[19] A la Milton’s Paradise Lost? Hutchinson refuses to speculate on matters God has not revealed – cf. I.42; I.287-290; III.153-58; IV.43-48; IV.300-305.

[20] For another sustained example, consider IV.237-44 which visualises the horror of the entry of sin using different categories, describing the experience in terms of motion, sight, temperature, energy, defeat and emotion.

[21] This holds true for short passages like V.419-37 as well as for more sustained discourses.

[22] Alister E. McGrath, “The Great Tradition: J. I. Packer on Engaging with the Past to Enrich the Present”,  in J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of his Life and Thought, ed. Timothy George (Baker Academic, 2009), 24.

[23] To help readers who are unfamiliar with poetry, the following pointers may be helpful to understand the verse of Order and Disorder and read it with benefit. First, because many words are not spelled in the way that we are used to today, sometimes they must be sounded out to be identified. Second, pay attention to the punctuation. Sentences don’t necessarily stop or pause at the end of the line. Hold a train of thought from one line to the next, noting developments in thought until you come to a full stop or at least a semi-colon. Third, if the word order makes things difficult to understand, find the verb. From there, look for the subject and object. This will help you identify the main idea that everything else is built around. Often one verb controls several lines. Fourth, remember that Hutchinson’s poetry rhymes, but also remember that she spoke with a different English accent to most modern English speakers. Sometimes words will need to be pronounced quite differently in order to maintain the rhyme. Fifth, use a dictionary to find the meaning of puzzling or obscure words. It will pay dividends. The English of this poem used words that we do not use today, but can be found in modern dictionaries. You will need to do this to find out why her (amusingly Anglo-Saxon!) depiction of Adam in III.42 is in fact not describing him as green skinned when she uses the word ‘lawn’!