Anne Finch: Creating Her Own Space

The poem “The Critick and The Writer of Fables” published in 1713 by Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is an ambitious attempt at a satirical play on gendered and formal limitations of Augustan poetry. The critick is representative of a male poetic society, and yet by acquiring a voice from Finch within the poem, it appears to represent one side of Finch’s own internal debate in deciding where her writing belongs. She makes a case for a new style of writing by satirizing the forms already in existence. The poem, at once, exemplifies an Augustan commentary about poetic definition while it inserts the thinly veiled female object of Finch, the fable writer, as the subject in the style of the Romantic poets. Finch carves a place for her own poetry between the satirical, warring poet and the pastoral, peaceful muse, making room for her various resulting combinations. Finch’s poetry resides somewhere between two chronological, poetic traditions, as well as a gender division, without fully occupying any one more than another. It is in her displacement that she finds her own space.

Breaking through Gender Oppression

The “Critick and the Writer of Fables” is bound centrally in Finch’s first published collection, Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions, in which gender consciousness is inescapable. From a publication that announces it has been written by a Lady, the brief introduction “From the Bookseller to the Reader” says:

THE Town, already having done Justice to the Ode on the Spleen, and some few Pieces in this Volume, when scattered in other Miscellanies: I think it will be sufficient (now that Permission is at last obtained for the Printing of the Collection) to acquaint the Reader, that they are of the same Hand; which I doubt not will render this Miscellany an acceptable Present to the Publick. (Finch A2)

According to this passage, Finch writes as a woman in a man’s poetic world, without apology and with enough coercive wit that both asks for acceptance and demonstrates her worthiness of such a valuable gift. Using her previous, though comparatively small, success with a few anonymously published poems, Finch introduces her greater body of public work with “no doubt” that it is acceptable. She argues that, since the town has already granted righteous acceptance of “Ode on the Spleen,” her talent has been established and the door is open for her to share more. While this argument reads as logical, her confidence reads as contrived in light of the parenthetical allusion to public resistance and lack of permission.

Because women have not been allowed to take part in the general poetic conversation as equals to men, Finch follows her introduction with the poem “Mercury and the Elephant.” This piece reveals the general opinion of male authors toward women’s writing, including the lines, “Solicitous thus should I be / For what’s said of my Verse and Me; / Or shou,d my Friend’s Excuses frame / And beg the Criticks not to blame / (Since from a Female Hand it came) / Defects in Judgment, or in Wit; / They’d but reply — Then has she Writ!” (Finch 2-3). Disconnect between the genders is undeniable. If women commit defects in judgment and then commit such thoughts to the page, is that considered well crafted writing? Who decides? Obviously, men are judge and jury of all that enters their world, including the thoughts of women. Finch goes on to say that men read for themselves, not for women, while women write for themselves and not for men (Finch, 3). Poetic permission reflects strong patriarchal control over the craft, although there is some small glimmer of value of feminine poetics referred to in the poet’s mention of friends who make excuses. Flawed as women may appear in their craft and wit, something brings those friends to Finch’s defense. It may be the slight recognition that difference is not necessarily wrong.

Men of Taste

In the poem, the friends who Finch speaks of mirror her relationships with other poets such as Jonathan Swift, Nicholas Rowe and Alexander Pope. While there are certainly more, these three present a gamut of opinions surrounding her work. According to Barbara McGovern in her book Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography, Swift was an admirer of Finch and encourages her to publish, while Rowe encourages Finch not to venture into publication, (although it is speculated that he included a verse epilogue from Finch in his play “The Tragedy at Jane Shore”) (McGovern 100). Rowe’s advice lies in direct conflict with an account from Myra Reynolds, in her introduction to The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. In admiration the likes of which Swift shared, Rowe describes Ardelia (Finch’s pen name) in one of his poems as a “divine nymph” whose praise is unqualified (Reynolds liii). Barbara McGovern and Charles H. Hinnant, in their book The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, A Critical Edition, describes a positive aspect of the relationship between Finch and Pope. This exists in both Finch’s admiration of Pope’s poetry as well as her playful criticism of his four lines in “The Rape of the Locke.” Their amiable interactions include Pope’s enjoyment of Finch’s poetry which likely leads Pope to influence the inclusion of two of Finch’s poems in Sir Richard Steele’s Poetical Miscellanies of 1713 in addition to Pope’s own inclusion of Finch’s “The Impromptu” in his 1717 volume of miscellany poems (Hinnant and McGovern xxxvii). Unfortunately, twelve years after Finch?s death, she became the butt of Pope and Gay’s satirical jokes in “Three Hours After Marriage” (Reynolds, lv-lvii). If this environment reads as fickle and complicated, one can understand why Finch had to navigate her way through the shifting public and poetic taste with care. Perhaps this explains why she references “men of taste” in the “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” It is not the opinions of women that can make or break this artist.

The taste of the time was indeed shifting when “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” was published in 1713. Finch first learned to mirror the style of Dryden while she was Maid of Honor to Mary of Modena beginning in 1682. Her personal acquaintance with him is more than likely since they had both courtly and family connections; Dryden wrote “Ode to Mistress Anne Killegrew” for another of Mary Modena’s maids at that time, and Finch and Dryden became related through the marriage of cousins (McGovern 21). By the time Alexander Pope, the poet Finch most wanted to please, had published his new Pastorals, Finch had already written a great deal of her work in accordance with Dryden’s standards. Pope and Swift each shared similar annoyances for Dryden’s poetic devices such as his use of the triplet as well as the hiatus (Reynolds, lxxxix). These devices heavily peppered Finch’s poetry long before Pope had developed his taste. Interestingly, in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” Finch writes about a departure from the poetics of Dryden. This change in her own taste may account for Pope’s fickleness toward Finch’s poetry.

Finding Freedom in the Smallest of Spaces

How is it that Anne Finch was able infiltrate the masculine world of poetry in the first place? Although female authors at this time must write from within the trappings of their gender, they also find freedom to write within a space that does not compete with that of masculine poetry. In the scholarly paper “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch,” Dorothy Memin explains of these poetesses:

In both form and content they cherish autonomy rather than preeminence and usually speak of themselves in self-deprecating low-keyed tones. And always the inescapable central term is gender: whereas male poets have imagined their own voices to be genderless, ?universal,? they never forget that they write, and will be read as women. (Memin 336)

It is likely, for these reasons, that Finch takes care to differentiate between the ways in which men read for themselves and women write for themselves, particularly after she publically declares herself a woman in a manner that might read as a public ruse; the interpretation of her anonymous work may have been presumed to be written by a man. But why this enormous focus on feminine humility? Mermin explains the connection between literary and moral reputation:

If women are peculiarly shy about having their works “exposed,” it is partly because their works and their selves are so often confused with each other. Their physical person — their beauty is generally the prime object of critical regard. (Mermin 338)

To tread this fine line between acceptance and rejection via humility is a skill that some like Aphra Behn had little stamina to execute well. While Behn’s good reputation could not survive public ridicule once she became too bold for male acceptance, Finch was far more careful. Although she does break gendered poetic boundaries by daring to make a woman the subject as well as the object in “The Critic and the Writer of Fables,” this places her in little danger of harsh criticism because the satirical tone of the poem distills her self-importance down to self-mockery.

While Finch refers to her published poems with this feigned yet necessary sense of humility, she and her husband also preserve, without publishing for fear of condemnation, a portion of her later work, now collected within the Wellesley Manuscript. As McGovern and Hinnant suggest, this fear likely stems from Finch’s allusions to political sympathies within her fables with the Jacobite cause during a time of anti-Jacobite hysteria:

What they bring out is the close relation that exists between a reluctance to publish and an attitude toward questions of moral, historical, and political import that refuses to resort to ideas of self censorship, expediency, concealment, or compromise in the preparation of a manuscript. (Hinnant and McGovern xxiii)

In these unpublished poems, Finch understands her feminine limitations within in the public realm. For a woman who published hundreds of poems, she never stopped writing what she honestly thought, if only as a matter of private self expression shared with a trusted few. These poems were Finch’s way to pledge personal allegiance to the Stuart family, regardless of public distaste for such a stance or for engagement of a woman in political debate. Considering the political climate and the further alienation at stake, particularly after her husband Hineage’s arrest for attempting to join King James on the continent after the Glorious Revolution, Finch was wise to be selective.

Suggesting this behavior as evidence of strict self protection is not to say that Finch was overly protective of all aspects of her work. She found room to speak publicly and playfully through her poetry using one of the altered Augustan elements best explained in Maragaret Doody’s The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Doody says:

The heroic couplet was associated with matters thought foreign to women – classical learning, rule over the world. The more memorable poetry of Augustan women poets is usually in iambic tetrameter in which they could be allowed to toss off individual observations and feelings. In this form too, they could safely exhibit wit without being thought too arrogant. (Doody 242)

Doody puts words to the lack of women’s political impact in this medium by using phrases like “light verse with a point” or “unassuming, but nicely formed” to highlight her examples. Finch employed this low impact line-style in “Mercury and the Elephant” with good reason. Opening Miscellany with a poem describing the struggle of women writers, she had to be careful not to earn rejection before her audience turned only a few pages. To present her heart-felt dilemma in a style reserved for humor, she is likely seen at the time to be poking fun at herself. Finch would not always play coy though, refusing to back into a woman’s corner of the writing desk. She could just as skillfully cast off her individual observations using the traditionally heroic iambic pentameter in poems such as “Ardeliah’s Answer to Ephelia” and “Nocturnal Reverie” which Doody calls some of her best work (Doody 242). It is interesting to note that these were placed toward the end of Miscellany, perhaps because they were of too serious a tone, leaving her audience to work through the larger body of work before reaching the piece de resistance.

While the use of iambic tetrameter may have offered a foothold for women in a man’s poetic world, once that first step was taken, it was time to commandeer the muse. Trevor Ross in Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century, traces the symbolic fall of Apollo, Greek god of poetry, throughout men’s works produced prior to and during the Restoration. Apollo, Ross finds, mirrors the valorized male in the position of the British laureateship and “by mid-century, Apollo, like modern royalty, enjoys only a ceremonial role in the governing of Parnassus, which is itself no longer a star chamber but a democracy” (Ross 179). It is this weakening of the national poet and the poet godhead that created space for new points of power. As Ross explains:

By the 1688 *Journal from Parnassus,* the emergence of professional women writers like Behn had become enough of a threat to Parnassus that they had to be exiled altogether, lest they “soon endeavour a Monopoly of Witt.” By then, the laureate ideal had become weakened sufficiently for women poets to begin appropriating Apollo in their own defense. Finch, in her “Circuit of Apollo” (1713), has the deity dividing the honours among all women since “they all had a right to the Bay’s” and then ceding his evaluative authority to the Muses, “Since no man upon earth, nor Himself in the sky” would dare to rid Parnassus of “three parts in four from amongst woman kind.” (Ross 181)

This hostile takeover of a masculine myth reshaped the poetic world for women, if not entirely for men. While it was a tremendous accomplishment for women in the fictional realm, it may have been more dangerous in the real world. The perceived threat quite possibly reinforced the thought that men must keep women out of politics and poetry. Still, the power of women cannot be denied when evidenced in their work. The muse, referred to twice in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is both adventurous and demanding, leading a female poet rather than a man. Equally important is the fact that she “strays” down various traditionally male paths, each time finding her way back to fables.

Why Fables?

Within “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” there is little evidence that the fable writer is a woman other than through Finch’s use of self deprecation. This may be due to the translation in her adaptation of La Fontaine’s original, “Contre cueux qui ont le Gout difficile,” although it more likely stems from her own sense of position within English literature. Charles H. Hinnant, in The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation, explains why the origins are not so clear:

Finche’s fables, like those of Swift or Gay, are not translation — or even imitations, in the sense popularized by Oldham and Pope. Thus they do not conform to what Dryden calls paraphrase — a mode “where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not strictly followed.” (Hinnant 168-169)

While keeping with the feel of what the poem attempts to achieve by illuminating the limitations that rigid criticism places on poetry, Finch expands the meaning to suit her concerns with a pertinent historical time, place and culture. According to Hinnant, Finch “retains the denunciation by La Fontaine’s critic of the hackneyed language of the epic and pastoral, but she adds a section on satire and begins by making her poet renounce the irregular ode in favor of the fable” (Hinnant 169). Fables are an enjoyable poetic format for Finch. She is largely a talented fable writer as well as a translator in four languages. Finch’s art in capturing La Fontaine’s message creates an enhanced translation that suits her present and personal predicament.

Sadly, for Finch, fables have lost their luster for the professional male poet. They are considered amateur and femininely inferior. This notion is made evident as the poem’s speaker calls fable writing a descent in form. In the critic’s opinion, “Fable, he cries, tho grown the affected Strain. / But dies as it was born, without Regard or Pain. / Wilst of his Aim the lazy Trifler fails, / Who seeks to purchase Fame by Childish Tales” (Finch 163). This description offers no kind word for the form. A lazy person, as opposed to the skilled professional artist, fails to create anything of worth by putting little effort into the creation and earning ill reward. Fame said to not come so cheaply in the shape of a children’s tale because only craft and skill can divine a thing of beauty. Is the ease with which Fables appear to flow truly the work of lazy triflers? Absolutely not. Hinnant explains the misconception in an historical context:

The grand tradition of English criticism from Sir Philip Sydney through John Dryden established a system of critical norms that privileged poetry over verse, mimesis over fiction invention over imitation, etc. Let La Fontaine and his English successors mark exactly the same categories, but they give a witty reemphasis to the features that they agree to discern. (Hinnant 168)

Of course these critical norms are the very ideals “The Critic and the Writer of Fables” rallies against. The poet wants to hasten toward the enjoyment of fiction rather than mimesis if only to instruct through a removed example rather than the satirical rantings of a mimetic reproduction.

To expound on this thought, the interesting twist in the first stanza is where the narrator says that fables “Teach, as poets should, whilst they Divert”(Finch 163). This line rings of what Augustan poetry is supposed to accomplish, to instruct the masses on transcendental truths. According to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. In “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. A Dissertation upon Poetry,” Johnson writes:

The business of a poet requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition; observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind, as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness of infancy to the despondence of decrepitude. He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. He must, therefore, content himself with the slow progress of this name, contemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as being superior to time and place. (Johnson 2694)

Finch’s poem achieves all of these goals. She understands the joy of expression for men and the unhappiness of oppression for women. She creates a generalization of social experience for half the population in order to instruct both men and women in tolerance. She understands the skewed world view and those prejudices that are not her truth as a woman. She is not stagnant in time but, instead, traces the changing poetic times, instructing on the poetic possibilities, and painting this picture in broad strokes. Although these points may be understood by Finch’s public audience on some level, there is still the demarcation of this feminized form in which she delivers her message. Without critical distance, those readers of her time can not see the value in her departure from Augustan tradition.

How ironic that Johnson’s Rasselas is a fable defining what Augustan poetry should be while missing his own mark, ignoring half the picture so entirely. How can a man who ponders life so thoroughly come to the conclusion that poetry by Finch or any other woman has no place in his anthology, The Lives of the Poets, Linda Zionkowski, in her book Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784, argues that the female poet was not always excluded from what eventually became a masculine literary field. Johnson complicates the ability to understand the omission because he was known to offer female writers encouragement:

[His encouragement] prohibits an easy dismissal of the problem as an instance of gender prejudice. Although the increasing commercialization of eighteenth-century life complicated the distinctions between professionals and pseudoprofessionals, Geoffrey Holmes argues that during Johnson’s time, a profession was still characterized as a lifelong vocation requiring extensive training and application “The Lives” preoccupation with the nature of literary labor, the social status of poets, and the relation of poets to the audiences whose needs they presumably served reveal Johnson’s concern with detailing the distinguishing features of his profession. In repeatedly asserting what Magali Larson calls “the monopoly of competence” of nonaristocratic literary men, the Lives articulates and codifies new expectations for poetic careers — expectations that could not be met by writers whose class and gender required them to operate under an alternative economy. (Zionkowski 186)

To see poetry through the lens of labor obviously lessens the blame on gender alone. It is gender as attached to labor or, more precisely, the lack there-of that has its hand in turning the tide. Education is another aspect of this economic point of view. Without educating all women, how can they first train to be laborers? Johnson, and others like him, determined the rules for professionalism and inspired the exclusion of all women. While the motive for learning and recording what Johnson could about what he saw as a profession seems innocent enough, the result was tragic for poetic women who were no longer anthologized between 1750 and 1779 (Zionkowski 186). This is obviously only one theory and it is not an easy idea to rest all blame upon. Johnson must have been at least somewhat aware of his impact on the history of inspiring male-centric British poetry much to the dismay of his female poetic acquaintances.

Interesting as this revelation about the connection between poetry and labor may be, there is no such handy explanation that can excuse the “taste of men” for excluding the poetry of women, particularly when women’s textual elements evidence the gender divide time and again in those historical moments when they are included. “Taste,” a term briefly addressed by William Wordsworth in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems,” is only referenced in order to say that he does not fit into the traditional approach to what is acceptable in poetry (Wordsworth 649). This idea plays a significant role in Finch’s poem with which she criticizes “men of taste” for limiting poetic form to the exclusion of anything different. Wordsworth’s own taste renounces the contrived language and structure of Augustan poetry in order to replace it with common language which speaks to the common man (Wordsworth 650). Although Finch writes long before Wordsworth, her poem too argues for the need of language that speaks to the common human being (not just man), demonstrating that changing taste does eventually make room for the new but that it happens slowly.

Similar as Wordsworth and Finch may seem in their directives; Wordsworth had no real knowledge of Finch’s poetic identity. Of her selected pastoral poetry, referred to him by a friend, he says in a letter to Alexander Dyce in 1830:

Her style in rhyme is often admirable: chaste, tender, and vigorous, and entirely free from sparkle, antithesis, and that overculture which reminds one, by its broad glare, its stiffness and heaviness, of the double daisies of the garden, compared with their modest and sensitive kindred of the fields. (Hopkins, 178)

Speaking aptly on “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Nocturnal Reverie,” Wordsworth’s assumption is that this is entirely representative of Finch’s greater body of work. The reality is that much of Finch’s poetry adheres more closely to the Augustan style. Only a handful of her poems were pastoral.

Alexander Dyce, the recipient of Wordsworth’s note, is an important piece within the history of Finch’s legacy. Sharon C. Seelig’s article, “The Poets of the Renaissance,” investigates the poetic climate that existed at the time that Katherine Philips and Finch were included in an anthology by Dyce in 1827:

In his preface Dyce makes it clear that he is correcting an omission: Of the Selections which have been made from the chaos of our past Poetry, the majority has been confined almost entirely to the writings of men; and from the great *Collections of the English Poets,* where so many worthwhile compositions find a place, the productions of women have been carefully excluded.” (Qtd. In Seelig 163)

George W. Bethune produced an anthology of women authors as well in 1848, joining in the view that human nature, and in particular female nature (or intelligence), was improving. (Seelig 163). These changing points of view prove that Finch, with a talented group of other women poets, indeed carved a place in poetic history. Sadly, at the time, the increase in accessibility to women’s writing is attributed to improved female nature rather the opening of the door by more tolerant men and more persistent women. Although the end result, women finding their place in anthologies, is a move toward a more balanced artistic environment, I believe that Finch’s inclusion in anthologies alongside men like Pope gave her work more credence given the earlier stigma of being cordoned off for being the very thing that makes her superior against adversity.

Using the Tools at Hand

While the popular convention of Augustan poetry offered a framework with which Finch could put forth her perspective, it was lacking in the ability for language and form to readily reflect a woman’s full truth without being told in a man’s voice. Jacques Derrida, in his theory “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” recalls Levi-Strauss’ use of the term “bricoleur” to refer to someone “who uses the means at hand.” Derrida expands on this idea saying that bricolage, or “the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text or heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is a bircoleur” (Derrida 920) Finch thus becomes a handywoman borrowing from past and failed poetic forms as avenues for the feminine voice. By doing so, she de-centers the original and creates something new. This is not unlike T. S. Eliot’s theory, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the poet must conform to the cannon but must also expand the capabilities of the work just enough to make it new and interesting (Elliot 1093). Augustan poetry was the only convention at hand for women writers to be taken seriously, but was in need of change to accommodate the feminine voice. To create something entirely new is a sure fire way to be rejected in a climate that adores time honored tradition so Finch uses the tools she has at hand. By using Augustan references and modes of writing, Finch pushes portions of the old voices out of the way, makes room for her own, creating an entirely new public voice within the compilation.

Turning these broken forms in upon themselves for examination is partially an Augustan satirical function but, in the case of such self-reflexivity, it demonstrates an almost postmodern move. Linda Hutcheon, in her book The Politics of Postmodernism, defines historiographic metafiction which, through a two part process of dedoxification and self-reflexivity, reveals the power as well as the limitations employed by a particular narrative form. To dedoxify something is to problematize it by a reverse definition, one that denaturalizes and reveals the ideology behind a form as clouded by cultural norms. Hutcheon describes it best by saying:

Postmodern representational practices that refuse to stay neatly within accepted conventions and traditions and that deploy hybrid forms and seemingly mutual contradictory strategies frustrate critical attempts (including this one) to systematize them, to order them with an eye to control and mastery — that is to totalize (Hutcheon 35).

Finch performs this move by writing a fable about a fable writer, at once demonstrating that a fable, typically seen as artistic folly, is actually a powerful tool used to deliver her message. Within the same poem, she does this also by satirizing the satirical. While Hutcheon’s theory refers to a specific kind of postmodern narrative, the idea illustrates well Anne Finch’s use of poetic fable to reveal both the established social power, from the shortcomings fable possesses due to public imposition to the versatility with which it delivers her message about what the form has the power to do very well.

Another form Finch manipulates within “The Critick and the Wirter of Fables” is the recycling of epic references to Greek mythology. She turns this into something preposterously larger than life and then, like the muse, commandeers the story for her own benefit. Finch satirically employs the form but also reveals it as tired, if not for her new spin on the ending. Her passage reads, “The walls of Troy shall be our loftier Stage / Our mighty theme the fierce Achilles Rage, / Amidst her Towers, the dedicated Horse / Shall be received, big with destructive Force; / Till Men shall say, when Flames have brought her down. / “Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town?” (Finch 163). Finch references the city of Troy as well as the Trojan horse as “she? as if to say women’s poetry (her own) actively infiltrates a feminine city in order to reclaim power after a ravaging under the rule of men. In the end, neither the feminine city nor the feminine horse survives, but something new exits when Troy is replaced by the town of Ilium. Finch appears to understand that her poetry must go into battle, but also that the fight will render something new rising up from the ashes of destruction.

Next up for critique in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is the traditional Augustan pastoral, a true sleeper according to the critic. The idea of sleep is playfully handled in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” when the critick says “Oh! stun me not with these insipid Dreams, / The Eternal Hush the Lullaby of Streams. / Which still, he cries their even Measures keep, / Till both the Writers and the Readers sleep” (Finch 164) Christopher Miller, in “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening,” examines the gender innovation of “Nocturnal Reverie” and compares Finch’s imaginative spin on darkness to the originating trope in which, “Finch mimics the famous evening-to-fantasy scholarly devotion in John Milton’s “Il Penseroso” (1631), but she focuses more on sensory absorption of the nocturnal world than on the humoral disposition associated with it” (Miller 604). In this nocturnal space, a different kind of pastoral where eyes would typically be closed, Finch, as the thinly veiled fable writer, says that the critic and “men of taste” must open their eyes to new poetry and see all the possibility that she sees by directing her reader toward “Nocturnal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, Finch seems to agree that this form is tired although she can easily prove that it has the ability to move beyond the “Swain’s unhappy Smart” and the “Envy of the Plains” (Finch 163) Essentially, poets of the male persuasion need to wake up, read what waits in front of them, and by the time they get to her “Nocternal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, they will have indeed learned from experience.

What Fresh Poetry is This?

When the only poetic form the critic will accept is revealed to be satire, the fable writer is astonished and critiques the critic right back. With biting tongue she asks, “Must only Satire keep your Fancies warm? / Wilst even there, you praise with such Reserve, / As if you’d in the midst of plenty starve, / Tho’ ne’er so liberally we authors carve” (Finch 164). It becomes obvious that the critic will never truly be satisfied, even with their form of choice. The thirst and hunger for poetic gems would be quenched if only the critic and “men of taste” would relinquish the lofty airs that fill them with nothingness in order to drink from the depths of an abundant well of craft. Finch’s poetry can lead them there but she cannot make them drink. Left to choose for themselves, the last lines leave them where they began, with “Operas and panegyricks” (Finch 164). In Finch’s lifetime she never did see much movement on this front.

This lack of transcendence permeates the end of “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” Likewise, in “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale,'” Hinnant talks about the ways in which Finch associates with the natural world rather than the superiority of the human world without ending on the note of achieved perfection (Hinnant 511). She does this here too and, while it may make the piece feel unfinished, I think Finch simply asks for the recognition that other poetic possibilities exist. While she does not directly describe what this new proposed form would look like, I believe she refers to poems she has already written. Everything is an experiment. Rather than hold poetry to some new immovable standard. In leaving the possibilities open ended, she has no desire to create new confines within which she and others must conform at her particular command. This is a grand departure from what her male counterparts consistently try to categorize and control. Finch just wants to be, and it’s oh so very romantic.

Works Cited

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Doody, Margaret. The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 233-264.

Eliot, T S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 1092-1098.

Finch, Anne. Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. London: J[Ohn] B[Arber], 1713. Google Books. 5 Apr. 2008 .

Greenblat, Stephen, ed. “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. a Dissertation Upon Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. Comp. Lawrence Lipking and James Noggle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2006. 2693-2694.

Hinnant, Charles H., and Barbara McGovern. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, a Critical Edition. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1998. xv-xli.

Hinnant, Charles H. “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale'” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 31 (1991): 499-513. JSTOR. College of Saint Rose, Albany.

Hinnant, Charles H. The Poetry of Anne Finch: an Essay in Interpretation. Newark: University of Delaware P, 1994. 166-196.

Hopkins, David, ed. Routledge Anthology of Poets on Poets. 2nd ed. Florence: Routledge, 1994. 178.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. 29-58.

McGovern, Barbara. Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1992.

Mermin, Dorothy. “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch.” ELH 57 (1990): 335-355. JSTOR. Neil Hellman Library, Albany. 15 Apr. 2008. Keyword: Anne Finch.

Miller, Christopher R. “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening.” SEL 45 (2005): 603-623. 12 Mar. 2008 .

Ross, Trevor Thornton. Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century. Montreal, QC, Canada: McGill-Queen UP, 2000. 173-205.

Seelig, Sharon C. “The Poets of the Renaissance.” Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Ed. Claude J. Summers. Columbia: University of Missouri P, 2002. 156-169.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Comp. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 648-668.

Zionkowski, Linda. Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 171-204.

This paper was discussed in The Guardian on the topic of Anne Finch’s poetry.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/oct/06/poem.week.anne.finch

Impromptu Part Deux

The sequel to a previous post…

George SandIn response to a classmate who believes that French author Madam George Sand (Judy Davis) in James Lapine’s 1991 film Impromptu, is “attracted to Chopin (Hugh Grant) because she unconsciously learned to be more feminine like he was,” I’d like to respectfully disagree.

Prior to Sand’s pursuit of Chopin, she is already quite feminine as demonstrated through her clothing throughout the film. As a child, she wears a dress and has long hair. Sand’s bed clothes in the very first scene are traditionally frilly with ruffles, bows and layers. At the first party where she is to meet her publisher, Chopin’s presence yet unbeknownst to her, Sand wears a rather eccentric dress/pants combination, but somewhat of a silken embroidered dress with a bow in front all the same. When she visits her mother prior to engaging in her relationship with Chopin she wears a conservatively elegant cloak and, when her mother dies, Sand’s mourning dress is a traditional black gown and her hair is traditionally upswept. Perhaps Sand entertains the idea of being fit for a more traditional dress when in pursuit of Chopin, but she also tries moving in the opposite direction by buying men’s clothing. Overall, I’d say Sand is never portrayed as strictly masculine nor feminine, but rather the perfect embodiment of both at once.

In thinking about the roles of man and woman I find that Sand, rather than learning to be more feminine from Chopin, becomes increasingly masculine once they are lovers. She takes on the traditional role of the courting gentleman buying flowers and advancing in constant persuit. Likewise, Chopin’s feminine behavior is simply reinforced in the process. I see no evidence of him becoming more masculine when he sits like a woman being rowed about in a canoe, is led up an escarpment, sits cross legged on the park bench, etc. Still, the space each occupies in this dichotomy is not enough to explain their relationship. I think it’s more than a topic of masculine and feminine.

What I find most interesting is Sand’s role as “mother” which, in many ways is more like both father and mother. Her own children live with her and are even brought with her to visit the Dutchess in the country when she could have left them with Mallefille, the male tutor who acts more like a mistress. At the same time, Sand is their sole bread winner, which explains the need for Mallefille in times when Sand can’t supervise the children herself. When she visits Marie, she always takes up the babies in a loving motherly fashion, gently coddling them and kissing their heads, yet she is dressed in men’s clothing and spends only brief stints in their presence, promptly handing them back to Marie. Marie, by contrast, is the epitome of womanhood, house bound with her breasts continuously unbound for nursing. Sand is always both, complete, the whole of a societal division.

This theme exists throughout Sand’s interactions with Chopin as well. The struggle of courtship in which Sand acts like a man in pursuit of a women is a complete failure, a ruse set in motion by Marie. It isn’t until Sand comes to Chopin as herself, vulnerable and yet brave to share that vulnerability, that the two connect. Only in this moment does Chopin “see” Sand. Once the relationship begins, Sand resumes the complete mother /father role. She protects him physically during the duel like a father, saves his pride like a mother, and then awkwardly gives him his milk. Rather than bringing out Chopin’s masculine side, Sand seems to be more in the market of raising the boy into manhood, to nurture him as a mother and father would, to help strengthen him into the mature and perfect love.

Sand is not looking for two halves to form one whole, but two complete people who join in one relationship. A perfect lover nurtures, gently guides, holds the hurts of her lover’s heart and has hers held in return. Gender divisions create a divide prohibiting this type connection, but Sand bridges that divide by being all things to Chopin. In doing so, Sand attempts to create her equal in all matters of the heart. When the couple rides off into the grey light of an overcast day, one not purely sunny nor stormy, one can hope this is the path to the perfect love Sand wished for in childhood.

Impromptu

My first introduction to Aurore “George” Sand, the French author, has come solely from my viewing of director James Lapine’s Impromptu. Having never read Sand’s work, nor any form of a biography, I have come to the topic with no preconceived notions. This film’s limited window into Sand’s life provides the opportunity for an interesting experiment. I’d like to compare my first impression of Sand as directed by Lapine with that produced by acquiring additional information. Will my initial understanding be supported, contradicted or enhanced by some quick research? Let’s find out.

When Young Aurore (Lucy Speed) first appears, she is a child running through the wilderness away from an authoritative voice calling her name. She arrives at a self-made altar of stones among the ferns growing at the base of a tree. There she kneels and prays:

Hear me, O Corambe. Corambe, thou who art man, woman and god in one, hear me. I free this bird in thy name. Come to me, sublime being. I want to know the meaning of life. And I want to find perfect, perfect love. I free this lizard in thy name.    [To lizard] Don’t be dead. Oh, balls.

This shot dissolves to reveal Madame “George” Sand (Judy Davis) seated at a desk writing her memoirs.

This opening scene sets up the rest of the film entirely. George thrives in nature away from the confines of constructed society. She makes sacrifices to an a-typical God of the time who, rather than existing as a patriarchal being, is complete in both masculine and feminine form combined. There is depth to the author from the start, a desire to explore the many facets of life’s meaning including that of love. Aurore is not a well kempt child pristinely decorated with frills and bows but one willing to get down into the dirt and truly experience a moment from within.

From this point on, little about the character is ultimately shocking whether George appears in men’s clothing or crosses the boundaries of gender-based social etiquette. Still, she is complex, round if you will, open to her own emotion, contemplative and analytical while those who surround her are flat caricatures of the jealous, manipulative and overbearing friends, lovers and wanna-be artists. She drifts between the despair of being married and the despair of her freedom, searching for the happiness which can only be found in Chopin’s (Hugh Grant’s) love. Along the way, she makes her own rules just as she does within their relationship.

Rather than rely upon love for inspiration, as is the case in Shakespeare in Love, George appears to write about the journey, the struggle of life itself in her memoirs. When she and Chopin discuss his impromptu, the connection between this struggle in both art and life are addressed:

Chopin: A perfect impromptu should seem spontaneous and free. No one should be able to guess at all the desperate calculation behind it. And uh, I’ve been struggling with this for so long. It’s like being tangled in a net? I think if I ever finish it, then it will have finished me. Well, you must, you must suffer tortures to find the perfect word that will make it all seem effortless.

George: Me, suffer for art? You must be joking. I suffer quite enough for life.

I want to believe this separation for George is the truth, but there is evidence within the film to the contrary. When she hands the final chapter of her memoirs to her publisher, the pages are thinly bound. George then makes the correlation between the lack of content and a lack of emotional satisfaction in her life. Without one, the other suffers and the two are not as easily compartmentalized as she would like to believe.

I find that George and Chopin have much to offer each other. Chopin reveals to George that the struggle of art is the struggle of life while she reveals to him that he needs to reunite with the world of the living in order to create art. Only together do the two connect with each other, with life and with art, creating their world as would a god the likes of Corambe.

I’m off to read more on Sand now. Back shortly…

As it turns out, and I suspected as such, the depiction of George Sand is rather accurate in personality, regardless of the fictionalized version of her relationship with Chopin and my understanding of Sand has only been enhanced by internet inquiries. Generally speaking, Judy Davis’ skillful characterization personified Sand’s ability to avoid pigeonholing herself within any one particular category. Still, while I never expect a film to incorporate every aspect of a person’s character or story, I find it interesting that Sand’s politics factored in so little within the narrative of Impromptu. According to the George Sand Biography from Ohio University, she produced a great number of written propaganda pieces for the revolution and the provisional government:

Sand appealed to Louis Napoleon for clemency and amnesty for many of the people implicated in the revolution. She was granted at least two audiences, and through her intervention some were saved from execution, others given commuted sentences. Thirteen political detainees of the Indre region were spared exile of prison. She literally pled the cause of hundreds of people, including Bakunin whom she defended in a letter to Karl Marx (July 20, 1848). But she herself was crushed by disappointment, and retreated to literature for solace (see the two prefaces to La Petite Fadette) and to writing her memoirs, Histoire de ma vie, in which she alluded to the revolution only in Aesopian terms.

Timing here is interesting. The writing of her memoirs was the result and evidence of Sand’s ideological stance on the revolution. The film avoids this overt connection, although her thoughts on the aristocracy are made quite clear.

Galatea 2.2 .3

Between the pages of 155 and 268, our narrator, Powers, and Dr. Lentz struggle with their traditional masculine roles, feeling that they must care for and protect their women. Lentz feels responsible for his wife Audrey’s stroke occurring directly after their argument while?he was intentionally unreachable. Guilt ridden for not taking enough care, he visits her waning consciousness with daily devotion at the Center. Powers also cares for his lost and confused C. but learns that:

The more care I took, the more I turned her into the needy one. And the more I did that, the needier she became. We construed her neediness between the two of us. And that was not care on my part. That was cowardice. (240)

Together, Powers and Lentz search for some sort of answer to the masculine condition through the production and training of Helen, the beloved and experimental neural net in Galatea 2.2. Lentz, although he can’t change the past, has the desire to change the future, developing a way to back up the brain in the case of memory failure. Powers interprets and mulls this goal:

We could eliminate death. That was the long-term idea. We might freeze the temperament of our choice. Suspend it painlessly above experience. Hold it forever at twenty-two. (170)

We have yet to learn what Powers gains from the experiment, but perhaps Donna Haraway might offer a clue.

Pulling out the ol’ Norton, I brushed up on Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” several quotes of which were rather pertinent to Helen. First off, “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism — a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (2269). Already, in this one definition, the cyborg blurs the boundaries of human, animal?and machine as well as reality and fiction.

Since Helen is essentially a new “other,” her existence could be construed as a cultural encounter similar to, for example, that of Europeans and Native Americans. It is assumed from the ideology at hand that one must dominate the other. That said, how is it possible to avoid the dominant/male and submissive/female trap that haunts the majority of historical human existence? According to Haraway, the power lies within the technology.

The cyborg has no origin story? they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. (2270-2271)

According to Haraway, Powers and Lentz are “inessential” as fathers. Once they load the data, Helen thinks on her own. Although Powers has coded Helen with gender, it is within the power of the cyborg to blur the boundaries of such a dichotomy as the masculine and feminine. Once blurred, perhaps some revelation will be made to both about the roles of men and women in society.

While this unique lesson of love between man and machine has yet to be revealed , one thing is certain. Helen has already invoked much discussion about what constitutes human intelligence, blurring the distinction between true knowledge and switch flipping. Are we nothing more than weighted switches constantly back-feeding input through our neural nets, or is there something inherently human that sets us apart from a machine?

I’ll be turning pages rapidly to find out.

Making Sense (???)

So far this semester, our class has covered:

  • John Barth’s short story, “Lost in the Fun House”
  • Jeannette Winterson’s novel, Written on the Body
  • and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club.

To help define what postmodern means we have explored excerpts from:

  • Simon Malpas’ book, The Postmodern (2005)
  • H l ne Cixous critique “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays” (1975)
  • Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979)
  • Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
  • and Linda Hutcheon’s Poetics of Postmodernism (1988)

How do I cohesively make sense of all this? Having drank fully from the fire hose for weeks on end, I wonder… Will I digest or blow? This post is where I just vomit in my mouth a little.

As Malpas explains, “at the heart of identity there is a ‘thinking I’ that experiences, conceptualizes and interacts with the world” (Malpas, 57). Consequently, running rampant throughout postmodern fiction is the question of this subject’s reliability as an authority representing truth.

  • Barth’s narrator, Ambrose, is at once a child and an adult, interweaving the blind?experience of “living in the moment” with 20/20 hindsight and calling attention, through various narrative devices, to the limitations of the narrating subject both as child and adult, in other words, as narrator looking in at the main character and main character being himself.
  • Winterson complicates her narrator by creating a nongender-specific bisexual who objectifies the beloved, Louise, pitting the power of subject vs. object, one against the other, both creating and destroying the linguistic barrier to fully realizing true love.
  • Palahniuk splits his narrator’s identity into two dueling subjects within the same body who both objectify not only Marla, but each other, creating a power triangle rather than a single identifiable power source.

By complicating the subject, these authors use fiction to turn the subject in on itself and reveal its limitations. The point for the reader is that perspective and representation are not natural ways of reaching some sort of truth, but are cultural devices?that, until postmodernism hit the stage, were accepted as natural. The most we can hope for, as Stephen Colbert often points out, is mere “truthiness” (or “falsiness” as the following parody explains), which is called into question each time subjectivity becomes decentered by an alternate version of the traditional subject. (Hello, Derrida!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNHqX27hlz8 

Sexuality is also addressed in each piece, not just in terms of masculinity or femininity, but where the two overlap. According to theorist Hélène Cixouss:

Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition — a culture’s values are premised on an organisation of thought in which descriptions of the feminine are determined by masculine categories of order, opposition and hierarchy. (Malpas, 72)

Lyotard says that metanarratives order the world for a particular culture and not all cultures order the world in the same way. Because of this he believes reality is not real, that it is rather “simplicity, communicability” (75) in the name of the “unity of experience” (72) and that the postmodern “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself” (81).

  • Barth calls masculinity into question by addressing the subservience of women in the ’50s and how that defines the angered narrator’s role as he matures socially in contrast with what he feels differently internally.
  • Winterson’s non-specifically gendered and bisexual narrator draws attention to the dysfunction of defining through opposition, creating a world of confusion for the reader while, at the same time, pointing out the problem.
  • Palahniuk’s split identity, one masculinized and one feminized, are embodied within one male person which shows that neither masculinity nor femininity encompass fully what comprises the essence of a human being.

These narrators struggle with the idea that identity is formed through the constriction of language and social mapping according to opposing genders. Each illustrates that society provides no useful language or ordering of our world to address these grey areas. Postmodern work obviously strives to draw attention to the gap between the grand narrative and what actually exists.

And, although there are many more threads to follow, the HUGE question of history (revered by Jameson as fact of lived experience) versus historicity (truthiness and the closest we can get to truth) is the last item I have time to discuss. Jameson argues that the democratization of art subjects it to the corruption of marketing and capitalism. They are inseparable to the detriment of world cultures and history through depthless representation and pastiche unless we map how the depthless came to be, “in which we may again begin to grasp our new positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spacial as well as our social confusion” (54). SOOO, the question of historical validity appears repeatedly in our fiction selections.

  • Barth criticizes history by describing the role of generations of copulation in constructing social understanding of sexuality.
  • Winterson explores the narrator’s serial monogamy and only in breaking the tradition does he/she find love.
  • Palahniuk creates Tyler Durden who desperately wants to break free from history to redefine it from his point of view.

According to Malpas, Hutcheon argues that parody is not dead, it is now focused to use form to reveal a failure of form. She also finds great value studying the unrepresentable in fiction, as much as that which has been represented as “history,” because both employ the same narrative devices (Malpas, 25-26). In the fiction we have read, we can see this parody in action, where our authors provide recognition of the power forms hold, and turn around to employ these forms to point out the flaws within them. We’ll talk more about this next week when we read more of Hutcheon.

Other pan drippings, grey in color, that deserve to make it into the gravy bowl are

  • body/soul connections
  • bodily parts in gender definition,
  • disease: death in life and life in death
  • and many, many more.

Sadly, the repair man is here and I have to supervise the fixing of shit.

‘I’ – Thinking

In The Postmodern, Malpas says:

at the heart of identity there is a ‘thinking I’ that experiences, conceptualizes and interacts with the world … This ‘I’ has been questioned, challenged and problematized by more recent modern and postmodern theorists. (57)

This ‘thinking I’ is certainly problematized by Jeannette Winterson in Written on the Body. By withholding the gender of the narrator and writing that narrator into numerous sexual experiences, the reader is left to his or her own devices in decoding the mystery. Faced with two choices, the reader can insert the association of his or her choice and move on or allow shifting assumptions to wash over the conscious mind.

As Malpas explains, according to theorist Hélène Cixous in her critique of modern subjectivity “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays”:

Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition … a culture’s values are premised on an organization of thought in which descriptions of the feminine are determined by masculine categories of order, opposition and hierarchy. (72)

To consider Winterson’s audience, reader reactions within our class seem fraught with desire to code the narrator’s gender. Some folks are downright frustrated and combing sentences for any give-away. Obviously to reveal the strength of this desire is important, but why? Without a gender definition, is it impossible to contextualize the significance of the novel’s events?

Having read the book’s back cover, I knew that the narrator’s gender would never be revealed. This could be why I never grew frustrated. Certainly it was an odd experience seeing my perceptions slip from one gender to another. I became increasingly aware that situations and characteristics attributed to the same character conjured different results. By no means did I “get” what was happening to me, but the following passage by Malpas outlines that experience rather well:

One is not simply a woman or man, with all of the cultural coding that goes along with this. Instead, Cixous argues that a feminist criticism must explore the ways in which differences within a subject can be continually opened up to new forms of exploration and challenge. To this end she presents the idea of a feminist writing, an criture f’minine, that is able to affirm these differences, resist the closure of a male-oriented logic, and present subjectivity as a structure of continual renegotiations that transform the categories of patriarchy. (73)

Allowing myself to ride the gender wave with fluidity, I found what Winterson hasn’t written is most important. Where power exists and determines what is “acceptable, or at least “attributable,” lies in our perception of how the masculine and feminine are defined by language. (Hello Saussure, my old friend.) Winterson’s brilliance demonstrates the subversive by using that very device. The notion of the free-‘thinking I’ is exposed for all its cultural baggage. The reader  is offered an opportunity to see how their own assumptions are based on linguistic code, the power of Western culture’s structure of ordering. Within the story, while the narrator is able to convert Russian to English as a professional translator, he or she is also  betrayed by the failings of language as it applies to the properties of love. The resulting awareness of linguistic confines illuminates the more naturally occurring bisexuality or grey areas within the gender dichotomy, i.e. recognizing in masculinity the presence of sensitivity, or within femininity an ambitious determination. (73)

The questions now is, what do we do with our new awareness? Do we get all radical and create an entirely new language, or do we collectively assign new meaning to old words? Before answering, maybe we should read “Is There Anything Good About Men?” by Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology & Head of Social Psychology Area, Florida State University. As he argues, if men are perceived to occupy positions of power, it must also be recognized that they occupy the majority of prison cells, make up the greater portion of the homeless population, and are often portrayed by the media as buffoons. Culture is a tool employed by all for daily understanding. It is not necessarily bad in its limitation, if only we take the time to study what it reveals about our thoughts and motivations.