Song and Speech in Anne Finch's "To the Nightingale"

by Charles H. Hinnant
Song and Speech in Anne Finch's "To the Nightingale"
Charles H. Hinnant
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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SEI. 31 0991) ISSN 0039-3697

Song and Speech in Anne Finch's "To The Nightingale"


This essay seeks to explain, more precisely than is customary and in terms appropriate to literary history, the importance to eighteenth-century English poetry of "To The Nightingale" by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea. Published in her Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions of 1713, this has been one of Finch's most widely admired lyrics. It was among the poems selected by William Wordsworth for an album presented to Lady Mary Lowther in 1819 and it has been honored by favorable comments and by its inclusion in anthologies of poetry ever since. But critical consensus about the value of "To The Nightingale," however significant, is not necessarily illuminating; it may attest to the loveliness of the poem, its power to gratify our wish for beauty, but it cannot assist us in understanding the meaning of its individual moments. In one of the best appraisals of Finch's poetry in the twentieth century, for example, Reuben Brower praised one passage in "To The Nightingale" for the "subtle analysis" of its "thought, the compression effected by unexpectedly combining the concrete with the abstract." Yet the difficulty with this kind of value judgment is that it gives no insight into what the judgment is memorializing; it is impossible for us to appreciate the subtlety of a poem's analysis unless we comprehend the significance of what is being analyzed.

In one respect at least, it is easy to see why the import of the poem has been overlooked. The nightingale was a familiar embodiment of poetic song in the lyric poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Finch was undoubtedly acquainted with many of the most famous examples.2 The very popularity of this figure may have discouraged us from asking whether "To The

Charles H. Hinnant is Professor of English at the University of Missouri- Columbia. He is the author of books on Gulliuer's Travels and Samuel Johnson and is currently at work on a book-length critical study of the poetry of Anne Finch.

Nightingale" revises the conventional relation between poet and nightingale and whether it might temper the nature of poetry to the imperfection of the self. The speaker's initial commitment to the power of the nightingale's song is established in the first part of the poem:

Exert thy Voice, sweet Harbinger of Spring!

This Moment is thy Time to sing,

This Moment I attend to Praise,

And set my Numbers to thy Layes.

Free as thine shall be my Song;

As thy Musick, short, or long.


Muse, thy Promise now fulfill!

Sweet, oh! sweet, still sweeter yet

Can thy Words such Accents fit,

Canst thou Syllables refine,

Melt a Sense that shall retain

Still some Spirit of the Brain,

Till with Sounds like these it join.

(lines 1-21 )3

But the question of how to take these passages is raised by the assertion of a difference between poet and nightingale announced in the following lines:

'Twill not be! then change thy Note;

Let division shake thy Throat.

Hark! Division now she tries.;

Yet as far the Muse outflies.

(lines 22-25)

The decision how to interpret what follows amounts to a judgment on the speaker's preliminary commitment to poetic flight. And it is here that one finds, among other things, a questioning of the traditional practice of defining poetry in terms of analogies between poetic art and natural object, conceived in accordance with Romantic canons of immediacy and spontaneity. The speaker's desire to compose a poetry that will be as "free" as the nightingale's song anticipates a well-known passage in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment.In that passage, Kant praises "the beautiful note of the nightingale in a lovely copse on a still summer evening by the soft light of the moon." Like Finch, Kant suggests the limits of a view of art that is oblivious to the notion of originality. Believing that "we have instances" where "a merry host" deceived his guests by hiding in a bush "a mischievous boy who knew how to produce this sound exactly like nature," Kant insisted that the boy's accomplishment was in reality a failure, since no one would find it tolerable once it were recognized as "a cheat." What must also be present is precisely the liberty that seems to characterize the nightingale's song and which the poet must mirror if he is to approximate its bea~ty.~

The terms of Kant's argument are worth lingering upon, for they help to place the significance of Finch's "To The Nightin- gale" and, by implication, the body of her poetry as a whole in a clearer focus. Kant's characterization of the nightingale is linked to a naive conception of poetry as native and natural, spontaneous and immediate, in the precise sense in which Friedrich Schiller intended the term to be under~tood.~

According to Kant, poetry is the art which best "strengthens the mind by making it feel its faculty-free, spontaneous, and independent of natural determi- nation."6 But this spontaneity is precisely what the speaker of Finch's poem fails to achieve, the failure taking the form of an inability to approximate either the nightingale's harmony or "division" (line 23). Harmony and division also come together in the shifting focus of the poem, the sharp reversal in the last paragraph implying that the speaker's aspiration was only an illusion. It remains a compelling illusion, and the speaker's initial conviction that poets "wild as thee, were born, / Pleasing best when unconfin'd" (line 8) suggests just how persuasive Finch views it. The poem's reference to the inability of the nightingale to soothe its own "Cares to rest" (line 10) provides evidence of why the illusion is so persistent. This reference suggests that what the nightingale seems to promise is an art which triumphs in spite of its inability to satisfy its own yearnings. The nightingale seems to claim for poetic inspiration a power beyond that of mere speech; a power that will enable "unhappy" poets to transmute their "Cares" into something that others will find pleasurable. In a sense, the latter part of the poem argues that this ideal is only a fantasy: to believe that the nightingale's song can become an emblem for the transformative power of poetry is to fail to recognize the difference between desire and fact.

Finch's poem thus renounces a vision of poetry as inspired flight and in so doing effectively distinguishes itself from the Romantic tradition her poetry was once thought to anticipate. This obser- vation suggests in turn that a different historical paradigm may be needed-one that includes Collins, Gray, Keats, and later poets of failed transcendence. In different ways, Collins's "Ode on the Poetical Character," Gray's "The Progress of Poesy," and Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" all lament the loss of a power that was conventionally attributed to the Muses and thus deny the possibility of a naive art of pure song. In the "Ode on the Poetical Character," Collins writes, "And Heav'n, and Fancy, kindred Pow'rs, / Have now O'erturn'd th' inspiring Bow'rs, / Or curtain'd close such Scene from ev'ry future View" (lines 74-76). The last stanza of Gray's "The Progress of Poesy" declares that poesy's lyre is "heard no more," exclaiming "Oh! Lyre divine, what daring Spirit / Wakes thee now?" (lines 11 1-13). And Keats's speaker confesses, in the sixth stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale," "Still wouldst Thou sing, and I have ears in vain- / To thy high requiem become a sod" (lines 59-60).7 Finch, like Keats, confronts the sense of failure implied in these passages more lucidly than Collins or Gray, seeking to come to terms with this sense of failure rather than attributing it to a lost but potentially recoverable force.

Yet "To The Nightingale" does not simply constitute a re- definition of the Romantic ideal embodied in Kant's argument. It also stands in a revisionary relationship to the triumphalist assumptions of Milton, Dryden, Crashaw, Cowley, and subsequent imitators of the (popularly misconceived) irregular ode. This seems apparent from the emphatic way it concedes the impossibility of ever attaining an identification with the nightingale and then seeks to understand that impossibility, though without claiming to achieve perfection by transcending the loss. This distinctive perspective may help to explain why "To The Nightingale" contains no obvious generic allusions; the most characteristic features of the Pindaric ode-its digressions, rhapsodic tone, and bold figures-are conspicuous by their absence. Finch's two conventionally designated Pindaric odes, "The Spleen," and "To The Hurricane of 1703," we should note, are both addressed to powers-one internal, the other external-which lie beyond the poet's capacity to control or even comprehend. Given her repudi- ation of conventional notions of inspiration and poetic mastery, it should not be surprising that earlier odes and pastorals provided inappropriate models for "To The Nightingale." As Ann Mes- senger points out, a possible precedent for Finch's poem might have been Richard Crashaw's "Musick's Duell," one of several seventeenth-century adaptations of Famiamus Strada's Prolusiones in which a contest between a lute player and a nightingale is won by the lute player. But "To The Nightingale" is most notable for the ways in which it deviates from the sentiments of a poem which is characterized by the superiority of the human world to the natural world and the close proximity of both to the divine.

Messenger reads the competition of "Musick's Duell" as a perform- ance in which "there are no regrets to be expressed . . . no sense of disparity between man and nature, no conflict, no dualism."B

The critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who once searched Finch's poetry for Romantic tendencies usually overlooked or minimized the doubts that prevent her from recog- nizing a transcendental legitimizing source of inspiration. They tacitly acknowledged her demystifying rejection of transcendent flight in their praise of her as an earth-bound "nature" poet. She is usually described as a poet of sensation, not song. Edmund Gosse is typical in his assessment of her capacity for "seeing nature and describing what she sees" and so of offering "accurate transcripts of country life."q But even this conventional estimate of her poetry as descriptive rather than inspired or reflective appears misleading. On the surface, it seems reminiscent of Addison's Lockean distinction between the primary pleasures of imagination deriving from perceived objects and the secondary pleasures deriving from remembered or absent objects (Spectator 411). Yet it is not so easy to determine whether Finch was ever a nature poet in the Addisonian sense. Her two most famous nature poems, "The Petition for an Absolute Retreat" and "A Nocturnal Reverie," are not really descriptive, as is James Thomson's georgic "The Seasons," but elegiac or invocatory, summoning up a landscape that is either absent or hypothetical. A similar sense of absence also haunts Finch's powerful elegy, "Upon the Death of Sir William Twisden," where the weeping clouds and rivers of the pastoral elegist are exposed as illusory, fictive transmutations of reality. In a sense the poem argues that the mind must resist this seduction into illusion and hence must confront the unpleasant fact that "Nature (unconcern'd for our relief) / Persues her settl'd path, her fixt, and steaddy course" (lines 27-28). Description, a poetic strategy that fuses the eye and its object, seems to overlook the skepticism inherent in "Upon the Death of Sir William Twisden" as well as in "To The Nightingale," both of which presuppose a disjunction between subject and object.

"To The Nightingale" is also important in the history of poetry for another reason. It exemplifies what is perhaps Finch's most sophisticated attempt to master a recurrent problem of the seventeenth-century female poet: how to participate in a discourse in which the poet is defined as a masculine subject.'O Outwardly, the poem remains faithful to the conventional structure of ode and lyric, organizing itself around the dyad of (masculine) poet and (feminine) muse. But the nature of their roles is altogether different from that traditionally associated with the two figures. Finch's purpose is certainly not to show the archetypal permanence of the distinction, nor is it (as in "The Introduction") to show the ill effects of the distinction upon the female poet. Instead, Finch initially at least wants to universalize the opposition radically, by stripping it of the customary attributes of gender, by elevating the poet, muse, and nightingale to ideal categories. All of the characteristics that make the muse feminine-beauty, grace, pity, harmony with nature, and so on-disappear. There is no room in this version of the nightingale for an explicit allusion to the mute Philomela-the classical archetype of woman as victim, nor for Sidney's nightingale whose "throat in tunes expresseth / What grief her breast oppresseth, / For Tereus' force on her chaste will prevailing" (lines 6-8).11There is instead a process of idealization, an exchange of attributes, which transforms the grief-stricken female singer into an exemplary model, one that applies to all poets. Yet this process of idealization necessarily involves a suppression of the gender that enables this model to come into existence. The universality of the figure of the poet who "when best he sings, is plac'd against a Thorn" (line 13) depends upon a figure herself mute, unable to make herself intelligible.

Because the figure of the poet is universalized in "To The Nightingale," the anxiety of female authorship is not problematical in this poem. Suppressing the customary attributes of gender helps to make room for a different kind of concern, one that is poetic rather than cultural. The muse is called forth to incarnate an ideal in which there will be no disparity between sound and meaning: "Words" and "Accents" are to be fused into a single "fluent Vein" in which "Syllables" and "Sense" are inseparable (lines 17-21). The muse and the nightingale are not, however, to be allowed to collapse into one another. The muse is rather asked to retain "Still some Spirit of the Brain" because it would otherwise yield a primitive and undifferentiated world of sound, instead of a complex and organized unison of sound and sense which can serve as the goal as well as the inspiration of poetry. This distinction is linked to Henry More's contention that while "a Nightingale may vary with her voice into a multitude of interchangeable Notes, and various Musical falls and risings. . . should she but sing one Hymn or Hallelujah, I should deem her no bird but an Angel."'* But Finch lacks More's faith in the superiority of a divinely inspired human art to nature: while the muse of "To The Nightingale" may inspire, she is finally powerless. The speaker's recognition of this impotence is undoubtedly accompanied by the loss of a conviction in the possibility of a union of sound and sense. This loss of faith is consistent with the new understanding of language that emerged in the late seventeenth century. By acknowledging a gulf between the nightingale's song and the poet's speech, Finch tacitly adopts the point of view of theorists like Hobbes and Locke who deny the naturalness of the received link between signifier and signified.

"To The Nightingale" is thus explicitly concerned with the limits of poetic signification. Because the invocation to the muse is evoked in terms of its possible relation to a surrogate self with whom the poet cannot identify, we become aware that poetry cannot become the unequivocal reappropriation of natural song. In An Essay on Criticism Pope was to give canonical formulation to the doctrine that the sound must at least "seem an echo to the sense." But here the attempt at imitative harmony seems only futile, not "poetic." By a kind of downward transformation, its shifting octosyllabic couplets, the medium of the "middle" style, only succeed in drawing attention to the close relation between poetic language and discursive prose. Through the contrast between music and speech, Finch acknowledges a collapse of faith in the power of the poet as singer rather than as persuader. Yet it is precisely this collapse of faith which may help us to assess the main body of her poetry. Implicit in many other poems is a tendency to self-consciousness which results from their overtly explicit secondariness. The characteristic late seventeenth-century forms of beast fable, religious meditation, pastoral dialogue, and moralizing reflection, functioning as they do within the framework of the poetic enunciated in "To The Nightingale," recognize something substitutive and sentimental in lyric inspiration. As Brower said, though in another context, "there are in Lady Anne's poetry traces" of a "union of lyricism with the diction and movement of speech." By retaining touches of humor and wit, by refusing to purge diction of common usage, her poetry draws attention to the element of rhetoric and representation in poetic language. Many of Finch's poems may, as Brower insisted, be characterized as attenuated metaphysical verse, the work of a "minor poetess" in a period of transition. But one can also argue that "To The Nightingale" occupies a place in Finch's poetry analogous to Swift's renunciation of the Muse's "visionary pow'r" (line 152)in "Occasioned by Sir William Temple's Late Illness and Recovery" and to Pope's decision, announced in the "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," to abandon "Fancy's maze" and moralize "his song" (lines 340-41). The union of "rapture and cool gaiety" in her poetry, its reliance upon colloquial idiom, and its relative looseness of "texture," may imply a similar demystified rejection of tran- scendent flight-something which is asserted explicitly through the thematic concerns of "To The Nightingale."13

Finch thus makes opposite use of a convention which previous poetic generations had used to affirm the validity of poetry as inspired discourse. The implications of her loss of confidence in that discourse are not confined to "To The Nightingale" but can be seen, in different ways, in such poems as "A Nocturnal Reverie" and "The Bird." In these poems, as in "To The Nightingale," poetic consciousness is envisaged as an "emptiness" or "lack" which seeks to coincide with a peace or plenitude that it attributes to something outside of itself-whether it be the "inferiour World" of domestic animals, a bird, or more specifically, the nightingale. In the conventional ode, this lack is reflected, as Norman Maclean put it, in the speaker's hope "that the quality he is contemplating . . . will make its power felt again in him." l4 Yet the ambivalence generated by the speaker's failure to achieve this hope, which is evident in "To The Nightingale," is also present in the other two poems. In "A Nocturnal Reverie," this ambivalence is not only manifested in the hypothetical mode in which the poem's argument is cast but also in the restraint which confines "the free Soul" to the claim that it "thinks" the "inferiour World" is like its own (lines 43, 46). Also at issue is the anticipation of morning that prevents the speaker's experience of "solemn Quiet" from becoming anything more than a momentary respite from a renewal of "Our Cares, our Toils, our Clamours . . . / Or Pleasures, seldom reach'd, again pursu'd" (lines 45-50). In "The Bird" the speaker's ambiva- lence is manifested in a doubt which represents the bird as alternatively guardian of the heart and male surrogate, the "false accomplice" of love (line 30). "The Tree," by contrast, avoids this ambivalence because it presupposes an absolute separation between human spectator and natural object and thus achieves the serene classical beauty that Ivor Winters detected in the poem.l5 That "The Tree" is epideictic and commemorative only serves to confirm its detachment from a surrogate which the poet seeks to praise rather than to emulate.

"The Tree" is thus one instance of a thematic and generic choice which seeks to exclude the problematical ("the rash Workman's hand," line 20) from its seemingly Arcadian world by casting the poem in a mode of prayer and praise which represents the poem as a deliberate and self-conscious simplification of reality. The restless, aspiring mind of "To The Nightingale," on the other hand, must conceive of its relation to the ideal as a petition which must be either confirmed or denied. One might expect that its discovery of the inability of the muse to answer its prayer would be ironic or satirical in structure, that it would resemble Swift's "The Progress of Poesy" in tracing a movement from illusion to reality.

A kind of wry, rueful humor on the part of the speaker seems only the necessary consequence of a collapse of poetic aspiration. Yet on closer inspection, the speaker comes to the recognition that the reproach is a personal one, a betrayal disclosing something akin to what a psychologist might call projection. That is, the reproach appears to criticize what it cannot attain and to renounce what it actually desires. Both aspects are fissures in an apparently closed structure of irony, fissures by which the relation between illusion and reality is made to appear considerably more complicated than it initially seemed. Just as the integrity of the speaker's project is breached at a crucial point by the discovery of the muse's impotence, so also the integrity of the speaker's response is ruptured by the acknowledgment that "we Poets that have Speech, . . . / Criticize, reform, or preach, / Or censure what we cannot reach" (lines 30-35).

This recognition can be understood as an extension and a deepening of an earlier, seventeeth-century poetic convention. In a pattern of response appropriate to the genres of pastoral and elegy, the poet often inveighed against pagan deities because they failed to fulfill his desires. In "Lycidas," for example, the swain asks "Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep / Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas?" (lines 50-51). In an earlier adaptation of Strada's contest between the lute-player and night- ingale in John Ford's The Lover's Melancholy, the lute player is described as growing "at last / Into a pretty anger that a bird / Whom art had never taught clefs, moods, or notes, / Should vie with him for mastery" (1.i. 133-37).'6 The poet's raillery, only the initial step in the dialectic of Finch's poem, is not followed by any further reflections in the conventional pastoral, largely because the swain achieves the kind of awareness that enables him to blot out the memory of his earlier fears and anxieties. The theological and philosophical determinations that make this kind of awareness possible are not, however, available to Finch; or rather, they are excluded from the start in a poem explicitly about the disparity between ideal and actuality. Yet Finch's concern with this disparity does not eliminate from poetic discourse the problem of the power represented by the muse. Nor does it eliminate the general question of the precise status of the poet's discovery of the muse's impotence. A closed structure of irony here would surely suggest the self- deception and self-righteousness of the complacent satirist or preacher. Finch avoids such a charge by also concentrating upon the duplicity inherent in the poet's response, a duplicity that leads to a further stage of self-discovery.

Finch's elaboration of the convention of the poet's complaint extends beyond the introduction of a third stage of reflection. It also encompasses a specific change in the attitude of the speaker toward the nightingale. Once disillusionment has set in, the bird is no longer praised for being "wild" and "unconfined," but is censured instead for neglecting the mundane business of life:

Cease, then, prithee, cease thy Tune;

Trifler, wilt thou sing till June?

Till thy Bus'ness all lies waste,

And the Time of Building's past!

(lines 26-29)

In these lines utility replaces freedom as an implicit norm, as the nightingale undergoes an alteration in perspective. The issue of gender, initially suppressed, suddenly emerges, as Messenger observes, in the reference to "Bus'ness" and nest "Building."'7 By implication, the nightingale's songs are reduced to something analogous to poetic trifles. In this sense they represent a debased conception of the lyric, a form that was often compared unfavorably with more weighty genres during the Restoration. Femininity seems to be inscribed in these trifles, just as it is inscribed in the verses that Mrs. Millamant quotes from memory in The Way of the World. The nightingale is no longer the symbol of an ideal that transcends gender but rather the emblem of a deluded and implicitly feminine effort to escape one's place in a domestic economy. This may be one reason why Finch takes such pains to distance herself from such an attitude. The reversal that occurs at the end is evidence that the poem cannot integrate into its poetic vision the power of the speaker to see beyond the nightingale's song to its illusoriness without making of this utilitarian and gender-driven skepticism something that corrodes the very nature of Finch's poetic art.

The speaker's willingness to confront the implications of this rebuke of the nightingale can be read as Finch's readiness to repudiate the reification of gender implicit in that rebuke. In the same way that the nightingale's song is now seen as exhibiting certain feminine characteristics, so the speaker's complaint can now be seen as displaying certain conventional "masculine" traits-judgment, power, and will-to-dominance. But these traits are evidence of the way discourse specifies gender, not vice-versa. They appear not as the result of a masculine presence in the poem but of an occasion in which the masculine is displayed. By emphasizing the universality of this display, Finch may be suggesting that the gender of both the poet and the nightingale are only constructed, never "natural."18 In this construction, the gender of the discourse is produced through a representation of criticizing, preaching, and reproving. A "masculine" reformer comes into existence by displaying strategies that seek to dominate what the poet failed to rival or surpass.

Finch's reluctance to thematize the reification of gender may also be understood as part of a wish to examine the broader implications of the poem's argument. Thus the opposition between the lyric and didactic, between song and speech is not one of extrinsic function-the lyric genre concerned with song, the didactic with speech. The essential difference is rather the impos- sibility of retaining speech in song. Implicit in the speaker's request that the muse "Melt a Sense that shall retain / Still some Spirit of the Brain, / Till with Sounds like these it join" (lines 19-21)is a recognition that at best only "some Spirit of the Brain" will be preserved. This disparity draws attention to the fact that the nightingale, as we have seen, is mute, its "song" only an inarticulate music, a vocalization without words, capable of expressing "division," yet pure, interior, and homogenous enough to exclude human difference. The poet's human "speech," on the other hand, must be pure articulation, a system of sounds that has been corrupted by interval, discontinuity, alterity. The poet's inability to merge vocalization and articulation is what gives rise to the difference between pleasure and pain, delight and reproof. In poetry, this difference is the origin of the Horatian dictum, "aut prodesse aut delectare poetae." That Finch is thinking of this dictum is evident in the shift in the poem from what is seen as "pleasing best" (line 8)to what is "Unlike what thy Forests teach" (line 31). Yet this kind of shift does not acknowledge the middle alternative implied in Horace's subsequent phrase, "aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicers vitae." The eloquence implicit in the poet's castigation of the nightingale's negligence, like the earlier failure to emulate her music, draws its energy from its denial of this middle term. Because this eloquence is born out of the process of its own disillusionment, it becomes the vehicle of a new kind of art: one that is at once didactic and compensatory, satirical and substitutive.

The speaker does not ask us to admire this new, diminished conception of didactic poetry at the conclusion of "To The Nightingale" but rather invites us to dwell upon a paradox in which the didactic impulse is understood as an illusion constructed around its own disillusionment. However, this conclusion is concerned not only with the paradox as it stands but also with the distortion it has produced. Because the didactic is unable to go beyond the condemnation of what it has failed to emulate, it can only obscure, if not actually reverse, the actual relationship between two different modes of discourse. The nightingale's song, which has hitherto been presented as the origin and telos of poetry, now appears as a corruption and evasion of the practical, the utilitarian. Implicit in this alteration in focus is an attitude which makes the lyric a substitute for the didactic, not vice-versa. The effect of the speaker's recognition of this reversal is noteworthy: by the end of the poem, the speaker can no longer sustain a view of the utilitarian posture of the reformer as a vehicle for enlightenment and suggests instead that this posture is a gesture of self-deception, intended mainly to efface the recognition of its own failure.

This disclosure leaves unanswered the question of what consti- tutes poetry. The final shift within the poem, from critical rebuke to the discovery that this rebuke is implicated in what it condemns, suggests that poetry might be defined neither by lyric song nor by rhetorical eloquence, but by a critical deconstruction that leads to the further discovery of the substitutive nature of the poet's claim to moral authority. Lyric, understood in the broadest sense, turns out to be the main subject of the didactic and the model of what it once sought to emulate and now wishes to suppress. Yet this recognition will only yield, the poem almost seems to imply, what we might regard today as the classic impasse of deconstruction. Such a recognition will neither lead us back to the "fluent vein" the poet has denounced nor produce a new "vein." A deconstruction has occurred, but this deconstruction is itself a didactic mode, unable ever to escape from the duplicity it exposes. The conditional mode in which the final discovery is cast does not limit the poem's concluding message to the particular instance of the way poets respond to their failure to achieve their aspirations. On the contrary, the conditional mode appears to elevate this response to the status of a universal truth. Since this truth extends to all possible cases, it must of necessity be turned against the speaker's own perspective. The same delusion that characterizes the judg- ment rendered by poets against the nightingale also appears to characterize the verdict delivered by a speaker who is incapable of attaining the self-legitimating authority of the preacher or satirist. The speaker knows no way of coping with this predicament except by repeating what "we poets" have already condemned. The text at once realizes and reenacts its discovery, thus making this discovery true but in a way that can offer no way out of the dilemma it poses.

Yet if "To The Nightingale" does not offer a solution to this impasse, it embodies a perspective that challenges too-easy cate- gorical distinctions between lyric and didactic modes and judg- ments about the values appropriate to each. This perspective in turn suggests that the extent to which Finch's poetry is committed to the didactic and the extent to which this commitment is a compensatory redirection of a failed lyricism may need further examination. Her poetry clearly rejects the conventions that during the late seventeenth century came to seem the norm of all poetic performance-the experimental, the irregular, the violent, the obscure, and the ecstatic. But her poetry does not thereby turn toward didacticism, satire, general statement, and the public mode as the only canons of poetic art. Of crucial importance to our sense of what distinguishes Finch's poetry from that of her contempo- raries is an ambivalence, initially defined in terms of loss and failure, which then tries to recover a sense of itself as a point of origin for further poetic development. The modernity of Finch's poetry may be signaled by the combination of self-consciousness, honesty, and intellectual rigor which produces this ambivalence. This combination of qualities-rather than her once highly-praised power of observation-may eventually be seen as Finch's most important legacy to later poets.


'Reuben A. Brower, "Lady Winchilsea and the Poetic Tradition of the Seventeenth Century ," SP 42, 1 (January 1945): 66.

2See William Byrd, "The Nightingale so pleasant and so gay"; John Lyly, "What Bird So Sings"; Peter Philips, "The Nightingale that sweetly does complain"; Sir Philip Sidney, "The Nightingale"; Richard Barnfield, "An Ode"; Thomas Dekker, "Oh, The Month of May"; and Thomas Middleton, "Midnight." My attention was called to these poems by citations in Elizabethan Lyrics, From the Original Texts, ed. Norman Ault (New York: Capricorn Books, 1960). During the Restoration, Philip Ayres's Lyric Poems Made in Imitation of the Italians (London, 1687) contains four poems dealing with poetic rivalry and the nightingale's music: "The Nightingale that was drowned," p. 55; "To the Nightingale," pp. 68-69; "The Happy Nightingale," pp. 136-37; and "The Musical Conqueress," p. 149.

3All citations from Anne Finch's poetry are from The Poems of Anne, Countess of Winchilsea, ed. Myra Reynolds (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1903).

4Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard (New York: Hafner, 1951), #42, p. 145. 5Friedrich Schiller, "On the Naive and Sentimental in Poetry," in Essays, Aesthetical and Philosophical (London: G.Bell & Sons, 1884), pp. 262-332.

Tritique of Judgment #53, p. 171.

'The text of "Ode on the Poetical Character" and "The Progress of Poesy" is that of Thomas Gray and William Collins: Poetical Works, ed. Roger Lonsdale (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977). The text of "Ode to a Nightingale" is that of The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1978). Casey Finch, in "Immediacy in the Odes of William Collins," ECS 20, 4 (Spring 1987),

275-95, holds that in his odes "Collins insists on the gulf that separates us from any Edenic moment; a fall has intervened and ruptured thr unity,"
292. In The Poet's Calling in the English Ode (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), Paul H. Fry contends that "the ode from its first appearance" is "avehicle of ontological and vocational doubt" (pp. 1-2). Fry's argument, though suggestive, seems much more convincing when applied to the poems of Finch, Collins, Gray, and Keats than to those of Milton, Dryden, and Cowley. Vocational doubt, in the sense relevant to the present argument, is not inscribed in seventeenth-century poems in the same way as in eighteenth-century poems.

8Ann Messenger, His and Hers: Essays in Restoration and Eighteenth- Century Literature (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1986), p. 75. Messenger also cites as a possible analogue Ambrose Philips's "Fifth Pastoral" (p. 75). To these may be added the following seventeenth-century translations and adaptations of Strada's Prelusions: John Ford, The Lover's Melancholy, 1.i; William Strode, "A Translation of the Nightingale Out of Strada," Poetical Works, ed. Bertram Dobell (London: The Editor, 1907); Robert Vilvain, Enchiridium Epigrammatum Latino-Anglicum (London, 1654), pp. 177a-177b; Mr. Wilson, in Poems by Several Hands and on Several Occasions, collected by Nahum Tate (London, 1685), pp. 405-408; anon., Strada's Musical Duel (London, 1671). My attention was called to these poems by the references in William G. Madsen, "A Reading of 'Musicks Duell,' " in Studies in Honor of John Wilcox, ed. A. Dayle Wallace and Woodburn 0. Ross (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 39-50; and Jean Jacquot, "'Le Duel Musical' de Richard Crashaw et sa source Italienne," Revue de litttrature comparte 25, 2 (Avril- Juin 1951): 232-41.

9Edmund Gosse, Gossip in a Library (New York: Scribners, 1914), p. 105. The origin of this topos is Wordworth's opinion in Essay, Supplementary to the Preface to the Second Edition of the "Lyrical Ballads" that "it is remarkable that, excepting the nocturnal Reverie of Lady Winchilsea, and a passage or two in the Windsor Forest of Pope, the poetry of the period intervening between the publication of Paradise Lost and the Seasons does not contain a single new image of external nature; and scarcely presents a familiar one from which it can be inferred that the eye of the Poet had been steadily fixed upon his object," The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J.B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974),

3: 73.

loon Anne Finch's response to the complex difficulties confronting her as a woman poet in early eighteenth-century England, see Katharine Rogers, "Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea: An Augustan Woman Poet," in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 32-46; Elizabeth Hampsten, "Petticoat Authors: 1660-1720," WS 7, 1/2 (1980): 34-38; and Marilyn L. Williamson, Raising Their Voices: British Women Writers, 1650-1750 (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 113-26.

"The text of "The Nightingale" is that of The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. John Drinkwater (London: Routledge, [1910]). '2Henry More, Discourses on Several Texts of Scripture (London, 1692),

p. 408; quoted from Madsen, "A Reading of 'Musicks Duell,' " p. 45.

13"Lady Winchilsea and the Poetic Tradition of the Seventeenth Century,"

pp. 63, 65, 66, 67. Apparently reversing the verdict of critics who saw Romantic tendencies in Finch's 'nature' poems, Brower locates these poems at the end of the seventeenth century and thus early in her career, and traces a shift from what he views as their "intimate and social tone" to the "afflatus" and "unction" of her later verses. These characteristics, he believes, define her mature poetry as "unmistakably that of the eighteenth century" (pp. 75, 77). Yet once it is recognized that critics from Wordsworth on had always characterized Finch as a link between earlier seventeenth-century poets and the Romantic tradition, much of the novelty of Brower's argument disappears.

'*Norman Maclean, "From Action to Image: Theories of the Lyric in the Eighteenth Century," in Critics and Criticism Ancient and Modern, ed. R.S. Crane (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 442.

151vor Winters, In Defense of Reason (Denver: Swallow Press, 1937), p. 82.

16John Ford, The Lover's Melancholy, ed. R.F. Hill (Manchester and Dover: Manchester Univ. Press, 1985), p. 58. 17Messenger, p. 77. 18Hampsten justly observes how "Finch's poems expand the possibilities for

poetic experience by showing how language, for all its gender particulars, is in fact able to glide from one sex to another and thus include both" ("Petticoat Authors," p. 35).

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