Brennan, Michael G., "'A SYDNEY, though un-named': Ben Jonson's Influence in the Manuscript and Print Circulation of Lady Mary Wroth's Writings." Sidney Journal, 17, no. 1 (1999): 31-52.
SONS OF BEN The label Sons of Ben referring to students of the work of Ben Jonson is often applied incorrectly. Those poets who worked at the beginning of the 17th century, including Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, and some minor writers, are more properly labeled the Tribe of Ben. Playwrights specifically affected by Jonson's writing, including Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Richard Brome, Nathan Field, Philip Massinger, and James Shirley, are more correctly considered members of the Sons of Ben.
SOUND When most people consider sound in relation to poetry, they think of rhyme. Although an important aspect of 17th- and 18th-century poetry, rhyme is not the only important sound effect available to the poet. In cohort with rhythm sounds may appear in multiples to a pleasing effect. Several examples of the use of repeated sound may be seen in the opening four lines of "To the Nightingale" by Anne Finch,
COUNTESS OF WlNCHILSEA:
Exert thy voice, sweet harbinger of spring!
This moment is thy time to sing,
This moment I attend to praise
Finch uses alliteration, identical consonant sounds appearing at the beginning of words in a series, as in sweet, spring, sing, and set. The excerpt also includes an illustration of consonance, close repetition of consonants as the final sound of important terms. Again the s sound acts as example, as it concludes the repeated term This and the terms praise and numbers and lays, with praise and lays also acting as rhyme. Although it is not obvious to the eye, the ear also hears the s sound in the opening term Exert, because of pronunciation of the x as an s, and in the term voice, because of pronunciation of the ce ending as an s sound. In addition the four lines contain abundant assonance, or the close repetition of vowel sounds within words. The short e sound is repeated several times in Exert, harbinger, moment, and set. The long a sound in praise and lays produces rhyme. Additional repetition includes that of the long i sound in thy and I. Exact repetition of words also occurs, in this case in the repeated phrase This moment. Finally, the eye detects repetition of the group of letters ing in not only spring and sing, but also harbinger. However, harbinger carries a different pronunciation, har-bsn-jar, with the first syllable stressed.
Finch also captures the essence of poetry in structuring sound to support the sense, or meaning, of her poem. While no true onomatopoeia, the use of words that sound like what they mean such as buzz and hiss, appears, phonetic intensives do. Phonetic intensives are words whose sound in some degree connects with their meaning, simply because of the way the human brain interprets sound. Examples in these lines include Exert, sweet, spring, praise, and set. In addition, the repeated o sound forces the reader's mouth open, emphasizing the idea of singing or praise. The mouth's shaping itself as an o is a phenomenon easily observed in a religious choir, where one often hears the words Lo, Holy, O, So, and soul. Those open-mouth words appear repeatedly in the Psalms, a biblical book composed of 150 songs written in order to praise God. Psalm 150 is subtitled "A Psalm of Praise," with the term Praise beginning 12 of its 13 lines. Finally, Finch comments on her the process of writing poetry as she identifies the Nightingale as inspiration for her own numbers, or poetic rhythms.
"SPLEEN, THE" Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea (1713) When Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea, chose the title "The Spleen," she referred to the medical classification of the four "humors" thought to compose the body. The humors equated to those passions controlling human behavior, the term humor derived from Latin and meaning "liquid." The four humors, as defined in the 16th century, were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile). When all four liquids were in balance, an individual enjoyed splendid health. However, should any exist in greater volume than another, chaos could ensue.
Spleen was another name given to black bile, and it was believed to accompany melancholia, or depression. Shakespeare had referenced humors in application to human temperament in his tragedy Julius Caesar, and Finch alludes to the dramatic and real-life character of Brutus, associated with Caesar's murder. Because solid evidence exists that Finch suffered from depression, the topic proved an appropriate choice. Critics suggest her seeming obsession with woman's supposed part in committing original sin in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent "fall" of the human race, may have added to her sense of melancholy.
Brimming with clear allusions and evocative detail, "The Spleen" is fashioned as a Pindaric ode. The formality of the ode serves to elevate Finch's topic, perhaps necessary in order for Finch to prevent claims of "hysteria" against her. A catch-all medical term, hysteria was applied to a variety of illnesses of women. More importantly it was also used to trump up charges of mental illness against women, leading to many documented cases of inappropriate female interment in insane asylums. Derived from the Greek word hyster, meaning "womb," hysteria became strongly associated with women in "out of control" states of being, whether mental, emotional, or physical. In lines of uneven meter but regular rhyme Finch questions the nature of this beast, melancholy, that haunted her and a host of others. Her interwoven references and images provide an admirable unity, while her tone reflects the melancholy about which she writes.
Finch begins as her speaker's asks the question that seemed to have no answer, "What art thou, Spleen, which ev'ry thing dost ape," where ape means "imitate." She describes the spleen as "Proteus," referencing a mythological lesser god of the sea who could change shape and form, and notes that because of its changeable nature, the cause of spleen remains undetermined. Melancholy may be found everywhere, in all places at any time of the day. Finch adopts the figurative language (figure of speech) of metaphor, writing,
Now a Dead Sea thou'lt represent,
A calm of stupid discontent,
Then, dashing on the rocks, wilt rage into a storm. (6-8)
By comparing spleen to the sea, she reflects on the reference to Proteus, while offering imagery of complete calm with a sea dead to life versus one of nature's rage to help readers comprehend spleen's terrible and awesome range. Readers understand this poet has experienced the ravages of spleen, as she describes its effects in various ways, including "Panic fear" and "gloomy terrors round the silent bed," which yield it the power to prevent sleep, when sleep is most desired. Instead of slumber its victim experiences hallucinations, including "antic specters" (17), "Unusual fires" (18), "airy phantoms" (19), all generating a "monstrous vision" (20). That vision Brutus saw when visited by the ghost of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play about the Roman emperor. Although Brutus should have become Rome's ruler, he was instead "vanquished by the spleen," as Finch evidences its power over even a warrior. She makes clear that spleen does not prefer women; nor should men feel shame when they suffer its torment.
In the second stanza Finch makes a point stressed centuries later by physicians, that humans tend to blame physical problems for emotional distress: "Falsely the mortal part we blame / Of our depressed and pond'rous frame." She then returns to a theme common to her poetry, that of original sin, a concept that seemed to haunt her. She notes that until "the first degrading sin" spleen existed in balance with the other humors. It did not clog "the active soul, disposed to fly" while "man his Paradise possessed / His fertile garden in the fragrant east." In Eden man never appeared "flushed" or "unhandsome," and it was only after the fall that a scent such as that of the jonquil could overcome "the feeble brain." Now man requires a more "offensive scent," possibly referring to smelling salts, in order to gain even a "nauseous ease."
The second stanza clarifies that each person may react differently to spleen's possession. Its "motions," or effects, change, as do its symptoms. It may distract a friend in a calm grove, attempting to listen to another speak. Instead, he "must attend" spleen's "false suggestions," including "Thy whispered griefs, thy fancied sorrows," until imagined problems cause the victim to weep. In contrast it may appear in a "light and vulgar crowd" causing people to laugh at inappropriate moments. She continues describing other victims, including an "imperious wife" and her soft-hearted husband who attempts to accommodate her condition, offering peace, rather than argument.
Stanza 3 reveals the speaker's lack of patience with "fools" who would pretend to suffer from melancholia, blaming it for their inherent "dullness." The fool can only do so because spleen is known to enter "the ablest heads," who are then forced to leave their friends and retire from discourse. The speaker explains their momentary loss of verbal dexterity as "Such slow returns, where they so much dispense," again making the point that spleen attacks everyone, regardless of mental acuity. Finch describes the effects on her art of that unwelcome guest:
o'er me alas! Thou dost too much prevail: I feel thy force, whilst I against thee rail;
I feel my verse decay, and my cramped numbers fail.
Through thy black jaundice, I all objects see,
As dark, and terrible as thee, My lines decried, and my employment thought An useless folly, or presumptuous fault. (74-80)
Finch had previously termed herself "presumptuous" for attempting to write, probably to preempt men from leveling that claim against a writing woman. Women were intended subjects for poetry, not meant to be poets. She concludes the stanza by referencing the idle and useless pseudoartistic pursuits women were urged to undertake, producing "an ill-drawn Bird, or paint on glass." In Finch's opinion such vacuous attempts could lead to depression as well as act as symptoms.
The fourth lengthy stanza continues providing abundant detail regarding the powers of spleen. It acts as "patron" to "ev'ry gross abuse," examples including verbal abuse; heavy drinking, alluded to with a reference to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine; and changeability in personality, as in a coquette, whose personality changes from "light, impertinent, vain" to "withdrawn." She describes symptoms, including "The thoughtful, and composed face / proclaiming the absent mind," as evidence of spleen's "fantastic harms, / The tricks of thy pernicious stage," in which "the weaker sort" engage. Most serious is the charge against spleen relating to religion. Whereas religious faith should provide freedom and joy, translated through melancholic minds it instead generates guilt, "anxious doubts," which cause biblical verses to be incorrectly read as restraints:
Whilst touch not, taste not, what is freely giv'n
Is but thy niggard voice, disgracing bounteous heav'n.
From speech restrained, by thy deceits abused,
To deserts banished, or in cells reclused. (121-125)
Those affected worship at the "shrine" of spleen, rather than at the true spiritual shrine humans were intended to benefit from.
Finally, Finch focuses on the practice of medicine and its feeble and useless attempts to explain and treat the condition. She notes with irony that "skilful Lower" (142), referencing the famous British physician Richard Lower (1631-91), not only failed at finding a cause of spleen, but then suffered himself from spleen, became its prisoner and slave, and was driven to his death by depression.
In her well-crafted presentation Finch imitates in tone the melancholia, or spleen, she seeks to describe. While not evident in all of her poetry, Finch's bitterness and negativity about what she perceived, realistically or not, as the public's negative attitude toward her remains persistent in every line of "The Spleen."
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