Parfitt, George. Ben Jonson: Public Poet and Private Man. New
York: Harper & Row, 1977. Peterson, Richard S. Imitation and Praise in the Poems of Ben Jonson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.
"TO THE NIGHTINGALE" Anne Finch (countess of Winchilsea) (1713) Anne Finch may have written "To the Nightingale" as early as 1702. It adopts the form of the ode in praise of what Finch terms the "sweet harbinger of spring!" in her first line, meaning one who predicts or acts as a forerunner. Her love of nature and country living was well known, and she portrays that affection in this 35-line poem through her selection of a songbird to make her point regarding the competitive world of poetry and the pressures under which artists work.
Finch stresses in the second line the importance of timing to self-expression as she writes of the bird, "This moment is thy time to sing, / This moment I attend to praise." The speaker explains by noting that she will "set my numbers," where numbers are poetic verses, according to the "lays," or songs, of the nightingale. Not only does the poet speaker imply that she finds the bird's music inspiring, she continues explaining that her own song will be as free as that of the nightingale. What Finch expresses is an ideal rather than reality, that each poet should remain completely free of outside influences in her writing:
Poets, wild as thee, were born,
Pleasing best when unconfined,
When to please is least designed. (7-9)
Known to write with an autobiographical intent, Finch is probably reflecting on her feelings of self-consciousness, often expressed in her poetry. She felt unworthy to write, ever mindful of the abundant criticism of females who dared to publish creative work. Although she proclaimed that she wrote only for herself and did not desire praise or notice, as in her "The Circuit of Apollo," she likely made such claims in order to conform with Augustan rhetorical tradition.
The speaker continues by explaining that poets write in order to soothe their own troubled minds, not for the pleasure of readers. unfortunately "Cares do still their thoughts molest / And still th' unhappy poet's breast" (11-12). Finch uses wordplay in employing the term still initially to mean "yet again," and in the second line to mean "bring to a stop" or "silence." The reference to the breast reflects on the nightingale's
412 "TO THE PIOUS MEMORY OF THE ACCOMPLISH'D YOUNG LADY
breast, famously pressed against a thorn in mythology. only while suffering the pain caused by the thorn, which leads to death for the bird, can it produce its best song. The speaker notes the same is true for the poet and then calls for a quiet reverence as the bird performs: "She begins. Let all be still!" (14). Finch could find the stillness she valued in nature, where at times all seemed to stop in order to honor the song of the lowly bird.
The poem shifts tone from one of reverence to one of command, although the voice remains respectful as the speaker calls to her inspiration, "Muse, thy promise now fulfill!" Finch employs alliteration and repetition, her form mimicking the bird's song, as she requests that her poetry might have the same effect on listeners as does the song:
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. (16-21)
As she requests of her muse the gift of musical quality, she adopts the figurative language (figure of speech) of metaphor in suggesting that her syllables can be refined and melted as ore is processed to remove impurities.
However, the speaker immediately admits the impossibility of such an effect in her poetry. She pleads with the nightingale to vary its music to match her own. When that does not happen, the speaker's tone alters, and she tells the nightingale, "Cease, then, prithee, cease thy tune: / Trifler wilt thou sing till June?" where trifler suggests someone engaged in frivolity, or action without value. She scolds the bird for doing nothing other than singing while its "business all lies waste, / And the time of building's past!" (29-30). Employing irony, Finch pretends to suggest that art deserves only one's limited attention; business or practical matters are more important. She assumes that pretense in order to make a point about poets who feel in competition with one another. The jealous poet who feels outdone may proclaim the more celebrated poetry as not perfectly in line with societal expectations, simply to have a manner by which to criticize it. As Finch expresses it, poets who covet the gift of others may "Criticize, reform, or preach, / or censure what we cannot reach" (34-35).
Finch employs the extended conceit of the nightingale's song in order to reflect on what at times could be the painful pursuit of the perfect poem. The poet who would share her work with the public had to prepare herself for attacks, regardless of the poem's quality. Some of the most severe criticism could be expected from fellow poets. Rather than praising work superior to their own, they would attempt to diminish it out of artistic jealousy.
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