by M. Grantaire
On Annie Finch's poetry. Poems used were "A Nocturnal Reverie" and "The Introduction".
|Annie Finch’s poem, "A Nocturnal Reverie", is a statement of feminism that personifies the nighttime as a mythical time of respite for the fairer sex, and daytime as a harsh, inhuman time in which man oppresses woman. The poem is also a reflection of Finch’s own life; of being an early, aristocratic feminist who is forced to keep her views in shadow. " The Introduction" is an earlier, less subtle piece that openly attacks masculine oppression and female censorship, and although it celebrates great women, it warns against female ambition, for fear of being despised by the masses.
"The Introduction" opens with a scathing “Did I my lines intend for public view/How many censures would their faults pursue?” [lines 1-2], and goes on to attack the idea that women are stupid, emotional, and uneducated creatures. Finch scorns the typical lifestyle women of her time were supposed to lead, referring to these homemaker type existences as dull.
The speaker follows with the words “Alas! A woman that attempts the pen/Such an intruder on the rights of men” [lines 9-10], scorning the male presumption that the accomplishments of women should focus on things such as dancing, fashion, and being beautiful, and that any sign of intelligence “would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time” [line 17].
Finch’s next tirade , is of fables of old, and how none of them are about glorious women. Women are second, sidekick characters in the great stories of her time. A choir of virgins awaits David when he returns, victorious, to proclaim how great he is, to “proclaim the wonders of his early war” [line 38]. But even this secondary characterization is scorned in the story, for it threatens Saul, the king. He has lost the fairer half of his kingdom, and fears that the prophecy that God would replace him with another king is coming true. So, although innocent and simply desiring to praise, the choir of virgins is given a negative connotation.
A short paragraph is given to Deborah, who “fights, she wins, she triumphs with a song” [line 46]. After she is victorious, Deborah “to the peaceful, shady palm withdraws/And rules the rescued nation with her laws” [lines 49-50]. This is Finch’s only example of a great female in the stories of her youth, and she laments greatly the fall of women, “by mistaken rules/And education’s, more than nature’s fools” [lines 51-52].
Following the one story of female greatness that men have allowed into Finch’s sheltered world, she addresses her idea of what she believes will happen if a woman of greatness should rise from the ranks of the homemakers: “So strong the opposing faction appears/The hopes to thrive can ne’er outweigh the fears” [lines 67-68]. She cautions would-be greats of the fairer sex to be careful not to bring on the hate of the masses in their quest to be famous, as in the last two lines of the poem: “For groves of laurel thou wert never meant;/Be dark enough thy shades, and be thou there content” [lines 63-64].
"A Nocturnal Reverie" is a subtler statement of feminism, published after The Introduction, that personifies night as Finch’s kindred spirit and time of solitude.
Finch begins "A Nocturnal Reverie" with a description of how lovely the evening or coming of the night is, and how everything that is dormant during the day is able to come alive and thrive in the moonlight. She tells of “when freshened grass now bears itself upright/And make cool banks to pleasing rest invite” [lines 11-12], and “in twilight fine/Show trivial beauties watch their hour to shine” [lines 17-18], illustrating how night makes things more beautiful and restful. This is also an allusion to herself. Night is a time of solitude, where she is alone with the “joys of the inferior world” [line 46]. A woman can be her true self in the night.
Night brings respite for the weary from the harsh masculine controlled day, the weary not only being women, but also animals: the horses, sheep, and cattle are all able to go about their business unmolested by man. This can also be seen as Finch’s unique way of sneaking feminism into her poetry: even the dumb animal feels relief from the oppression of men during nighttime. “Their shortlived jubilee the creatures keep” [line 37] shows that even beasts are aware of the fact that night will end too soon, and they will have to return to work.
Daytime is a time of work for animals and women alike, a time when women are forced to push into the depths of their mind their secret thoughts of breaking free from masculine dominance. During the night “the elements of rage [are] disarmed” [line 43], and the soul is free to be uncomposed and unafraid of oppression.
The daytime is personified as a time domineered strongly by masculinity, where the “tyrant man” [line 38] is awake and doing his best to wilt the spirits and the ambitions of the fairer sex. A desperate wish to “In such a night let me abroad remain/Till morning breaks, and all’s confused again…” [line 47] is expressed at the end of the poem. Daytime is a time of stress and work, full of noise and harsh sunlight that forces one to pursue her pleasures endlessly, although it is very likely that she, being a woman, will ever reach them.
This is where Finch reflects upon her person life through her poetry. As an early feminist, she was supposed to keep her views in shadow. As well as a woman, Finch was an aristocrat. Her social status added to the pressure not to publish her writing. Remarkably, she did choose to publish her works, probably because of her contempt of the idea that women were only fit for trivial pursuits.
Finch finds joy in nature, which is considered the “inferior world” [line 46], comparing it to her own. Just as the world of nature is seen as below the world of the soul, in Finch’s time, a woman’s world was seen as being below a man’s. Night is a feminine, kindred spirit that Finch can identify with.
Although the night is often referred to as she, the daytime is never referred to as he; only the time that aids man in his tyranny over thought and action. Night is described as “she, hollowing clear, directs the wanderer right…” [line 6], as if it is a living being, Finch’s kindred spirit that exists for the purpose of soothing the soul and giving a time of respite and solitude. As the sun goes down, night prepares herself to soothe Finch’s soul, and gives her a time to rest and reflect.
Although sad to see the night go, Finch accepts it, asking only to “in such a night let me abroad remain/Till morning breaks, and all’s confused again” [lines 57-58]. She laments the loss of her peace, and resumes her toils toward reaching pleasures she fears she will never obtain.
Annie Finch was a pioneer of her time, publishing her works of feminism when no other woman dared. "The Introduction" is a blatant outcry against the tyranny and oppression of man, while "A Nocturnal Reverie" is a subtler statement that uses the personification of night and day as male and female, and celebrates Finch’s love of solitude.