Summary and Critical Analysis of ‘The Introduction’
The picture of a woman poet frustrated by the restrictions imposed by society on her is seen clearly in “The Introduction”. The poet begins anticipating what critics would say about her lines: “And all might say, they’re by a Woman writt.” A woman writer is viewed as “an intruder on the rights of men” and a “presumptuous Creature” who should desire woman’s proper accomplishments, namely, “Good breeding, fassion, dancing, dressing, play.” In fact, the public would feel that “To write, or read, or think, or to enquire / Wou’d cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time, / And interrupt the Conquests of our prime.” This early feminist rejects the idea that “the dull mannage, of a servile house” is woman’s “outmost art, and use”.
To support her idea that women can accomplish more than the public’s limited view of the female role, the poet looks to ancient Israel for examples of women who excelled and includes them in “The Introduction.” To the Biblical account of the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Israel, she adds “holy Virgins” to the crowds of people who sang joyfully and speaks of these virgins’ completing “the Hymn Devine” with their soft notes. When victorious David returned from battle, the women greeted him with songs and with applause which made King Saul feel “itts mighty thunder shake the Crown.” Saul’s time on the throne is limited because “Half of the Kingdom is already gone; / The fairest half, whose influence guides the rest, / Have David’s Empire o’re their hearts confess’t.” The poet’s last example from ancient Israel, the famous Deborah also had a song to sing, again one of victory. He describes her as follows: “A Woman here, leads fainting Israel on, / She fights, she wins, she tryumphs with a song.” After the victory has been won, Deborah the judge “rules the rescu’d. Nation, with her laws.” Mallinson speaks of this “appeal to antique precedent” as “lengthy, substantial, and vigorous”, and Rogers notes that Biblical examples “seemed called for in an age when the Bible was constantly used to keep woman in her place.”
Unfortunately, women in Finch’s society are not expected to lead as these earlier women had done but instead have been hampered by poor education and by opposition from others if they desire to “Soar above the rest, / With warmer fancy, and ambition press’t.” Women are “Debarr’d from all improvements of the mind / And to be dull, expected and designed”. Because of these negative conditions, this woman poet cautions her Muse to be content with just a small audience of friends. Mallinson interprets the phrase “with contracted wing” as including “a narrow range of song”.
A poet of the early eighteenth century, Anne Finch composed in a variety of contemporary forms, including the verse epistle, the Pindaric ode, the fable, and occasional poetry, exploring issues of authorship, love, friendship, and nature. Her nature poetry celebrates the beauty of the country, especially in contrast to the superficial frivolity of London society, while her love poetry praises married life rather than the attentions of a lover. Finch defended the appropriateness of women writing and often adapted the conventions of male Augustan writers to female experiences and themes. Though rarely adopting the satirical tone of Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift, Finch was nonetheless encouraged in her craft by these literary figures.
The majority of her poems are characterized by such themes as gender and politics. Marginalised through politics and her desire to write, Finch recognized the difficulties of an eighteenth-century woman assuming the public voice of a poet while insisting that intellectual pursuits were not the prerogative of men. She commemorated the beauty of nature in “Nocturnal Reverie,” “The Tree,” “The Bird,” and “Petition for an Absolute Retreat,” the latter poem also suggesting her escape from political turmoil. In a similar vein, “Ardelia’s Answer to Ephelia” lauds the value of rural retirement while criticizing the pretentiousness of London society and female vanity.
In “The Introduction,” “Circuit of Apollo, ” “Ardelia’s Answer to Ephelia,” and “To the Nightingale,” she asserted the validity of women writing. In taking up the pen to write love poetry, she countered the tradition of arranged marriages and male infidelity by celebrating conjugal love in poems to her husband, though she criticised mercenary marriages in other poems. Her greatest eighteenth-century success, “The Spleen,” examines both a generalized public understanding of the condition and treatment of melancholy and her private suffering.
“The Introduction” to her Miscellany Poems (1713) never was published with them, probably due to its direct challenge to the male-dominated literary scene of her time. Her self-censorship in fear of public condemnation became a casebook example for feminist critics of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies who sought to explain why women weren’t published more often. Those women were in fact writing, but they knew their work could be condemned or ignored (worse yet!) merely for being “by a woman writ”, perhaps her most famous single phrase. The chilling spectacle of a competent, perhaps even great poet thinking seriously about turning her back on publication and the chance to shape the English language reaches its peak in lines 59-64 in which she directly echoes Milton while rejecting the great poetic gesture for a deliberately lesser effect.
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