Did I, my lines intend for publick view,
How many censures, would their faults persue,
Some wou’d, because such words they do affect,
Cry they’re insipid, empty, uncorrect.
And many, have attained, dull and untaught
The name of Witt, only by finding fault. 6
True judges might condemn their want of witt,
And all might say, they’re by a Woman writt.
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a Presumptuous Creature is esteem’d,
The fault, can by no vertue be redeem’d. 64
‘The Introduction’ appears to be an unequivocal vindication of the rights of women poets, yet remains well-tempered. The capitalized ‘Witt’, again, the central line, compounded by ‘witt / writ’ end rhymes is the key. The term is self-reflexive, drawing attention to sagacity, the pre-requisite of metaphysical poetry. Heroic couplets from the hierarchical male domain of satire are apt vehicles for carrying a satirical tone. I use ‘tone’ in the sense of an attitude towards the speaker.65 The female poetic ‘I’ mocks masculine gender-based assumptions in what, by line 9, ‘Alas!’ assumes a pseudo male persona. The following response from this twenty-first century ‘slip-shod Sibyl’ outlines Winchilsea’s possible rationale for the opening of ‘The Introduction’.
Rationale for Lines 1-12 of ‘The Introduction’
Did she her lines intend for public view?
Of course she did! This is a poet who
can have her cake and eat it. ‘Tongue-in-cheek’
is how I would describe her tone. So meek,
so mild, you’d think that butter wouldn’t melt
until she mentions Witt. Perhaps she felt
we might have overlooked her chosen form:
heroic couplets - normally the norm
domain of male poetic ‘I’ - adopts
it here, for gender-based assumptions, opts
as well ( a mistress-stroke) for uncorrect,
the patriarchal gibe she might expect.
Thus, in ‘The Introduction’, Winchilsea’s deployed the term ‘wit’ for exploitation, and in ‘On Myselfe’, compared herself with a peacock. However, Pope proposed that ‘true wit’ was no longer understood by linguistic surprises. The world of nature was as it was, and needed no embellishment. He admonished the critic who assayed a poem’s worth solely by its elaborate metaphorical content in
An Essay on Criticism
Some to Conceit alone their taste confine,
And glitt’ring thoughts struck out at ev’ry line; 290
Pleas’d with a work where nothing’s just or fit;
One glaring Chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets like painters, thus, unskill’d to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover ev’ry part,
And hide with ornaments the work of art.
True Wit is nature to advantage dress’d
That oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d;
Something, whose truth convinc’d at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind. 66 300
Pope’s main objection was to ‘over-egging the pudding’, and his distaste for metaphorical elaboration from male poets was eclipsed only by his aversion to its use by women. Consider this extract from
The Rape of the Lock
Parent of vapours and of female wit,
Who gave th’ hysteric, or poetic fit,
On various tempers act by various ways
Make some take physic, others scribble plays; 67 62
However, Pope made an exception of Winchilsea. His attempt to appease her rumoured disquiet with the above lines is evident from the outset in his epistolary poem.
IMPROMPTU TO LADY WINCHILSEA
OCCASIONED BY FOUR SATIRICAL VERSES ON WOMEN-WITS, IN THE
“RAPE OF THE LOCK”
In vain you boast Poetic Names of yore,
And cite those Sapphos we admire no more:
Fate doom’d the Fall of every female wit;
But doomed it then, when first Ardelia writ.68
Adolphus Ward described the opening lines of Winchilsea’s reply to Pope’s ‘Impromptu’ as ‘some pretty lines [in which] she gives over the contest’. 69
Disarm’d by so genteel an air,
The contest I give o’er;
Yet, Alexander, have a care,
And shock our sex no more. 70
These lines can be read as opening gambit, rather than capitulation. McGovern’s assessment of Winchilsea’s tone throughout as ‘cordial and bantering’ seems accurate.71 The ensuing lines see her trading wit with wit, inverting Pope’s ‘wit/writ’ lines from his ‘Impromptu’.
You of one Orpheus have read, 10
Who would like you have writ
Had he in London town been bred,
And polish’d to[o] his wit;
‘Tone’ is once more intrinsic to form. Here, Winchilsea eschews heroic couplets for the sing-song ballad. She seemingly denigrates herself in so doing, yet manages to have her cake and eat it. The poet displays her Classical knowledge, using Orpheus’s
fate as a metaphor for Pope’s punishment for the offending lines. ‘You need not fear his awkward fate / The lock won’t cost your head’ (ll 28-29), is highly satirical, linking Orpheus’s decapitation by the Maenads with Belinda’s snipped locks. Both poets are outwardly cordial whilst wielding gender power tools, Pope’s maleness and poetic status, versus Winchilsea’s maturity and feminine subterfuge. Winchilsea’s subversive strategies are threefold. Whereas Pope used both her title and pen-name ‘Ardelia’, Winchilsea addresses Pope by his Christian name, as much a ‘put-down’ in eighteenth-century Corridors of Power, as it is nowadays. She exploits the conceit to prove her wit, and subverts Pope’s mock-heroics. Whereas Pope makes a tragedy of Belinda’s hair-cut, Winchilsea makes Eurydice’s fate comedic.
The challenge facing the present poet’s attempt to produce two pieces from each poet’s imagined perspective, outlining their strategies of power, and their intended effect on the recipient, may be approached by adopting Pope’s heroic couplets and Winchilsea’s ballad variant. Pope’s pomposity and Winchilsea’s archness intermingle with phrases of mutual respect. Pope’s infamous put-down cannot go unmentioned by this poet. Her presentation might be seen as playfully ‘cordial and bantering’, aided and abetted by colouring-book titles carrying gendered connotations.
Strategies of POWER in my ‘IMPROMPTU’
I’ll call it my ‘Impromptu’, off-the-cuff.
Closed couplets, 12 lines long should be enough.
I need appease mi Lady Winchilsea,
She often sends her work for me to see.
The metaphysicks day is over, done, (sic)
extended metaphors from Shakespeare, Donne.
An oxymoron! That’s a woman’s wit,
Except, of course, when first Ardelia writ.
I’ll use her pseudonym, deflate her pique,
And make her title mine – or so to speak.
These slip-shod Sibyls she defends, so trite!
By picking up her pen, she proved me right.
Strategies of subterfuge in my ‘Answer’
I shan’t use his pentameters,
I’ll let him think I can’t.
Hexameters and trimeters
we ‘slip-shod Sibyls’ want.
The contest I give o’er! So tame
he’ll think it was a breeze.
I’ll call him by his Christian name,
(a wily woman’s wheeze
to undermine authority,
No match for my maturity,
he’s still so much to learn.
I’ll let him think I’ve come along -
un- polished with his wit -
to wrap this up in 12 lines long,
but s t r e t c h it out a bit.
I’ll take a leaf from Whitney’s book,
she used this metre too,
to make us take another look -
from women’s points of view –
at concepts of heroics, where
inconstancy we find.
So Alexander, have a care,
I’ve Ovid on my mind.
Comparing him with Orpheus
(the Londoner, the Greek),
may seem at first quite dubious,
but Pope is such a geek
he’ll twig my tactics right away -
knows Orpheus lost his head
to frenzied women of his day -
for Pope is sooooo well-read.
He knows my central lines are core,
(he reads my work sometimes),
to make him shock our sex no more,
I’ll mention scoffing rhymes.
But still, I’ll need to keep him sweet
before my coup-de-grace,
with you our follies gently treat. And then: my volte face:
deflate him with analogy,
appropriate his ‘Lock’.
In using this bialogy
I shan’t be using mock-
heroics, just the opposite.
Poor Eurydice’s fate
would seem quite apposite.
But will he take the bait?
But he, poor soul thought all was well
And great would be his fame
When he had left his wife in hell,
And birds and beasts could tame.
Our admiration you command
should set his mind at rest,
before he sees the reprimand
I’ve sent on their behest,
(my poet sisters, Singer-Rowe,
and Jones, and Killigrew,
and Chudleigh, Masters) just to show
who’s reprimanding whom.
Yet sooth the ladies I advise
(and me too, pride has wrought)
We’re born to wit, but to be wise,
By admonitions taught.
Winchilsea’s reputation as a ‘nature poet’ was founded on Wordsworth’s opinion in his ‘ESSAY, SUPPLEMENTARY TO THE PREFACE’ (1815) of the Lyrical Ballads
Excepting the ‘Nocturnal Reverie’ of Lady Winchilsea, and a passage or
two in the ‘Windsor Passage’ of Pope, the poetry 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 has been steadily fixed
upon his object, and much less that his feelings had urged him to work
upon it in the spirit of genuine imagination.72
Whilst ‘nature poems’ are by no means representative of Winchilsea’s entire creative output, ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ and ‘The Petition for an Absolute Retreat’ have, as McGovern observes, ‘invariably been the poems included in standard anthologies.’73 What follows contends that these two poems are vehicles for Winchilsea’s preoccupations with perceptions of female identity in eighteenth-century society, and
like-minded female friendship. The ‘nature poem’, like horticulture itself, in the early eighteenth-century was viewed in a Classicist, formal way, and it would have been challenging indeed for a female poet to incorporate her own agenda into this genre. Whilst echoes of ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ and ‘The Petition for an Absolute Retreat’ are detectable in Wordsworth, ‘The Petition’ may be considered to be an appropriation of Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ (1681) up to a point.
Marvell’s lines, ‘The nectarine and curious peach / Into my hands themselves do reach’ are reprised in Winchilsea’s ‘nature’ poem, ‘The Petition for an Absolute Retreat’, ‘Cherries, with their downy peach, / All within my easy reach’.74 However, different paradoxes pervade each poem.
Lawrence Hyman sees the innocence versus sexuality paradox as the ‘chief difficulty of [Marvell’s] poem.’75 Hyman says an ‘old Rabbinic legend’, researched by Professor Wallenstein, might resolve the paradox. This legend has it that in prelapsarian Eden, Adam was androgynous. Thus, Hyman’s article provides a ventriloquistic opportunity for the present poet to adopt the voice of the first man. Marvell’s octaves in iambic tetrameters are adopted, and his own exclamatory line indicates a chirpy, self-satisfied persona.
I’m Adam, Madam. Don’t y’know
androgyny’s the way to go?
I’m not your normal palindrome,
I like to do it on mi’ own.
I’m prelapsarian man, that’s me;
both sexes in miself, y’see.
I’m self-sufficient, don’t need Eve.
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Hyman observes several critics noting the erotic nature of the garden, and cites William Empson’s contradictory statements. On the one hand, women are of no interest to the poet because ‘nature is more beautiful’ and, conversely, the ‘garden possesses the same sexuality associated with women’. Thus, the ‘chirpy, self-satisfied’ Adam may now present himself as a philosopher. The first octave sees him discount the misogyny proposal, exploring Empson’s proposals in the second stanza, and concluding according to Wallerstein’s theory in the epigrammatic couplet.
Misogynistic? Not one jot!
Y’ think that way, you’ve lost the plot.
In Marvell’s garden where I’ve bin,
I’ve fallen into carnal sin.
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach.
No roses, lupins, lilies, phlox,
this garden’s growing paradox
because: a poet who retreats
from sexuality, creates
a garden that is curious,
And here’s where Empson goes astray,
he says I just want fruit. O.K:
but then, he says this garden grows
sex symbols in its curvy rows.
Prof. Wallerstein has found the key;
before mi Fall, ‘Androgyne’
Winchilsea’s poem explores a different paradox, of reflection versus self-reflection. ‘The Petition for an Absolute Retreat’ subverts eighteenth-century expectations of suitable feminine pursuits. One such expectation is the enjoyment of drawing room gossip as a diversion from the woman’s primary pastime of mirror gazing.
No Intruders thither come!
Who visit, but to be from home;
None who their vain Moments pass, 10
Only studious of their Glass,
News, that charm to listning Ears;
That False Alarm to Hopes and Fears,
That common Theme of every Fop,
From the Statesman to the Shop,
In those Coverts ne’er be spread
Of who’s Deceas’d and who’s to Wed,76
Whereas Winchilsea’s ‘retreat’ is retirement in the sense of withdrawal, this retired woman now interrogates perceptions of ladylike behaviour in the twenty-first century. The villanelle is a suitable medium in that its repetitive nature emphasizes Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’.77 The current poet’s self-presentation may seem audacious.
Of post -retirement, Jenny Joseph says
she’ll wear the colour purple, learn to spit.
It’s Restoration time, don’t waste the days
on tapestry, embroid’ring cloths for trays,
or needlepoint, or learning how to knit.
Of post-retirement, Jenny Joseph says
buy brandy with the pension. Say to blaz-
es paying rent and rates. Just moonlight flit!
It’s Restoration time, don’t waste the days
in sensible attire, in shoes with lac-
es. Ditch the pearls and twinsets, they’re the pits!
Of post-retirement, Jenny Joseph says
try swearing, be obscene in public pla-
ces, snog a stranger longer than a bit.
It’s Restoration time, don’t waste the days
arranging table napkins sev’ral ways.
Go lady to laddette. Quit etiquette!
Of post –retirement, Jenny Joseph says
it’s Restoration time. Don’t waste the days!
In another departure from ‘The Garden’, Winchilsea addresses the value of companionship. Whereas Marvell yearned for solitude in his Eden
But ‘twas beyond a mortal’s share 60
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ‘twere in one
To live in paradise alone.
Winchilsea required the company of a likeminded friend in her retreat:
Give me there (since Heaven has shown 104
It was not good to be alone)
A partner suited to my Mind,
Solitary, pleased and kind;
‘The Petition’ is inscribed to ‘Arminda’, the Countess of Thanet. Thus, it may be assumed that Winchilsea valued likeminded female friendship. The following lines, in which the poet is a metaphorically dead tree, and Thanet’s wisdom its revival, illustrate the point.
Bearing neither leaves nor, fruit 156
Living only in the root;
Back reflecting let me say
So the sad Ardelia lay
Faded till Arminda’s love (Guided by the powers above)
Warmed anew her drooping heart
And life diffused through every part;
Mixing words of wise discourse
Of such weight and wondrous force
As could all her sorrows charm
And transitory ills disarm;
Cheering the delightful day,
When disposed to be more gay,
With wit from an unmeasured store
To woman ne’er allowed before.
Wordsworth’s presentation album to Lady Lowther included ‘The Petition’.78 However, as several critics, including Greer, observe, ‘the inscription and all mention of Lady Thanet are suppressed.’79 ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ is the other poem in Lowther’s album with Wordsworth’s suppressions. Two couplets crucial to interpretation are deleted. The poem’s opening lines appear to support Wordsworth’s view of Winchilsea as a poet with her ‘eye fixed firmly on the topic’ i.e. ‘an image of external nature’. Winchilsea uses lines from The Merchant of Venice, recalling the beauty of nature, as a springboard to the present image of trembling trees reflected in a rippling moonlit river.80
A NOCTURNAL REVERIE
In such a Night, when every louder Wind
Is to its distant Cavern safe confin’d;
And only gentle Zephyr fans his Wings,
And lonely Philomel, still waking, sings;
Or from some Tree, fam’d from the Owl’s delight,
She, hollowing clear, directs the Wand’rer right:
In such a Night, when passing Clouds give place,
Or thinly veil the Heav’ns mysterious Face;
When in the River, overhung with Green,
The waving Moon and trembling Leaves are seen; 10
However, the mood is interrupted in the two couplets Wordsworth suppressed.
When scatter’d Glow-worms, but in Twilight fine, 17
Show trivial Beauties watch their Hour to shine;
Whilst Salis’bry stands the Test of every Light,
In perfect Charms and perfect Virtue bright: 81
The ‘glow-worms … trivial beauties’ represent the world of fashionable society from which the poet seeks to escape. She is not alone on her nocturnal ramble, having the
company of the Countess of Salisbury. Salisbury, like Thanet, is the antithesis of the ‘trivial beauties’ in this poem, and those ‘only studious of their glass’, in ‘The Petition’. In these four lines, Winchilsea has acknowledged and dismissed the value high society places on ‘trivial beauties’ and celebrated her friendship with Salisbury.
Poets have always ‘borrowed’ other writer’s lines, and ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ afforded this poet the opportunity to take another line from The Merchant of Venice as a springboard to the twenty-first century.82 Coleridge’s ‘owl and owlet’ propel the reader from the present to the future, in a switch of emphasis from ‘nature’ to the nature of poetry, and its ‘beyondness’, addressed by Geoffrey Hill.83 The Petrarchan sonnet form seemed appropriate for this experiment, in that the type 2 sestet, with its open rhyme scheme, may be seen to convey a poet open to the influences of the natural world on the creative process. 84
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.
Valerian and passion flower – the herbs
of Morpheus – pervade these unperturbed
abstruser musings. Nothing noxious, dank.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.
The owl and owlets hooting won’t disturb
this reverie. Of such a night the verb,
the verb, the verb … create? To swell the ranks
‘of all available reality’,
(as Geoffrey Hill has said) ‘of something there
that was not there’, the thing called poetry.
The thing that takes us to a place somewhere
beyond experience of day, to see
with second sight, with second hearing hear.
The final creative task in this chapter is an attempt to convey an increased understanding of ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ gained from critical opinion, and my own close reading. It can be argued that in ‘translating’ the ‘Reverie’ and the ‘Petition’ for Lowther, Wordsworth self-translated. His motivation is unclear. He may have presented an ‘anti-aristocratic’ self, or thinking the ‘nature poem’ should be spoken in
‘language really used by men’, disclosed a misogynist.85 He was doing neither more, nor less, than Wyatt, yet could be construed, at best, as unethical. Thus, the present poet could be presenting an avenging self in the following.
A Critical Commentary: ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’
One might at first assume ‘Romantic ode’
as Wordsworth claimed. The setting seems to bode
that way, seclusion, hence tranquility
in no mean measure - thanks to M of V.
In such a night, when even louder wind
Is to its distant cavern safe confined;
And only gentle zephyr fans his wings,
And lonely Philomel, still waking, sings.
‘Conceit of louder winds confined to caves’,
thinks Greer. O.K. I go with that. She waives
aside ‘confusing Zephyr with the owl
and nightingale’ as falling somewhat foul
of vivid imag’ry. How so? If next
we read two couplets further down the text:
When in some river, overhung with green,
The waving moon and trembling leaves are seen;
evoking visual, olfactory,
and auditory too, the sensory
perceptions of a scene we almost smell,
and hear, and feel the crystal clear, as well
as see the darkened green. A vivid scene.
I’d go with Wordsworth there, had it not been:
When scattered glow-worms, but in twilight fine,
Show trivial beauties watch their hour to shine;
a natural conceit, but glowing worms
are tawdry products of cosmetic charms.
When Sal’sbury stands the test of every light,
In perfect charms and perfect virtue bright.
Antithesis of ‘High Society’,
the Countess had no taste for frippery.
And that’s what Wordsworth couldn’t understand,
dismissed the social comment out of hand.
A learned woman from the upper-class
compared with nature! Had to let that pass.
Unlike Marvell, in ‘paradise alone’,
two pairs of ears are list’ning, not just one.
When the loosed horse now, as his pasture leads,
Comes slowly grazing through the adjoining meads,
Whose stealing pace and lengthened shade we fear,
Till torn-up forage in his teeth we hear.
When curlews cry beneath the village walls,
And to her struggling brood the partridge calls
The short-lived jubilee the creatures keep
Which but endures while tyrant man does sleep.
‘The only time the female’s unmoles-
ted’, critic Greer quite reasonably suggests.
In such a night let me abroad remain,
Till morning breaks and all’s confused again.
Suggestion or demand? It’s hard to say,
retiring in the shade’s sometimes her way.
This essay poem interrogates ‘editing’ and whether ‘translation’ equates with self-translation. This chapter has contended that for Winchilsea, the woman/woman-poet presentation was not irreconcilable, and that her work was both overtly, and obliquely, didactic. The same can be said of the present poet’s creative output in this chapter. The answers to her own questions are contained within her poems. Wordsworth’s suppressions contradicted his earlier praise for Winchilsea’s ‘new image of nature’. If the concept of poetry was seeing the world as it was, and the universe too insignificant for the eighteenth-century poet’s attention, then Winchilsea’s suppressed lines were in alignment with Wordsworth’s rejecting this notion, and re-embracing exploration. Thus, when Winchilsea discarded eighteenth-century writing practices occasionally, she was both subversive and avant-garde. In this chapter, the twenty-first century woman poet enjoyed the freedom to be as illustrative, or explorative, as she chose.