Commentary on Anne Finch, "To The Nightingale" and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "To the Nightingale"

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Commentary on Anne Finch, “To the Nightingale” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “To the Nightingale”

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A poet who was attuned to the social and political climate of her era, Anne Finch’s works typically reflected on nature and religion, political change and philosophical matters. These concepts are also well explored in Finch’s “To the Nightingale” which delves into the themes of nature and morality through the conversational poetic form. Written in a time when female subjugation was commonplace, Finch’s political ideals shine though her construction of the nightingale as a “free” soul serving as a dramatic foil to her own human lack of inspiration and lament her limitations in society as a woman. In contrast, Coleridge’s identically titled poem employs the symbol of the Nightingale to celebrate the human form. Whilst both Coleridge and Finch handle the image of the bird to different ends, both poets are united in their depiction of a pastoral appreciation of nature.

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The most notable similarity that can first be observed in both poems is the identical title – “To the Nightingale” – which instantly depicts the Nightingale as a prominent figure within both poems. Whilst depictions of Nightingales in literature could be varied, works like Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” popularised the notion of the Nightingale as a melancholic figure and inspired poets such as John Milton to perpetuate this presentation of the Nightingale in a state of victimhood. However, Finch and Coleridge do not go along with this literary tradition and in entitling their poem “To the Nightingale” they follow the emerging trend amongst Romantic poets who present the Nightingale as a “master of a superior art that could inspire poets” and reinstate the image of the Nightingale as a musical beauty.

The notion of the Nightingale being assigned an elevated status is expanded upon by both poets who depict a pastoral appreciation of nature in order to construct the Nightingale as a poet in its own right. In the first stanza of Finch’s “To the Nightingale” she employs multiple figurative devices when she says “exert thy voice, sweet harbinger of Spring!” Here, Finch intertwines the image of the bird and Spring – the beginning of a new season – thus establishing the Nightingale as a symbol of regeneration and new beginnings. 

As well as this, Finch makes use of sibilance in “sweet” and “spring” to manifest the musical nature of the bird, followed by an exclamation mark which signals the poets adoration for the musical nature of Nightingale, a theme that is recurrent throughout the poem. Subsequently, one could argue that in Finch’s poem the Nightingale takes on the role of a muse that inspires and is admired by the poet.

This idea is also explored in Coleridge’s poem where the Nightingale is described as the “minstrel of the moon!” Similar to Finch, Coleridge also uses an exclamation mark to showcase his excitement and adoration towards the Nightingale and alliteration is employed in “minstrel” and “moon” to reinforce the Nightingale as a powerful figure who – like the moon – has power over nature. Subsequently, in both poems the Nightingale is presented as a powerful figure and the voice of nature, an imagery mostly adopted by poets in escaping the harsh reality of this world because of its creative and seemingly spontaneous songs.

As well as the Nightingale being recognised as a poet in its own right, both poets use the Nightingale to comment on their personal happiness. Finch focuses on the happiness of the Nightingale in order to juxtapose her own restrictions as a female poet living under a patriarchal society. Notably, in her second stanza, Finch’s narrator states that “Poets, wild as thee, were born, Pleasing best when unconfin’d.” Here, Finch notes how the Nightingale is “wild” and free and can therefore reach its full potential as a lyricist. Finch contrasts the Nightingale’s freedom to her lack of freedom in the finial lines of the last stanza where she declares that the 

Nightingales freedom is something, she “cannot reach.” Indeed, an example of the social limitations placed on female poets can be seen in Finch’s criticism of Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’ which she felt was misogynistic as it undermined female writers. Subsequently, Finch draws upon her feminist views to criticise a social system where a Nightingale can “exert thy voice” but female poets are encouraged to silence theirs.

This is a sharp contrast to Coleridge who places his personal happiness over that of the Nightingale. This is evident in the poet’s remark that the Nightingale is “not so sweet as is the voice of her, My Sara – best beloved of human kind!” Whilst the possessive pronoun “My” indicates the poet’s stronger emotional connection to “Sara” over the Nightingale, his use of an exclamation mark emphasizes the joy Sara brings to Coleridge’s life. As “Sara” could be a reference to his wife Sara Flicker, Coleridge is moving away from the conventions of traditional Romantic poetry which focused on the pastoral by extending his admiration to humanity and presenting audiences with a romantic declaration of love.

These political and personal messages that both poets present through the Nightingale and their depiction of nature is also interestingly seen in the form and structure of both poems. Significantly, Finch makes way in coining a new poetic form – the conversational poem. With no regular rhyme scheme, or meter, the structure of Finch’s “To the Nightingale” mirrors her feelings of displacements as a female in a social space dominated by male poets who undermine the capabilities of female poets. This is reinforced in Finch’s employment of rhyming couplets which assist in Finch’s side by side comparison of the Nightingale and female poets and the free and the entrapped.

In addition to this, Finch divides her poem into 4 stanzas which can be interpreted as the 4 seasons. Thus, it is interesting to note the gradation that can be gleaned from the third stanza where Finch makes heavy use of euphoric sibilance such as “sweet”, “sense” and “shall” to capture the essence of Autumn and the fourth stanza where dissonances like “Criticise” are used to showcase the harshness of Winter. This makes the narrative voice appear increasingly harsh and therefore exposes Finch’s feelings of frustration towards her social climate.

Whereas the structure of Finch’s “To the Nightingale” indicates her increasing frustration, the structure of Coleridge’s poem suggests a gentler approach to the Nightingale. Coleridge employs iambic pentameter, which provides the poem a lyrical rhythm that mirrors the musical nature of the Nightingale. As well as this, Coleridge’s poem is written in single stanza in black verse. This intertwines his appreciation of the Nightingale and humanity and further assists Coleridge’s presentation of the Nightingale like a human poet.

The rhyming couplet in these finial lines of Finch’s poem creates a sense of completion and sad resolution as the speaker will never be able to reach the status of the Nightingale. Far from the lack of hope that is evident in Finch’s poem, in Coleridge’s poem the speaker ends by excitedly noting that “She [Sara] thrills me with the Husband’s promis’d name!” with the exclamation mark leaving audiences with a sense of hope and joy.

Overall, both poets are united in presenting nature in a positive light. In both poems, the Nightingale is given an elevated status and is recognised not as an animal but almost as a poet for nature. Subsequently both poems adhere to conventions of romantic poetry which were pastoralist. Finch uses the elevated status of the Nightingale to contrast her own human suffering and critique the patriarchal society she lives under which oppresses Finch and prevents her from reaching the Freedom that the Nightingale embodies. In this sense, Finch further conforms to pastoral tradition which uses nature to contrast the limitations of humanity.

Coleridge, on the other hand, moves slightly away from this tradition by intertwining the Nightingale and humanity to showcase humanity’s prosperity. Far from the sad tone that is expressed in Finch’s poem, in Coleridge’s “To the Nightingale” he maintains a joyous and celebratory tone. Consequently, despite both poems sharing some similarities in their presentation of the Nightingale, both Anne Finch and Coleridge’s poem vastly differ in their intensions and their achievements. Whilst Coleridge’s poem leaves readers feeling optimistic, by the end of Finch’s poem we are left feeling pessimistic.

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