Modern readers of Anne Finch’s work take a particular interest in ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ with regard to its categorization. With the benefit of significant historical and literary hindsight, some scholars regard the poem as an example of the Augustan literature that was so popular in England at the time the poem was written (1713). But others see in the poem glimpses of one of the most influential literary movements to come— romanticism.
From a chronological standpoint, ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ seems best positioned among Augustan literature. This would place Finch alongside writers such as Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Jonathan Swift, who are considered great British writers and some of the best satirists ever published. But Augustan literature was not merely biting wit and lengthy verse and prose. Augustan literature paid homage to the Roman Augustan Age, in which language was exalted and treated carefully. Education and inquiry were also embraced, which is reflected in poetry that is technically sharp. English Augustan poets followed suit, writing verse that followed conventions and demonstrated mastery of language and technique. They relied on allusion to draw clear comparisons between their society and that of ancient Rome, or to bring to their verse the flavor of classical poetry. Like the novelists, playwrights, and essayists of the time, Augustan poets observed and commented on the world around them, but often retained a level of detachment. The result is poetry that is contemplative and insightful without being overly emotional or desperate. Augustan writers were not interested in the kind of rhetoric that seeks to sway readers to the author’s point of view, but wrote merely to comment and let the reader decide. In this way, Finch’s fables are consistent with the Augustan approach to literature; a fable simply relates a story, but the story happens to have a message that the reader may find compelling.
Given the overall character of Augustan literature, why is ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ considered one of its titles? The poem features many of the qualities that typified poetry of this period. It contains classical allusions to Zephyr and Philomel. Zephyr was the Greek god of the west wind, which was considered the most gentle and inviting wind. Philomel was a person who, according the Greek mythology, was turned into a nightingale. ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ also boasts highly technical construction. The poem is a neat and even fifty lines long, composed of twenty-five heroic couplets. The rhyme scheme and the rhythm are held consistently over the course of all fifty lines. This is an impressive technical feat, and Finch succeeds in maintaining the integrity of her poem’s restrictive construction while smoothly relating the subject of the poem in a way that does not call too much attention to the pains she takes in writing in heroic couplets. Finch offers the reader a story of a nighttime experience (or vision), telling it as if she has no motive but to relate a story. The end of the poem, however, reveals the comment the poet makes about the struggles of daily life in civilization. Like a good Augustan poet, she offers it only as an observation of her own life, leaving it to the reader to personalize it to himself or his community.
In the supplement to the preface of his and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1815, the renowned romantic poet William Wordsworth praised ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ for its imagery in describing nature. Wordsworth himself saw something in Finch’s work that caught his romantic eye and resonated with him in its depiction of nature. For this reason, critics took another look at ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ and many concluded that the poem is truly a pre-romantic work. Since all literary movements arise out of a set of circumstances before becoming full-fledged movements, it is not at all unusual to see the seeds of a movement in works that precede it. Wordsworth’s appreciation of the poem for something as distinctly romantic in its depiction of nature is enough to make any serious critic consider whether ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ should be positioned among the earliest romantic poems.
The romantic period officially began with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s first edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 and lasted until about the mid-nineteenth century. For nearly a century, romanticism dominated English literature. During this time, England saw its own Industrial Revolution, major political reform, and the introduction of such philosophical perspectives as Utilitarianism. It was a dynamic time of upheaval, opportunity, and possibility, and optimism generally bested cynicism in the early years of romanticism. Toward the end of the period, literature raised questions and expressed doubt. Out of this came a view of the individual as very important, along with a deep appreciation for art and nature. In fact, many romantics considered nature to be among their wisest teachers. The great romantic poets included Wordsworth, Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. In addition to love of nature, the romantics exalted imagination and freedom from creative restraints.
Finding romantic elements in ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ is not difficult. The setting is nature, and it is described in affectionate detail. The speaker is completely enthralled by her experience outdoors, and she appreciates every aspect of it, making sure to include every animal, plant, flower, cloud, river, and glowworm in her telling. Nature is humanized through extensive use of anthropomorphism and personification, and the effect is that nature is characterized as being friendly, welcoming, and nurturing. The speaker is so at ease in the natural setting that she dreads returning to the life she leads in the civilized world. This assessment of the natural world versus man’s world is very much in line with the romantic way of thinking. Finch’s style in ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ is also very lush and descriptive, as so much of romantic poetry is, and the experience is described in relation to the speaker’s emotional response to it. There is only one figure in the poem, which places emphasis on an individual and the value of that individual’s experience and imagination. All of these elements make it easy to see why so many scholars are anxious to line ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ up with the classics of romantic poetry.
‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ contains qualities of both Augustan and romantic literature, therefore a look at the literary-historical context of the poem’s composition helps determine where it properly belongs. Finch was a well-educated woman who took care with her poetry to ensure that it was technically sound. She read the predominant poets of her time, and learned from what she read. She was, from an early age, drawn to poetry as a means of self-expression, even knowing that her pursuit would likely be only personal. When Finch wrote ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie,’’ the romantic period in England was still eighty-five years away. For her to explore romantic tendencies, there would have to have been something influential in her world leading her to turn her attentions to the things that would be uniquely romantic. Because there is not a large body of work by Finch that explores romantic themes, it seems unlikely that she was working out a new philosophy in ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie.’’
Further, the giants of the Augustan Age were in full force at the time Finch wrote ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie.’’ Pope’s classic An Essay on Criticism was published in 1711. Pope is not at all associated with the romantic period, and his views on criticism, like his writing, are consistent with the Augustan perspective. Also in 1711, two other major players in Augustan literature, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele established The Spectator, a journal that would become the most influential periodical of the century. Pope’s essay and Addison and Steele’s periodical are two major additions to England’s literary history, and ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ comes on their heels, written by a woman who kept up with such things. It is reasonable to conclude, then, that Finch was far more influenced and inspired by the Augustans than by any pre-romantic influences that may have been stirring in England in 1713.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Anne Finch, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on ‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.