Poem of the week: A Nocturnal Reverie by Anne Finch

A Nocturnal Reverie

In such a night, when every louder wind
Is to its distant cavern safe confined;
And only gentle Zephyr fans his wings,
And lonely Philomel, still waking, sings;
Or from some tree, famed for 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 some river, overhung with green,
The waving moon and the trembling leaves are seen;
When freshened grass now bears itself upright,
And makes cool banks to pleasing rest invite,
Whence springs the woodbind, and the bramble-rose,
And where the sleepy cowslip sheltered grows;
Whilst now a paler hue the foxglove takes,
Yet checkers still with red the dusky brakes
When scatter’d glow-worms, but in twilight fine,
Shew trivial beauties, watch their hour to shine;
Whilst Salisb’ry stands the test of every light,
In perfect charms, and perfect virtue bright:
When odors, which declined repelling day,
Through temp’rate air uninterrupted stray;
When darkened groves their softest shadows wear,
And falling waters we distinctly hear;
When through the gloom more venerable shows
Some ancient fabric, awful in repose,
While sunburnt hills their swarthy looks conceal,
And swelling haycocks thicken up the vale:
When the loosed horse now, as his pasture leads,
Comes slowly grazing through th’ adjoining meads,
Whose stealing pace, and lengthened shade we fear,
Till torn-up forage in his teeth we hear:
When nibbling sheep at large pursue their food,
And unmolested kine rechew the cud;
When curlews cry beneath the village walls,
And to her straggling brood the partridge calls;
Their shortlived jubilee the creatures keep,
Which but endures, whilst tyrant man does sleep;
When a sedate content the spirit feels,
And no fierce light disturbs, whilst it reveals;
But silent musings urge the mind to seek
Something, too high for syllables to speak;
Till the free soul to a composedness charmed,
Finding the elements of rage disarmed,
O’er all below a solemn quiet grown,
Joys in th’ inferior world, and thinks it like her own:
In such a night let me abroad remain,
Till morning breaks, and all’s confused again;
Our cares, our toils, our clamors are renewed,
Or pleasures, seldom reached, again pursued.

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720) wrote A Nocturnal Reverie during an extended period of rural exile in Kent, following the deposition of King James II. The liberation the poet finds in darkness is liberation from the glare of public life as well as daylight.

“In such a night” quotes the conversation between Lorenzo and Jessica in Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. It brings with it an atmosphere of eroticism and heightened expectation. The poem unfurls from and around this inspired small theft. The phrase recurs just often enough to propel the flow of the description and its syntax. All the details Finch so vividly depicts are seen by moonlight, but the light is more inconsistent than in the bright Shakespearean scene: this is a “night, when passing clouds give place, / Or thinly veil the heav’ns’ mysterious face”.

The soundscape evoked is especially rich and realistic. The nightingale, “Lonely Philomel”, makes a conventional appearance, but the owl has more significance. The verb “hollowing” give a good impression of the sound it makes without any recourse to the gothic. In fact, the call is a guide to the poet wanderer. Curlews and the partridge are also overheard, while animals enjoy some noisy nocturnal chewing. There is no sentimentality about these “nature notes”: the observation is sharp but homely: “the loosed horse now, as his pasture leads, / Comes slowly grazing through th’ adjoining meads, / Whose stealing pace, and lengthened shade we fear, / Till torn-up forage in his teeth we hear.”

Finch isn’t the only human out for a walk. Earlier, in lines 19 and 20, she has paused to pay her companion, the Countess of Salisbury, a brief but elegantly turned compliment: “Salisb’ry stands the test of every light, / In perfect charms, and perfect virtue bright.” The transition is smoothly executed, contrasting the moral quality of her friend’s beauty with the glow-worms’ temporary and “trivial” brightness.

As “the creatures” begin to prepare for the incursions of human activities on their “shortlived jubilee”, the mood seems to become more restless and uneasy. Night has allowed the “free’d soul” to escape from “rage” to “composedness”. But now the harmony is recognised as illusory. This soul “Joys in th’ inferior world, and thinks it like her own” – the implication being that the nocturnal, natural world is not “like her own” daily existence. The thought is emphasised by the shift from iambic pentameter to hexameter. It’s a quietly effective stroke, and enables a poetic rebalancing. Now the subordinate clause “in such a night” returns and finds its conclusion, which becomes the rather downbeat conclusion of the poem: “In such a night let me abroad remain, / Till morning breaks, and all’s confused again; / Our cares, our toils, our clamors are renewed, / Or pleasures, seldom reached, again pursued.”

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