Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Anne Finch's Aviary: Or, Why She Never Wrote "The Bird and the Arras"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Anne Finch's Aviary: Or, Why She Never Wrote "The Bird and the Arras"

Article excerpt

Readers of Anne Finch's "The Bird and the Arras" have analyzed its portrayal of the trapped bird as a symbol of women or women writers within a patriarchal structure. Lucy Brashear considers the poem a "chilling poetic revelation of the circumscribed life of a woman" living in late-seventeent-hand early eighteenth-century England. (1) For Katharine M. Rogers the bird's obstacles symbolize the man-made conventions that confine a woman, especially a woman writer. (2) The opening of this twenty-one-line poem offers much to support these interpretations, with the female bird stymied in her search for Nature's shade by an arras that deceives her:

   By neer resemblance see that Bird betray'd
   Who takes the well wrought Arras for a shade
   There hopes to pearch and with a chearfull Tune
   O're-passe the scortchings of the sultry Noon.
   But soon repuls'd by the obdurate scean
   How swift she turns but turns alas in vain
   That piece a Grove, this shews an ambient sky
   Where immitated Fowl their pinnions ply
   Seeming to mount in flight and aiming still more high.
   (1-9) (3)

"The Bird and the Arras" may indeed figure Finch's condemnation of women's and women writers' restrictions under patriarchy. Such themes appear in Finch's "The Introduction" where the speaker asks, "Did I, my lines intend for publick view, / How many censures, wou'd their faults persue" (1-2), and in "The Unequal Fetters," where wives are "in Fetters bound / By one that walks a freer round" (14-15). (4) "The Bird and the Arras" may suggest a concern with the constraints on women and women writers insofar as the poet and bird resemble each other. Bur in the second half of the poem, introduced by the hiatus shown here, the bird escapes its constraints:

   But we degresse and leaue th' imprison'd wretch
   Now sinking low now on a loftyer stretch
   Flutt'ring in endlesse cercles of dismay
   Till some kind hand directs the certain way
   Which through the casement an escape affoards
   And leads to ample space the only Heav'n of Birds.
   (16-21)

Significantly, a human, whose understanding is superior to the bird's, rescues the creature from the deceptive artful interior and dissolves whatever parallel may be implied between the bird and women or women writers. But this is only one difficulty with existing interpretations of lines whose transmission history has been badly obscured.

Restored to their transmission history, the lines constituting "The Bird and the Arras" are only part of Finch's reflections on other matters. The deceiving art of the arras may suggest certain social constraints, but these lines in their original context connect more directly with Finch's attention to the hazards, nature, and duties of representation occasioned by her experiences in the Stuart court and her political exile in England after the revolution of 1688. "The Bird and the Arras" was never constructed as a discrete poem by Finch. Myra Reynolds assembled it as such for her edition of Finch's works published by the University of Chicago Press in 1903. (5) Reynolds extracted these lines, without acknowledging them as extractions, from two sections (lines 1-15 and 30-35) of a longer poem by Finch titled "Some occasional Reflections Digested (though not with great regularity) into a Poem" (6) This longer poem appears in Finch's folio manuscript, mostly transcribed in the middle and late 1690s when the poet was in her thirties. (7) Never before printed, "Some occasional Reflections" is included at the end of this essay, with the lines Reynolds excerpted as "The Bird and the Arras" in italics.

The answer to why Finch never wrote "The Bird and the Arras" as a discrete poem can be found in her changes to the function of birds in her work. Before 1700, birds illustrate her recurrent interest in the theme of representation and figure her doubly precarious position as a woman writer and sympathizer with the exiled Stuarts. …

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