The Representation of Nature in 18th century British Arts

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey captured the attention of multiple artists in the eighteenth century. It is a ruined church which can be found on the bank of the river Wye in Monmouthshire. Wordsworth rendered Tintern Abbey famously in his poem, but the picturesque qualities of the Wye Valley also lead to paintings by Gilpin and Turner. Some centuries later, the abbey still manages to attract artists: the American poet Allen Ginsberg wrote his poem Wales Visitation at Tintern Abbey, after dropping some acid. The Wye Valley, and the pure, unspoiled nature in general, caused a great influence on artists. In different arts, going from poetry till the art of painting, nature is one of the most important themes in the eighteenth century. First of all, the role nature will be discussed, and more precisely that of the Wye Valley, in the writings of the Wordsworths. Following that, we will find out how nature is represented in some famous eighteenth century paintings, focusing on the painter John Constable.

 “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798”

William Wordsworth

 In his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798” Wordsworth returns after five years with his sister, Dorothy, from a trip remembering his previous excursions to this area that meant so much to him. He reflects back on the emotional feelings he experienced during that first time and how he enjoyed the landscape. However, during this last visit, he realizes he has matured and cannot go back to that moment in the past. That is why he makes a mirror image of his younger sister Dorothy, as he teaches her how to look at nature the way he used to look at it. In doing so, he provides himself with those past joyous feelings as he fondly remembers them now, while thanking his sister for bringing him to his former place of residence and student years once more.

 Tintern Abbey is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems. The poem can be seen as a record of the different stages in his poetic career. In the poem, the speaker sees Tintern Abbey and the surrounding valley from a hill. The reader is confronted with a sense of overview. The conception of nature and the composition of the landscape in it, can be compared with that of Constable, a contemporary painter, who will be discussed a bit further. In the poem, Wordsworth connects the human world with the divine world through the world of Nature. He finds the unity of the universe in the Wye valley. In this stage of Wordsworth’s life, he conceptualises nature as some sort of religion, and ‘the universal human malady in mind and heart could be cured only by Nature’s “holy plan”’. This higher power attributed to nature is clearly visible in the following lines (l. 107-110):

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

 In the poem, there are only traces of people, but not people itself. That lack of figures is part of the motive of representing the landscape as wild, untouched and desolate. The traces (hedge-rows, farms, smoke) are visible in the next few lines (l. 11-19):

These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

 Wordsworth also mentions the Hermit. The Hermit can be regarded as a symbol for solitude and the integration of the human presence in the landscape (l. 22-23):

Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Wordsworth’s influences

Wordsworth writings clearly reflect his love for nature and his relation with her. Most often his writings notify the beauty of nature as opposed to the horror of nature, in a few of his writings. The poet seems to have a particular affection towards nature and therefore presumable uses many adjectives to vividly describe all his perceptions of nature.

It is pleasurable to read Wordsworth’s poetry as the poet acquaints the reader with the beauty of nature. Wordsworth considered nature to be more than a collection of trees, bushes, hills, streams […] to him nature has personality, almost similar to humans with a power to poetically inspire those who love her. He considers nature as a friend, teacher and guide and claims that he could feel the presence of spirituality in nature like no other poet could.

 P.B. Shelley, in his poem To Wordsworth, calls Wordsworth ‘Poet of Nature,’ as William Hazlitt calls him poet of the mountains, and both these appellations are very appropriate for Wordsworth, because Wordsworth both got his poetic inspiration and materials for his poems from nature. Right from the poems which he wrote in his early years, we find that his poems are suffused with the beauty and descriptions of nature, as if nature followed him like a shadow. (Sarker, 2003: 300)

However, as William spent most of his life living with his sister, Dorothy, it might be reasonable to acknowledge she might have had a considerable influence on his life and writings. Her love and passion for nature is similarly reflected in her writings and as Coleridge puts a strain on her as “her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature”. Both Wordsworth family members seem to find peace and understanding in nature as Dorothy mentions “It was a sight that I could call to mind at any time it was so distinct.” referring to nature in which she could be herself. As William Wordsworth took nature to be his truest friend, so did Dorothy too.

 Nature in Constable’s paintings

 As Wordsworth describes and admires nature in all its glory and aspects in his poem, so has it also been done in the art of painting. John Constable (1776-1837) was one of the first English painters who started painting in the countryside, always trying to capture the landscape of his native region in that one moment. He was not very successful in his own country, but in France he had some following. One of his most known paintings The Hay Wain has had quite an influence on French artists. It has inspired painters such as Eugène Delacroix. Together with William Turner (1775-1851), Constable is acknowledged for his innovation in painting landscapes.

Branch Hill Pond – 1825

Constable is particularly known for his depiction of clouds that symbolize the sublime in his paintings. Wordsworth connects to the divine world through his verbal descriptions of nature, while Constable does this by painting the clouds and pastoral nature that surrounds him. Such as in Branch Hill Pond he presents an everyday image of the Hampstead Heath in which the landscape looks rustic and picturesque. The human entities such as the farm and the cart with the labourers are nestled into the landscape. There is a symbiotic relationship present between nature and humanity. Later on he focused more and more on the ever-changing weather, shown in his extensive collection of cloud studies and landscapes.In Chain Pier for example, Constable makes the weather more dynamic and expressive. It is as if it is possible to feel the wind and rain coming out of the painting. Often there are humans present in Constable’s paintings, or at least traces of human existence, yet nature and landscape are always the biggest entity in the paintings. The humans presence adds to the landscape but never overpowers/controls it.

The Chain Pier – 1827

Dedham Vale – 1828


Wordsworth’s poetry reflects the thematic characteristics of the Romantic period perfectly. Following Rousseau’s conviction that in nature ‘the essential passions of the heart’ could be found in their purest form, his poems show the same interest in nature and escaping to it. However, his poetry is more than just describing nature. He places himself in the landscapes he describes and talks about his own observations and emotions. His poetry is both spontaneous and controlled, comparable with nature itself. Wordsworth believed that the naturalistic state of a person is tranquility and should not be overwhelmed by society. Therefore, nature could be an escape for him.


“An Analysis of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey”. Freehelpstoenglishliterature. Web. 15 November 2012. <;
Barker, Elizabeth E. “John Constable”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 15 November 2012. <>
Clucas, Thomas. “Ars Gratia Artis”. Exposition. Oxford University, 2010. Web. 15 November 2012. <;
Constable, John. Branch Hill Pond. 1825. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Constable, John. Dedham Vale. 1828. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Constable John. The Chain Pier. 1827. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Greenblatt, S., et al. The Northon Anthology English Literature: Volume D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2005. Print.
Heughebaert, H., et al. Artistieke Opvoeding. Wommelgem: Uitgeverij Den Gulden Engel, 1988. Print.
Sarker, Sunil Kumar. A companion to Wordsworth. Delhi: Nice Printing Press. 300-302. 2003. Print.
Teifidancer. “Allen Ginsberg’s – Wales Visitation”. Teifidancerblog. Web. 15 November 2012. <;
“Tintern Abbey”. Photograph. The Tintern Village Website. Web. 15 November 2012. <;

Alexander Pope and the eighteenth-century garden

The Citadelpark, Ghent’s most well-known public garden, is a perfect combination of ‘natural’ and cultural elements. On a stroll through, you can find statues, Roman-inspired buildings, columns, and a kiosk, but also waterfalls, a lake, trees, ancient ruins and a grotto. The latter may seem natural, but are in fact carefully designed, artificially made, with a watchful eye for detail and variety. The park is a great nineteenth century example of the popular English garden that has its origins in the eighteenth century. However, where the Citadelpark today mostly provides a pleasurable stroll, the gardens in the eighteenth century were much more than that.

Citadelpark, Ghent (

The eighteenth-century garden

At that time, Great Britain was already one of the world’s most influential powers. Most of its revenue came from the colonies with materials such as mining resources, cotton and gold. In the eighteenth century, the British aristocracy started to invest in trading, and consequently gained more money. With these profits they felt an urge to rebuild their estates. To reflect Britain’s new role as a powerful empire, they looked back to ancient Rome and Greece, therefore implying that Britain was the new Rome (Beulens and Claes, 2012). The English garden became true landscapes, with breathtaking open vistas with triumphal arches and winding roads with pleasant shades and small rivers.

The first to successfully mix the Roman style with the contemporary tastes was Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect. He based his work on the Vitruvian principle that architecture should be solid, useful and beautiful. His design is characterized by classical elements such as frontons, columns, symmetry, and friezes, with emphasis on simplicity and geometrical patterns. This type of architecture became known as the Palladian style and was dominant in Europe for the next two centuries. Inigo Jones was the pioneer in England to use Palladio’s design in his architecture and stage designs. The same principles were used to rebuild several cities such as Edinburgh and the City of London (designed by Christopher Wren when the City burned down in 1666).

Villa Foscari La Malcontenta, design by Andrea Palladio (

Stowe Garden, Vista (

Stowe Garden, Palladian Bridge (

Harewood House, Garden Terrace, Leeds (

When the British aristocracy started to redesign their estates, they were also inspired by the Palladian style.  Many of them were friends of Alexander Pope, who was not only a poet but also a source of inspiration for landscape designers, being a fervent gardener himself.  Pope, being a Catholic, was not allowed to own property in London, so he bought an estate, Twickenham, just outside the city along the river Thames. His garden was famous and greatly admired. Many people asked him for advice and wanted to contribute to his garden by sending in stones, fossils and minerals from all over Britain. After his death, these things were often stolen by visitors and were kept as souvenirs. Hence, not much of the actual splendour of the garden remains; the only thing left is the Grotto, which is also a pale image of what it used to be.

Pope’s Grotto (

Pope’s opinion on gardening

Pope is the perfect representative of Augustan poetry, and he uses the same principles when it comes to landscape gardening. The Augustan style takes its inspiration from ancient Rome and Greece, emphasizing elegance, harmony, balance, formal strictness, simplicity and being capable of using Sense (thinking rationally and keeping your emotions under control) (Beulens and Claes, 2012). In his poem Epistle to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, he explains these principles to describe what a perfect garden should be like. He illustrates this by contrasting it with a bad example: the garden of Timon.

“At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.” (l. 99-102)

There are three main things that bother Pope about his garden. First of all, a garden should be balanced, which means that people should treat a garden like a “modest fair, nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare” (l. 51-52). This means that there should be an equal amount of the ‘natural’ and the cultural. However, the natural is mostly artificial since it is manipulated to make it seem as if it was not man-made. A good designer respects the materials he is working with, and his goal is to improve what is already there. Secondly, a garden needs variety; behind every corner you should find something new that keeps you stimulated. Too much of the same can overwhelm or  bore you:

“On ev’ry side you look, behold the Wall!
No pleasing Intricacies intervene,
No artful wilderness to perplex the scene;
Grove nods at grove, each Alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.” (l. 114-118)

Thirdly, a walk through the garden should be a pleasant experience, something which Timon did not achieve, due to a lack of variety. There are, for example, too many slopes, too few places to rest, too little shade, too many open vistas, and too many Roman ornaments:

“The suff’ring eye inverted Nature sees,
Trees cut to Statues, Statues thick as trees,
With here a Fountain, never to be play’d,
And there a Summer-house, that knows no shade.” (l. 119-122)

In short, Timon failed to respect the original natural scenery. His garden is dominated by cultural objects, and too many of the same patterns and decorations. In all of this, he has forgotten to include the natural, which results in a pompous and ostentatious impression.

Function of the garden

As mentioned in the introduction, the garden in the 18th century was aesthetic, but also functional. A walk in a garden was more than just a walk; it was a true experience. Visitors actively participated in the garden, smelling, touching, hearing and watching the scenery change as they walked along the paths. People read poetry to each other, music was played, and fruits or vegetables were cultivated (Bell 1990).

In Windsor Forest, Pope describes another important aspect of garden design. The garden reflects the abilities of its owner; if it is well-proportioned, it means that the owner is capable of Sense. This person knows how to take the golden middle-path: he is rational and balanced in his designs. Windsor Forest is a royal estate and therefore the king or queen should be as balanced and reasonable as his garden. A good land owner makes a good governor.

The poem celebrates the beauty of Windsor Forest, which is a reflection of the golden reign of Queen Anne. With each new king or queen, the garden changed according to his or her political abilities. In times of political disturbance, the garden was imbalanced and chaotic. Queen Anne’s reign, however, was peaceful, balanced, moderate and prosperous.

“Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
and Peace and Plenty tell a STUART Reigns. “ (l. 41-42)

Because Queen Anne is moderate and balanced, Windsor Forest has all the qualities of the perfect garden as Pope describes it. Moderation is key to running things the right way, not only in the garden but also in the nation.

“Here earth and water seem to strive again,
Not chaos like together crushed and bruised,
But as the world, harmoniously confused:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree.” (l. 12-16)

Hunting was an important activity in Windsor Forest, which was exclusively practiced by the royal family. This might be interpreted as a reflection of British colonialism, as Pope cautiously suggests in lines 105-110:

“Thus (if small things we may with great compare)
When Albion sends her eager sons to war,
Some thoughtless town, with ease and plenty blessed,
Near, and more near, the closing lines invest;
Sudden they seize th’amazed, defenseless prize
And high in air Britannia’s standard flies” (l. 105-110)

Colonialism was associated with bringing civilization and improvement to the world. Being able to improve your garden is transferred to improving an entire country. However, the colonizer is associated with a hunter here, and there is a certain aspect of violence in Pope’s description of the hunt. Pope may have questioned colonial violence, but we cannot be completely sure of this.

“See! From the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings;
Short is his joy! He feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.” (l. 111-114)

In this quote, it does seem like Pope makes a strong association between the native Americans, the victims of the British colonization, and the pheasant, the victim of the hunt, by mentioning the colourful feathers and even moving to the metallic colour of gold, which was mined in Peru for example.

“Ah! What avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold;
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?” (l. 115-118)

However, this could also mean that he actually approves of the colonization. The native Americans have a lot of luxurious things, but do not seem to make use of them. According to Pope, a good land owner makes full use of the land’s resources.

In short, the poem describes how a good monarch should try to improve his or her nation, like he or she improves his garden. Queen Anne is a good land owner and therefore a good ruler. However, the hunting extract does raise some interesting questions about Pope’s opinion on colonialism.


We can conclude that, in the eighteenth century, gardening involved much more than just the aesthetic aspect, since the structure of the garden was interpreted as a direct reflection of the owner’s morality. On a larger scale, however, the new garden-structures represented the politics of that time. The renewed balance and harmony between nature and culture in the garden illustrated the restored peace and the glorious reign of Queen Anne after a long period of war and chaos. Alexander Pope was one of the leading figures to express this renewed peace and harmony, not only through his poems, but also literally through the structure of his garden and his ideas about garden landscaping.


Bell, Susan Groag. “Women Create Gardens in Male Landscapes: A Revisionist Approach to Eighteenth-Century English Garden History.” Feminist Studies 16.3 (1990): 471-491. Print.

Buelens, Gert and Claes, Koenraad. English Literature II Historical Survey: more recent period. Gent:  Academia Press, 2012. Print.

Citadelpark, Gent. Youropi. Web. 8 November 2012 (

Harewood House, Garden Terrace, Leeds. The Guardian. Web. 8 November 2012. (

Palladian Bridge. Grafting Landscapes / Inspirations: Stowe Garden. Web. 8 November 2012. (

Palladio, Andrea. Villa Foscari La Malcontenta. Wikipedia. Web. 11 November 2012. (http://www.

Pope, Alexander. “Epistle IV to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. Argument of the Use of Riches.” 1731.

Pope, Alexander. “Windsor Forest.” 1713.

Pope’s Grotto. Thelondonphile. Web. 8 November 2012. (

Stowe House. Grafting Landscapes / Inspirations: Stowe Garden. Web. 8 November 2012. (

Song and Poetry: On Poets and Nightingales

Welcome to the third student post on 18th Century Literature and media. After last week’s dramatic reproduction of an 18th century theatre experience, we shall now descend into the realm of Song and Poetry.

Ode to a Nightingale – John Keats

The nightingale’s song served as an inspiration for many poets

The romantic poet John Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale  in 1819 after enjoying a nightingale’s song in his garden. This event lead him to compose this ode in the spirit of the romantic era. In order to fully understand the poem, one needs to know two things. Firstly, as Keats had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he resorted to opiates as a method to alleviate his pain. This biographical fact echoes in the poem, where his numbness caused by opium and alcohol is reflected in the initial stanzas. Secondly, the nightingale is not “just” a bird. Keats, as well as the other poets that will be discussed here, allude to Greek mythology in which Philomela – a princess of Athens – transforms into a nightingale to escape the anger of Tereus.

( In book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela’s tragic story is outlined. King Tereus, who was married to Philomela’s sister Procne, showed too much interest in his sister-in-law. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts her tongue out and hides her in a shed on top of a mountain. One year later, Philomela’s sister Procne, presuming Philomela has been dead all this time, receives a fabric that confirms Philomela is still alive and also contains a representation of all the harm that has been done to her sister. Procne releases her sister without Tereus knowing, both determined to punish Tereus. They kill the son Procne had with Tereus and fed his corps to the king.  When Tereus founds out the deceit, he tries to pursue the two sisters, unable to catch either one of them given that, while they are running from him, they transform into a nightingale and a swallow. Ovid mentions at the end that both birds will be forever marked with the murder they committed by having their breast covered with bloodstained feathers.)

In Ode to a Nightingale he links the story of Philomela with the bird by describing the nightingale as a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. Later on in the poem, the reader will see the resemblance between Philomela’s tragic story and Keats’ perpetual pains. Further on in the first stanza, Keats compares his personal drug abuse with the effect of poetry in general. His poetic hallucinations initially rhyme with his personal drug experiences. The flush that drugs or drinking provides level with Keats’ empirical understanding of what a poem should accomplish.

John Keats (1795-1821)

With admiration for the extensive happiness and freedom of the nightingale in the opening stanza of the poem, the mind of the poet slips into a kind of identical happy state. At first sight he appears to reach this mental state by means of alcohol, only he does not. Verse 19 clearly stipulates “that I might drink, and leave the world unseen.” The state he is in is comparable to the effect of drinking too much or taking drugs for that matter, which he alludes to in verse 2 and 3: “as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains”. Notwithstanding the fact that he clearly knows what these drugs can do, for Keats, his poetry is an alternative way to “leave the world unseen”, and therefore a means to forget his personal issues.

The third stanza indicates his desire to escape reality for a while by embarking on an imaginary journey with the nightingale. He wishes to forget the disadvantages of the human condition in this world, like disease, fading beauty and death.

In the next stanza, he directly points out that he has completed his journey by means of poesy instead of reaching for sedatives. Keats makes this clear by rejecting the image of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, whose chariot is drawn by leopards. Turning away from drugs and alcohol, poetry becomes his only beacon in the darkness of human suffering.

The fifth stanza shows us a glimpse of Keats’ imaginative power to create new worlds through words. These impressions of nature seem so truthful that we can imagine that specific portrait of nature, but being ill and not being able to go outdoors, this description is purely imaginary. Keats could only “guess”(verse 43) at the empirical experience of being physically in nature itself.

Returning in the following stanza to the scene of Keats listening to the nightingale singing its song in its natural habitat, he expresses his desires to die while enjoying the nightingale’s song; he is ready to leave this world in this moment of perfect happiness.

The penultimate stanza is the classical example of an ode. The poet praises the universal and immortal character of the nightingale’s song , which can be interpreted as a metaphor for poetry . However, poesy does not carry the same meaning to everyone. Rather, it is open to multiple interpretations, while retaining its beauty.  According to Keats, poetry creates new and better worlds.

The fantastic journey he started by giving himself over to the imaginative power of the nightingale’s song in the third stanza, ends abruptly at the beginning of the last stanza. Keats is torn away from the nightingale’s song by stumbling over his own expression of thoughts. By ending the previous stanza with the word forlorn, his thoughts are pulled back to his current writing activity. In the process of this event, the nightingale flies away and will inspire someone else with its song.

Finch and Cowper

Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Apart from Keats, there have been other poets who have been inspired by the nightingale’s song. One of these is Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, who was a maid of honour at the court of king James II when she first developed an interest in poetry. Finch’s view on the nightingale differs greatly from Keats’, which has been discussed above. Firstly, the bird needs its freedom in order to sing, just as poets cannot be hampered by formal restrictions. Secondly, both poets and nightingales produce their best song when burdened by some form of pain. This belief originates in the myth of Philomela (explained above), whose plumage at her breast is as red as blood. The myth does not say anything about the bird pressing its breast against a thorn while singing its song, but this tragic image of the nightingale hurting itself enforces the idea that Philomela will have to live with the harm that was done to her. The nightingale relives Philomela’s pain by paining itself to be able to sing her pain. In his work The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature, Lee A. Ritscher tells us that:

[W]hen Sidney describes the narrator’s pain of unrequited love in “The Nightingale,”(c. 157-1581) he contemplates the rape of Philomela and her post-rape fate. Sidney’s narrator tells of the return of nightingales to the English countryside and focuses attention upon the myth that the nightingale presses her breast against a thorn as a reminder of Philomela’s pain.”

In the same way, Finch underlines that a poet needs some form of pain in order to be able to write to his fullest potential. An interesting note here is that, according to Ritscher, the pressing of the breast against a thorn was not included in Ovid’s version of the myth, but was added at a later date and serves as a way to remind Philomela that the pain of being raped was not so bad after all. As a group of aspiring literature students, we seem to disagree with Ritscher’s interpretation. Rather than reprimanding herself and showing herself the true meaning of pain as opposed to the pain of being raped, we believe that Philomela uses the thorn as a way to voice her pain, much like a romantic poet, or as Wordsworth put it, through “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility”.

In Finch’s poem, there is an interesting interaction between song and poetry. First of all, Finch tries to merge the two concepts. She is asking the Muse for help in order to produce poetry that is fitting to the nightingale’s song. However, she soon realizes that she cannot achieve perfect harmony. She tries to solve this problem by turning to division, which is a musical technique of dividing each note of a melody into shorter, fast-moving notes. Coincidentally, the nightingale is the master of this technique, often using it in its song, and Finch is once again outstripped. This results in a jealous outburst and even a self-reflective moment of doubt on the part of the poet. The lines “Cease then, prithee, cease thy Tune; / Trifler, wilt thou sing till June?” can be interpreted in different ways. Finch is either asking the nightingale to stop singing because she can never achieve such perfection with her poetry, or she is referring to herself and doubting her own qualities as a poet. If we take this into account, we can conclude that the nightingale does not have the same soothing effect on Finch as it has on Keats.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

In Cowper’s poem, the nightingale again undertakes the role of a soothing measure, but on a different level than in Keats’s poem. Since William Cowper was a fervent evangelical Christian, the nightingale becomes a messenger from a divine being, maybe even God himself. It brings the promise of better days during a time of hardship. If we apply this on the poet, this could mean that the nightingale’s song brings inspiration to a poet who may be stuck in a writer’s block. The divine being in question could then become one of the muses.

The nighingale’s song has inspired many a poet. Its tradition in myth associates the song with unutterable pain yet at the same time, provides comfort in the promise of better days.

Anne Bradstreet: a true pioneer

Hello everyone,

We, four female bloggers, have the distinct pleasure of presenting to you this week’s blog post. You might not realize it just yet but the fact that we women are permitted to write this is quite extraordinary. The number of female writers during the eighteenth century was fairly low considering the fact that society was mainly dominated by men. Consequently, men (of the upper classes) were also the ones who had access to education. However, Anne Bradstreet can be considered as one of the few females that transgress our general conception of eighteenth century society. Contrary to popular opinion about women writers of that era, Mrs Bradstreet could count on the support of her father, husband and brother-in-law in her literary career. Firstly, she enjoyed the encouragement of her father. He was the steward of the Earl of Lincoln and therefore both Anne and her father had access to the Earl’s extensive library. Accordingly, Anne had thorough knowledge of both classical and contemporary works. Moreover, given the fact that her father was a poet as well, his oeuvre might have stimulated Bradstreet’s own writing. Secondly, one can argue that her work must have had the support of her husband, since her poems circulated freely among family and friends. Thirdly, her brother-in-law was responsible for the publication of her work in Britain. In brief, Bradstreet was able to aspire a literary career with the approval of her family and friends, contrarily to other eighteenth century women.

Possibly as a result of her free access to the Earl’s library, she developed an admiration for Queen Elizabeth I, which she demonstrates in her poem “Elegy on Queen Elizabeth”. Elizabeth I was known for surrounding herself with wise men and good counsel. Interestingly, Bradstreet herself also had an inner circle of strong men to guide her (see above). Even though Elizabeth I proved herself amongst her contemporaries as a capable female monarch, male opinion in Bradstreet’s era seems to have forgotten that she was a woman, as exemplified in the following excerpt:

Nay Masculines, you have thus tax’d us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ’tis a slander now, but once was treason.

The “masculines” in the citation are reminded by Bradstreet that it was once treason to consider a woman “void of reason”. She accuses her male contemporaries of treating females as a laughing-stock, while this would have been seen as high treason during Elizabeth’s reign. Consequently, one could argue that Bradstreet did not appreciate this male disdain during her lifetime.

Bradstreet seems determined to prove her worthiness (and the worthiness of all women by extension). On the one hand, as mentioned above, she uses Elizabeth as a role model. On the other hand, seeing that the genre of this poem is the epic, we can reason that Bradstreet inscribes herself in the male tradition of writing epics among great names as Milton and Spenser thus proving that women can also write epic and that they are not inferior to men.

Nevertheless, Bradstreet not only excelled at writing epic but demonstrated her competence in local and personal poetry as well. One of her poems we especially like is “To my Dear and Loving Husband”, which we have included here for your enjoyment.

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye woman, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the east doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor aught but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so perservere
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

In this poem, Bradstreet expresses her personal feelings of love for her husband while including a significant aspect of the Puritan religion as well; the afterlife. In the poem she hopes her husband will be rewarded for his love in heaven. Even though the Puritan religion states that its followers will be rewarded in heaven for the adversities they had to suffer on earth, Bradstreet herself does not experience this life as an adversity. According to Puritan belief our existence is a transitional period until we can join Jesus in heaven. However, Bradstreet struggles with the need to balance these ideas and her own happy domestic life. As we can see in this poem, she is happy in her life and genuinely loves her husband. Therefore she wants to “persevere” in her love, she wants to enjoy the here and the now together. And, when death then finally comes, she wants it to be an extension of her earthly happiness.

This need to balance Puritan beliefs and her own personal life is also present in our next poem, “The Author to Her Book”, where another dimension is added to her inner conflict, namely how to balance her writing with the social expectations of her age.

Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to public view,

Bradstreet became a published author, which went against the ruling conventions of her age. The excerpt above demonstrates that she was writing her poems to be circulated among her circle of friends, and when her brother-in-law “snatcht” her work in order to have it published in Britain, she did not consider it a wise choice initially.

She was suddenly a famous author, but the printed work differed from what she envisioned. She was disappointed with the sloppiness of the printed publication: sometimes the meter was off, which Bradstreet laments in the following excerpt:

I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet .

As a result, Bradstreet did not seem impressed with the printed version, but given the fact that it was already printed, no alteration could be made. Possibly Bradstreet herself was not opposed to publication itself, but she would have preferred her work to be published on her own terms. As you have probably already deduced from this poem, Bradstreet was concerned about being a public author. On the other hand, one can also note a preoccupation with the local and personal in the previous poem (“To my Dear and Loving Husband”). This juxtaposition between her private life and her ‘work’ is one we can also find nowadays. Women of the 21st century consider it ordinary to combine a fulfilling career with a satisfying domestic life. However, it is important to realize that this was not always the case and women like Mrs Bradstreet built the foundations of a healthy combination between managing your household and pursuing a profession. Reading her poems for this course has reminded us of the importance of pioneers like her in history.

(All quotes are derived from: