Epic “Ill-formed offspring”

Anne Bradstreet and Anne Finch’s Rebellious Use and Misuse of the Epic Form

Allison Leshowitz

The poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Anne Finch is laden with self-recriminating assertions that would appear to call into question their license as authors in the male-dominated field of writing. Their hesitations to come to voice and their ostensible shame felt about their own writing, evident through explicitly self-conscious lines within their poems, might signal to readers that Bradstreet and Finch were surrendering themselves to the confining gender restrictions to which they were subjected. However, embedded within these lines of self-deprecation lie messages of rebellion; Bradstreet and Finch, through experimentation and breaks away from expected poetic forms, demonstrate their authority over an art form thought to be mastered only by men. In this paper, I examine Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book” and Finch’s unpublished “The Introduction” in conjunction with the style and conventions of an extremely “masculine” form of poetry, the epic; through an epic lens, these poems can be seen as a call to action to female readers to fight for their right to achieve a poetic voice.

Bradstreet and Finch’s poems utilize the heroic couplet, a form typically found within epic poetry and, as defined by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand, said to represent “certain[ty]” and an assurance that a world of complexities could be simplified into witty rhyming pairs (123). The form was also said to be perfected by Bradstreet and Finch’s contemporary, Alexander Pope. However, both female poets master the typically male form through an outward demonstration of fear over entering into the male-dominated field of writing and an inward, subtle, and deeply purposeful breaking away from the strict rhythm and meter of the form.

In the 17th century, women’s writing was largely reserved for private correspondence. Finch, according to Michael Gavin, had a tendency to only send her poetry out to a small group of friends, a “coterie” (634), and Gavin suggests that this was because of her constant awareness of her “hypercritical readership,” “an always-present specter of male disapproval” (633). Poetry, instead, became a strong avenue for women to express themselves privately to friends and confidantes. Privacy, however, did not prevent Finch and Bradstreet from utilizing more “professional” poetic forms such as “The epic, the Horatian epistle, [and] the philosophical verse essay” (Martin). In the longer version of this essay, I demonstrate how both Finch and Bradstreet were intimately familiar with the purposes and conventions of the epic and utilized the heroic couplet form to mimic epic forms.

Both poets used their advanced knowledge of these forms to experiment with their rhyme and meter. Finch’s knowledge of poetic conventions, Gavin explains, provided her with the chance to both “legitimize her own writing” by demonstrating her mastery over male-dominated forms and embarking on a “new kind of transgression” from poetic conventions (638). I’d like to extend Gavin’s argument to suggest that Finch’s break away from conventions, specifically in “The Introduction,” represents a breaking away from the confinements of her gender and, more importantly, becomes a call to action to her fellow female writers to do the same. Finch’s private publishing of “The Introduction” demonstrates much more than a fear of sharing her disgruntled opinions of narrow-minded and misogynistic male critics who believe that “a woman that attempts the pen” is “Such an intruder on the rights of men” (Finch 9-10). Instead, Finch limited her audience to a private coterie to convey to them messages of rebellion in a quasi-epic form. Similar to publications of the epics that were originally delivered orally to male warriors “gather[ed] in banquet halls” in the form of “heroic songs” meant “to stir the spirit of the warriors to heroic actions” (“Epic”), Finch utilizes this inherently masculine form to “stir the spirit[s]” of her female audience and encourage them to engage in heroic actions.

Finch’s 64-line heroic couplet poem largely maintains the expectations of the form: the majority of Finch’s lines adhere to iambic pentameter and her rhyme scheme quite rarely breaks away from the AA, BB, CC pattern. Finch’s subject matter is also somewhat expected: she writes only to her fellow female writers to warn them about the scorn they will receive if they do intend to publish their work. However, it is her very act of only directing her sorrows to fellow female writers that makes her poem so powerful. This power is primarily located within lines 21 to 50 where, after detailing the societal expectations of women, “Good breeding, fassion, dancing, dressing, play / Are the accomplishments we shou’d desire; / To write, or read, or think, or to enquire / Wou’d cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time” (14-17), Finch questions why members of her sex are never told “Fables, of Women that excell’d of old” (22). Finch takes it upon herself to tell the story of “The judge Deborah” (“The Introduction”), introduced within the poem as the “Woman here” who “leads fainting Israel on” (45). Amidst a retelling of past male successes (the return of Noah’s Ark and King David’s, the second King of Israel’s, rise to power) in lines 21 to 50 is also the story of Deborah, “a prophet and a judge” who “represented the voice of God to the people” (Brown 26). Deborah was also “the only female judge” in the Bible (Frymer-Kensky), an important distinction to note in conjunction with Finch’s critique of male “judges,” or critics, of poetry. Deborah, a female judge, who “fights,” “wins,” and “triumphs” (46) becomes the figure within epic poetry, the “illustrious [ancestor],” who is meant to provide current warriors, in this case, Finch’s fellow women writers, with a “[model] of ideal heroic behavior” (“Epic”). By retelling the story of Deborah, Finch’s poem serves the distinct epic poetry function of “stir[ring] the spirit[s] of the warriors to heroic actions by praising their exploits […], by assuring a long and glorious recollection of their fame” (“Epic”). “The Introduction,” here, becomes a battle cry, a way for Finch to encourage her female readers to rebel.

The most striking instance of a break away from iambic pentameter occurs in the final line of the poem where Finch advises her female readers to “Be dark enough thy shades, and be thou there content” (64). This line follows the series of warnings against publishing and attempting to gain recognition as a female poet. The final line is outwardly meant to completely end discussions of the unattainable dreams female writers might have of receiving “groves of Lawrell,” meant to, as stated in the footnote to the poem, signify “Laurel crowns [that] were awarded as honors to famous poets” (“The Introduction”). Finch tells her readers to be content with their current positions as silent female writers who are only able to share their poetry amongst close female friends. However, this image of “shade” harkens back to an earlier image, in line 49, of Deborah ruling from “the peaceful, shady Palm” in Israel; Finch describes the female ruler “withdraw[ing]” into the “shady Palm” and, from there, “rul[ing] the rescu’d Nation with her Laws” (50). The final line of the poem, rather than effectively ending all hopes of attaining poetic fame, encourages Finch’s female audience to act as Deborah did, to rule subversively, to master, as Finch has done, masculine poetic forms and transmit subversive messages through both adherence to and breaks away from its confines. The extra foot within the poem’s final line demonstrates anything but complacency—it leaves readers with one final image of resistance against the masculine form.

Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book,” also written in heroic couplet form, contains subversive messages similar to the ones contained in Finch’s poem. However, it should be noted that Bradstreet’s work was more often published and public than Finch’s work. Despite her larger audience, Bradstreet uses subversive images that outwardly demonstrate her proper position in Puritan society as both a wife and mother, and inwardly communicate messages that challenge and complicate the static position to which she was assigned. Her work frequently focuses on domestic and religious matters, both subjects deemed appropriate for a female, a Puritan, and a mother. “The Author to Her Book,” for instance, relies on images of motherhood and domestic tasks such as washing—“I washed thy face” (Bradstreet 13)—and sewing—“In better dress to trim thee was my mind” (17)—to discuss the act of writing and sending out one’s work.

In her 24-line poem, Bradstreet utilizes these domestic and maternal images to subtly challenge societal definitions of both a woman and a woman writer. Bradstreet’s utilization of an outwardly “closed-in,” “certain,” and confident form (Strand and Boland 123), the heroic couplet, paired with her renunciations of her own work, ostensibly suggests that Bradstreet is “confident” that her work is “ill-formed” (Bradstreet 1). Bradstreet’s utilization of the heroic couplet form physically demonstrates Bradstreet working within the confines of a typically masculine form. However, through closer examination, readers can glimpse moments of ever-so-subtle breaks, in both rhyme and meter, that allow Bradstreet to demonstrate a mastery over a traditionally male form. Nearly every line in Bradstreet’s poem contains two opposing images, one that insults her own work as both writer and mother and one that both celebrates and complicates her position as both woman and woman writer.

Bradstreet presents readers with images of a mother (and writer) who has failed at her primary functions of bearing and raising healthy children and providing for them financially. Read through an epic-lens, these images become rebellious allusions. Bradstreet’s very first line—“Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain” (1)—presents an allusion to Zeus, “the father (i.e. ruler an protector) of both gods and men” (“Zeus”). Her allusion to a figure from Greek mythology calls to mind elements of the epic tradition; Zeus appears in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and his role within these poems is commonly said to be a metaphor for the way “The poet […] determines the plot of the poem” (Wilson 152). Joe Wilson explores this commonly accepted reading of Homer’s epics, stating that “the plot of an epic poem is simply the will of Zeus” (151).

Within her outwardly self-conscious opening line where she compares herself to both a failing mother and a failing writer, Bradstreet also compares herself to Zeus who, from his brain, gave birth to Athena, the goddess of “war, handicraft, and practical reason” (“Athena”). Bradstreet demands authority over the unwinding of the poem’s plot, much like Zeus within the epics. Bradstreet’s likening of herself to Zeus figures the entirety of her poem, her “offspring,” as Athena, Zeus’s offspring. In Homer’s Iliad, Athena is “a war goddess” who “fought alongside the Greek heroes” (“Athena”). This allusion to Athena becomes all-too apt for a poem sent off to “battle” alongside fellow male-produced poetry; Athena’s characteristics of “skill[ed]” and “intellectual” in war (“Athena”), when applied to the poem, help to make sense of Bradstreet’s decisions to alter the heroic couplet form. And like Finch’s poem, Bradstreet’s breaks away from iambic pentameter to demonstrate her skill and intelligence over a form. The first break, in line 5, demonstrates her indisputable control over the rhythm of the poem despite her outward claim that it is the press who has control; she writes that the press “made thee in rags, halting to [them] to trudge” (5). However, the addition of the extra syllable not only physically performs this “halting” movement but also demonstrates Bradstreets, and not the press’s, control over the poem—it is Bradstreet who has the ability to control the movements of the line, much like Zeus in the epics, as Wilson argues, maintains control over the poem’s journey and the unwinding of its plot.

Finch and Bradstreet were able not only to manipulate and play within the confines of the male-centered form but also to quite meaningfully and drastically altered its length, transforming a typically long-winded tale of a heroic journey into a brief and contained poem. This decision, again, might be misconstrued as their female inability to write at such lengths; however, their shorter takes on the epic is further evidence of their rebellion—Finch and Bradstreet’s writing should be read as whispers among shouts, quietly but powerfully reaching their intended audiences because of their length. I believe Finch and Bradstreet kept their poems short so that they would more likely be read rather than immediately scoffed at, for a longer poem would be seen as presumptuous. Finch and Bradstreet needed to disperse their subversive messages and they knew exactly how to manipulate the masculine form to do so.

While it is known that Anne Bradstreet and Anne Finch were familiar with epic poetry, the effect their reading of these works had on their writing often goes unnoticed. Through their knowledge of epic forms and the epic tradition, Bradstreet and Finch were able to powerfully reclaim their poetic voices within a society that frequently sought to silence them. The typically male-centered form of the epic provided Bradstreet and Finch with a platform to communicate rebellious and powerful messages aimed at both private and public audiences. In “The Introduction,” Finch redefines the epic poem by aiming its message solely at a female audience, effectively utilizing the epic to encourage other female writers to come to voice; Bradstreet, too, redefines the genre in “The Author to Her Book” by breaking its meter and rhyme scheme to disobey the form’s restrictive conventions and reclaim the definitions of her roles as both mother and writer. Finch and Bradstreet demonstrate an indisputable authority over their writing that successfully defies the gender restrictions to which they were subjected.

Works Cited

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Gavin, Michael. “Critics and Criticism in the Poetry of Anne Finch.” EHL, vol. 78, no. 3, 2011,  pp. 633-655.

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Epic “Ill-formed offspring” Copyright © 2018 by Allison Leshowitz. All Rights Reserved.

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