This week I’m doing some research on the English poet Anne Finch (1661-1720). Here is one of my favorites by her, “Glass.”
O Man! what Inspiration was thy Guide,
Who taught thee Light and Air thus to divide;
To let in all the useful Beams of Day,
Yet force, as subtil Winds, without thy Shash to stay;
T'extract from Embers by a strange Device,
Then polish fair these Flakes of solid Ice;
Which, silver'd o'er, redouble all in place,
And give thee back thy well or ill-complexion'd Face.
To Vessels blown exceed the gloomy Bowl,
Which did the Wine's full excellence controul,
These shew the Body, whilst you taste the Soul.
Its colour sparkles Motion, lets thee see,
Tho' yet th' Excess the Preacher warns to flee,
Lest Men at length as clearly spy through Thee.
“Glass” is an intense observation and meditation on the invention and numerous forms of glass. It is written in heroic couplets, but is also sonnet-length, having 14 lines. The speaker considers the window, the mirror, and the wine-bowl in laudatory terms. But what begins as praise and admiration, becomes a warning in the final two lines, “Tho’ yet th’ Excess the Preacher warns to flee, / Lest Men at length as clearly spy through Thee.” (l. 13-14)
To speak in less than formal terms, I was really blown away by this poem. I think it has something to do with the element of surprise at work in the final two lines, a late volta, or turn. It seems very, very contemporary. There’s a slight ambiguity at work here, as well. A reader familiar with even a small portion of Finch’s work (as I am) would expect commentary on gender issues, and the poem accomplishes that. The sonnet length, the function of glass as a mirror, and the general admonition in the final two lines are representative of the speaker’s warning to women’s excesses of vanity. However, the same admonition can also be indicative of the excess of wine, something somewhat more particular to men. The poem functions on multiple levels and achieves a multiple levels of success. But what is particularly fascinating to me, is that it achieves all this without a single allusion, the trope du jour employed so heavily by the male poets in this time period. Enjoy!