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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Nymph In the Garden: "Adam Posed"


Adam Posed 
By Anne Finch (1709)

Could our first father, at his toilsome plow,
Thorns in his path, and labor on his brow,
Clothed only in a rude, unpolished skin,
Could he a vain fantastic nymph have seen,
In all her airs, in all her antic graces,
Her various fashions, and more various faces;
How had it posed that skill, which late assigned
Just appellations to each several kind!
A right idea of the sight to frame;
T’have guessed from what new element she came;
T’have hit the wav’ring form, or giv’n this thing a name. 

In her poem "Adam Posed," Anne Finch employs allegory. She imagines "a vain, fantastic nymph" who intrudes in the biblical creation narrative to confront humanity's "first father." Adam, busy at his "toilsome plow," seems to have already fallen from Paradise as he is already experiencing "thorns in his path" and the grueling reality of performing hard labor to insure human survival.

Adam has been "assigned" the task of giving "appellations," or names, to each creation emerging from "the elements" of Eden, thus giving them a place in the terrestrial hierarchy over which he, even in his fallen state, presides.

According to the Bible, God decided that "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a companion fit for him." In Genesis 2:21–22 it states:

"And God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man."
After her creation, Adam named his companion Woman, "because she was taken out of Man."

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

We know "Woman" by the name Eve.  But, in this poem Adam is stumped by the appearance of a creature he believes not to be his "Woman" mate --  a nymph, a creature he has never seen the likes of before. The reader is unsure whether this "fantastic" creature is real or a product of his "toilsome" endeavors and strong imagination.

Why such such worry and vexation? Adam is overcome by her"various fashions" and "more various faces." Her complex design stimulates his curiosity because he lacks any logical "frame" for her existence. He seems to have no clue of her matter or even of her components. Unlike Eve, his God-given female companion, this creature (at least as it appears to Adam) is not bone of his bone nor flesh of his flesh.

At this point, a reader may want to consider an alternate tradition of the Garden story, originating in a Jewish book called The Alphabet of Ben-Sira, which entered Europe from the East in the 6th century AD. It suggests that Lilith, not Eve, was Adam's first wife. She was said to be created at the same time and from the same dust. Might this nymph actually be interpreted as Lilith?

The tradition goes that Lilith, claiming to be created equal, refused to sleep or serve "under him" (Adam). When Adam tried to force her into the "inferior" position, she flew away into the air escaping Eden. Somehow she mated with archangel Samael, evil spirit and angel of death.

Lilith conceived hundreds of demons each day until God sent three angels after her, who threatened to kill her brood if she refused to return to Adam. But she did refuse. So, the story says God made Eve from Adam's rib to be his "second wife."

The idea that Adam had a wife prior to Eve may have developed from an interpretation of the Book of Genesis and its dual creation accounts; while Genesis 2:22 describes God's creation of Eve from Adam's rib, an earlier passage, 1:27, already indicates that a woman had been made:

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."

The Alphabet text places Lilith's creation after God's words in Genesis 2:18 that "it is not good for man to be alone"; in this text God forms Lilith out of the clay from which he made Adam, but she and Adam bicker. Lilith claims that since she and Adam were created in the same way they were equal and she refuses to submit to him.

In her poem, Finch uses a direct allusion to a nymph, not a reference to Lilith. Nymphs in Greek mythology are minor female nature deities. They are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from restricted and chaste wives and daughters.

"A right idea of the sight to frame;
T'have guessed from what new element she came;
T'have hit the wav'ring form, or giv'n this thing a name."

It was believed an encounter with a nymph could be dangerous, bringing dumbness, besotted infatuation, madness or stroke to the unfortunate human. In older days when Christian parents believed their child to be nereid-struck (nymph-struck), they would pray to Saint Artemidos.

Is this "second Eve" fabric of imagination? Could this "wav'ring form" actually be Eve who strikes Adam as a nymph? Finch's fantastic creature certainly does not appear to be made to serve his needs, and her presence compels Adam to acknowledge the limits of his understanding and authority.

The image appears in the Garden as a female folly: a wandering, straying being. The nymph spooks Adam to the point of "hitting the wav'ring form" or merely "giving this creature a name" and going on with his arduous endeavors. One scholar and critic, Ruth Salvaggio, considers the nymph "to be that fluid, continuous, diffusable 'woman-thing' about whom contemporary feminist theorists are speaking." That interpretation does echo the tale of the supremely independent Lilith.

(Ruth Salvaggio. Enlightened Absence: Neoclassical Configurations of the Feminine. 
University of Illinois Press, 1988)

The reader should consider that Finch's works often express a desire for respect as a female poet, lamenting her difficult position as a woman in the literary establishment and the court, while writing of an intense artistic impulse to write despite the difficulties.

Anne Finch (1661-1720), Countess of Winchilsea, is one of the earliest English women poets of importance, a friend of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and of Henry Purcell. A modest and retiring writer during her lifetime, constrained both by her own temperament and by her situation as a woman, she was later admired by Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold, but then again neglected.

Anne Finch is now being revalued as a poet whose skillful and perceptive writing sets her apart from the conventions within which she lived and worked. She celebrates the quiet pleasures of a happy marriage, country life and friendships, the qualities of a life lived, in her own words, with "Something less than joy, but more than full content."

The word pose (as in the title of the poem) is derived from Middle English, from Anglo-French poser, from Vulgar Latin *pausare, from Late Latin, "to stop, rest, pause," from Latin pausa "pause."

In the poem "Adam Posed," we certainly understand Adam's need to "pause" when he saw this strange feminine being in the Garden of Eden. And, of course, pose can be defined as "to affect an attitude or character usually to deceive or impress" such as in the sentence "Jimmy posed as a doctor to escape the institution." 
Perhaps Finch sees "our first father" as victim to a "pose" -- the pose of a very chameleon-like, nameless nymph. A vision he does not know whether to drive away or to allow into his life on a "first-name" basis. We males, as his distant descendants, can testify these visions still haunt our hearts and our souls as friends, enemies, and lovers.

Anne Finch

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