When I was seven years old, I discovered Peter Pan. Soon, I began to watch all the Peter Pan movies I could get my hands on. I convinced my grandmother to sew me a tunic, a hat, and a pair of shoes out of green felt. When my mother wasn’t looking, I would jump from the heights of our household appliances, and (for just a moment) I would fly. It became something of a boyhood obsession. And why not? Peter was everything a young boy aspires to be. He was free and joyful, and, guarded against the constraints of adulthood, he never suffered the consequences of his naïveté. As a child in a world of adults, I looked up to Peter as a hero.
In the Journal of Madam Knight, Sarah Kimble Knight expresses a similar sentiment. The journal, which made her famous, describes her journey from Boston to New York City on horseback. At the time, her trip was considered a dangerous one for a woman to take on her own, and many times throughout her writing, Knight expresses the fears and anxieties she faced during her journey. On one particular occasion, during the second day of her travels, she and her guide ride into a forest late at night in an attempt to reach the next post. As her guide rides ahead, Knight, alone in the darkness of the forest, finds herself losing strength and resolve, and it is only when she gazes up to the moon that she regains her courage. Looking back on the event, she composes the following poem:
Fair Cynthia, all the Homage that I may
Unto a Creature, unto thee I pay;
In Lonesome woods to meet so kind a guide,
To Mee’s more worth than all the world beside.
Some Joy I felt just now, when safe got or’e
Yon Surly River to this Rugged shore,
Deeming Rough welcomes from these clownish Trees,
Better than Lodgings wth Nereidees.
Yet swelling fears surprise; all dark appears–
Nothing but Light can disipate those fears.
My fainting vitals can’t lend strength to say,
But softly whisper, O I wish ’twere day.
The murmer hardly warma the Ambient air,
E’ re thy Bright Aspect rescues from dispair:
Makes the old Hagg her sable mantle loose,
And a Bright joy do’s through my Soul diffuse.
The Boistero’s Trees now Lend a Passage Free,
And pleasent prospects thou giv’st light to see. (Knight 16)
Careful not to drift into idolatry, Knight begins her poem by giving homage to Cynthia. Cynthia, also called Artemis or Diana, is the Greek and Roman goddess of the moon and the forest. Earlier in her journal, she describes the woods as “encompased wth Terrifying darkness; The least of which was enough to startle a more Masculine courage” (Knight 16). Yet, when she looks upon the moon, “the Kind Conductress of the night” (Knight 16), she begins to imagine the forest as inhabited by a female presence. Taking Cynthia as her guide, both for the light she provides and for her place in the forest, Knight is able to reenvision the forest as a feminine location rather than a masculine one.
Later in her poem, when she describes the joy she felt after successfully traversing the river, Knight admits that riding through the dark forest is a better fate than “Lodgings wth Nereidees” (Knight 16), or Nereids, who are Greek sea nymphs. The only other character mentioned in the poem is the “old Hagg,” who in folklore is a malevolent old woman who often lives in the woods (Knight 16). Where the woods was previously a place traversed only by courageous men, Knight has transformed it in her poem into a place inhabited solely by females. Furthermore, Knight replaces her guide, who has largely abandoned her, with a superior guide, Cynthia, goddess of the forest. Even the villain of the poem, the old Hagg, is subject to Cynthia’s power.
Thus, what may initially seem to be a simple or even humorous homage to a Greek goddess, upon further examination, reveals telling details about Knight’s way of viewing the world and her place in it. As a woman in a world of men, Knight finds hope in the goddess of the forest and in a world where females have agency.
After traversing the darkness of the forest, Knight describes her feelings as she looks back upon the trees: “the Tall and thick Trees at a distance, especially wn the moon glar’d light through the branches, fill’d my Imagination wth the pleasent delusion of a Sumpteous citty, fill’d wth famous Buildings and churches, wth their spiring steeples, Balconies, Galleries and I know not what: Granduers woh I had heard of, and wch the stories of foreign countries had given me the Idea of” (Knight 17). The landscape, lighted by Cynthia’s brightness, is transformed into a city of such grandeur and beauty that can only exist in stories and in the imagination. And yet, the mere thought of such a place allows Knight to regain her courage.