During the eighteenth century, after her death, Anne Finch was recalled primarily as the author of “The Spleen,” widely admired as an exemplar of the then popular Pindaric ode form. In the nineteenth century, attention shifted to her nature poetry, primarily as a result of William Wordsworth’s 1815 remark in his supplementary essay to the preface of Lyrical Ballads (originally published 1798):Excepting the nocturnal “Reverie of Lady Winchelsea,” and a passage or two in the “Windsor Forest” of Pope, the poetry of the period intervening between the publication of the “Paradise Lost” and “The Seasons” does not contain a single new image of esteemed nature, and scarcely presents a familiar one from which it can be inferred that the eye of the Poet had been steadily fixed upon his object, much less that his feelings had urged him to work upon it in the spirit of genuine imagination.
As a result of this praise, Finch was regarded for more than a century almost solely as a pre-Romantic nature poet, but in the mid-twentieth century critics started to consider her as more of a mainstream neoclassical writer. Still another canonical shift occurred late in the twentieth century, when Finch was recognized as an early feminist voice.
This poem, with which Finch opened manuscripts of her work that circulated among friends, is a poignant presentation in heroic couplets of the subservient place of women, particularly the plight of one who sought recognition and acceptance as a poet. Anticipating the censure she could expect by so-called Witts—men who achieved their reputations “only by finding fault”—Finch says they would call her lines “insipid, empty, uncorrect.” They would condemn them simply because “they’re by a Woman writt,” and because “a woman that attempts the pen” is “an intruder on the rights of men.” Such men tell women that they should desire just “Good breeding, fassion, dancing, dressing, play.” Finch argues that women are not innately inferior, but rather are “Education’s, more than Nature’s fools” and recalls Old Testament women who functioned as public poets. At the end, she stoically withdraws “with contracted wing,” determining to be content sharing her work with “some few friends.” Two other poems in which Finch also deals with the obstacles confronting a woman poet are “The Appology” and the fablelike “Mercury and the Elephant.”
“The Petition for an Absolute Retreat”
In the lengthy, discursive “The Petition for an Absolute Retreat,” one of her two major nature poems, Finch’s indebtedness to other seventeenth century poets is apparent:Andrew Marvell’s view of the natural world as a haven, Henry Vaughan’s mysticism, and Robert Herrick’s straightforwardly simple style. Finch’s poem is dedicated to the countess of Thanet (called Arminda in the poem), a country friend whose presence in a work celebrating rural privacy and seclusion as means of spiritual renewal suggests that Finch requires female companionship, perhaps an alter ego, to sustain her muse.
The poem also expresses her desire for a husband to share the retreat, a “Partner suited to my Mind,” who will eschew “Fame and Splendor, Wealth and Pride” and will not let business, wars, or other matters separate them. Despite the opening paean to an “Absolute Retreat” in a remoteness “That the World may ne’er invade,” Finch is not calling for a permanent, solitary, spartan isolation in her halcyon Eden, and she recognizes that retreat cannot halt the debilitating passage of time. The plethora of classical allusions, an idealized rather than a realistic portrayal of...
(The entire section is 1533 words.)