Anne Finch 1661–1720
(Full name: Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea) English poet and playwright.
A poet of the early eighteenth century, Anne Finch composed in a variety of contemporary forms, including the verse epistle, the Pindaric ode, the fable, and occasional poetry, exploring issues of authorship, love, friendship, and nature. Her nature poetry celebrates the beauty of the country, especially in contrast to the superficial frivol ity of London society, while her love poetry praises mar ried life rather than the attentions of a lover. Finch defended the appropriateness of women writing and often adapted the conventions of male Augustan writers to female experiences and themes. Though rarely adopting the satirical tone of Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift, Finch was nonetheless encouraged in her craft by these literary figures.
Born the youngest of three children to upper-class parents in Hampshire, Anne Kingsmill had lost her father, mother, and stepfather by the age of seven. While little is known about her childhood, it is believed that her upbringing was entrusted to her mother's brother. Well-educated and carefully nurtured to be suitably married, she was appointed a Maid of Honor in 1683 to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York and later queen consort of James II. At court she met an attendant to the Duke of York, Heneage Finch, whom she married in 1684. They evinced a contented mutual love uncharacteristic of their sophisticated age, and he became a source of inspiration and support for Finch's creative endeavors. Using the pen name "Ardelia," Finch wrote a number of love poems to her husband, whom she styled "Dafnis" in her poetry. In 1688, the Finches were forced to retire from public life after refusing to take the oath of allegiance to William III. For a time the Finches relied on the generosity of various members of their families until they made their permanent home at Eastwell in Kent, where Heneage Finch succeeded his nephew in title after the latter's death in 1712. At Eastwell, an estate removed from the activities of London, the couple devoted themselves to intellectual interests and enjoyed the pleasures of rural life, an unconventional attitude to hold during a time when life divorced from the bustle and excitement of court and town was considered "a living entombment." Eastwell's seclusion and idyllic surroundings afforded Finch intense delight and provided the inspiration for much of her nature poetry. Her early
poetry appeared anonymously in songbooks and miscellanies, or circulated in manuscript form among her friends and acquaintances. After the success of her poetic description of the effects of depression in "The Spleen" and with the continued encouragement by her husband, Finch anonymously published Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions in 1713. Though she never published another collection, she continued to write and share her manuscripts with her family and friends until her death in 1720.
Finch's Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions and her unpublished manuscript poems record the insights of a creative aristocratic woman. The majority of her poems are characterized by such themes as gender and politics. Marginalized through politics and her desire to write, Finch recognized the difficulties of an eighteenth-century woman assuming the public voice of a poet, while insisting that intellectual pursuits were not the prerogative of men. She commemorated the beauty of nature in "Nocturnal Reverie," "The Tree," "The Bird," and "Petition for an Absolute Retreat," the latter poem also suggesting her escape from political turmoil. In a similar vein, "Ardelia's Answer to Ephelia" lauds the value of rural retirement while criticizing the pretentiousness of London society and female vanity. In "The Introduction," "Circuit of Apollo," "Ardelia's Answer to Ephelia," and "To the Nightingale," she asserted the validity of women writing. In taking up the pen to write love poetry, she countered the tradition of arranged marriages and male infidelity by celebrating conjugal love in poems to her husband, though she criticized mercenary marriages in other poems. Her greatest eighteenth-century success, "The Spleen," examines both a generalized public understanding of the condition and treatment of melancholy and her private suffering.
Although Finch's Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions was published anonymously, it was widely known as the work of the Countess of Winchilsea by those in literary circles. Pope, Swift, and Nicholas Rowe praised her poetry, though Pope also satirized her as one of the "female wits" of the age. Finch's popularity declined in the late eighteenth century until 1820 when William Wordsworth inserted seventeen of her poems in a private anthology that he had compiled, proposing Finch as one of the few poets since John Milton to incorporate fresh images of nature. Following Wordsworth's assessment, many critics of Finch tended to see her as a precursor to Romantic poets rather than as a participant in Augustan culture. With the discovery and publication of some of Finch's manuscript poems in the twentieth century, other critics have emphasized Finch's connection to the seventeenth century metaphysical poetry of John Donne. In addition, many critics have pointed out Finch's position among the circle of female authors including Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn. Most often, Finch is seen not as a minor Augustan poet overshad-owed by Pope and John Dryden, but as a major voice in women's literature of the eighteenth-century.