by Tess Somervell
At Christmas, 1819, William Wordsworth presented to Lady Mary Lowther, the thirty-four-year-old daughter of his patron, an album of ‘poems and extracts’. The album included many of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets: Marvell, Beaumont, Pope, Thomson, Cowper, three sonnets by Shakespeare, and the female poets Laetitia Pilkington and Anne Killigrew. But of the forty-eight pieces chosen, exactly one third were by one poet: Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea.
Ten years later Wordsworth was corresponding with Alexander Dyce, who had published Specimens of British Poetesses in 1825. The Specimens included several poems by Finch, but Wordsworth implied that more could be added for a second edition: “There is one poetess to whose writings I am especially partial, the Countess of Winchelsea. I have perused her poems frequently, and should be happy to name such passages as I think most characteristic of her genius”. He wrote again later of Finch’s superior ‘style in rhyme’: “admirable, chaste, tender, and vigorous”.
Finch seems not only to have been Wordsworth’s favourite female poet, but one of his favourite poets altogether. His most important and influential endorsement was published in no less than the Essay, Supplementary to the Preface of 1815: complaining that “the poetry of the period intervening between the publication of the Paradise Lost and the Seasons does not contain a single new image of external nature’, he added, ‘excepting the nocturnal Reverie of Lady Winchelsea, and a passage or two in the Windsor Forest of Pope”.
Anne Finch was born Anne Kingsmill, daughter of Sir William Kingsmill, in 1661, the year that Charles II was crowned. In 1682 she became maid of honour to Princess Mary of Modena, wife of the Duke of York, later James II. It was at court that she met her great love, Heneage Finch, and married him in 1684. When his nephew Charles died in 1712, Heneage became the fifth earl of Winchilsea and Anne the Countess of Winchilsea. A year later she published Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. Though she was praised as a poet by Swift and her friend Pope, Finch and her husband kept away from London society for the most part; they were Jacobites and non-jurors, having remained loyal to James II and Mary after the revolution of 1688. Finch died in 1720, at the age of fifty-nine.
‘The Spleen’, a poem about mental illness, had been Finch’s most successful poem in the eighteenth century. But Wordsworth decided that “The Petition for an Absolute Retreat and A Nocturnal Reverie are of much superior merit.” ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’, the poem which Wordsworth cited in the Essay, is now her most widely read and studied.
Wordsworth’s words changed Finch’s posthumous fortunes. Her reputation declined through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but in 1903 the critic Myra Reynolds published a new edition of Finch’s works. In her introduction, Reynolds interpreted Finch’s poetry in the light of Wordsworth’s commentary, portraying Finch as a ‘pre-Romantic’ poet possessed of Wordsworth’s own “power of fixing an exquisite regard on the commonest facts of nature, and his ability… to interpret them, not allegorically, but actually in their relation to human life.” In the twentieth century, as more and more scholars began to read and study Finch, they discussed her merit in these terms, arguing that she anticipated Wordsworth’s own interest in the ‘ennobling interchange’ between the poet’s mind and the natural world.
It’s easy to see why a poem like ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ appealed to Wordsworth, and why readers perceive in Finch qualities that would later characterise Romanticism:
…When curlews cry beneath the village walls,
And to her straggling brood the partridge calls;
Their shortlived jubilee the creatures keep,
Which but endures, whilst tyrant man does sleep;
When a sedate content the spirit feels,
And no fierce light disturbs, whilst it reveals;
But silent musings urge the mind to seek
Something, too high for syllables to speak;
Till the free soul to a composedness charmed,
Finding the elements of rage disarmed,
O’er all below a solemn quiet grown,
Joys in th’ inferior world, and thinks it like her own:
In such a night let me abroad remain,
Till morning breaks, and all’s confused again;
Our cares, our toils, our clamors are renewed,
Or pleasures, seldom reached, again pursued.
The revolutionary quality of nature against ‘tyrant man’, in parallel to the poet’s ‘free soul’; the mind’s silent urge, impelled by contemplation of the natural world, “to seek / Something” inexpressible; the sense of endless pursuit, or, as Wordsworth would put it, “Effort, and expectation, and desire, / And something ever more about to be” – all these qualities put the reader in mind of poems by Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats, as well as Wordsworth.
However, in the last few decades there has been a backlash against this way of reading Finch, as there has been more generally against the term ‘pre-Romantic’ to describe eighteenth-century poetry. If ‘Romantic’ is already a fraught and disputed term, ‘pre-Romantic’ is riskier still: for many, the term reduces eighteenth-century writers to the status of forerunners who never quite fulfilled their Romantic potential.
Many recent critics have stressed Finch’s indebtedness to the Restoration wits she knew and read at court, such as Etherege, Rochester, and Aphra Behn, and to her later contemporaries including Pope and Gay. Her lyric poems about nature have been celebrated by Romantically-inclined readers, but it may be pointed out that Finch wrote a far greater number of poems in traditional seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century forms: fables, satires, neoclassical pastorals, and Horatian odes. (“She was unlucky in her models”, sighed Wordsworth.) From this angle, Finch looks less like a visionary pre-Romantic and more like a talented but typical Augustan poet.
Even ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’, the Romantic favourite, is a poem of its time. The natural world is the ‘inferior world’, even when the poet’s soul ‘thinks it like her own’ – a joyful delusion, but a delusion nonetheless. This resembles but is importantly different from Wordsworth’s own “ennobling interchange / Of action from within and from without: / The excellence, pure spirit, and best power, / Both of the object seen, and eye that sees.” For Finch, power lies not in nature but in heaven, and in what God imparts to the human soul.
This is not to diminish the importance of nature for Finch – her nature poems reveal a deeply-felt and thoughtful commitment to the world of plants, animals, earth, air, and water. But nature plays a different role than in Wordsworth’s poetry. Instead of producing Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, for Finch the contemplation of nature is able to ‘charm’ the mind into ‘composedness’. This quiet composedness is especially valued by Finch, a poet who suffered from ‘the spleen’, or what we would call clinical depression.
We shouldn’t forget that Finch was a poet of the early and not the late eighteenth century. But nor should we reactively discount the qualities of her poetry that Wordsworth found appealing to his Romantic taste. The best way to understand and appreciate Finch is to try to view her from every direction: as a poet who looked back, forward, and around her all at once. She looked back to the forms, genres, and conventions of the Restoration poetry that she grew up reading and hearing. She looked forward to trends in nature poetry, women’s writing, and verse style that would develop much later in the eighteenth century, and much of which would come to be called ‘Romanticism’. And she looked at the world around her: the world of the early eighteenth century from which she, as a non-juror, woman writer, and frequent invalid, often felt alienated, but in which she also found beauty and a ‘sedate content’.
Tess Somervell is Research and Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds, and Research Assistant on the AHRC-funded project British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe: romanticcatastrophe.leeds.ac.uk.