Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Miscellany Poems, on several occasions. Written by a lady. (1713)
Genre: occasional poems, written for friends and to celebrate events and places she loved.
Form: heroic couplets (rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter lines).
Characters: she uses the "men" and "women" of her time, generalized in a pattern we are becoming familiar with in the works of Bacon, Hobbes, Behn, and Astell. In effect, the great debate which began in Canterbury Tales is taken up again in the late seventeenth century. Also, Finch uses classical and biblical references to contextualize her discussion, seeing herself in the line of poets coming from David (Psalms) through Deborah (Judges 4-5).
Summary: "The Introduction" to her Miscellany Poems (1713) never was published with them, probably due to its direct challenge to the male-dominated literary scene of her time. Her self-censorship in fear of public condemnation became a casebook example for feminist critics of the 'sixties and 'seventies who sought to explain why women weren't published more often. Those women were in fact writing, but they knew their work could be condemned or ignored (worse yet!) merely for being "by a woman writ" (7), perhaps her most famous single phrase. The chilling spectacle of a competent, perhaps even great poet thinking seriously about turning her back on publication and the chance to shape the English language reaches its peak in lines 59-64 in which she directly echoes Milton while rejecting the great poetic gesture for a deliberately lesser effect.
"A Nocturnal Reverie" demonstrates what technique and vision were diminished when Finch reduced her ambitions for her poetry. Striking off from the thrice repeated echo of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the poem forms 25 heroic couplets that sinuously evoke the marvelous but hard to distinguish virtues of a night vision. (Note that Montagu's "Epistle" also makes use of this play--might it have been peculiarly popular among female readers and play-goers who might have seen something pertinent to their own situation in the plot?) The transition words all are time-indicators ("When," "Whilst," "While," "Till," etc.) but the flow of time is not distinct and is marked only by a sliding of one sensory impression into another. The wind's sounds, the moonlit colors, the smells of the vanished day's flowers, and the combined sounds, colors and smells of the animals that populate the countryside are serially evoked to create a synaesthetic (sense-blending) experience.
To read the full text of Finch's 1713 Miscellany Poems, click here. This web page at the "Celebration of Women Writers" site also contains links to excerpts from the 1903 edition of Finch's work which contains the poems Finch withheld from the 1713 edition, as well as poems from the Wellesley Manuscript, which was edited and published by Jean M. Ellis D'Allessandro in 1988.
Issues and Research Sources:
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