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:

  1. How does Finch use poetic allusion to establish her relationship to the English literary tradition and, through it, to the classical tradition of Europe?  Having done that in poems intended not for the public eye, what would be the effect upon the reader of encountering them in a manuscript collection?
  2. How could you compare Finch's defense of her poetic art with the Wife of Bath's or Amelya Lanyer's justification of their own right to a voice?  Particularly, how does she balance the English Christian literary tradition against the secular drives that animate her?
  3. Finch's "Introduction" played a major role in shaping second-wave feminist thinking after its discovery in manuscript led to its first print publication in 1903, probably over two hundred years after she wrote it and hid it away from any readers other than her closest friends.  After two decades of writing, during which she married well and became a noblewoman by virtue of her husband's title, she eventually did have her Miscellany Poems printed with a rather different introductory poem to begin it (the playful, ironic "Mercury and the Elephant").  Going through several octavo print editions in 1713-14, it seems to have had some limited success among London readers, but after it went out of print, Finch's work was quickly forgotten, perhaps because she had not attracted teh attention of male reviewers and critics.  The collection ended with a blank verse pastoral tragedy (Aristomenes: or the Royal Shepherd), which followed perhaps her most ambitiously experimental poem, the fifty-line, single-sentence "Nocturnal Reverie."  Finch's work only recently entered the Norton Anthology and she remains "under-studied" among newly canonical writers.  Of all her works, "The Spleen" (1708), a sixteen-page octavo pamphlet, was the most famous in her own era and, just based on the seventy-two suviving copies in rare book collections listed in the English Short Title Catalogue, it may have had as many readers as Milton's Paradise Lost.  Sheer size alone favors survival of large, ambitious (viz. "male") printed books.  A short, small pamphlet would be far less likely to be protectively bound in hard boards than a book printed in 344-pages as a quarto [PL 1st ed.] or 338-pages as an octavo [PL 2nd ed.].
  4. Read carefully Finch's poetic-creation-as-flight metaphor in her cancelled "Introduction" (ll. 59-64 on p. 2293).  Compare it with Milton's introduction to Book I of Paradise Lost,(ll.12-16) and with "Mercury and the Elephant," her own revised introduction for the 1713 edition.  How has Finch negotiated her "anxiety of influence" with respect to the male poetic tradition?  What poetic strategies does she use in the published poem that she does not use in the manuscript poem, and what effect does that have on her poetic persona's "voice."   See the parallel passages in both poems that specifically address the poet's anxiety about readers and compare their attitudes toward the "writer's block" she faces--has she resolved it?  If not, why not, and if so, how?  Even if she has resolved the "block" for herself, has she also censured herself in ways that might affect other, later women poets?
  5. "Nocturnal Reverie" might be said to inaugurate a major movement in English poetry designed to evoke the countryside and the subtle sensory experiences one finds there for an audience of city dwellers.
    • How might this relate to the pastoral mode which we have encountered earlier in Mary Herbert's work?
    • As the Norton note points out, the poem twice repeats the phrase "In such a night," alluding tacitly to the opening lines of Act 5 of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.  Compare more closely what kinds of things Lorenzo and Jessica are imagining in their night with those Finch imagines in her night.  What is Finch saying about "tyrant man" (l. 38)?
    • Examine the poem's grammatical structure very carefully--how many sentences are used to compose it?  What kind of game is the poem playing with the reader's attention span?
    • The evocation of "Something, too high for syllables to speak" (l. 42) anticipates the cultural influence of a concept known to the next century's poets as "the sublime," from the classical Latin work (attributed, falsely, to Longinus), known as "On the Sublime" (Peri hupsos).  The "sublime" poetic work seeks to create effects in readers' minds that exceed those produced by the powers of ordinary language.  Is this possible?  The pursuit of this quality becomes a major topic and task of eighteenth-century poets, and also influenced the English Romantics, especially  Wordsworth.
  6. Other sites which offer scholarly editions of previously unpublished works by women who wrote during the Renaissance, Restoration, and 18th century include the Women Writers Project, and the Emory Women Writers Resource Project at Emory University's Lewis H. Beck Center.  The Brown site has an exceptionally large text base of edited Renaissance women writers, and the Emory site's strength is its unedited (as in previously unpublished) texts.  These are being used as part of Emory's graduate program to teach editing practices.  To see Professor Sheila Cavanagh's very well-explained set of instructions for how a scholarly edition is prepared, and a well-equipped set of scholarly tools (paper and online), click here.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.