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Portrait of Anne Finch

She smiled in her poetry.

Catching up to
Anne Finch

This to the Crown, and blessing of my life,
The much lov'd husband, of a happy wife.
To him, whose constant passion found the art
To win a stubborn, and ungratefull heart;
And to the World, by tend'rest proof discovers
They err, who say that husbands can't be lovers.

Born in 1661 in Hampshire, Anne Finch was lucky in her father, her grandmother, her husband, and her male and female friends. Her talent and her perseverance despite political turmoil made her a poet; their support made sure she could write, and would find a publisher. In her lyrical and witty poetry she captured the beauty of the countryside, the agonies of depression, the unfair treatment of women, vanity, and married love.

Anne was only a few months old when her father died, but in his will he had made certain that his daughters as well as his son would be educated. I like to think of him, clear-eyed and affectionate, one of many British men to love and respect a woman.

His mother brought Anne up, and fought for Anne’s inheritance after her mother died. Anne was educated in the classics, the Bible, French, history, poetry and drama. She began to write poetry.

When she was twenty-three, Anne married Heneage Finch, a soldier and courtier. By her own account she was not keen about marriage or him. That changed.

She wrote many love lyrics to her husband, who encouraged and actively supported her writing. Heneage’s support was practical as well as emotional. He began compiling a manuscript of her poems, writing them out by hand. But revolution cut short her writing and his career.

In 1688, when Anne was 28, she and Heneage refused to swear their loyalty to the new Monarchs brought in by the Glorious Revolution because they considered their previous oaths to James II morally binding. Harassment, fines and imprisonment were the result. They lost their place in court, and fled to the country, to live on the kindness of friends and family.  In April 1690, he was arrested, and brought before the King’s Bench.

Anne continued to write, to distract herself from terror. At the end of the year the charges against her husband were dropped, and they settled in Eastwell, the home of the Earl of Winchilsea, who was Heneage’s nephew.  

The young Earl, a patron of the arts, liked Anne’s poetry. He urged her to publish her songs, but she remembered the wits at court, who had been hostile to women poets, and she would only agree to anonymous publication.

One of her lyrics, “Love, thou art best”, was published in a popular collection of songs. It attracted the attention of Henry Purcell, who set it to music.

LOVE, thou art best of Human Joys,
  Our chiefest Happiness below;
All other Pleasures are but Toys,
Musick without Thee is but Noise,
  And Beauty but an empty Show.

Heav'n, who knew best what Man wou'd move,
  And raise his Thoughts above the Brute;
Said, Let him Be, and let him Love;
That must alone his Soul improve,
  Howe'er Philosophers dispute.

Her writing could be funny. In “The Man bitten by Fleas”, she makes a satirical political point; in “The Man and his Horse”, she defends animals from unkind masters; in “The Battle between the Rats and the Weazles”, she skewers vanity - how much we care for how we look and what contraptions we'll wear on our heads.

While living in the country Anne wrote the beautiful “Nocturnal Reverie”. I like to think of her and Heneage wandering at night,

. . .When in some River, overhung with Green,
The waving Moon and trembling Leaves are seen;
When freshen'd Grass now bears it self upright,
And makes cool Banks to pleasing Rest invite,
Whence springs the Woodbind, and the Bramble–Rose,
And where the sleepy Cowslip shelter'd grows;
Whilst now a paler Hue the Foxglove takes,
Yet checquers still with Red the dusky brakes:
When scattered Glow-worms, but in Twilight fine,
Shew trivial Beauties watch their Hour to shine; . . .

Anne was still publishing anonymously in 1701, when her most popular poem, "The Spleen", appeared. It begins by describing the awful shapes of depression, which she knew too well,

. . .Still varying thy perplexing Form,
Now a Dead Sea thou'lt represent,
A Calm of stupid Discontent,
Then, dashing on the Rocks wilt rage into a Storm.
Trembling sometimes thou dost appear,
Dissolv'd into a Panick Fear;
On Sleep intruding dost thy Shadows spread,
Thy gloomy Terrours round the silent Bed,
And crowd with boading Dreams the Melancholy Head:
Or, when the Midnight Hour is told,
And drooping Lids thou still dost waking hold,
Thy fond Delusions cheat the Eyes,
Before them antick Spectres dance,
Unusual Fires their pointed Heads advance,
And airy Phantoms rise. . .

She was well aware that women when they aged received different treatment than men,

. . .There is a season, which too fast approaches,
And every list'ning beauty nearly touches;
When handsome Ladies, falling to decay,
Pass thro' new epithets to smooth the way:
From fair and young transportedly confess'd,
Dwindle to fine, well-fashioned, and well-dressed.
Thence as their fortitude's extremest proof,
To well as yet; from well to well enough;
Till having on such weak foundation stood,
Deplorably at last they sink to good.
Abandon'd then, 'tis time to be retir'd,
And seen no more, when not alas! admir'd.
By men indeed a better fate is known,
The pretty fellow, that has youth outgrown,
Who nothing knew, but how his cloaths did sit,
Transforms to a Free-thinker and a Wit;
At Operas becomes a skill'd Musician;
Ends in a partyman and politician;
Maintains some figure, while he keeps his breath,
And is a fop of consequence till death.

From “Epilogue to the Tragedy of Jane Shore”

In 1708, after two decades of rural living, the Finches, who were childless, returned to London. They continued to be outcasts and under the threat of government reprisals, but in London, Anne’s poetry began to be published. It appeared in collections with poetry by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Swift and Pope became her friends, and champions of her work.

In 1712, after the Earl of Winchilsea died without a son, Heneage became fifth earl of Winchilsea and Anne became countess. Their estate was caught up in financial problems and litigation, and they remained social outcasts since Heneage still refused to take the oath. But their marriage was happy. Thirty-nine years after their marriage, Heneage still noted the anniversary of their wedding in his private journal as "Most blessed day." In 1713, when she was in her fifties, 86 of Anne Finch’s poems were published, and subsequent editions identified her as the author.

She died in 1720.

Over the next two centuries her poetry fell into oblivion. Her religious poems, love lyrics, fables, verse plays, odes, songs, and pastorals disappeared from view. Her reputation in the nineteenth century rested almost entirely upon a remark by Wordsworth, who praised her ‘Nocturnal Reverie’ for its new images of nature (DNB).

The Wellesley manuscript, which contained her most mature work, was compiled about the time of her death. This work was finally published in 1998.

The modern world has caught up with her husband, the fourth Earl of Winchelsea, Purcell, Swift, Pope, and Wordsworth. It has recognized the intelligent grace of her poetry.


Finch Portrait: National Portrait Gallery

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