Yesterday I received an email from a musician specializing in the 18th century who had recently begun a YouTube project on the poems of Anne Finch, née Kingsmill. If you’re not familiar with the Countess of Winchilsea, she was one of England’s earliest celebrated female poets and served as a trailblazer to all aspiring stanza scribblers of the feminine persuasion during the 18th century.
Only a handful of collections by female poets were published prior to her, and Anne herself was nervous of the negative reputation gained by her predecessors. For a long time after coming to court at St. James’ Palace, where she served as Maid of Honour to the Duke of York’s (later King James II) wife, she kept her scribblings private.
When she married in 1684, her husband Heneage Finch strongly supported her work. Since she possessed hopelessly illegible penmanship, he eventually transcribed her poems into a folio manuscript around 1694 -1695. His encouragement, along with that of her friends, played a signifcant role in getting her poems before the public eye.
Anne’s daily struggles provided fodder for her writing. The Finches led an exciting life of political upheaval, starting with their refusal to swear an oath to William of Orange during the Bloodless Revolution. Stressors regarding her husband’s arrest and their subsequent exile resulted in Anne having a depressive period, which produced one of her most famous poems, The Spleen.
Although Anne is not part of the popular British canon today, she was a well-heeled wit who could hold her own against contemporary poets. She was unusual for her time not only because she was a published female poet, but unlike many of her peers, she was happily married. These unique circumstances turned Anne into an upper class observer, and lucky for us, her poetry provides a window into the 18th century elite without being too firmly entrenched in the inside view.
Many of her poems center around love and friendship, but her topics went beyond proper female preoccupations of the time. They ranged from keen political observations to feminist commentary on sufferance and repression. And as poets are wont to do, she had a satirical devotion to the human condition, though, unlike some of her male contemporaries, she posessed a tendency to temper her barbs.
If you like your poetry read to you with music accompaniment and video, please consider visiting Anne Finch Poetry on Youtube. I’ve embedded ‘Tis Strange, This Heart’ for your enjoyment:
If you’re interested in Anne, a more complete history can be found at Celebration of Women Writers, Biography and Links to Works from UPenn. I will also provide links to Anne Finch’s poetry and the YouTube channel in the 18th Century Reading Room for later reference.