Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (16611720)
[Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea was born at Sidmonton, Hants, the residence of her father, Sir William Kingsmill. She married Heneage Finch, fourth Earl of Winchilsea, who survived her six years. She died on the 5th of August, 1720, leaving no issue. Her works consist of The Spleen, a pindaric ode, 1701; The Prodigy, 1706; Miscellany Poems, 1713; and Aristomenes, a tragedy.]
IN that invaluable Essay which Wordsworth appended to his Lyrical Ballads in 1815, he says that excepting the Nocturnal Reverie of Lady Winchilsea, and a passage or two in the Windsor Forest of Pope, 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. This remark, although rather acute than exact, since the poet forgets both Gay and Parnell, did eminent service in restoring to the list of English poets a name entirely and unworthily forgotten. Since Wordsworths mention of Lady Winchilsea, the one piece that he cites has been often reprinted in collections of verse, but it cannot be said that any further effort has been made to investigate the claims of the neglected authoress. Her poems have never been edited or described, and we believe that our present selection will reveal to almost all our readers a writer positively unknown to them. Yet she was a poetess of singular originality and excellence; her lines To the Nightingale have lyrical qualities which were scarcely approached in her own age, and would do credit to the best, while her odes and more weighty pieces have a strength and accomplishment of style which make the least interesting of them worth reading.
Lady Winchilsea was one of the last pindaric writers of the school of Cowley. Her odes display that species of writing in the final dissolution out of which it was redeemed by Gray and Collins. Such a poem as her All is Vanity, full as it is of ingenious thought, and studded with noble and harmonious lines, fails to impress the attention as a vertebrate composition. Her Ode to the Spleen, from which Pope borrowed his famous aromatic pain, is still more loose and fragmentary in structure. On the other hand, her less ambitious studies have a singular perfection of form and picturesqueness of manner. She lights upon the right epithet and employs it with precision, and gives a brilliant turn, even to a triviality, by some bright and natural touch. Her Nocturnal Reverie is worthy of Wordsworths commendation; it is simply phenomenal as the creation of a friend of Prior and of Pope, and some of the couplets, especially those which describe the straying horse, and the cries of the birds, are worthy of the closest observers of nature in a naturalistic age. In light verse Lady Winchilsea took Prior as a model, and succeeded respectably; her reply to Popes complimentary verses to her under the name of Ardelia deserves higher praise.
From her age to this Lady Winchilsea has received nothing but neglect from the English public. Her contemporaries disregarded her writings, as she herself complains, and in 1753 there were still existing two collections of her poems in MS., which no one had taken the trouble to print. To the public of the eighteenth century her delicate observation of nature seemed less important than the didactic lyricism of Mrs. Barber or the frivolity of Lætitia Pilkington. If those unpublished poems, to which reference has been made, are still in the possession of her family, it is highly desirable that they should be given to the world.