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Written by Timothy Sexton
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play Are the accomplishments we should desire; To write, or read, or think, or to inquire Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time, And interrupt the conquests of our prime
Finch was a feminist well before it was cool. She is also proof that revolution by definition must begin not with the proletariat but the bourgeoisie…or in her case, the aristocracy. Women well below her station would simply not have the leisure time to write poetry of the volume produced by Finch and certainly could not take a chance on expressing such rebellious philosophies. This poem specifically targets the inherent chauvinism of men toward the very concept of women writing poetry. After all, she reasons, look at what truly important aspects of femininity would have to be sacrificed in exchange for something as monumentally trivial as expressing one’s most profound thoughts and feeling through creative endeavor.
And to the world by tenderest proof discovers They err, who say that husbands can’t be lovers.
First things first: Daphnis is the name by which Finch referred to her husband, Earl of Winchilsea Heneage Finch, in her poetry. More importantly, however, is this direct assertion regarding how marriage has done nothing to dampen the romance that blossomed between the two and led to their marriage. The context here is extremely important. During the period in which Finch wrote her poems as the 17th century turned into the 18th century, the common view expressed in poetry on the subject of romance was that everything skidded to a screeching an irreversible halt immediately upon exchange of wedding vows. The observation that husbands can still make good lovers is thus far more than mere boasting about her husband in particular; it speaks outward with a subversive fervor essentially denying the validity of an established poetic trope.
Thus we poets that have speech, Unlike what they forests teach
Long after Finch had died, her poems were discovered by William Wordsworth who singled out for special recognition the vivid imagery portrayed so palpably in her poems about nature that he referred to them as pictures. This praise led to a period in which Finch’s poems specifically pointing out the beauty of the natural world took on the significance of her body of work as a whole. Thus, she was misappropriated as a kind of pre-pre-Romantic whose poetry aligned with the Romantic spirit of seeking a fusion between nature and man. Once more evidence arose such as that contained here in which she clearly and starkly delineates a disunity between nature and man that cannot be unified, such nonsensical categorization came to a merciful end.
Give me, O indulgent Fate! Give me yet before I die A sweet, but absolute retreat
Another clue that the Finch was a poet who thrived in part due to the privilege of her living conditions is expressed a recurring theme running throughout much of her work, but is expressed most assertively here. The enjoyment of solitude and the attraction of having a little time of your own merely to contemplate the world or whatever else came along worthy of contemplation most assuredly was not limited to the aristocracy; any mother charged with taking care of a gaggle of kids can confirm this regardless of where on the social spectrum she calls home. What is different, of course, is that Finch actually had the time to utilize such indulgent periods of solitary contemplation for the purpose of writing about it.
I invok'd a Muse, And Poetry wou'd often use, To guard me from thy Tyrant pow'r
Of course, sometimes being at the top of the social spectrum can also have its disadvantages. As the maid of honor at the wedding of the man who would be King James II, the limits of privilege were severely tested when William of Orange usurped his crown. The brief tenure in jail faced by her husband and the resulting loss of much of the privilege to which she had always known in the wake of demonstrations of their loyalty to James produced Finch’s most emotionally intense poems on the themes related to loss and despair. This particular work reveals the extent to which her creative spirit was instrumental in helping her to maintain her life spirit.
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