Gosse's Gossip - LADY WINCHILSEA'S POEMS

LADY WINCHILSEA'S POEMS

MISCELLANY POEMS. With Two Plays. By Ardelia.

 

I never list presume to Parnass hill,
But piping low, in shade of lowly grove,
I play to please myself, albeit ill.
            Spencer Shep. Cal. June.
            Manuscript in folio. Circa 1696.

            There is no other book in my library to which I feel that I possess so clear a presumptive right as to this manuscript. Other rare volumes would more fitly adorn the collections of bibliophiles more learned, more ingenious, more elegant, than I. But if there is any person in the two hemispheres who has so fair a claim upon the ghost of Ardelia, let that man stand forth. Ardelia was uncultivated and unsung when I constituted myself, years ago, her champion. With the exception of a noble fragment of laudation from Wordsworth, no discriminating praise from any modern critic had stirred the ashes of her name. I made it my business to insist in many places on the talent of Ardelia. I gave her, for the first time, a chance of challenging public taste, by presenting to readers of Mr. Ward's English Poets many pages of extracts from her writings; and I hope it is not indiscreet to say that, when the third volume of that compilation appeared, Mr. Matthew Arnold told me that its greatest revelation to himself had been the singular merit of this lady. Such being my claim on the consideration of Ardelia, no one will, I think, grudge me the possession of this unknown volume of her works in manuscript. It came into my hands by a strange coincidence. In his brief life of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea—for that was Ardelia's real name—Theophilus Gibber says, "A great number of our authoress' poems still continue unpublished, in the hands of the Rev. Mr. Creake." In 1884 I saw advertised, in an obscure book-list, a folio volume of old manuscript poetry. Something excited my curiosity, and I sent for it. It proved to be a vast collection of the poems of my beloved Anne Finch. I immediately communicated with the bookseller, and asked him whence it came. He replied that it had been sold, with furniture, pictures and books, at the dispersing of the effects of a family of the name of Creake. Thank you, divine Ardelia! It was well done; it was worthy of you.

            Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is not a commanding figure in history, but she is an isolated and a well-defined one. She is what one of the precursors of Shakespeare calls "a diminutive excelsitude." She was entirely out of sympathy with her age, and her talent was hampered and suppressed by her conditions. She was the solitary writer of actively developed romantic tastes between Marvell and Gray, and she was not strong enough to create an atmosphere for herself within the vacuum in which she languished. The facts of her life are extremely scanty, although they may now be considerably augmented by the help of my folio. She was born about 1660, the daughter of a Hampshire baronet. She was maid of honour to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, and at Court she met Heneage Finch, who was gentleman of the bed-chamber to the Duke. They married in 1685, probably on the occasion of the enthronement of their master and mistress, and when the crash came in 1688, they fled together to the retirement of Eastwell Park. They inhabited this mansion for the rest of their lives, although it was not until the death of his nephew, in 1712, that Heneage Finch became fourth Earl of Winchilsea. In 1713 Anne was at last persuaded to publish a selection of her poems, and in 1720 she died. The Earl survived her until 1726.

            My manuscript was written, I think, in or about the year 1696—that is to say, when Mrs. Finch was in retirement from the Court. She has adopted the habit of writing,

Betrayed by solitude to try Amusements, which the prosperous fly.

            But her exile from the world gives her no disquietude. It seems almost an answer to her prayer. Years before, when she was at the centre of fashion in the Court of James II., she had written in an epistle to the Countess of Thanet:

 

Give me, O indulgent Fate,
Give me yet, before I die,
A sweet, but absolute retreat,
'Mongst paths so lost, and trees so high,
That the world may ne'er invade,
Through such windings and such shade,
My unshaken liberty.

            This was a sentiment rarely expressed and still more rarely felt by English ladies at the close of the seventeenth century. What their real opinion usually was is clothed in crude and ready language by the heroines of Wycherley and Shadwell. Like Lucia, in the comedy of Epsom Wells, to live out of London was to live in a wilderness, with bears and wolves as one's companions. Alone in that age Anne Finch truly loved the country, for its own sake, and had an eye to observe its features.

            She had one trouble, constitutional low spirits: she was a terrible sufferer from what was then known as "The Spleen." She wrote a long pindaric Ode on the Spleen, which was printed in a miscellany in 1701, and was her first introduction to the public. She talks much about her melancholy in her verses, but, with singular good sense, she recognised that it was physical, and she tried various nostrums. Neither tea, nor coffee, nor ratafia did her the least service:

 

In vain to chase thee every art I try,
In vain all remedies apply,
In vain the Indian leaf infuse,
Or the parched eastern berry bruise,
Or pass, in vain, those bounds, and nobler liquors use.

            Her neurasthenia threw a cloud over her waking hours, and took sleep from her eyelids at night:

 

How shall I woo thee, gentle Rest,
To a sad mind, with cares oppress'd?
By what soft means shall I invite
Thy powers into my soul to-night?
Yet, gentle Sleep, if thou wilt come,
Such darkness shall prepare the room
As thy own palace overspreads,—
Thy palace stored with peaceful beds,—
And Silence, too, shall on thee wait
Deep, as in the Turkish State;
Whilst, still as death, I will be found,
My arms by one another bound,
And my dull limbs so clos'd shall be
As if already seal'd by thee.

            She tried a course of the waters at Tunbridge Wells, but without avail. When the abhorred fit came on, the world was darkened to her. Only two things could relieve her—the soothing influence of solitude with nature and the Muses, or the sympathetic presence of her husband. She disdained the little feminine arts of her age:

Nor will in fading silks compose
Faintly the inimitable rose,
Fill up an ill-drawn bird, or paint on glass
The Sovereign's blurr'd and indistinguished face,
The threatening angel and the speaking ass.

            But she will wander at sundown through the exquisite woods of Eastwell, and will watch the owlets in their downy nest or the nightingale silhouetted against the fading sky. Then her constitutional depression passes, and she is able once more to be happy:

 

Our sighs are then but vernal air,
But April-drops our tears,

as she says in delicious numbers that might be Wordsworth's own. In these delightful moments, released from the burden of her tyrant malady, her eyes seem to have been touched with the herb euphrasy, and she has the gift, denied to the rest of her generation, of seeing nature and describing what she sees. In these moods, this contemporary of Dryden and Congreve gives us such accurate transcripts of country life as the following:

 

When the loos'd horse now, as his pasture leads,
Comes slowly grazing through the adjoining meads,
Whose stealing face and lengthened shade we fear,
Till torn-up forage in his teeth we hear;
When nibbling sheep at large pursue their food,
And unmolested kine rechew the cud:
When curlews cry beneath the village-walls,
And to her straggling brood the partridge calls.

            In Eastwell Park there was a hill, called Parnassus, to which she was particularly partial, and to this she commonly turned her footsteps.

            Melancholy as she was, however, and devoted to reverie, she could be gay enough upon occasion, and her sprightly poems have a genuine sparkle. Here is an anacreontic—written "for my brother Leslie Finch"—which has never before been printed:

 

From the Park, and the Play,
And Whitehall, come away
To the Punch-bowl by far more inviting;
To the fops and the beaux
Leave those dull empty shows,
And see here what is truly delighting.

 

The half globe 'tis in figure,
And would it were bigger,
Yet here's the whole universe floating;
Here's titles and places,
Rich lands, and fair faces,
And all that is worthy our doting.

 

'Twas a world like to this
The hot Grecian did miss,
Of whom histories keep such a pother;
To the bottom he sunk,
And when he had drunk,
Grew maudlin, and wept for another.

 

            At another point, Anne Finch bore very little likeness to her noisy sisterhood of fashion. In an age when it was the height of ill-breeding for a wife to admit a partiality for her husband, Ardelia was not ashamed to confess that Daphnis—for so she styled the excellent Heneage Finch—absorbed every corner of her mind that was not occupied by the Muses. It is a real pleasure to transcribe, for the first time since they were written on the 2nd of April, 1685, these honest couplets:

 

This, to the crown and blessing of my life,
The much-loved husband of a happy wife;
To him whose constant passion found the art
To win a stubborn and ungrateful heart;
And to the world by tenderest proof discovers
They err who say that husbands can't be lovers.
With such return of passion as is due,
Daphnis I love, Daphnis my thoughts pursue,
Daphnis, my hopes, my joys are bounded all in you!

            Nearly thirty years later the same accent is audible, thinned a little by advancing years, and subdued from passion to tenderness, yet as genuine as at first. When at length the Earl began to suffer from the gout, his faithful family songster recorded that also in her amiable verse, and prayed that "the bad disease"

 

May you but brief unfrequent visits find
To prove you patient, your Ardelia kind.

            No one can read her sensitive verses, and not be sure that she was the sweetest and most soothing of bed-side visitants.

            It was a quiet life which Daphnis and Ardelia spent in the recesses of Eastwell Park. They saw little company and paid few visits. There was a stately excursion now and then, to the hospitable Thynnes at Longleat, and Anne Finch seldom omitted to leave behind her a metrical tribute to the beauties of that mansion. They seem to have kept up little connection with the Court or with London. There is no trace of literary society in this volume. Nicholas Rowe twice sent down for their perusal translations which he had made; and from another source we learn that Lady Winchilsea had a brisk passage of compliments with Pope. But these were rare incidents. We have rather to think of the long years spent in the seclusion of Eastwell, by these gentle impoverished people of quality, the husband occupied with his mathematical studies, his painting, the care of his garden; the wife studying further afield in her romantic reverie, watching the birds in wild corners of her park, carrying her Tasso, hidden in a fold of her dress, to a dell so remote that she forgets the way back, and has to be carried home "in a Water-cart driven by one of the Underkeepers in his green Coat, with a Hazel-bough for a Whip." It is a little oasis of delicate and pensive refinement in that hot close of the seventeenth century, when so many unseemly monsters were bellowing in the social wilderness.

 

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