Poem Guide

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea: “The Answer”

How poetry became the 18th century’s social media network.
Cropped painting of poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea.

Emails, texts, snaps, DMs: thanks to the Internet, we compose messages to each other as spontaneously as our parents picked up the telephone. Among the literate classes of Europe, poetry used to be a kind of social media too. Poetry back then worked in ways similar to ancient Japanese poetry, which, as Sei Shonagon’s 10th-century Pillow Book tells us, involved courtiers “texting” poems to each other, albeit on exquisite paper. Like Japan’s court poetry, English poetry in the early 18th century, the so-called Augustan Age, flourished as a kind of messaging between members of a social circle. But, informed by the rigors of metrical and rhetorical convention, it sparkled in a way that our missives—texts written in haste, or comments dashed off in high dudgeon—often do not. These poems were in the form of “epistolary verse,” or letter-poems, and they were both public and private displays of alliance and conflict. Writing artfully to provide amusement for friends with good taste, the epistolary poets also regarded their high style as a persuasive tactic.

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, was one writer of Augustan epistolary verse, and her poem “The Answer” is an elegant example of the form. As with electronic messages, to understand “The Answer” you have to know what it was replying to. In this case, Finch’s poem is a response to another poem, “Impromptu,” by Alexander Pope, itself composed in answer to a rumor that Finch disapproved of him. The reigning poet of his day, Pope was 27 years younger than Finch. He had heard from a mutual friend that she objected to some diminishing remarks about female writers in his masterpiece “The Rape of the Lock”—yet another response poem, this one to a young woman Pope knew who threw a tantrum over a suitor’s bit of mischief. Finch thought his lines were misogynistic attacks on her female associates, to whom she was devoted. “Impromptu” was Pope’s way of charming himself back into her good graces:

In vain you boast Poetic Names of yore,
And cite those Sapphos we admire no more:
Fate doom’d the Fall of ev’ry Female Wit;
But doom’d it then when first Ardelia writ.
Of all Examples by the World confess’d,
I knew Ardelia could not quote the best;
Who, like her Mistress on Britannia’s Throne;
Fights and subdues in Quarrels not her own.
To write their Praise you but in vain essay;
Ev’n while you write, you take that Praise away:
Light to the Stars the Sun does thus restore,
But shines himself till they are seen no more.

“Impromptu” is a sly attempt to deflect his friend’s criticism with flattery. You think you’re defending your sisters, he says, but you’re so superior to them that by picking up your pen you just prove me right: “To write their Praise you but in vain essay; / Ev’n while you write, you take that Praise away.” By Pope’s logic, Finch is unconsciously a more devastating critic of (other) women’s writing than he could ever be.

“The Answer” matches wits with the cocky young Pope. Finch demurs, adopting a silken tone of feminine conciliation—“The contest I give oer.” She pleads for mercy yet calls him by his first name, which in debate is a tactic used to undermine the authority of one’s opponent. Then she laughs at him, comparing him to the mythic singer Orpheus. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Orpheus was torn limb from limb by frenzied maenads—basically, female fans. His dismembered head kept singing all the way downstream to the sea, washing up on Lesbos, Sappho’s isle. Don’t worry, Finch says to Pope: this won’t happen to you because “you our follies gently treat.” Where Orpheus offered “scoffing rhymes,” Finch grants that Pope has spun the “thread” of his poem finely. And when she promises, “The lock won’t cost the head,” she is wittily confusing the beheaded singer with Belinda’s snipped tress in “The Rape of the Lock.” Grandiose Orpheus would have written as amusingly as Pope “[h]ad he in London town been bred, / And polished too his wit.” 

Continuing her alternate reading of the myth, Finch mocks Orpheus’s failure to save his wife, Eurydice, when his music moved the god of Hades: “But he poor soul thought all was well, / And great should be his fame, / When he had left his wife in hell. . . .” By making light of this drama at the expense of the pompous Poetic Hero, Finch deflates Pope by analogy. She is treating serious things lightly—the opposite of Pope’s mock-heroic strategy in “The Rape of the Lock”—which undermines her apparent sincerity.

In her coup de grace, Finch reassures Pope—“Our admiration you command”—before a final, ambiguous insult: as she tells “the ladies,” wit is easy enough, but wisdom is something we learn—by others’ reprimands. Yet who is reprimanding who? While superficially conceding to Pope’s complaint, Finch sneaks in her own admonition to the younger man to mind his manners. And Pope’s response? He requested permission to publish her piece alongside “Impromptu” in his next book. Ever the lady, Finch softened her final version by omitting the beheading. Their friendship prevailed, more firmly bonded by this mutually amusing contest.

“The Answer,” like “Impromptu,” is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Both poems pretend to be reasonable while wielding the imbalances of power—her maturity, his maleness—as stealth weapons. Their reputations were imbalanced as well. Anne Finch, like many exceptional female poets, stood slightly apart from the mainstream of her time; it is only recently that she has been rehabilitated as an important 18th-century poet. Pope, on the other hand, was always the spokesman of the Augustan Age, an absolute master of its prevalent modes—satire and didacticism. After all, the period was dubbed “Augustan” because it harked back to the learned poets of Augustus’s reign in Rome—like Horace, who all but invented the epistolary form and was a wicked satirist as well.

The Augustans have long been overshadowed by the Romantics. The Augustans prized neoclassical virtues such as reason and proportion; the Romantics enshrined vision and extravagance. Following the Romantics, we have privileged the individual genius and the masterpiece, but perhaps Anne Finch has another message for us: take Alexander Pope off his pedestal. We can look at Augustan poetry as a network of poets engaging one another with verse inseparable from their backstories. Pope helped found the Scriblerus Club with Jonathan Swift and wrote The Dunciad to satirize the specific writers he loathed; Finch had many female contemporaries, though most of their names—Katherine Philip, Mary Chudleigh, Elizabeth Thomas, Sarah Fyge Egerton, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Elizabeth Carter, Sarah Dixon, Jane Brereton, Mary Jones, Mary Masters, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, among others—are obscure to us now. Without denying the fact that some writers are more talented than others—and without exiling the notions of genius or mastery—it is possible to see the highly networked milieu of English verse at this time as a social practice rather than a spiritual one—a precursor to our own secular, highly networked times.

We might learn something, as well, from the forms these poets’ messages took. Their banter was charged with ironies but always civil; the rules of metrics and the bounds of discourse played their part in defusing hard feelings. As it happens, the lines in “The Rape of the Lock” to which Finch objected not only were misogynistic but also could be construed as a very personal attack. A character called Spleen is told that women write only to self-medicate, and “The Spleen” is in fact the title of Finch’s poem about her recurring depression. But the conventions of Augustan poetry sublimated emotion into a contest of wits, so what could have been a petty complaint resulted in works that have instead lasted centuries. While I’m not suggesting that contemporary flame wars be conducted in epistolary rhyming hexameters, it’s impossible to read the repartee between Finch and Pope and not feel pressed to raise the bar on our own poetic rhetoric.

Originally Published: July 14th, 2010

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...