UNCG Campus Weekly

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NEH Grant Helps Keith Restore Finch’s Poetic Wings

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a three-year Scholarly Editions and Translations Grant to Dr. Jennifer Keith (English) in support of her edition of the works of Anne Finch.

Finch, considered by many scholars to be the most important woman poet writing in English before the Romantic era, will be the subject of a two-volume critical edition published by Cambridge University Press. Claudia Kairoff, professor of English at Wake Forest University, is working with Keith as a co-editor of the volumes. UNCG will host an open-access digital archive devoted to Finch as a supplement to the volumes.

In addition to the $165,000 NEH grant, the project has garnered support from an NEH long-term fellowship, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the UCLA Center for 17th and 18th Century Studies, the American Society for 18th Century Studies, UNCG and Wake Forest. Grants and in-kind contributions total more than $300,000.

Keith is excited by project’s dual focus on manuscript and print technologies as well as on digital humanities. The digital portal will allow 21st century readers to enter 17th and 18th century contexts for Finch’s works, including audio files with performances of Finch’s songs. Richard Cox and David Gwynn from University Libraries, and Alan Benson and Rachel Bowman, doctoral students in the English department, are working with Keith on the digital site.

“It’s gratifying,” notes Keith, “that UNCG, with its strong tradition of creative writing and its history as the Woman’s College, will become a home of sorts for Finch’s work. This is a scholarly project about a woman poet; there’s a justice in having her here.”

In the early 1680s, Finch was a devoted member of the court of Mary of Modena. The Italian-born Mary had married James, Duke of York and the future King James II. Finch’s husband, Heneage Finch, was part of James’s court.

Heneage Finch encouraged his wife’s writing and transcribed many of her poems. “On the surface,” remarks Keith, “it was a reversal of stereotypical gender roles, although there is some debate about whether he supported his wife’s work or censored it.”

James II was descended from the Stuart line and England’s last Catholic king. When James was deposed and fled to France during the Glorious Revolution, Finch and her husband became “internal exiles.” Heneage Finch was arrested for treason when he attempted to join James in France but was later released. The Finches refused to sign oaths of allegiance to the new rulers, William and Mary. Heneage and Anne eventually settled on the family’s country estate in Kent.

Keith sees in Finch’s work a reflection of this orbit of power. “Reading Finch,” she says, “you get a sense of what it was like to have been intimately connected to power and then thrown into a vulnerable position as an underground supporter on the losing side.”

Finch circulated her work in manuscript and in print and often wrote in a sort of code to convey her pro-Stuart allegiances. Keith points to Finch’s poem “The Spleen,” which on the surface is about melancholy or depression.

“Finch’s work at times includes a voice of melancholy isolation,” Keith explains, “but melancholy was also used as a pose by 17th century Royalists asserting their devotion to the exiled Stuarts during the interregnum. Melancholy was a mood but also a political statement.”

It is important to understand the politics that shaped Finch’s writing although some readers, notes Keith, “have wanted to explain Finch as a solitary lyric poet, especially as a precursor to Romantic-era poets.”

Keith’s research has involved visits to archives across the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Her work in these archives has revealed that governmental politics, spiritual ideals, and women’s artistry and experience are as important in Finch’s work as her poems’ intimate lyrical beauty.