Women love a man in uniform, so they say. James Winn points out that even in 1714, some women saw through the supposed dignity that the red British military uniform brings. Some things never change; the dignity of the soldier is still being attacked and defended in America today, but in a different way. While Ann Finch derided the vanity of the young soldier, critics today blast the arrogance of the government sending them off to fight, while praising the bravery of those willing to serve.
All is Vanity
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, was one of the most talented woman poets of the eighteenth century. In a memorable section of a longer poem on vanity, published in 1714, Finch describes a young man who goes to war, seduced by the finery of an officer’s uniform. Splendid in his gold embroideries and feathered hat, the youth
Walks haughty in a Coat of Scarlet Die,
A Colour well contriv’d to cheat the Eye,
Where richer Blood, alas! May undistinguisht lye.
And oh! too near that wretched Fate attends;
Hear it ye Parents, all ye weeping Friends!
Thou fonder Maid! won by those gaudy Charms,
(The destin’d Prize of his Victorious Arms)
Now fainting Dye upon the mournful Sound,
That speaks his hasty Death, and paints the fatal Wound!
Trail all your Pikes, dispirit every Drum,
March in a slow Procession from afar,
Ye silent, ye dejected Men of War!
Be still the Hautboys, and the Flute be dumb!
Display no more, in vain, the lofty Banner;
For see! Where on the Bier before ye lies
The pale, the fall’n, th’ untimely Sacrifice
To your mistaken Shrine, to your false Idol Honour! (1)
The officer’s dashing uniform is a cheat, a gaudy charm that wins a foolish maid. Although his sweetheart is supposed to be the prize of his victorious arms, the soldier, slain by arms of steel, will never hold her in his arms of flesh. In Finch’s sad version of a military parade, pikes trail in the dust, banners flutter in vain, and honor is exposed as a false idol. She insists on the realities that many male poets of her era sought to banish from their poems: the hero’s death and the grief of his loved ones.
(1) Anne Finch, “All is Vanity,” in Miscellany Poems, On Several Occasions (1713), 9–10.