John Finlay’s Poetics of the Incarnation

Writing to the literary critic and Southern Review editor, Lewis P. Simpson, from the family farm in Enterprise, Alabama, the already doomed poet John Finlay paused a moment to reflect on cattle. “I can’t help but like the cows,” he told Simpson. “They are good Thomistic animals and save one from the madness of Berkeley.”

Over the course of the two decades before he wrote those words, Finlay (1941–1991) had through natural talent, single-minded determination, and the goodwill of others, all but remade himself into his own ideal image of the poet. That ideal was itself modeled in large part on Yvor Winters, the controversial poet and critic of Stanford University, who deemed himself a non-Christian intellectual theist, and who accepted Thomas Aquinas as a philosophical master.

Finlay would follow Winters as Dante followed Virgil, becoming an intellectualist in philosophy on roughly the model of Aquinas, and finally a convert to the Catholic Church, in whose communion he spent the last fruitful but agonizing decade of his life. Drawing on Winters’ work, Finlay would compose a slender body of poems and a no less lean body of literary and philosophical prose, all of which sought to understand and critique the “Gnosticism” of the modern age and to arrive at a clear, rational understanding of human nature and the goodness of being.

“What I owe Yvor Winters,” Finlay would record: “Nearly everything.”[1] Finlay’s habits were spectacular in their carelessness and disorder. More than one of the biographical accounts of Finlay report his tendency to sit up into the early hours talking, smoking, and drinking whiskey.[2] During his college years, he allowed a “small mountain of cigarette butts” to pile on “the floor of his VW bug as he drove some 40,000 miles without changing the oil.”[3]

During an early stint teaching at Alabama College, he made a practice of mooching alcohol, supper, and the use of a television—which he professed to loathe—of Loretta and Bill Cobb. Bill was a colleague and Finlay lived in the apartment upstairs from the couple.[4] His teaching often suffered after late nights drinking Scotch at the Cobbs. Finlay, in brief, was a mess.

In perfect answer to Finlay’s slovenly habits, Winters was the great poet and critic of classical discipline and restraint. According to Winters’ distinguished early essay, “The Morality of Poetry,” the “Spiritual control in a poem . . . is simply a manifestation of the spiritual control within the poet”; it is “an important means by which the poet arrived at a realization of spiritual control.”[5] He elaborates that his “is a conception of poetry as a technique of contemplation, of comprehension, a technique which does not eliminate the need for philosophy or religion, but which, rather, completes and enriches them.”[6]

The aesthetic contemplation of the poet concentrated the mind and moved it toward the classical ideal of self-mastery. And so, Winters concludes, it “should offer a means of enriching one’s awareness of human experience and of so rendering greater the possibility of intelligence in the course of future action.”[7] Poetry is at once a form to be contemplated, a way of knowing reality, and a guide to living. Finlay’s discovery of Winters was no mere fascination with an artist. He found in Winters a tough-minded writer with the intellectual theory and substance to bring order to his own flailing, haphazard existence.

In the late 1960s, Finlay wrote Donald E. Stanford, at Louisiana State University, sending him some of his poems and, eventually, requesting admission to the doctoral program.[8] Stanford had been one of Winters’ many acolytes, and he would help cultivate Finlay’s modest reputation as poet and critic, while, over the course of a decade, he directed Finlay’s dissertation, The Unfleshed Eye: A Study of Intellectual Thesis in the Poetry of Yvor Winters.[9]

By 1980, the now forty-year-old Finlay had written at least a handful of published poems and a work of significant scholarship. Rather than seek an academic appointment, he returned to the family farm—not out of agrarian sentiment, but in order to secure the freedom to write the poems and essays he hoped, eventually, would win him a university post and a reputation. But, the hour, he soon realized, was too late.

Over the course of many years, Finlay had secretly been visiting “the backrooms of gay bars and baths” in New Orleans.[10] He understood these proclivities as a “demon” of the blood, over which he sought to gain control by means of the reason of the mind. “I can’t sleep,” he recorded in his notebook on June 5, 1980: “As soon as I turn the lights out, the demon . . . comes out . . . how many times I have performed exactly his bidding.”[11] After succumbing to the demon, he would bow in prayer and seek forgiveness.

The same year as this notebook entry, Finlay entered the Catholic Church. By this time, however, the demon had claimed a mortal victory. As news first spread of the AIDS virus at the start of the new decade, Finlay already sensed he had contracted it. In this he was correct. His retreat to Alabama enabled him to work in freedom, but also to conceal the consequences of the disease from others.

In the years ahead, he would slowly sicken until he was helpless but to lie bedridden in the living room of the family home, become incontinent, and, soon, blind. In the last months before his death, he was too weak to hold a telephone to his ear. He dictated his last poem, “A Prayer to the Father,” to his sister. He died on February 17, 1991.

Finlay’s private struggle with sexual desire provides a point of entrance to the great moral and literary themes of his work, one distilled nicely in the title of his posthumous collected poems, Mind and Blood.[12] Those themes take their point of departure from Winters. Finlay followed Winters in his conviction that the discipline of the poetic art was a means of establishing rational order or self-mastery in the soul.

Through Winters, he discovered the work of Thomas Aquinas and the great scholastic’s distinctions between faith and reason, nature and grace, as well as his existential metaphysics of the goodness of being. As Finlay observed in his dissertation and in the short excerpt collected in his first and only completed book of essays, Winters embraced Aquinas’ respect for natural reason, but did not share Aquinas’ affirmation of the goodness of being in general.

In this, Finlay was largely correct. The young Winters, influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, had fantasized in his poems about communion with nature as a kind of self-annihilation, a dissolving of the rational soul and a merging with the wildness of material being. In Winters’ “Two Songs of Advent,” for instance, the desert landscape appears as an alien and lonely reality, but then the very foreign spirit of nature takes possession of us: “Listen! Listen! I enter now your thought.”[13] Such an invasion and dissolution of the soul was not to be avoided, but to be cultivated. It was a romantic ecstasy at once terrible and compelling and, in principle self-annihilating.

An early experience of madness, captive in the snow-covered solitude of the Colorado Rockies, led Winters to rethink the attraction of this self-dissolving kind of ecstasy. He recorded the experience in his one published short story, “The Brink of Darkness,” where he speaks of himself as “disturbed, uncentered, and finally obsessed as by an insidious power,” as if subject to “a deliberate and malevolent invasion” by an “Eastern demon.”[14] Eastern, he notes, because associated with the monism of Oriental thought that inspired, first, the German romantics and, second, Emerson’s derivative philosophy of nature.

The experience changed Winters and his entire course in life. The cultivation of immersion in the oneness of nature ceased to be a romantic ideal, came to appear as a madness to be avoided. He turned his critical sites on Emerson as exemplary of all those who would mislead human beings by enticing them to surrender their reason and their souls. In his critical work, Winters condemned Emerson and other romantics for their privileging of emotion over reason and their naïve assumption that man’s “impulses” were naturally “good” and should be followed in a spirit of “automatism.”[15]

Finlay concurred entirely with Winters’ defense of the rational soul against emotional invasion, as did he share Winters’ conviction that natural reason was sufficient to know the existence of God and to deduce the proper form of moral life from that knowledge.[16] But Finlay departed from Winters insofar as the older poet denied the goodness of natural being. Winters came to view nature itself as the demonic, malevolent presence always threatening to dissolve the soul. As Finlay argued, Winters saw “a death-principle in the physical world.”[17] Finlay, of course, knew the reality of the demon, but he refused to attribute personal demons to the wholeness of natural being. Finlay here spied a “Gnostic” and “Platonic” dimension in Winters thought which must be rejected.[18]

Winters’ solution to the malevolent demon of nature was, in a modification of classical stoicism, to accept the tragic reality of life in the world and to withdraw from it insofar as necessary for the good of the rational mind. Finlay, in contrast, although he well knew the demon to which the flesh was prey, saw also the necessity for, and the possibility of, a life of the body properly ordered and governed by reason. The good life could not be constricted to the mind, but must suffuse the whole existence of the person.

As Aquinas had argued in his non-dualistic and realistic account of being, the human being is composite, with the soul as the very form and act of the body.[19] If the soul’s form extends to and actuates the body, so must it be possible for the goodness of the rational soul to comprehend the life of the body. Finlay’s regret over his own aberrations did not lead him to condemn the life of the body but to yearn for one that was not destructive of the soul. This indeed became one of the most cogent themes of the poems he wrote in the last decade of his life.

In the poem “Odysseus,” written in honor of Winters, Finlay describes the hero of the ancient epic at sea, battered by the tumult of nature. Odysseus is the good man as Winters often described him: willing to essay the dangers of nature but with the moral fortitude to resist succumbing to its power. Odysseus awakes from a dream about his long voyage to find himself safe, at home in Ithaca. He rises and goes outside, where he:

Stared down slopes below encrusted walls
Whose stone absorbed the cries of closing surf.
From where I stood I saw, at its low edge,
The narrow beach that, momently submerged,
Withstood the wide explosions of the tide.[20]

The plain, almost prosaic, blank verse of these lines is typical of Finlay’s work, which is mostly in iambic pentameter and usually blank rather than rhymed, and is also a quality he particularly learned from Winters. Finlay here depicts the fortitude and stability of Odysseus’ soul, which has suffered much but not succumbed. He does so by describing the shore of Ithaca itself, which is “momently submerged” but nonetheless withstands the tide. The poem honors the rational toughness, as it were, of Winters’ principles, but also represents nature after the fashion of Winters—as an explosive deluge.

In “To a Victim of AIDS,” a poem in which Finlay implicitly addresses himself and which was published just as the symptoms of the disease that would kill him had become unconcealable, focuses on what happens to one who refuses any rational government of his desires. Those desires “destroyed the man that you had been,” he writes, before noting that “you scorned judgment,” that is to say, any moral rule superior to the impulse of sex, as “pure tyranny.”[21] The conclusion bears an uncanny resemblance to the malevolent invasions described by Winters in his poems and criticism:

Your body became your state of soul.
It can’t condemn one thing, but must
Permit what comes, with no control.
The germ not killed now breeds in lust
On its own self, and kills the whole.[22]

His soul was wounded by sin, and now the disease acquired through sin becomes the “state” of the body. Matter is passive and subject to the activity of the soul; so now the body is defenseless against the disease. The “germ” of the virus, which was contracted through a specifically sterile form of lust, now proves fatefully capable of breeding. As it replicates itself it kills “the whole”—the composite body and soul of the one man.

Finlay judges the AIDS virus as a deadly consequence of the rational soul’s failure to govern the body. He does not propose denying the claims of the body but putting them in right order. His tribute to Winters suggests the necessity of the strong rock of reason. In other poems, he gives us a sense not only of the discipline of reason but the goodness of being and the measure of a life well lived. In “The Fourth Watch,” Finlay meditates, in sesta rima stanzas, upon the nature and purpose of Christ’s incarnation as our means of salvation. The poem begins in the viscera of the world, where the fisherman Peter is conscious of the foam of the sea, the “guts of fish,” the “sod” of the earth. The first stanza concludes,

In light apart from me, I seek the Word
Holding mind and blood from the absurd.[23]

This short verse indicates two of Finlay’s concerns. First, the “light” of the divine mind must be “apart” from the creature; we are not our own end, but must seek an end that transcends us, and this end will be the Logos, the Word, whose reason causes the world to be and orders the structure of reality. Our good as creatures is to be conformed to it. Second, the redemption made possible in that conformity is of “mind and blood” both; it is a redemption of soul and body together. If salvation lies in the Logos, the divine intellect, then sin and destruction are its opposite—they are the absurdity into which the creature’s will might drive itself.

The poem continues, “My essence is not You by matter blurred.”[24] Here, Finlay rejects an idea he first encountered in Winters’ poem, “To the Holy Spirit.” In that poem, Winters shows his existential neutrality by acknowledging the likeness of the human mind to the divine mind and yet attributing to the body nothing but its fallen mortality. On Winters’ scheme, according to Finlay, the body “blurs” or merely obscures the disembodied, divine, and rational truth of the soul.

Finlay insists on the opposite: the hypostatic union that draws divine and human natures into the single person of Christ does not conceal God but, to the contrary, reveals him to us more fully. If Christ causes our existence, body and soul, so also does his incarnation and paschal sacrifice save us entire, not merely our souls. Christ takes on flesh to save mind and blood alike, as the final stanza impressively explores:

Embedded mind sustains the complex whole
Redeemed with blood of Deity made flesh—
You save the man, not disembodied soul.
And summer burns the tireless sun afresh:
A wedding-feast out under shade of limes,
The servants brimming water-jars with wine!

Here at last is the vision of the world Finlay would affirm against the tragic and stoic vision of Winters. Christ’s incarnation vouches for the value of the flesh; he would not condemn the blood but redeem it. The world itself, redeemed by Christ, is a new creation, indeed a new Cana: a “wedding-feast” “brimming” with miraculous jars of wine.

Finlay’s vision of rational self-mastery and redemption in Christ wedded to the goodness of created being finds its most placid expression in “The Autobiography of a Benedictine.” There, the Benedictine has all the admirable features that Finlay should have liked for himself. He is a scholastic who teaches logic and can “track down fallacies of fools.”[25] He is humanistic, reading “dry Horace” while he drinks “wine deep,” but with a moderation that will never “drown my wits.”[26] He does not argue for but merely adores the reality of the Incarnation:

I feel at ease here on this earth
And love the dogma of God’s flesh.[27]

Those who do otherwise, and reject the flesh like “eunuchs” or reject reason like romantics, he simply “leave[s] alone.”[28] And he envisions our journey to God not as the disembodied Hades of Virgil, but as faith’s death as the fullness of the being of the vision of “the deathless Word” becomes the fulfillment of our being, body and soul as one.[29] This was the vision of existence Finlay admired and sought, which proved elusive because of the “demon” possessing him. Winters helped him frame that vision, and started him on the path towards a rich Thomistic understanding of mind and blood.

[1] Jeffrey Goodman, “The Romance of Modern Classicism: Remarks on the Life and Work of John Finlay, 1941–1991” (Alabama Literary Review 14.2 [Fall 2000]), 34.

[2] Goodman, “The Romance of Modern Classicism,” 31.

[3] Goodman, “The Romance of Modern Classicism,” 33.

[4] Goodman, “The Romance of Modern Classicism,” 34.

[5] Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason (Denver, CO: University of Denver Press, 1947), 21.

[6] Winters, In Defense of Reason, 21–22.

[7] Winters, In Defense of Reason, 29.

[8] Goodman, “The Romance of Modern Classicism,” 36–38.

[9] The Unfleshed Eye: A Study of Intellectual Theism in the Poetry and Criticism of Yvor Winters (Unpublished Dissertation, 1980).

[10] Goodman, “The Romance of Modern Classicism,” 42.

[11] John Martin Finlay, With Constant Light: The Collected Essays and Reviews, eds. David Middleton and John P. Doucet (Belmont, NC: Wiseblood Books, 2020), 268.

[12] John Martin Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light: The Poetry of John Martin Finlay, eds. David Middleton and John P. Doucet. Belmont, NC: Wiseblood Books, 2020), 25.

[13] Yvor Winters, The Poetry of Yvor Winters (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1978), 19.

[14] Winters, The Poetry of Yvor Winters, 223.

[15] Winters, In Defense of Reason, 8.

[16] Finlay even discussed these matters with Winters’ widow, Janet Lewis, to whom he gives a richer account of Aquinas’ five ways of knowing God than Winters had provided (see, Winters, In Defense of Reason, 14, and Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 194).

[17] Finlay, With Constant Light, 107.

[18] Finlay, With Constant Light, 105.

[19] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.75–76 (trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948), 363–382.

[20] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 42.

[21] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 73.

[22] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 73.

[23] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 41.

[24] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 41.

[25] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 86.

[26] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 86.

[27] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 86.

[28] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 86.

[29] Finlay, Dense Poems and Socratic Light, 86.

Featured Image: Photo of John Finlay (second from right) And Professor Hudson Strode (far right), courtesy of John Martin Finlay Literary Estate; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0


James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair of English and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. He has published eleven books, including The Strangeness of the Good and Praying the Nicene Creed: I believe in One God.

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