Poet and essayist John Finlay (1941-1991) is best known for his poems that explore the contrast between Christian theology and the natural, or what he viewed as the “pagan,” world. During his short life and writing career, he amassed an impressive collection of works on the world and the human condition.
Born on January 24, 1941, in the home of his maternal grandmother in Ozark, Dale County, John Martin Finlay grew up one of five children on the peanut and dairy farm owned by his parents, Tom Coston Finlay and Jean Sorrell Finlay, just outside the nearby town of Enterprise. Even as a youth, Finlay seemed destined for a literary life; he recited Shakespeare to the cows (whom he named for Greek goddesses) and read intently as the combine he was driving made its way across the peanut fields. After completing high school, Finlay entered the University of Alabama, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1964 and his master’s degree in English in 1966. He then taught for four years at the University of Montevallo before entering Louisiana State University in 1970 to pursue a doctorate. Finlay lived in Baton Rouge during most of the 1970s but spent time on the Greek island of Corfu in 1972 and in Paris in 1973. Finlay earned his doctorate at LSU in 1980, the same year in which he converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1981, Finlay became ill and was diagnosed with HIV. He returned to live on the family farm in Alabama. Although Finlay had published before this time, he began his most productive period after his return to Dale County.
Finlay’s poems are all written in measured verse and focus on what he considered intense, realistic perceptions of the world. For example, one of his most notable poems, “Audubon at Oakley,” celebrates the naturalism and detail captured by artist and naturalist John James Audubon. After his conversion to Roman Catholicism, Finlay often wrote works that elevate Christian beliefs and concepts above those of pre-Christian cultures, as in his poem “The Bog Sacrifice” about the ritual killing of the famed bog man of Denmark. His last poem, “A Prayer to the Father,” was dictated as Finlay lay blind and paralyzed in the spring before his death. Finlay’s essays focus on traditional themes in Western literature, especially Christian theology and philosophy, and on life in the South, especially Alabama.
John Finlay died on February 17, 1991, and was buried in Enterprise.
Selected Works by John Finlay
The Wide Porch and Other Poems (1984)
Between the Gulfs (1986)
The Salt of Exposure (1988)
Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay (1992)
A Prayer to the Father: Poetry and Prose by John Finlay (1992)
Flaubert in Egypt: Essays on the Gnostic Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought (1993)
Hermetic Light: Essays on the Gnostic Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought (1994)
The American Tragedies: A Chronology of Six Poems (1997)
John Finlay Papers. Archives, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.
Middleton, David. “‘The Deathless Word’: John Finlay and the Triumph over Gnosticism.” Afterword to Spirit in Modern Literature and Thought, by John Finlay. Santa Barbara, Calif.: J. Daniel Press, 1994.
———, ed. A Garland for John Finlay. Thibodaux, La.: Blue Heron Press, 1990.
———, ed. In Light Apart: The Achievement of John Finlay. Glenside, Penn.: Aldine Press, Ltd., 1999.
Simpson, Lewis P. “The Dark Rooms of John Finlay.” Southern Review 27 (Summer 1991): 727-29.