Finch, Robert 1900–
A Canadian poet, playwright, critic, editor, and essayist, Finch writes elegant, controlled poetry. He is an accomplished musician and a respected painter, and his use of rhyme and meter evidences his formal musical training while his imagery illustrates his painterly eye. Finch won the Governor General's Literary Award in 1947 for Poems and in 1962 for Acis in Oxford. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)
Reading through [Poems], I felt that Mr. Finch was more concerned with the advantages of mental exercise in verse form than with the writing of poetry. There are, it is true, some fine effects of music and imagery in Poems; there are occasional poems which attain a higher level than the book as a whole. But in general the author is too much occupied with (a) versifying a moral truism and (b) playing a sort of verbal chess. (p. 38)
Mr. Finch is nearly always simple when he seems profound. He plays with rhyme and metre like a kitten with a ball of wool, and with an air of doing something mysterious and significant…. [The] principal theme of [his poetry is that] life is never what it seems and we must school ourselves to accept its realities. The writer's bare statement of this platitude cannot substitute for poetry, and his attempt at irony does nothing to make it palatable. His irony is a facetiousness that springs out of an excessive self-consciousness. It can transform what is meant as a reserved statement into a coy and distressing confession. It forces us to listen for words left unsaid, and these words are naked and embarrassed because of it.
The would-be pedestrian moralist who dominates the latter part of Poems appears to be at odds with the dandified versifier of its opening pages. But in the decorative nature pieces, the poet is still at the mercy of the mental gymnast…. [For example,...
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Robert Finch's verse at its best has a mannered dexterity, an ornate lucidity, and a studiously restrained tone that is capable alike of light grace and poignant though delicately phrased emotion. In his second volume, "Strength of the Hills", his work, it must be confessed, is less often at its best than in his previous collection. There are a couple of brilliant catalogues, several descriptive pieces with the clarity of outline and elegance of color that delighted his earlier readers, and a few vignettes of emotion that capture something of the sober penetration of his earlier work; but there are too many pieces that seem to be "exercises in the manner of Robert Finch". To have achieved a personal manner in these days is in itself no little distinction; but this is a manner that makes ruthless demands on its user. If it is not absolutely accurate, it is as cold as inferior Mozart, dexterous but hollow….
[His style,] admirably developed for a somewhat remote, fastidious, and intensely personal attitude serves but ill to render broader, deeper, and more general ideas. It is unfortunate that this accomplished artist seems on this occasion to have violated his own earlier practice by coming into print more rapidly and more copiously than one would have expected of the accurate and delicate critical taste that his best work displays.
L. A. MacKay, "Fundamentally Serious Poetry but Lightened by Urbanity" (copyright © 1949 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 64, No. 32, May, 1949, p. 22.∗
Robert Finch is an urbane poet in a nation that is too often content merely with becoming urban. He writes with poise and self-consciousness. The Dionysic fury never leads him where his reason would not have him go, and his craftsmanship is controlled and accurate. Thus, one imagines, Flaubert might write if another incarnation made him a Canadian poet instead of a French novelist.
These qualities, which at once grace and limit his verse, were already evident in Dr. Finch's first volume, Poems, published in 1946. The present volume [Acis in Oxford and Other Poems], distilling the work of the decade and a half between then and now, can be taken as confirming the bounds of his possibilities as a poet. His gifts are neither epic nor dramatic; he is not a myth-creator of the kind one encounters frequently of late in Canada, unless one sees a mythological touch in his title sequence, "Acis in Oxford", in which he dwells with ironic tenderness on the echoes a performance of Handel's version of the ancient legend arouses in the minds of hearers and performers; finally, he is not a poet of the Canadian scene, among whose amplitudes his verse sounds with the silvery remoteness of rococo music.
Yet, such limitations defined and granted, Acis in Oxford is often true and sometimes very good poetry, its deliberation elaborating on accurate insight and translating, with a conciseness impossible to prose,...
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If I try to delineate the character of Robert Finch's sensibility, I find myself wanting to say, perhaps in too large and general a way, that it is a sensibility which aspires to make explicit—but explicit in a way proper to poetry—the Europeanism latent in the Canadian spirit…. The first thing that is striking about Finch is the unity of his sensibility…. Robert Finch has a beautifully coherent and single sensibility, subject and detail, thought and feeling, tone and language, issuing without manipulation from a single organic response. A manner suggestive of coolness and sobriety is constantly capable of surprising us with a kind of subterranean explosiveness, and language, which seems stiff or angular, is in his hands buoyantly mobile and responsive…. (p. 82)
[In "The Statue"] there is not a hint of vacancy nor an unfunctioning line or word throughout. Moreover, the two parts of the poem work against each other in a marvelously productive way: in the first part a small boy, a man, a policeman, rustling in a row pursued by the cool menace of the trees, the flowers, the sky, in a chase which seems incapable of being broken or stopped; in the second part, the phase of stillness, the arrest of "only the statue unmoved in its moving stillness." The contrast is one in which each term of the comparison intensifies the reality of the other. Movement and stillness are different, married, and potent…. There is in this poem a muted use of repetition—a boy, a man, a policeman—in the first four...
(The entire section is 627 words.)