Robert Finch

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John Sutherland

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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, in a characteristic sonnet, The Smile,] the author refers to or forgets his principal metaphor just as he pleases [and] the conceits in this poem are illogical and silly. From the initial (and recurrent) comparison of the lake to a woman asleep in her bedroom, we pass on to a library hanging by no visible support from the ceiling of the bedroom, enter the great room of a manor to which the lady has been moved still sound asleep, and finally reach a factory setting where the moon is playing the role of night watchman. There are many ridiculous things in the course of all this. Not the least ridiculous is the notion that the "restless hound", who begs for fresh prey though his claws are already crimson, and who, on the evidence, should be literally climbing the walls and howling for blood, is less able to rouse his mistress than the wink of a flashlight! Such absurdities are possible because Mr. Finch is less concerned with poetry than with a game of similes. Given the general comparison of night and sleep, he changes the lake to a woman, the rocks to limbs, the islands to pillows, the swallows to weavers, the air to a library, etc. etc. and before he is through, has managed to furnish several houses. His method is one of compilation rather than of composition. It merely suggests that a knack for making work-pictures has been gradually transformed into a hobby. (pp. 38-9)

John Sutherland, "'Poems'" (reprinted by permission of Audrey Sutherland), in Northern Review, Vol. 1, No. 6, August-September, 1947, pp. 38-40.

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