|Finch's Early Poetry and
the Dandy Manner by Brian Trehearne
When Florence Livesay, mother of the poet, wrote to Raymond Knister, her acquaintance and neighbour, on May 16th, 1924, she chanced to mention a young poet she had encountered who, she thought, would interest her correspondent: "We have discovered one man here (for our anthology) who seems to have great promise has never published anything Robert Finch, a student at the university."' Were sheer prolificity the sufficient measure of a poet's significance, Mrs. Livesay would have discovered in his earliest days one of the major poets of Canadian Modernism. Finch (born in 1900) has published more volumes of poetry than most of his better known contemporaries; this remarkable output may have occurred in part as a result of Finch's retirement from the University of Toronto as a respected professor of French literature, which freed him for recent poetic industry. His first two volumes, by which he is still best known, were Poems of 1946 and The Strength of the Hills of 1948, but he had been writing since the early 1920s and through the period of his education at the Sorbonne; like most of the Canadian Modernists, he wrote much of his best known poetry in the 1930s, when the Depression precluded the real possibility of publication. He joined Smith, Scott, Kennedy, Klein and Pratt in New Provinces in 1936, by which means he was first brought to the attention of the book-reading public (or at least to such little attention as that landmark received). The forties brought inclusion in Smith's Book of Canadian Poetry and his first two volumes, but the end of that decade was also the end of his first active publishing period. It was not until 1961 that he published again, with Acis in Oxford and Other Poems from the University of Toronto Press, and Dover Beach Revisited from Macmillan. Silverthorn Bush and Other Poems appeared in 1966, and was followed by another period of silence; in 1980 a flurry of publication began with Variations and Theme, followed by Has and Is in 1981, Twelve for Christmas in 1982, and his most recent book, The Grand Duke of Moscow's Favourite Solo, in 1983. With the exception of this latter volume, Finch's later poetry is noteworthy for its relative simplicity of style and its increasingly Christian tone; but in the absence of significant criticism of his first two volumes, the obvious pressing need is for a framework of critical reference within which the later poetry may be clarified and explored in the future. As a result I shall not pursue Finch's development beyond the 1940s, but will focus my remarks on the nature of his early style, from the mid-twenties through to The Strength of the Hills, a most fruitful period for the critic of Canadian Modernism to consider. Finch's style has been characterized, with much accuracy, as the "dandy" manner by A.J.M. Smith, who seemed delighted to have found an example of that kind of poetry in the rather puritanical confines of early twentieth century Canadian literature.
In 1976, almost forty years later, Smith still spoke of "Robert Finch, whose elegant dandiacal poems I very much admired."3 Smith does not bother to define his idea of "dandyism," so it is not easy to assess the accuracy or value of his private judgment of Finch; but there will be little disputing that he has in mind the style of Sitwell that he affected in his own "A Hyacinth for Edith."A few obvious premises leading to this conclusion suggest themselves immediately. For one thing, we can safely eliminate from Smith's sense of the word "dandy" such prototypes as Gautier, Baudelaire, Swinburne, Verlaine or Wilde. He had demonstrated sufficient knowledge of Aesthetic literature French and English prior to his first remark about Finch4 to have used a more precise term if that was what he meant he might, for instance, have referred to Symbolist, Decadent or Pre-Raphaelite qualities in Finch, for all of these movements have strong associations with personal and literary dandyism. Secondly, he would surely be hesitant to point out a derivative nineteenth century bias in one of his fellow New Provinces poets, so it seems a reasonable conclusion that he was instead relating Finch to a fairly contemporary trend in poetry, which narrows our focus and points us towards certain literary phenomena of the 1920s. There was, for instance, a vigorous dandyism in the ascendancy at Oxford when Finch was at the Sorbonne see Martin Green's fascinating Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence' in England After 1918 for a complete rendering of the scene5 which had occasional literary manifestations (the obscure poems of the Oxford dandy Harold Acton) and was partly responsible for a few qualities of mainstream Modernism (Sitwell's diction, and the nature of Auden's early style). Among the young men of Acton's Oxford was John Betjeman, important in the present context as a second potential exemplar of "dandy" poetry from the period. Smith refers explicitly to both Sitwell and Betjeman in his Poems New and Collected, and they are clearly the only poets mentioned therein (other than those already eliminated) who serve as ready prototypes of a preconceived "dandyism." We have already remarked Smith's obvious youthful appreciation of Sitwell's poetry (the original "Homage to E.S." in the Fortnightly6 makes this even clearer than the later "Hyacinth for Edith"). That Smith had discovered in Finch a Canadian manifestation of a phenomenon which he so apparently admired would account for the obvious pleasure in his initial statement of the idea. Moreover, even after a cursory reading of Finch's 1946 Poems, sheer common sense informs us that there are clear stylistic affinities between Sitwell's early poetry and Finch's. As a result of these circumstances it seems necessary to conclude that when Smith remarked Finch's "dandyism" he had Sitwell in mind as a poetic precursor for the Canadian poet. This is useful information; but we need not limit ourselves to Smith's perceptions, after all. There is more to Finch than imitation of Sitwell, and more to dandyism in the 1920s than her poetry makes evident. Smith was not suggesting a relation between two poets (he might very easily have done so), but between Finch and a school or movement or tendency of poetry; so we are encouraged to look beyond the obvious Sitwellian frame of reference. To appreciate the aura of dandyism ("aura" is a loaded word, but it is valid here) we need to complicate our sense of it: "dandyism" is not merely a literary style but also a milieu and an attitude to life. Keeping the three distinct is a major element of the criticism of Aestheticism:7 but they need to be regarded as interconnected if we are to understand the "dandy" nature Smith appreciated in Finch's poetry. To that end we require a poet, preferably a near-contemporary of both Finch and Sitwell, whose oeuvre gives us a sense of the dandy's place in the 1920s, and a sense of other personalities belonging to that place: to meet which admittedly arbitrary criteria I find no better poet than Betjeman, whose beautifully contrived dramatic monologues call up the golden afternoon of a dwindling and increasingly mercantile empire.
The droll, self-deprecating and bathetic voice of this delightfully affected young lover typifies the dandy note in Betjeman, here at its height in verse from the 1940s. His earliest work, first collected in 1932, manifests similar qualities, albeit less masterfully, and so he parallels Finch's own progress from a 1920s apprenticeship to an even and confident tone in the poems of New Provinces and the volumes of the forties. Despite these parallels, I see no firm evidence that Smith was also thinking of Betjeman when he wrote of Finch; nor does the dandy style of Sitwell find any parallel in the urbane and essentially traditional language of Betjeman. But much of his poetry provides the thematic, symbolic and contextual analogue of Sitwell's formal and stylistic dandyism; his vision of a tasteful and slightly hollow England rose from the vague post-war malaise which afflicted aristocrat and middle-class scion alike, and found particular expression in his gently ironic glimpses of a faltering social order:
Because this highly aesthetic, dandiacal voice is central to Finch's poetry as well, Betjeman offers a useful contemporary comparison which helps to highlight certain of Finch's characteristic effects which might otherwise escape comment. ("Influence," of course, is not a relevant term for such a neutral comparison; I wish to remark Sitwell's and Betjeman's differing relations to Finch in order to elucidate his own poetics, but not to explain those poetics as the consequence of such relations.)
Upon Sitwell, then, because Smith's meaning justifies it, and upon Betjeman as a distinct and major exemplar of 1920s and 1930s dandyism, our initial assessments of Finch will, if we choose to follow Smith's advice, be based. That at least is the reasoning behind the following sketch of the nature of dandy poetry. I intend thereby to raise the following questions: to what extent does Finch match the pattern of dandy poetry? and what can we make of his role in Canadian Modernism as a result? Presumably the answers to these questions will not only provide an initial critical response to Finch's work, upon which others may wish to build, but will also illuminate our understanding of Canadian Modernism, which will bear easily all the complications and qualifications we can offer.
To my way of thinking, dandy poetry of the 1920s was fundamentally a product of a post-aristocratic British culture, that is, a culture wherein the significance of an hereditary aristocracy is dwindling in proportion to the increasing power of a mercantile, financial and industrial aristocracy; the concept of the upper-class in such a culture is not of course eliminated but fundamentally altered, a procedure occurring in Britain throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This supposition clarifies the re lationship that we often infer between modern dandy poetry and Aestheticism, for the earlier movement had also revelled in the fact of a bygone aristocracy, via the medieval splendour of the Pre-Raphaelites, the secular hagiography of Pater's Renaissance, and the fallen lords and ladies of Huysmans and Wilde. But the dandy poet of the 1920s recognized that he was cut off from those old sources of cultural power, and that they could
not be reconstructed merely by wistful art; and in his regret for the old structures or contempt for the levelling effects of the new democracy he attempted to portray, and so to surround himself with, the decorative aesthetic symbols of the old world: the elegant gardens, the exquisite fountains, the abundant afternoon teas, the precise harmonies of classical music, fine clothes and furnishings, the elegant, perfectly polite conversa tion between gentlemen and ladies of fashion. But his was no slavish connoisseurship: instead, following the cue of his Decadent uncles, the dandy poet recognized the humbug behind the social appearances he so fondled, and in order to preserve his integrity developed a wry tone for addressing that world, teasing and cajoling where he could not bow and respect. Thus he was an accepted outsider in a world of painful elegance to which he wished to belong but from which he was always distanced. Nevertheless, the emulation of those who struggled to maintain the false distinctions of the past left the poet ripe for self-mockery and witty neurosis. 12
Our archetypal dandy poets, Sitwell and Betjeman, obviously both had strong links (the former by blood, the latter by friendship) with the fading aristocracy. Perhaps because of his middle-class upbringing, Betjeman was able to portray their world of leisure and genteel relations more thoroughly than any other poet, at times with poignancy, at times with pleasant invective, and primarily in the role of a somewhat outré outsider, like the young student of Summoned By Bells who feels that he is the only man at Oxford without an ancestral country estate at which to pass the long vacation.'3 Similarly, when he turned his attention to the slightly less refined world of his parents and his childhood, he invested that lesser milieu with the delicacy, ritual and exaggerated sensitivity he had imbibed with the aristocratic spirit. The gentle irony that is so central to his poetic vision and voice is the result of his wandering between the two classes, belonging wholly to neither but loving both deeply for very different reasons. Green has remarked these complexities in his sketch of Betjeman's personal history:
Betjeman's departure from Oxford forced, in effect, a recognition of the unaristocratic nature of his own background; but the touch of dandy sensibility he had imbibed there remained with him, and profoundly
influenced the manner and imagery of his poetry. "The artificial," he has written, "became my hobby. The more artificial it was the more I liked it."'15 Such a history may account for the delicate aesthetic sensibility which informs so much of his poetry.
Sitwell, perhaps because she was born an aristocrat, felt no parallel need to dwell on the various pleasures of the post-war world of wealth, but launched instead an inspired poetic aimed at undermining that world's image of itself. She developed an iconoclastic language of paradox, wit and inversion that caputred a fervidly artificial world, a kind of refraction of the artificiality of the aristocracy of Britain after the first World War. Down to the single image, artificiality becomes the key-note of her early poetry:
These passages all evoke a world of marvellous falseness where Sitwell's satire can have its freest rein. The Betjemanesque and the Sitwellian are, therefore, two quite distinct strains of dandy poetry, the former more elegant and nostalgic, the latter more cutting and biting: if they could be united, a most powerful poetic voice would be created for the poet born with mere red blood who regrets the distant blue.
Dandy poetry is a recognizable branch of Aesthetic poetry in the modern period for all of these reasons: because it looks back to a lost time when the "innocence" of aristocratic life was assured, because it longs to recapture the former aesthetic intensities of that life, and because it finds, in the exquisite epigrams of the Decadence, proof that renegade artistic behaviour can still attract and delight a jaded aristocratic audience.
Dandy poetry, to realize these motives, developed a number of striking stylistic features. The quirky artificiality of Sitwell's verse established a norm for dandy imagery and phrasing which was much imitated by its adherents; indeed, the most famous and direct imitation in Canadian poetry, Smith's "A Hyacinth for Edith," juxtaposes a long catalogue of Sitwellian images with a more traditional triad of couplets at the end, in order to counterpoint and comment upon the dandy manner.'9 The interpolations of poetic diction necessary to that straining artificiality effect another characteristic of dandy verse: such poems tend to thicken with words, polysyllabics pile up delightedly, each noun must have its half-accurate, half-nonsensical adjective and each verb its astonishing adverb. The effect created is often of two poems crowded into the lines of one, of verbal encrustation that turns the surface of the poem into a
lapidary marvel. This quality, coupled with the dandy's fascination for line and colour, a fascination which results from his attention to the delicate symbols of the aristocratic world, gives to dandy poetry an intense formalism, related to but beyond a Flaubertian search for le motjuste or the often derivative versification of Wilde: a sense that form has been frozen in the millisecond preceding explosion, that not one word more could be added without mental danger to the reader or the craftsman. This formal intensity, of course, allies dandy poetry centrally with the poetic theory of the Decadents, and the chief formal principles of that movement.20 A final quality, perhaps accidental but very common to dandy poetry, is that of its child-likeness; when the quality of verbal play is heightened to this extent, and combined with the sensation of being a foundling in a pre-determined, highly constructed world, the result is often a fascination with childhood and a child-like wonder at the shapes, lines, colours and gestures that give life to that aristocratic world.
If these are the qualities of dandy poetry that Smith had in mind, there is ample justification for his reading of Finch's poems. In the early poetry particularly, the two volumes from the 1940s and the uncollected periodical pieces from 1925 on, the dandy voice rings out with increasing skill and assurance. Not long after Florence Livesay wrote to Raymond Knister, Finch published six poems in the Canadian Forum; although these are not much like the work of the mature artist, and require little analysis, they prefigure many of his later habits of perception and style. "A Child's Song," for instance, published in the Forum in August 1925, captures the dandy child-like note that made Finch's later poetry so distinctive:
I do not wish one lily mine!2'
In the company of this Milne-like jingle, "The Quaint Need," also uncollected, surrenders its superficial bitterness and a deeper playfulness instead becomes apparent:
Finch's confidence about his form is apparent. The nursery rhyme stanza is subtly informed by a mockery of social conventions which exposes just as
wryly the nature of the speaker as the romantic demands of the particular girl. A suggestive pun on "quaint" is present, especially since only "floods and floods" can satisfy her "quaint need" here; such a sexual allusion would not be incompatible with the mocking tone of the poem, and would serve to give Finch's effort, however slight, more rootedness in flesh and blood. It takes no little courage to riddle so simple a stanza with so potent a suggestiveness; the more sensitive we are to such levels of potential interpretation in these "light verses," the closer we shall come to an appreciation of Finch's purpose as a poet.
Most importantly, the lilies of "A Child's Song" and the "little fist of buds" in "The Quaint Need" prefigure one of the prevalent symbols of Finch's poetic career; his fascination with flowers, especially as vessels for the finer emotions, with their form, their scent, their colours, and with the personal delicacy required to gather them. Thus "The Lilac Gatherer,"
another little known Forum publication, makes of the clipping of flowers a pseudo-metaphysical inquiry:
The flower emblem survives throughout Finch's development. The most cursory reader of Poems and The Strength of the Hills will easily remark the "ubiquity" of roses and lilies in Finch's world, and those who peruse later volumes will recognize the blooms in them for traditional Finch imagery. Anyone, indeed, may write about a rose; but when flowers become a dominating motif of a poet's work, and incite in him some of his most profound and skillful utterances, the reader will necessarily suspect himself to be in the company of a highly sensitive, aesthetically delicate artist. Flowers, in their amoral, purposeless, exquisite beauty, are after all logical symbols of the Aesthetic mentality.
But the most significant element of "The Lilac Gatherer" is that we see in it the earliest manifestation of Finch's later style. The urgency of diction in the third line ("Here, there, there, here, a spike, a spire") with its alliterative and assonantal play prefigures the techniques of such better-known poems as "The Statue" and "The Fans."24 As well, the "quick squeaks" of the "ubiquitous" scissors are faintly Sitwellian, and produce that odd aural/visual refraction which we have associated with the dandy manner. Furthermore, the overwrought alliteration of "lilac trees than merely love for lilac" produces the effect of phonic tension that I have referred to as pre-explosive. Given the uncharacteristically simple style of the earlier poems, we may consider "The Lilac Gatherer" to manifest his initial attempt at the complicated manner of his first volumes.
Finch published nothing in the Forum between 1925 and 1929; his return to the magazine with "Emma Jane," "Daphne" and "Furniture" in the latter year25 shows the extension of these early preoccupations, with a more complex style that the intervening years (those in the Sorbonne) had presumably encouraged. But it is not until "Normandy Mantelpiece,"
published in 1930 in the Forum, that Finch moves beyond the verbal success of "The Lilac Gatherer" to the visual preoccupations of his later career. Particularly entrancing has been his exploration of oddly distorted rooms, interiors whose formal patterns break and refract as the specialized consciousness of the poet moves on. So by means of rapid and obviously Sitwellian juxtapositions, the visual logic of "Normandy Mantelpiece" is suspended, and the sheer force of verbal technique takes control:
The image of the mantelpiece is eventually lost in the free visual associations, with an intricacy of sound and unreality of imagery that suggests the manner of Laforgue (Finch had spent his years at the Sorbonne buried in the study of French poetry, albeit with an earlier focus than the nineteenth century); the mental progress is absurdist, the only clear sense of interior provided by the "à gauche. . au milieu. . . droite" structure linking the stanzas.
Reflecting the indoor distortions of "Normandy Mantelpiece" is the roughly contemporary Headmaster's Drawing Room," in which a queer aesthetic vision stolen by a young teacher renders him incompetent in the real world: after opening the door never to be opened (a common motif from fairy tales, of course), he sees, "Thin-nosed and haughty a / Heavily jewelled and / Palpably noble dame," who addresses him:
After the resultant dismissal of the young man, "Judged quite incompe tent," from the school, the "truth" of his aristocratic vision is confirmed:
"the Queen of all" was no private fantasy, but something higher, the genius loci of an aesthetic world not intended for the undeserving:
The blue-blooded lady destroys the unaristocratic intruder, who has crashed by accident into the world over which she rules, a mystical relic of an age of wonders. The poem is pure dandyism, and with it Finch closes the 1920s on an artistic note which has stayed with him to the present day.
From this point of Finch's development to the New Provinces material there is not far to go. Gradually through the early 1930s his range of imagery extended, and he enriched the possibilities of the dandy style he had adopted. By the publication of New Provinces in 1936, we recognize glimpses of the Finch of the 1940s, "whose elegant dandiacal poems" Smith so much admired. "Window-piece," from the 1936 venture, typifies the manner at its best:
Notice the implications of class distinctions in "periwigs" and "stoles," and how quietly that word "rococo" establishes the mood of an upper class: note also, and perhaps most significantly, that the "lily-pool" is in disuse: it is winter, of course, but a strange sense of failure is evoked in these images of an elegant garden.
These rich patterns of imagery are not, of course, the only virtue of Finch's work in the landmark collection. He had also mastered the oddities of syntax and sound glimpsed in "The Lilac Gatherer" in good time for the appearance of New Provinces; consider the concluding quatrain of "Beauty My Fond Fine Care":
The rich Aestheticism of the poem is certainly worth remarking; it is crossed with the interweaving dandy style to produce a remarkable hybrid which captures the essence of Finch's poetry. The style is never adopted mechanically; despite the complex aural echoes of "The Five Kine," for instance, we recognize a degree of restraint which was unnecessary in "Beauty":
Such skill characterizes Finch's style at its most rewarding. The patterns of alliteration, assonance, rhythm and metre which enrich this distinctive style are by no means so haphazard as they may at first appear; but I shall temporarily defer a discussion of their conscious manipulation by Finch, in order to comment further upon the necessary development of imagery and visual richness which took place between the New Provinces poems and the volumes that appeared in the late forties.
For one has the impression from Finch's New Provinces work, despite its skill, of a poet with an uncertain sense of his purpose, as if he had not yet found the means to unite a mastered style with the symbols arising from his early development. No doubt this is due in part to the editors' efforts to show the variety of themes and styles tackled by the new poets. But the presence of two rather tentative free verse pieces signals, in this cacophonous collection, a certain uneasiness, a hovering on the edge of artistic maturity, which prevents the reader's full absorption in Finch's poetry. Nevertheless, just such a maturity was to inspire the Poems of 1946, a volume containing a series of minor masterpieces and (famous attacks by John Sutherland to the contrary) clearly deserving the notice of the Canadian literary community. When, for instance, he applies his recognizable style to his long-established fondness for unusual interiors, Finch renders half-sketched, delicate rooms and blends them with open air, sunlight, snowfall or the coming on of night, so that the eye drifts in and out, nature mixing with interior in haunting harmony, as in "Petit
So technically skilful is Finch's interweaving of interior and nature that it is difficult at first to discern that in "Petit Lever" the interior "exists," is part of the reality that he seeks to capture, whereas in "The Smile" it offers a cluster of metaphors for natural movements and rhythms, and has no presence. It is the sharp eye and unique style of Finch that can recognize associations between the lines and colours of tasteful rooms and the shifting forms of the world, and the perception of those associations is one of the most striking gifts we are given by his poetry.
As "Headmaster's Drawing Room" suggests, however, it is not merely the elegant interior that transfixes the poet, but also the manners and niceties of the men and women who live there: the blue-blooded lady is one with her setting, and she is as much the focus of the poem as her bizarre catalogue of Sitwellian images. So "The Sisters," also in Poems, evokes the highly precise world of the afternoon tea, but renders it particularly by half-glimpses of persons caught up in its refinements:
Throughout the fine social world of the "invisible" tea, the Rose blooms and pours forth beauty into the air by scent and sight, opening and closing daily in what seems an immortal round of decline and rebirth. But the poem soon draws away from the tea, and into a meditation on the process of time and its relations with beauty:
Nevertheless, the poem closes on a note of decay and loss: the rose is prized, acclaimed, cut from its stem; the interference of the ghostly appreciators destroys the timelessness of the rose's triumph.
Thus into the world of elegant settings and wondrous nature (the Tea, the rose) the people of refined taste intrude, and bring about demise and aesthetic failure. The closely controlled irony of the conclusion of "The Sisters" makes it clear that the poet is outside of the Tea looking in, partly delighted by the lines of motion and delicacy he perceives, and partly ironic about its pretensions: wherefore the rose, the true source of elegance and beauty, is mourned.
The poet's dual function as recorder of and interloper in the refined world is heightened and dramatized in "Scroll Section." More direct in its aesthetic purposes than "The Sisters," "Scroll Section" nevertheless poses similar questions by arguing for the elegance and beauty of natural wonders against the artificial, over-determined pursuits of the person of leisure and yet with what fondness Finch poses the splendid creations of a dandified world upon his page:
The poet urges the owner of this marvellously
artificial collection to come away. The poem has already opened with a clear and ironic
statement of the owner's predilections:
These are perhaps odd alternatives to the artificial menagerie that is to be left behind; they are, however, symbolically rather than merely decora tively meaningful, differing from the artificiality of malachite lion and petrified pets by rising from nature and myth, not from lapidary and sculpture. The intention of all this imperative richness is that the owner shall achieve a new art: that he or she shall reject "tea music calligraphy and checkers" in order to
The romantic naturalism of these artistic ends clarifies the role of the "salmon," "dragon" and "phoenix" the salmon in its "rainbow" glitter, the dragon and phoenix as mythic beasts, are half-way towards the "natural supernaturalism" of the final landscapes, and half-way away from the artificial constructs of the enclosed and dandified world. In this sense the poem progresses away from the post-aristocratic and back to the naturalistic-romantic, the "elegant occupations" of art being redeemed and revivified thereby.
The chief features of these early poems the perceptions of the child, the elegant and refined interiors, the flashing of artificial imagery, the playing of Art over the appearances of things form the consistent stuff of Finch's poetry. While he may wander away from the aristocratic world into a setting of mere tastefulness, more middle-class than dandyish, in later volumes; while the willingness to sound child-like may dissipate some what, and the fondness for odd twists of imagery weaken, the poems of Robert Finch always contain a determined elegance and verbal highlight-
ing that arises early in his development, whatever subject he approaches with his fastidious mind. To be sure, what he has captured in his early verse largely by effects of style moves by more logical thought, syntactically regular, in the later poems. Yet his concerns are the same:
how may artistic form be used to reflect the meaning the poet wishes to
relate or to create, and yet remain pure form, free of morality and philosophy, tending primarily towards beauty and wonder? It is not difficult to appreciate the peculiarities of style which permit Finch to toy with the question; he is one of the most stylized Canadian poets, manipulating rhythms and sound to substantiate his dandy themes in a variety of ways; but I should like to pursue his style a little further, to prove that an independent study of it leads to the same conclusions as those drawn by Smith.
Few poets have made of sheer formalism the virtuoso performance which distinguishes the work of Finch. This quality has attracted most of the attention of critics who have commented on his poetry; Earle Birney referred to the "impeccability and deceitful simplicity of form" which characterizes his work;35 Roy Daniells has remarked that "les formes de l'art de Finch ... restent dans leur propre monde d'artifice, un monde brillant, qui est hors du temps."36 Daniells considers that "L'art de Finch est du rococo sous la forme la plus soumise. C'est un art de surface et d'incrustation, d'adroite marqueterie et d'habile cloisonnement, un vernis crépitant."37 There is one fundamental reason for these formal properties, and it is not surprising that A.J.M. Smith, with his remarkable sensitivity to Finch's achievement, was the one to hit upon it when he discussed Finch's best known poem, "The Statue":
As the Decadent poets demonstrate so well, when art is thought to be the supreme object of humankind, the surface of the work of art rises in significance in relation to the "depth," or meaning or content, of the work; whence arises a comment like Wilde's, that "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written or badly written. That is all."39 What the critics have noticed in the formalism of Finch is the result of these principles of art, and confirms, incidentally, the relationship of dandy to Decadent and Aesthetic poetry.
The first and most obvious formal characteristic of Finch's poetry to strike the reader is its determined traditionalism. In the modern era, what seems an obvious point always deserves to be highlighted, for the use of traditional forms in the 20th century is always, on the part of a well-read
poet, a deliberate choice: not necessarily a regression, but a refusal of certain forms of progression popularized in his time. Even in his early periodical pieces, where we might expect the young Finch to have felt most sharply the formal revolutions occurring in contemporary English poetry, there is only a little playing about with form; "The Lilac Gatherer," for instance, has the appearance of a sonnet, but has dropped one of the requisite fourteen lines and turned to blank verse; "Normandy Mantel piece" plays with absurdist rhymes and regulated line length, the resulting tension shoring up the dandy tone; "Headmaster's Drawing Room" abandons rhyme but holds so fast to a particularly unusual metre (dactylic dimeter) that the effect of traditionalism is cheekily carried off. Each of these early poems, while toying with modern effects, safely anchors its form in traditional poetics; only then does the poet feel comfortable in dropping a rhyme, or varying a highly regularized metre. By the publication of his first volume, however, Finch appeared to have resolved the formal issue; while one may find in Poems the rare piece of free verse ("Sea Piece," "Sampler"),40 the majority of the work is in traditional forms, sonnets, closely rhymed quatrains, with vigorous but regular metrical structures throughout. These forms also prevail in the many volumes that follow.
The formal traditionalism of Finch cannot be too emphasized. It is in the context of such restrained form that his stylistic innovations are released, as necessary resistances to mere derivative traditionalism. Hence a constant tension in his poetry between the traditional container and the modern (in this case, dandy) contents, a tension that produces his particular achievement. A number of stylistic features contribute to the modern pull in this tug-of-war: the encrustation of word upon word so that the surface of the poem appears to teem with verbal life; the abrupt, surprising, dandy images arising from such clutter; the manipulation of rhythms hovering between the ultra-traditional and the farcical; a strong sense of phonic effect; and the use of rich internal rhyme and frequent repetition to make the surface of the poem seem closely determined and long worked in upon itself. Thus "Petit Lever" (quoted above) opens with "The drifting curtain is uncurtaining dawn," the repetition of "curtain" thickening and slowing the line, while the [k] and [d] alliteration binds the line together; "Drowsily" from the second line picks up the alliteration, and with two present participles ("rising" and "waiting") links it to the phonic effect of the first, as do "shredding" and "sheeting" in the third, which two also serve as an internal half-rhyme. The fourth line of the quatrain drops these hard consonantal patterns to replace them with fricatives, sibilants and liquids, "mists," "fray," "linen" and "lawn". The consonance of the last two nouns highlights their passing into one another, also one of the chief visual effects of the poem.
The opening quatrain of "The Sisters" displays not dissimilar techniques:
The phonic interweaving of the stanza is astonishing. Long and short vowels echo and play against one another, and promote frequent internal rhymes which unite the middle of the second line with the rhyme of the first and third; sibilants and nasals ("sisters", "rose") run counter to one another: and yet how simple, even disingenuous, the stanza seems, as though the entire series of thoughts were uttered without thought. Partly this is due to the tongue-in-cheek "or that, or this" at the end, as though the poet could not be troubled to specify; but it is above all due to the metre and rhythm of the piece, the latter playing against the former delightedly. Each line drops a syllable from a decasyllabic line, setting up expectations of traditional metre; but the dropped syllable forces new rhythms on the remaining nine, so that they bounce and pull towards and away from one another in the ghost of the decasyllabic line. Scanned, the quatrain reveals its peculiarities: the free-floating unstressed syllable in each line has united with an iamb to create an incidental anapest, which shifts from the fourth foot in the first line to the third in the second and third lines, to the second in the final line. This unanchored anapest creates the quality of rhythm in the quatrain: it undercuts the regularity of the metre by poising it in limbo between tetrameter and pentameter, while the inherent liveliness of the trisyllabic foot within the disyllabic pattern, by promoting the effect of looseness and clutter at once, provides the typical effect of Finch's rhythms, playful, relaxed and instinctive.
Perhaps the opening quatrain of "The Statue" offers his most skilful example of such metrical play:
Here the free alternation of iambs and anapests creates the primary rhythmic pattern of the poem, with infrequent unstressed syllables floating in to alter the effect as necessary. It is no accident that the number of syllables in each line varies so little: Finch purposely pulls towards and away from the formal metre, but always hovers close enough that the overall effect is one of traditional form being toyed with, rather than free form being somewhat regularized. Because of this constant effect of "toying," Finch's formal and stylistic habits reinforce the dandyish images and sentiments he often wishes to capture.
Many unusual verbal techniques inform "The Statue" as well. Smith referred to the "Keystone comedy of the chase,"43 and that comment captures with remarkable accuracy the visual effect Finch achieves. The rhythms noted are in part responsible, but so are the diction ("rustle," not rush or run), the rhyme ("statue ... watch you"), the peppered indefinite articles which switch to definites in the final line. It will be apparent once
again that Finch was a remarkably conscious poet who used an extremely deliberate craft to create the effects we perceive in his work, effects of sound, rhythm and voice which we may speak of quite accurately as dandy qualities. For corroboration, similarly intense qualities of style can be found easily in his other early poems: see "Bees, Thistles and Sea," "Over," "The Treasure" and "The Economy of Sorrow" in Poems,44 and "Between," "Part of Time" and "A Word" in The Strength of the Hills.45
All of these stylistic features help Finch, of course, to "pull off" the dandy voice in his poetry. In the atmosphere engendered by his heavily encrusted style, the dandy images of "Scroll Section" and "Headmaster's Drawing Room" appear less artificial than they might, more in keeping with the poetic climate one encounters at every turn. Similarly, in the later "Turning," when we come across lines like these:
I suggest that we accept their validity partly because the style Finch has adopted through so much of his work seems to support them. In poems so heavy with repetition and internal rhyme, so rich with alliteration and assonance, with such startling rhythms lounging and bouncing through traditional metres, the pigeons that "pinkly drift on smoky sails" in "Doubt's Holiday," or the "hippic pinions" in "The Flight that Failed,"47 appear as images that have chanced together, adjective and noun colliding by accident because of the intense stylistic play of the poems.
Similarly, when Finch wishes to emphasize the Betjemanesque elegant-nostalgic rather than the Sitwellian ironic-playful, his stylistic abilities support him just as well: by softening the phonic effects slightly, and restraining the jollity of the rhythms somewhat, he can capture the precision of an elegant milieu and render it ghostly or faintly disturbing, as he sees fit:
It will surprise no one that Finch, the true dandy outsider in the post-aristocratic world, is but a "week-end guest" in this refined setting.
A similar restraint of his typical style gives to "Weather" the same ironic wistfulness. An irresponsible and unkind gesture on the part of his beloved began long ago a deterioration of their love, a splendid affair that the speaker now remembers with ambivalent regret:
Even in the midst of painful memory, the dandy poet dwells lovingly on the "emeralds" and other "jewels" that shone on that "Italian day"; reporting them brings a quality of comfort the comfort of lapidary art to his nostalgic meditations. The speaker of Finch's poetry is often such a wry, lightly sorrowing and aesthetically sensitive man; while his poetry is not as immediately similar to Betjeman's as it is to Sitwell's, one might suggest without exaggeration that the two male poets shared the spirit of a distinctive sub-culture of the 1920s. Perhaps Finch is at his most striking, however, when his typical style is applied to his fascination with the alluring forms of external nature as in "Petit Lever" and "The Smile," where the lines of rooms pass into the curves of nature, so that the two are indistinguishable, and in "The Pair," where
The fountain leans against the willow, Foam lash on bent billow, Ice mace on winged pillow;
The willow soars beside the fountain;
Both the cloud that each is pent in
Plume the autumn they lament in.
Fountain and willow, like style and symbol, blend into a perfect formal harmony. We know, if we read "The Pair" sensitively, that we are dealing with a poet of such extreme devotion to Form, whether verbal, poetic, natural or psychological, that we can hardly do better than to study his form and style for clues to his meaning and mind. The ways in which he manipulates his formalism make us appreciate him as a dandy poet; and as precisely that kind of poet who can unite the Betjemanesque and the Sitwellian characters, to produce what may be, for sheer uniqueness, the most distinctive body of work in Canadian Modernist poetry.
The theoretical relations that exist between dandy poetry and its Aesthetic and Decadent prefigurations are evident in much of Finch's poetry. It is because of these original relations after all that he is so preoccupied with formal matters, since the purification of form, and the removal of style from mundane moral claims, that were the cardinal themes of Aestheti cism, figure also in the aesthetic developments undertaken by all Modernists. We find him, therefore, concerned to discover the essence of art, desiring a stunning purity in each verbal effort, and eager, as Smith noted, to make of art the lapidary "stillness" at the heart of all moving trouble. So in "The Reticent Phrase" he wishes to know, "Aptness shall come from whence, reticent phrase, / to tinge precisely your pellucid wave?"51 So his "The Poem" defines itself as
A shape to hold the form begun to bloom
In the intensive arbour of the brain
With flower and fruit it could not bear at home...52
and so "From a Hammock" calls up visions of the world of Finch's imagination,
That holds both vision and the viewed
Fixed, in a soundless solitude
Whose brilliant exile, for the heart,
Is, and not makes, a work of art.53
Each of the three poems is concerned with the precise world of art, the supreme and distant world where Form gathers enough potency to strike the mundane reader with its splendours. While it is not possible to capture that essence exactly, as Finch's "Inmost" makes clear,54 nevertheless the effort of approximation is to be valued (his poetry teaches us) as the best effort of fumbling, creative man. If we are sensitive to these qualities of art, we may appreciate life as a collection of vivid forms, which in turn will renew our sense of perception and our devotion to beauty. In this context it is not surprising to see Finch express, in "For Then," perceptions of time and beauty rather typical of his Aesthetic forebears, but with the stylistic and visual qualities of the dandy conventions he has developed:
When time shall let the little crows
Stamp his departure on your brows
You will be lovely, lovelier still
Than when upon life's highest hill
For the first time you blest my eyes
In endless sequence of surprise.
I did not find caress and cling
Until I saw your dress, your gold,
Transfigured and personified
By your significance inside.55
Thus by infusing the lovely forms associated with his beloved with the sense and essence of her person, he is able to reassure her about the passage of Time and how it shall disturb her beauty; most significantly, it is her gown, not her body, that reveals the truth and captures the comfort he wishes to pass on.
When you are very very old
I know your gown will crisp and fold
Affectionately thus and so
As did your gowns of long ago
And when I see you I shall say
How beautiful you are today.
The poet is entirely unself-conscious about guaranteeing her future beauty by relating it to her "gowns"; Finch understands how much we live and love through our adoration of visible forms, and how little we really perceive that is of the essence in love. Thus poetry, which he has demonstrated to be devoted to perfection of form but doomed not to realize it,is to Finch a perfect container for the emotion of love, which is also an essence dressed in forms which cannot quite capture it. Acknowledgement of this potentially disturbing fact enables the poet to transcend Time itself; we may pass from the world, but beautiful forms shall always endure. If this is so, it is the poet's duty to see and to hold them. Finch knows the dangers of this intense formalism: he refuses to live entirely by forms, or to accept them as the sufficient medium of life, since that reduces all meaning to gesture, all emotion to physicality. Those who live so live at their own peril; his "The Painters" chides the Dorian Grays of the world, content to cover with a youthful smile all the evil they do.
A man's life is his portrait. Not till death
He sees his portrait mirrored in the past
With the first brush-stroke vivid as the last...
The impartial portrait never flatters, good,
Bad, indifferent, it renders trait for trait.56
Though "the painters" fool themselves, they cannot fool "the painted fact I Where every overt and covert stroke is scored." Some people, however, are spared for their good efforts, and presumably for a sense of the way forms reveal the essence of things: "The many paint their lives as they have spent them. I The few spend them as they would wish to paint them." Thus Finch rescues his ideas from total dependence on superficies by insisting on the implicit ethical relations between the surface and the substance, even if all we may know and deal with is the form of any action. In this sense, he draws back from "sheer" Aestheticism, by investing the gown of "For Then" with hints of the woman's essence, which gives it what value it has. But it will be noted nevertheless, especially given the remarkable similarity between the theme of "The Painters" and that of Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, that many of the issues with which Finch struggles are the issues of Aestheticism; this implies no hedonism or frippery; those who would define Aestheticism as purely hedonistic formalism must side embarrassingly with Wilde's prosecutors, who could not see the painfully obvious moral in his novel. It would take more than the present effort to prove what "The Painters" suggests, that the dandy poets of the 1920s and 1930s were the direct heirs of Aestheticism. But it will be evident that Finch's dandyism, at least, involves opinions of art which he held in common with the French Symbolistes and the English Aesthetes and Decadents. While he de monstrates, therefore, one interesting example of the various theoretical and practical links between Aestheticism and Modernism, he does so in a most significant manner: few other poets of the Canadian Modernist generation developed so distinctive a voice, or broached so consistent an aesthetic attitude. To exemplify in this way a quality of the British literary mainstream, and yet to turn it to such unique advantage, is to fulfill a significant role in a nation's literary history; and it may be that once the pre-history of Canadian Modernism is further detailed, the poetry of Robert Finch will be accorded more respect and study than the present thin bibliography of criticism of his work can provide.
1 Florence Livesay to Raymond Knister, 16/5/24, Box 45, Folder #4, Knister Papers, Queen's University Archives, Kingston, Ontario. For permission to quote from this letter I am grateful to Mrs. Imogen Givens. 2 A.J.M. Smith, "Canadian Poetry A Minority Report", University of Toronto Quarterly, 8 (1939), Pp. 136-37. 3 A.J.M. Smith, "Confessions of a Compulsive Anthologist", Journal of Canadian Studies, 11, #2 (May, 1976), p. 5. 4 See, for example, Smith's "Symbolism in Poetry", McGill Fortnightly Review, 5 Dec. 1925, pp. 11-12, 16; the conclusion to his "Contemporary Poetry", McGill Fortnightly Review, 15 Dec. 1926, pp. 31-32; his "The Quest for Beauty", McGill Daily Literary Supplement, 22 Oct. 1924, P. 2, in which he quotes familiarly from Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and his first translation of Gautier's "Chinoiserie", McGill Daily Literary Supplement, 4 Mar. 1925. 5 Martin Green, Children of the Sun: A Narrative of 'Decadence' in England After 1915 (New York: Basic Books, 1977). 6 A.J.M. Smith, "Homage to E.S.", McGill Fortnightly Review, 2 Feb. 1927, p. 34. 7 See, for example, the theoretical efforts of E.B. Burgum, "Walter Pater and the Good Life", Sewanee Review, 40 (1932), pp. 276-293; Franklin E. Court, "Virtue Sought 'As a Hunter His Sustenance': Pater's 'Amoral Aesthetic' ", English Literary History, 40 (1973), pp. 549-563; Russell M. Goldfarb, "The Dowson Legend Today", Studies in English Literature 1500-1900,4(1964), pp. 653-662; John Allan Quintus, "The Moral Implications of Oscar Wilde's Aestheticism", Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 22 (1980), pp. 559-574; and Ruth Z. Temple, "Truth in Labelling: Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism, Decadence, Fin-de-siècle", English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, 17, #4 (1974), pp. 201-222. 8 John Betjeman, Collected Poems (Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1971), p. 106 ("A Subaltern's Love Song"). 9 Betjeman, Collected Poems, p. 45 ("Death of King George V"). 10 Betjeman, Collected Poems, p. 52 ("Cheltenham"). 11 Betjeman, Collected Poems, p. 76 ("Sir John Piers, I: The Fete Champetre"). 12 This absorption with the appearance of the aristocratic distinguishes modern dandyism, though, from such earlier Aesthetes as Pater, to whom the aristocratic soul was the redeeming feature of an otherwise exploitative social system. To Pater, such a soul resided chiefly in the artistic genius of any age; while subject, of course, to the social system of which he formed a part, the artist is responsible for perpetuating a high standard of culture through the ages. "Individual genius works ever under conditions of time and place: its products are coloured by the varying aspects of nature, and type of human form, and outward manners of life.. . But besides these conditions of time and place, and independent of them, there is also an element of permanence, a standard of taste, which genius confesses. This standard is maintained in a purely intellectual tradition. It acts upon the artist, not as one of the influences of his own age, but through those artistic products of the previous generation, which first excited, while they directed into a particular channel, his sense of beauty." It is not, therefore, the political but the cultural aristocrat by whom we judge an ancient society: hence the method of Pate r's Renaissance. Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry / The 1893 Text, ed. Donald L. Hill (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1980), p. 158. Compare this noble ideal, moreover, with Wilde's cultivation of the fashionable dining tables of England before his personal tragedy: he was the brash intruder, whose fond disrespect briefly titillated an aristocratic audience facing obsolescence. Clearly the modern dandy's ambivalent role is prefigured in the Decadent, rather than the Aesthetic, aristocratic ideal. 13 John Betjeman, Summoned By Bells (London: John Murray, 1960), pp. 109-110. 14 Green, Children of the Sun, pp. 181-184. 15 John Betjeman, "An Aesthete's Apologia", in Ghastly Good Taste (1933; rpt. London: Anthony Blond, 1970), p. xix. 16 Edith Sitwell, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 16. 17 Sitwell, Collected Poems, p. 9. 18 Sitwell, Collected Poems, p. 40. 19 A.J.M. Smith, Poems New and Collected (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 14-15. 20 ". . . An intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement Arthur Symons, "The Decadent Movement in Litera ture", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 87 (Nov. 1893), pp. 866-867. 21 Robert Finch, "A Child's Song", Canadian Forum, 5 (Aug. 1925), p. 335. 22 Robert Finch, "The Quaint Need", Canadian Forum, 5 (Aug. 1925), p. 335. 23 Robert Finch, "The Lilac-Gatherer", Canadian Forum, 5 (Jun. 1925), p. 272. 24 Robert Finch, Poems (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 3, 8. 25 Robert Finch, "Daphne", "Emma Jane", "Furniture", Canadian Forum, 9 (Jan. 1929), 26 p. 125. Robert Finch, "Normandy Mantelpiece", Canadian Forum, 10 (Feb. 1930), p. 169. 27 Robert Finch, "Headmaster's Drawing Room", Canadian Forum, 10 (May, 1930), p. 283. 28 Robert Finch, "Window Piece", in New Provinces: Poems of SeveralAuthors, ed. F.R. Scott (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936), p. 4. 29 Robert Finch, "Beauty My Fond Fine Care", in New Provinces, p. 3. 30 Robert Finch, "The Five Kine", in New Provinces, p. 1. 31 Finch, Poems, pp. 6-7. 32 Finch, Poems, p. 9. 33 Finch, Poems, p. 12. 34 Finch, Poems, p. 34. 35 A.E[rarle]. Birney, "Poetry of Robert Finch", Canadian Poetry Magazine, 10 (Mar. 1947), p. 7. Birney also makes the connection between Finch and Sitwell. 36 Roy Daniells, "Earie Birney et Robert Finch", Gants du Ciel, 11 (1946), p. 95. 37 Daniells, "Earle Birney et Robert Finch", p. 91. 38 A.J.M. Smith, "Turning New Leaves", Canadian Forum, 27 (May, 1947), p. 42. 39 Oscar Wilde, "Preface" to The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Robert Ross, in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, 12 vols. (1909; rpt. London: Dawson's of Pall Mall, 1969), p. ix. 40 Finch, Poems, pp. 5, 13. 41 Finch, Poems, p. 12. 42 Finch, Poems, p. 3. 43 See note 38, Above. 44 Finch, Poems, pp. 3-4, 28, 30-3 1, 39. 45 Robert Finch, The Strength of the Hills (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1948), pp. 23, 29, 101. _____
46 Robert Finch, Acts in Oxford and Other Poems (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1961), p. 43.
47 Finch, Poems, pp. 4, 27.
48 Finch, Poems, p. 26 ("Weekend").
49 Finch, Poems, p. 29.
50 Finch, Strength of the Hills, p. 30.
51 Finch, Poems, p. 32.
52 Finch, Poems, p. 33.
53 Finch, Strength of the Hills, p. 51.
54 Finch, Strength of the Hills, p. 102.
55 Finch, Strength of the Hills, p. 84.
56 Finch, Strength of the Hills, p. 97.
There are two sisters, one is a rose,And no one knows what the other is.