First among the new poems in his Collected Poems (1997) Edgar Bowers placed “John,” a remembrance of an otherwise nameless poet, dead from “the disease.” This tactful anonymity lends power to the elegy without diminishing the sense of personal loss. I’ve since learned the poem’s subject is the poet John Finlay, who died of AIDS in 1991, age fifty. The poem is solemn and generous in praise, never mawkish or pleading. His teacher, Yvor Winters, said Bowers “was still a great devotional poet, but of a sort that George Herbert would not have understood.” Finlay is not a martyr, a political victim, but a friend and poet gone too soon. I’ve just learned that Bowers’ final lines refer to the poem Finlay dictated to his sister in his final months. Here are the closing lines of “John”:
“Then, on his darkened eye, he saw himself
A compact disk awhirl, played by the light
He came from and was ready to reenter,
But not before he chose the way to go.
And so it was, before his death, he spoke
The poem that is his best, the final letter
To take to that old country as a passport.”
The “final letter” is Finlay’s “A Prayer to the Father”:
“Death is not far from me. At times I crave
The peace I think that it will bring. Be brave,
I tell myself, for soon your pain will cease.
But terror still obtains when our long lease
On life ends at last. Body and soul
Which fused together should make up one whole
Suffer deprived as they are wrenched apart.
O God of love and power, hold still my heart
When death, that ancient, awful fact appears;
Preserve my mind from all deranging fears,
And let me offer up my reason free
And where I thought, there see Thee perfectly.”
Bowers was denied the comforts of faith Finlay finally embraced, but remained a “religious” poet of deep seriousness. His empathy was large and forgiving. His admiration for Finlay embodies the notion of friendship described by Samuel Johnson in The Rambler #64:
“…friendship, compounded of esteem and love, derives from one its tenderness, and its permanence from the other; and therefore requires not only that its candidates should gain the judgment, but that they should attract the affections; that they should not only be firm in the day of distress, but gay in the hour of jollity; not only useful in exigencies, but pleasing in familiar life; their presence should give cheerfulness as well as courage, and dispel alike the gloom of fear and of melancholy.”
[Go here for a fine remembrance of Finlay by his friend and editor David Middleton.]