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A gay poet and Catholic convert, John Martin Finlay depicted his struggle with faith and sexuality

Views Nick Bowen / March 20, 2024 Print this:
John Martin Finlay, the Catholic poet born southern Alabama in 1941, is seen in the mid-1960s. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/John Martin Finlay Literary Estate)

The tragic legacy of the poet John Martin Finlay (1941-1991) lies in how his work has languished into obscurity. As a devout Catholic, a gay man, an agrarian and a Southerner, Finlay remains a complicated figure to parse and his work often deals with dark and morose topics. His poetry can be divided between his pre-conversion and his post-conversion periods, with the latter arguably considered the stronger body of work.

A common theme that encompasses his poetry is a fear of physical and spiritual degradation. This is best illuminated through his poems, “The Bog Sacrifice,” which he wrote after his trip to Europe and prior to his conversion to Catholicism, and the devastating “To a Victim of AIDS,” which he wrote in his final years as he slowly died from complications of the disease.

Despite his conversion, both poems embody Finlay’s ultimate fear of non-Christian societies, reflected through the terrifying landscapes of the natural world, the presence of demonic deities and the desecration of flesh. In Finlay’s mind, only a Christian society could withstand the threats paganism and secularism posed to the individual and to civilization.  

As a devout Catholic, a gay man, an agrarian and a Southerner, Finlay remains a complicated figure to parse through.

A poetry of madness and disease

Finlay’s fear of madness, which he associated with godlessness, was ultimately a personal horror. Severe mental illness afflicted Finlay’s family: his grandfather was admitted to the same mental institution that later employed Finlay. During his tenure, Finlay took extensive notes that informed his own poetry, depicting characters as rational heroes like Sherlock Holmes or as lunatics in turmoil, like the patients in “The Locked Wards.” To Finlay, hell was something mankind was prone to create for themselves. 

Finlay’s book The Hermetic Light: Essays on Gnostic Spirit on Modern Literature and Thought describes his reading of eminent Gnostic thinkers as a “journey through hell.” Whether it was from his own generational struggle with mental illness or what he witnessed as society’s dip into the paganistic world of “The Bog Sacrifice” or the secularist ideologies of “To a Victim of AIDS,” Finlay found that Catholicism offered structure and clarity to an otherwise chaotic and hysterical world.

If the monk in his poem, “Autobiography of a Benedictine” epitomizes a balanced, rational worldview—an icon to aspire towards—the aforementioned poems examined here represent the antithesis: two lost souls on the brink of death and insanity.

In his forward to Dense Poems and Socratic Light, critic and friend David Middleton writes, “Among Finlay’s most poignant and tragic figures are those who, through madness or disease, allow us to see beyond their suffering and unawareness the divinely ordained, objective moral grounding of the world.”

Unable to achieve this enlightenment, the characters of “The Bog Sacrifice” and “To a Victim of AIDS” are sacrificed to unjust, hellish fates to alleviate the communal sufferings of a world in need of a savior.

Finlay found that Catholicism offered structure and clarity to an otherwise chaotic and hysterical world.

A practicing agrarian, Finlay believed that humanity’s happiness depended on forsaking urbanization for a return to its farming roots. Raised on a peanut farm and dying on the same land 50 years later, Finlay always felt a special kinship to the natural world. In the Catholic imagination, man and nature work in unity to form the rational, whereas nature by itself tends to be depicted as paganistic and dangerous.

A dim view of the secular world

Finlay’s contempt for the Romantic poets exemplifies this philosophy. The danger of the sublime echoes in the Northern European swamp of “The Bog Sacrifice,” with its indifference for the dead. Juxtaposed to the wicked pagan wilderness is Finlay’s depiction of a secular world unable to control its urge to hyper-analyze and obliterate the environment for its own selfish indulgences. This mindset is reflected in both the sterile hospital chambers and the musty, carnal crevices of New Orleans’ nightlife in “To a Victim of AIDS.”

“The Bog Sacrifice” was inspired by the Tollund Man, whom Finlay encountered during his travels through Europe between 1972 and 1974. More than 2,000 years old, the Tollund Man is the preserved remains of man that historians posit was among the many ritually murdered for the promise of Spring during the Iron Age. The first stanza of Finlay’s poem offers a peaceful description of a natural world unmoved by the death of the young man trapped in the bog.

Dark implications arise from the “iron and acid” water, a chemical reaction that leads to the figure’s preservation and to its hellish torments. The “rising and falling” winter winds suggest the rise and fall of civilizations that brought the bog man to the present day imprisoned in his watery purgatory. Finlay highlights the monstrousness of the primitive era describing the pit as “sweating like an ancient beast.”

This poem recollects the Roman writer, Tacitus, whose book, The Germanica, inspired Finlay. Much of the book is spent othering and dehumanizing the German people, whom the Romans regarded as unconquered savages. The landscape itself is also depicted in surreal and foreboding imagery. To Tacticus and Finlay, monstrousness and insanity often are tied together, and the ancient pit of the earth sweats with the Dionysian irrationalism of the era, civilization’s bane.

In her analysis of nature imagery in “The Bog Sacrifice,” the critic Jane Lewis writes, “The form [metrical verse] supplies a lasting tranquility and gentleness to this old evidence of sacrifice, of the terror of divinity, acknowledged, accepted, come to terms with.” Calm tranquility can be found within nature, which is personified as mourning the victim. Between the bog’s calloused response to suffering, it seems as though the rest of creation itself grieves against this atrocity.

Finlay, a lover of the natural world, depicts the modern world as the logical conclusion for an atheistic society.

“The faint cries of the snipes” and the “sunlight piercing his closing eyes” bring somberness to the dead youth as the birds and the sun are moved to sorrow in a Franciscan representation of nature. Yet, natural order contorts in the final stanza from an elegiac land to a plane of the damned. In the “isolated north,” Finlay presents this ceremony as an unfortunate need to satisfy mankind’s thirst for redemption.

However, due to the sacrilegious nature of the deed, the cycle must continue every Spring: “each year Spring exacted death” as a young person is sacrificed for the clan. The bog itself is not a heavenly shrine; it is a primordial site connected to the sea. It leads to infernal depths below where countless strangled, young bodies are trapped beneath, like the Tollund Man.

The brutality of nature

If the savage, uncaring whims of nature underlie a hell in the “The Bog Sacrifice,” its nonexistence in “To a Victim of AIDS” reveals a greater abyss.  The environment is contained to a sterile hospital room and a salacious flashback to the “tight skin-city” of New Orleans’ nightlife. The absence of nature may seem like a far cry from the northern bogs of Finlay’s earlier poem. However, Finlay, a lover of the natural world, depicts the modern world as the logical conclusion for an atheistic society.

If the “Bog Sacrifice” exists in the irrational, “To a Victim of AIDS” represents the shadow of hyper-rationality which justifies existence as to live for one’s own selfish gain. The hospital room is populated by nurses who are “absorbed by routine tasks,” busying themselves rather than offering comfort to the dying patient. In the second stanza, the setting shifts to “dark, back rooms,” offsetting the isolated ward with explicit sexual imagery, a confused source of comfort and guilt for the conflicted soul.

The stanza concludes with these acts as “sex in debris.” The debris complicates the setting, underlying Finlay’s feelings shame from the societal and Catholic stigma towards homosexual acts, and by actualizing the state of his victim’s world—a world of hollowness, indifference, and rot.

Demonic figures are present in both poems, greedily devouring the soul in turmoil. The “chthonic goddess” of “Bog Sacrifice” demands an annual death to bring about Spring. Her “iron breast” is more warlike than nurturing. Likewise, in “To a Victim of AIDS,” the “lord of the flies” presents itself to the non-believer in the third stanza as the mechanic for this ruthless, empty landscape. The young man who scorned the judgement of the moralistic elders now finds himself a slave to this tyrant feasting off his misery and self-loathing.

The two entities embody the threats of a non-Christian world. Paganism offers a cruel pantheon that merely shadows the sacrament. The secular’s answer collapses upon its own self-aggrandizement and isolation. Where the goddess is cold and unmoving in her thirst for blood, the lord of the flies relishes in swarms, taking delight in the victim’s misery.

Both poems feature protagonists doomed by a non-Christian society that have succumbed to madness and irrationalism.

Desecration plays a vital role in Finlay’s critique of these societies, as victims are fated to writhe in spiritual and physical anguish. In “Bog Sacrifice,” the youth’s body has been strangled with a serpentine rope, and “pinned naked to the floor by wooden crooks.” His body is scrubbed and purged by salt while his soul remains “clotted.” The idea of spiritual decay continues in “To a Victim of AIDS” with the lines “Your body became the state of your soul… The germ not killed now breeds in lust / On its own self and kills the whole.”

The victim’s self-hatred has become a physical embodiment of his disease. Unable to contain its sinfulness, lust and guilt, the body begins to decompose. Where the body of the bog victim is preserved in “twisted torsion” but otherwise “youthful and beautiful,” the agony of the dying AIDS patient is portrayed as a slow and incredibly painful death.

By scoffing at Christian morals and adopting a secular attitude, the AIDS victim himself becomes “tyrannical” and begins to decay as the body eats itself alive through “self-loathing.”

Both poems feature protagonists doomed by a non-Christian society that have succumbed to madness and irrationalism. Without the sacrifice of Christ, these two victims’ lives are wasted, pale imitations of the Messiah, unable to bring peace to their communities or themselves. Finlay offers little chance of redemption or hope in either poem. The harsh tone of “To a Victim of AIDS,” written as Finlay died, reads as the more agonized.

Finlay’s own complicated, condemnatory feelings towards his sexuality are at the center.

It is difficult to read this poem as not biographical, or at the very least, not as a deeply personal reflection of Finlay’s own complex feelings towards his own predicament. Referring to the sexual trysts that “destroyed the man you had been” and internalizing his sexuality as “it can’t condemn one thing it / Must permit what comes next,” Finlay’s own complicated, condemnatory feelings towards his sexuality are at the center.

Since there is life, there is still hope for the AIDS patient in the poem, but he must be willing to examine his life through objectivity, and not languish in the self-torture promoted by the external world. The all-encompassing pain promises this to be a nearly impossible task.

The question of hope

But the question remains: What hope, if any, is offered to these two victims of society’s greater ills? And therefore, what hope can there be for oneself? “Bog Sacrifice” answers this through the role of the church. In the poem, a young man is sacrificed to appease a fertility goddess for the sake of the community. Instead of prosperity, his soul is frozen in perpetual torment as he faces upward towards heaven. unable to ever rise from the bog.

While only mentioned once, Christ offers a solution as the ultimate, final sacrifice in opposition to the brutal annual pagan traditions. Though Christ’s absence is notable in “To a Victim of AIDS,” through his suffering, there may also be peace and absolution to the dying man. If the suffering man looks upon his life in love and not through guilt, shame and despair, there may be forgiveness.

[Finlay’s works] contains tremendous power to those lucky enough to stumble upon its vibrant and perilous terrain.

After learning of his AIDS diagnosis, Finlay’s friends did not waste time condemning him, as Finlay probably feared. Instead, his friends organized and published a series of poems—A Garland for John Finlay—months before his death. Written by Finlay’s personal friends, literary icons and writers inspired by his work, A Garland was a loving tribute to a man whose talent was never recognized beyond his peers.

Although Finlay was nearly deaf, entirely blind and bedridden near his life’s end, his mother read him one poem from the book nightly, providing him with a great source of comfort. While love never came to the sufferers of his poems, it did find its way to the poet. Though Finlay’s work may be forgotten by most, it still contains tremendous power to those lucky enough to stumble upon its vibrant and perilous terrain.

Nick Bowen

Nick Bowen has taught English and Latin for nearly a decade in the Houston area. He is a master’s student studying fiction at the University of St. Thomas in Texas. His short story, "Consider the Shoggoth," was published in the anthology, "Lolcraft: A Compendium of Eldritch Humor."

All articles by Nick Bowen

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