- In Memoriam: Remembering Richard Finneran
When Nora Fitzgerald asked me to say a few words today, my first reaction after saying yes was to think of the lines at the end of the great elegy In Memory of Major Robert Gregory by W. B. Yeats, the poet to whom Richard devoted most of his professional life. They read, “a thought / Of that late death took all my heart for speech”. I suspect that everyone here feels that way: Richard’s sister-in-law Nora, his beloved children Kate and Richard, and the rest of us. And yet we must say something, “must” first because Richard would have wanted us to do so and secondly because in remembering and honoring him we both preserve his memory and establish ourselves as a community of mourners of this extraordinary man who has passed from among us.
We each have our memories of Richard. My first memory of him is being introduced to him by his mentor, the great Yeats scholar George Harper, whose daughter Meg has flown in to be with us today on behalf of the Harper family. George Harper was the only person I have ever met who called Richard “Dick”: perhaps no one else would have dared to. Other memories crowd in, often connected with the many scholarly projects of this extraordinarily productive and generous scholar. A favorite one is of a group of us that included Richard’s beloved and wonderful wife Mary, Richard himself, me, John Kelly, Tom Parkinson, and a few others clustered in the kitchen of Michael and Grainne Yeats’s house in Dalkey, where Michael had invited us to catalogue his large and rich collection of his father’s manuscripts. Every noon we would gather in the kitchen and chant the chorus “ox-tail soup” as we prepared to eat Mary’s inevitable meal for us in a spirit of intellectual excitement and group conviviality. [End Page 88]
Richard had already begun what would become an illustrious career, capped perhaps by his great edition of The Poems of W. B. Yeats (Macmillan 1984, revised in 1989), which is the standard one to which we all turn to read that poet. But his indefatigable energy extended well beyond that. He served as Poetry Editor of the Cornell Yeats Series, that great multi-volume project which presents facsimiles and transcriptions of all of Yeats’s surviving poetic manuscripts and many of his other manuscripts as well. He likewise worked along with George Harper as General Editor of The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, the standard edition published in this country by Scribner and in England and Ireland by Palgrave. Those activities enabled him to repeatedly sabotage my own desire to write books of literary and cultural criticism by seducing me into producing editions of Yeats’s poetry and prose in the series that he so wonderfully organized.
Along the way Richard’s formidable energy found other outlets. One of his favorites was the Society for Textual Scholarship, of which he served as Executive Director from 1997 until illness forced him to step down. He both shone and reveled in those meetings in New York, both of the Society’s executive board and of the biennial conferences which did so much to reshape traditions of American and indeed world editing. He also found time to serve as the Executive Director of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, to edit the journal Yeats: An Annual, and a host of other endeavors. Of Richard one could say what the eighteenth-century man-of-letters Samuel Johnson said of his admired contemporary Edmund Burke: “He is the first man everywhere”.
I think particularly of the last such project, in which he and I worked together as colleagues and co-editors of the volume for the Collected Yeats that will be known as Yeats’s Early Essays. From first to last Richard was a joy to work with: he combined encyclopedic knowledge of Yeats with vast enthusiasm and indefatigable reserves of energy. At times it was exhausting to collaborate with Richard, not to mention demanding. I remember particularly certain notes that I wanted to finesse...