It’s impossible to spend time with James Finn (Francis) Cotter
without sensing that one is in the presence of an exceptional
person. Like a millennial Renaissance man, Cotter has navigated his
life with his senses fully engaged, and his mind open to
intellectual, natural and spiritual influences.
Cotter is a scholarly gem, and has been an invaluable resource
at Mount Saint Mary College since 1963. He’s taught in or chaired
the Divisions of Humanities, Arts and Letters, and Religious
Studies and Philosophy over the course of his 47 years at the
As scholar, poet, author, critic, professor, philosopher,
translator, mentor, seminarian, world traveler, father, husband,
and grandfather – Cotter’s many roles converge in a life and person
full of substance and achievement. It’s clear why, for many years,
Mount students have felt themselves lucky to study under his
James Finn Cotter
What is Cotter like? In manner and mien, he’s gentlemanly,
dignified and tweedy. It’s obvious how and why he inspires
respect and admiration in his
students, perhaps tinged with a wee streak of healthy fear. He has
a charming, engaging smile that reveals a wealth of Irish
He’s wry and witty; perceptive and vastly intellectual, and
meticulous with his words. His memory is astounding. If he seems a
bit impatient at times, it’s probably because he’s usually several
leaps ahead in the conversation.
He is also consistently and unfailingly busy. This past summer,
Cotter celebrated his 81st birthday as he flew to Spokane,
Washington to preside over the International Hopkins Association
conference. He then traveled to Los Angeles to meet his new
grandson. Cotter flew back to New York to participate as lecturer
in the Road Scholars program at the Mount. He also published a
dozen theater reviews this summer
No wonder Ann Damiano, the former director of outcomes
assessment at the Mount and a friend of Cotter’s, said, “I get
tired just listening to his plans for the weekend.”
Work and family
Cotter is the author of Inscape: The Christology and Poetry
of Gerald Manley Hopkins; Beginnings: the First
Twenty-Five Years of Mount Saint Mary College; and A New
Life: Learning the Way of Omega. As a scholar, he has penned
articles on Hopkins, Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Philip Sidney,
and J.D. Salinger. As poet and literary critic, he’s been published
in America, Commonweal, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The New
York Times, Sparrow, Spirit, Thought and other
Cotter is a celebrated translator of Dante’s Commedia,
a seasoned theater and arts reviewer, a Fulbright-Hays lecturer, a
recipient of a National Endowment
for the Humanities grant, and the president of the International
Hopkins Association for 30 years. He’s also been the mace
bearer at the Mount’s Commencement for as long as anyone can
Somewhere in his remaining capacious free time, Cotter found
time to teach literature and philosophy full-time, write the
Mount’s alma mater (1964), capture the first 25 years of the
Mount’s history in the book Beginnings (1975), teach
English in Algeria as a Fulbright scholar (1970), inspire any
numbers of students and professors (since 1963), write
literary reviews for The Hudson Review
and America, and raise three children (Anne, James
and John) with his wife Emily.
He also found time to become an experienced and enthusiastic
hiker, drawing on his outdoor experiences by exploring natural and
spiritual themes in his poetry.
It’s interesting to note that the impetus for two of his major
works: Inscape and the translation of Dante’s
Commedia, were born of Cotter’s scholarly desire to
clarify the authors’ intents. As a student of Hopkins, Cotter
thought that the prevailing literature about Hopkins missed
some of his most primary gifts and influences.
Cotter’s translation of Dante’s Commedia began early
Christmas morning in 1983.
The Divine Comedy was published in 1987 by Element Books,
a translation free of rhyme. “I believed that translating without
the need to rhyme allowed more of Dante’s original meaning to
resonate,” said Cotter.
Critics and students agreed, and today Cotter’s translation
remains one of the most respected. The revised edition of the
translation was published in 2000 by Forum Italicum Books.
Cotter’s literary influences include, in addition to Hopkins and
Dante, Sir Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, and J.D.
From whence he came
Cotter hails from the Dorchester area of Boston, where his
parents James B. Cotter
and Catherine (Kitty) Finn Cotter settled after emigrating from
Ireland in the mid-1920s. Cotter’s father had seen enough political
unrest and violence during the “troubles” in Ireland after the Free
State Treaty was enacted, and brought his fiancee Kitty to Boston,
where they married. (For you students of Irish history, Cotter’s
father met both Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera during his
service as an Irish soldier.)
Cotter was born in 1929, the year that the stock market
collapsed, ushering in the Great Depression. As the eldest of 4
children, Cotter was raised in a close, warm family environment
that prized religion and education. Not surprisingly, he was an
excellent student who made his parents very proud (particularly his
Cotter’s life as a Jesuit seminarian began at Shadowbrook in
1948, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Later, he studied with
the Jesuits in Belgium and Italy. He said that “the Jesuits
introduced me to a love for enjoying life in its many forms:
intellectually, spiritually and naturally.”
Cotter received his bachelor of arts from Weston College in
1954, and a master of arts in philosophy in 1955. In 1958, he
received a master of arts in English from Fordham University and a
doctorate in 1963. His doctoral dissertation was "A Glass of
Reason: Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella."
The Mount Era
Nineteen-Hundred and Sixty ushered in a sea change in Cotter’s
life. The 31-year old man left the seminary after 12 years, and
began teaching in the English department at Fordham University.
Later that year, he married Emily Kerrick, and their daughter
Anne Seton Cotter was born in 1963. The young family lived in the
Bronx while Cotter taught at Fordham.
Cotter was introduced to the Mount in 1963 through Dr. George
Sommer, then an English professor at Marist College. Cotter
accepted the position at the Mount, and the Cotters bought their
home in Newburgh in 1963. Cotter began teaching English and
philosophy at the Mount.
Cotter accelerated both his academic and publishing careers in
earnest throughout the 1960s, writing and publishing many poems and
critical essays. Sons James and John joined Anne in the Cotter
household in the 1960s.
In 1970, Cotter was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Lectureship at the
University of Oran in Algeria, where he taught American Authors and
the Modern American Novel. Cotter packed up his young family to
head to Algeria for 10 months. The Cotters enjoyed traveling
through France, Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia while overseas, and
spent a summer in Paris.
Cotter also earned a National Endowment for the Humanities grant
to spend a summer working on Hopkins’ articles. Out of this
project, the manuscript for his book Inscape was born.
Published by the Pittsburgh Press in 1972, the book was very well
received by critics.
Cotter continued writing and publishing poems and critical
essays throughout the
1980s, and soon tacked on a new moniker as a performing arts
reviewer in New York and Connecticut. (As of 2010, he still has as
many as 1-2 reviews published per week in newspapers.)
Throughout the 1990s, Cotter and wife Emily traveled abroad each
year, often attending Dante and Hopkins conferences. Cotter
taught classes for the Elderhostel group at the Mount each summer.
He also focused on a new edition of the Dante translation while
teaching, reviewing, and writing and publishing poetry, critical
essays, and articles on Medieval Illumination. The revised edition
of Dante’s Commedia was published in 2000.
In 2009, Cotter published the book A New Life: Learning the
Way of Omega. The Curtin Memorial Library at the Mount held a
reading in September of 2009, at which Cotter discussed his
influences for the book, and read from the text.
How does Cotter do all this, at a time in life when many in his
position would rest on a wealth of laurels? Cotter attributes his
admirable zest and energy for life,
and for his work, to being Irish. “We never sit still, never are
satisfied. There’s always something more to do, more to learn.”
Carry on, Dr. Cotter. We’ll do our best to keep up with you.