The MAJOR WRITINGS

of YVOR WINTERS

A brief survey of Yvor Winters's major writings, listed in chronological order.

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"The 16th Century Lyric in England" (1939)

(Never published in book form. Available in libraries.)

This is a three-part historical and critical essay published in "Poetry" and never reprinted until Winters published an extensively revised version as the first chapter of "Forms of Discovery" almost 30 years later. This is probably Winters's most lasting contribution to criticism in the literary history of the West. The essay proposes a revision of the history of English poetry in the Renaissance. It discusses in fine and insightful detail the Plain and Petrarchan (or sugared) Styles of the period as its two main strands of poetic convention and development. Amid all his inspired analysis will be found many of Winters's choices of the greatest poems of the period and of all time in the English language. Though never printed in book form, the essay will be available in most major university libraries.

In Defense of Reason (1947)

(In Print. Winters's publisher was and remains the Swallow Press, which is now a division of Ohio University Press.)

Winters's most famous and probably his most popular book, as much as any of his books can be described as popular. It is a long, 600-page collection of three seminal books published in the 1930s and '40s, with an essay on Hart Crane and Romanticism added at the end. The first book in the collection is Winters's revised dissertation on the classification of literary structures and procedures; this is a highly useful if somewhat disjointed and clumsily written analysis of poetic and prose style. The second book is Winters's study of 19th-century American literature, mostly the prose greats, like Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James. It is a dense, captivating read that offers a challenging theory of the development of American literature and moral ideas that Winters derived from his studies in the history of ideas and specifically the American Puritans. The third book is made up of longer, more theoretical essays on a number of prominent modern thinkers and writers, such as Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot, and John Crowe Ransom. The total collection contains two important short essays that explain the fundamentals of Winters's critical theory in succinct detail, "A Foreword" and "Preliminary Problems". These two pieces are extremely important to understanding his whole conception of literature and all of his writings. Generally, Winters was less harsh in this book, though it is the book that made him famous for acclaiming certain obscure and little regarded writers, such as Jones Very, and downgrading great after great of the Standard Canon, such as Wordsworth and Ezra Pound. The book glitters with sharp and elegant put-downs, which are part of the pleasure of reading Winters, at least for me. The final third of the book contains some of his most complex and abstract critical essays, especially on Eliot and Ransom, which contain his most extended discussions and defenses of his basic critical ideas. The second part on the 19th-century American writers is Winters's only lengthy consideration of prose literature in his oeuvre.

Ben Kilpela's original amazon.com review of In Defense of Reason:

The great Arthur Yvor Winters, both as post and critic, was a very controversial figure in literary criticism during the first half of the 20th century. It is unconscionable that he is not better known, however. This book caused much of the storm that swirled about his tendentious and stunning assessments of many of the great writers. Agree or disagree with his brilliantly insightful evaluations of individual poets and writers, you will learn more about all kinds of literature -- and poetry in particular -- than you could have ever dreamed possible reading this book. When you finish with Winters, poetry will suddenly matter almost as much as breathing in your life. This man knew his stuff (he's sadly been gone since 1968, having died of tongue cancer), better than anyone I have ever read. Winters was a formalist, it's important to make clear, and he defended formal poetry and metrical verse with greater clarity and power than any writer in history. But he had brilliantly insightful ideas on free verse (he started his fascinating career as a free verse poet in the '20s) and early modernism. Even the defenders of free verse never spoke as eloquently about this kind of poetry as Winters. He was also a non-Christian Thomist and metaphysical absolutist, and much of his critical work reflects his philosophical positions. I grew up reading him and learned more from him than any other writer. Though he might have been too restrictive, narrow, and judgmental at times, the works of literature he points to as great are never -- I mean NEVER -- off the mark. [Okay, I'm admit right now, in 2002, that that passionate "NEVER" overstates my opinion a bit. Even I, as dedicated as I am to Winters's thought, consider a few of his judgments as misguided or skewed for one reason or another.] He led me to poems and writers and novels and works of history that have been missed but are among the finest work in the English language. Winters was also a dense, powerful, lovely stylist himself, in the grand manner of the 19th century, tempered by the modernist emphasis on clarity of expression. You should study his writing carefully if you wish to be a critic yourself. Finally, Winters is a BLAST to read if you are at all interested in high literature at all, because he is so opinionated and clear about his opinions. Much of this book is eruditely entertaining, because Winters is a master of the subtle, yet devastating put-down. With a simple twist of his rapier-pen, he can destroy a writer or a critic. I always marvel and laugh reading his great cut-up jobs. He has meant so much to me, even though I have expanded far beyond his views during my life as a reader and writer. If you want to learn deeply at the feet of a master -- perhaps his only equal as a critic is Samuel Johnson -- you must go to the mountain and visit Saint Yvor.

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1946)

(Out of print, though available as a used book and in libraries. To order used books, I recommend powells.com, alibris.com, and amazon.com. Winters's publisher was and remains the Swallow Press, which is now a division of Ohio University Press.)

I hesitate to include this book among Winters's major writings. It is Winters's only book-length study of a writer. Weak in a number of ways, in my view, especially in the lack of thematic analysis of individual short poems, it does offer a credible and sound analysis of a poet whose reputation has fallen far in modern times. Winters could have gone into much greater depth on Robinson, and I wish dearly that he had. The book seems a little slapdash. Nonetheless, it is readable and concise and valuable in many ways. This book is not among the most important of Winters's writings, but does contain some passages that help to fathom his general critical theory. I wish with all my heart that Winters had taken the time to write more, longer, and better books like this one on the writers he thought even greater, such as J.V. Cunningham, Robert Bridges, and Ben Jonson. He just didn't love, or even enjoy, criticism enough.

Collected Poems (1952)

(Out of print, though available as a used book and in libraries.)

Winters's choice of his poems that he considered worth preserving. It was a landmark book for Winters, since before this book there had existed no general collection of his poetry. Finally, when this was published, everyone could read for himself the poetry of the man who had caused such a stir in literary criticism. This is a very good collection, though it is a slim volume, presenting only about a third of all his published poetry. He could be as hard on his own work as on others. There are more thorough collections of his poetry, but none of them contains every poem he published.

The Function of Criticism (1957)

(In print.)

A collection of essays that sealed Winters's reputation as a cantankerous and arrogant heretic. It contains a lengthy essay comparing the effectiveness of literary genres, a highly unusual investigation that has sparked no revolution even among Wintersians and never gained any approval in the wider literary culture. In this piece, Winters declares his admiration for many of the works of literature that he considered the greatest of their kind, including his judgment of the greatest single poem ever written, Paul Valery's 1922 "Silhouette of a Serpent" (in French) -- a highly deserving choice, I might add. But the book's two essays on Hopkins and Frost, two of the most beloved poets of modern times by critics and readers alike, probably did more to pitch Winters into the darkness of his obscurity than any other single essay. As right as he is about what his disapproves of in their work, they are sacrosanct.

Forms of Discovery (1967)

(Out of print, though available as a used book and in libraries.)

Winters's last book, finished just before his death from cancer. It is a lengthy history of poetry in English through the analysis of its greatest poems. Of course, just which poems are the greatest is what caused Winters all the trouble he found in his career. Get ready for some very unusual choices. The first chapter on the English Renaissance is a late revision of his famous 1939 essay on Renaissance poetry, his most influential writing (that he had any influence in any area is a well-kept secret). The rest of the book is hard on most of the writers of the Standard Canon and even more than typically severe on the greats Winters himself championed throughout his career. The book is beautifully written in the classical traditional of formal expository prose. It contains dozens of analyses of poems, up to a page long, that sparkle with insights. Many of his analyses read like poems themselves. The "Introduction" is a key philosophical writing in defense of the realist rational tradition of Western thought.

Quest for Reality (1968)

(Out of print, though available as a used book and in libraries.)

An anthology of the greatest poems ever written in English. The "Table of Contents" of this anthology listing all the poems by title is found at the WINTERS CANON page. The anthology serves as the companion to "Forms of Discovery", and it is the first and only complete listing of the Winters Canon, which he had discussed throughout his essays in many ways and in varying degrees of detail across 50 years. Winters chose 185 poems for the anthology. Most of the poems are his choices as the greatest ever written in English. A few of the poems were chosen because Winters wished to revive interest in certain fine poems and their authors; and a few others were chosen because they admirably illustrated his critical theories. (For more discussion on my concept of the "Winters Canon", to which a Winters scholar has objected, see the WINTERS Issues page.) All in all, they make for a strange bunch for those who know only the Standard Canon, which is just about everybody. About five percent of the poems are well known. The rest are rather obscure -- a few even obscure to specialists in English literature! There are about 20 weak choices, in my humble opinion (though all these are very good poems and certainly none is a foolish mistake); part of Winters's purpose was to resurrect good poems that have been lost in the gloom of obscurity. Almost all of the 20 or so very best of these greats are deserving of much greater attention than they have ever received. Winters's co-editor Ken Fields added 12 of Winters's poems to the anthology after his death in early '68, and most of them are highly deserving to be ranked among the greatest ever written, especially my choice as the greatest poem in English, Winters's "To the Holy Spirit". (Hey, could I call myself a true Wintersian if I didn't make my own such choice? Your nominations are encouraged. I will eventually post suggestions on a separate web page. Also, the time has come to add to the Winters Canon. Send me your nominations for great poems that Winters neglected, did not know, or have been written since he died.) In time, I will post the "Table of Contents" of this book.

Ben Kilpela's original amazon.com review of Quest for Reality:

Yvor Winters (1900-1968) decided to illustrate by example what he thought are the greatest poems ever written in English. So here they reside, 185 of them (with 12 of Winters's own). A few, very few, will be well known to readers of poetry; most are puzzingly obscure. All but a handful (in my view) are so great that it takes one's breath away to read them. Reading them almost makes for mystical experiences. Among the poems that the common critics have missed but Winters found and championed to his dying day are Jonson's "To Heaven", Herbert's "Church Monuments", Very's "Thy Brother's Blood", Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit", and Bowers's "The Astronomers of Mont Blanc". There are many, many more, but these five are probably the greatest of the greats. This is, simply put, the greatest book of poetry ever published in English. If you love poetry, you must find or own a copy. Don't be surprised though. All but a few of the poems are in metrical verse, and they have almost nothing to do with modern "expressivism", the solipsitic "emoting" that passes for good poetry in the tiresome modern age. Here, not a word is wasted, not a phrase is trivial. Every syllable, every beat of every line, counts toward the rational understanding of the human mind and spirit and the proper adjusting of our emotions to that rational understanding. The book contains an excellent introductory essay by a Winters student, Kenneth Fields, who lays out the principles of selection briefly and incisively. In itself, that essay is one of the best introductions to poetry ever written and alone will be worth all the effort you make in finding this out-of-print book. Winters has done something here that every critic should: show us the results of his theories. What a great work of poetic literature.

The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters (2000)

(In print.)

This is a recent collection edited by Bob Barth to get Winters, the poet, back into the eye of the reading public. It is very well done.

Ben Kilpela's original amazon.com review of Selected Poems:

It almost brings a tear to my eye to see a new edition of the work of Arthur Yvor Winters in a handsome setting. Winters was the great and controversial poet and critic who raised a storm of trouble in the literary world in the first half of the 20th century. His poetry is peerless. He has taken his place as one of the greatest poets in the history of the world (Winters died in 1968). You should realize that he is a formalist, though he started his career as a free-verse imagist. The story of his change of style is fascinating enough, and it is told nicely in the brief introduction. I would say that about a dozen of these poems are far beyond anyone's ability to rate them. In particular, "To the Holy Spirit" might be the single greatest poem written in English. I cannot think of anything better, not in Blake or Frost or Shakespeare. Can you believe that? You'll just have to read him to find out. Though Winters has been largely forgotten, even in the new formalist circles, probably because he was so brazen and hard-edged as a critic, he has no equal. His themes are rather difficult to understand and feel, but the reward for your effort will be unmatched. Some of his work might fly over your head for years, as it has over mine after 25 years of reading it. But if you love poetry and believe poetry can mean something vital to human life, please join me in reading and re-reading this greatest of poets.

The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000)

(In print.)

A wonderful and entertaining collection. Once again, much of it will be bewildering to those who don't know Winters's critical theories, since the editor, Bob Barth, has mostly chosen letters that are professional rather than personal. Winters was a fine letter-writer. He wrote in a "voice" very different from the one he employed in his essays. The topics covered in these letters, in general, are those covered in his mature essays, though there are innumerable minor points that illuminate his thought in new ways. He corresponded with many prominent writers, such as Allen Tate, Malcolm Cowley, and others.

Ben Kilpela's original amazon.com review of Selected Letters:

I suppose you have to know something about Yvor Winters to get something out of this book. Actually, you have to know a lot about Yvor Winters. But if you do, you're sure to enjoy it. The selection is excellent, and the presentation is very fine. The "Introduction", sadly, won't help anyone new to Winters very much, even though it is well written. But I don't suppose anyone who is new to Winters is going to shell out $50 for this book anyway. Winters was a controversial poet and critic in the first half of the 20th century. He was a formalist poet and a stern, rationalist critic. He was a brilliant, if irascible, man, an erudite writer, and lofty poet. He made plenty of literary enemies and a few friends. He has a few followers left, and they will enjoy this book immensely. I learned a great deal about Winters along the way, and I cherished the opportunity to learn it about so great a thinker and writer. And I read him in an epistolary tone of voice I knew he had but never had the joy of reading. Every page was another one to savor. Particularly fun were the early letters, up till about 1940, in which Winters was much more voluble than I ever thought he could have been. He became an embittered old coot by the end of his days, and it was sad to see, though I enjoyed every letter nonetheless. Thanks to Bob Barth for the effort put in bringing this to print. It is an especially handsome book about one of our greatest thinkers, who has been lost in obscurity far too long.

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