Answers to

Frequently Asked Questions About

YVOR WINTERS

An Introduction to the Man and His Thought

by Ben Kilpela


Back to The YVOR WINTERS Home Page


Questions Covered on This Page:

Who was Arthur Yvor Winters?

What was so controversial about him?

Why has he been forgotten?

What did he write about?

How did he write?

Is there anything interesting about his life?

Wasn't Winters a formalist poet and a defender of formalism in poetry?

Why is there so much discussion of reason in his works?

Didn't Winters write extensively on poetic meter?


Who was Arthur Yvor Winters?

Yvor Winters (1900-1968), as he is publicly known, was a controversial poet and critic who defended the concept that the literary arts have moral purposes and should employ rational methods. Though he once, in the 1940s, was a fairly well-known (and, for many, notorious) minor figure in our literary culture and took part in the critical debates that involved Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, and other prominent literary theorists, he has become since his death an almost entirely forgotten thinker in literary circles. His ideas, as far as I am able to discern, no longer play any role whatsoever in the debates on contemporary literary criticism and practice. Nevertheless, in my opinion and in the opinion of a few others, he was, if not THE greatest, then one of the greatest critics, poets, and thinkers of American literary and intellectual history. Summarizing the life and work of someone so obscure is always a difficult task, but it is my hope that this site will inspire you, first, to read the quotations from his essays and other writings presented in "A Year with Yvor Winters" and then to take up his books and essays. Winters's ideas can entirely transform your thinking about the meaning and purpose of the literary arts.


What was so controversial about him?

First, his highly unusual critical theory was founded on setting a clear and carefully defined canon. Throughout his career, he took it as his central task, as a foundation for all he wrote in criticism, to find the very best poems -- the very nearly perfect literary artworks of our language -- and he wrote quite extensively about his atypical choices and his notorious rejections. Most critics and writers thought he focused too narrowly on the question of the canon, evaluation, and rating poems, each of which Winters believed was at the heart of any critical enterprise founded on Reason. Most critics and writers, as well, have thought his choices of the greatest literary artworks crazy and his downgraded judgments of the great writers and great works of the Standard Canon almost perverse. A good deal of time is spent in his essays on ranking poems, and sometimes the rankings appear arbitrary, because he didn't go into depth on each and every choice and each and every rejection or downgrade. This practice also caused trouble because it caused most to jump to the conclusion that Winters thought that anything that didn't make the Winters Canon (that's my term, and not one that he or any other critic has used) wasn't worth reading. This is manifestly untrue, as is shown throughout his essays.

Plus, he rejected many of the most famous and supposed greatest poems of the English language for his Canon. Yeats and Eliot and Blake and Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley and many others found in every anthology and textbook on the assumed judgment that they are great did not make the Winters Canon, while a bunch of obscure, almost bizarrely negligible poems by forgotten poets did make the Winters Canon, or at least better exemplified the virtues he sought to defend in his criticism. This irritated nearly every major literary figure Winters came in contact with. Consequently, his whole system and his entire practice, at their foundations, were thoroughly and crossly rejected by most major critics of his time. But that isn't all that was irritating about him. Winters sounded supremely sure of himself in his pronouncements, and that dogged confidence, his seeming arrogance, as it was termed, infuriated other critics and poets. Most critics considered his focus on evaluation, on ranking artworks, to be specious. And nearly everyone in literary culture considered his choices of the greatest artworks to be ridiculous. Yet Winters never backed down. With remarkable self-assurance and intellectual bravery he defended the theoretical system that yielded his choices of the greatest works of literature to the end of his career.


Why has he been forgotten?

That might be easy to guess from the answer to the previous question. Since everything he wrote is so different from all other criticism written during the last 300 years, not many readers or thinkers know what to do with his ideas. Gradually, step by step, fewer and fewer have read him until he finally has dropped into oblivion, except for a few rather minor poets and writers who continue to defend his theories and practices. Mostly, his remaining defenders are former students or students of his former students, writers who are fondly called Wintersians. There are not many of them, despite the number of distinguished poets who once studied with Winters at Stanford. Robert Pinsky, Philip Levine, Thom Gunn, Donald Justice, Donald Hall, and a few other prominent poets studied with Winters. But few of these leading poets remain committed to any depth that I can discern to Winters's ideas and theories. Perhaps only Gunn among those I just mentioned has written a book that contains any Winters-like criticism or any writings in the tradition of Winters (that book, The Occasions of Poetry is generally excellent, by the way).

So it seems that Winters has created no movement, even among those who claim to have been influenced most by him. Outside of the minor critic, the late Donald Stanford (who, however inconsequential, is a very fine and overlooked thinker), a former Winters student and one-time co-editor of the excellent "Southern Review: Second Series", no one that I know of has carried on Winters's work and further developed his system of critical or philosophical thought. No one has tried to expand the special Winters Canon. No one has tried to re-evaluate that Canon as it was published in the book Quest for Reality in 1968. Nor has anyone tried to lay out a Wintersian Canon of fiction or history or drama. Each of these critical tasks is in order as an obvious next step in the extension of Winters's theories. For all these reasons and others, Winters is now all but unknown in our literary culture, his influence on criticism and literature is close to nil, and his ideas are continuously misrepresented or dismissed as a joke when they are mentioned at all, which is extremely seldom.

For any who continue to think that Winters has some importance in American literature, consider this. Just a few years back, I once went through every book of literary criticism in the literature section of a large, prominent, and excellent bookstore in East Lansing, Michigan. There was ONE (!) index reference to Yvor Winters in all those books, about 400 of them by my estimate. That index entry led to a curt, jocular, two-sentence dismissal of all Winters's work.


What did he write about?

Poetry was his main subject and his first love, though he believed that his theories applied to all genres of literature. I'll run through the subject matter of his criticism in this one paragraph. Early in his career, he wrote about literary structures and developed an insightful classification system of literary styles and structural methods. He turned to the great 19th-century American writers in a collection of interlocking essays called Maule's Curse, which was a bit of a surprise and was the only time he focused extensively on prose authors. For many people new to Winters, this is their favorite book, since in it he is not so harsh on writers he disapproves of. Later, in response to growing scorn, he offered two succinct summaries of his critical theory, which read almost like literary creeds. At this time, the late '40s, he wrote of specific writers that he considered to be particularly representative of modern critical and philosophical ideas and literary conventions, such as Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and others.

Next he turned to more theoretical essays, such as comparing the value of literary genres and reading poetry aloud, though he kept writing crotchety heretical essays on individual writers to illustrate his theories, such as Robert Frost and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Finally, in his last years, he turned to a comprehensive history of the short poem in English; a set of essays in this vein became a book, Forms of Discovery, a collection of mostly revised and some new essays that present his unusual and thoroughly unorthodox understanding of this subject. He grew a little more cranky and harsh in this last work, which was a companion to his final codification of what I call the Winters Canon in Quest for Reality, his selection of the greatest poems in English (about 125 of the poems) and a number of other very fine but overlooked poems that best illustrate his critical theories -- to which were added 12 of his own after his death in early 1968. See The MAJOR WRITINGS of YVOR WINTERS.

There is certainly something odd about his critical oeuvre, mostly because of the many artworks and subjects that Winters dashed through or never discussed in detail in his works. One wishes that he had enjoyed criticism more or had not been considered such a heretic, for perhaps he would have been more willing to tackle more of his greatest writers in a more comprehensive manner. To consider just one example among many I could offer, his dazzling discussion of historical literature in the essay on Henry Adams could have easily been expanded to a book-length study of history evaluated as a literary art.

One kind of writing he didn't try was thematic criticism, which is the most common approach taken in literary criticism nowadays. Winters bounced around from poem to poem, novel to novel, in search of the very best, for he was concerned with understanding and defending forms and methods and "procedures" of literature more than with the themes and content of literary artworks. Even though his general theory focused on the rational content of literature, he focused in his criticism more on the concept of rational content as the theoretical, foundational core of literary composition than on any particular moral, political, social, or philosophical content. We have to simply guess at his evaluation of most subjects of thematic literary criticism. Even in light of Winters's theories, by the way, it would seem that thematic criticism is a proper mode of study, as long as the critic is working with the best artworks or is working with good works of art for their virtues, not their defects.


How did he write?

Winters was a fine prose stylist and a brilliant poet. His poetry reflects his formalist critical theories almost perfectly. It is a cool, calm, stately verse, dense with rational meaning, difficult, allegorical, suggestive, charged with emotions controlled by the conceptual understanding. It could be called philosophical poetry. Winters's career as a poet can be divided into two phases, the first from about 1920 to 1928 and the second from 1928 to 1968. In the first phase, Winters was writing poetry in free verse that was primarily "imagistic" and could be claimed by the imagists as a part of their movement or, with respect to the more philosophical poems, as being derived from their movement. In the second phase, Winters employed conventional prosody and forms, including the sonnet and the heroic-couplet.

The essays are what I also would call stately: dry, cool, formal. Clearly, Winters was a very serious writer, but his ultra-dry wit does sneak out now and then. One of the pleasures of reading Winters's prose is his mastery of the put-down, always served with devastating drollery. Most of his essays are undoubtedly cantankerous -- unforgiving, cut-and-dried, hard as stone, high-handed, almost cruel, and for this he has been criticized again and again. He always wrote straight to the point and gave quick, incisive, and supremely confident reasons for his seemingly incontrovertible views. At times, he tosses off stunning generalizations of approval and disapproval with near audacity. He has been repeatedly accused of arrogance, but I think he was simply too great a thinker and writer to be considered arrogant. He was a master of clarity of expression in the tradition of the finest prose stylists in English, and his periodic style is perfectly suited to his purposes, intended as it was to exalt reason in discourse and conceptual understanding in the literary arts. Perhaps Samuel Johnson is his only equal, in both critical style and substance, as Winters himself seemed to sense. Like most critics, his writings are full of allusions to other writers and critics who were prominent in his time; for this reason, many of his references are not going to be readily recognized unless you have kept up with early modern criticism. To sum up, his poetry is much more difficult to read than his prose. The poetry is packed tight with succinct ideas and his moral judgments of demanding experiences, but the prose is much more relaxed and genial toward the reader, though it is unquestionably formal. Discussion of many of the same highly serious themes are to be found in both the poetry and the prose.


Is there anything interesting about his life?

He led a rather quiet academic life, all in all, spending the entirely of his mature career at Stanford University while living in Los Altos, California. His wife, the late Janet Lewis Winters, was a brilliant novelist and a great poet in her own right (someday, I'll devote some web pages to her work). He had two children. There is some biographical interest in the literary transformation that happened to him in his 20s. It is still astonishing to me that his career as the supremely bold and confident arch-traditionalist of the modern era, both in poetry and in criticism, began with the passionate preaching and practicing of the doctrines of the revolutionary poets of the 20th century, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.

Around 1928, at the age of 28, reacting against the revolutionists and the literary methods fostered by Romanticism, Winters rejected their techniques and began to develop a mature body of poetry that employed traditional English prosody and rational structures. By so doing, Winters used the traditional English iambic poetic line with greater subtlety than such poets as Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Bridges, both of whom he considered great poets and who were the traditionalists who immediately preceded him. Winters believed that these techniques are always needed to fully define a poet's understanding of human experience in ways more profound and complex than most other poets who abandon conventional meter and rhyme. Behind his radical and stunning change from experimental to conventional prosody -- and from imagism to rational structure -- there also had been a profound change in his philosophical attitudes.


Wasn't Winters a formalist poet and a defender of formalism in poetry?

Yes. Around 1930, Winters made a full commitment to the leading role of Reason in human life and the literary arts. But the dramatic change of commitment made him much more than a poet who started writing imagistic poems using meter and rhyme. Winters was the only important poet of the century to turn away from experimental to traditional poetic techniques, but he also went from radical experimentation in human experience to his firmly defended belief in the powers of rationality and the realist philosophical tradition of Western culture. Finally, and most importantly -- and most endearingly to those who study him -- Winters took poetry very seriously, more seriously, I am certain, than the other leading poets and critics of his day, or even anyone reading these words now.

Winter's change of philosophy informs all his critical writings and his poetry. In the realm of philosophical ideas, Winters was well read in scholastic theology, particularly in Thomas Aquinas, and he knew the difference between religion and art, between theology and poetry. Thus, Winters became one of the most "intellectual" poets of the 20th century. He was highly capable of understanding and using philosophical ideas in literature and frequently explored various theories and compelling ideas about how the history of ideas has shaped literature, particularly in American culture. His study of the influences of Romanticism is one such inquiry. Also, as a professor at Stanford University for nearly his whole career, he became one of the most scholarly of our poets. He argued often that sound scholarship helped poets to write well, rather than hindered them from writing well. This position was contrary to the prevailing mood of the period, in which critics often argued for the superiority of the inspired, untutored genius.


Why is there so much discussion of reason in his works?

How can we sum up Winters's basic critical theories? It is difficult, for, in most cases, we are starting from ground zero -- with readers who have never heard of Winters other than the scurrilous comments made about him here and there in modern criticism. The proper relationship between the heart and the head, between emotion and thought was a frequent theme of his poetry and a central doctrine of his criticism. The correct relationship between rational thought and proper feeling was at the center of his theory of poetry, and his definition of this relationship, that sound feeling is motivated by the comprehension of rationally apprehensible subject matter, was directly contrary to some of the leading theorists of his time, for instance John Crowe Ransom and T.S. Eliot.

His outlook is clearly repeated in a number of his best poems, such as the allegorical "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight" -- poems which Winters described as "Post-Symbolist" in style and method. These are poems that combine suggestive descriptive richness, an awareness of and a love for the objective physical world, particularly the world of nature, with a coherent structure and substantial paraphrasable denotative content that is fused with images and description. "Meaning", in the ordinary sense of the word, long ago became a minor component in poetry for most of our critics and writers, who used it apologetically and put it into quotation marks to relieve their embarrassment. Winters's contrary position, to summarize it, is that a good poem should have a rationally defensible paraphrasable content -- but that this paraphrasable content embodies by no means the total meaning of the poem. The poet conveys the full meaning of his literary artwork through the effective use of rhythm and other poetic and rhetorical devices that qualify and convey the paraphrasable content to the reader with appropriate feeling.

In many ways, the theory of literature that Winters defends is absolutist. To quote Winters himself, literature "approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth." Winters was primarily concerned with poetry. For him, a poem is a statement in words about a human experience. The poem is good when it makes a defensible rational statement about a given experience and at the same time communicates the emotion which ought to be motivated by a rational understanding of that experience. A successful poem, then, communicates both thought and feeling by means of language in which both conceptual and connotative contents of words are most effectively and efficiently employed.

It is in "A Foreword" to In Defense of Reason, a key essay, that Winters defines the principal theories of literature -- all of which he finds inadequate and rejects. In Winters's summary in that essay, according to the didactic theory, literature should offer moral instruction. But this view is too narrow, particularly with reference to poetry. It does not account for the nonparaphrasable value of poetry. Furthermore, moral instruction can be better given in expository prose than in poetry. The hedonistic theory of literature opines that literature should give pleasure. There are two kinds of hedonists. First there are those who believe that the end of life is pleasure and that pleasure consists of intensity of feeling, in the cultivation of the emotions for their own sake. Winters argues that this view leads to a search for more and more violent experience and for more and more subtle nuances of feeling, ending eventually in disillusionment with art and with life. Second, there are hedonists who believe that literature, and particularly poetry, should give aesthetic pleasure which is quite different from every other pleasure. Literary experience is thus divorced from life. The French symbolists carried this to extremes. The symbolist poem gives intense pleasure of a very special sort that has nothing to do with life. Winters thinks that this theory degrades literature to a trivial esoteric indulgence.

The Horatian formula, which seeks for literature to teach and delight, combines the didactic and hedonistic views. It is also rejected by Winters as having the disadvantages mentioned above of both theories. The theory of literature offered by Romanticism takes into account, admirably and accurately, the great power that literature can exert over the minds of men, but the romantics have fallacious notions about literature and about life. They believe that literature is primarily an emotional experience, that men are naturally good, and that the rational faculty is unreliable. They preach surrender to impulse, to the emotions, and this leads to what Winters called "automatism" (writing and living without thinking) and determinism and relativism. Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the chief sinners, in Winters's judgment. Winters thinks that romantic doctrine has prevailed in the literature and the life of Western civilization for the last 250 years and that it is dangerous to both.

In his essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Winters restated and clarified aspects of his basic theory:

"Words are primarily conceptual; the words "grief", "tree", "poetry", "God", represent concepts: they may communicate some feeling and remembered sensory impression as well, and they may be made to communicate a great deal of these, but they will do it by virtue of their conceptual identity, and in so far as this identity is impaired they will communicate less of these and communicate them with less force and precision. It is the business of the poet, then, to make a statement in words about an experience: the statement must be in some sense and in a fair measure acceptable rationally: and the feeling communicated should be proper to the rational understanding of the experience."

Thus, according to his theory, words communicate feeling primarily by means of their "conceptual identity". Words are not things and ideas are not things, as many writers seem to believe, nor are poems things, as Archibald MacLeish implied in his famous and ludicrous "Ars Poetica" -- "a poem should not mean/But be." Furthermore, Winters argued, when we read a poem, which is composed of words, our feelings are primarily motivated by an understanding of the conceptual content of the words, what the words are "saying".


Didn't Winters write extensively on poetic meter?

Yes. He was a great teacher of metrics in his essays and, from the reports of his students, in his college classes. He wrote a great deal about meter across his career. In his essay "The Audible Reading of Poetry", Winters explained why in his opinion the accentual-syllabic verse is the most efficient way of using words in English. After making a distinction between meter, "the arithmetical norm, the purely theoretic structure of the line," and rhythm, "the controlled departure from the norm," Winters goes on to describe the advantages of metrical language and of rhythm over non-metrical language and non-rhythmical expression:

"Now rhythm is in a measure expressive of emotion. If the poet, then, is endeavoring to make a statement in which rational understanding and emotion are properly related to each other, metrical language will be of the greatest advantage to him, for it will provide him with a means of qualifying his notion more precisely than he could otherwise do, of adjusting it more firmly to the rational understanding which gives rise to it. The rational and emotional contents of the poem thus exist simultaneously, from moment to moment, in the poem: they are not distinct, but are separable only by analysis: the poet is not writing in language which was first conceptual and then emotionalized, nor in prose which has been metered: he is writing in poetical language. And the rhythm of the poem permeates the entire poem as pervasively as blood permeates the human body: remove it and you have a corpse"

Many people have written that one can learn more about metrics from Yvor Winters than any other critic in the English language. After much reading in the field, one which I am not particularly interested in, I would have to agree. If Winters can make this subject come alive for a person who doesn't even agree with him on its importance (and I am that person), then he make it come alive for anyone.


This web site is maintained by Ben Kilpela. All content is copyright to Bennett Wade Kilpela, 2002.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, even negative comments. Don't be surprised to find your messages and my responses on this site.