A YEAR with YVOR WINTERS
Selection and Comments by Ben Kilpela
A YEAR with YVOR WINTERS Introduction
YVOR WINTERS Home Page
Winters quotations used by permission of Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, copyright 1947, 1957, 1967, 1972, 2000
Commentary Copyright Bennett Wade Kilpela, 2002
KP = a passage reflecting a key point in Winters's thought
11/1 - On the Fallacy of Imitative Form
from the section "THE HEROIC COUPLET AND ITS RECENT REVIVAL" of the essay "POETIC CONVENTION" from PRIMITIVISM AND DECADENCE" (1937), republished in "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
To say that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration, is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry, akin to the Whitmanian notion that one must write loose and sprawling poetry to "express" the loose and sprawling American continent. In fact, all feeling, if one gives oneself (that is, one's form) up to it, is a way of disintegration; poetic form is by definition a means to arrest the disintegration and order the feeling; and in so far as any poetry tends toward the formless, it fails to be expressive of anything.
** COMMENT: We have already encountered a couple selections concerning this fallacy -- adopting a form or style of writing that mimics one's attitude toward one's subject -- which, as far as I am able to determine, was first discerned and judged fallacious by Yvor Winters. It is a fallacy made too often in modern literature and is too often praised by popular critics and reviewers. I am sure that Winters has had very little influence suppressing this fallacy. Most authors and critics seem wholly unaware of it to this day. Nonetheless, knowing the fallacy is very useful, for it immediately cuts through to the reasons so much of modern literature seems weak and formless and purposeless. There is no passage in Winters, however, that makes a good case for this idea, in my opinion. Winters simply states, without elaboration, that it is a fallacy. In this passage, Winters says that the fallacy leads to disintegration, but, of course, this is just what many modern writers intend it to lead to, though, perhaps, not to COMPLETE formlessness or dissolution.
11/2 - On Modern Novels
from the essay "PROBLEMS FOR THE MODERN CRITIC OF LITERATURE" (1956) from "THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM"
Unless there is a serious reconsideration of materials and methods, not merely in the interests of what may seem to the uninstructed to be novelty, but in the interests of intelligent achievement, the next generation will see the novel as dead as the drama is now. The most damnable fact about most novelists, I suppose, is their simple lack of intelligence: the fact that they seem to consider themselves professional writers and hence justified in being amateur intellectuals. They do not find it necessary, so far as one can judge, to study the forms of literature, or even forms of the novel other than those they practice; they do not find it necessary to think like mature men and women or to study the history of thought; they do not find it necessary to master the art of prose. And these remarks are equally true, so far as my experience goes, of those novelists who write primarily for profit, and who boast of being able "to tell a good story," and of those who are fiddling with outmoded experimental procedures in the interest of originality and who are sometimes praised in the quarterlies. In fact the history of the novel is littered with the remains of genius sacrificed to ignorance and haste. I can read the later Joyce and Mrs. Woolf in small passages, for the details are often entertaining, even though their function may be trivial. But I simply cannot read the neat but simple Mr. Hemingway, nor the inarticulate (though doubtless profound) Mr. Faulkner, and I can see no reason why I should be asked to try. I am a student of literature, not an anthropologist, and I have better ways of spending the few years remaining to me.
** COMMENT: Yvor Winters was one of those who joined the swollen ranks of those who proclaimed the death of the novel. He had different reasons, far different, for predicting that the novel would die, but he was no less wrong than everyone else who predicted its approaching demise during the first half of the 20th century. It seems that the changes brought about by the great modern experimenters have breathed considerable life into the novel, even if they have turned it into a much less important genre than it once might have been. The novel has backed away, in its most popular, mid-cult literary forms, from rational content and the evaluation of human experience. It has become a species of dream-life; novelists focus on creating vividness, vicarious experience, not on presenting propositional thought. In fact, the novel of the big theme has become dead in the literary culture, though a few pockets of resistance, unacknowledged and feeble as they are, remain. Telling a good story and getting all the mundane details exact and vivid seem to be the only purpose left for most fictionists, and they have led the way in the decline of the novel. Still, I find novels here and there that work within Wintersian, traditional principles in the narrative art. My hope is that critics will continue to draw attention to these serendipitous few novels that continue to offer fine writing. Lastly, note the reference to Faulkner, the only such reference that I know if in all the essays of Winters. Unsurprisingly, he finds him tiresome, even though Faulkner believed he was trying to explore big themes, the most serious, profound issues of the human condition. Winters recognized this, but considered his tortured and tortuous style to be far beneath the quality required to treat such themes. I have my doubts about this, and I know of some few followers of Winters who have continued to delve into Faulkner on the implicit belief that he is a great modern writer. (I am thinking of Donald Stanford of the "Southern Review", who was a student and close friend of Winters, and who can be classed as a Wintersian without hesitation. He edited many essays on Faulkner for his fine literary journal in the '60s and '70s, and by so doing I believe he was implying that Faulkner was one of our finest fictionists.) If I may make one more comment, let me say that Winters nowhere in his critical writings defended his opinion that modern novelists lacked the skill to write good prose. I think this is a shortcoming, and it is something I wish he had done.
11/3 - On Revision and Argument
from the "INTRODUCTION" (1967) to "FORMS OF DISCOVERY"
When one writes a poem, one revises it; the practice is familiar to all of us. One revises the poem in order to make it better, to achieve in the poem a more nearly true understanding of what one is trying to say. The practice implies a belief in absolute truth; although many poets who write in this manner today would deny such a belief, there is no justification for the practice. Many critics of my present book will disagree with my judgments of certain poems; they will believe that I am wrong and that they are right, and a good many will write bitterly on the subject. Some of these will be gentlemen who regard themselves as relativists, but a relativistic doctrine provides no justification for argument in these matters. Argument implies a belief that there is a basis for argument, a true judgment which both arguers are trying to reach.
** COMMENT: This passage, coming late in Winters's career, reflects another way he approached the question of evaluation. Revision in itself implies some standard of good and bad that all literary art and literary theory are created and judged against. Winters spoke frequently, though most often in early essays, about "automatic" writing, by which he meant the ways in which writers give themselves over wholly to their uncomprehended and unanalyzed emotions. This passage explains why he battled so fiercely against such writing, which he believed had its origins in Romanticism. To the end of his career, Winters defended the concept of absolute truth and its role in the creation, understanding, and evaluation of the literary arts, and, more importantly, defended and put into practice this concept as the cornerstone of any literary theory. I agree with Winters on this, though I disagree that revision implies, necessarily, a belief in ABSOLUTE truth. There are shades of our apprehension of truth and goodness, an infinite number of shades. Nevertheless, that Winters defended rational truth in the understanding and judging of literature is the most important concept of his career and one which we are sorely in need of today.
11/4 - On Whitman's Philosophical Theories
from the essay "THE SIGNIFICANCE OF "THE BRIDGE", BY HART CRANE, OR WHAT ARE WE TO THINK OF PROFESSOR X? (1947) from "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
The ignorance both of philosophy and theology exhibited in such ideas as these [as expressed in the anthology "Walt Whitman: Representative Selections"] is sufficient to strike one with terror. But I must limit myself to only a few comments at the present moment. I wish to call attention especially to the passages which I have italicized: (1) "Progress is the infallible consequence," or to put it more briefly, progress is infallible; (2) "though the universe is perfect at any given moment, it is growing constantly toward higher orders of perfection"; (3) "Whatever is is well, and whatever will be will be well"; and (4) "No matter how far man advances, his desire for further advancement remains insatiable."
I wish to insist on this: that it is impossible to speak of higher orders of perfection unless one can define what one means by the highest order and by the lowest order, and this Whitman does not venture to do. Higher and lower, better and worse, have no meaning except in relation to highest and lowest, best and worst. Since Whitman has identified God with the evolving (that is, with the changing) universe, he is unable to locate a concept of best or highest, toward which evolution is moving, for that concept would then be outside of God and would supersede God; it would be, in theological language, God's final cause; and such a concept would be nonsense. Whitman tells us that whatever happens to exist is perfect, but that any change is necessarily toward a "higher" order of perfection. The practical effect of these notions is merely to deify change: change becomes good of necessity. We have no way of determining where we are going, but we should keep moving at all costs and as fast as possible; we have faith in progress. It seems to me unnecessary to dwell upon the dangers of such a concept.
** COMMENT: Though Walt Whitman was one of Winters's most popular whipping boys in his essays, he seldom discussed Whitman's poetry or critical thinking in detail, except in a short passage from the essay that we are looking at today. Whitman, as you may recall from previous selections, was the poet who carried the foolish and dangerous Romantic theories of Emerson more fully into literature by applying those theories as though they were actually true and beneficial. Whitman's consequent popularity drew Winters's close attention. His reputation has continued to rise during the second half of the 20th century. I know many poets and writers and critics who consider Whitman one of the greatest poets ever, and many who, at least, consider him the most important poet of modern times. A long quotation from a Whitman essay precedes the paragraphs presented in this selection. In the passage, Winters comments directly on several phrases that he had set in italics in the quotation. It is interesting that of all the comments he could have made about the delirious paragraphs from Whitman, he chose first to pick on him for logical ineptness. But he quickly turns to what he considers the true dangers of Whitmanian theory and the dangers of trusting oneself to Whitman's ideas as expressed through his poetry. We strip away all that human beings have striven to learn through thousands of years of reflection and careful thought on the human condition -- on how we should live. I agree with Winters that Whitman's views have their dangers, and I agree that Whitman's poetry and most of the poetry that imitates him (and it is rife in our literary culture) is insufferable because of its irrational solipsism and emptiness. Still, it has done some good. Whitman's ideas have glorified the individual and contributed in small ways to the development of human rights, I believe. Perhaps this should be enough for any poet to accomplish.
11/5 - On Looseness
from a letter to MARK VAN DOREN (1939) in "SELECTED LETTERS"
I bear you a grudge, I think, for the tendency of your critical ideas. I do not believe that a man can really make peace with Emerson & remain with soul uncontaminated. And you seem to me to derive from Emerson, by way of Frost & it may even be in part by way of Sandburg, a slightly casual attitude toward your art which I think is bad for it. Large numbers of your poems seem to me almost self-consciously loose, in spite of certain discretion in the looseness. I could pass these over without comment for the sake of the poems I like -- which are fairly numerous -- did I not have a very deeply implanted feeling that the attitude inhibits -- must inhibit -- your full development or that of any man.
** COMMENT: Mark Van Doren was once one of the more prominent American poets, critics, and literary professors. He is less well known today and apparently little read any longer, probably because a good deal of his work is written in loose traditional forms (which have fallen so far out of favor, except in the case of Robert Frost). He didn't seem to catch the modernist train of free verse imagism. His poetry is certainly just as casual as Winters describes it here. Van Doren seems to have been heavily influenced by the folksy, conversational style of Frost. Winters discussed Van Doren a few times in his essays and once included a list of what he considered Van Doren's better poems in a discussion of the finer work of the 1930s, and Winters at one time believed that Van Doren's career had the potential for great things. None of Van Doren's poems made the Winters Canon, nor did he ever say that any one of them approached greatness. They are simply much too formless, despite the adherence, in many cases, to traditional poetic structures. It is the modern habit to write loosely -- and to think loosely. This might explain why poetry is of so little importance in the world nowadays. Still, in my view, and not Winters's, much of Van Doren is worth reading and has real virtues, even if he is not nearly one of our greatest writers.
11/6 - On Purity
from the essay "THE TURN OF THE CENTURY" (1967) in "FORMS OF DISCOVERY"
In [T. Sturge] Moore's terms, surrender to sensation would correspond to surrender to Aphrodite; devotion to pure reason (purity of either kind is impossible, of course, but we can approximate it) or to any "pure" and incompletely human discipline, would correspond to devotion to Artemis. Either procedure would issue in the destruction of human nature, would issue in sterility. Moore's doctrine is simple and obvious, and, except as it is a criticism of romantic doctrine, is not really original. But it is sound, and it is applicable to nearly every aspect of human experience. It is the kind of philosophy which a poet needs, in fact which anyone needs.
** COMMENT: Winters was intensely concerned in both his criticism and his poetry with what he calls a surrender to sensation, a plunge of the human being into pure experience either in life or through the means of a literary artwork. Winters believed that much of modern poetry flirted with this radical surrender. His own early poetry often expressly concerned this suppressing of the rational mind and casting oneself into the purity of existence. He came to believe such ideas and practices were, to say the least, dangerous. Balance between experience and thought, between perception and conception, between emotion and rationality -- what might be thought of as the old and venerable Aristotelian formula -- was the theory of life and art that he came to accept and espouse after he realized he had gone too deeply into the world of pure experience, which drops inevitably into a world of madness. T. Sturge Moore, as a counter-Romantic, delved into ideas similar to Winters's, and Moore's poetry drew Winters's attention very early in his career. Ideas about poetry and literature being the means to pure experience have continued to play a large role in our artistic culture, and the dangers of these views remain, even though I believe Winters overplays their importance and their power. As you get deeper into Winters's thought, you will come across a great deal of discussion on this issue in his writings.
11/7 - On the Haze
from the poem "TO THE HOLY SPIRIT"
The desert valley spreads
Up golden river beds
As if in other days.
Trees rise and thin away
And past the trees the hills,
Pure line and shade of dust,
Bear witness to our wills.
We see them for we must,
Calm in deceit, they stay.
** COMMENT: Copyright restrictions keep me from publishing the poem in full. I encourage all my readers to find it (it is in the "Norton Anthology" and a couple others) and read it carefully. I consider it the greatest poem written in English. The writing is flawlessly breathtaking, the thought inexpressibly profound and moving. It is nearly perfect in every respect and perfectly embodies Winters's own critical theories and practices. The stanza form is a rough imitation of Valery's "The Silhouette of a Serpent", which Winters once judged the greatest poem in any language (a matter we have already discussed in our Year with Winters). This stanza quoted here is the opening one, and it is a precise and powerful description of the difficulty of the modern human condition, faced as we are with the uncertainties of knowing ultimate reality and our destiny. This allegorical use of physical description to embody rational thought to express emotion more fully and precisely is a style Winters called Post-Symbolism.
11/8 - On Very's Disagreements with Emerson
from the essay "JONES VERY AND R.W. EMERSON: ASPECTS OF NEW ENGLAND MYSTICISM" in "MAULE'S CURSE (1938) "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
Surely no misunderstanding could have been more complete: Emerson tried to explain to Very that truth is relative, and Very tried to point out to Emerson that truth is absolute. Very had been subjected to an overwhelming experience, and he was certain of what he had lived; Emerson had had no such experience, but by trusting implicitly to the whimsical turns of his thought he had arrived at certain beliefs regarding it. Emerson, who was interested primarily in thought about the mystical experience, and whose attitude toward thought was self-indulgent, could not think clearly or coherently; and Very, whose thought was precise, if limited, whose attitude toward thought was ascetic, who regarded thought as sin, save as directed by the Spirit, accomplished a life of nearly perfect intuition.
** COMMENT: They made a strange pair, these two friends who spent a good deal of time together far back in American literary history. Very was the Christian mystic and Emerson was the unbridled Romantic. It is hard to conceive what they found to agree on in their discussions. But perhaps Emerson, open as he was to all forms of spirituality, was more interested in Very's experience, as a generic form of mysticism, than Winters might have realized. Once again, Winters uses the work of one who was cool and rational and cautious in his thought and writing to bash Emerson, the sloppy and uncontrolled thinker, who believed that consistency was a hobgoblin, and who was only kept from a complete abandonment to Romanticism in thought and practice by his native religious moralism. Very's poetry, some of which made the Winters Canon -- and it deserves the distinction -- is excellent, though the focus on intensely Christian forms of mysticism may puzzle and put off some readers. Still, it is clear that Very studied and evaluated his mystical experience through his Reason, which is why Winters considered him, as undeservedly obscure as he remains, one of our greatest poets.
11/9 - On Action in Literature
from the essay "PROBLEMS FOR THE MODERN CRITIC OF LITERATURE" (1956) from "THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM"
From the time of Aristotle to the present it has been assumed rather carelessly that the depiction of action is the greatest achievement of the literary artist, and that those forms which do not depict action or which depict it incompletely are minor forms. But I have never seen a defense of this notion that extended beyond a few sentences or that could bear serious inspection. It is true that human life is composed of action or one kind or another, and that action has consequences, and so on. But the depiction of action per se would not be helpful: it would be meaningless. "Macbeth" is a great play not because it depicts action, but because the action is so ordered and the comments upon the action are such that we can judge the action fully and intelligently. The greatest passages in the play are part of the action, it is true, but their greatness lies in the fact that they comment upon the action, drawing it together and giving it meaning. Without such passages the play would be inferior to "The Spanish Tragedy"; it would be less than melodrama.
* COMMENT: Action remains the highest good of the literary arts, it would seem, in modern times. Most critics believe that the highest purpose of literature is to deliver some kind of vicarious experience of action. For a time, "dramatic" theories even of poetry abounded in our literary culture. Yes, the story is important, essential in fact; but it is the understanding and judging of action, in the view of Yvor Winters, that is the summit of the literary arts. Without these acts of comprehension and "moral" evaluation, literature would have no meaning. Because the typical modern literary artwork concentrates so fiercely on the depiction of action, even the interior "action" of the mind formlessly reflecting, and almost entirely ignores the judgment of the action depicted, most of these artworks are, as Winters charges, meaningless, valueless, and unartistic. As you begin to work with Winters's theories as you enjoy and study works of literary art, you will see how much power they have to dissect the widespread flaws of many of the modern approaches to literature. Moreover, you will begin to discover the truly valuable and profound works that are generally ignored because they concentrate on evaluating portrayed action, not merely portraying it without adequate purpose. Examples, and many examples, are important to understand such concepts, but space does not permit me to expand on these comments. Sadly for us all, I must admit, Winters does not offer enough narrative examples himself to defend and illustrate his concepts in this area, for he focused mostly on poetry, while fiction and drama were give short shrift throughout his writings. The work of our next major Wintersian should try to survey the history of fiction using the superbly effective tools Winters has given us.
11/10 - On Solace
from the essay "THE PLAIN STYLE REBORN" (1961) in "FORMS OF DISCOVERY"
"On the Calculus" is another poem which employs a vehicle from mathematics:
From almost all to almost naught I flee,
And almost has almost confounded me,
Zero my limit, and infinity.
The poem is based on a passage in Pascal but improves on the passage and adds to it. The "Meditation on Statistical Method" deals with a moral problem, "On the Calculus" with a metaphysical; Epigram 43 of this collection deals with a problem which is moral, metaphysical, and theological:
In whose will is our peace? Thou happiness,
Thou ghostly promise, to thee I confess
Neither in tine, nor love's, nor in that form
Disquiet hints at have I yet been warm;
And if I rest not till I rest in three
Cold as thy grace, whose hand shall comfort me?
All three of these poems define truths which cannot be avoided, but they offer no solace unless clear understanding -- that is, rational comprehension combined with propriety of feeling -- be solace.
** COMMENT: Many of the poems Winters chose for his special Canon of the greatest poems in English are on the subject of death. No surprise in that. Death is the most serious subject in human experience. Winters held that there is no consolation for death. He turned to many poems that expressed or implied this lack of solace, even though he also deeply admired many Christian poems that explicitly present the hope of an after-life. In this passage, reflecting on the second Cunningham poem quoted here, Winters explicitly declares his preference for literature that refuses to take solace in any wishful thinking. The second poem is a brilliant short study of the hope for and lack of faith in the modern age. Both poems made the Winters Canon. The first three-line poem quoted here was mentioned among the greatest of the great poems in our language. Do you find that assessment puzzling? You're not alone. But give it time, if you are attracted to Winters's ideas. Some day, you may find yourself agreeing.
11/11 - On Basic Principles
from the essay "STATEMENT OF PURPOSE" (1929) from "UNCOLLECTED ESSAYS AND REVIEWS"
"The Gyroscope" believes, on the other hand, that not only in drama, but in lyric poetry, in prose, and in life, the expression of inadequately motivated emotion constitutes melodrama and is contemptible; that the misfortunes of fools are not tragedy; that the forms of art are the only finally satisfactory means of evaluating the phenomena of life and of establishing a communicable attitude which may permit of such specific evaluations from a comprehensive and stable point of view; that stylistic precision is merely the ultimate manifestation of spiritual precision and strength; and that spiritual precision and strength can be developed in a satisfactory degree only through the serious and protracted study of the masters of art and thought, as well as of self and of living human relations.
** COMMENT: This is an early, and brief, statement of some of the central tenets of Winters's critical theory and his general philosophy. The passage is dense reading, and it requires years of study in Winters's essays to fully comprehend the ideas it contains. The doctrines are stated one after the other without elaboration or justification. And yet, as terse as this essay is and as early in his career as it was written (just a couple years after the beginning of his transformation from experimental imagism to traditional poetic procedures), we find Winters defending and elucidating these points over and again in his career down to 1967 and his last publications. The most salient points are the last made here: the Winters doctrine of the connection between literature and life; and the practice of studying the best artworks to improve one's understanding of literature and ability to think, write, and live well. Also notice the statement of his belief that literature stands at the summit of life -- that it is one's of humankind's most important activities. Many Romantic thinkers and writers and critics, including many moderns, have entertained similar ideas, but none on the same grounds that Winters justified them.
11/12 - On the Inner Check and Social Change
from the essay "HENRY ADAMS OR THE CREATION OF CONFUSION" from "THE ANATOMY OF NONSENSE" (1943) republished in "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
But Aquinas would be forced, I believe, by his definition of conscience and by his use of the Aristotelian doctrine of habit, to identify Babbitt's Inner Check in most of its individual occurrences as an habitual way of feeling about certain kinds of acts; the habit having been generated by training in a particular kind of society, which in turn had grown up originally in conformity with certain kinds of ideas. There is nothing in Babbitt to make one relinquish this interpretation, or even to make one believe that he suspected the possibility of this interpretation; and if the interpretation is true, it follows, as various critics have suggested, that the Inner Check will become progressively weaker as the generating ideas tend less and less to acceptance and the society in consequence alters its nature. Babbitt's doctrine of the Inner Check appears to be a late expression of the voluntaristic belief that morality is arbitrary and incomprehensible; the exact reverse of the Aristotelian doctrine, by which Babbitt appears to be mainly influenced in his early work, that morality is a fair subject for philosophical and psychological investigation, and that its principles can be discovered in a large measure through the use of the natural reason in the study of nature.
** COMMENT: For a time, it was common practice to pair Irving Babbitt with Yvor Winters. Babbitt, the interesting moralist critic (who is still well worth reading), was a controversial, cranky, and powerful critic in the first quarter of the century. But his stock sank rather quickly, and he is now rather obscure and seldom quoted or discussed in our time. His most famous concept is the doctrine of the "Inner Check", which, of course, is itself derived from the ideas of some of the greatest philosophers of Western history. It was easy, early in Winters's career, for opponents to dismiss Winters as a disciple of Babbitt, but very few of Babbitt's ideas appear to have seeped through into Winters's work. They both condemned Romanticism and on much the same grounds (and Babbitt surely influenced Winters deeply on this subject), but in this passage Winters give Babbitt's central idea of the Inner Check a good swift kick for being grossly inadequate in explaining or controlling human action or morality. As we have seen, Winters gave Babbitt's ideas an even harder time in later essays.
11/13 - On Conversational Style
from the essay "ROBERT FROST OR THE SPIRITUAL DRIFTER AS POET " (195?) republished in "THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM"
Frost early began his endeavor to make his style approximate as closely as possible the style of conversation, and this endeavor has added to his reputation: it has helped to make him seem "natural". But poetry is not conversation, and I see no reason why poetry should be called upon to imitate conversation. Conversation is the most careless and formless of human utterance; it is spontaneous and unrevised, and its vocabulary is commonly limited. Poetry is the most difficult form of human utterance; we revise poems carefully in order to make them more nearly perfect. The two forms of expression are extremes. They are not close to each other. We do not praise a violinist for playing as if he were improvising: we praise him for playing well. And when a man plays well or writes well, his audience must have intelligence, training, and patience in order to appreciate him. We do not understand difficult matters "naturally".
** COMMENT: Of course, all this flies right into the face of most of the critical theorizing on literature during the past 100 years. Winters knew how reactionary he sounded -- and knew it well -- when he challenged the prevailing assessment of the style of Robert Frost. The conversational style of Frost has swept the field and almost every other style of writing is in full retreat. Nothing is more highly praised than simplicity and ease and bland colloquialism in writing nowadays. And automatic writing has become a leading doctrine of the regime that holds power in our literary culture. Improvisation has become a highly touted approach in many arts, from literature to music. Though there is much talk of revision, its purpose seems to be to make our writing sound and read more conversational and automatic then ever. Indeed, to sound formal is one of the worst offenses a writer can commit in our age. I admit that these ideas and attitudes have drawn me in as well. They seem much more attractive than the rigorous striving toward accurate and formal statement that Winters espoused as the goal of literary art. But here Winters argues clearly and simply that our whole attitude toward the literary arts must change if we are to understand the implications of how we write, the nature of language, and the challenges of understanding life and living morally. I suppose, in the end, that it is okay to enjoy conversational writing, as long as one does not delude oneself into thinking that such writing is the very best kind of writing or that it offers anything near a complete view of human experience or that it takes adequate advantage of the most powerful tools of human language in the creation of literary artworks.
11/14 - On the Plain Style
from the essay "ASPECTS OF THE SHORT POEM IN THE ENGLISH RENAISSANCE" (1939, 1956, 1967) in "FORMS OF DISCOVERY"
The most obvious defect of the school [of the early Plain style] is one which appears in varying degrees in the world of Gascoigne, Googe, and Turberville, and in the work of many of their lesser contemporaries. It is a tone which appears to have in it almost an affectation of plainness, even of brusqueness. The tone is, however, or so I suspect, the result of the combination of certain traditional devices and limitations which were to be overcome in the last quarter of the century, and in the overcoming of which Sidney probably played a greater part than any other poet: the use of a heavily stopped line with a heavy caesura, the dependence upon heavily accented syllables in as many as possible of the accented positions, and, to clinch the whole effect, the excessive use of alliteration. This procedure is used with best effect by Gascoigne and Googe in some of their aphoristic pieces; it is often used as a pointless mannerism by Turberville; Googe is less bound to it than Turberville, and Gascoigne often departs from it widely.
** COMMENT: Many critics who haven't read Winters much have the impression that he wished to take literature back to the English Renaissance and lock it away there. As we have seen, nothing could be further from the truth about his theoretical position, and this passage is one more piece of evidence against this somewhat common view (if we can anything concerning Winters has been discussed enough to be considered "common"). Winters clearly saw the defects of the plain style that he praised so much, as least as it was practiced in the Renaissance. These defects make a good deal of that poetry feel almost unreadable. But I will assure you that there is much that is great in the movement. As with anything strongly different, the plain style takes a little getting used to nowadays, but the benefits are many, for many of our greatest poems have been written by the poets Winters listed in this passage. In particular, Gascoigne's "Woodsmanship" is one of our greatest artworks, well worth years of patient study, even though it has that seemingly wooden, metronomic style that so repulses modern readers. And there are many others. An anthology that came out some years back, "English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century" (editor John Williams used Winters's work to compile the book), is a particularly good place to start; it has most of the best poems, many of good ones, and many minor masterpieces.
11/15 - On Virtue and Literature
from a letter to HOWARD BAKER (1929) in "SELECTED LETTERS"
Most contemporary poets have mastered poetically -- and morally -- only a small range of experience; most of them are ridden by half-baked theories that prevent their getting any farther. But a limited mastery is better than none, and indicates the possibility of further mastery. The fact that a man has remained a thug in certain regions, and so remains socially impossible, does not mean that he is not profoundly admirable in other respects even though one may find it more convenient to admire him wholly on paper. In a man of [Hart] Crane's vitality, both vice and virtue are likely to appear in vigorous and violent forms. I deplore the vice as much as anyone, but after all one can arrange not to be bothered by it; and the virtue will wear longer and in all likelihood accomplish more in the cause of the angels in the course of the ages than the purely negative and discreet virtues of a good many souls who are charming socially.
** COMMENT: Winters's ambivalence toward the life and writings of Hart Crane is a fascinating subject for further study. Winters conducted a correspondence with the Romantic Crane, who committed suicide in the early '30s, just at the time Winters was making his change of direction. Early in this time of transition, Winters, as he is shows in this letter to a student, poet, and friend, was willing to grant a greater leeway to the vices of literature and life of those he was beginning to side against in theory and practice. Crane stood as a symbol for Winters, one which he would reject within 15 years, though he would always admire Crane's talent as a writer. Still, at this time, Winters was more open to charitably accepting a writer's vices in order to gain access to his virtues. Later, he feared letting himself admire the virtues too openly for fear that the vices of thought and art could damage or destroy him and other readers. This letter was written before Crane's suicide, which played a large role in Winters's change of view on Crane and modern Romanticism in general. It is a profound subject to contemplate through Winters's many writings on Crane and on the Romantics who influenced Crane most.
11/16 - On Allegory and Hawthorne
from the essay "MAULE'S CURSE, OR HAWTHORNE AND THE PROBLEM OF ALLEGORY" from "MAULE'S CURSE" (1938) republished in "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
In "The Scarlet Latter", then, Hawthorne composed a great allegory; or, if we look first at the allegorical view of life upon which early Puritan society was based, we might almost say that he composed a great historical novel. History, which by placing him in an anti-intellectual age had cut him off from the ideas which might have enabled him to deal with his own period, in part made up for the injustice by facilitating his entrance, for a brief time, into an age more congenial to his nature. Had he possessed the capacity for criticizing and organizing conceptions as well as for dramatizing them, he might have risen superior to his disadvantages, but like many other men of major genius, he lacked this capacity. In turning his back upon the excessively simplified conceptions of his Puritan ancestors, he abandoned the only orderly concepts, whatever their limitations, to which he had access, and in his last work he is restless and dissatisfied.
** COMMENT: Winters's keen, meticulous theory of Nathaniel Hawthorne's literary development should dispel any notion that Winters was not fully in tune with the authors he sought to study. This somewhat difficult essay, which would require a critic of much greater knowledge than I possess to judge properly, builds a case that Hawthorne was so constricted by certain conventions of thought and literary structure and certain moral and spiritual conceptions that he was unable to escape them as he tried to understand his own experience. This general conception of Hawthorne is important to Winters's later essays in the history of ideas, and particularly in his conception of the danger of ideas to literary art and to morality and life themselves. In this selection, taken from the concluding paragraph of the essay, Winters summarizes the theory that Hawthorne was trapped by the allegorizing tendencies of the culture that he was trying to understand and judge. There is much here to reflect on, and the essay certainly deserves much greater attention than it has ever received.
11/17 - On Modern Dissolution
from the chapter "CONCLUSION" in "EDWIN ARLINGTON ROBINSON" (1946)
The more talented poets of the same period [the early 20th century], such as Pound and Eliot, represent a conscious effort to dissolve thought and structure in feeling and in sensory perception, and the poetry which has proceeded from them, the bulk of the poetry of the past two decades, exhibits the same tendency in talents which are, for the most part, less impressive than the talents of [Vachel] Lindsay and [Carl] Sandburg. Stevens is similar to Pound and Eliot in this respect, except for a few of his earlier poems, such as "Sunday Morning"; but Stevens in his thought is committed to the process of dissolution which in the main he follows. And his best poetry resembles Robinson only in its exhibition of a great native gift and a traditional method.
** COMMENT: Nothing was more troublesome for Winters than the modern effort, conscious not, to minimize thought, or rational comprehension, in the literary arts. He saw this effort going on around him all during the modern age, and the work effort has continued in our contemporary era of further literary decay. Winters considered the artistic venture of modernism, in general, a monumental waste of talent, and I concur. It is interesting that one of the great dissolvers of rational thought, Stevens, is an artist whom Winters ranks among the greatest and the single poem mentioned here, "Sunday Morning", as one of the very greatest of the greats in English. It is highly instructive to compare this poem to the later long works, such as "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction", to see the dissolution clearly illuminated. It is strange that Lindsay and Sandburg merited a mention in this passage, since Winters generally had long regarded their work as seriously flawed, as well as poorly written overall.
11/18 - On the Final Breakdown of the Renaissance Tradition - KP
from the essay "THE POST-SYMBOLIST METHODS" (1967) in "FORMS OF DISCOVERY"
The sources of the modern theory of this kind of poetry [the ornate-sentimental and associationist tradition of the 18th century] are to be found in two anti-intellectual traditions which support and supplement each other: the sentimentalism of Shaftesbury, in which impulse is treated with respect and reason with suspicion, a sentimentalism succinctly summarized by Pope in the "Essay on Man", especially in the third and fourth epistles; and the doctrine of association, derived from Hobbes and Locke, and developed by Addison, Hartley, Alison, and others in the course of the eighteenth century. According to the first of these doctrines, we do not need to study ourselves in order to understand ourselves: we need merely to entrust ourselves to our feelings, and all will be well. As Pope puts it, equal is common sense and common ease. This doctrine may or may not be sound morally (I personally think it unsound), but it deprives the poet at a stroke of his proper subject matter, which is the understanding of human nature. It generates the eighteenth-century cliché, the formulary generalization, almost automatically. More than two thousand years of ethical and psychological study were thrown away, in favor of a few easy phrases, and the precise evaluation of human experience which had marked the best poetry of the Renaissance was rapidly lost. According to Hobbes and Locke, all ideas arise from sense-perceptions and the complex associations of sense-perceptions. Little by little this came to mean, in literary theory, that ideas can be expressed by sense-perceptions: this theory was pretty well established by the end of the eighteenth century, and even Addison treated poetry largely in terms of visual perception. In our time the theory is axiomatic folk-wisdom: Pound, for example, tells us to go in fear of abstractions, that the natural object is always the ADEQUATE symbol. Associationism also affected the structure of the poem: it justified the neglect of the traditional structure, that of reason or logic, in favor of the structure of revery. One can observe both aspects of the associative method in the "Ode to Evening" and in Pound's "Cantos".
** COMMENT: Early in his career, as we have seen from a number of selections during this Year with Winters, Winters often discussed the breakdown of literary form as a result of the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He seemed to lay much of the blame, perhaps exaggeratedly, for the spread of Sentimental-Romanticism and its effects at Emerson's feet, by way of his deep influence on Walt Whitman. But Winters shows elsewhere that he understood that the roots of the breakdown go much deeper in English literary culture. Not until late in his career, however, did he try to explicate this process, and this passage is one of the key passages in all the writings of Winters that explain why literature has so seriously declined. The passage illuminates not only the matter directly under discussion, the poetry of Churchill and Pope and Dryden, but also, more importantly, Winters discussions of Romanticism throughout his essays. Most critics remain unconvinced, of course. Winters is heretical in this as in most everything he believed. But I will state that in my judgment Winters is mostly right, if not in the details, then certainly in the general interpretation of conditions -- about how Romantic ideas broke down the rational tradition in literature. Once you understand these concepts as Winters lays them out, you wind up recognizing their effects throughout our cultural and literary world and down through three centuries of writing and thinking. Winters believed that Romantic doctrines have done a great deal of harm to our literary artworks, and they caused the waste of far too much talent for what we have gained. It is important to note, nonetheless, that Winters also held that Associationism's focus on sensory perception led to the development of the finest style of poetry yet devised, the Post-Symbolist style, which we have discussed many times during this Year with Winters. This shows that Winters was not even close to being entirely negative about the results of the breakdown of the rational tradition of the Renaissance.
11/19 - On Paradise
from the poem "SUNDAY MORNING" by Wallace Stevens
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.
** COMMENT: Here is a portion of Wallace Steven's great poem, which Winters several times listed among his greatest among the great poems, those lists of five to ten poems that he considered nearly perfect, the summit of literary achievement in English, the literary models we must turn to throughout our lives. A few times Winters also stated that he judged this to be the finest single poem in English in the 20th century. It is an odd choice, for many other critics and writers who oppose Winters's theories and most of the Winters Canon, have also singled this poem out as great or have claimed it as the greatest in the century. Obviously, they praise it for different reasons than Winters did. The study of Stevens might be a very good place to begin one's study of Winters's theories and practices, for it is at Stevens that Winters intersects the modern critics that were so offended by him, his theories, and their results. Lastly, I will just say that you should know this poem well. It certainly is one of the very greatest poems ever written in English. The two stanzas I have chosen particularly well illustrate Steven's mastery of thought, emotion, phrasing, image, diction, and meter.
11/20 - On Prescott
from the essay "HENRY ADAMS OR THE CREATION OF CONFUSION" from "THE ANATOMY OF NONSENSE" (1943) republished in "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
[American Historian W.H.] Prescott, like Gibbon, chose, for his two most famous histories, themes which in themselves possess extraordinary grandeur. They have not the chronological and geographical sweep of the theme of Gibbon, nor are they as important in the development of western civilization; but what they lack in these respects they made up by their strangeness, and the fall of an empire such as that of the Incas, of a civilization such as that of the Mexicans, is sufficiently impressive. The cadence, whether of sentence, of paragraph, or of narrative, is similar to that of Gibbon; the scholarship, within the more limited field, is probably as competent, though on this subject I can merely hazard a guess; the style displays a similar quality of polite imperception, of decadence, and more consistently and obviously, at the same time that it is in spite of this defect beautifully controlled and almost invariably interesting. There may be greater awareness on the part of Prescott than on that of Gibbon, who in this respect is closer, though not extremely close, to Hume, of the necessity of laboring to understand the minds of people of remote times and cultures.
** COMMENT: The space Yvor Winters devoted to the writing of history in his essays is rather small, but it is apparent, from his comments and from reports on how he taught history in his literature classes, that he considered it a very important and much too often neglected genre of literary art. His summary of the eight or ten great literary histories (and I intend this phrase as high praise, not derision) of the English language is masterful and inspiring. This passage is about two of those histories, William Hicking Prescott's "Conquest of Mexico" and "Conquest of Peru". It was Winters, influenced by the fine English historian J.B. Black and his splendid book "The Art of History", who opened my eyes to the literary importance and moral power of historical narrative literature. Winters's comments here are incisive and important. Prescott is indeed one of the greats, and though he continues to be read, he, like the other eight historians Winters considers in this essay, should be more closely studied and appreciated as one of the very greatest literary artists of our culture and civilization. The discussion later ends with Winters's assessment of Henry Adams's "History of the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison", which he declares to be the equal of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" as the two greatest works of literary history in English. Sadly, Winters's initial work in this area has not inspired enough literary critics to follow his example and expand on his ideas and begin the task of discovering the good and great histories that Winters might have missed and the histories being written in our age that deserve to be read far more than impressionistic novels that lay claim to being great literature. I hope that in my lifetime someone will continue to march forward in this profoundly important task. Perhaps, Winters's former Stanford student the historian David Levin, is the man for the job.
11/21 - On Parlor Verse
from the chapter "LITERARY INFLUENCES ON ROBINSON'S STYLE" from "EDWIN ARLINGTON ROBINSON" (1945)
The resemblance to [poet W.M.] Praed is most obvious in Robinson's second best work, but it can be seen in much of the best. In the great poems, or at least in their greatest stanzas, Robinson achieves a concentration unknown to Praed; but throughout his work his shows a liking for the ingeniously full statement of small detail which tends inevitably toward the quality of parlor verse and which may degenerate into mere pseudo-cleverness. There is, in fact, a close relationship between this kind of verse and verse which exemplifies the Browning influence. Parlor verse is not invariably written in the parlor, or for it; it is rather an exhibition of the author's cleverness for the benefit of a similarly clever audience, an exhibition made at the expense of the subject; it displays the eccentricities of the personality rather than the centricity of the subject, but always with a large element of humor or irony, and seldom with any other element save a well-controlled sentimentality.... Robinson sometimes transforms it into something else.
** COMMENT: Winters's study of Robinson shows his distaste for poor writing, embodying those qualities of style that he found fundamentally objectionable or unworthy of serious consideration. Winters had many comments to make throughout his essays about bad writing, but though he defines clearly the purposes and meaning of literature admirably, he never plumbs the mysterious depths of what makes writing bad. He gives many examples, however, and Robinson's poetry provides a wealth, since he was a fine poet given to lots of bad writing, much of it sounding just like Praed's, whose poetry I know only sketchily. Browning was another "bad" writer in Winters's eyes, almost his quintessential bad writer, regardless of his poetic structure or his rational content. Pound, on the other hand, Winters considered a very fine writer, even though he produced no great poems and Winters considered his whole method of literary art weak and nearly morally dangerous. Other critics, of course, have tried to define what makes for bad writing, but Winters, sadly and weakly (in my view), never laid out his basic principles. He wrote many times about "taste" and about good diction, but he never took the time to try to fully explicate his very mysterious and important view of excellence in writing. For example, he never sought to define what makes a good writer, why Pound was and Robinson in so many cases wasn't. We can only guess from his comments, and the guessing often leaves us with the ambivalence of judging writing by "taste", which, as we all know, is a matter notoriously difficult to pin down and find common ground on.
11/22 - On Diffusion in Modern Experimental Writing
from the section "PSEUDO-REFERENCE" from the essay "THE EXPERIMENTAL SCHOOL IN AMERICAN POETRY" in "PRIMITIVISM AND DECADENCE" (1937) republished in "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
Since only one aspect of language, the connotative, is being utilized [in Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake"], less can be said in a given number of words than if the denotative aspect were being fully utilized at the same time. The convention thus tends to diffuseness. Further, when the denotative power of language is impaired, the connotative becomes proportionately parasitic upon denotations in previous contexts, for words cannot have associations without meanings; and if the denotative power of language could be wholly eliminated, the connotative would be eliminated at the same stroke, for it is the nature of associations that they are associated with something. This means that non-rational writing, far from requiring greater literary independence than the traditional modes, encourages a quality of writing that is relatively derivative and insecure.
Since one of the means to coherence, or form, is impaired, form itself is enfeebled. In so far as form is enfeebled, precision of detail is enfeebled, for details receive precision from the structure in which they function just as they may be employed to give that structure precision; to say that detail is enfeebled is to say that the power of discrimination is enfeebled. Mr. Joyce's new prose has sensitivity, for Mr. Joyce is a man of genius, but it is the sensitivity of a plasmodium, in which every cell squirms independently though much like every other.
** COMMENT: During Winters's early career, Joyce's experimenting became a touchstone of modernism, a summit of achievement in new literary structures and methods. It is hard to recall how much every literate reader awaited Joyce's next work after "Ulysses", and how great the excitement, puzzlement, and discussion were concerning the first excerpts from the novel that for a time was simply called "Work in Progress". Every literary thinker had at least something to say about Joyce's final work, even though in our day it has been far surpassed in attention by Proust's "A la Recherche", which in 1937 had not yet achieved the fame or attention of Joyce's more bizarre, dream-like work. Thus, it is natural that in many of his early essays, even on the subject of poetry, Winters comes back to "Finnegan's Wake" as the glaring example of all the modern literary experimental movement has achieved. In this incisive and sarcastic passage, Winters levels Joyce's whole project and lays at its feet the charge of meaninglessness, a charge to which I would assent, regardless of those few critics who continue to defend Joyce's late work and the entire modern desire to experiment, which is so typified by Joyce. Coherent thought, of course, was not the purpose or related to the method of Joyce and so many other classic moderns. Nevertheless, they deserve nothing more than obscurity, in Winters's view, for their time and effort wasted on such so-called artworks. The final sentence is a wonderfully insightful Winters reproof that applies to most of the prominent writers (and particularly poets) of our day, almost 70 years after Winters penned it.
11/23 - On the Fallacy of Expressive Form
from a letter to R.P. BLACKMUR (1933) in "SELECTED LETTERS"
There is only one way to get one's balance if one has been formed (as most of us were) on the moderns: that is to stop reading both the moderns and the poets (like Webster and Donne) whom they have mussed up in our minds, for a year or two, and read good sound traditional poets: Pope, Gay (try "The Birth of a Squire"), Churchill, Gascoigne, Greville, Jonson, till one gets the feel of precision in one's blood again. It is largely a matter of literary habit. It is a habit which your best work proves you could acquire quickly enough if only you saw its advantages. This relaxation, or giving way to one's material, is immoral, profoundly so: it is the central vice of modern poetry, and rests, whether the writer subscribes openly to the principle or not, on the fallacy of expressive form, that is, on the notion that the form should express the quality of the material, that the rhythm should follow the mood, or what-not. This boils down to the Whitmanian trick of writing loose poetry about a loose country, or the Joycian trick of going crazy to express madness. One writes well, not in so far as one acquiesces in one's matter (which is by nature formless) but in so far as one resists and reforms it. This you will doubtless agree to: but you are guilty of the sin in question nevertheless, in a sufficient measure for these and a good many other poems to be robbed of any real distinction. It is a damned shame, because your work at its best is very beautiful.
** COMMENT: Winters was a young scholar at the time this letter was written. He had not yet published his major works, nor even his revised dissertation, which became his first book. Yet, one hears in this passage many of the distinctive points that once made him so controversial. Blackmur became a well-known literary critic himself, one who dabbled from time to time in poetry, some of which Winters admired and wrote about in his essays. Winters's advice for literary improvement is much the same that he offered throughout his career, sometimes directly, sometimes by implication: read the work of the rational masters and get away from the looseness of the modern experimenters, who have won the day in our age. Once again, most aptly, Winters returns to the fallacy of expressive form, a prominent and highly annoying literary convention (really, it is the bad habit) of modern times. As he did concerning Blackmur's poetry, he genuinely lamented all the waste of talent in our age as poet after poet sought to write according to this convention and unwittingly damaged or ruined his own work.
11/24 - On New Perceptions
from the essay "THE MORALITY OF POETRY" in "PRIMITIVISM AND DECADENCE" (1937) republished in "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
Before attempting to elucidate or to criticize a poetry so greatly difficult and evasive as that of the best moderns, it would appear wise to summarize as clearly as possible those qualities for which one looks in a poem. We may say that a poem in the first place should offer us new perceptions, not only of the exterior universe, but of human experience as well; it should add, in other words, to what we have already seen. This is the elementary function for the reader. The corresponding function for the poet is a sharpening and training of his sensibilities; the very exigencies of the medium as he employs it in the act of perception should force him to the discovery of values which he never would have found without the convening of all the conditions of that particular act, conditions one or more of which will be the necessity of solving some particular difficulty such as the location of a rhyme or the perfection of a cadence with disturbance to the remainder of the poem.
** COMMENT: These are the opening sentences of Yvor Winters's first book, which was a revision of his dissertation and a lengthy journal article that he had composed some years earlier. It is interesting that Winters's first statement of his creed includes the idea of originality, since he would abandon most discussion of originality throughout his work, and even throughout this book. But originality meant something different to Winters than it does to most literary critics in modern times. He meant that the artist offers new perceptions of, insights into, and understandings of human experiences, not that the artist must write as no one else writes in order to express his individuality. Winters wrote with contempt of that widespread idea many times in his essays. But the word, apparently, risked confusion and so was abandoned. The second idea stated in this passage stayed with Winters to the end and is one of the foundation stones of his career. He believed with all his might that poetry was vitally important to human life because the literary arts offer us a way of perceiving and understanding human experience that is available through or achieved in no other medium. I suppose every artist feels something similar about his art. Everyone believes that that to which they are devoted is important and worthwhile. The painter believes, certainly, in the vital importance of painting. But there are few artists of any kind that possess the same degree of love for and faith in their art as Yvor Winters for literature.
11/25 - On Hopkins's Theory of Meter
from the essay "THE POETRY OF GERARD MANLY HOPKINS" (1948) from "THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM"
The "Author's Preface", however, was written as an explanation of what Hopkins had actually done. It is unsatisfactory, but we must examine it briefly and point by point. Hopkins begins by naming two kinds of meter, Running and Sprung. The former he identifies with standard English meter: the latter he describes farther on. He states that Running meter may be more easily scanned if any unaccented syllable at the beginning of the line be regarded either as carried over from the preceding line or as extrametrical, so that the accent always falls in the first place in the foot. It seems to me that such a system of scansion would introduce more difficulties than it would eliminate and further that it would disregard the natural genius of English rhythm. In the following paragraph, however, he proceeds to speak of standard English meter as if he had not made this suggestion: his discussion of reversed feet and of counterpoint rhythm rests on a recognition of the reality of iambic and anapestic feet, and he does not account in any way for this sudden change of theory. One does not know, therefore, how he prefers his own poems to be scanned, and one can only use what judgment one has with the individual poem.
** COMMENT: As most students of poetry know, Hopkins revivified the study of the theory and techniques of meter for literary culture a little more than a hundred years ago. Meter had ossified, for the most part, in Victorian literature, and the Americans were doing little in thought and practice that could be considered interesting. Along came Hopkins with his wild experiments, in poems which have captivated millions of readers and made Hopkins one of the world's most famous modern poets. Naturally, a critic with the erudition in metrics that Yvor Winters possessed would be drawn to the study of Hopkins just because of his historic importance to this area of literary inquiry. Not surprisingly, either, Winters had little approval for Hopkins's experiments or his odd metrical theory that inspired them. Winters charged the theory with incoherence, as is discussed in this passage. Once again, Winters is one of the greatest masters in the history of the language on metrics. His long discussion of Hopkins's metrical theories and practices, which continues for many pages following this selection, is most instructive.
11/26 - On Literature and Living - KP
from the "INTRODUCTION" (1967) to "FORMS OF DISCOVERY"
The poet, for reasons which I have given, may be said to live most fully in his medium; it is his finest mode of thinking and perceiving, of being, of discovering reality and participating in reality. But when one speaks of discovering reality, one implies that the reality was there to be discovered, and I think that this implication is justified by experience. In a sense, then, the mind is led. Not wholly, for this is not a matter of passive acceptance on the part of the poet. The poet must be born with ability; he must train every part of his mind. But the reality is there to be discovered at least in part; by reality, I mean the true nature of any subject with which the poet may deal. To participate in reality, even imperfectly, is to be to that extent alive.
** COMMENT: Winters held that modern theories and methods of the literary arts were a way of walling an artist and his readers off from part of reality -- a substantial part of being and life. This brief passage from one of the most important statements of critical theory in the writings of Winters cuts to the heart of his faith in and hope for the literary arts, and particularly poetry. Through the skilled writing of poetry and the skilled reading of poetry artists and readers can achieve a quality of being, a level of understanding and appreciation, that is available to the human mind only through the medium of language used to its full potentialities, rational and emotional, in serious literature. This is a powerful statement of Winters's belief that for the poet and his readers, a work of literary art is a path to full discovery. It constitutes one of our culture's most profound statements of the connection between literature and life.
11/27 - On the Objective Correlative
from the review "THE TESTAMENT OF A STONE" (1924) in "UNCOLLECTED ESSAYS AND REVIEWS"
Perhaps it is true that the poet, moving through his world, reaches, for chemical and other reasons, a point of spiritual intensity, and that those objects that fall under his eye or his mind's eye at this point are transformed into something simpler and greater than actuality, with or without his consciousness or any sequence save the actual sequence of their appearance; that the reproduction of this simplification in words will reproduce in the reader the original emotion or point of intensity. Perhaps it is true that the poet, moving through his world, becomes aware of beautiful existences, and being moved by them to a sufficient point of intensity, is able to reproduce them in words with sufficient accuracy to create in his reader the emotion which they created in him. Or perhaps, and this is probably nearer to the truth, he is sufficiently moved by certain beautiful existences, to be able to create other beautiful existences; and this approaches T.S. Eliot's analogy of the catalyst, and his "significant emotion", which is probably the only sound statement of the creative process that we have.
* COMMENT: Winters was 24 at the time this essay was published and was some years away from his change of direction that led him to traditional poetic forms and rational procedures in the literary arts. Nonetheless, though the passage sounds, on the surface, so different from Winters's later writings, much of what he describes here stayed with him throughout his career. In particular, the idea of "spiritual intensity" became what Winters called later the unparaphraseable judgment of the writer on human experience, the evaluation of concept through emotion. Of course, as we have seen, Winters later completely rejected and discredited the theory of the objective correlative as formulated by T.S. Eliot and which he mentions here. But to the end of his life, Winters saw into these beautiful existences that were brought about by poetry, existences that he sought to understand as well as to experience through the arts of language.
11/28 - On the Winters Literary Creed - KP
from "A FOREWORD" (1947) to "IN DEFENSE OF REASON"
The theory of literature which I defend in these essays is absolutist. I believe that the work of literature, in so far as it is valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth. The form of literature with which I am for the most part concerned is the poem, but since the poem exhausts more fully than any other literary form the inherent possibilities of language, what I say about poetry can be extended to include other literary forms with relatively unimportant qualifications, and in point of fact I devote considerable space to other literary forms. The poem is a statement in words about a human experience. Words are primarily conceptual, but through use and because human experience is not purely conceptual, they have acquired connotations of feeling. The poet makes his statement is such a way as to employ both concept and connotation as efficiently as possible. The poem is good in so far as it makes a defensible rational statement about a given human experience (the experience need not be real but must be in some sense possible) and at the same time communicates the emotion which ought to be motivated by that rational understanding of that experience. This notion of poetry, whatever its defects, will account both for the power of poetry and of artistic literature in general on its readers and for the seriousness with which great poets have taken their art. Milton, for example, did not write "Paradise Lost" in order to give pleasure to Professor So-and-So, nor did he write it to give free rein to his emotions; he wrote it in order to justify the ways of God to men, and the justification involved not merely a statement of theory but a conformity of the emotional nature of man with the theory.
** COMMENT: This is the single most important statement of Winters's critical theory, in my judgment, in all his writings. He restated and expanded on these ideas in his essays many times, but nowhere is there a more comprehensive, concise, and clear exposition of his central critical creed. Since we have covered during this Year with Winters much of the ground covered in this passage, I will confine my comments to a few small points. First, note that Winters's critical theory turns on the seriousness of the literary arts. His brilliant little dig at English professors aptly backs up his contention that the writing of great literature is a very serious business in life. Second, note that emotions follow upon rational thought, but are somehow subordinate to it. Emotion, for Winters, is as essential as thought, but it is emotion that is controlled by rational concept. This idea alone explains many of Winters's most controversial judgments of individual poems and authors. Finally, note Winters's interest in efficiency, expressing the most profound ideas and the deepest emotions in the fewest words possible. Efficiency is a matter that we have discussed much less during this year than the other aspects of his theory, but it was nonetheless very important to Winters. I consider it the least important doctrine in the Winters Creed, but that is only my judgment. There are many great short poems that Winters discovered and championed, to be honest, that I wish were a lot less efficient and delved more deeply into their subjects, their moral judgments, and the attendant emotions.
11/29 - On Classic Epics
from the essay "PROBLEMS FOR THE MODERN CRITIC OF LITERATURE" (1956) republished in "THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM"
The heroic treatment of the prize fight, and of the Cid's defrauding of the Jews, of the thick-headed hero's sulking in his tent, or of the idiocy which caused Roland to lose the read guard, and of many comparable incidents, we could not put up with in the work of a modern, and the reason is not so simple as a mere change of taste. A change of taste has occurred, but it is a change from the primitive to the civilized, from the childish to the adult, and this is true no matter what incidental virtues the primitive poets may have had or how many of these virtues we may have lost. It would seem part of wisdom to value such works as historical data and for such great poetry as we may find scattered through them, but not to over-rate them. For in over-rating them we do injustice to greater works and we cloud our own understanding. My ignorance of Greek prevents me from forming an opinion of individual passages in Homer, though I am willing to believe that there are many which are great; but the total action and the details of the action are simply incapable of resulting in a great work. I can read Old French and Old Spanish well enough; and I have read the "Aeneid" in Latin, though I am no great Latinist. There are passages in the "Aeneid", the "Cid", and the "Roland" which I find very moving, but the general objections to these works are not altered by such passages.
** COMMENT: Most readers of classic literature know of many examples of oddities and infelicities in the classic epics. Winters believed that we should take accurate stock of these flaws and make a proper evaluation of these important historic works to better understand all literature and especially our own literary art and critical theory. This judgment might seem harsh, but Winters always put the just evaluation of artworks first in his critical theory. Without seeking out what's good and what's bad from each work, we cannot progress as artists, readers, or people. Nonetheless, Homer, in our century, has continued to be one of the most beloved authors of all time. Many critics and authors have testified that his writings are the most important, or among the most important, they have ever encountered. "El Cid" and "The Song of Roland" have sunk a good deal, and the "Aeneid", which once enjoyed a prized position at the table, has also been banished to the back of the room. Such are the winds of change in literary appreciation. In any case, Winters was determined not to over-rate these classic artworks, no matter how high the regard for them has been for however long.
11/30 - On Reality - KP
from the "INTRODUCTION" (1967) to "FORMS OF DISCOVERY"
A poem says something in language about a human experience. The poet writes about human experience because there is no escape from it. And he writes in language because there is nothing else in which to write. And language is conceptual in nature. Most of the philosophers of this century have been nominalists of one kind of another; they have written extensively to prove that nothing can be said in words, because words are conceptual and do not correspond with reality. We are told also that our senses deceive us, and in some ways this is obviously true, for the physicists and the mathematicians have discovered realms of what appears to be reality beyond the apprehension of our senses. Yet they have employed language (even mathematics is a language) to approach this reality and they have employed their senses in reading their instruments. The realm which we perceive with our unaided senses, the realm which our ancestors took to be real, may be an illusion; but in that illusion we pass our daily lives, including our moral lives; this illusion is quite obviously governed by principles which it is dangerous, often fatal, to violate; this illusion is our reality. I will hereafter refer to it as reality.
** COMMENT: This paragraph wanders from Winters's conception of the nature of language to his conception of the nature of reality itself. Winters wrote often about the modern "nominalists", a term and philosophical position that you had better become familiar with if you intend to study deeply in the writings of Winters. Winters simply bypasses the entire issue of realism vs. nominalism in this passage. He brushes it all aside even if reality as we conceive it is an illusion, since, to him, it is an illusion that has shown itself to be highly dangerous to ignore or make mistakes about. Of course, this helps to explain why Winters fought so strenuously against literary theories that reject or seem to deny the validity or reality of universal concepts. It is an abstruse philosophical matter to find oneself involved in when reading literary criticism, but it is one of the joys of reading Winters that he took the connections between philosophy, life, and the literary arts to be so vital.
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