Oct 13, 2006

Spider Webs and Winters

I was cruising among the poems of Emily Dickinson recently when I came across one that could aptly describe the literary world’s treatment of Yvor Winters. The poem is from the Collected Poems, as published in 1924 (an edition that Winters strongly supported, by the way -- he hated all those dashes used in another popular edition that can be found everywhere). The poem comes from “Part Two: Nature”:


The spider as an artist
Has never been employed
Though his surpassing merit
Is freely certified

By every broom and Bridget
Throughout a Christian land.
Neglected son of genius,
I take thee by the hand.

Surely, as always in this wide world of boundless opinion and endless disagreement, there are many who would contest that the spider’s artistic merit is freely certified, if I understand Dickinson aright -- that is, that the beauty of a spider web is obvious to anyone and everyone. Putting aside that nettlesome question, I think the poem describes acutely what I and some few others have done with Winters, an artist and thinker of obvious and neglected genius who long ago was swept from just about every wall by brooms throughout the land. Still, two new and very fine editions of selected Winters poems have come out just in the past three years, R.L. Barth’s and the late Thom Gunn’s. How many readers have “employed” them? I wonder. That might be too discouraging to take the trouble to find out.

But let me change the subject a bit. Because I am not especially well studied in Dickinson, I can only speculate that this poem hints that it is concerned with the problem of evil. It might be that it is almost impossible nowadays for someone reasonably well educated to read this poem without thinking of Robert Frost’s later and much more famous spider poem, which directly concerns the problem of natural evil. Was Dickinson being ironic in this poem, pointing out the beauty of webs that are used to kill? In light of her many other poems on death and evil and the woes of human life, and in light of that reference to a “Christian land,” I can only conjecture. If this irony exists, then how should the final line be construed? That she embraces or accepts and allies herself with death, or evil, in some fashion? Is this comparable to Winters’s brand of stoicism?

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