Dec 22, 2006

The Christian Faith of Janet Lewis Winters

I wrote about Yvor Winters’s stance toward the Christian faith a couple entries ago. Having continued to ponder that subject, I now wish to compare his position to that his wife, the fine poet and novelist Janet Lewis Winters, who wrote frequently of Christians and of Christianity throughout her long career. Late in her long life (she died in 1999 at the age of 99) she even offered an oratorio on the birth of Jesus, a poem which can be found in the two most recent editions of selected poems. Judging from various passages in her work, especially from her middle age, it appears quite certain that Mrs. Winters was a Christian of some sort.

To get an overview of this subject, let’s start with a poem entitled “December, 1972: Written for the Christmas Concert at Stanford Memorial Church.” In the following passage from this poem, Mrs. Winters speaks of Jesus as the “Holy Babe,” which seems to imply a much stronger adherence to a very high status for this ancient person than her husband ever seemed willing to credit:

Still in such darkness once was born
The very love that moves the stars;
Star of our night, first flower of spring,
The Holy Babe of Christmas morn;
Who is eternally reborn
For us in our remembering.

In this passage Mrs. Winters further suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was the very fulcrum of love itself, as implied in the second line. This seems hardly to be the position of a person who had simply a passing interest in Christianity or a belief in it as some kind of myth of ultimate reality (in the best sense) or metaphysical metaphor. The next poem, of unknown date, which I quote in full, speaks of Jesus as our guide:

“Carol for the Nativity”

At His birth as at His death
A fearful darkness held the earth,
But bright His star and radiant host
Proclaimed the joy and not the cost.

How dark the earth since that far day!
Of broken stone, and rough, the way!
Guide us, fair star, the hard way home.
Sweet heavenly Child, Thy kingdom come!

The language used here suggests strongly that Mrs. Winters recommended to us a belief in Jesus as the divine Lord of the whole world. Finally, I quote from that oratorio, “First Songs for Night of Miracles.” In this passage, Mary speaks to her husband:

Joseph gentle, Joseph kind,
I know that He [Jesus] will heal the blind,
Console the dying, raise the dead,
Give His life for sinful men,
Die Himself, yet live again,
So the angel promis-ed

Such words, even though placed in the mouth of an historic figure, are those that someone who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus and his substitutionary atonement would write. I have no certain knowledge at the time of this writing of Mrs. Winters’s faith, but judging from these passages, it appears evident that she was a conventional Christian believer. Nevertheless, she did write a number of strong poems about the meaning of life and the nature of death that bear no sure or obvious marks of Christian doctrines or ideas. In fact, there are many more of these poems than those that speak directly to her apparent faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Christ. In time, we shall study some of these not obviously Christian poems in greater detail, for several of them are very, very good, some possibly great, and highly deserving of our attention. In general, the work of Mrs. Winters will gradually get more attention on this blog. The time has come to put her into the picture, both because of her many similarities to and affinities with her husband and her differences from him.

In considering Mrs. Winters’s faith, we might wonder what sort of religious discussions husband and wife had during their several decades together in what appears to have been marital harmony in Palo Alto, California. Their situation reminds me of my own marriage in some ways. For my wife remains an Evangelical Christian, fully believing in and committed to her faith in every way, though I have come to disbelieve in the faith we once shared. We discuss our now varying beliefs from time to time, for we still go together to an Evangelical church and listen to orthodox Protestant sermons every Sunday, though we do not and cannot now agree on the metaphysical fundamentals. This is not unlike, too, a number of couples whom I have known whose beliefs have differed slightly or diverged widely. I suspect that Yvor Winters learned a great deal about life and faith from his wife -- and about humility, too. Little of it appears to have made its way into his public prose or poetry, or even into his letters. He seldom refers to matters of faith at all in the recent wide selection of letters published in The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, edited by Robert Barth. Nonetheless, there are a number of suggestive hints that keep popping up in his writings across his career that Christianity stayed on his mind and that he considered a case for its truth-claims seriously and with care. How much of this respectful attitude toward Christianity was due to Mrs. Winters’s influence I cannot say without further study.

As I said in my previous entry on this matter, the religious beliefs of Mr. and Mrs. Winters is a subject worthy of your study, and a good place to begin is with my Year with Yvor Winters. You can do this easily by searching on google with “Year with Yvor Winters” and some key word, such as “religion” or “Christianity.” You will get results showing the relevant passages I quote and comment on.

There will be lots more to come on Janet Lewis Winters in this blog in the months ahead.


Jim Swindle said...

I know nothing of Mr. and Mrs. Winters except what I read in your post, but as a Christian and a poet, I pray that you may some day share the faith of your wife.

You could check out samples of my poetry at .
I don't claim to be a great poet; just a poet.

Ben Kilpela said...

Christians on line rarely pass up a chance to exhort people to their faith -- and with good reason. For they believe they keep to the one true path to salvation and that ALL other paths lead to destruction. This comment makes me wonder whether Janet Lewis similarly ever exhorted her husband Yvor Winters to accept Christ before it was too late for him, since many Christians believe we have only one chance, this life, to believe or perish. Knowing Winters's writings as I do, as well as Lewis's, it is hard to imagine him listening to any such exhortation for long. It is equally hard to imagine that she was an Evangelical Christian (it is nearly impossible that she could have been any sort of Fundamentalist), believing the ludicrous doctrine that all who do not accept Christ according to the specific "evangie" formula will burn in a fire-and-brimstone hell forever. It's interesting and important that Winters included several poems expressing orthodox Protestant doctrines in the Winters Canon of the greatest English poetry, such as the work of Fulke Greville (consider "Down in the depths of mine iniquity"). I will be circling back to Winters's ideas about reading the poetry that contains ideas we do not necessarily accept in the months ahead.