Dec 20, 2006

A Winters Fragment on Christianity

‘Tis the season, as we say, and at this particular season we reflect on things Christian, whether we are Christian or not. I have noticed in my years of corresponding with people interested in the art and thought of Yvor Winters that Christians or one sort or another are often attracted to his work. I was once a Christian myself (American Protestant Evangelical) and was first drawn to Winters criticism, back when I was in college in the mid-1970s, because his literary theories and ideas seemed in some vague ways congenial to the Christian faith. I even wondered briefly whether Winters might actually be a Christian. It doesn’t take long reading him, however, to realize that however intellectually or emotionally credible he found the Christian faith, he never came close to converting. In my later college years, I wrote a brief poem, which it would take me a long time to dig out of some moldering box in the basement, about Winters waking up in the afterlife and finding out he was wrong about Christianity. Sad to say, I don’t remember what the poem said.

I have often wanted to study the matter of Winters’s religious beliefs more deeply, but haven’t yet taken the time. Winters made a number of comments in his essays and poems that appear, on the surface, to be congenial to Christian faith, such as his cautious admission to being a “theist” in a central essay, the “Foreword” to In Defense of Reason, a comment that I quote and briefly discuss in my book A Year with Yvor Winters on my web site (a link to which is provided on the front page of this blog). What the term “theism” meant to Winters, I learned in time, was quite different from what the modern American Evangelical Christian usually means by the term -- though his sketchy conception of theism does not appear to be wholly incompatible with some atypical conceptions of theism that some radically innovative Christian thinkers have adopted during the past 2000 years. Furthermore, Winters made a few mostly unelaborated declarations that he is an absolutist -- sometimes using a capital “A”. Since many Christians hold to a belief in absolute truth and, furthermore, assent to a variety of specific absolute beliefs, though of a different sort from Winters, it would be natural for a Christian to think that a “theistic absolutist,” as Winters claimed to be, has some affinity to himself. Lastly, Winters many times wrote of his evident agreement with the philosophical ideas (in contrast to the theological ideas, a reader in time finds out) of some great Christian thinkers of the past, particularly Thomas Aquinas and Acquinas’s brilliant 20th-century explicator, Etienne Gilson. Such comments would certainly draw the interest of a Christian.

Of course, the most important statement on God and ultimate reality Winters ever made is the great poem “To the Holy Spirit,” which I consider, perhaps, the greatest poem in the English language -- though I do not agree with its every idea about the “Holy Spirit” or ultimate reality. (Don’t worry: though I won’t discuss it here, in time we shall have opportunity to discuss Winters’s magnificent “Holy Spirit” on this blog.) But more than that great poem, the general topic of Christianity brings to mind the dense, elusive poetic fragment, just two iambic couplets, Winters wrote somewhat late in his life. It contains one of only two or three explicit references to Christian faith in Winters’s poetry:


I cannot find my way to Nazareth.
I have had enough of this. Thy will is death,
And this unholy quiet is thy peace.
Thy will be done; and let discussion cease.

Much about Winters metaphysical and religious beliefs concerning Christianity, at least during his middle age, are disclosed in these four dry, simple lines. This is not a great poem, but it is an important one for those who wish to understand more fully Winters’s religious views. I find the poem chilling, with its stark declaration that some supernatural being’s will “is death” and that its offer of peace is constituted by an “unholy quiet,” which we can probably take to mean the simple annihilation of all life of any sort, physical, mental, or spiritual. (Ancillary questions to consider: 1) Does Winters mean that the supernatural being’s “primary” will, or perhaps its “only” will, is death? 2) Does “thy peace” allude to the angel’s proclamation of “peace on earth” at Christ’s nativity?) Yet these lines also contain ideas, indefinite as they are, that can seem congenial to believers in various specific religions, including Christianity, particularly the use of “thy,” which suggests that Winters believed in, however tentatively, a personal divine being of some sort (a very strange sort indeed, as you will find if you go on to study Winters in greater depth).

Notably, the second half of the last line sounds distinctly unlike Winters -- to wish that discussion would cease. As for me, I am most happy to see discussion on the nature of ultimate reality continue on right to my own last end, however frustrated I have been that all the discussion I have read and heard so far has failed, in my judgment, to lead to any firm rational conclusions that engender in me a sense of peaceful near-certainty -- or even semi-confidence. We can only can guess at the full motive behind Winters’s frustration as articulated in this final clause and the first clause of the second line. Yet from my many years of reading Winters, these two clauses appear to convey a sense of vexation that he could not find his way to Christian faith (“to Nazareth”). This suggests, as some of his prose comments also suggest, that he would have liked to have found, and perhaps even tried to find, a way to believe in the Christian faith. Having once been a Christian, I have felt similarly vexed in other ways, as one who though he had found Nazareth but discovered in time that the place is an inscrutable mystery in the Galilean desert.

That first line suggests to me, only very slightly, that Winters almost came to judge Christianity to be true, but that he couldn’t confirm it to his satisfaction. In my case, I once was satisfied of its truth but became unsatisfied and now no longer believe Christianity to be true and have left the faith. If I were to have written this poem, my first line would have read: “I know there is no Nazareth to find” (note that I keep to iambic pentameter). For me, who once believed and still is attracted to Christian belief in some of its aspects, that is just about as frustrating an experience as that which Winters seems to have had.

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