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.

A Winters Great, Charles Baudelaire, in the News

Harvard University Press has been reissuing some of Walter Benjamin’s essays and memoirs in various collections of late. This fall Harvard released a new edition of The Writer of Modern Life, a collection of Benjamin's essays on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. (Information on the book can be easily found by searching on google.) Yvor Winters was heavily influenced by Baudelaire both in his mature conception of poetry and his rational conception of metaphysics -- two subjects indissolubly blended in Winters's later rationalist theories and writings. In 2003 Michael Jennings, editor of the new collection of Benjamin's pieces on Baudelaire, wrote in boundary 2, a Duke literary journal, that Benjamin had come to see Baudelaire as a new sort of artist, one meeting the challenges of modern industry and mercantilism head on:

The classical studies that preceded Benjamin's text had highlighted the early Baudelaire: his ties to Romanticism, the Swedenborgian mysticism of the correspondances, the flights into reverie, elation, and the ideal. Benjamin's reading emphasizes for the first time the other element of the dualism Baudelaire evokes in the section of Les fleurs du mal titled "Spleen and Ideal": Baudelaire's melancholy, his self-understanding as flotsam and jetsam on the tides of modernity. Benjamin's text achieves this by revealing Baudelaire as the preeminent poet of the urban capitalist metropolis. He is the flaneur, strolling through the mercantile arcades at a pace dictated by a turtle on a leash, a ragpicker, collecting images of that which has been discarded by the denizens of the metropolitan jungle. And Benjamin relates these features to historical processes: the flaneur's pace protests against the accelerating tempo at which urban life must be experienced; the ragpicker's accumulation of unrelated detritus from all walks of Parisian life figures nothing else but the division of labor, a prime cause of the fragmentation of that human experience.

This aspect of Baudelaire's poetry, his exploration of changes, good and bad, to human nature in the new urban life, is one that Winters commented on very little in his criticism, though it has been the primary focus of much of the study of the French poet in our times. Winters, rather than contemplating and evaluating Baudelaire's literary study of the increasing degradation and decay of human life brought about in great part by new economic systems, studied closely -- and very highly praised -- Baudelaire's delineation of the calm spiritual control he had achieved in the face of the metaphysical predicament of humankind (and of each individual person, whether beggar or king). In Winters's judgment, Baudelaire described, rationally understood, and properly adjusted his emotions to his recognition of the metaphysical horrors of life, discovered most surely, starkly, and harrowingly in modern times. These horrors arise from our seeing that life utterly ends with human death, that all existence for each and every individual self is completely and irredeemably annihilated. Baudelaire, according to Winters, faced this predicament better than most every other thinker who had come before him, with the calm resolve of the stoic, the steady gaze of one who had perceived the true nature of human existence and yet had found the ancient and classical way to stand firm. For this reason, he chose poems such as "Le Mort Joyeux" as one Baudelaire's very greatest and one of the very greatest ever written in any language. This poem is a stoically, yet suggestively defiant, welcoming of the utter dissolution of death, a poem that conveys through its steady, controlled language and astute metrical control the profound emotional adjustment of its author to a horrfying vision of that dissolution:

Le Mort joyeux

Dans une terre grasse et pleine d'escargots
Je veux creuser moi-même une fosse profonde,
Où je puisse à loisir étaler mes vieux os
Et dormir dans l'oubli comme un requin dans l'onde.

Je hais les testaments et je hais les tombeaux;
Plutôt que d'implorer une larme du monde,
Vivant, j'aimerais mieux inviter les corbeaux
À saigner tous les bouts de ma carcasse immonde.

Ô vers! noirs compagnons sans oreille et sans yeux,
Voyez venir à vous un mort libre et joyeux;
Philosophes viveurs, fils de la pourriture,

À travers ma ruine allez donc sans remords,
Et dites-moi s'il est encor quelque torture
Pour ce vieux corps sans âme et mort parmi les morts!

Here's a translation of that poem that I memorized long ago and that I type out of memory. I do not remember the translator and am unsure of the punctuation at the time of this writing:

The Gladly Dead

In a soil rich with snails and thick as grease
I’ve longed to dig myself a good deep grave.
There to stretch my old bones at ease
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in wave.

Wills I detest and tombstones set in rows!
Before I’d beg a tear of anyone,
I rather go alive and lets the crows
Bleed the last scrap of this old carrion.

O worms, Black comrades without eye or ear,
Here comes a dead man for you, willing and gay.
Feasting philosophers, sons born of decay,

Come, burrow through my ruins, shed not a tear.
Only tell me if any terror is left to dread
For this old soulless body, dead as the dead.

And here's another translation I found on the web:

The Joyful Corpse

In a rich, heavy soil, infested with snails,
I wish to dig my own grave, wide and deep,
Where I can at leisure stretch out my old bones
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in the wave.

I have a hatred for testaments and for tombs;
Rather than implore a tear of the world,
I'd sooner, while alive, invite the crows
To drain the blood from my filthy carcass.

O worms! black companions with neither eyes nor ears,
See a dead man, joyous and free, approaching you;
Wanton philosophers, children of putrescence,

Go through my ruin then, without remorse,
And tell me if there still remains any torture
For this old soulless body, dead among the dead!

William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

It is in the language, the connotations aroused by the choice of words and the metrical flow, that Winters sees Baudelaiore's stoic adjustment to the metaphysical horro so perfectly displayed. Here is Winters commenting on great poets who likewise accomplished this important work of facing the metaphysical horrors of modern times, the chief exemplar of whom was, for him, Charles Baudelaire:

The facts of life at best are disheartening: the vision of life which man has little by little constructed (or perhaps as one should say stripped bare) is all but crushing. To evade the facts and attempt bluff vigor, as Browing often seems to do, is not convincing to the man who has experienced the imaginative facts. The artist who is actually ignorant of the metaphysical horror of modern thought or who cannot tell it imaginatively -- and there are many such -- is of only a limited, a more or less decorative, value. But the artist who can feel the full horror, organize it into a dynamic attitude or state of mind, asserting by that very act his own life and the strength and value of his own life, and who can leave that state of mind completed behind him for others to enter, has performed the greatest spiritual service that can be performed. For it is only the superior man, the man capable of expercing art, who finds himself in any dilemma; but the emotional tone, whether of vigor or of decadence, felt by the superior man, will eventually, by whatever devious and subtle means, filter down infecting in one degree or another the entire structure of society.

Such Yvor Winters believed of the works of the very greatest poets, of which he judged the poetry of Charles Baudelaire as nearly the greatest, in this very important essay from early in his career. First published in 1929 and entitled "The Extension and Reintegration of the Human Spirit: Through the Poetry Mainly French and American Since Poe and Baudelaire," the essay was finally republished more than 40 years later in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters. Baudelaire, as nowhere else in Winters's oeuvre, is a central focus of this essay.

Yet, since he discussed it so little, I cannot say what Winters might have thought of Baudelaire's study of the decay brought on by urbanization and the economic systems that gave rise to it. Baudelaire's description of the evils of urban life in his time has usually been interpreted by modern critics as an indictment of capitalism itself. Winters had little to say about this, and this lack, in my judgment, is one significant weakness of Winters's criticism, one of the weaknesses that Wintersians should begin to correct if we are to see his ideas develop and prosper. In my judgment, Winters did not focus often enough on those aspects of life and human experience that are only tangentially concerned with the loftiest metaphysical issues, the issues of the nature of human life and death. Winters clearly considered it much more important for the literary artist and his or her readers to contemplate and properly confront the spiritual horrors of existence than to understand the sorrows and sufferings of masses of people at the hands of whatever economic and social ideas, systems, and ideals that control their day-to-day lives.

But is this accurate or true, that reflecting on momentous philsophical issues is of vastly greater importance than comprehending, both intellectually and emotionally, the effects in human lives of economic and social ideas and systems and ideals -- and moving on, in some cases, to doing what we can and should, individually and collectively, to correct those evils and make lives better? I no longer think so, especially if the nature of existence is the horror that Winters believed it to be. For if this brief, horrifying life is all we have, and the brief lives of the indigent and the lost are all they have, then should we not seek to make our life and theirs better? And should not art play the part it can and should in that great mission, as much it seeks to enable us to confront properly the true metaphysical nature of our lives and deaths? I now believe it should, and I also believe that Wintersian artists must begin to dedicate the literary arts to this work, as much as Wintersian critics should work on discovering and studying the work that great literary artists have already done that can best aid us in such great and important tasks.

Jennings goes on to comment on Benjamin's focus on the criticism of capitalism inherent in Bauedlaire's great poetry:

[Benjamin's] book emphasizes, then, the same overriding concerns so evident in The Arcades Project: the rise of commodity fetishism in the big city and a concomitant dehumanization under capitalism. Baudelaire's lyric poetry, writes Benjamin, "breaks in its destructive energy not only... with the nature of poetic inspiration; it breaks — due to its evocation of the city — not only with the rural nature of the idyll, but it breaks — due to the heroic determination with which it makes poetry at home at the heart of reification — with the nature of the things. It stands at the place at which the nature of things is overpowered and transformed by human nature."

As I say, I think now that in contemplating such issues Winters's critical thought is shown to be weaker than it should be. He believed that poetry and literature at its best are concerned with higher issues, with the meaning of existence. But I believe that these other matters are highly important, too, what to do with widows and beggars, the lost and the ill, with the evil born by and in the streets, the ways in which we make and buy our bread and feed our families leaves so many in the ditches to rot and die. Such matters Wintersian literary artists can and should study and contemplate in their poetry and fiction, and these artists should do it more often, I think. Wintersians have yet to witness the coming of the the next critic who can build on Winters's critical work and theories in the area of metaphysics through the study and evaluation of poems and works of fiction that address such social and economic issues, with both rational soundness and emotional propriety.

Yet as Winters judged, Baudelaire is one of our greatest poets, well worth careful study throuhgout a lifetime. I will offer some further reflections on his work and Winters's relations to it in the weeks ahead on this blog.

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.

Dec 13, 2006

Aaran Haspel’s Blog: “God of the Machine”

It’s time for a short entry about coming across, some time ago, another fellow who has been writing about Winters from time to time, Aaron Haspel, in his blog entitled “God of the Machine.” I have provided a link on my front page to Haspel’s blog. Of course, it’s important to see what other people who study Winters -- somewhere Haspel calls him “his main man” -- are thinking and reading, and I think Haspel is worth your time.

To consider a recent example of Haspel’s work, he wrote an entry on that newly discovered Robert Frost poem that made a small splash in the cultural news recently. In the midst of his discussion of the poem, Haspel states his opinion that Frost’s two best poems are probably “The Most of It” and “Spring Pools.” Now it just so happens that these atypical choices as Frost’s best work are exactly the poems Yvor Winters chose as Frost’s best in his controversial, very seldom read, and now almost completely ignored essay on Frost, originally published in the Sewanee Review in 1948 (republished in The Function of Criticism). Judging from this, I think we can safely assume that Haspel has been deeply influenced by Winters, as comes across in many of his discussions of poetry, as well as other matters.

On the subject of what’s best in Robert Frost, I should note that John Fraser selected those two poems for his New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing off and on in this blog (with lots more commentary on Fraser’s important anthology to come -- I also provide a link to it on my front page). As well as I am able to judge Fraser’s purposes (as so hazily set down in his long introduction), he selected poems that are superior or even great in that they best exhibit the stylistic qualities that Winters and some Wintersians find more sound and of more value than the usual fare in modern poetry. These are, presumably, qualities that Fraser and other Wintersians would and should like to see adopted more widely. Here are Fraser’s selections of very good or great poems from the work of Frost (with some brief comments from me):

“Acquainted with the Night” (“I have been one acquainted with the night”)

Comment: Winters believed that this poem is one of Frost’s finest achievements, but the poem has long been popular even among those committed to the Standard Canon. You can find a great deal of commentary on the poem across the web. Early in his career, Winters listed this poem as one of the greatest achievements in modern poetry. This was done in a 1930 letter (as I recall), though Winters described the poem in other letters as great or exceptionally good shortly thereafter. All these remarks were made in the period of transition in Winters’s career and life, when he was changing from imagist techniques to rational procedures in poetry. His opinion of the poem appears to have fallen quickly as he became more sure of his new critical principles in the 30s and 40s. Nonetheless, it’s a strong poem, I think, well worth knowing, but not quite deserving of the Winters Canon as one of the greatest in our literature. It is not nearly at the intellectual level of, say, Bridges’s “Low Barometer” or Jonson’s “To Heaven”. It is a fairly good example of a poetic procedure that Winters would come to call “post-symbolist,” a very useful term that few critics seem aware of and fewer still have put to regular use. It means, briefly, that the sense perceptions described are charged with abstract meaning, roughly as in an allegory.

It’s interesting to explore what readers get out of this poem. Most casual readers interpret the poem as an expression of Frost’s personal feelings of loneliness and depression, both feelings unmoored to any motivating event or concept. Most critics, however, interpret the poem as Winters did, as a metaphysical study, a description of the cosmic isolation of humankind in the universe and the emotional stance we should take toward the recognition of our metaphysical isolation. I think Winters came to see Wallace Stevens’s poems in this vein to be the greater, especially “The Course of a Particular,” which Winters later in his career declared to be one of the dozen or so greatest poems ever written in the English language. If you, my readers, would like to discuss this poem in greater depth, either to evaluate it or explicate it, I would be happy to do so.

“The Most of It” (“He thought he kept the universe alone”)

Comment: I quoted this poem in its entirety in a previous entry “Gratitude and the Winters Canon.” This is a poem Winters focused on much more closely and thought more highly of than almost all Frost critics. It’s another very good poem, similar in theme to “Acquainted with the Night,” and it is perhaps the finest in Frost. But it doesn’t have the emotional power of, say, Steven’s “Course” or the astoundingly great “Sunday Morning.” It is almost whimsical, so dry is its description of human solitude. The poem very subtly suggests the taking of a coolly stoic attitude toward the recognition of the cleavage between ourselves and the world we love. That attitude is probably what drew Winters’s close attention and praise. I would say that this poem is not one of the greats. It just doesn’t go into enough depth or adjust our emotions properly to the rational metaphysical concept offered. Frost settles for a rather simple exploration of difficult and somewhat disturbing subject matter. This is also a poem that I would be happy to discuss with you, my readers, in greater depth.

“Spring Pools” (“These pools that, though in forests, still reflect”)

Comment: This is another poem that drew Winters’s attention for its superior qualities. It is nicely done, but as Winters said, it is a minor work. I do not believe it is great, as fine as it is. Personally speaking, I don’t get much out of it, either. It seems to me to be more or less an appeal to carpe diem.

“Never Again Would Birds’ Song be the Same” (“He would declare and could himself believe”)

Comment: This is yet another piece that Winters drew attention to and mildly praised, though he little more than mentions it in his writings. I think this is as strong as the others already discussed. Winters thought it minor. I don’t see that it is any less minor than “Spring Pools” and many another nicely-turned Frost ditty. This does not belong in the Winters Canon, though it’s not a worthless poem, certainly.

Desert Places (“Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast”)

Comment: Sometimes considered a companion piece to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” this poem is a choice of John Fraser’s as a superior Wintersian poem. Winters never mentions the poem. I think Fraser is on to something. I have been pondering this choice for a while before I decide on my own vote, on a definitive judgment. Other comments are welcome. Off hand, I think the poem trades in a few too many sentimental phrases to be considered great. Frost appears to be indulging himself in some easy emotion rather than looking clearly at his subject in this one. The theme, as you see, is very similar to that of “Acquainted” and “The Most of It.”

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Directive (“Back out of all this now too much for us”)

Comment: This is another choice of Fraser’s, which I reprint below. It’s a stronger effort among Frost’s work that run-of-the-mill critics have studied regularly down the years. Here’s a deeply spiritual study of the poem, though it makes no attempt at an artistic assessment of it:

On his web site, Fraser offers a long and valuable study of a poem I consider one of the very greatest in English, as Winters did, George Herbert’s “Church Monuments.” In theme, Frost’s poem, which I append to this entry, has various affinities to Herbert’s that are worth looking over carefully. Quite obviously, Herbert’s poem is a directive, too. The comparison reveals the weaknesses of Frost, I believe, his sentimentality in particular. Winters never discussed or mentioned this poem that I am aware of, though he almost certainly knew it. I’m not ready to make a final call, but for now I would say that the poem doesn’t belong in the Winters Canon, though it is a fine poem in many respects. Certainly, it is far from worthless. Another poem worth comparing with “Directive” is Philip Larkin’s “Church-Going,” a poem I intend to discuss in due course on this blog, since Fraser chose it for his New Book of Verse as a superior work of Wintersian art (or however we might interpret the choices made for Fraser’s anthology). I will have more to say on Larkin another time and put in at some point my two cents on whether any of his work belongs in the Winters Canon, which I believe we need to try to reassess and expand.

But getting back to Frost, I think there is more work that is worth close scrutiny in his oeuvre, though I am not sold that any of his work deserves to be part of the Winters Canon.


Directive, Robert Frost

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Dec 6, 2006

Can Writing Be Dangerous?

I have been talking a great deal in this blog in its opening months about the relationship between Yvor Winters and Hart Crane, because that topic has been much in the cultural news of late (arising because of the publication of the Library of America edition of Hart Crane’s poems). The matter came up yet again in an essay by Adam Kirsch in the September edition of the journal Poetry on the anniversary of the publication of Allen Ginberg’s “Howl.” The essay is entitled, “Starving Hysterical Naked,” the last three words of the first line of the poem. Kirsch, who has written of Winters in a few of essays here and there, including in the New Criterion, wrote of Lionel Trilling’s reaction to Ginsberg’s poem in terms that have pertinence to the study of Winters:
This is the point at which Lionel Trilling's verdict on [“Howl”], that it was "dull," starts to look especially peculiar. Many sins might be laid at the door of Ginsberg and his poem, though it is impossible to separate the influence of the text from that of the period it inspired and came to symbolize, the Beat fifties and hippie sixties. The glorification of violence, the sentimentality about mental illness, the contempt for reason, the political self-righteousness, the waste of reformist energy in theatrical gestures, the confusion of narcissism with moral superiority: all that is worst about the counterculture is foreshadowed in "Howl" and Ginsberg's subsequent poems. But it would take a pretty jaded palate to find "Howl" dull.

Well, I don’t know. I don’t consider myself all that jaded, if I understand what Kirsch means by the term, but I find “Howl” a bore. It’s an unstructured, droning rant to my ear, and it quickly grows tiresome -- it even seemed dull in my earliest days in the serious study of literature, back in the mid 1970s. That I read it in the 70s might be important, since by the mid-70s weariness with the 60s had cured into a block of concrete in the heart. Kirsch’s piece gave me an itch to go reread the poem again, but I found it drudgery rather than an enlightening pleasure. There are a couple of nice turns of phrase, but the poem as a whole is a trainwreck of ideas -- a manic melange, to switch metaphors. You can pick little tidbits from the mass and sometimes find them interesting or even suggestive. But when you step back, there it is: a big, ugly trainwreck after all. I wouldn’t even say it is a poem, except by modern consent, and it isn’t very good prose, either. Kirsch then turns to the fears about writings like “Howl”, which he believes are of a species with Winters’s fears about Hart Crane’s dissolution, which, Winters believed, Romanticism engendered:

What Trilling really meant to communicate, I suspect, is not that "Howl" would fail to excite its readers, but that it would excite them in a way which Trilling himself, and many other imaginative people, had already judged disastrous. For while Ginsberg's belief in radical innocence and radical excess was new to the baby boomers, it was not at all new to Trilling, or to Modernists like Yvor Winters and Allen Tate, each of whom had experienced the suicide of Hart Crane as a parable of the personal cost of imaginative chaos. The antinomianism found in "Howl" was, in fact, one of the fundamental impulses of modern literature, and readers who were in their fifties when Ginsberg was in his twenties had wrestled with it long before. "It seems to me that the characteristic element of modern literature," Trilling wrote in an essay that was not about "Howl" but could have been, “is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.... It asks us if we are saved or damned -- more than with anything else, our literature is concerned with salvation.”

Again on the shoulders of the principles underlying modern literature, as unsystematic as they are, a critic lays the suicide of Hart Crane. There, too, we read a rather severe, almost hysterical, word, “disastrous,” applied to a writing of just a couple thousand words. Using such words goes somewhat too far for me, as I have discussed in a couple of recent entries in this blog (see “Romanticism Leads to Madness, Reason to Evil?” and “Hart Crane and Connotation”). To my mind, it’s not that chaotic writing is so dangerous. It’s that it’s so dull, just as Trilling said. I don’t read serious literature in order to take a little dip into chaos or vicariously revel in someone else’s bad-boy shenanigans, but to discover truth on my own “quest for reality” (which was the title of Winters’s anthology of greatest poems). “Howl” is dull because it simply doesn’t offer much to think about, doesn’t take us into any human experiences and help us to understand them rationally, or aid us adjusting our emotions to a rational understanding of those experiences. The poem is a frenzied, overwrought mishmash, a pile of straining phrases and harebrained ideas that adds up to a loose compendium rather than a sustained meditation. It’s a rundown of the wild times Ginsburg and his friends had. Big deal. Is it “dangerous” to go through it all. It seems more just plain silly. It’s still surprising that anyone smart took this jejune stuff seriously.

Still, I suppose “Howl” is important historically and worth knowing for that reason, since it has had a significant influence on literature. (I think it’s worth knowing things in the Standard Canon just because the Standard Canon, as Harold Bloom said, is made up of those works that have had the greatest influence). It’s important to know it because of the insight it gives us into the times it concerns. And even a few ideas in the mountain it piles up might have slight value, like Goodwill trinkets found in a trash heap. But as a whole the poem is not much and not worth concentrating on too closely, except as an historical artifact.

Do you, my readers, think that it’s dangerous personally or corporately to write as Ginsburg wrote and read what Ginsburg wrote in the way he wrote it? I’m still not sold on that longstanding idea of Winters’s, to which Kirsch gives his implied assent. Is Romanticism, as spread by literature, a cause of some of the dire problems in our time? In reading Winters, and Kirsch hints at the idea too, one would almost think so. But such matters require careful thought.