Dec 21, 2007

Recent Writings on Yvor Winters: “Allusion to the Poets”, 2002

Christopher Ricks regards literary allusion as highly meaningful, an essential and powerful aspect of literature, perhaps the core of literary experience. I would say that he loves allusions; he finds great meaning and pleasure in finding them, understanding them, experiencing them as he reads. He has written a learned book about the theory and practice of allusion in literature. Naturally, since he loves allusion so deeply, he doesn’t appreciate writers who, somehow, oppose allusion -- or even fail to pay enough attention to it in their criticism. This appears to be the “sin” Yvor Winters has committed against allusion, in Ricks’s mind. For Ricks in his much admired 2002 book on allusion has included a chapter on both Winters’s lack of attention to allusion in his criticism and on his quasi-hypocritical practice of alluding in his poetry while “opposing” the concept of allusion.

The essay on Winters is only a small part of a large book, which, overall, is a broad study of the ways and means of allusion as illustrated in the work of a group of specific poets. Ricks thinks that repeating or nearly repeating, or somehow echoing or pointing to, words and phrases of poets and novelists, those whom he calls “ancestral voices,” is a region in which poetry hides much of its great power, an idea I find quite overblown. Through allusion, Ricks claims, poets pay homage to the “immense debts” they owe to their ancestor poets and immeasurably deepen the meanings of their own poems. The book consists of 12 essays on allusion and its permutations. Ricks focuses mostly on the uses of allusion among English poets from the early Romantic and Victorian periods (the standard-issue “greats”).

Before he gets to Winters, Ricks spends the first half of his book on “The Poet as Heir.” This section consists of six essays devoted to individual poets, Augustan, Romantic, and Victorian: Dryden and Pope, Burns, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Tennyson. In the course of these essays, Ricks opines that allusion is a form of inheritance, which should not be hoarded or squandered. Ricks tries to grasp how a poet imaginatively cooperates with those from whom he has received a legacy. Ricks sees the writings of the past as bequests that entail obligations. The words and phrases and ideas of past writers live with later writers more vitally than thrones or lands, even more than languages, the human senses, or money. They are, to Ricks, literature itself, and literature seems to form some sort of sacred Olympus in Ricks’s mind. The second half of his book contains six essays on various aspects of his theory of allusion: its relationship to plagiarism (allusion being its opposite, in Ricks’s understanding); its affiliation with metaphor; its part in literary loneliness (allusion provides company to the lonesome writer); its use in prose (concerning Housman); its importance to translation as a form of allusion (concerning David Ferry); and to the clash between poetic practice and critical principles -- that’s the one on Winters.

Now, I find allusion to be a mildly engaging topic, but not nearly so profound as Christopher Ricks takes it to be. After skimming most of the book, however, I’m not sure why Ricks bothers with Yvor Winters, except, it seems rather clear, to set up and knock down a straw man[1]. By propping up Winters as a dogged and hypocritical antagonist to his own position, Ricks seems to feel that he can better show that allusion, his fixation, is a central feature of poetry and of criticism -- is everywhere in literature and is everywhere profoundly valuable. The problem is that Ricks seems to be under the illusion that Winters thought ill of allusion.

So let’s start there, with Winters’s views on allusion. Ricks is clearly troubled by Winters’s theoretical objections to what Winters called “pseudo-reference.” Ricks appears to think (he is less than clear on this) that pseudo-reference is an exact synonym for allusion, and that since Winters objects to pseudo-reference, he must also object to allusion in some unspecified, undefined way.

This is a faulty argument. Winters’s discussion of pseudo-reference is found in Primitivism and Decadence, his first book. This is a complex subject, and I do not have the time to make a case for my views here. But I opine that this term does not mean allusion, but what I might call “empty” allusion -- repetitions of words and phrases made for the sake of appearing to discuss concepts or stories or scenes or situations that are not properly fleshed out. But a discussion of pseudo-reference and Winters’s views on proper allusion is a big topic that will have to wait. All I wish to point out now is that in my judgment Christopher Ricks does not understand what Yvor Winters means by pseudo-reference and takes his own meaning as Winters’s. That is a basic critical error. Though my case will have to come later, you can start by reading the relevant materials, Winters’s essay and the relevant parts of Ricks’s book.

For this reason, I find Ricks’s discovery of hypocrisy, Winters’s practice of alluding in his poetry while opposing allusion in his criticism, to be neither compelling nor interesting. Ricks hears what he wants to hear in Winters: a poet-critic who objects to allusion but who hypocritically alludes in his poetry anyway (we will get to some of those specific allusions in a moment). By showing this, he believes he is demonstrating, negatively, how important allusion is, since he believes he has found a determined opponent of allusion who still made allusions. This seems to have been Ricks’s chief purpose in studying Winters. Once he picks a few passages from Winters that appear to stand in opposition to allusion, as Ricks understands it, and then gathers a string of allusions from Winters’s poetry he has enough to show Winters up -- or so he thinks.

Worse than misunderstanding the concept of pseudo-reference, Ricks appears to have no interest in understanding Yvor Winters’s poetry, nor even in seeing how Winters’s alleged allusions to Ricks’s favored 19th-century poets deepen the meaning of Winters’s poetry -- nor even in uncovering how Winters’s allusions react to or change or reflect the poetry to which he supposedly alluded. Now, it’s not so surprising that Ricks pays attention to these poets, for the early English Romantics and Victorians of the Standard Canon are Ricks’s specialty. But his essay doesn’t elucidate or hardly touch on their work or Winters’s in any meaningful way. Ricks, as I will illustrate below, spends no time even trying to fathom or evaluate Winters’s poetry, or anyone else’s, in this essay. He appears to want to write about Winters solely because Winters’s views on Victorian poetry bug him -- and to catch Winters in literary hypocrisy. Not only does Ricks charge Winters with making allusions at the same time that he allegedly thought allusion to be worthless, but also, worse to Ricks, with alluding to poems that Winters did not judge to be great, but that Ricks, we can only surmise, considers superior. Thus, Ricks’s essay endeavors to show how wrong and foolish Winters was not only in opposing allusion but in alluding to poems by authors whose work he considered less than great, flawed, or downright bad to one degree or another.

Before considering these charges, I must point out that there is little doubt that Yvor Winters alluded continuously in his poetry. To my mind, the fact is entirely unremarkable if one knows his work. Winters’s allusions are worth deeper study as well, though many of the Stanford School have already examined his allusions in some depth, if not as part of some grandiose, comprehensive theory of allusion. Ricks appears to think he has made a stunning discovery -- a gleeful “Gotcha!” He thinks he has revealed a “clash” between Winters’s practice and his critical principles. But this is hardly so. Winters alluded because he read, as most writers do, and he read a lot of poetry. He said once that he read the entire corpus of Robert Browning, a stunning admission from a critic who did not judge Browning’s work highly. It is natural for writers, as it was for Winters, to allude to what they read, to respond to ideas or comments, to address issues they find other writers addressing and consider important -- or to echo words or turns of phrase or ideas or concepts that they find insightful or compelling or useful in one way or another. Winters seems to have had no objection to allusion as such, though he found it, I would guess, as unremarkable as I do. It’s a natural part of writing, not some mysterious, magical property. This is probably why Winters spends little time studying it, though I am only guessing.

A look at two secondary questions will help us see how far Ricks has gone off the mark: (1) Did Winters allude continuously to poems he considered less than great? (2) What is the meaning of his having alluded to poems Ricks thinks are better than Winters did, if he so alluded? Whatever value Ricks’s essay might have will lie in his answers to these questions. Ricks starts out early on the attack, making it plain what he thinks of Winters:

Winters as critic does not have much time for many poets; as poet, though, he has not only time but place for many poems, including those by poets whom as a critic he “places” to the point of displacing them. Particularly, of course, poets whom he finds guilty of Romanticism: William Collins, Keats, Tennyson, and Arnold.

This short, irritable passage is full of unfounded, ignorant, or ill-considered charges and assumptions. First, Winters spent time with hundreds of individual poems in his criticism, perhaps more than any other critic I know. The charge that he didn’t take time with poems is foolish. What he didn’t take time with are those poems Ricks loves most -- the poems, we might say, Ricks thinks better than the poetry Winters judged great.

Further, Winters had no desire to “displace” poets, which seems to mean to Ricks to keep them from being remembered or read, to see them forever banished from literary culture in some fashion. Since Ricks does not define this term “displace,” a major critical blunder, I must guess at his meaning. If he means what he appears to mean, I deny the charge. Winters did not believe, I ascertain, that we should in some sense discard all poems that he judged less than great or “displace” them from memory to such a degree that they are never to be read again[2]. The charge, as vague and as common as it has been, is blatantly silly. Winters regularly read and appreciated countless poems that he judged less than great. He even esteemed mediocre poems written by poets who he believed had written great poems. For example, judging from all his writings on Hart Crane’s work, it is obvious that Winters had no desire to displace (discard?) Crane’s poetry, even though he judged that Crane had not written a single great poem, a single poem worthy of the Winters Canon. Nor, to consider another example, did Winters wish to displace Robert Bridge’s poem “London Snow” (a Bridges poem often chosen for anthologies) because he didn’t judge it as great. Nor did he wish that no one would ever again read Eliot’s “Gerontion,” a poem Ricks discusses briefly, because of his judgment that it is less than great (and by a good measure).

Similar examples could easily reach the thousands. Ricks and all Winters’s opponents should read him for understanding if they wish to comment on his poetry or his criticism. At the end of his essay, Ricks ridiculously accuses Winters of being “monstrously unjust” in his judgment of “Gerontion,” but what I find truly unjust (let’s just charitably overlook the ridiculous hyperbole of that word “monstrously”) are Ricks’s ignorant assumptions and baseless summary judgments concerning Winters.

As I have argued repeatedly on this blog and on my web site, the primary goal of Winters’s criticism was to identify the very greatest poems we have, the exemplary standards by which all other poetry should be judged, the greatest achievements in poetic discourse ever composed; he did NOT endeavor or desire to separate the “sheep” from the “goats,” as though every work of literary art that was not reprinted in Quest for Reality or tagged as “great” in one of Winters’s essays should only be consigned to the Lake of Fire and forgotten forever. I will continue to do all I can to counter this ugly, ignorant, dim-witted misconception of Winters’s critical theories and principles to the end of my days. I wish members of Stanford School would do something to help me along, but, alas, contributions on this important task have been nil.

Also in the passage from Ricks I last quoted from there is the usual misunderstanding and mischaracterization of Winters’s judgment of Romanticism. Romanticism, to Winters, is not something one can be guilty of when writing, as Ricks claims by implication. It is something that logically engenders flaws in one’s writing and thinking, as Winters discussed time and again. Whether one agrees or not with Winters on Romanticism, one should properly and fully understand him. Ricks’s comment is foolish and ignorant.

Following this stumbling, rather hostile opening, Ricks begins to study Winters’s allusions to show, it appears, how hypocritical he was about allusion. He first finds a bit of William Collins in one line. I find the discovery sketchy and unimportant, at best. But Ricks draws an enormous conclusion from this one supposed allusion:

The great are not forgotten, and Winters’s calling upon Collins on such an occasion... must accord to Collins, in this poem at least, that endurance that Winters the critic denies.

How silly. Winters made no such claim, that Collins doesn’t deserve to “endure,” whatever that means to Ricks (he unacceptably fails time and again to define such loose terms). Winters assumed that readers could and would continue to read Collins and many a poet of similar standing[3]. Such a matter was past considering. For Winters, what was worth weighing is exactly how valuable Collins’s work is. He concluded that it’s weak and flawed. Ricks doesn’t bother with any case for why Collins’s poetry should be understood differently or judged more highly. Nor does he bother with the idea that Winters might have found some of Collins’s flawed work to be, nevertheless, profitable, in the largest spiritual sense of that term.

Turning next to the 19th-century English Romantics, Ricks finds that one poem, Winters’s sonnet “Appollo and Daphne,” contains allusions to Keats. Perhaps it’s true. I don’t find Ricks’s case convincing, but the notion isn’t half-crazed. But Winters never said that Keats could not write a good line or never offered a single valuable insight or idea in his poetry. Winters certainly read Keats, perhaps read every line he wrote more than once. Why wouldn’t he echo a particularly fine line from a poet he had read so much or occasionally address themes that Keats wrote about that Winters also considered important? There would be nothing the least surprising in Winters alluding to Keats, if so he did (which, to repeat, I find not fully convincing). Winters didn’t think Keats worthless garbage. What he didn’t think was that Keats’s poetry was GREAT. Winters even stated that Keats wrote a few fine lines, a point which Ricks either didn’t notice, couldn’t understand, or (much worse) chose to ignore. Winters’s discussions of Keats do NOT imply that he thought every line Keats wrote is hell-bound rubbish, not worth reading or remembering by ANY reader EVER again -- as Ricks appears to think Winters believed.

Rick’s next covers a handful of alleged allusions to Tennyson. These turn out to be sketchy as well. You can decide for yourself on Tennyson and several additional poets, if you think the matter worth considering. I won’t go through Ricks’s unimpressive list of Tennyson allusions one by one. I find them all not only doubtful but inconsequential. But this slap at Winters at the end of the discussion of Tennyson borders on silliness:

That Tennyson is one of the lasting voices, whatever the critic Winters might rule, comes out in this sense that two poems of his have gone to the fashioning of what Ulysses glimpsed, “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

This quoted line is not clearly reflected in the Winters’s poem in which Ricks claims to find its reflection (you can look it up for yourself, if you care to). At best, the allusion is a reach. Ricks’s claim almost looks absurd to me, but he could be right -- who knows for sure? But the central point is that Winters never thought Tennyson would not last. As with Keats, he simply wanted his work downgraded, and quite a bit, whether one agrees on the downgrading or not. Still, I’d be interested to hear from anyone who finds Ricks’s purported allusions to Tennyson convincing. I’m open to having my mind changed.

Ricks’s reaches his big finish with Winters’s purported allusions to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (the photo is of Dover Beach, England) found mostly in one Winters poem, “The Slow Pacific Swell,” which is part of the Winters Canon of the greatest poems in the English language as anthologized in Quest for Reality (Ken Fields chose the Winters poems for that anthology after Winters died). In this case so many of Arnold’s words in “Dover” are repeated in Winters’s poem that it appears hard to claim that Winters was NOT alluding to Arnold. But let’s look at his list of alleged allusions to “Dover” in “Swell” (Arnold first then Winters, in each pair):

stand vs. stands
land vs. land
tranquil vs. tranquillity
sound vs. sound
distant vs. distance
darkling vs. dark + darkening
dreams vs. dreaming
sea vs. sea
hear vs. hear
night vs. night
withdrawing vs. withdrawing
“Into the mind the turbid ebb” vs. “ebbing out of mind”
moon vs. moon

That’s quite a lengthy list, and perhaps its length shows that it’s undeniably allusive. What do you think? Was Winters alluding to Arnold at the same time he thought the poem not even worth alluding to, as Ricks implies? I’d really like to know whether anyone out there buys this argument. For are these not extremely simple, common words. Sound? Stand? Sea? Dark? Hear??! Night??!!!! Combinations of four or five of these words could coincidentally be found in thousands of poems. Ricks makes no case that they are allusions. He just lays out the pairs and assumes we will be convinced. Are you? Well, I am not. It’s POSSIBLE, somewhat remotely, that they are allusions, but I’m not convinced they are, mostly since nothing in the content of “The Slow Pacific Swell,” not even in Ricks’s discussion of it, reflects in any clear and specific way the themes of Arnold’s poem. I could accept that a few of Arnold’s lines and bits of diction might have been influential with Winters, but I don’t see them as allusions. Winters doesn’t appear to be answering or reflecting upon Arnold’s poem or working out from his themes in any significant way.

Thus, the biggest problem for Ricks’s position is that it doesn’t really matter whether Winters alluded to Arnold. For Ricks has nothing to say about the themes of EITHER poem and, unconscionably, even appears to have no desire whatsoever to understand Winters’s poem. He does not discuss the themes of “The Slow Pacific Swell” or “Dover Beach” at all. This means that he never even gets to the crucial matter of whether the poems “talk” to each other in some vital, meaningful way through the allusions. Near the end of this essay, Ricks opines, sharply, that Winters “impoverishes” his critical understanding by paying too little attention to allusion, implying that he leaves his analyses of poems in some cases “needlessly amputated.” But it is Ricks’s criticism that betrays signs of impoverishment, whose views seem amputated, because he pays no mind to the themes of the poems in which he finds such wide, endless streams of allusions.

Further, and most damning, Ricks appears to be entirely unaware of what Winters’s poem clearly alludes to: the symbolism of the sea in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is a matter of some extensive and insightful commentary in several books on Winters (see Dick Davis’s Wisdom and Wilderness, Terry Comito’s In Defense of Winters, and Don Stanford’s Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry). Ricks can’t even be bothered with chronology. “Swell” was written in the early 1930s. Yet Winters’s final, much lower rating of “Dover Beach” didn’t come until the late 1960s. Such errors of commission and omission bring into serious question everything Ricks writes about Winters.

Ricks winds up his presentation with a discussion of one supposedly major allusion that Winters makes to Arnold: the word “certitude.” Winters used this word a number of times in his poems, as Ricks shows. Ricks also opines that the only significant use of the word “certitude” in English literature is in the poem “Dover Beach.” Because of this, Ricks thinks the connection between Arnold and Winters is unmistakable. I find this argument rather meager. It’s just ONE WORD, for goodness sake. It is pretentious to think that Winters’s use of one word renders all his work indebted to Arnold in some crucial way (which Ricks doesn’t even bother explicating) or undoes Winters’s evaluation of Arnold’s poetry or is in some way hypocritical. Further, Winters knew the poem “Dover Beach” very, very well. Apparently, judging from his letters, he thought about it a lot. Once, he thought highly of it -- indeed, until the latter half of his career. He even once judged it one of our greatest poems. Yet he came to believe that it should not be considered one of the best and later came to judge that it is badly flawed[4]. Assuming Winters actually did allude to “Dover Beach,” which I find doubtful -- and at least unverified on Ricks’s evidence -- Winters did nothing wrong in employing in his own poetry one word from a poem that he appraised as at least good during most of his career. But Ricks thinks that his use of this one word constitutes some sort of hypocrisy:

It is of the nature of literary art that certainty is not even to be aspired to; certitude is another matter [“SUBJECTIVE certainty” is the definition Ricks adopts from the OED], and I trust in the certitude of “Dover Beach” and its being called into play by Winters’s poems, whatever as critic he might have preferred to be the case.

My certitude is fairly strong that Ricks is wrong that Arnold is “being called into play” in any vital way. More importantly, Ricks fails to prove that this is the case. I will admit that it’s POSSIBLE that Winters could have picked the word “certitude” up from Arnold, but so what? He read the word, liked it, used it. There’s nothing significant in that -- if it is so. Yet the greater problem is that it is wrong for Ricks to think that Winters wanted no one ever to read “Dover Beach” again. Winters didn’t prefer anything (to sum up his changing position on “Dover” as one overarching judgment) other than that we NOT consider the poem one of our greatest artistic achievements. Again, Winters thought it was a fine poem, flawed, but fine. At the end of his career and life, he thought the flaws of the poem greater than he had through most of the decades he had known the poem well. Overall, I think Winters judged that it failed by a good measure to meet the standards of the Winters Canon, but that it is still a fine work of art[5]. Ricks’s implication is wholly mistaken, that “Dover Beach” meant nothing to Winters and was worth nothing in Winters’s critical judgment. It did mean a good deal to him, and he did not wish to “displace” it, as we see from his letters and published writings.

The blurbs call Ricks a "brilliant critic,” a man with “valuable insights into the human psyche and the 'moral life'." Other blurbs says that Ricks “examines the transfer of poetic power in his brilliant and witty study.” They say he is “a painstaking scholar and editor as well as the most stringent and imaginative of close readers.” The Guardian’s almost silly review (U.K.) says that no critic “has dared to isolate this wonderfully ramifying, richly human subject [allusion]... and given it such intensive treatment. With this book about poets and their gratitude, Ricks has earned ours." I don’t what “daring” such an act took, but it certainly took daring to write about Yvor Winters without knowing his ideas or poetry very well. Further, Ricks’s supposed stringent and imaginative skills at close reading are not on display anywhere in his Winters essay.

As I have mentioned, what Ricks pays no attention to whatsoever is all the allusions to poetry that Ricks has no interest in, to Thomas Campion and Fulke Greville (he does mention Ben Jonson, but does not delve deeply enough into Winters’s many allusions to his work), to Herman Melville and George Herbert, to J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers and Robert Bridges and Paul Valéry. It’s early Romantic and Victorian literature that Ricks finds important, so Ricks has no time for Winters’s allusions to the English Renaissance and modern poetry that Winters considered great almost beyond measure, his true partners of discussion in poetry.

Moreover, I find little that is “brilliant” in Ricks’s ignoring how Winters’s supposed allusions deepen the power or meaning of Winters’s poetry. Ricks has next to nothing to say about the meaning of Winters’s poems. As I have said, this essay appears to have been written only with the nasty, narrow purpose of showing that Winters was hypocritical in opposing allusion when he practiced allusion. To be honest, I suspect that Ricks hasn’t read Winters much, either the poetry or the criticism. Ricks doesn’t seem even marginally conversant with Winters’s poetry nor moved by what he had to say through it. Sadly, I conclude that Winters is a straw man for Ricks. He keeps to his preferred poets in any case, Keats and Tennyson, et al. They are his second loves (his first is T.S. Eliot, I’ve read), the standard greats of 19th-century poetry. He has no awareness, it seems, of the many allusions to other, better poets throughout Winters’s poetry, the great artworks of the Winters Canon. Inexcusably, Ricks seems not the least interested in Winters’s discussion of matters that are related to allusion when they concern poets that Ricks has no apparent regard for.

The consequences of Ricks’s essay can be severely damaging to Winters’s reputation, as we can see from the comment of one critic on the essay:

... [the Winters] essay takes the belligerently anti-allusive critic Yvor Winters and demonstrates to comic but powerful effect that in his fine work as a poet he was acutely allusive to Keats and Tennyson, poets he was rude about in his prose.

These are a sample of the results that faulty scholarship and bad argumentation can yield: dreadful misconceptions and errors. I find little that is comic in this essay. And Winters wasn’t “anti-allusive,” whatever that means. Neither Ricks nor his reviewers seem to feel the slightest need to define such terms.

It surprises me that this essay has yet had no answer from a critic of the Stanford School. It demands one. Yet it doesn’t surprise me that Christopher Ricks has no particular regard for the poetry or criticism of Yvor Winters, for Winters sought to downgrade many of the poets Ricks believes are great (I presume) and are his favorites (as is obvious). His judgment on such matters is his privilege to give or take. But his erroneous judgments on Winters should be countered. That no Wintersian has stepped forward to address the weaknesses and errors of this essay is, at best, disheartening.


[1] I have a guess about what might first have drawn Ricks’s ire. Looking at his career as a whole, Ricks was probably irritated with Winters’s strong objections to the poetry and critical theories of T.S. Eliot, who is reportedly the poet and critic Ricks most admires.

[2] I countered this charge, in another context, on my Yvor Winters web site years ago. I took this post off line for various reasons, but I will attach it to this post in the near future as a comment.

[3] Strangely, Ricks seems to think Williams Collins is much more highly regarded and much, much more widely read than appears to be the case. Collins has hardly any standing left in the Standard Canon, let alone in Winters’s. He is almost a forgotten poet -- outside a few small academic circles of scholars like Ricks -- whether his status is deserved or not.

[4] The poem might not be as flawed as Winters came to judge late in his career. How the Stanford School should rate “Dover” is a matter that needs consideration.

[5] I must at some time reconsider this whole complicated issue, since, for one matter, John Fraser includes “Dover Beach” in his quasi-Wintersian New Book of English Verse, a decision Fraser does not explain or justify. Further, I need to try to fathom why Winters judged the poem to be more flawed in his final assessment. Perhaps someone who took classes with him at the end of his career could enlighten us. Someone like Francis Fike, retired Hope College professor and former Winters student who is still writing on poets of the Stanford School, might be able to help us on this.

Dec 18, 2007

A New "Library of America" Anthology

Library of America editor David Bromwich has selected one poem by Yvor Winters for LoA’s newly published anthology, American Sonnets. Winters’s sonnet “The Prince” has elicited some comment from critics who have written about Winters. You might want to look it up. Believe it or not, the sonnet has a political theme and importance, politics being an area that few people realize Winters concerned himself with in his poetry. In fact, he wrote a number of other poems that have political implications and purposes, in a broad sense.

But this anthology is remarkable for more than its inclusion of one Winters poem. It features the work of a number of poets whom Yvor Winters judged to have written great poems and who are part of the Winters Canon. For example, Bromwich chose an astonishing 14 sonnets by Jones Very (1813–1880), friend of R.W. Emerson. Very was once almost entirely unknown outside certain small literary circles, but Winters judged him, to the incredulity of many men and women of letters, to have written some of the greatest poems in the English language. Bromwich’s selection offers “Thy Brother’s Blood,” a poem which I consider to be Very’s finest, and a number of other fine choices that Winters would have seconded. The number of Very sonnets chosen is a strong vote of confidence in Very’s achievement, decades after Winters endeavored against the general hostility of critics to bring attention to it with his essay on Very, which was republished in his best-known book, In Defense of Reason.

Further, Bromwich has chosen a downright incredible number of sonnets from Frederick Goddard Tuckerman: 19! The list includes several very fine poems. Tuckerman (1821–1873) is another of those poets whom Winters championed but other critics found negligible, if not laughable, at one time. Now even F.G. Tuckerman and Jones Very are making notable headway into literary culture, it appears. How much is their advance the result of the work of Yvor Winters?

The anthology also offers sonnets from George Santayana, whose poetry was admired by Donald Stanford, who edited essays on his work for the Southern Review; E.A. Robinson, a Winters great whom I have discussed on this blog a couple times; Louise Bogan, another author of poems found in the Winters Canon, (Bromwich chose the great “Simple Autumnal”). Also making appearances are Allen Tate’s well-known sonnet “Subway,” which Winters thought highly of and discussed in his essays; one poem from J.V. Cunningham (author of a dozen poems in the Winters Canon); and two from Edgar Bowers (one-time student of Winters and author of several timelessly great poems). Both of Bowers’s poems I consider among the finest work of the 20th century, “The Virgin Mary” and “The Astronomers.” The latter is an interesting piece of work for being unusually composed in two seven-line stanzas.

Information on the anthology can be found at:

I think it is well worth finding and reading if you’d like to get a sense of the kind of poetry that Yvor Winters considered great and sought to encourage and support in his career.

Dec 13, 2007

A Valuable Stanza Form: Ten Lines Rhymed

Did you, as I did, happen upon Brad Leithauser’s striking poem in the New Yorker this fall entitled “Son”, which appeared in the October 23 issue (page 42)? Aside from its arresting subject matter (the death of an infant), the poem is remarkable because it employs a rare stanza form, 10 lines per stanza (almost always closed on a period) rhyming on five endings in a varying pattern. The form has no name that I am aware of. French poet Paul Valéry first employed, and I presume created, the form for a number of fine poems, including his great, “Ébauche d’un serpent,” which is composed of 31 10-line stanzas rhyming five times in different patterns within each stanza. Yvor Winters considered “Ébauche” to be the single greatest poem ever written[1]. I have mentioned this poem briefly several times on this blog, if you’d care to chase down my brief comments on it through the search box at the top of this page. I promise to give it a full consideration some time.

I have never seen another poem written in this form except for the poem I think might be the greatest in the English language, Winters’s own “To the Holy Spirit,” though Winters alters the form in an interesting way. His poem employs two 10-line stanzas, followed by a more regular 12-line stanza consisting of three quatrains and then a 14-line stanza, all in rhyme patterns as variable as Valéry’s. I consider this stanza form to be an important creation for modern literature, though, plainly, it has achieved little of its promise yet. The form offers possibilities for the resurrection of strongly formal, truly classical poems that take advantage of modernism’s penchant for associative rumination in the midst of rational argument. There’s a sentence that I should probably explain more fully, but I can’t take the time at present.

Leithauser has been classified as one of the New Formalists by various critics, and his commitment to poetic form is longstanding. I have been reading him for 30 years in various magazines in addition to the New Yorker. I can’t say that I can recall a single poem he has written, but this one might stick with me. The rhyme scheme is nicely managed. The meter is quite loose, probably far too loose for Yvor Winters. It seems to be iambic trimeter, but is so loose that Leithauser could have intended it as syllabic verse. That we cannot clearly discern the meter is a moderate flaw, I think (and this would be in keeping with Winters’s theories of meter).

The poem can be found as an excerpt from Leithauser’s latest book at the Borzoi Books web site:

Several of Leithauser’s loosely iambic lines are well composed. The strong iambs in the final line of the first stanza, “Of guilt’s imaginings,” are well struck in the context and quite moving and insightful. The fifth line of the second stanza “Even one whole day” is powerful in context, through the shortening of the line and the light spondee[2]. The final line of the second stanza also strikes me as well turned, because it repeats the regular iambic trimeter of the final line of Stanza 1 and rings that note of steadiness on an important insight.

The poem closes with two loose iambic lines that gain strength from their variations. The ninth line of Stanza 3, “In the end -- from animal to animal,” the longest line of the poem, gathers force from its nearly regular meter and emphatic length. The final line of the poem is twisted iambic trimeter, as far as I am able to discern, but it almost works perfectly as an expression of desperation, “Imploring, Please save my life.” The poem’s themes are vital: loss, memory, the fierce desire to live. I won’t consider them here. Upon several careful readings, I would rate this poem at 2 stars, “has redeeming facets.” It’s not great, yet it’s a fine formalist poem that adheres to the loose formal conventions of America’s New Formalists, descended principally, I would say, from Robert Frost.

I welcome all reflections and comments on this poem, of course.


[1] At least he thought so at one point in his career. Did he think so at the end? Does it matter whether he did so at the end? How many Wintersians think it’s the greatest poem? These are matters demanding careful consideration. No member of the Stanford School has given them ANY so far -- more’s the pity. I encourage anyone to write about “Ébauche” for this blog: in a comment, in an original post, or in a reference to a web link.

[2] This line strongly reminds me of and might be an allusion to Janet Lewis’s poem (which I intend to propose as an addition to the Winters Canon) “For the Father of Sandro Gulatta,” which I must discuss some day soon on this blog. Lewis wrote of a day lily:

All day and only one day
It drank the sunlit air.
In one long day
All that it needed to do in this world
It did....

The first and third lines in this quoted passage (from the second stanza) are the ones Leithauser might be alluding to. Of course, the similarities might be only coincidences; I have not read that Leithauser knows anything of Lewis’s work.

Dec 10, 2007

The Condition of Literature

Twenty-five years after assessing literary culture for its inaugural issue, Joseph Epstein (pictured) has come out with his new take on the state of our current literary culture in the September New Criterion. It is a sprightly overview of Epstein’s opinions on where we now stand, mostly in America, with asides on England and Europe, at least concerning those better-known authors who appear to have a chance of becoming canonical in some sense. But the meaning of that term to Epstein is dubious and problematic: he doesn’t appear to be willing to consider literary art in terms other than commercial success, as shown by his discussing only writers of best sellers, as if they only form the core of literary culture. The essay can be found at:

In one section of the essay Epstein discusses poetry, and I found his views worth perusing and even compelling at times. He offered an arresting quotation from the New York Times Book Review (which I had missed because I seldom bother with the NYTRB’s feeble reviews of feeble, shoddy poetry) from some reviewer on the freedom of poets nowadays:

The strength of American poetry depends on the fact that hardly anybody notices it. To emerging poets, eager for an audience, this marginality may seem frustrating, but it is the source of their freedom. Because nothing is at stake except the integrity of their medium, poets may write about anything in any way, from decorously rhymed couplets to sonically driven nonsense.

It takes a moment before it hits you how hilarious those words are. Epstein adds this comment, “Nobody notices -- what a strange strength, what an odd advantage!” But it’s not only that few notice the ersatz poetry written in our time -- the stuff I call prosetry or, more properly, prosetic musing. It’s also that even fewer pay much attention to good poetry, real poetry, when it comes along. Epstein’s taste, almost certainly, does not fall along Wintersian lines. In fact, he seems to have his own taste for garbage, the manufacture of which seems so unstoppable. He mentions five poets whom he claims are still worth reading(1), who are writing important work today. The five are a dubious lot (and they bring into question Epstein’s critical judgment). Galway Kinnell: has anyone seen anything significant from this flaccid muser? Kay Ryan: a devotée of the very short poems, very short lines, and oddball observations; he has written nothing that interests me at all. Joshua Weiner: does anyone know any good poem to come from this free verse muser? Peter Porter: an Englishman who writes in loose meters and occasional rhyming stanzas; he might have written a good peom or two; is any modern classicist impressed with his work? Tim Steele: the one sound recommendation in Epstein’s group. Steele is a formalist, influenced to a small degree by Winters and more by later members of the Stanford School. He has written some fine poems, though I have my doubts that Steele has achieved anything truly great so far. Still, I think he's up to good things.

Notably, Epstein mentions to William Logan’s recent summary judgment on Hart Crane’s poetry with disapproval. (Logan writes frequent verse chronicles for the New Criterion.) Logan’s judgment was, surprisingly, largely negative -- surprising because Crane has become an object of hagiographical devotion in recent decades. This is the first mention I’ve seen to Logan’s contrarian piece (though there might be others that I’ve missed), which I discussed on this blog some months ago. I find Crane overrated, but others of the Stanford School disagree. John Fraser includes some of his poetry in the important quasi-Stanford-School anthology A New Book of English Verse (see the link in the right column). Epstein seems to think that Logan’s harsh handling of Crane was a colossal mistake, a sign itself of the ills poetry is suffering. But I consider Logan’s piece one tiny sign that the sorrowful crossing of poetry into the Hades of prosetry might not be imminent. Still, let me reassure you, I do not expect a full recovery to health for poetry. The only present hope for classicists of any stripe is in the development of Wintersian or classicist enclaves sheltered from the lures of prosetry.

All in all, I found Epstein’s essay worth reading. I hope you’ll check it out.


(1) How many times have you read a critic’s list of five or six or seven worthy poets writing today that matches no other list of five or seven that you’ve seen? This must have happened to me more than a hundred times in my life. There seem to be thousands of published poets, to speak only of the U.S., but few poets or critics agree on who is writing the best poetry (almost all of which isn’t even poetry to a classicist). I have looked up hundreds of poets whom I have read about in these breathlessly impassioned lists, only to feel my own jaw drop in disbelief that I have been guided to the discovery of yet one more set of five prosetic musers who work is worthless. Epstein’s list yields a few more.

Dec 4, 2007

Recent Poetry from Geoffrey Hill

Quick note: Geoffrey Hill has three new poems published in this month's edition of the New Criterion, if you would care to read them. Hill has been cited as one of our finest living poets by some writers and critics who have connections to Yvor Winters in one way, or to one degree, or another. Some people seem to think Hill a very fine poet who adheres admirably to literary principles that are in keeping with Winters's. I haven't been much impressed with Hill's work so far, despite all the accolades -- though I am willing to consider ANY case, short or long, for his work. The new poems are rather loosely constructed pieces, which I don't think would have much impressed Winters. They are nearly prosetic musing rather than poetry, in my judgment. Yet the second one, "Citations I," appears to be, upon several readings, to be stronger work. This poem strikingly explores one of the main ideas of classicism (a subject I discussed at length in my last post) and of Yvor Winters's and especially Donald Stanford's reformulations of the concept for modern times. Time is always short, and I don't have enough for a thorough critique of Hill's work right now. All observations are welcome, nonetheless. I am most interested in knowing the views of anyone whon thinks Hill has achieved anything truly great in poetry.

Nov 29, 2007

Basic Definitions: “Classicism”

For quite a while I have been bandying the term “classical” about on this blog without defining it properly. The time has come for a definition to ensure that I am not misunderstood when I refer to Yvor Winters or any other author as a classicist, especially as modern version of one. The term denotes and connotes a variety of concepts and emotions. Critics, even advocates of Winters’s ideas, have not often referred to Yvor Winters as a classical poet, either in his lifetime or in the succeeding decades. But he was reckoned as one in one of the most important recent considerations of modern classicism, Donald Stanford’s all-too-short essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet,” which was published in the Southern Review in 1969 (a year after Winters’s death).

I will come back to Stanford’s definition of classicism shortly, but let’s start with a fairly recent book on the matter, In Search of the Classic (1994), by Steven Shankman, a scholar of ancient classicism who wrote an essay, collected in the book, on the “classical rationalism” of Yvor Winters’s poetry (the essay was first written for the 1981 Yvor Winters issue of Donald Stanford’s Southern Review). This valuable, learned book offers several close studies of relatively recent manifestations of literary classicism, but the definition of “classical” that Shankman offers in his introductory essay is one I consider far too elusive:

I should state, at the outset and as explicitly and concisely as possible, what I mean by a classic: in terms of what I call the classical position, a work of literature is a compelling, formally coherent, and rationally defensible representation that resist being reduced either to the mere recording of material reality, on the one hand, or to the bare exemplification of an abstract philosophical precept, on the other.

Though Shankman expounds this definition in great, multifarious detail throughout his book, the definition as such is much too imprecise to be of much use. A skilled critic could make a case for just about any literary artwork’s being classical using such a definition. Could not an adept critic characterize almost any writing as “compelling,” “formally coherent,” and “rationally defensible”? What serious writer sets out to write works that are NOT compelling, that lack coherence, and are indefensible (depending, of course, on what these concepts mean to each writer)? Classicism must mean something more exact and complete than this. Shankman’s essay on Winters carefully lays out the meaning of “classical rationalism,” which is a very complex issue that is much worth closer study. In this essay and several others in the book we soon see that that classicism means much, much more to Shankman than this hazy initial attempt at being explicit. To bolster his meaning, Shankman had earlier trotted out a definition of the term from Hans-Georg Gadamer that Shankman says comes close to his own meaning:

What we call classical is something retrieved from the vicissitudes of changing times and its changing taste.... [It] is a consciousness of something enduring, of significance that cannot be lost and is independent of all circumstances of time, in which we call something ‘classical’ -- a kind of timeless present that is contemporaneous with every other age.

That's all? Enduring? That helps very little. What serious writer doesn’t offer his writings as enduring? Every major modern experimentalist who ever put pen to paper, even the wildest members of the avant garde, believes that his writings should, and fervently hopes that they will, endure. I know I do. And there are many examples of very personal and private writings and odd experiments that have endured. Gadamer’s definition of classical is almost worthless. But not quite. It brings to mind many important points Winters made in his essays about the importance of poetry’s bearing on general truth, on Gadamer’s “timeless present” that some writings seem to inhabit. Yet Winters was dedicated to new literary ideas and modes in ways that can surprise those who have only read of his theories in the summaries of his opponents. Very little about his work betrays a slavish commitment to ancient or early modern models, such as from the English Renaissance, as has been claimed from time to time (for example, by Robert Hass and David Yezzi, who have made errors on this matter).

Now let’s turn to Winters, briefly, for he had little to say on classicism and never used the word “classicist” to describe himself, so far as I know. In his first book, his analytical study of the nature of literary statement, Primitivism and Decadence (1937), Winters mentioned classicism only a few times and did not define the term. There is, however, one pertinent and suggestive passage that concerns whether two modern writers can be admired by those who admire classicism:

A classicist may admire the sensibilities of [James] Joyce and [St. John] Perse with perfect consistency (though beyond a certain point not with perfect taste), but he cannot with consistency justify the forms which those sensibilities have taken.

This brief comment suggests that Winters thought of classicism as more concerned with the forms of literature than with its contents. The form a literary artwork takes, in itself, gives it a certain conceptual and emotional feel. It is this “feel” and its meaning that Winters endeavored to elucidate throughout his critical career. This is a suggestive point about classicists, well worth studying in some detail on this blog some time in the future.

But Winters was never clear on how form and classicism are associated. He used the word “classical” here and there, even capitalizing it at times. He discussed it briefly as a concept in relation to T.S. Eliot, who famously claimed to have become a classicist. (Winters’s severe and corrective essay on Eliot was reprinted in The Anatomy of Nonsense, and both books I have mentioned in these paragraphs have been reprinted in In Defense of Reason.) But he never defined the term in any way -- not even for the little known but important statement of allegiance to classicism in the opening “Statement of Purpose” to The Gyroscope, the little magazine that he and his wife Janet edited and published for a couple years in the early 1930s:

The Gyroscope will be a mimeographed quarterly journal publishing prose and verse and attempting to fix in literary terms some approximation of a classical state of mind. The Gyroscope will be opposed to all forms of spiritual extroversion: (1) to all doctrines of liberation and emotional expansionism, since they deprecate and tend to eliminate the intellect, the core of conscious existence....

And so on through seven more oppositions, all of which deserve study. My main concern here is the first, the journal’s proposed opposition to “expansionism,” what I would describe as emotion out of balance with reason. The proper balance of reason and emotion appears to be a central aspect of Winters’s understanding of classicism. Keep this comment particularly in mind as we consider Stanford’s definition in a moment. In a later issue of The Gyroscope, which lasted only a couple years and is extremely hard to find, Winters wrote an essay, “Notes on Contemporary Criticism,” that appears to express a strong affinity between his critical theories and classicism. Here is one deeply classical comment from that essay:

If it be objected that I propose no end for which a man should reduce his emotion to a minimum and then, if need be, thwart that minimum, I answer with the Stoics that the end is a controlled and harmonious life. Any man who gratifies an unjust desire, who indulges knowingly in a violation of equity, weakens his self-control by that much and opens the way to complete loss of it, to disintegration into pure emotionalism, which is pure mechanism: such a man is in danger of losing his humanity, or ceasing really to exist as a man.

What a fascinating passage from a striking and powerful essay. I cannot take the time now for all the attention it deserves. My central point is that classicism as Winters understood it involves the control of emotion in one’s writing for the sake of moral control, for the living of a harmonious life (however such concepts might exactly be defined). This is superbly consonant with many definitions of classicism in our standard reference works in the field of literature and hints at Winters’s own understanding of the term.

The passage from “Notes” leads me to Donald Stanford’s definition of classicism as given in his vital 1969 essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet.” It is this definition that I find the most reliable, and it is one that I employ, provisionally and rather generally, on this blog. Stanford’s essay discusses several modern writers who claimed to be classicists in some significant sense but who Stanford believed were not, among them Ezra Pound and Eliot. Rather, Stanford claims that Winters, Robert Bridges, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and J.V. Cunningham are true exemplars of modern classicism. At the outset of this essay, Stanford begins by rejecting T.S. Eliot’s well-known claim to be classical. In the course of this discussion, Stanford uses some of Eliot’s own words about classicism against him. The definition of classicism Stanford offers in the midst of this opening is what I find pertinent to our discussion here:

“Dignity”, “reason”, and “order” -- these are the impeccable ideals of classicism. But what have they to do with some of the men whom Eliot held up for emulation? We expect from the classicist, together with a sense of history, of tradition, a “serene and severe control of the emotions by Reason” [a phrase quoted from Eliot], a respect for the literature and institutions of the past, a desire for harmony and order in the arts, a recognition of the dignity of man.

That’s as close as Stanford comes to a full definition of “classicism.” The definition is useful, but also quite vague in the same ways that Shankman’s and Gadamer’s definitions are. For we see that many ways of writing could be called classical under this definition. Most of today’s experimental poetic musers believe their works defend human dignity, adhere to reason (at least new, experimental ways of being reasonable), and exhibit proper order (at least new kinds of order). Yet this definition serves well enough when we look at the artworks that qualify as classical in the judgment of those who employ the definition. At heart, it is definition by example, as accomplished in Winters’s own poetry anthology Quest for Reality, in which the defining principles and attributes of classicism and its modern manifestations are most clearly seen.

As you no doubt see, in quoting these various comments and definitions of classicism, I have raised many issues that I have either brushed past or not even mentioned. Much more can and must be said on the topic of the classicism of Yvor Winters and his advocates, the so-called Stanford School. From whence will the Wintersian arise to address these issues? For even I in this post have come to no firm and reasonable conclusions on what it means exactly and fully to call Yvor Winters a classicist.

Nov 20, 2007

Donald Stanford’s Final Book

I have wanted to bring to your attention a book that was published a year ago but which has received no notice whatsoever in American literary circles. I have yet to find a single review of the book in an American literary journal of any size. Nor have I found a review in a British journal. The book is the work of the late Donald Stanford, poet, critic, LSU professor, and editor who was probably the finest modern classicist of the Stanford School, a term denoting the associates of Yvor Winters, in one way or another. Before his death in 1998, Dr. Stanford was at work on this final book in an effort to revive interest in four British writers whom he considered worthy of study and who each had been a confrere of the great poet Robert Bridges., and Stanford’s goal was to bring these four poet-novelists back to our attention, that is, I presume, to see them read and studied once again. Though very few critics have apparently yet bothered with this book, it is highly deserving of your consideration. Though its title is rather pedestrian, its contents are superb.

Before commenting on the book, it is important, I think, to review once again why I am devoting a long post to this obscure book of criticism. Donald Stanford was a student of Yvor Winters’s at Stanford in the 1930s. He published a distinguished book of poetry in the 40s, to which Winters contributed a short but striking forward. Stanford became a professor of English literature and eventually settled into a career at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He had a distinguished, if mostly overlooked career. In our gleefully heretical times, he was often too strict a classicist, too closely associated with Winters, and too much taken with the so-called Victorian poets to gain wide influence. Yet with Lewis Simpson, he became co-editor of the Southern Review, Second Series, which was a revival of the famed Southern Review of the 1930s. His editorial work in the second run of the journal was magnificent. He kept alive the study of Winters’s critical ideas (he even published a few of Winters’s final essays) and fostered the development of the Stanford School, to which Wintersians have been said to belong (because Winters taught at Stanford University), in many vital and constructive ways. But he also guided the journal in other directions not obviously associated with Winters’s work. I consider Stanford our finest Wintersian critic, an exceptionally fine formalist poet, and one of the most erudite and accomplished classicists of modern times. Setting aside his work on the Southern Review, the summit of his career is probably the publication of his study of modern literature, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry (1983), which offers intensive studies of the poetic achievements of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (the revolutionaries), Wallace Stevens (who put one foot in each camp), and Edwin Arlington Robinson and Yvor Winters (the “conventionaries”). This book’s fifth poet often raises a dismissive smirk or two, since Stanford implicitly elevates Winters to the rank of those four much better known luminaries of modern literature. But the critics and poets of the Stanford School think the elevation is fully, indubitably warranted and only ask that it Winters’s achievement be given a judicious hearing, reader by reader.

And so now I come to Stanford’s book, his last, A Critical Study of the Works of Four British Writers, edited by R.W. Crump. Dr. Crump reportedly found the manuscript in nearly finished form among Stanford’s papers after his death and brought the book to publication. The four writers are Margaret Louisa Woods (1856-1945), Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938), and Robert C. Trevelyan (1872-1951). You can find information about Stanford’s book at the web site of Edwin Mellen Press:

The four authors are not wholly unheard of. You can easily find some of their poetry on the web, and a few of their works remain in print, in Britain and even in the States. I have found a book of Woods’s poems still in print and a few of her poems on the web, but none of her fiction. Newbolt’s best-known poetry seems to be widely available in anthologies and in a couple of published editions, but his novels are hard to find in print. I have found almost nothing of Coleridge’s work (the original cover of one of her works is pictured). Finally, I have found a few poems by R.C. Trevelyan here and there on the web, but very little of his fiction is in print. A few of the many novels written by these writers remain available at major academic libraries around the country, in addition to several editions of their poetry. Overall, then, these four are fairly obscure writers. They have been greatly overlooked or almost entirely forgotten. I have found very little evidence of their being objects of critical study in the U.S.

Stanford’s book seeks to bring Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan back to our attention and, presumably, assign an indefinitely higher place to some of their works in the literary canon. The long chapters concern the life and literary achievement of each author and are subdivided into sections that scrutinize each author’s writings, organized by genre: fiction, poetry, verse drama, and criticism (if applicable). The book focuses much less on poetry than I had been expecting. Rather, Stanford devotes much more space to the prose of these writers, often presenting quite lengthy overviews of the plots and themes of their fiction. Why do I find this mildly surprising? Stanford himself edited many essays about fiction and the short story, but focused much of his criticism on poetry.

Many of the obscure novels Stanford discusses are historical fiction, a genre that Yvor Winters never focused on in particular, though his wife Janet Lewis was a distinguished author of several superb novels of historical fiction, which Winters greatly praised. Many of the historical novels Stanford discusses are set in medieval times (a popular subject matter at the turn of the 19th century). There are even some works of fantasy and early science fiction, which Stanford has made me think might be worth reading. Stanford’s general assessment is that the fiction of these four novelists is worth reading and studying, though he does not judge every novel or story as supremely excellent. In reading Stanford’s enlightening summaries and provisional appraisals, I don’t get the impression that he considered any of these novels to be great, on a level with the finest fiction of English literature, that of Austen, James, Melville, or Wharton. Rather, Stanford leaves the impression that many of these works are moderately successful while some few are especially fine.

Though the book’s publicity suggests that Stanford sought to set these four writers back into the canon (whatever that might mean exactly), there is little in the book that makes Stanford’s position clear on how accomplished these writers are. Nowhere does he state exactly how good he judges the work of these writers to be in comparison to the greats of literature (the Wintersian greats, that is). Further, nothing that has been published in the past year suggests that Stanford has been successful in bringing any of these writers “back into the canon” (again, whatever that especially vague phrase might mean). He does not explicitly set the work alongside that of any major writer, either of the Standard Canon or of the Winters Canon in prose (a much more amorphous assembly than the one Winters endeavored to form in poetry) in order for us to be able to know how Stanford judges each separate work. He doesn’t even clearly assess their artworks in light of the achievement of Robert Bridges, who was the subject of Stanford’s superb critical study, In the Classic Mode (both Winters and Stanford considered Bridges to be one of the greatest poets of the English language). In general, the impression that Stanford’s commentary leaves is that Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan are worth our time and study, but just how good they are, how diligently we should seek out their works, how much effort we should put into studying them, is left indefinite. I will give some of their novels and poems closer inspection some time, even though I had quite a time trying to find Stanford’s book, let alone the authors’.

Poet David Middleton, of Nicholls State University, one of our finest living formalist poets, wrote the strong introduction to the book. It recounts Stanford’s career, not the writers’, to prepare us for this study. Middleton is a little breathless about Stanford’s goals, writing,
...Stanford brings together in his final book two of his central concerns as scholar, critic, editor, and poet: the assignment of a rightful place in the literary canon to poets wrongly forgotten or marginalized....

Once again, Stanford is not as clear on this matter as Middleton implies that he is. I would say that the tone of the book suggests that Stanford wanted us to “give these writers a chance” rather than that we consider them “must reads.” I don’t think Stanford hoped for much more. As I say, it doesn’t even appear that he thought that they could stand with the greats, though he certainly considered their work superior. What he was trying to accomplish concerning these four writers, it seems, is what I’ve been trying to do with this blog and the study of Yvor Winters: put out commentaries on Winters’s ideas and work in the hope that they will inspire people to read Winters. I think this is what Stanford was mostly trying to accomplish concerning these authors.

Middleton also feels that the new book makes “a defense of reasonable poetic experimentation that does not discard [the] essential defining characteristics of poetry.” This issue plays a small role in the book, as I read it, but Stanford only sketches such issues as he runs through each career. As I have said, he spends much less time on the writers’ poetry than I had expected to find.

By the way, Middleton states that he considers poetry “a regularly repeated rhythmic or syllabic patterning.” Now there’s a suitable definition for us of the Stanford School, SOME KIND of pattern defines poetry. And not an ersatz pattern, I would add. A poet can’t just mill a thicket of prose into stanzas of four lines of roughly equal length and call it a poetic pattern -- though that seems to pass muster for thousands of poetry critics and so-called poets nowadays. Stanford, as Middleton puts it, hoped that more poetry would keep to the “significant and longstanding practices and inclinations of English writers, especially poets, including the use of classical myth, the evocation of natural beauty, the deliberate employment of an elevated poetic diction, and the presentation of subjects from history.” True, true, and well said. Overall, Middleton’s "Introduction" is not so much an opening for this study of the four Victorian authors as it is a general overview of the achievement of Donald Stanford. It deserves thoughtful reading.

You can read some reviews of the book at the Edwin Mellen site, which are, naturally, glowing, in the nature of blurbs. William Bedford Clark’s blurb (he’s from Texas A&M University), is almost rapturous in its praise:
By any measure this is an important and commanding work... [I]t represents the judicious ‘last testament’ of Professor Stanford... [His] acute sense of how poetry works and how it derives from a dynamic interpretation of literature and life is evident on every page... [T]his posthumous contribution... to our understanding of modern literature will prove a lasting one.

My goodness! But as much as I respect the literary achievement of Donald Stanford, these comments are somewhat misleading. This book is hardly Stanford’s “last testament,” which implies that the book somehow sums up his career. Moreover, the book, as I have already suggested, contains little on Stanford’s modern classical theories of poetry. Finally, the book has little to say to “modern literature,” mostly since the four authors have no standing in modern literature in any sense I can think of. I can only hope Stanford and the four authors will find some readers, but it seems that it will take a long, long time for it any of them to receive ANY recognition, let alone become “lasting” (whatever that might mean). More’s the shame.

Finally, with a $120(!!) price tag in the U.S., I don’t know how soon I’ll be getting my hands on this book. I managed to track it down on the interlibrary network in the State of Michigan. One library had it on the shelves, praise be! Now it’s time for one of these libraries to get Donald Stanford’s Collected Poems, which was the subject of a previous post on this blog.

To conclude this post, I want to mention that I have been reading some of the poetry of Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan and would be happy to post some observations some time if anyone is interested (please let me know). In the meantime, if anyone else knows some of their work well enough to comment on it, I will be pleased to post your observations on this blog. For starters, here is Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem entitled “Clifton Chapel,” which Stanford commended:

This is the Chapel: here, my son,
Your father thought the thoughts of youth,
And heard the words that one by one
The touch of Life has turn’d to truth.
Here in a day that is not far,
You too may speak with noble ghosts
Of manhood and the vows of war
You made before the Lord of Hosts.

To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth.—

My son, the oath is yours: the end
Is His, Who built the world of strife,
Who gave His children Pain for friend,
And Death for surest hope of life.
To-day and here the fight’s begun,
Of the great fellowship you’re free;
Henceforth the School and you are one,
And what You are, the race shall be.

God send you fortune: yet be sure,
Among the lights that gleam and pass,
You’ll live to follow none more pure
Than that which glows on yonder brass:
‘Qui procul hinc,’ the legend’s writ,—
The frontier-grave is far away—
‘Qui ante diem periit:
Sed miles, sed pro patria.’

This is a well-wrought poem on a conventional theme, at least for the times -- near the opening of the First World War. The conceptual treatment of the theme is a somewhat trite, almost clichéd, but the diction is superb and the metrical control is strong. The iambic tetrameter is managed nicely, even though it is so very regular that you would think it might become dull. I have my reservations about the poem as a statement. What the poem is saying to us makes me quite nervous, for the poem is a call to military sacrifice, seeking to inspire other young men to make wasteful sacrifices like those made in the terrible, wasteful, foolish war that stands in its background. I think of William James’s great essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” as a counter to such sentiments: if only most of the energies of sacrifice were to be spent on peacemaking.

For another starter, here is Margaret Woods’s “Genius Loci,” which Stanford singled out for its excellence. This poem can be found in many anthologies and appears to be well known in some circles:

PEACE, Shepherd, peace! What boots it singing on?
Since long ago grace-giving Phoebus (1) died,
And all the train that loved the stream-bright side
Of the poetic mount with him are gone
Beyond the shores of Styx and Acheron,
In unexplored realms of night to hide.
The clouds that strew their shadows far and wide
Are all of Heaven that visits Helicon (2).

Yet here, where never muse or god did haunt,
Still may some nameless power of Nature stray,
Pleased with the reedy stream's continual chant
And purple pomp of these broad fields in May.
The shepherds meet him where he herds the kine,
And careless pass him by whose is the gift divine.

1. Apollo or God the sun
2. abode of the muses and sacred haunt of Apollo

This is very strong work, nearly as good as some of the finest work of Robert Bridges. The metrical scheme is brilliantly executed, and the diction is profound and powerful. This poem is worth knowing well. The subject is a typical one for Romanticism (even for ever more Romantic times), but it is a fine example of a more intellectual treatment of such a theme.

Nov 13, 2007

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 4

The Lute Obeys
(Note: Yvor Winters modernized the spelling.)

Blame not my lute! for he must sound
Of these and that as liketh me;
For lack of wit the lute is bound
To give such tunes as pleaseth me
Though my songs be somewhat strange,
And speaks such words as touch thy change,
Blame not my lute!

My lute, alas! doth not offend,
Though that perforce he must agree
To sound such tunes as I intend
To sing to them that heareth me;
Then though my songs be somewhat plain,
And toucheth some that use to feign,
Blame not my lute!

My lute and strings may not deny,
But as I strike they must obey;
Break not them then so wrongfully,
But wreak thyself some wiser way;
And though the songs which I indite
Do quit thy change with rightful spite,
Blame not my lute!

Spite asketh spite, and changing change,
And falsed faith must needs be known;
The fault so great, the case so strange,
Of right it must abroad be blown
Then since that by thine own desert
My songs do tell how true thou art,
Blame not my lute!

Blame but thy self that hast misdone
And well deserved to have blame;
Change thou thy way, so evil begone,
And then my lute shall sound that same;
But if till then my fingers play
By thy desert their wonted way,
Blame not my lute!

Farewell, unknown! for though thou break
My strings in spite with great disdain,
Yet have I found out, for thy sake,
Strings for to string my lute again
And if, perchance, this silly rhyme
Do make thee blush at any time,
Blame not my lute!


Like most of the other poems of Thomas Wyatt that Yvor Winters selected for Quest for Reality, he only mentioned this poem a couple of times in his essays. Like many others as well, Winters never discussed the “The Lute Obeys” in detail or made a case for its inclusion in what I call the Winters Canon. Further, as with Wyatt’s other poems, no Wintersian that I know of has ever considered whether the inclusion of this poem in Quest for Reality is justified (which depends on what each writer considers the purpose of Quest). I have seldom found the poem even mentioned in essays and books on Winters’s career. Once again, if Winters’s goal was to get the poems of Quest read and studied as exemplary models, he didn’t do enough to promote the excellence of this poem in print -- though he might have done much more to do so in his Stanford poetry classes. In general, the poem is rather infrequently chosen for anthologies or selections of Wyatt’s poetry.

Furthermore, I notice that John Fraser has cut this poem from his quasi-Wintersian anthology, A New Book of English Verse. I wonder why. Fraser does not mention the poem in his lengthy introduction, so we can only guess at his reasoning, unless Fraser were to take some time to write to this blog (which is unlikely). As you will see in a moment, its removal is, in my view, wrong-headed (1). For I hold that this might be Wyatt’s greatest poem.

The few comments Winters made about “The Lute Obeys,” in accord with the main currents of his literary career, suggest that he did not consider this poem one of the greatest poems, though he did judge it to be a particularly good one -- hence the star-rating I believe Winters would have assigned to it (had he not been appalled at the concept of ratings). He did NOT mention the poem in the first published version of his influential essay on Renaissance poetry, “The Sixteenth Century Lyric in England” (Poetry, 1939), which was expanded, revised, and retitled decades later as “Aspects of the Short Poem in the English Renaissance” (Forms of Discovery, 1967). In the second version of the essay (considered by many to be his finest work), Winters quotes this poem in full and comments on it briefly, though the comments are somewhat odd. Concerning the poem’s themes, Winters wrote in “Aspects” that Wyatt was advocating a plain style of love-making through his use of the plain style in his poems about love. Now, this might be accurate to some small degree, but this is hardly the central theme of the poem, which concerns the Petrarchan convention of the unfaithful lover, once again. (Wyatt, like many Petrarchans, beat this theme to smithereens, which is a literary-social issue worth studying.)

As with other poems by Thomas Wyatt, Winters seems to have thought that the WAY Wyatt composed this poem is salutary: the regular meter, the rational shape of the argument, the controlled diction. Though the content of the poem is, again, strictly conventional, the treatment is expert. But these are only my informed guesses, as they must be with all of Wyatt’s works. I can file no petition for other views, since no member of the Stanford School, the so-called Wintersians, has ever bothered to scrutinize the poem in detail -- I’ve never seen it even mentioned.


Though I have read almost no literary artworks that emulate this poem in the history of English poetry, I consider it a superior model for poetic composition in almost every way.

The overt subject matter, the paraphraseable content, is again indefinite as to the specifics of the moral circumstances, since we cannot discern the exact moral relationship between the speaker of the poem, a courtly lover it seems plain, and the woman who allegedly has wronged him and wants to keep him from proclaiming her transgressions -- that is, singing of them with his lute. It remains unclear what kind of relationship the speaker had with the woman, a sexual union only or a marriage -- or possibly some other kind of relationship. The poem’s speaker, whether we see him as Wyatt or not, is a man who wants his betrayer and the world, it seems, to know of the wrong the woman has committed against him in her unfaithfulness. Interpreting the poem in the light of Thomas Wyatt’s lusty life, the speaker’s treatment of this subject seems a touch juvenile to me, wishing the worst on a woman who has rejected him. Since the poem does not specify or delineate how the woman was unjust or immoral, how she betrayed the speaker, we have no adequate means to judge the moral rightness of his claims against her and must try to see the poem as a general statement upon the experience of being wronged.

Yet the poem, even more so than “My Lute Awake,” successfully rises above the specifics of courtship to concern itself with a general and timeless moral principle. (Dan Savage, whom I have featured before, offers a funny look at the blame-game.) With a steady thematic focus and gathering force, the poem line by line deepens our understanding of the importance of the public recognition of immorality. This poem deserves greater study. No member of the Stanford School has bothered with it. That is a sad commentary.


This poem has been on my mind for decades. I wonder whether that has been so for anyone else. The poem is a powerful expression of the need for social sanction as one of the central keepers of morality, which is the subject of countless artworks in literature and cinema. One might compare the poem to a massive array of fine novels and films, such as, to choose just a few quick examples from the modern era, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Wharton’s Age of Innocence and, in film, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Kobayashi’s Hara-Kiri, and Peter Mullen’s recent Magdalene Sisters (2). I have reflected long on its main ideas, on the emotional power of its rational treatment of its concepts, and on its sharp, controlled, profound style.

Several lines stand out with great force in context. The sudden turn to the positive imperative in the lines from the fifth stanza, which begin “Blame but thyself” and “Change thou they way,” strike with great power and meaning. Up to this stanza, Wyatt’s diction and syntax have slowly gathered momentum, before suddenly sounding on the strong accents of the two lines and the change in syntax from the negative to the positive imperative. This draws considerable meaning from these lines with great emotional power.

Also forcefully, yet very differently, the poem ends on a much softer note, the high emotions of the discussion of betrayal having been spent in the first five of the poem’s six stanzas. But the quiet ending is also quite emotionally striking, following upon the stately build-up to the ringing fifth stanza. “Yet have I found out, for they sake” stands out as a superb line in context. By slowing and quieting the stern, riotous emotions embodied in the diction of what has come before, even in the immediately previous lines, this one line embodies a righteous anger and a thirst for justice that still seethes.

We are forced to assume, of course, as I have mentioned, that the woman is truly to blame, for it is only her transgressions that the poem focuses on. But I am an advocate of removing the speck from my own eye before trying to remove the plank from my sister’s. For this reason, in the application of the poem to my life (as contrasted to the interpretation of it), I see it as a call to me: “Blame but thyself, Ben...” and “Change thou they way, Ben...,” as it were. These are just and good commands, to be seen as responses to the wrongs I have committed against others, for the times that I have been the betrayer.


(1) Another project I have for this blog, as I mentioned in just my second post, is a study of Fraser’s anthology, as lengthy as that will have to be. (So much to do, so much to do!)

(2) I have been at work for some years on a study of cinema through a Winters-influenced critical system. In my judgment, these films turns out to be several of the finest works of cinematic art when studied from a Wintersian perspective. There are many other films worth study, though, and some day I will publish the results of my labors in this vein.

Nov 6, 2007

Yezzi on Winters, 1997, Part Two

I have a few isolated issues to discuss concerning David Yezzi’s 1997 overview of Yvor Winters in the New Criterion.



Early in the essay, Yezzi quotes Randall Jarrell on Winters and leaves the clear impression that he agrees with Jarrell, since he offers no objection to anything in the Jarrell quotations he chooses. In my judgment, however, Jarrell’s characterizations of Winters as a neoprimitive variety of neoclassicist, and even as simpleminded (?!!), are blatantly ridiculous. Winters was as far from simpleminded as can be imagined. (I won’t make any case to counter this inane charge here, and I have no plans to bother with one either. But perhaps it’s needed? Someone tell me whether I need to make the case, because I’ll do it if there is a need.) And he was no primitive, either. He had no interest in a return to some “Garden of Eden” of literary taste. Rather, he sought, admirably, by any viable means a continual strengthening of the civilization that formed classical literature and the greatest works of literary art. Winters, as is so infrequently remembered by his detractors, even praised Romanticism, which he opposed as a system for decades, for what it had contributed to development of classical civilization. It is rather obvious that Jarrell did not understand Winters, and his warped, worthless opinions should have been given no voice in this essay except to be soundly rejected.


Yezzi also takes Winters to task, as so many other critics have, on the issue of nepotism -- that is, his support for his students’ work: “Winters was loyal to his favorite students, however, often crediting them with knitting together the strands of a logical, plain-spoken poetic, which had been frayed so violently by the associative tendencies of the Romantic tradition. Winters makes room at the top of his critical ladder for students and colleagues such as Thom Gunn, J. V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, N. Scott Momaday, Donald Stanford, and his wife, Janet Lewis -- a few of them excellent poets, but a dubious, nepotistic list.”

First, there is NOTHING the LEAST dubious about the superb criticism and poetry of these poets. Winters’s praise for their work should not be considered nepotistic, as has been so often unjustly and foolishly charged. I consider Yezzi’s comment a serious blunder. Cunningham, Bowers, Momaday, and Lewis wrote several of the greatest poems of our language, as I will argue when we get to their work as I slowly work my way through a reconsideration of the Winters Canon. But I am not alone in that high opinion of their accomplishments. Further, Cunningham and Stanford wrote some of the finest classical criticism of our age (and even Momaday has written some fine casual criticism), and again I am not alone in judging their work so highly. Also, it’s important to note that if Winters had been blatantly nepotistic, he would have supported many more of his dozens of poet-students than he did -- which he did not. In fact, he wrote that many of them had produced no better than mediocre work, and he did not notably advocate the work of many students who might be deserving of advocacy, such as Howard Baker, Donald Drummond, and Wesley Trimpi. Rather, he recognized, almost alone, the supreme excellence in the work of several of his students and tried to see their indubitable literary achievements recognized as indubitable. Yezzi is plainly wrong, as common as this scurrilous charge of nepotism has long been.


Yezzi states twice that he thinks Winters’s approach to poetry is what we need, as in this passage I mentioned in Part One: “Nevertheless, as both a description of its enduring ills and a prescription for regaining much that has been lost to the lyric tradition in English, Winters’s bitter pill is our long-overlooked and strongest medicine.”

Fair enough. But Yezzi fails to make it clear exactly what Winters’s bitter pill is, other than more rationally lucid and less emotional writing, composed in “traditional” meters. And why is the pill bitter? I don’t find it the least bitter. This pill has given me and others great relief. Part of the problem with getting people to read Winters is this attitude, that siding with him, acquiring a taste for modern classicism, will somehow be painful, trying, or grim, like Baptist converts having to give up booze or dancing. Happily, I joined Winters long ago on a journey to new, deeper areas of classical art and thought and life.


Yezzi has many good things to say about Winters’s discussion of emotion, as in this passage: “It is important to note that what Winters called for was not the complete eradication of emotion (an impossibility) but the elucidation of it. As his chief weapon against corrosive emotionalism, reason became a tenet of faith for Winters. What skulked outside the purview of the rational, the obscuring darkness at the margins of experience, held the supreme threat. His was not, however, a denial of such murky realms; in fact, far from being an innocent with regard to the deleterious darkness outlying reason, Winters keeps the watch on just that verge of benightedness.”

This accurately summarizes Winters’s views on emotion. He often read poetry and wrote his own poems to keep watch on the edges of experience, which modern poets have explored and contemporary poets continue to explore without caution or control for so long.


Yezzi comments, “For Winters, the purpose of poetry is to describe experience as precisely as possible.”

This is a bit misleading. The purpose of poetry, of literature, as Winters stated many times in his essays, is to judge experience properly. The accurate description of experience, as Yezzi puts it, is surely important to that artistic enterprise, but it is not the final end of that enterprise. Such a view as Yezzi’s can throw a reader far off the track in trying to understand Winters. It even sounds suspiciously like Pound’s imagist ideas about the immediate apprehension of things, which Pound thought the aim of literature and which Winters opposed quite strongly.


Yezzi summarizes well Winters’s concerns with the morality of poetry: “Winters fired back [at John Crowe Ransom] in his essay on Ransom from The Anatomy of Nonsense -- he rarely missed an opportunity to rebut his detractors in print -- that, yes, ethical interest is the sole poetic concern, but a descriptive poem in its contemplation of some small nook of human experience perforce contains a moral element that it is the poet’s job to evaluate. “Morality” in poetry, as Winters intends it, then, is a slippery beast. The morality of a poem is not confined to any ostensible ethical subject matter, but is found in the degree to which the poem adds to our accurate apprehension of experience.”

Accurate and true enough, but as I said in my last comment, there is more going on in Winters’s theory than the apprehension of experience. It is, most pertinently, the judging of experience, which is a moral act (in the very broad sense of that word “moral” as Winters used it). On a side note, Yezzi’s little jab at Winters in this passage is quite inaccurate. The jab is located in the parenthetical comment about Winters seldom missing an opportunity to fire back at his opponents. The fact is that Winters commented only occasionally on the vilifications of his detractors. For example, Winters never offered a single comment in print about Stanley Edgar Hyman’s sharp dismissal of his work in 1947’s popular overview of American literary criticism, The Armed Vision. There are dozens of other examples of disapproving essays that Winters ignored. But what problem is there that on occasion he did defend his ideas, as most scholars and professors do from time to time? Doesn’t everyone have a right and sometimes a duty to do so? I don’t have any idea why this misperception of Winters persists, but Yezzi should not have contributed to its longer life.


Yezzi makes several mistakes in his comments on Winters and English Renaissance poetry: “The best section from this book [Forms of Discovery, 1967], perhaps Winters’s greatest single essay, began as a piece on sixteenth-century verse for Poetry and was expanded to chapter length and retitled 'Aspects of the Short Poem in the English Renaissance.' Save the 'post-Symbolist' poetry of Wallace Stevens, which Winters deems the most versatile in the language, the poems of the Renaissance were for Winters unequaled, the peak from which he perceived a long decline.”

The mistakes are made in the last sentence. As I mentioned in Part One, Winters never thought that Wallace Stevens was the only poet who wrote post-symbolist poetry, as Yezzi implies. Winters didn’t think that the poems of the Renaissance have not been equaled in any other time. Winters didn’t think the Renaissance was the one and only peak of English literature. These are subtle points, but important ones. Yezzi is wrong on each. Though maybe not his greatest essay (a good case could certainly be made for the opinion), “Aspects” might be his most influential essay. Its main tenets have been ably, if briefly, summarized at Wikipedia by Aaron Haspell; see:


Yezzi discusses the Renaissance Plain Style that Winters made famous, but makes a couple sly and serious errors in that discussion as well. He suggests that Winters did not know the best poems in the style, though the poems Yezzi mentions are exactly those that Winters championed. This yet again makes me wonder about Yezzi. Did he read Winters, or at least read him sympathetically or with understanding?

The problem is that Yezzi leaves several serious misimpressions about Winters and himself in one passage about Renaissance poetry. Let’s start with his comments on Winters’s admiration for the Plain Style: “With regard to Horace’s two-fold description of the purpose of poetry, edification and pleasure, Winters’s preference seems clear. Take as an example of the plain-style seriousness that Winters championed this sixteenth-century lyric by Googe, ‘Of Money’...”

This sounds innocent enough so far. Yezzi quotes the Googe poem and then comments: “While very good, this is not among the greatest poems of the plain style (better would be Jonson’s “To His Son” or Gascoigne’s “Woodmanship”), yet it is typical in certain appealing respects.” This sentence wrongly -- perhaps inadvertently -- implies two ideas. First, it implies that Winters considered this poem of Googe’s the greatest poem of the plain style. But, plainly, he did not consider it so -- and this is a serious error, for it slyly hints that Winters couldn’t quite recognize the best. Second, the sentence leaves the unmistakable impression that Yezzi himself is the one who has the sense to judge the better poems of the Plain Style, Jonson’s and Gascoigne’s, which, indeed, are much greater than Googe’s. But this is a self-aggrandizing misrepresentation of himself and Winters. For it was Winters who first championed Jonson’s and Gascoigne’s poems as among the greatest in our language, as well as who first brought the attention of the literary world to their importance -- and to the value and achievements of the Plain Style, for that matter. It was NOT David Yezzi. (The literary world has long resisted giving credit to Winters for a renewal of interest in the Renaissance Plain Style and, of course, for the rediscovery of many fine poems written in the movement). This small passage is so misleading that it calls into question everything Yezzi writes about Winters. Yet because Yezzi clearly wants people to read Winters (see Part One) and is mostly accurate about his more general ideas, I must conclude that the misimpressions he leaves here are probably inadvertent. Nonetheless, I believe that they must be corrected, as I have done.


Yezzi thinks that Winters’s poetry has been more forgotten than his criticism, as he comments: “The black ox of melancholy that had trod on Winters’s critical writing finds in his poems its fullest and most affecting expression, yet his poetry, even more than his criticism, has fallen off the literary radar.”

This is hardly so. Winters’s poetry is still read by many and commented on much more frequently than the criticism. Two fine editions of the poetry have come out in the 2000s and been reviewed in major publications, such as the New York Times. Further, the poetry continues to be highly regarded by many prominent poets, even many who have no truck whatsoever with Winters’s literary theories. In contrast, the criticism has almost no importance at all, except among the few Wintersians who remain. Even most so-called members of the Stanford School, as Wintersians at times have been called, reject -- or at best neglect -- most of his critical tenets (Robert Pinsky for example). I applaud Yezzi for at least implying that Winters’s general ideas, if not Winters’s application of those ideas, are worth your time and worth adhering to.


That’s it on David Yezzi’s 1997 piece on Winters. In this series I will next turn to Christopher Ricks’s chapter on allusion in Yvor Winters’s poetry in his 2002 book Allusion to the Poets.