Apr 25, 2007

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 1 (Definition of 5-Star Ratings)

This is the first in what I hope will be a long series. There will perhaps more than 200 posts in this series concerning those poems Yvor Winters evaluated “great.” I have mentioned several times that one of my chief purposes for this blog is to begin a re-evaluation of what I call, somewhat playfully, the “Winters Canon,” on which I recently posted a basic definition.

Very briefly, my purpose in this series is to draw attention to and open discussion of the poems Winters believed to be the greatest in the English language by studying those poems, offering my evaluations of Winters’s evaluation of them, and offering a few personal reflections as a Wintersian reader.

For this series, I will use a star rating system. I have been writing, very slowly, a book of film criticism using a 5-star system for rating films that I think can be employed for this series on the poems in the Winters Canon.

Higher-brow critics don’t like star rating systems, but I think they’re helpful. (I will have to make a case for them some time.) For this series I will use the following star ratings. Only a poem with the highest rating of 5 stars do I think belongs in the Winters Canon, the very best of the best ever written.

5 stars: great, or canonic

(I mean “great” as Winters appeared to understand the term. I will have to post a definition of that tricky word some time soon.)

4 stars: superb

3 stars: very fine

2 stars: has redeeming facets

1 star: of limited value

0 stars: not a serious work of art – or, thus, everything else, from works of entertainment down to deeply flawed or totally worthless poems

To be clear but brief (for now), any ranking above 0 stars should be considered a poem worth knowing for some reason. Everything ranked 0 stars just isn’t worth taking seriously as a work of art.

So, with fear and trembling and using this star system, I begin with the first poem reprinted in Quest for Reality. It’s by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who lived from 1503 to 1542 and had a rather interesting life in the court of Henry VIII. Here is the poem:


They flee from me, that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once, in special,
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewith all sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart how like you this."

It was no dream; I lay broad waking:
But all is turned, through my gentleness,
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.


Why is this in Quest for Reality? It appears evident that Winters considered this a great poem. I believe that he would have rated it at 5 stars in the 5-star system I am employing in this series. He never discussed the content of the poem in his essays and never put it on one of those short lists of poems that he thought nearly perfect (though he did list it among the best of Wyatt, whom he mentioned as a “great” poet from time to time). Winters’s one extended discussion of the poem did not appear in print until the last year of his life. This comes in the opening essay of Forms of Discovery, in which Winters used a couple pages to study the meter of the poem. This discussion is quite educational, on poetic meter in general and on Winters’s methods in the study of metrics in particular.

Guessing from how he discussed other Wyatt poems and from his moral theory in general, I would opine that Winters thought that the FORM of this poem expressed a certain highly valuable attitude toward human experience, which, throughout his career, Winters defended and wished to see fostered and advanced. This attitude is one of moral seriousness and rational control. But, that said, I must add that Winters spent no time considering the themes of this particular poem or its bearing on life. No Wintersian has commented extensively on the poem that I know of, nor offered any reconsideration of Winters’s judgment of it as one of the greatest poems of the language. John Fraser includes the poem in his New Book of Verse -- however we might interpret the purpose or meaning of that quasi-Wintersian anthology.

As a significant examination of a human experience, the sexual inconstancy of women, the poem seems to turn on the final two lines, which elevate its purposes into the realm of morality. Winters, I would guess (for he never discussed the poem’s themes, as I say), saw in these lines that the poet was taking a certain moral stance toward the issue at hand, a kind of stance that Winters fervently admired and approved (and which I admire, too). Most professors whom I have read on this poem, however, generally treat it as a historical document, a way into the ways and means of courtship in the English court at a certain time in history, the reign of Henry VIII. Seldom have critics, in what I have read, treated the poem as having something to say to us today, as Winters thought (as I would again have to guess). This approach to the poem as history is much like that described in a recent essay in The American Scholar on postmodern critics (such as Derrida), whom Louis Menand called the “greatest generation” because they insist on “difference”:

The insistence on difference, on refusing to see similarities, inhibits dialogue and the chance to learn from, understand, and appreciate others. This is particularly disturbing in the case of art and literary studies. Menand writes that “a 19th-century novel is a report on the 19th century; it is not an advice manual for life out here on the 21st-century street.” So all those who have read Pride and Prejudice in the 20th century and since and felt that it showed something about the dangers of first impressions and the error of equating social ease with merit and social stiffness with coldness or disdain have been wrong? (from “Getting it All Wrong: Bioculture Critiques Cultural Critique,” by Brian Boyd, The American Scholar)
Winters, as you might guess if you’ve been reading this blog, insisted that the finest poetry and literature do and should serve as some sort of “manual for life.” But the service is as much in the way a work of literary art is written, its form, as in what it overtly said, its content, that Winters, I believe, saw a poetic “discourse” like Wyatt’s having meaning for us today, giving us, in this case, valuable insights into the meaning of courtship and its moral implications.


I wish to start my assessment of Winters’s assessment of this poem by noting that it has long been a frequent choice by editors of the most well-known, standard anthologies that have covered English Renaissance poetry. Indeed, it is ranked as the 39th “best” or “most important” poem as listed and reprinted in The Top 500 Poems, that entertaining and enlightening anthology that ranked poems by how frequently they have been anthologized. The poem is often discussed in scholarly journals, and there are many web essays, short and long, that offer studies of it -- some of them with great intensity. Nearly all these studies of this poem rather concern its content, its themes, than its form, metrical or otherwise.

All that said, I find it to be a very well executed, but minor poem. I would rate it at 4 stars, or superb. Thus, to be clear, I don’t believe it belongs among the greats of the Winters Canon, though certainly it is a very skillful and strong poem that is worth knowing well. Further, it is well worth imitating, and I would certainly like to see much more poetry written like it in structure and style. But Wyatt, to my mind, seems to have delighted in contemplating his subject matter, at times, without sufficient seriousness or depth. Sexual politics and the morality of courtship are fundamental issues of human experience, but Wyatt gives us no truly profound insight into these matters in this poem, as finely executed as it is. The poem, in my judgment, offers a vague, incomplete, and perhaps unacceptable understanding of the inconstancy of women. For the poem seems not to recognize the hypocrisy of its speaker, which I consider a serious defect. Still, the poem’s emphasis on the moral issues of sexuality, though hardly new even 400 years ago, is moderately enlightening and much needed in every age and ever society. As I say, I consider the poem very well worth knowing.


Let me say that any personal reflections from my readers are most appreciated, even if such readers are loath to offer an evaluation of Winters’s evaluations.

Wyatt’s “Remembrance” has never done much for me, I must admit. It hasn’t stuck in my mind, a work of art that I keep coming back to and pondering over and again as I have encountered new situations in life concerning the morals of courtship or the politics of sexuality. In reflecting upon the poem’s lack of importance in my life, I searched back, in my mind, through all my reading to find a poem or writing that has stuck with me much more powerfully than this poem. What I recalled was a passage from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, one also about, in general, the morality of sex. I first read this bestselling book of Christian apologetics when I was in high school in the early 1970s. I was engaged to a Baptist girl and considering becoming a Christian under her influence. I would soon be “born again” at a revival at the Masonic Temple in Detroit some months later. I have long since converted away from Christianity, but I have pondered Lewis’s discussion of sex in Mere Christianity, and its implications to wider issues in morality, for more than 30 years, in contrast to how infrequently I have thought of Wyatt’s “Remembrance,” despite having read the poem several dozen times. I have taken one particularly important section of Lewis’s discussion that I keep pondering for decades and broken up Lewis’s prose into lines to compare it to Wyatt’s exploration of sexual politics. Why? As an experiment.

Our warped natures, the devils who tempt us,
And all the contemporary propaganda for lust,
Combine to make us feel that
The desires we are resisting
Are so 'natural', so 'healthy', and so reasonable,
That it is almost perverse and abnormal
To resist them. Poster after poster,
Film after film, novel after novel,
Associate the idea of sexual indulgence
With the ideas of health, normality, youth,
Frankness, and good humour. Now this association
Is a lie.

Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth -–
The truth that sex in itself (apart from
The excesses and obsessions that have grown round it)
Is 'normal' and 'healthy', and all the rest of it.
The lie consists in the suggestion
that any sexual act to which you are tempted
At the moment is also healthy and normal.

Now this, on any conceivable view, and quite apart
From Christianity, must be nonsense.
Surrender to all our desires obviously
Leads to impotence, disease, jealousies,
Lies, concealment, and everything that is
The reverse of health, good humour, and frankness.
For any happiness, even in this world,
Quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary;
So the claim made by every desire, when it is strong,
To be healthy and reasonable, counts for nothing.

Every sane and civilised man must have
Some set of principles by which he chooses
To reject some of his desires and to permit others.
One man does this on Christian principles,
Another on hygienic principles,
Another on sociological principles.
The real conflict is not between Christianity
And 'nature', but between Christian principles
And other principles in the control of 'nature'.
For 'nature' (in the sense of natural desire)
All have to be controlled anyway, unless you
Are going to ruin your whole life.

Note, first, that this passage of prose broken into lines doesn’t sound much different from or ANY less poetic than tens of thousands of published poems written in free verse over the past 50 years. (The sparkling, chatty prose of contemporary poetry is becoming an ever stronger convention. Follow "Poetry Daily" at http://www.poems.com/ for a month if you doubt me.) Second, despite the evident poetic skill of Wyatt’s poem, I consider my transformation of Lewis’s prose into a prosetic musing the more important, more worthwhile, “poem” -- though poem it is not, of course, and regardless of whether I agree directly or fully with Lewis’s ideas or not. The Lewis prosetry tackles the subject matter of sexual politics with considerable literary skill and reason; it offers steady, rational, and deep insight into the subject matter; and the clear picture of what Lewis is telling us has wide and profound implications in many areas of life, in my judgment. I cannot say the same of Wyatt’s poem, despite the undoubted brilliance of its execution. “Remembrance” is a strong poem, in my judgment, as I wrote above, but it has never done much for me. If skillfulness is the reason we must rank it great, then what is greatness for? This is a question we will keep trying to answer more and more deeply as our discussion of the Winters Canon continues over hundreds of posts to come.

Of course, in response to this post and every other in the series, I am interested in every reader’s evaluation of the particular poem under discussion and highly interested in personal reflections on each individual poem: how it is important in a reader’s life, what other poems or writings on the same topic have been more important, etc.

We will be with Wyatt for some time in this series, since Winters judged more than a half dozen of his poems to be great.

Apr 18, 2007

A New Edith Wharton Biography

There was a time -- though few can recall it -- when Yvor Winters stood almost alone in his exceedingly high admiration for the fiction and prose of Edith Wharton. In his once well-known, and oft-derided, essay on Henry James, “Maule’s Well or Henry James and the Relation of Morals to Manners” (reprinted in In Defense of Reason, 1947), Winters declared, somewhat notoriously, that Wharton’s Age of Innocence was the single fullest flowering of the Jamesian art:

It is likely that one can find an isolated novel here and there to surpass any by James; one might argue with considerable reason that The Age of Innocence, partly because it corrects, as I have shown, a serious defect in the Jamesian conception of the novel, partly because of its finer prose, is the finest single flower of the Jamesian art; one which James fertilized but would have been unable to bring to maturity.

Winters once received plenty of scorn, even some critical abuse, for that judgment in the 1940s and 50s, but the critical winds took a turn in about the 1980s, when critics started reading Wharton with greater appreciation and started writing many more scholarly monographs on her work, and publishing houses began issuing her novels in new editions with scholarly and appreciative prefaces. (I should offer a note of clarification that Winters might have considered Henry James the greatest novelist in English when considering his entire oeuvre, but that Wharton wrote a few novels that are better executed than any single novel James wrote. Exactly how Winters judged James against Wharton is a minor matter that could use some study.) Winters’s various brief comments about Wharton’s art (I deeply wish he had written on her more) -- contained in the James essay, the essay on Melville (in which he compares her style to the prose of Moby Dick), and the essay on Fenimore Cooper (as part of Winters’s discussion of the social novel) -- are fascinating reading that I hope we find occasion to discuss in detail some time.

I’ve tracked the changing winds on Wharton, because, on Winters’s recommendation, I took up Wharton and read many of her novels and short stories back in the 1970s, when few critics paid her any attention as one of the great fictionists. It’s hard to say how highly she is judged in the Standard Canon, but she is certainly very popular among Mid-Cult, educated readers who still fancy reading novels of great intelligence and superior narrative craft. One indication of the commercial favor her work has discovered might be the number of movies adapted from her books. Though far behind James and Austen in this regard, filmmakers have recently made up for some of the lost time of Wharton’s long obscurity, which appears somewhat similar to that of Herman Melville (it’s hard to remember nowadays that Melville ever rested in obscurity).

A major biography and several intensive studies were published a couple decades ago about Wharton’s life and work, but a new set of life studies has come into view. A couple months ago, Elaine Showalter reviewed Hermione Lee's new biography in the Guardian (U.K.). The biography is entitled Edith Wharton and Showalter’s review can be found at:


Lee’s book is important, I think, because of the attention she pays to Custom of the Country, which Lee opines as Wharton’s best novel. I tend to agree that Custom, which Yvor Winters also judged as one of Wharton’s best, might indeed be the finest in Wharton and one of the greatest novels in the English language. I’ll come back to this matter in a moment.

Another review of Lee’s new biography came out a short time later in the Times Literary Supplement (U.K.), “Edith Wharton's Passionate Realism,” by Michael Gorra, which can be found at:


Finally, among those reviews I think deserve mention, Louis Auchincloss put out a review of Lee’s biography in the New York Sun, which can be found at:


All these short reviews are worth reading. They concentrate on the life, of course, but the message seems clear that Lee’s biography achieves quite a bit as a work of criticism.

I would like to come back briefly to Custom of the Country, defended by Lee as Wharton’s best work of fiction. As I say, Winters almost agreed, rating this novel, it appears, second only to The Age of Innocence. Though Innocence is certainly one of the greatest novels of all time, I tend to consider Custom the greater novel because of its treatment of the theme of evil. The novel concerns a woman named Undine Sprague, whose story begins when she has newly arrived in New York in the late 19th century. Upon her family’s coming into money through great business success in the Midwest, Undine becomes ambitious for status and tries to use her riches to buy social position in the tightly controlled society of the Eastern upper crust. She decides to further her cause through a socially advantageous marriage and chooses a young man named Ralph Marvell, who has splendid social connections but little money. Undine gets a measure of status from the marriage to Marvell, but after time passes and she makes a visit to Europe, she realizes that there are still more highly prized social positions to which she may aspire. Despite having a child by him, she divorces Ralph, with tragic results, to marry a Frenchman with a title of “true” nobility.

Promptly, however, Undine finds the eminence she achieves as the wife of a European nobleman less rewarding than she had presumed. For Undine the grass is always greener. With consummate skill in prose style and narrative structure, Wharton tells the story of this beautiful young woman who always wants something she believes is better than she already possesses and who uses her charms and various morally questionable means to get what she wants regardless of whom she hurts. It is a chilling and powerful cautionary tale of deep themes that reach far beyond the narrow confines of the upper-crust societies that it takes place within.

Rather than offer one of the brilliant and powerfully conclusive passages at the close of Custom of the Country, I want to give you one longer passage from this great novel to draw your attention to the achievement of Wharton’s fiction and to interest you in her work. Let’s consider a seemingly minor passage that feels representative to me of the excellence of Wharton’s prose and the skillfulness of her narrative control. This passage comes at about mid-novel, a point in the story when Undine is beginning to have her doubts about what her first marriage to Ralph Marvell can accomplish for her:

For a long time now feminine nearness had come to mean to him [Ralph], not this relief from tension, but the ever-renewed dread of small daily deceptions, evasions, subterfuges. The change had come gradually, marked by one disillusionment after another; but there had been one moment that formed the point beyond which there was no returning. It was the moment, a month or two before his boy's birth, when, glancing over a batch of belated Paris bills, he had come on one from the jeweller he had once found in private conference with Undine. The bill was not large, but two of its items stood out sharply. "Resetting pearl and diamond pendant. Resetting sapphire and diamond ring." The pearl and diamond pendant was his mother's wedding present; the ring was the one he had given Undine on their engagement. That they were both family relics, kept unchanged through several generations, scarcely mattered to him at the time: he felt only the stab of his wife's deception. She had assured him in Paris that she had not had her jewels reset. He had noticed, soon after their return to New York, that she had left off her engagement-ring; but the others were soon discarded also, and in answer to his question she had told him that, in her ailing state, rings "worried" her. Now he saw she had deceived him, and, forgetting everything else, he went to her, bill in hand. Her tears and distress filled him with immediate contrition. Was this a time to torment her about trifles? His anger seemed to cause her actual physical fear, and at the sight he abased himself in entreaties for forgiveness. When the scene ended she had pardoned him, and the reset ring was on her finger...

Soon afterward, the birth of the boy seemed to wipe out these humiliating memories; yet Marvell found in time that they were not effaced, but only momentarily crowded out of sight. In reality, the incident had a meaning out of proportion to its apparent seriousness, for it put in his hand a clue to a new side of his wife's character. He no longer minded her having lied about the jeweller; what pained him was that she had been unconscious of the wound she inflicted in destroying the identity of the jewels. He saw that, even after their explanation, she still supposed he was angry only because she had deceived him; and the discovery that she was completely unconscious of states of feeling on which so much of his inner life depended marked a new stage in their relation. He was not thinking of all this as he sat beside Clare Van Degen; but it was part of the chronic disquietude which made him more alive to his cousin's sympathy, her shy unspoken understanding. After all, he and she were of the same blood and had the same traditions. She was light and frivolous, without strength of will or depth of purpose; but she had the frankness of her foibles, and she would never have lied to him or traded on his tenderness.

Now, this novel is a beautifully managed affair. These paragraphs come after chapters of careful and expert preparation, but the clarity of the prose and the skillfulness of the writing here brings out the central themes to sharp, telling effect. This is a style that can carry a great weight of intelligence and insight. Winters, I believe, saw in Wharton’s narrative style the sort of expository adroitness that he thought was increasingly lacking in so much modern fiction, but which had been a central literary tool in fiction from its beginnings, such as we find, for example, in the work of two of its early masters, Cervantes and Fielding. Wharton shows supreme skill in illuminating out her deep themes and the profound implications of what is being told to us at this point in the narrative. To my mind, this sort of approach is what makes for total and complete excellence in fiction. It is a style that novelists should be imitating and then building out from to make true and strong progress in the development of the novel in our time. The extreme emphasis upon showing over telling -- that hackneyed proverb of our literary era -- has done much to damage and weaken the novels written in recent decades. It is time to get back to employing telling and showing together, with what a writer tells holding sway, directing and deepening the thematic energies of what a writer shows.

A full Wintersian reassessment of the art of Edith Wharton is long overdue. No Wintersian I know of has bothered to study Winters’s judgment of her work or to study her work more deeply from a Wintersian perspective -- that is, using the general literary principles Winters defended. Further, no critic or writer I know of has even been brave enough to side in print with Winters in his evaluation of Wharton as one of the greatest fictionists, as I do. The only general reconsideration of the book of essays that contains Winters’s evaluation of Wharton, an essay by historian David Levin entitled “A Historical Reconsideration of Maule’s Curse” (Southern Review, 1981), does not even mention Wharton. Strange, very strange.

Apr 12, 2007

A New Philosophy Book on the Subject of Beauty

I am going to have to start putting up teasers about various articles I can’t find time to study in detail right away. This teaser concerns a book review that I thought might be worth a close reading but have been unable to find the time yet to consider closely. The book is a non-technical work on the subject of beauty, or aesthetics, by a philosopher who has written some moderately popular books for general audiences, Alexander Nehamas. It’s suggestively, puzzlingly entitled Only a Promise of Happiness. A short review came out in the New York Sun in its February 16, 2007 edition. The brief but insightful piece, entitled “The Uncertainty Principle of Beauty” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, whom I know nothing about, is full of suggestive ideas about the philosophy of beauty. It can be found at:


The reviewer, Lewis-Kraus, writes that though beauty has been a chief concern of philosophy from Plato to Kant, the subject has nowadays been almost entirely dropped as a philosophical topic and is now left to fine arts and English departments. I don’t think this is quite so, since I know of major philosophy departments that offer courses in aesthetics and of a few philosophy journals devoted to the topic. But it does seem roughly true that the heavyweight philosophers of our times seldom bother with beauty. With his new book, Nehemas tries to tow the subject back into the mainstream of philosophy. Since Nehamas writes general philosophy, concerning what he calls "the art of living," his interest in the project makes some sense.

Lewis-Kraus pithily explains that Nehamas reaches back in this book to Plato for his concept of beauty’s being inseparable from eros, or desire. That concept has been lost, according to Nehamas, because Kant and other major philosophers of the past 300 years or so began to mistrust “passion" -- for its sordidness, its fickleness, the emotional imbalances it brings about. According to Nehamas, Kant’s ideas damaged the study of beauty because it tried to replace passion with a model of “disinterested contemplation.”

Now, you might be wondering, how might this book and its central concept bear upon the work of Yvor Winters? To put the matter briefly, though he had little to say about aesthetic theory in his writings, Winters, as so many literary critics have being doing over hundreds of years, bandied about the words “beautiful” and its near synonyms throughout his career without ever clearly defining those terms in any way or to any depth -- also as so many critics have been doing. In particular, Winters kept referring to certain passages of poems and prose, often oddly short passages -- sometimes no more than a line or a even a phrase (a practice for which he was often ridiculed) -- as possessing exceptional beauty, as well as certain whole works as beautiful, without circumscribing what beauty meant to him or should mean to us all. This is an obvious, even a vexing deficiency in Winters’s criticism, an area in which a Wintersian could do some very good work in keeping Winters’s critical theory alive and developing it for a new generation. It would seem, speaking offhandedly, that Yvor Winters would side with Kant on this issue, at least as Lewis-Kraus portrays Nehamas’s take on it. I intend to give the book some study. Though I cannot say I know Nehamas’s thought on beauty well enough to make any final judgment, I tend to think that theories of beauty like Nehamas’s, as Lewis-Kraus characterizes it, continue to do a lot of damage in literature and all the arts. I hope to get to this subject some time soon.

Apr 9, 2007

The New Criterion’s 2007 Poetry Issue: A Feast for Wintersians

In bookstores is the latest poetry issue of the New Criterion, which has been putting together an annual issue focused on poetry for the past several years. It is quite an unusual series. No other general-audience national journal of this kind or status has been putting out an annual issue focused on poetry in the past 50 years or more. And what’s even better is that the NC’s editors are clearly committed to a brand of neo-classicism (a bit soft at times, it is true) and the movement in poetry that has been called by many the “New Formalism,” which is hardly new any longer, being some 60 years old. As a Wintersian I applaud the efforts of the NC highly. I have purchased the issue, which appears to be excellent as a whole, but haven’t read it all yet. A few of its essays are accessible online for free.

(I must pause a moment to add, just to be keep anyone from jumping to conclusions without warrant, that I am NOT a political conservative, in general. The NC’s coverage of the arts and humanities in general often gets short shrift because of its general political conservatism, which I find often worthwhile, but I disagree strongly that literary conservatism [if we can classify neo-classicism as such] implies or requires political conservatism. Notably, this a significant issue in the study of Yvor Winters that I should address on this blog some time, since critics and readers have often assumed that Winters, because of his literary views, was some sort of fascist -- which he MOST surely was not.)

What’s in the issue? Dan Brown, a poet I do not know, offers an essay on those two Robert Frost favorites "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." I’ll be interested in his take on these redoubtable, beloved poems, neither of which scored all that highly on Yvor Winters’s evaluative scorecard (they have never scored highly on mine, either). But I’m looking forward to what an NC writer might have to say about them. It appears at a glance that Brown assumes them to be two of our finest poems. We shall see whether he is able to nudge me closer to agreeing. I should note that the editor George Panichas of the conservative journal Modern Age, many years ago, took on Winters’s superb but somewhat disapproving essay on Frost, written in the late 1940s, which is another subject I want to come back at some point. Meantime, you can find a bit more on Winters’s views on Frost on my Yvor Winters Web Site. Search on google by typing in “Year with Yvor Winters” in quotation marks with some key words, such as “Robert Frost.” You will get results showing the relevant passages I quoted and commented on for my book.

Second, Eric Ormsby has an essay on Robert Bridges, “Robert Bridges's New Cadence,” which I’m certainly looking forward to. It’s the first piece on Bridges in a major publication in long, long time. The essay is available online at the NC web site. Winters considered some of Bridges’s work to be great, however much he has been scorned by most modern critics and poets -- and I agree with Winters with all my critical heart. Bridges’s work deserves careful study and should have been serving as one of the foundation stones of our poetic future. Sadly, though, it has long lain buried in some rubble heap. Winters never stopped championing this great poet’s work, and nor will I, whenever I get the chance, which I hope will come often on this blog. Set Yeats aside; set Eliot aside, too. Give me Bridges.

Further on, the readable and sharp poet X.J. Kennedy, sometime New Formalist, offers yet another essay on a poet whom Winters considered great, “The Enduring Specter of E. A. Robinson,” on the underappreciated American poet about whom a new biography recently came out. I have discussed Robinson briefly on this blog in these opening months, and I look forward to carefully examining Kennedy’s overview of Robinson’s superior work. Kennedy, it seems, offers one of Robinson’s more obscure poems as one of his best. I’ll be particularly interested in that matter.

On tap as well is yet another essay by the NC poetry editor David Yezzi, another piece that I look forward to reading: “The Amis Country,” which concerns the fiction and poetry of Kingsley Amis. Amis was a sometime formalist who deserves some attention, though his work cannot stand among the greats. But I am willing to give his poetry and fiction another good look. Yezzi is a fine writer whom I pay attention to. Even though he is no Wintersian, he has certainly profited from his study of Winters in a number of significant ways.

Included in this issue is another essay by John Simon, who has made a few appearances in the NC of late on poetry. After decades of reviewing plays and films for New York magazine and the National Review, Simon, in retirement, has been focusing on new subjects. I have always deeply appreciated Simon’s film criticism, as well as his work in defending good usage and standard formal grammar. He is my most trusted film critic, though I wouldn’t say there is any Wintersian bent to his work in film or literature. His piece is on German poetry: “The Three Ms of German Poetry,” which is about an anthology of 20th-century German poetry edited by Michael Hofmann.

Finally, the issue has a nice sampling of some strong poetry, including “Untitled” by Adam Kirsch, “Domestic Cappadocia” by Ben Downing, “Deus ex machina” by A.E. Stallings, and “Summer in the high purpose of clouds” by William Logan. I found all these pieces worth reading. All are available online.

Whether you are conservative or liberal in politics should not matter. I hope you will take my recommendation and follow the New Criterion on poetry. There is nothing else like its work in this field in American culture today.

Certainly, I will come around on this blog soon to the NC’s new essays on Frost’s famous poems, on Robinson, and most importantly on Robert Bridges. I might have something to say about the other pertinent essays as well.

Apr 5, 2007

Basic Definitions: “Winters Canon”

I’ve used this term repeatedly in this blog without trying to define it fully. Let me try to state my definition in a couple hundred words or less:

Yvor Winters believed that evaluation -- ascertaining exactly which works of literature are better and best, and making clear, sound cases for those judgments -- stands at the center of criticism, as he often argued or clearly implied. In keeping with this central tenet of his critical theory, he often made short lists of poems he judged as “great,” those poems which stand apart for paramount excellence. Though he never defined the word “great,” the evidence shows, I believe, that he reserved the term only for works of literary art that stand at the summit of achievement, works, very few in number, which should serve as models for writers and as the supreme standard of critical evaluation. After claiming that dozens of poems were great during his career, in his final years he wrote a book on the history of English poetry (Forms of Discovery, published in 1967) according to its best poems. These poems were gathered in a companion anthology, Quest for Reality, which contains, mostly, those poems Winters considered great. As shorthand, and a little playfully, I call those poems the “Winters Canon.”

That was less than 200 words. That was difficult -- for me. Yet that’s my short, straightforward definition of the term, without trying to justify the various claims I make about Winters’s critical tenets in that paragraph. Yet though I keep using the term “Winters Canon” as though my understanding of it were something fixed and agreed on to some significant degree, I must admit that it is far from either. It is my own term and concept, for no published critic, not even any Wintersian, has chosen to say clearly just what exactly Yvor Winters was doing when he often made those lists of “great” poems; discussed often which poems are good, better, and best; and later published that anthology containing most of those poems that he had often mentioned, across three decades of criticism, as exceptionally, matchlessly good -- as “great.” Not even his one-time graduate student, the co-editor of Quest for Reality, Ken Fields, who is still alive and teaching at Stanford, has been able to bring himself to say that that anthology is some sort of “canon” of the best or greatest poetry in the English language, which is my understanding of that book.

It is also strange to me that Dick Davis, in one of the finest studies of Winters’s whole career, as both poet and critic, Wisdom and Wilderness (1982), did not even directly address the issue of what I consider the central tenet of Winters’s theory, evaluation. (Just as strangely, Davis did not even address Winters’s critical theory systematically as a whole.) Davis gave a nice overview of the varied judgments of the poets and writers whom Winters wrote about in detail, but Davis did not discuss Winters’s major theoretical essays or the major theoretical statements made within other essays about specific writers and critics. Nor, further, did Davis discuss Winters’s many judgments in terms of Winters’s concept of evaluation, the determination of the best or the greatest. Rather, Davis, as other Wintersians have also done, used euphemisms of all sorts. Winters was “attracted” to this or that poem, Davis opined, or was “sympathetic” to this or that style, or “admired” this work or that. I think these euphemisms significantly understate what Winters meant by the term “great” and distort what he intended as a critic -- however much anyone might disagree with his specific evaluations of what is great. Davis appears to me to have wanted to translate Winters into his own language in an attempt to soften him for those who might not know him well. So lowly is Winters generally regarded, this might have been a wise strategy to get people to keep reading him. I will have to come back to that some time.

My case for my interpretation of Winters’s concept of evaluation must wait for later. I offer this post for purposes of definition only. But I must admit that there are other valid ways to understand Winters on this issue, of course. Some conceptions of his ideas about “greatness” are compatible with my conception of the Winters Canon, some not. One can believe that the poems of Quest for Reality display the kind of poetic structure and style that Winters believed best or most artistic, without saying that he thought that, say, Agnes Lee’s obscure, simple poem “The Sweeper” (to consider just one among several dozen notorious examples) is a great poem, while, say, Yeats’s famous “The Second Coming” is not; or that the obscure British poet Elizabeth Daryush is a great poet, while, say, T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound are not. In both these specific cases, I believe that this is what Winters thought. Yet there are some who disagree with me. (By the way, John Fraser includes “The Second Coming” in his quasi-Wintersian anthology A New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing regularly on this blog. I will come to that specific topic in time, I’m certain.)

I will begin to review the Winters Canon poem by poem and to defend my concept of the Canon in the months ahead. Stay tuned.