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.

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