May 30, 2007

What We’re Up Against

I was looking through the narrow, shadowed, dusty stacks at the Michigan State University Library last week (I work at MSU as a fund-raising writer) looking for a particular book. I was in the general literature section, PS 1-100 or so (pictured is the main entrance to the MSU Library some years ago). Always when I’m searching for specific books at the library, I glance at publication dates on location stickers as I pass along the stacks to see what’s new in literary culture or some other area of concern. I sometimes pop the newest books I haven’t seen before off the shelves and search the indexes to see whether they have much to say about subjects or issues I’m interested in, such as (often I’ll admit) Yvor Winters and the Wintersians -- though I do follow a number of other topics and issues, in case some of you are wondering. Well, last week in the stacks, as a result of this practice, I noticed a book published in 2004 entitled A History of American Literature by Richard Gray, whom I do not know and have never read anything by. It was published by the reputable house of Blackwell Publishing. It was a big book, some 900 large, densely printed pages, covering our literature from its beginnings up to the 2000s.

I found, happily, that it included a few sentences on Yvor Winters, though they added up to less than quarter of a page. It’s nice to see Winters given attention even this paltry, though, sadly, the author made a mistake in his first sentence on Winters. Gray implied that Winters was mainly inspired in his criticism by the so-called Fugitives, that group of Southern writers, known as “agrarians” in their early days, who formed the beginnings of what came to be called the New Criticism. But this is hardly the case, though it is true that Winters had relationships with some of the Fugitives, Allen Tate in particular, and wrote briefly in his formal essays about some of them and their movement from time to time.

In any case, all that this book from Blackwell had to say about a man whom some consider one of the most important writers in American letters, even in the history of the English language, was a few sentences amid 900 pages stuffed with names and words. Obviously, I and anyone else who holds the ideas of Yvor Winters in high esteem have a long way to go to see him properly regarded in literary culture. It will almost certainly never happen, of course. I’m no fool (in case that thought has crossed your mind as well). But I soldier on in the hope that those who might need or want to know of Winters’s work will find help in learning about it on this blog and on my Winters web site.

Other writers related to Winters in some way fared even worse in Gray’s book. 1) There was NO(!) mention of Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife. She is a superb novelist and poet whom some consider one of our best novelists, a superior prose stylist, and a great poet (as Winters did himself). 2) The learned and scintillating poet and literary scholar J.V. Cunningham, once a student of Winters’s in the 1930s who went on to a career distinct from his teacher’s in significant ways, did receive about half a page. That’s a sizeable amount and Gray’s discussion of J.V.C. is a fair one, even though he deserves a good deal more. 3) There was NO mention of Donald Stanford, the LSU professor, poet, critic, and co-editor of the Southern Review, Second Series through 1982. Stanford, who died a few years ago, was a brilliant advocate of modern classicism, a superb poet, and a fine editor. 4) Poet Edgar Bowers received no mention, though he was a great American poet (his status as one-time student of Winters has burdened him with an especially nasty curse). 5) Nor did Gray mention Timothy Steele, who has done so much to bring the study of metrics back into our culture, though it could be argued that he is too young to assess his part in the history of our literature. Nonetheless, I consider his work to be very important.

Lastly, on the plus side, Gray did devote four pages to N. Scott Momaday, the only writer with a close connection to Winters to receive extended discussion. Gray treated him as an important Native American writer, of course, not as a Wintersian, which he probably is not in any but a very loose sense. The principal work Gray discussed was Momaday’s fine novel House Made of Dawn, a work that was praised by Winters (in a very brief comment) and various Wintersians back in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Donald Stanford in the Southern Review. Gray does not mention Momaday’s great modern classical poetry.

What does all this mean? That one of the greatest poets and critics of all time in the English language continues to languish in near oblivion. Too, too sad.

May 23, 2007

Edith Wharton Discussion Flourishes

Edith Wharton’s life and work continue to be a subject of good discussion here and there on the web and in print. Most importantly, John Updike put out an essay, “The Changeling,” on the new Edith Wharton biography in the New Yorker recently. The essay can be found at:

To repeat, Yvor Winters judged Wharton, pictured as a teenager, one of the greatest novelists of all time, at least in regard to her very best work. (Winters, a bit strangely, I think, hinted that a lot of Wharton’s fiction was substandard, but that, yes, she did achieve greatness in a few novels and stories. I think Wharton’s achievement is fairly consistent and that Winters mistakenly judged a number of very fine works as weak.) But judging just exactly how Winters evaluated Wharton from his few comments on her art is a bit difficult. It is a matter that Wintersians should discuss more fully. No critic at least sympathetic to Winters’s ideas, however, has, it appears, thought the matter needs judicious reconsideration.

John Updike emphasizes that the secretiveness of the family in which Edith grew up had a profound effect on her art and agrees with biographer Hermione Lee that “Reserve and concealment are everywhere in her fiction.” Even Wharton’s “published autobiography is selective and evasive,” according to Lee. Updike, naturally, finds all this compelling, the result of an upbringing in a family that bred extreme discretion:

The starchy Joneses, with their ritual transatlantic reach toward the seats of real culture, their naïve and monotonous snobbery, their strange mixture of religiosity and materialism, their unforgiving family quarrels, do not invite touching.

Updike appears to agree with Lee that Wharton is one of America’s finest novelists and quotes Lee with apparent approval on what made Wharton great:

... her mixture of harshly detached, meticulously perceptive, disabused realism, with a language of poignant feeling and deep passion, and her setting of the most confined of private lives in a thick, complex network of social forces.

That is a fair summary of the themes of Wharton’s novels, and a profound delineation of the nature and power of society they certainly are. Her works have been on my mind as thematic touchstones for decades. Of course, she is very different from the modern “greats” whom she has been in competition with for so long, such as James Joyce, whom Updike mentions:

But [Wharton] was not a modernist, though well aware of changing fashions; her young friends could not convince her of the virtues of “Ulysses,” which she called “a turgid welter of schoolboy pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel.”

There’s a striking quotation. That opinion of Joyce sounds remarkably akin to Winters’s very brief comments on Joyce’s work in “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” in The Function of Criticism and elsewhere. (I should point out, though, that Winters, at least early in his career, had a high opinion of Joyce’s Dubliners and particularly the great short story that concludes the collection, “The Dead.”)

For his part, Updike says that he doesn’t consider Wharton’s Custom of the Country her finest novel, as Hermione Lee claims, but rather The Age of Innocence. I can’t quibble with either choice. Both stand among the very greatest novels of English literature in my judgment and should stand as such in the “Standard Canon.” I think Custom is too often overlooked, however. It reaches for a higher theme than Age through its incisive exploration of the nature of evil.

Another recent essay on the new Wharton biography worth mentioning can be found at the Washington Times web site. This piece, “The Politics of Prose” by Kelly Jane Torrance, declares rather forthrightly that it is high time that Edith Wharton, along with Dawn Powell and Willa Cather, be ranked among America’s greatest writers. The piece can be found at:

Further, Torrance states that these three women should LEAD the “canon,” by which I presume she means the Standard Canon, that general, ethereal, and variable consensus that awards some sort of mystical literary status to certain works and writers:

These three aren't simply undervalued women who in the name of "diversity" deserve a more secure place in the canon -- they should be at its peak. That they're not says much about how literary reputation is born and sustained. Experimentalism counts for a lot; so does cutting a romantic figure.

Torrance discusses experimentalism again later, believing that a big part of the problem for Wharton and the other women has been their seeming conventionality, though that very conventionality might be coming back into fashion:

Experimentalism -- successful or not -- has often counted highly in making a literary reputation. But there are signs that literary modernism -- a stream to which misters Hemingway and Faulkner, in particular, and Mr. Fitzgerald, to a lesser degree, belonged -- is not aging well.

I won’t speak to Powell and Cather, but Wharton’s art certainly deserves a much higher status and deserves your attention as superior classical literature. Interestingly, this critic claims that, perhaps, Ethan Frome should be rated as Wharton’s finest work. I find Frome to be a very weak, though very common, choice. Frome has been the darling of Wharton lovers for decades, though I agree with Winters (we can only guess on thin evidence that he did not judge it as one of the greats) that this is a inferior work that does not even come close to the excellence of Wharton’s finest novels and stories. Among those should be counted an early novel that Winters highly recommended but remains out of print, The Valley of Decision, which is almost NEVER mentioned by scholars and critics writing about Wharton. I have read Valley (I’ve never run across another writer on the web who has) and found it outstanding, just as Yvor Winters believed it to be.

Finally, I wish to mention that the Wall Street Journal also published a review of Hermione Lee’s Wharton biography (available online only to subscribers) “Social Registrar: The novelist who captured the beau monde -- and lived it,” in its April 14 weekend edition. That short article included a couple of telling anecdotes about Wharton that I found worth reading.

May 18, 2007

A New John Donne Biography

John Donne (c. 1572-1631), one of the great poets of the Winters Canon and an English Renaissance poet whom Winters frequently discussed or mentioned, is the subject of a new biography. Winters wrote of Donne both very approvingly (concerning his finest poems) and somewhat disapprovingly (concerning much of work that remains popular to this day, the poetry that came to be called “metaphysical”). The biography has been reviewed in the May 13, 2007 issue of the New York Times Book Review. The article is entitled “Love’s Deity” by the fine writer Thomas Mallon and can be found at:

Perhaps mistakenly, Winters chose only two of Donne’s poems for inclusion in Quest for Reality:

1. “Holy Sonnet VII” (“At the round earth’s imagined corners”). Pictured is a drawing by Fra Bartolommeo from about 1500 “One Angel Blowing a Trumpet and Another Holding a Standard,” in honor of this sonnet’s first line. It’s a pen and brown ink drawing, squared in red chalk for transfer on laid paper (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Woodner Collection, 2006).

2. “A Valediction: Of My Name In The Window”

I should point out, however, that Winters extensively discussed another Donne poem, “Holy Sonnet I,” “Thou hast made me and shall Thy work decay,” in his trenchant essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins (reprinted in The Function of Criticism), which happens to be one of his finest discussions of several individual poems in his writings. In that essay, Winters opens with a comparison of “Thou hast made me,” which he praises quite highly, and Robert Bridges’s “Low Barometer” (even more highly praised) to Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” a discussion which gives deep insights into his theory of literature. He mentioned this sonnet as well in one list of exceptionally great poems in his book on Edwin Arlington Robinson. We will come around in time to considering the poems of Donne’s that Winters chose for the Winters Canon, and at that time I probably will consider a couple other poems by Donne and the reasons Winters might have left “Thou hast made me” out (and whether it belongs back in).

Winters deemed Donne’s early work, that which remains famous, as experimental. You will have to read the essay “Poetic Convention” in his first book Primitivism and Decadence (reprinted in In Defense of Reason) to understand why. Winters’s simplest summary of the matter links Donne to others who might surprise you:

Experimental poetry endeavors to widen the racial experience, or to alter it, or to get away from it, by establishing abnormal conventions. In one sense or another Spenser, Donne, Milton, Hopkins, Laforgue, and Rimbaud are experimental poets of a very marked kind.
I find Winters’s argument for Donne’s classification as an experimentalist convincing, for the most part. But I have never read anyone else who has sided with him in great part on his account of the early Donne. In the same book, in the essay “Primitivism and Decadence,” Winters made a comment that revealed his once very high assessment of Donne’s Holy Sonnets in the 1930s, an assessment which he would gradually lessen, especially concerning the experimental work, in the decades to follow:

The gap between the sonnets of Shakespeare and the sonnets of Donne is not extremely great.
Yet though Winters came to distance himself from that judgment (of both poets, in fact), I would tend to agree with it still. I feel that Winters incorrectly downgraded Donne during the second half of his career. Thomas Mallon’s concluding sentence sums up his very high opinion of Donne:

[This biography] has juice and, best of all, a kind of fearlessness in approaching the “frequently convoluted” emotions of a poet who possessed, if not English literature’s greatest imagination, quite possibly its greatest intellect.
Those are certainly curious judgments to make -- and perhaps indefensible. I’d like to see the case for them made, though, since I like challenging ideas. But, sad to say, Mallon makes not even a brief attempt at a defense. Judging from what I know, Donne did not possess the “greatest imagination” in our literature. Shakespeare would, almost obviously, take that title, in my judgment and that of many, many others, though there are other contenders as well -- Dickens, say. It all depends, of course, on how you define and then apply the concept “imagination.” But I doubt that any case could be made that John Donne is the “greatest intellect” in our literature. My oh my, there are some great intellects that exceed Donne’s by a nautical mile or two: Sam Johnson, Ben Jonson, possibly Shakespeare again, Matt Arnold, Sam Coleridge -- Yvor Winters, for that matter -- and so on.

But clearly, Mallon has a very high opinion of Donne’s poetry, and he makes his life sound as though it would be quite interesting and enlightening fare for study and reflection. Donne’s poetry is inconsistent and sometimes even fatuous, but a good portion of it is worth reading, certainly. The late meditations on religion and the Holy Sonnets have been especially important to me. The earlier love poems, the wild, overly witty, indomitably playful experiments, do not do much for me... but, alas, I find love poetry to have been frequently wildly overrated in any case; as a genre, it has never seemed all that valuable to me.

May 16, 2007

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 2

The second poem printed in Quest for Reality is “Tagus, Farewell,” a.k.a. “In Spain,” by Thomas Wyatt (the poem has been variously titled). Let’s set this short poem before us for study:

Tagus farewell, that westward with thy streams
Turns up the grains of gold already tried;
For I with spur and sail go seek the Thames,
Gainward the sun that showeth her wealthy pride,
And to the town that Brutus sought by dreams,
Like bended moon, doth lend her lusty side.
My king my country, alone for whom I live,
Of mighty love the wings for this me give.


1. “Tagus” [pronounced TAY-gus]: A river that flows west into the Atlantic from Spain through Portugal. Wyatt served as a diplomat in that country until 1539. The wide mouth of the river is pictured in the photo.
2. “grains of gold”: The sand at the bottom of the Tagus was celebrated by, among others, Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400) and John Skelton (1460–1529) for its resemblance to granulated gold.
3. “Gainward the sun”: against the sun. The Thames, in contrast to the Tagus, flows "gainward" the sun, or eastward.
4. “Brutus”: a mythical Trojan supposedly descended from Aeneas. Diana, the goddess of the moon, was said to have appeared to Brutus in a dream, in which she ordered him to travel to Albion (ancient Britain) and found a city, which was supposed to have been what came to be called London.
5. “like bended moon”: the bend in the Thames River through London is in the shape of a crescent moon.


Winters listed this poem a few times as one of Wyatt’s very best, but he never discussed the poem in detail or made any case for its inclusion in the Winters Canon as one of the greatest poems of the language. I have posted an image of one page of Winters’s once well-known and highly influential essay on Renaissance poetry, “The 16th Century Lyric in England,” which was published in the journal Poetry in three parts in 1939, and marked on it the passage in which Winters calls “Tagus” minor (the poem is in the same list of poems on the previous page). This suggests that he chose the poem for Quest for Reality because of the excellence of its style and structure rather than for its overall achievement. Judging from the fragmentary evidence, I believe Winters ranked this lower than many other great poems and did not consider it to be part of what I am calling the Winters Canon, the very greatest poems.

No Wintersian has written on the poem, at least that I know of. (For that matter, no Wintersian I know of has written in detail about Wyatt’s poetry, generally or poem by poem.) There is no way to judge how other critics and poets who could be considered at least sympathetic to Winters’s critical theory might judge this small poem. John Fraser does include it in A New Book of Verse, the quasi-Wintersian anthology I have studying on this blog.

Terry Comito, who published a fine study of Winters in 1986, In Defense of Winters, had little to say about Winters’s judgments of Wyatt’s work and nothing to say about “Tagus” specifically. But he did comment briefly on the Winters’s important elucidation of the Renaissance English Plain Style, which “Tagus” appears to exemplify aptly:

Unlike the more highly ornamental “Petrarchan” style of Sidney and Spenser, the plain style eschews both impassioned oratory and the pomp of public ceremony. Its norm is a man speaking to other men in the ordinary world. Its vision is not utopian. The poets of the plain style do not build the “golden worlds” of which Sidney dreamed, but speak in the sober tones of those on whom (in the [Renaissance poet Fulke] Greville’s phrase) the “black ox” of experience has trod. Their poetry is a poetry of direct statement, the language almost wholly abstract, the organization generally logical, the themes broad, common, proverbial. It is a poetry, as Winters wrote of “Truth that is bare and old, / Worn plain with being told.” And it is saved from platitude, and often narrowly, by the poet’s skill in reanimating the emotional truth in the truism -- in persuading the reader, through the precision of his statement and the rhythmical inflection of his voice, that he speaks not by rote, but in the true accents of the experience whose authority he claims.

As you will see as we work through his poems from Quest for Reality, Wyatt employed what Winters called the Plain Style with great but subtle beauty.


This is a decidedly minor poem, in my judgment. It is not up to the standards of the greatest poems in English as we will try to lay them out in the months, and probably years, ahead. The subject matter is almost trite and its treatment is thin and very vague. It adds up to almost nothing. Scholars and the occasional critic of the poem have erected out some magnificent scaffolds of interpretation, however iffy they might be, upon the barest of hints. The key to most of these readings is Wyatt’s mention of Brutus, who was concerned in the myths of the founding of Rome. I consider these interpretations to be quite overblown, nearly pretentious. They read far too much into a couple of words.

But I must admit that with that mention of a mythical hero Wyatt did hint at a huge theme, the imperial desires and dreams of the English nation. But does this hint tell us something vital about imperialism or nationhood or a person’s place in his nation or the meaning of homeland or any similar topic? I don’t think so. The language of the poem is simply too vague and abstract to draw much meaning or emotional power out of it. A few exceedingly vague hints at something more, that mention of the mythical Brutus, the very vague talk of “mighty love,” give us no significant insight into or understanding of the experience of the desire to return to one’s homeland. I see little of value in this poem other than the general skillfulness of the verse and the diction.


I cannot say that I have gotten anything out of this poem. What I mean by that -- and what I will mean when I will use similar phrases during this series on the poems of the Winters Canon -- is that the poem has given me no crucial or exceptional insight into some issue or problem or concern in human life, nor given me some crucial understanding of some aspect of an important human experience. I have long failed to see why Winters included “Tagus” in Quest, as nicely turned as it is. Knowing it as well as I do has added very little understanding of England, Spain, nationhood, the feelings for homeland, or any other issue to my life. Does anyone else have another view? I’d be very interested to hear it.

May 9, 2007

The Foil of the New Criticism

Last October on a blog called Samizdat, a fellow by the name of Robert Archambeau put out a small essay on Yvor Winters’s role in the heyday of the New Criticism in the mid-20th century. Archambeau implies with his title, “Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism,” that he has made some discovery about Winters, but what he says is less a discovery than a compelling reinterpretation of Winters’s place among the New Critics, if any place he has. The essay can be found at:

Archambeau’s central point, rather recounted than defended in detail, that Winters was someone whom the New Critics considered a heretic and thus, a critic from whom they could negatively distinguish their own positions, is probably correct as far as it goes. Archambeau’s idea doesn’t tell the whole story of the New Criticism or of Winters’s bit part in the movement, certainly, but it appears to be one piece of the story. Archambeau states convincingly that “the autonomous principles of literature” stood at the center of the movement called the New Criticism, and because Winters did not study literature or write his poems as though they were endeavors autonomous from all else in human life and thought, he was seen as a convenient foil to argue against.

The curious conviction of the New Critics that literature is completely autonomous, as you might guess, seems a little silly to me. Their discussions of the concept sound much like discussions of free will in philosophy. Though we might take a position of complete opposition to the concept of free will, it appears obvious, at least in my estimation, that no one can live according to any such belief to any degree for more than 10 seconds. Almost just so, though the New Critics wrote often in vindication of the comprehensive autonomy of literature, none of their writings employs the principle for more than an obligatory phrase or two. Because literature is the work of living human beings in human language and read by living human beings, it would appear, to write it and read it and think about it and talk about it forces literature and life together in snug, far-reaching, and incontrovertible ways.

Archambeau writes a bit about the New Critics’ objections to paraphrasing works of literary art. Across his writings, Winters had a good deal to say about the issue of “paraphrasable content,” though this issue seldom comes up for discussion in current literary debates. And not surprisingly. Postmodernism, in its plenteous forms, long ago won in a rout at the Agincourt of literary criticism and very few of the issues that the New Critics once haggled about still under discussion. Still, Archambeau gives us an insightful, if brief, discussion of the subject. Winters’s discussions of P-content are found mostly in the book In Defense of Reason, especially in the first section, which is composed of his first book, Primitivism and Decadence (which was an expansion and revision of Winters’s Stanford doctoral dissertation from the 1930s). I think the matter of P-content still has importance in and bearing on the study of literature, but the current consensus, however strong or weak it might be, has perhaps gone too far the other way in many respects. Speaking very generally, our current critics tend, under the influence of postmodernism and its endless spin-offs, to read too much for the paraphrase -- and believe in too many paraphrases. Paraphrases in current criticism are in fact endless, and the practice of spinning them out is something deconstruction has fostered in our thinking, in my view.

I must stop there for now on P-content. Much more could be said about the topic. But I hope you’ll offer some of your own ideas on such matters after reading Archambeau’s short piece, which is worth pondering.

Coming back to Winters’s connections to the New Criticism, critics down the years have often mentioned that Winters is classified with the New Critics, but I wonder whether many of them even believe this. For I have found very few who ever tried to defend the classification. Almost always, in my reading, critics have brought up Winters’s relationship to the New Critics in order to say that one barely exists. Archambeau appears to be in agreement with many others about Winters’s divergence from the New Critics and their emphasis upon the autonomy of poetry. Terry Comito in his fine study of Winters’s entire career, In Defense of Winters (1986), argues that Winters’s differences with the New Critics were radical and fundamental:

Unlike the other New Critics with whom he is rather misleadingly grouped [notice that Comito does what most do: mentions that Winters was part of the New Criticism in order to dismiss the idea],... Winters insisted again and again that literary language is not a mysterious “other,” apprehensible only under the somewhat tautological category of the “aesthetic.” On the contrary, it is a refinement and perfection of the language in which society conducts, or seeks to conduct, or fails to conduct, its everyday life. The poet’s language is not, therefore, exempt from the responsibilities incurred in our worldly projects. Indeed, for Winters, it is particularly accountable, and he spent much of his career calling poets and critics to account with a ferocity that seemed unbalanced or faintly ludicrous to those for whom literature remained an academic pursuit.

Comito is correct in this description of Winters’s views, and I believe, more importantly, that Winters was right about the nature of poetry and literature in general. (Yet Comito goes a little over the top. Though Comito claims it here, though others have made the similar claims, Winters was not often so “fierce” in his opposition to other views that he seemed “unbalanced.” Indeed, many another critic, even the New Critics who took on Winters [see Stanley Edgar Hyman in The Armed Vision] were just as “fierce” in opposition to him as he was in dissent from their theories and judgments. I’m not saying that Winters wasn’t forceful and hard, even rough and remorseless at times. But he didn’t achieve a different order of roughness or hardness than many another brawling New Critic. Even gentle Cleath Brooks took a few rough swipes at Winters in his essay on him. It’s time, I think, that we judged Winters less on reputation and more on what he actually wrote.) Nonetheless, Comito’s description of Winters’s view of poetry’s engagement with the world is accurate and highly important to the future of the art.

For as often as he has been mentioned as part of the movement, Winters discussed the New Criticism only a couple times in his published essays, and nowhere did he study that loose grouping of theorists in a comprehensive manner. One of his significant discussions of the New Critics came in a long essay that was republished in The Function of Criticism, “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.” In that piece he briefly discussed R.S. Crane and Cleanth Brooks, as well as other New Critics (even more briefly). You will find the most sustained treatment of ideas that are associated with the New Criticism in the essay on John Crowe Ransom (pictured on the left) in The Anatomy of Nonsense, which was republished in In Defense of Reason. As a New Critic, Ransom had his own distinctive critical concepts, especially the one that poetry and literature possess tissues of irrelevance, the formal properties of writing, in which are found the essence of literature, as opposed to whatever superficial referential content the writer might have happened to write about. Winters attacked this idea and many of Ransom’s other ideas with great force in the essay, in the belief that such ideas finally render poetry and literature futile:

And poetry, according to Ransom's theories, is precisely contemptible. Aside from the doctrine of imitation, which is so confused that it will not stand criticism even within the terminology of Ransom's own thought, Ransom offers no principle of rightness in poetry. Poetry is an obscure form of self-indulgence, a search for excitement by ways that Ransom cannot define, in which we proceed from a limited and unsatisfactory rational understanding of our subject to as complete a confusion as we are able to achieve; it is a technique, not of completing rational understanding, but of destroying it and getting nothing in return. The poem is composed of rational understanding, which is there because we cannot quite get rid of it, but of as little as possible; of a conglomeration of irrelevancies of meaning; and of what Eliot would call, I suppose, an autotelic meter, which goes on its secret way, accumulating irrelevancies of its own and helping to force additional irrelevancies into the meaning.

This a fair example of Winters’s usual style, which has been for so long interpreted as ferocious. But what Winters does here, and what he does so often in his essays to his opponents, is push Ransom’s views, hard, to their rational limits, which I do not see as “fierce” in the least. How much do I agree with this forceful and cogent assessment of Ransom’s views? Quite a lot. But most of us have forgotten almost all of what was up for debate. Ransom stands higher than Winters, but neither stands high any longer in literary culture. Ransom’s ideas about the tissue of irrelevance have fallen by the wayside, if ever they had much influence. Ah... the grass of the field: here today, tomorrow pitched into the fire.

May 3, 2007

The New Criterion on Robert Bridges

Like the typical New Criterion overview, the purpose of its recent piece on Bridges, I surmise, is to encourage us to read the poetry of Robert Bridges, one of the supreme poets of the English language according to Yvor Winters. Such is not an unworthy objective, of course, but the short essay on Bridges in the NC’s 2007 poetry issue, the annual affair that I much appreciate, doesn’t offer us any strong motivation for the endeavor. Eric Ormsby, the author of the piece, recommends Bridges’s poetry for little more than that Bridges wrote in meter skillfully and musically.

The NC regularly puts out this kind of essay, and I also appreciate the results quite a bit: short, breezy overviews of the writings of novelists, poets, thinkers, philosophers who deserve our attention but are often overlooked. They are an excellent way to decide whether to give one’s attention to the work of someone we might have neglected. Yvor Winters was the subject of one such NC overview in 1997 (by the formalist poet-critic David Yezzi, an essay which I plan to study more closely some time soon). The April, 2007, essay, “Robert Bridges’s New Cadence” by Eric Ormsby, is posted online and can be found at:

Ormsby sets out, first, to portray Bridges as a “happy poet,” a view that is defensible, I suppose, but will hardly do much to inspire many to read him. The word “happy” in such a context connotes, nowadays, a touch of naïve silliness -- even screwiness. So it’s hard to see why Ormsby begins with a characterization of Bridges that might put most readers off (though perhaps he thinks this tactic will appeal to NC readers, an issue to which I cannot speak). I would say that Bridges wasn’t a particularly happy poet, but that the way he took life in his art, generally, could certainly be said to be joyful and enriching, despite his astute recognition of the many sorrows of life and death. Ormsby points out that Bridges’s work does portray and confront life’s grave pains and troubles, but that Bridges also expressed the consolations he discovered for them.

Following a quick summary of Bridges’s moderately wealthy and successful life as a writer, Ormsby offers a slightly deeper look at the reasons we might wish to take up Bridges’s poetry. By implication, Ormsby principally urges us to read Bridges because of his “textured rhythms.” Now, it is unquestioned that Bridges could write “formalist” poetry (as we now call what was once called, plainly and obviously, “poetry”) with great craft and a deep knowledge of metrics. Ormsby reviews a few of the issues surrounding Bridges’s use of and experiments with various unusual meters, in which he wrote with considerable literary beauty. But Ormsby leaves the impression that the principal benefit to Bridges’s work is the musicality of his writing. Ormsby even implies that the pleasures and profits of Bridges’s poetry are “almost entirely aural,” as he says of just one poem but leaves the impression that the comment applies to Bridges’s whole oeuvre. It’s certainly true that Bridges’s poetry reads very well. But the recommendation is oddly skewed. For though Bridges wrote plenty of skilled verse, his greatest poems -- some of great poems of the English language according to Winters -- are exemplary because they are complete works of art, uniting emotion with intellect and aptly and compellingly using all the resources of the language. The “aural” charms of Bridges, in his best work, are fused with the intellectual refinement of his ideas into artistic wholes. Ormsby seems to not recognize this. Even the philosophical ideas of one of the few poems he discusses, “Come so Quando,” a meditation on our profound sense of eternity, comes off in Ormsby’s piece as worth reading only for its poetic musicality.

Ormsby concludes his short essay by recommending a few beautiful poems to us and mentioning that Bridges also wrote finely wrought ballads and descriptive poems. But Ormsby nowhere gives any impression that Bridges’s ideas are of much importance or value. I will not deny that it is highly gratifying to see a national journal putting out a discussion of one of our great poets, as Wintersians judge Robert Bridges, but this appeal to read him is, to say the best, rather wanting. Finally, in passing, I have no idea what “new cadence” Ormsby is talking about. It seems that he was just looking for an eye-catching title.

A small selection of Bridges’s best work (though not all his great poems, a matter which we will come to in time as we review the Winters Canon poem by poem over the next year) can be found in John Fraser’s quasi-Wintersian anthology A New Book of Verse, which is linked on the front page of this blog. If you would like to study Bridges more deeply after reading some of his poetry available online, I recommend Winters in Forms of Discovery and Donald Stanford’s superb study of the poet’s entire oeuvre, In the Classic Mode, published in 1978. You might have difficulty finding that book, but I think most university libraries will still have it. Stanford, who died a couple years back, was a professor of English at LSU and co-editor of the Southern Review, Second Series, was probably the critic who most ably and resiliently carried on and built far and firmly upon the foundation of Yvor Winters’s critical theory. He was also the poet-critic whom John Fraser worked with in fashioning A New Book of Verse. Another work of Stanford’s worth chasing down is his essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet,” in which he classifies Bridges as a true classicist, in contradistinction to Eliot, Pound, and T.E. Hulme, who critics claimed to be classicists but who were a very flimsy variety, if they were any kind at all. This valuable Wintersian essay was published in the Southern Review, 1969, volume 2.

The two poems that Eric Ormsby pays closer attention to in his NC piece, “Nightingales” and “Come se Quando,” are two poems that Stanford praised quite highly in his study. Winters himself rated “Nightingales” highly, but had little to say in print about “Come so Quando.” Winters chose neither poem for the Winters Canon, though he listed “Nightingales” among Bridges’s better poems. Without question, Winters judged Bridges to be a great poet, one of the greatest of the 20th century. Winters scattered his varied comments on Bridges’s poetry, much of it very important to his overall critical theory, across his essays and letters. His most concentrated analyses of Bridges’s achievement are found in two essays: “Traditional Mastery,” a piece published in Hound and Horn in 1932 and reprinted in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters, and in Forms of Discovery, his last book, published in 1967. Both of these are available in most major academic libraries and occasionally in community libraries.

In the 1932 essay for the Hound and Horn, of which Winters was the western editor in the early 1930s, Winters cautioned that Bridges’s experiments in new or unusual meters have often been misunderstood, which should make us cautious of accepting as fact what Eric Ormsby has to say about those experiments (Winters’s first brief overview of Bridges was occasioned by the publication of The Shorter Poems of Robert Bridges by Oxford University Press back in the 1930s):

Dr. Bridges’ meters have been so often and so fruitlessly discussed that I shall omit entirely to analyze them, though his important as a subtle and learned renovator of English meters is sufficiently great. It is my belief that he has been long enough patronized as a sugar-coated pill for those who wish to brush up on their metrics, as a minor manipulator of outworn graces, and that he should be recognized once and for all as the sole English rival of Hardy in nineteenth-century poetry, as, in all likelihood, considering his formal versatility, the range of his feeling, and the purity of his diction, a diction so free from any trace of personal idiosyncrasy, that a successful imitator of it could never be detected as an imitator but would appear only as that most unlikely of phenomena, a rival, that he should,, I say, in all likelihood, be recognized as the most valuable model of poetic style to appear since Dryden.

I don’t consider “Nightingales” to be among the great poems, but it’s a strong, sound, and valuable poem. Here it is. When we come around to Bridges’s poems in the Winters Canon, perhaps we shall come back to this one:

Beautiful must be the mountains whence ye come,
And bright in the fruitful valleys the streams wherefrom
Ye learn your song:
Where are those starry woods? O might I wander there,
Among the flowers, which in that heavenly air
Bloom the year long!

Nay, barren are those mountains and spent the streams:
Our song is the voice of desire, that haunts our dreams,
A throe of the heart,
Whose pining visions dim, forbidden hopes profound,
No dying cadence, nor long sigh can sound,
For all our art.

Alone, aloud in the raptured ear of men
We pour our dark nocturnal secret; and then,
As night is withdrawn
From these sweet-springing meads and bursting boughs of May,
Dream, while the innumerable choir of day
Welcome the dawn.

May 1, 2007

Misblurbing: What Does “Great” Mean Anymore?

There was a fascinating, lighthearted essay on the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday in which a writer laments “misblurbing,” the practice of taking a reputable reviewer’s comments out of context to produce a fervent promotional statement for some book. The amusing piece has some bearing on the thought of Yvor Winters, I believe. For Winters tossed out lots of pithy raves for certain works, poems, novels, even works of history -- honors which sound, to our ears, not a little ridiculous. We have become jaded, and all too reasonably so, about panting praise and lofty paeans to books and authors and movies and art and just about everything else in the “entertainment” business.

Breathless blurbs, along with those sneaky misblurbs, have cheapened the concepts crtiics use in all kinds of artistic evaluation. If the words “great” or the phrase "best ever" can be applied to a banal horror movie or to a comic book or to a cheap wine or to a bland hotel or to a list of soups as quickly and easily as to Donne’s Holy Sonnets, what can the words “great” or "best" mean any longer? And if we have been shown time and again that advertising copy-editors have lifted words out of context to turn disapproval into puffed-up praise, how can we trust what anyone of any reputation might say about the excellence of any work of art? The short essay, “Literary Misblurbing” by NYT regular Henry Alford (April 29, 2007), can be found at:

I bring the whole matter up because it is clear that Yvor Winters took his handling of praise much more seriously than most critics and media business managers. But he praised certain works using words and phrases that are now regularly deployed in commercial blurbing, and misblurbing as well. Yet he meant it when he said some work of art was “great” -- that is, that it was one of the best EVER of its kind, and the best are always few. For Winters, the word “great” was far from a smarmy commercial ploy.

And yet… you don’t even need to uncover obvious pandering and outright lying to feel uneasy about whom to trust, do you? For even the most highly regarded Mid-Cult critics regularly plant all sorts of flags of greatness on different works. Should you trust Edmund Wilson or T.S. Eliot on what’s great? Or perhaps F.R. Leavis, or Lionel Trilling, or John Crowe Ransom deserves your trust. Or perhaps a more recent critic. Terry Eagleton maybe. Or maybe you should rather go back to Samuel Johnson and trust him (who is no longer trusted by anyone). Each of these standard-bearers has declared different works to be great. Whose blurbs are you going to trust? Should you trust any of them?

So, standing under this heavy cloud of suspicion and disagreement, reading Winters’s “blurbs” can feel a little silly at times. You run across his pithy evaluations for works and authors you have never even heard of (which is not unlike many a renowned critic of the 20th century, I remind you). For example, in a footnote in Primitivism and Decadence, his first critical book published in 1937 (republished in In Defense of Reason in 1947), Winters called Elizabeth Daryush “the finest British poet since T. Sturge Moore.” Quite naturally, in light of the lurid practices of blurbing in our time, you will wonder first whether there is any chance the work of a woman whom you’ve never heard of can possibly be so good as that, but then you’ll wonder about Winters’s whole body of work as a critic when you realize that you don’t even know who this fellow Sturge Moore is or how any critic worth trusting could regard such an unknown as one of the greats. Later in this same book, while discussing syllabic meters, Winters comes to a poem (one, by the way, which he would talk about his entire career as one of the great poems of the Winters Canon), Daryush’s “Still-Life,” and says, “One imagines that the medium could not be used with greater beauty than in this poem; there is certainly nothing in the work of the American masters of free verse to surpass it, and there is little to equal it.” Talk about panting praise and breathless blurbs! Can you trust such a blurb? Should you even bother trying?

I believe you can and you should.

But the challenges of trusting Winters will keep coming as you read him. In the same book that he dropped his comments about Elizabeth Daryush, he loftily rhapsodized the obscure 18th-century English poet Charles Churchill:

…Churchill, like Gascoigne [yet another obscure poet Winters praised as great] at an earlier period and like Johnson in his own, was a great master obscured by history, that is, by the mummification, for purposes of immortal exhibition, of a current fashion…

There’s a blurb to make you wonder whether to continue. Still, I caution those new to Winters not to disdain his use of words of praise because advertisers have so often used blurbs to hoodwink us. We are just in being jaded and in always having strong suspicions about blurbs. But we must try to quiet the feeling of disdain and ridicule when reading Winters’s brisk evaluations. He should be taken seriously, despite how little meaning the common terms of critical praise have been left with in our sensibly cynical age.

A publication called Gelf magazine follows the inanity of blurbing, I have discovered. Here’s a recent example of the editors’ amusing work in this area:

Winters has been the subject of plenty of misblurbing himself, though of the opposite kind. Many an ill-informed or hostile critic or professor has claimed that Winters hated the work of certain poets and poems far more than he did. It’s quite common in essays that scorn Winters as a critic to grossly overstate how much he disapproved of the poetry of Pound or Eliot or Stevens or many another. Maybe I should start listing these misreadings and errors. There are hundreds of them from the past 50 years. If Winters’s ideas are ever to receive a just hearing in our literary culture, someone must address the most serious misconceptions of his work.