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.

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