Sep 20, 2007

More on Blurbing

In a post on misblurbing from this past spring, I mentioned some of Yvor Winters’s issues with blurbs. To be more specific, Winters was a critic who offered many a suspicious “blurb,” his succinct, seemingly half-crazed judgments that this or that obscure poem or poet is one of the all-time greats. In the course of that post, I quoted a Winters’s “blurb” on Charles Churchill from early in his career. Churchill (who is pictured) remains a relatively unknown poet who was a contemporary of Alexander Pope’s. Winters judged Churchill a greater poet than Pope; in fact, he considered him one of the greats of our language mostly for one poem that remains almost wholly unknown even among students of literature, “The Dedication to Warburton.” Winters’s judgment of Churchill came to mind once again recently because I ran across a comment about Winters’s Churchill “blurbs” by the English formalist poet Donald Davie in his memoir These the Companions. Davie is not a Wintersian, in my view, but he has long been attracted to Winters’s ideas and poetry, as well as to the work of Janet Lewis and some of those he considers Wintersians, in the loosest sense. Davie has called Winters a Puritan, speaking positively it seems, since Davie himself has striven throughout his career to re-establish formalism as a norm in contemporary poetry.

Here is Davie’s comment about Winters’s blurbs on Charles Churchill:

Neither of my chosen mentors, F.R. Leavis nor later Yvor Winters, had much to say about the eighteenth century. And that, I came to see, was a distinct advantage; here was a field in which I could dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s of their respective judgments, could as it were amplify and extend them without, except by the remotest implication, challenging them. In this there was much dishonesty. Winters by the end of his life, following through with characteristic forthrightness on an entirely reasonable objection to the epistemology of John Locke, was advancing one of the boldest and silliest of all critical verdicts -- that of eighteenth century poets in the English language the one that most deserved remembering was... Charles Churchill! He really meant this nonsensical judgment, as he meant every judgment that he ever pronounced. And it was less than honest to pretend that there was margin for civil disagreement, where in fact there wasn’t.

The last two sentences amount to a blurb in themselves, a strongly negative one in this case, and one sharply dismissive of Winters’s views. Yet there are a few difficulties with Davie’s blurb. First, it leaves the impression that Winters was obsessed with Churchill. This is not so. Winters did write a lengthy essay about Churchill that focused on “The Dedication” late in his life, in what appears to have been a final, rigorous attempt to earn his view of Churchill a wider hearing (the attempt has utterly failed, I must admit). But Churchill did not occupy the center of his attention at any time in his career. Second, Davie’s blurb also leaves the faint impression that Winters’s judgment of Churchill was some half-crazed late development in Winters’s thought. But this also is not so. Winters wrote of Churchill several times in his career and mentioned “The Dedication” here and there. He wrote on Churchill’s work in heroic couplets, furthermore, in some of his earliest work, in his doctoral dissertation that became, after much editing and some expanding, his first book, Primitivism and Decadence. Winters always praised “The Dedication” very highly, even in essays and letters written rather early in his career. Back in the 30s he sometimes listed it among the greats.

Third, and more importantly, Davie (and many others, including David Yezzi in a prominent 1997 essay in the New Criterion) have expressed their incredulity that Winters judged Churchill so highly and have made it clear that they consider that judgment to be, at best, cracked. But no one has offered a thorough critique, or even ANY sort of critique, of Winters’s essay on Churchill or of his case for the greatness of “The Dedication” -- or even tried to briefly explain why he thinks Churchill is NOT deserving of the status Winters sought for him. The critics who have bothered with the issue usually merely censor Winters with words like Davie’s: “nonsensical” and “silliest.” But such empty gibes and jabs do not constitute a sound case, or any case at all, against Winters’s views on Churchill. In his 1960 essay Winters laid out a thorough and compelling rationale in favor of Churchill’s poetry and of “The Dedication” in particular. If someone disagrees with that judgment, it falls on him to show wherein Winters was wrong or skewed. Tossing out one-word censures accomplishes nothing.

Let’s take a quick look at some of what Winters wrote about Churchill. This passage is from Primitivism and Decadence and from “Section V: The Heroic Couplet and Its Recent Rivals”:

This sort of thing [found in Churchill’s poem “The Candidate”], to the best of my knowledge, had never been done before; and to the best of my knowledge no one has ever pointed out that Churchill did it; Churchill, like Gascoigne 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 -- Gray and Collins, slighter poets in spite of all their virtues, were of the party that produced the style of the next century and they have come to be regarded, for this reason, as the best poets of their period. We have not in “The Candidate” the mock-heroic convention of “MacFlecknoe” or of “Hudibras,” which, though it involves feigned praise, is frank burlesque. It is closer to a quality of Pope, to which I have already referred, but it is ironical rather than epigrammatical; it is more evasive, less didactic or illustrative of the general, more personal, closer to the sophisticated lyrical tradition of such writers as Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, and Donne. Churchill, in his ambiguous territory between irony and eulogy, awakened a number of feelings belonging neither to irony nor to eulogy, but capable of joining with both, and the most perfect example of the junction may be found in his greatest poem, the posthumous “Dedication to Warburton.”

Well, that (a passage written in the early 1930s) certainly sounds half cracked, don’t it? Sounds too like a man who late in life went so far out of his head that he offered yet another and even more bizarre opinion, don’t it? I guess you can see that I think Donald Davie is way off base. Yet Davie is not alone in refusing to give Winters a hearing on Churchill. Since 1930, no Wintersian I know of has yet to re-assess Churchill in light of Winters’s studies of him. Not even a Wintersian as insightful and as sympathetic as Dick Davis -- whose superb study of Winters, Wisdom and Wilderness (1983), remains essential reading for anyone drawn to Winters -- could be bothered with a consideration of his longstanding judgment of Churchill. Rather, Davis thought that Winters had painted himself into a “lonely corner” with judgments like the one concerning Churchill. For his part, Davis, I would guess, probably did not want to take the chance of watching himself get painted into a similar corner by even considering whether Winters might have been right -- and one could hardly blame him for that, considering Winters's reputation. I think the time has long since passed that Winters’s views on Churchill should be examined out of intellectual respect for everything Winters accomplished. I guess the task falls to me, if I recognize the need, and I will take the matter up when we get to Churchill as I review the Winters Canon poem by poem.

Perhaps it’s true that Churchill shouldn’t matter. Everyone sometimes feels the need to accept and acknowledge that thinkers and writers whom we most admire, from time to time, do, simply, get things badly wrong. Just this, for instance, happened this summer when Carlin Romano, a philosophy and media theory professor at the University of Pennsylvania who writes regularly for the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote about some of the good ideas of that wacky devotee of anthroposophy, Rudolph Steiner, in the Chronicle Review (5/18/07):

Perhaps, as [Saul] Bellow's whirlwind romance with anthroposophy indicated, there's a place for all-inclusive thinkers who invite people with precise intellectual and emotional needs to wander and ponder on their grounds. In his advocacy of a kindly balance between the natural and spiritual, a harmony of the whole person, Steiner sometimes resembled an occultist Aristotle, a spiritualist Sartre. He remains a bulwark, for those comfortable entering his compound, against modern naturalists who want to dissolve the "I" of consciousness into a software program.

So what if he thought that we all had telepathic powers in the "Old Moon" past, that kids shouldn't be taught to read until they lose their first teeth, that Atlantis figures mightily in the history of Western culture? Nobody's perfect.

Perhaps that’s the best I should hope can be said, with a shrug of the shoulders, about Winters’s views of Churchill and many another view nowadays: “Nobody’s perfect.” Perhaps they’re not worth bothering about. Maybe Churchill cannot or should not be rescued or raised to the heights of admiration or given much greater attention in our criticism. Maybe. But I think, in light of Winters’s considerable achievement, that a strong and sound case is required for us to set Winter’s views on Churchill aside. Winters made his sound case for Churchill. Someone has to answer it with equal adroitness for it to be written off to nobody’s being perfect. Calling his views names is simple intellectual myopia.

Before moving on, I can’t resist commenting on another swipe Davie takes at Winters in the passage I have quoted. On the question of whether Winters thought there was margin for civil disagreement on such matters, which is meant, I take it, to give him a good thump because there was in fact no such margin, I refer the reader to Winters’s earlier writings and letters, in which he leaves plenty of room for debate. Further, it’s strangely hypocritical, isn’t it?, that Davie smugly tries to thump Winters for supposedly brooking no disagreement, but then allows no room for disagreement himself by declaring Winters’s judgment about Churchill to be nonsensical -- and it’s even stranger, and sillier, that Davie, in contrast to Winters, makes no case for his own judgment of Churchill, by which his readers might judge the merits of Davie’s view of Winters or of Davie himself as a critic.

These are old issues, of course -- and small ones, too, I admit. But in most cases I feel a need to counter these stubborn misconceptions about Winters’s ideas that writers and critics have been batting around for decades without reply. I have engaged this blog in that work, which someone should have taken up long ago.

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