Quest was not published until 1968, some months after Winters’s death, as a companion to his final work of criticism, Forms of Discovery. As fine as it is, Quest gets little attention because Forms is probably the least admired of Winters’s major works of criticism -- which is saying a lot, since almost nothing he ever wrote is widely admired or broadly influential. Naturally, it is always nice to see someone making the discovery I made myself so long ago, back in the mid-1970s when I was in college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Quest is a selection of 185 English language poems written from the mid-1500s to the mid-1960os, but it is a downright bewildering selection if you know nothing of Winters’s critical ideas. Many almost wholly unknown poems appear in it, and many of the poems written by well-known poets seem obscure as well. And yet, there are a few rather famous poems in it as well. What does this selection mean and what were its criteria? It makes almost no immediate sense whatsoever without the introduction, written by one-time Winters student Ken Fields, who is still a professor at Stanford University, where Winters was a professor for more than 30 years.
Fields wrote that Winters and he considered these the most “remarkable” poems in the language (a characterization of the selection that I must discuss on this blog some time soon). Fields’s explanation of what that word “remarkable” means is less than perfectly clear, in my estimation, but his discussion serves well enough for those new to Winters’s literary thought. To fully appreciate the anthology, you should read it in tandem with Forms of Discovery, which makes much clearer what this truly oddball collection is all about. Click on the definition of "Winters Canon" in the right hand column of this blog for a bit more information on my understanding of the purpose of Quest for Reality and the role the anthology plays in the study of Winters.
It might be good here to reprint what I wrote on amazon.com about Quest for Reality back in 2000:
The Greatest Poems of All Time, November 28, 2000That remains a fair summary of my views. Perhaps I worked myself up a little too much for that review, but my judgments generally still hold. The five greatest poems I selected then might not ride quite as high ABOVE many of the others in Quest as I once thought, but this requires no more than a minor adjustment to what I wrote. I judge each of those five poems as great and would still say that the Winters poem is the greatest in English, as I have posted on a British poetry site. But these five are not significantly greater than several dozen poems in Quest. My opinion of Fields’s “Introduction” is a little lower, too.
Yvor Winters (1900-1968) decided to illustrate by example what he thought are the greatest poems ever written in English. So here they reside, 185 of them. A few, very few, will be well known to readers of poetry; most are puzzlingly obscure. All but a handful (in my view) are so great that it takes one's breath away to read them. Reading them almost makes for mystical experiences. Among the poems that the common critics have missed but Winters found and championed to his dying day are Jonson's "To Heaven," Herbert's "Church Monuments," Very's "Thy Brother's Blood," Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit," and Bowers's "The Astronomers of Mont Blanc." There are many, many more, but these five are probably the greatest of the greats. This is, simply put, the greatest book of poetry ever published in English. If you love poetry, you must find or own a copy. Don't be surprised though. All but a few of the poems are in metrical verse, and they have almost nothing to do with modern "expressivism", the solipsitic "emoting" that passes for good poetry in the tiresome modern age. Here, not a word is wasted, not a phrase is trivial. Every syllable, every beat of every line, counts toward the rational understanding of the human mind and spirit and the proper adjusting of our emotions to that rational understanding. The book contains an excellent introductory essay by a Winters student, Kenneth Fields, who lays out the principles of selection briefly and incisively. In itself, that essay is one of the best introductions to poetry ever written and alone will be worth all the effort you make in finding this out-of-print book. Winters has done something here that every critic should: show us the results of his theories. What a great work of poetic literature.
Overall, the issue still stands, even among Wintersians, as to how exactly these poems as a group should be taken. Are they notable examples of excellent poetic style? Examples of a highly admirable approach to poetry, or perhaps even the “best” approach to poetic composition? Are they Yvor Winters’s greatest poems? Does anyone agree that they should be pronounced THE truly great poems of our language? I am at work, step by step, on a broad discussion of this issue on this blog, especially in my effort to re-evaluate all 185 poems found in Quest, one by one. Here I will say that it appears that I stand almost entirely alone on taking these poems as Winters’s greatest poems -- and alone also in judging most of them to be, truly, our greatest poems. Even dedicated Wintersians, of which there are very few, have generally sided with the view that these poems are no more than supreme examples of poetic style.
I should mention John Fraser’s objection to my take on Quest. Fraser is a fine critic who wrote soundly about Winters in the Southern Review a few times in the 1970s and published online in the 2000s a new Wintersian anthology of poems I have discussed several times on this blog, A New Book of Verse (a link is in the right hand column). Fraser has corrected me with good reason that Winters did not consider some of the poems he chose for Quest to be “great” as such, but rather as very good poems of exemplary style that have been ignored or almost totally forgotten. Winters wanted to make sure these poems were remembered, studied anew, and perhaps imitated (in the broadest sense of that word). In my judgment, Fraser is right about this, and I am trying in my ongoing study of the Winters Canon on this blog to lay out which poems Winters judged great (most of them) and which he judged so good but so long forgotten that they need rescuing from oblivion (as most of them still do).
Concerning those pronouncements of greatness, Winters had big objectives and made big claims. And now I’m making them again, or at least giving them a good hearing, for the first time by anyone, professional critic or not (whatever “professional” might mean), since Quest was published. Yet I’m making such claims on the Internet, which is cause for concern, I know. As Mike Royko, the newspaper columnist, has said, "It's been my policy to view the Internet not as an 'information highway,' but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies." I know online endeavors like this blog are questionable just because of the venue, as opposed to paid and peer-reviewed publication. I could very well be a babbling loony, unknown as such even to myself. But at least my views are fully open to debate, questioning, and challenge by anyone who wishes to weigh in. The number of people who have wished to do so in the one year this blog has been online is exactly... drum roll, please...
You can make of that fact what you will.