Oct 26, 2007

What Once Was Missed

I recently ran across another book review in the New York Sun that I found thought-provoking and believe to be worth your time. It concerns a pamphlet that was apparently distributed to Columbia University students one evening a week ago about what various middle-aged Columbia authors and scholars wish they had read in their own college days. "What We Should Have Known" is the title of the pamphlet, published by n+1 magazine, of which I know nothing. The review is entitled “The Canon According to n+1”, written by Kate Taylor; it can be found at:


The short review gives you a lot to think about. Reportedly, the pamphlet is about regrets: what authors and scholars at Columbia bemoan not having read in their college days and which oft-forgotten books their students MUST pay attention to nowadays (that could be called the “+1” aspect of this canon). This is an especially constructive topic for those drawn to the writings and literary theories of Yvor Winters, since so much of his work and the work of those who still study him remain so obscure, are so very little publicized, and concern so many obscure literary artworks and artists. Moreover, there are so few Wintersians, or even what I have been calling “modern classicists,” that it is very difficult to find out not only about Winters’s strange discoveries, but about what other Wintersians find worth reading and what they, as classicists, might regret not having read sooner in their lives. A major purpose of this blog is to give people a way to find out what’s going on among people charmed by Winters’s ideas and where to turn to find out more about those who study him and how knowledge of and general agreement with Winters’s ideas changes what people read and how. If only there were a few more Wintersians out there, and a few of them were a little more talkative. It remains my hope, dim as it is after 14 months with little response to these posts, that this blog will bring them out and get them talking.

On the subject of the books I regret having missed in my early days in college, over the past few days I haven’t thought of many that I missed and regret having missed -- I read a lot of stuff from many nooks and crannies of the literary world back in those heady days. But now that I’ve given it some thought, I’ve decided that what I regret most is having not kept up the with Southern Review, Second Series in those years. The late Donald Stanford, LSU professor and great Wintersian scholar, was the co-editor, and his journal was the only major periodical keeping the study of Winters’s ideas alive in the years right before and immediately after his death in early 1968. I went to college in the years 1974 to 1978, and I regret that I was not reading the Southern Review in those days. But I will think more about this and perhaps offer some other regrets of this sort. I hope most of all that other readers of this blog with interests in modern classicism will come forward with some discussion on this topic, which I consider of the utmost importance. I am deeply interesting in hearing from other modern classicists with at least some affinity to Winters on the books they wish they had known about in their younger days. That’s a very worthwhile topic for discussion. The making of discoveries is one of the great pleasures of venturing out into shadowy territory, especially lands that are so little explored or even mentioned in our times, dominated as they are by multiculturalism, identity politics, postmodern writing, and the endlessly varied forms of Romanticism that continue to flourish.

Finally, on this general topic of forgotten works and obscure discoveries, I recently stumbled across a blog entitled “Outmoded Authors,” which has been having some fun giving readers a chance to revive interest in authors whose work has gone “out of fashion,” whatever that vague phrase might mean precisely. I can’t quite fathom the selection criteria being employed, since it seems that D.H. Lawrence, G.K. Chesterton, and a few others on the blog’s list are hardly outmoded authors in any of the several senses of that phrase of which I can conceive. The blog can be found at:


As you might realize, Winters was very interested in the revival of outmoded AND GREAT authors, as were Donald Stanford and others in the Wintersian movement. The discovery of great but forgotten or overlooked poems and novels is one of the chief pleasures of reading Winters. For example, he was one of the first critics to tout Edith Wharton as one of our finest novelists -- though she came to be considered a major novelist in last quarter of the 20th century because of the influence of other critics. Donald Stanford plugged the work of Caroline Gordon, wife of Allen Tate; she has written several exceptionally fine novels, but remains frustratingly obscure. I encourage Wintersians to write to this blog about overlooked or forgotten works, poems, novels, or plays, that adhere in some significant degree to some form of modern classicism, Wintersian or otherwise, which in itself, as you realize, is so outmoded that it was never “in mode” in my lifetime or in a dozen generations before mine. (As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I also hope to hear, quite simply, about the favorite or most important books of classicists.)

Oct 23, 2007

The Hurts That Poetry Addresses

Poet Adam Kirsch has written a thoughtful, stimulating book review in the New York Sun that I believe is worth your time. Even the book might be worth your time. It is a collection of essays, memoir and criticism, by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry. The review can be found at:


Kirsch mentions Yvor Winters on the value of form, which I take to mean the importance of writing in some sort of discernible poetic structure that has some sort of significant metrical character (1). Yet the mention of Winters is not what interested me in the piece in particular. The central essay of the book, a memoir apparently, as Kirsch describes it, includes a discussion of the purpose of art -- and naturally the art of poetry in particular. In a couple of Wiman’s ideas that Kirsch discusses you can see a glimmer of what Yvor Winters was talking about when he wrote that the final end of a work of literary art is the evaluation of experience. The experience that many poets want to make sense of and adjust to is what Wiman calls “hurt,” and what I take this vague word to mean is something akin to the sources of Yvor Winters’s own poetic fervor. Kirsch recounts that Wiman discusses the idea that artists make their works in large part to handle the “hurts” of life. Kirsch quotes Wiman thus:
Art -- or, to be more precise, form -- is not only what enables artists to experience this sense of wrongness at all... it is their only hope of wholeness and release.

As an abstract generalization, this is suggestively close to some aspects of Yvor Winters’s understanding of poetry and of his own motivation for becoming a poet. Winters wrote poetry in his teens, but his early years of becoming a poet in the fullest sense were troubled by an acute illness, tuberculosis. For his convalescence, Winters was sent from Chicago to sanitoria in New Mexico. His early imagist poetry appears to be acutely concerned with the experience of a serious illness and the menace of death, even though he wrote no poems directly on the subject of tuberculosis. For this reason, I think Winters’s passion for poetry is almost directly connected to the “hurt” he suffered in his early 20s as a young man who came close to dying and had to face death over quite a long period, months upon months. Here is a brief discussion of this matter by Dick Davis, from his 1983 overview of Winters’s career, Wisdom and Wilderness:

It is common for adolescents, perhaps for adolescent poets in particular, to be preoccupied with death, but Winters’s acquaintance with the subject was real, not immature posturing. A great deal of the earnestness which Winters later showed in his criticism when discussing poets’ moral or metaphysical attitudes comes, I believe, from this early familiarity with death’s imminence, when the reality of what he was later to call the “metaphysical horror” of life and death unsupported by theology came home to him.

Poetry for Winters seems to have been an crucial, elemental way to face the threatening hurt of death. Still, there is little that we can be sure about in this area of his life. For example, it was strange to me to read Winters’s letters from the years of his convalescence, for the first time, and find almost no discussion of what he was experiencing as he was recovering from tuberculosis.

Despite Wiman’s suggestive comments on “hurt,” Kirsch also quotes Wiman on just how this adjusting to “hurt” is often accomplished in modern poetry -- and by Yvor Winters in his early poetry, with its forceful, ethereal, wavering evocations of minute events in the natural world of the western desert. Winters, however, came to reject what Wiman still adheres to, a tired cliché of modern poetry:

More and more what I want is some complete saturation of the actual, to feel some part of the real world wanting me to make it into words.

Yes, so much of poetry nowadays is written with that trifling intention, to see the wonders of things, to fully experience the actual, just as Winters sought seemingly complete immersion in “pure” experience in life and through poetry in his 20s, at the time he had and then was recovering from tuberculosis. Such a desire is dangerous in Winters’s view -- and trivial in my view. I don’t particularly look to literature or art to capture reality or saturate me with reality, however such terms might be construed. These are vague abstractions, and hazy generalities, and as such can be understood in myriad ways, for one person’s saturation is another person’s drowning and yet another’s just plain-old getting wet (I’m in the third category, if you can’t guess). The mature Winters would have rejected such sentiments about the purpose of poetry. He commented upon the matter many times in his writings, but in his discussion of the final cause of poetry, in the essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature,” he sharply distinguished reality from poetry:

The poem is a commentary upon something that has happened or that has been imagined as having happened; it is an act of meditation. The poem is more valuable than the event by virtue of its being an act of meditation: it is the event plus the understanding of the event. Why then should the poet be required to produce the illusion of the immediate experience without the intervention of the understanding? Perhaps the understanding is supposed to occur surreptitiously, while the poet is pretending that something else is occurring. But what is the value of such deception? Is it assumed that understanding itself is not a "real" form of experience?

I take “dramatic immediacy” to mean just about what Wiman appears to mean by “saturation of the actual.” The next sentence of the essay delineates the chief problem with this purpose:

The practical effect of the doctrine of dramatic immediacy is to encourage a more or less melodramatic emotionalism...

Nonetheless, much of the poetry Winters thought great and much of his own poetry concerns the issue of “hurt.” Again, this word is a highly equivocal abstraction; it can be construed in almost infinite ways. But the greatest “hurt” of all is a perennial concern in the poems of the Winters Canon (and I suppose all poetry, really): the hurt of death (2). Take a look at Kirsch’s review and see whether it might be worth studying Wiman’s book more closely, as I believe it might.


1. I wonder how much of the poetry found in Poetry during Wiman’s tenure as editor has had any discernible form at all. From my reading in Poetry, a mostly tiresome labor I put myself through to keep track of what’s current in poetry, most of the “poetry” is prosetic musing and has little to do with using poetic techniques to put form to experience. But these are matters for other posts.

2. On the other hand, it might be more accurate to say that Winters was not concerned so much with the hurt of death but with the hurt of necessity of death, the awareness of one’s impending death, whether imminent or remote. This facet of his poetry and criticism deserves greater attention.

Oct 18, 2007

A Winner Declared in the Canon Wars

The 20th anniversary of Alan Bloom’s famous book on the literary canon, The Closing of the American Mind, has arrived, and the event has spawned a good deal of mandatory reflection on the so-called Canon Wars. One article I found thought-provoking was recently published in the New York Times, which seems to think that the war is over and that it can declare a winner. The article, “Revisiting the Canon Wars,” by Rachel Donadio, came out September 16, 2007. I have not heard of this writer before, but her short essay brought up some good points that are worth considering for those interested in the critical theories of Yvor Winters.

Also, another and much fuller consideration of the Canon Wars, no doubt, will arrive shortly in the New Criterion’s issue dedicated to the anniversary of Bloom’s book. I look forward to that issue, which is forthcoming in November.

The contention of Donadio’s Times piece is that the war over what will be taught in American colleges has been won by the multiculturalists, as this very diverse group of teachers and theorists and advocates were once collectively known. The “canon,” the object of the war, is that consecrated collection of what ought to be taught in college literature courses. It is true that the “multi-cults” have indeed successfully changed the “canon” to some degree, in the sense that a majority of colleges no longer teach some “classic” works and teach in their stead a variety of works written by “people of color” (one of our phrases du jour) and women written within the last 200 years or so. The traditionalists, the diverse Alan Bloom crowd, have lost, according to the Times through its spokeswoman Donadio. Nevertheless, of course, much of what the traditionalists opine should be taught continues to be taught in colleges throughout the land. From this we know that the war did not end in a complete rout or some sort of massacre. Not even the entire land has been conquered for the newer canon. “Bloomians” still hold territory as enclaves (meaning some colleges) in which the traditional canon is still taught as of yore -- though not enough, it would seem, for the Times to count their movement as still viable.

There, now I’ve had my fun with the war metaphor (though there is much more to be had). So what can we make of this situation as Wintersian classicists? Yvor Winters, as I state repeatedly (though I am aware that I have yet to make a case for the view on this blog), concerned himself intently with the idea of canons, though he never used the term. As a dedicated teacher, Winters probably would have taken deep interest in the battle over the canon that began with Bloom’s book. In addition to his infamous attempt to make refashion the canon of English poetry, Winters tried to revise the canon in other areas, such as in American literature with a book and his longtime teaching on the subject at Stanford University, where he spent his entire career. Much of what he taught can still studied through that book, Maule’s Curse, first published in the 1930s, which forms the middle section of In Defense of Reason, which is still in print. As with his efforts to hone the poetry canon, however, Winters was largely a failure in his canon-making in American literature. His work to rescue James Fenimore Cooper from disrepute and raise up Edith Wharton to greatness were largely ignored (though Wharton has risen in the past 20 years because of a groundswell of support from other quarters).

Concerning the standard or traditional canon, it appears, judging from his letters, that Winters had little objection to what was being taught in the basic literature courses at Stanford University, where he spent his whole career. Those courses encompassed the works that have made up the standard canon for a century and more. I have found no comment in his letters on such courses, even in the midst of his discussions of departmental issues at Stanford. I don’t know whether he ever taught one of these basic courses. I wish that Ken Fields, who was one of his graduate students in the 60s and is still a professor at Stanford, would write and inform us on that. (Fields has never answered an email letter from me, so I won’t bother trying to contact him again.)

There has long been a misconception about Winters’s canon-making, however, that I wish briefly to counter. Many critical opponents of Winters seem to believe that he wanted to expunge various canonical writers from literature courses at all levels of higher education. That, for example, Wordsworth and Pope and Shelley and many another member of the pantheon should no longer be taught or studied. My case will have to wait for later, when I find the time, but this view is erroneous. Winters, I surmise, wanted students to study and professors and critics to analyze the likes of Wordsworth and Pope and Shelley. What he wanted was for the truly finest works of literature to be recognized as such and become more widely studied and taught in academia. I will study this matter in depth some time.

Still, I think that Winters would have been interested in seeing the standard canon opened up and in seeing some works of the old canon put out to pasture, in the sense that some new works should be considered -- and taught -- as “essential” to a liberal education and that other works no longer need be considered or taught as such. But he would have been solely concerned with defining the canon on grounds of evaluation: properly identifying the supreme works of literary art. I think Winters would have found the primary objective to be “inclusive,” as we say, to be misplaced. Only the greatest works belong in the canon. Lesser works can be studied, of course, but the very best works must provide the mainstays of our reading, our writing, our criticism, and our teaching. Whatever comes of teaching the best will bring about the best educational and social results, whether those works promote inclusion or multiculturalism or not. Of course, though this idea has similarities to the traditionalist position, it is theoretically distinct. It is a position that calls for a radical re-assessment of our canon, which Winters did much to accomplish, using fundamentally different criteria, the principles of modern classicism. For Winters, in my judgment, whatever is great, whether written three thousand years ago or three days ago, whether written by a dead white male or a young black female, belongs in the canon, defines our literature, and should play the central role in guiding our literature to the next phase of its realization.

Now, returning to the question of what to teach, what might Winters have wanted to achieve in canon-making as a pragmatic objective? That college teachers shouldn’t teach Wordsworth to freshmen and sophomores? Wordsworth came in for some roughshod treatment in Winters’s final book, for which Winters has been condemned over and again. Did Winters think Wordsworth shouldn’t be taught in basic literature courses? I can’t say for sure, there not being any direct discussion of the matter in his entire published oeuvre. But I think Wordsworth should be taught. Does a Wintersian position imply, nonetheless, that we should work toward the day when Wordsworth won’t be taught? That’s a real issue for Wintersians. It shouldn’t be so strange to think of the possibility of dropping Wordsworth, all in all. For the makers of the standard canon have already made and keep reaffirming decisions like that continually, as Winters pointed out repeatedly. Consider the 19th-century post Robert Southey, who wrote reams of jingly verse and was once exceedingly well known. He’s not studied in our basic literature courses, nor is his poetry a concern in our academic journals. Or think of Abraham Cowley, whom Samuel Johnson once paid close attention to. He’s not taught in basic literary courses, nor does he receive more than a pinch of critical attention. Consider also, from American literature, William Cullen Bryant, who wrote some fine poems in the 19th century (Winters mentions his work from time to time as very good). He’s not part of our basic literature courses. Do I and other Wintersians think Wordsworth should become a Bryant or a Cowley -- or even a Southey? I don’t know yet about other Wintersians because not one has yet come forward in all the years since Winters died, but as for me, no, I think that Wordsworth should be taught in our literature courses and be widely studied, though I would like to see him recognized as of lesser stature than the greater poets whom Winters tried to draw our attention to.

In light of all these issues and a number of others, I think the Canon Wars and the choosing of a winner and loser is something worth pondering in light of Winters’s career. For it is certainly my hope, and probably was his, that professors will some day regard the very best, the greatest of the great literary artworks, as the predominant concerns of the academy, or, at least, in more enclaves of the academy.

Oct 11, 2007

The Clever and the Profound: Paul Valéry

It has taken me more than three years to finally get around to mentioning the essay on French poet Paul Valéry that came out in the March, 2004 edition of the New Criterion. I don’t remember Valery ever being the subject of an essay in an American general-readership journal, but there it was, and it’s still worth your time.

Valéry’s art and thought hold great importance in the literary theory of Yvor Winters, mostly because Winters considered two of his poems to be among the greatest ever written and because Winters claimed him as a major influence on his poetry and, by extension, his criticism. One obscure poem in particular, “Ébauche d’un serpent” (“Sketch [or silhouette] of a Serpent”), Winters judged to be the SINGLE GREATEST POEM EVER WRITTEN. This monumental claim, first revealed in print in Winters’s 1956 essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature,” has, strangely, raised more eyebrows than ire. In contrast to exasperation aroused by many of Winters’s pronouncements, the declaration that “Ébauche” is the single greatest poem has usually caused writers and critics to stare in bewilderment rather than take up arms. Indeed, the baffling claim has generated very little comment -- no Wintersian of any sort, nor even any marginally sympathetic commentator on Winters, has saw fit to assess the claim in depth.

The New Criterion essay on Valéry was written by Joseph Epstein, a redoubtable critic who writes regularly for the NC nowadays. The occasion of the piece was the publication of the Cahiers, or Notebooks, of Valéry in English, the first such complete translation of this mountainous, if erudite, hodgepodge to be published. Epstein concerns himself almost entirely with the Cahiers and has next to nothing to say about Valéry’s poetry. But his essay does include many fascinating quotations from the Cahiers and an enlightening, though very general, discussion of what Valéry was striving for throughout his career in philosophy and the arts. The essay is still available online at:


Since Epstein’s piece follows the New Criterion format for thinkers it commends to us, I take it that Epstein and NC’s editors consider Valéry very much worth reading, perhaps even vital reading. But I must say that Epstein gives us no notion of what might be of value in the endless stream of short and snappy observations that flow from Valéry’s Cahiers. Epstein floats among the unorganized notebooks and reels in a few of Valéry’s sparkling comments and witticisms for us. But the brief overview does not cohere into a thesis about or a systematic understanding of Valéry. From his essay we gain almost no idea of what Epstein finds important about his art or thought, other than that it arouses reflection. For instance, Epstein speaks admiringly of Valéry’s quest to fathom the innermost workings of the human mind, but fails to tell us anything about that quest that suggests that Valéry discovered something that we might like to know, something that will make a noteworthy difference in how we might think or live or feel. As other critics have noted, Epstein admits that Valéry did not achieve his central goal. In trying to rethink thinking, to step back and study the mind afresh and to a much greater depth, Valéry never finished thinking and reflecting. But did his project accomplish anything? Epstein doesn’t clearly say. Valéry, as Epstein suggests, went into a laboratory of self-reflection to study reflection itself, but doesn’t appear to have come up any significant experimental results. Overall, Epstein is as enigmatic on Valéry as Valéry was on the mind:

And to raise the question of mind, of what is behind our thinking and how it really works, is, as Valéry knew, “to call everything into question.” In a brief essay called “I Would Sometimes Say to Mallarmé,” he wrote: “Why not admit that man is the source and origin of enigmas, where there is no object, or being, or moment that is not impenetrable; when our existence, our movements, our sensations absolutely cannot be explained; and when everything we see becomes indecipherable from the moment our minds come to rest on it.”

Those comments sound intellectually fashionable, don’t they? Amazingly, they’re still in fashion today. Yet, what’s truly significant about such thoughts? What about Valéry’s take on humankind’s inscrutability is truly insightful? Not much that I can see. The enigmas and difficulties of understanding ourselves have been observed and remarked upon with great frequency in the history of thought, even from the time of the first Greek thinkers. Turning to another matter, it seems weird to me that a journal committed to conserving the best in thought and art in our civilization should offer an essay that implicitly praises a thinker who is characterized as wanting to break away from all previous thought -- to start all over, to tear everything down, as if everything anyone thought for thousands of years has no value to what we might think of the mind or thinking today. Epstein, in context, seems to praise Valéry for leaving all that civilization has gained behind:

The task Valéry set himself was that of re-cognition -- to “re-cognate, to rethink things afresh,” and to work through them shorn of the conventional wisdom supplied by politics, history, and rhetoric. “‘Opinions,’ ‘convictions,’ and ‘beliefs’ are to me like weeds -- confusions,” he wrote. He claimed that he wrote “to test, to clarify, to extend, not to duplicate what has been done.”

Those also seem fine words nowadays, nicely in vogue in our profligate times, when every other day someone sets out to rethink things in some vast domain from the ground up. We have become fully accustomed to such sentiments. It has become almost damnable to say today that you agree in whole or in part with a thinker who wrote something yesterday, as though every idea conceived yesterday was conceived only to give those who think today an idea to discard, which means that the thought of today’s thinkers exists only to be discarded in turn tomorrow’s thinkers, and those of tomorrow’s on the day after tomorrow, and so on. Furthermore, very similar words to Valéry’s have been written by many other theorists who have sought to incite highly destructive revolutions in art and thought and society. Too many of these thinkers have wanted, irrationally, sometimes downright foolishly, to pitch overboard everything Western civilization has wrought.

At present I don’t have the time for a look at Valéry’s best work, but I wonder whether I should dare to give my own judgment of Winters’s judgment of “Ébauche d’un serpent.” Well, first, it might behoove us to ask again: Has any writer ever concurred with Winters on “Ébauche”? Not that I know of. Yes, most critics who have written on Winters have recounted the claim. But no critic, no writer, no Wintersian, no former Winters student, has ever said that he or she agrees, or disagrees, that “Ébauche” is the greatest poem, let alone re-assessed the poem at length. In 1977, it’s worth noting, Helen Pinkerton Trimpi published a dense, learned essay in the Southern Review comparing the poem with several poems of Edgar Bowers’s; yet though that essay offered an extended analysis of “Ébauche,” it does not evaluate the poem’s greatness. (I suppose that one could provisionally guess that Trimpi considered it an exceptionally fine poem since she paid such close attention to it, closer attention than it has ever received, at least to my knowledge.) That said, it seems to me that Winters could very well be right about this poem: it might very well be the greatest poem ever written, though the other poem of Valéry’s that Winters judged great, “Le Cimitiére marin (“The Graveyard by the Sea”), in my judgment, might rank right alongside “Ébauche.” I will consider this grand issue, which broadly encompasses many lesser questions and concerns, both of literary practice and principle, on this blog at some point. I have only discussed three poems in the Winters Canon so far, which means that we have 182 to go on before I might get to Valéry’s great works. Whew!

After discovering Valéry through Winters in college in the 1970s, I studied Valéry for a time. I didn’t unearth much else besides these two great poems, though I do think that “La Jeune Parque” plays, insightfully at points, with some of the same abstruse ideas contemplated in the poems Winters thought great. The playfulness of that beautifully composed, long, and famous poem (famous in France, that is) and its densely associational structure were probably too damaging in Winters’s judgment. But I find it still worth knowing. After going through some of the early work, I found out that, as a devotee of Stephan Mallarmé, Valéry's wrote his early poetry in the Symbolist manner. In my view, the early poems are mostly diaphanous exercises in ethereal evocation, more elegantly clever with their elusive insinuations of arcane experience than truly thoughtful or fostering reflection.

Later in his career, after a long break from poetry, about two decades long, Valéry became more methodical and adamant in his search for deeper knowledge of the fundamental meanings of existence, which is clearly seen in the purity and precision of his later poetry: "Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of ‘truth’ and the language of ‘creation.’" These words sound unpoetic, especially considering how poetry is understood commonly in our day and age. The result of this rarefied outlook was Charmes, the superb book of poetry that plays such a big role in Winters’s criticism and poetry. Yet much of the poetry in Charmes is almost as frustratingly gauzy as the earlier Symbolist poetizing. Still, Valéry did remain committed to breaking away from Romanticism, as stated in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas: “The distrust of inspiration, an enmity to nature, is the crucial point which sets off symbolism from romanticism. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry all share it....”

The fame of his poems led to Valéry’s becoming a popular public speaker. He became known for his sharp, aphoristic wit, with such renowned quips as, “Everything changes but the avant-garde.” That’s nice and sharp, but what true insight is it giving us? Not much, after all. Here are a couple more: “Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.” That’s clever, or perhaps merely cute, especially the final turn of phrase. But what insight is given? Nothing truly profound. “Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.” Now there’s a sharper observation, about the problem of power in a democracy. That encourages a bit of serious reflection. And so it goes with much that you will find in Valéry’s prose: lots of sharp observations, but they are seldom as insightful as they first appear to be.

Valéry was one who did much to change French poetry by decreasing the emotional and the quotidian in his late work. He appeared to think that a mathematical model was needed, one that yielded exact expression and searing clarity, arising from intensive self-analysis and thousands of hours of secluded reflection. He made a similar effort in the Cahiers: “I have sought to know the substratum of thought and sensibility on which one has lived.” But the results to that are a disordered mass. And I have yet to discover anything Valéry learned about that substratum that makes a substantial difference that I could point out to you. I’m not saying it’s not there. I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks they might have found it or knows of a thinker who thinks so. Joseph Epstein might have found something, but his rambling essay fails to say or even hint at what it is.

Thus, I suggest that Valéry was a mixed bag. Yvor Winters appears to have thought so as well. But because of Valéry’s achievement in two poems and a handful of other moments in poetry and prose, Winters thought him one of the finest minds of our civilization, as he implies in this passage from “T.S. Eliot or the Illusion of Reaction” (which, I should note, was written more than a decade before the essay in which Winters announced his judgment of “Ébauche d’un Serpent” as the greatest poem):

On the face of it Pound and Valéry appear to have almost nothing in common save native talent: Pound's relationship to tradition is that of one who has abandoned its method and pillaged its details -- he is merely a barbarian on the loose in a museum; Valéry's relationship to tradition is that of a poet who has mastered and used the best of traditional method, and has used that method to deal with original and intelligent matter. Valéry is a living and beautifully functioning mind; Pound is a rich but disordered memory. [That comment on Pound the barbarian, I should pause to note, is one of the better-known and best put-downs in Winters, though it's most often quoted to put Winters down.]

I will come back to Valéry and the many issues surrounding the connections between his work and Winters’s some time soon on this blog. For example, what does it say that scholars and critics, French and English, have written about “Cimitiére” a thousand times more than they have about “Ébauche”? That’s an issue, among a number, that needs discussion. Yet I think I will forego further comment on Epstein’s piece. It just doesn’t have much to say. Still, it’s a good place to start if you’d like to get a quick, readable overview of this thinker and poet before, more importantly, you give Valéry’s poetry some careful study. “Ébauche d’un Serpent” especially deserves your sustained attention, if you can find the poem, which can be difficult. Only major libraries appear to carry Valéry’s work, naturally. A new translation of Charmes by an English poet named Peter Dale, who has been an able translator of French poets, I have yet to find anywhere. But I did find Dale’s recent translation of “Ébauche d’un Serpent” in an short anthology of some of his French translations entitled Narrow Straits: Poems from the French (1985). Also, I noticed on the web that a new translation of “Ébauche” has been written by the poet James McMichael and published in a journal of Mormon thought named Dialogue. I have found no access to this journal. I hope to seek permissions to post the poem on this blog so that “Ébauche d’un Serpent” can be much more easily read. Perhaps I'll do my own rough translation.

Oct 3, 2007

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 3

“To His lute”

or “My Lute Awake”

or “The Lover Complaineth the Unkindness of His Love” [as titled in Tottel’s Miscellany]

by Thomas Wyatt

My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done.

As to be heard where ear is none,
As lead to grave in marble stone,
My song may pierce her heart as soon;
Should we then sigh or sing or moan?
No, no, my lute, for I have done.

The rocks do not so cruelly
Repulse the waves continually,
My suit and affection;
So that I am past remedy,
Whereby my lute and I have done.

Proud of the spoil that thou hast got
Of simple hearts thorough Love's shot,
By whom, unkind, thou hast them won,
Think not he hath his bow forgot,
Although my lute and I have done.

Vengeance shall fall on thy disdain
That makest but game on earnest pain.
Think not alone under the sun
Unquit to cause thy lovers plain,
Although my lute and I have done.

Perchance thee lie wethered and old
The winter nights that are so cold,
Plaining in vain unto the moon;
Thy wishes then dare not be told;
Care then who list, for I have done.

And then may chance thee to repent
The time that thou hast lost and spent
To cause thy lovers sigh and swoon;
Then shalt thou know beauty but lent,
And wish and want as I have done.

Now cease, my lute; this is the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And ended is that we begun.
Now is this song both sung and past:
My lute be still, for I have done.


line 2: labour: work, and petition.
7: lead to grave: lead to engrave (lead is not hard enough to cut marble).
17: thorough: through Love's shot: Cupid's arrow.
19: his bow forgot: Cupid's bow, still a danger for the lady.
22: makest but game on: only makes fun of.
24: Unquit: unrequited, not subjected to pain. plain: to complain.
26: wethered: withered (possibly weathered).
28: plaining: complaining.
30: who list: who likes.


Winters mentioned this poem a couple times in his essays, but he never discussed it, briefly or at length, or made a case for its inclusion in the Winters Canon. Further, no Wintersian that I know of has ever considered whether the inclusion of this poem in Quest for Reality is justified (setting aside the issue of what he or she considers the purpose of Quest). I have seldom found the poem mentioned in essays and books on Winters’s career. Further, no Wintersian critic has ever discussed or more than mentioned Thomas Wyatt’s poetry in general. (I will have to give a little more thought to what these facts say about Wyatt’s poetry and Winters’s views of it. If Winters’s goal was to get the poems of Quest read and studied more often as exemplary models, it doesn’t seem that he has achieved that goal to any degree concerning Thomas Wyatt’s poetry.)

The comments Winters made about “To His Lute,” judging in accordance with the main course of his literary career, suggest that he did not quite consider this poem one of the great poems, though he did regard it as an exceptionally good one -- hence the star-rating I give it. I surmise from various indications that Winters thought that the WAY Wyatt wrote this poem is so salutary that it deserved a spot in Quest for Reality, though the content of the poem is conventional -- indeed, almost ordinary. But this is only my informed guess. I can’t appeal to other views, since no Wintersian I know of has ever bothered to scrutinize the poem in detail -- or even to mention it.

The occasion of the poem, the back-story we might say, is indefinite, since we cannot discern exactly the moral relationship between the speaker of the poem, a courtly suitor it would seem, and the woman who has rejected his suit or been unfaithful to him in some way. It’s not clear what the speaker wanted of the woman he is addressing, a sexual relationship, marriage, or something else. (By the way, take note of the funny cartoon on unrequited love.) The poem’s speaker, whether Wyatt himself or not, condemns this unfaithful woman and wishes for justice (“poetic” justice, it seems) to be served on the one who has wrongly spurned or been unfaithful to him.

Yet setting this puzzling and troublesome matter aside, which weakens the poem in my judgment, what Wyatt gives us in this work is a study of moral consequentialism, which is the overt subject matter of the poem, what Winters and others of his time called the paraphraseable content. The poet’s judgment of this subject matter is found in the manner in which the “back-story” is treated. Wyatt’s style and structure, Winters probably believed, make this poem deserving of the Winters Canon. What is particularly admirable in Wyatt’s manner is that he reasons his way through the experience at hand and carefully controls his emotional response to the understanding that he reaches. The speaker almost sublimates his emotions by addressing his lute (one of the Petrarchan conventions according to which that the poem was composed) and shows that he is taking a reasoned moral stance toward the subject matter. His judgment is clear: people should reap what they sow. Those who are faithless should reap the consequences of faithlessness. Those who unjustly spurn should, by a just turn, feel the loneliness of being spurned. With his abstract, controlled language, Wyatt generalizes the principle, calling implicitly for us all to suffer the consequences of our wrongful actions, to know the sufferings of blindness if we have taken an eye, to feel the pain of loss if we have toyed with a lover or violated the ethics of love-making, and so on.

For these reasons, the poem provides a nice example of the approach Winters believed to be most valuable in the study of literary artworks, for the poem’s style and structure speak to the crucial ideas it conveys to us. This is how Gerald Graff, critic, educator, and one-time Winters student, describes this way of understanding poems in his reminiscence essay, “Yvor Winters at Stanford” (from Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, 1981):

To [Winters] every literary work necessarily advances or presupposes some “rational understanding,” plausible or not, of its subject, and this understanding “motivates” the emotions and valuations that the work communicates through style and technique. Thus such devices as poetic meter, rhythm, and syntax are more than mere technical apparatus; they are a kind of spiritual grammar which, like a person’s characteristic gestures and facial expressions, reflects his whole disposition toward the world. It followed from this that literary form is “moral,” in Winters’s sense -- a judgment as to how the world is to be understood and dealt with.

Graff’s is an incisive description of Winters’s basic literary tenet. Winters, it would seem, saw in Wyatt’s approach to the surface subject matter of this poem a deeper subject, the taking of a rational stance toward the moral implications of courtly love. Winters, I believe, found this approach highly salutary and worth setting as a model, both literary and moral.

Nonetheless, there are a number of thorny issues that arise as we ponder this poem. First is the matter of context. How does or should our understanding of the poem’s vision of morality change in the knowledge that it was written as the private compositional exercise of a courtier from a distant time? Second is the matter of convention. How can we fully tap into the meaning of a poem that follows specific, narrow conventions in an aristocratic culture in a distant time and place, in this case the specific conventions of the Petrarchan complaint in the English Renaissance? I do not wish to delve into either of these important matters, but they await fuller exploration. Setting aside such intricate questions as these and assuming that Thomas Wyatt was trying to make a general, indeed timeless, statement about morality rather than about the specific experiences of courtship and love, I believe that Yvor Winters believed that Wyatt was making a statement that men and women should -- and need to -- reap what they sow. In the abstract, the woman addressed in the poem is a representative of us all. Her unspecified deeds stand as a synecdoche for human faithlessness. The specific justice Wyatt’s speaker seeks is a call for each of us to suffer the consequences of our wrongful deeds.

On a side matter, it’s interesting to note and reflect upon the fact that Wyatt’s plain style has had very few imitators, a matter which I might come back to at the end of my consideration of the Thomas Wyatt poems chosen for Quest for Reality. Have anyone worked, as it were, out or up from Wyatt, to build upon Wyatt or put Wyatt’s approach to new uses? If not, what is the Winters Canon for to those who say that Winters considered it a set of models for poetic composition?


I agree with Winters, as I understand him. The poem exhibits an almost perfect classical style. The treatment of the subject matter is very generalized, which makes it difficult to sort out the justness of the suitor's complaint against his lover. Wyatt wrote so often about unfaithfulness that his poems on the topic seem a touch puerile. But there is enduring value in exploring the principles of moral consequentialism, such profound and important subject matter, through this story of a spurned lover. Still, I would remind you that, though it is facile, it is also utterly true that there are two sides to every lovers’ quarrel (and sometimes more sides than two), and I can only wonder what the woman might have had to say about the behavior of the speaker of this poem or in answer to his charges against her. (We might suspect, too, knowing what we do about the libidinous Thomas Wyatt, whether his desire for this woman was anything more than boundless sexual appetite.) Still, the rational treatment of this subject does not directly concern itself with what might have been, as it seems, a childish spat between two lovers.

Yet was it childish? No one can be sure, and this also weakens the poem slightly. We do not learn anything definite about the wrongs about which the poem was written to be able to judge the specific case of the woman in the poem and thus to properly or more fully judge the general principle: whether, if she were unfaithful in the way the speaker hints that she was, she is deserving of the “curse” that the speaker calls down upon her. Though we might agree to the general moral principle that the poem commends to us, that of reaping what is sown, the poem does not give as much insight into that principle as it could have because it does not inform us about this specific case, which would help us see better how vital the general principle is.

And if we interpret the poem in the light of Thomas Wyatt’s randy life, the speaker’s understanding of the subject matter seems almost juvenile to me, little more than another case of a spurned suitor behaving childishly, wishing the worst on a woman who has rejected him or who he thinks has been unfaithful to him. Without knowing just a few more details, we have no adequate means to judge the moral rightness of his claims against her. Also, this poem might provide another instance of a weakness in Wyatt’s poems that Winters briefly alluded to in one essay: that it is not morally just to expect a woman to accept a man’s suit just because he made one, a topic that we shall return to concerning a poem to come.

Nonetheless, the poem certainly has high conceptual value. It offers a sustained argument about a morally significant human experience. I think this poem belongs in the Winters Canon as one of the great poems of the English language. I consider it a model of poetic craft and moral statement.


Despite its excellence, I can’t say that I have ever gotten anything of great importance to life out of this poem. The poem hasn’t greatly changed my understanding of morality or justice or significantly enriched my emotional response to the concept of a moral code. I have known the poem well for a long time, but it has not given me a significantly deeper understanding of morality either through its content or its style.

Rather, knowing something about Wyatt and his many poems on unrequited love and unfaithful lovers, I have often thought it possible that he had a mental sickness, which he failed to address or even to recognize, considering his circumstances. Inadvertently, this poem might reveal how human beings become stuck in their illusions. Wyatt’s writings of this sort might be expressions of some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder or sexual addiction -- or perhaps even an unrecognized lust for power and control (perhaps in more areas of life than sexuality). The poem also might reveal unintended ideas about the moral perils of excessive wealth, since it is probably true that he would not have been able to form or indulge his obsession with the sexual mastery of women had he not had wealth and power.

But all these matters are tangential to the poem’s explicit purpose. I do not believe that Wyatt intended to explore any of these matters when he wrote this poem (or the following poem in Quest for Reality, “Blame Not My Lute,” which I will turn to next in this series). Still, he does inadvertently hint at many things about himself and his society by writing such poems, and these matters, extraneous though they are to literature considered as an art form, could be fruitfully studied. As a work of art, however, as an expression of a crucial moral principle, I don’t get much out of it. I don’t even agree that it is just or spiritually healthy in all cases to hope or wish that the suffering one person has endured from another’s hand should be visited upon that person. There are times for justice, yes -- and times for mercy, too.

By the way, if you wish to study the topic of unrequited love more deeply, the occasion of “To His Lute,” a useful place to start is Wikipedia’s entry on the matter, which I found enlightening:


Finally, I wish to repeat my general disclaimer for this series on the Winters Canon that I offer these analyses to encourage discussion on the fine poems that Yvor Winters commended to us, not to bring discussion to an end. Minds can change, mine included, about this poem or any other I will be scrutinizing in the months ahead.