Nov 29, 2007

Basic Definitions: “Classicism”

For quite a while I have been bandying the term “classical” about on this blog without defining it properly. The time has come for a definition to ensure that I am not misunderstood when I refer to Yvor Winters or any other author as a classicist, especially as modern version of one. The term denotes and connotes a variety of concepts and emotions. Critics, even advocates of Winters’s ideas, have not often referred to Yvor Winters as a classical poet, either in his lifetime or in the succeeding decades. But he was reckoned as one in one of the most important recent considerations of modern classicism, Donald Stanford’s all-too-short essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet,” which was published in the Southern Review in 1969 (a year after Winters’s death).

I will come back to Stanford’s definition of classicism shortly, but let’s start with a fairly recent book on the matter, In Search of the Classic (1994), by Steven Shankman, a scholar of ancient classicism who wrote an essay, collected in the book, on the “classical rationalism” of Yvor Winters’s poetry (the essay was first written for the 1981 Yvor Winters issue of Donald Stanford’s Southern Review). This valuable, learned book offers several close studies of relatively recent manifestations of literary classicism, but the definition of “classical” that Shankman offers in his introductory essay is one I consider far too elusive:

I should state, at the outset and as explicitly and concisely as possible, what I mean by a classic: in terms of what I call the classical position, a work of literature is a compelling, formally coherent, and rationally defensible representation that resist being reduced either to the mere recording of material reality, on the one hand, or to the bare exemplification of an abstract philosophical precept, on the other.

Though Shankman expounds this definition in great, multifarious detail throughout his book, the definition as such is much too imprecise to be of much use. A skilled critic could make a case for just about any literary artwork’s being classical using such a definition. Could not an adept critic characterize almost any writing as “compelling,” “formally coherent,” and “rationally defensible”? What serious writer sets out to write works that are NOT compelling, that lack coherence, and are indefensible (depending, of course, on what these concepts mean to each writer)? Classicism must mean something more exact and complete than this. Shankman’s essay on Winters carefully lays out the meaning of “classical rationalism,” which is a very complex issue that is much worth closer study. In this essay and several others in the book we soon see that that classicism means much, much more to Shankman than this hazy initial attempt at being explicit. To bolster his meaning, Shankman had earlier trotted out a definition of the term from Hans-Georg Gadamer that Shankman says comes close to his own meaning:

What we call classical is something retrieved from the vicissitudes of changing times and its changing taste.... [It] is a consciousness of something enduring, of significance that cannot be lost and is independent of all circumstances of time, in which we call something ‘classical’ -- a kind of timeless present that is contemporaneous with every other age.

That's all? Enduring? That helps very little. What serious writer doesn’t offer his writings as enduring? Every major modern experimentalist who ever put pen to paper, even the wildest members of the avant garde, believes that his writings should, and fervently hopes that they will, endure. I know I do. And there are many examples of very personal and private writings and odd experiments that have endured. Gadamer’s definition of classical is almost worthless. But not quite. It brings to mind many important points Winters made in his essays about the importance of poetry’s bearing on general truth, on Gadamer’s “timeless present” that some writings seem to inhabit. Yet Winters was dedicated to new literary ideas and modes in ways that can surprise those who have only read of his theories in the summaries of his opponents. Very little about his work betrays a slavish commitment to ancient or early modern models, such as from the English Renaissance, as has been claimed from time to time (for example, by Robert Hass and David Yezzi, who have made errors on this matter).

Now let’s turn to Winters, briefly, for he had little to say on classicism and never used the word “classicist” to describe himself, so far as I know. In his first book, his analytical study of the nature of literary statement, Primitivism and Decadence (1937), Winters mentioned classicism only a few times and did not define the term. There is, however, one pertinent and suggestive passage that concerns whether two modern writers can be admired by those who admire classicism:

A classicist may admire the sensibilities of [James] Joyce and [St. John] Perse with perfect consistency (though beyond a certain point not with perfect taste), but he cannot with consistency justify the forms which those sensibilities have taken.

This brief comment suggests that Winters thought of classicism as more concerned with the forms of literature than with its contents. The form a literary artwork takes, in itself, gives it a certain conceptual and emotional feel. It is this “feel” and its meaning that Winters endeavored to elucidate throughout his critical career. This is a suggestive point about classicists, well worth studying in some detail on this blog some time in the future.

But Winters was never clear on how form and classicism are associated. He used the word “classical” here and there, even capitalizing it at times. He discussed it briefly as a concept in relation to T.S. Eliot, who famously claimed to have become a classicist. (Winters’s severe and corrective essay on Eliot was reprinted in The Anatomy of Nonsense, and both books I have mentioned in these paragraphs have been reprinted in In Defense of Reason.) But he never defined the term in any way -- not even for the little known but important statement of allegiance to classicism in the opening “Statement of Purpose” to The Gyroscope, the little magazine that he and his wife Janet edited and published for a couple years in the early 1930s:

The Gyroscope will be a mimeographed quarterly journal publishing prose and verse and attempting to fix in literary terms some approximation of a classical state of mind. The Gyroscope will be opposed to all forms of spiritual extroversion: (1) to all doctrines of liberation and emotional expansionism, since they deprecate and tend to eliminate the intellect, the core of conscious existence....

And so on through seven more oppositions, all of which deserve study. My main concern here is the first, the journal’s proposed opposition to “expansionism,” what I would describe as emotion out of balance with reason. The proper balance of reason and emotion appears to be a central aspect of Winters’s understanding of classicism. Keep this comment particularly in mind as we consider Stanford’s definition in a moment. In a later issue of The Gyroscope, which lasted only a couple years and is extremely hard to find, Winters wrote an essay, “Notes on Contemporary Criticism,” that appears to express a strong affinity between his critical theories and classicism. Here is one deeply classical comment from that essay:

If it be objected that I propose no end for which a man should reduce his emotion to a minimum and then, if need be, thwart that minimum, I answer with the Stoics that the end is a controlled and harmonious life. Any man who gratifies an unjust desire, who indulges knowingly in a violation of equity, weakens his self-control by that much and opens the way to complete loss of it, to disintegration into pure emotionalism, which is pure mechanism: such a man is in danger of losing his humanity, or ceasing really to exist as a man.

What a fascinating passage from a striking and powerful essay. I cannot take the time now for all the attention it deserves. My central point is that classicism as Winters understood it involves the control of emotion in one’s writing for the sake of moral control, for the living of a harmonious life (however such concepts might exactly be defined). This is superbly consonant with many definitions of classicism in our standard reference works in the field of literature and hints at Winters’s own understanding of the term.

The passage from “Notes” leads me to Donald Stanford’s definition of classicism as given in his vital 1969 essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet.” It is this definition that I find the most reliable, and it is one that I employ, provisionally and rather generally, on this blog. Stanford’s essay discusses several modern writers who claimed to be classicists in some significant sense but who Stanford believed were not, among them Ezra Pound and Eliot. Rather, Stanford claims that Winters, Robert Bridges, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and J.V. Cunningham are true exemplars of modern classicism. At the outset of this essay, Stanford begins by rejecting T.S. Eliot’s well-known claim to be classical. In the course of this discussion, Stanford uses some of Eliot’s own words about classicism against him. The definition of classicism Stanford offers in the midst of this opening is what I find pertinent to our discussion here:

“Dignity”, “reason”, and “order” -- these are the impeccable ideals of classicism. But what have they to do with some of the men whom Eliot held up for emulation? We expect from the classicist, together with a sense of history, of tradition, a “serene and severe control of the emotions by Reason” [a phrase quoted from Eliot], a respect for the literature and institutions of the past, a desire for harmony and order in the arts, a recognition of the dignity of man.

That’s as close as Stanford comes to a full definition of “classicism.” The definition is useful, but also quite vague in the same ways that Shankman’s and Gadamer’s definitions are. For we see that many ways of writing could be called classical under this definition. Most of today’s experimental poetic musers believe their works defend human dignity, adhere to reason (at least new, experimental ways of being reasonable), and exhibit proper order (at least new kinds of order). Yet this definition serves well enough when we look at the artworks that qualify as classical in the judgment of those who employ the definition. At heart, it is definition by example, as accomplished in Winters’s own poetry anthology Quest for Reality, in which the defining principles and attributes of classicism and its modern manifestations are most clearly seen.

As you no doubt see, in quoting these various comments and definitions of classicism, I have raised many issues that I have either brushed past or not even mentioned. Much more can and must be said on the topic of the classicism of Yvor Winters and his advocates, the so-called Stanford School. From whence will the Wintersian arise to address these issues? For even I in this post have come to no firm and reasonable conclusions on what it means exactly and fully to call Yvor Winters a classicist.

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