Nov 20, 2007

Donald Stanford’s Final Book

I have wanted to bring to your attention a book that was published a year ago but which has received no notice whatsoever in American literary circles. I have yet to find a single review of the book in an American literary journal of any size. Nor have I found a review in a British journal. The book is the work of the late Donald Stanford, poet, critic, LSU professor, and editor who was probably the finest modern classicist of the Stanford School, a term denoting the associates of Yvor Winters, in one way or another. Before his death in 1998, Dr. Stanford was at work on this final book in an effort to revive interest in four British writers whom he considered worthy of study and who each had been a confrere of the great poet Robert Bridges., and Stanford’s goal was to bring these four poet-novelists back to our attention, that is, I presume, to see them read and studied once again. Though very few critics have apparently yet bothered with this book, it is highly deserving of your consideration. Though its title is rather pedestrian, its contents are superb.

Before commenting on the book, it is important, I think, to review once again why I am devoting a long post to this obscure book of criticism. Donald Stanford was a student of Yvor Winters’s at Stanford in the 1930s. He published a distinguished book of poetry in the 40s, to which Winters contributed a short but striking forward. Stanford became a professor of English literature and eventually settled into a career at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He had a distinguished, if mostly overlooked career. In our gleefully heretical times, he was often too strict a classicist, too closely associated with Winters, and too much taken with the so-called Victorian poets to gain wide influence. Yet with Lewis Simpson, he became co-editor of the Southern Review, Second Series, which was a revival of the famed Southern Review of the 1930s. His editorial work in the second run of the journal was magnificent. He kept alive the study of Winters’s critical ideas (he even published a few of Winters’s final essays) and fostered the development of the Stanford School, to which Wintersians have been said to belong (because Winters taught at Stanford University), in many vital and constructive ways. But he also guided the journal in other directions not obviously associated with Winters’s work. I consider Stanford our finest Wintersian critic, an exceptionally fine formalist poet, and one of the most erudite and accomplished classicists of modern times. Setting aside his work on the Southern Review, the summit of his career is probably the publication of his study of modern literature, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry (1983), which offers intensive studies of the poetic achievements of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (the revolutionaries), Wallace Stevens (who put one foot in each camp), and Edwin Arlington Robinson and Yvor Winters (the “conventionaries”). This book’s fifth poet often raises a dismissive smirk or two, since Stanford implicitly elevates Winters to the rank of those four much better known luminaries of modern literature. But the critics and poets of the Stanford School think the elevation is fully, indubitably warranted and only ask that it Winters’s achievement be given a judicious hearing, reader by reader.

And so now I come to Stanford’s book, his last, A Critical Study of the Works of Four British Writers, edited by R.W. Crump. Dr. Crump reportedly found the manuscript in nearly finished form among Stanford’s papers after his death and brought the book to publication. The four writers are Margaret Louisa Woods (1856-1945), Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938), and Robert C. Trevelyan (1872-1951). You can find information about Stanford’s book at the web site of Edwin Mellen Press:

The four authors are not wholly unheard of. You can easily find some of their poetry on the web, and a few of their works remain in print, in Britain and even in the States. I have found a book of Woods’s poems still in print and a few of her poems on the web, but none of her fiction. Newbolt’s best-known poetry seems to be widely available in anthologies and in a couple of published editions, but his novels are hard to find in print. I have found almost nothing of Coleridge’s work (the original cover of one of her works is pictured). Finally, I have found a few poems by R.C. Trevelyan here and there on the web, but very little of his fiction is in print. A few of the many novels written by these writers remain available at major academic libraries around the country, in addition to several editions of their poetry. Overall, then, these four are fairly obscure writers. They have been greatly overlooked or almost entirely forgotten. I have found very little evidence of their being objects of critical study in the U.S.

Stanford’s book seeks to bring Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan back to our attention and, presumably, assign an indefinitely higher place to some of their works in the literary canon. The long chapters concern the life and literary achievement of each author and are subdivided into sections that scrutinize each author’s writings, organized by genre: fiction, poetry, verse drama, and criticism (if applicable). The book focuses much less on poetry than I had been expecting. Rather, Stanford devotes much more space to the prose of these writers, often presenting quite lengthy overviews of the plots and themes of their fiction. Why do I find this mildly surprising? Stanford himself edited many essays about fiction and the short story, but focused much of his criticism on poetry.

Many of the obscure novels Stanford discusses are historical fiction, a genre that Yvor Winters never focused on in particular, though his wife Janet Lewis was a distinguished author of several superb novels of historical fiction, which Winters greatly praised. Many of the historical novels Stanford discusses are set in medieval times (a popular subject matter at the turn of the 19th century). There are even some works of fantasy and early science fiction, which Stanford has made me think might be worth reading. Stanford’s general assessment is that the fiction of these four novelists is worth reading and studying, though he does not judge every novel or story as supremely excellent. In reading Stanford’s enlightening summaries and provisional appraisals, I don’t get the impression that he considered any of these novels to be great, on a level with the finest fiction of English literature, that of Austen, James, Melville, or Wharton. Rather, Stanford leaves the impression that many of these works are moderately successful while some few are especially fine.

Though the book’s publicity suggests that Stanford sought to set these four writers back into the canon (whatever that might mean exactly), there is little in the book that makes Stanford’s position clear on how accomplished these writers are. Nowhere does he state exactly how good he judges the work of these writers to be in comparison to the greats of literature (the Wintersian greats, that is). Further, nothing that has been published in the past year suggests that Stanford has been successful in bringing any of these writers “back into the canon” (again, whatever that especially vague phrase might mean). He does not explicitly set the work alongside that of any major writer, either of the Standard Canon or of the Winters Canon in prose (a much more amorphous assembly than the one Winters endeavored to form in poetry) in order for us to be able to know how Stanford judges each separate work. He doesn’t even clearly assess their artworks in light of the achievement of Robert Bridges, who was the subject of Stanford’s superb critical study, In the Classic Mode (both Winters and Stanford considered Bridges to be one of the greatest poets of the English language). In general, the impression that Stanford’s commentary leaves is that Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan are worth our time and study, but just how good they are, how diligently we should seek out their works, how much effort we should put into studying them, is left indefinite. I will give some of their novels and poems closer inspection some time, even though I had quite a time trying to find Stanford’s book, let alone the authors’.

Poet David Middleton, of Nicholls State University, one of our finest living formalist poets, wrote the strong introduction to the book. It recounts Stanford’s career, not the writers’, to prepare us for this study. Middleton is a little breathless about Stanford’s goals, writing,
...Stanford brings together in his final book two of his central concerns as scholar, critic, editor, and poet: the assignment of a rightful place in the literary canon to poets wrongly forgotten or marginalized....

Once again, Stanford is not as clear on this matter as Middleton implies that he is. I would say that the tone of the book suggests that Stanford wanted us to “give these writers a chance” rather than that we consider them “must reads.” I don’t think Stanford hoped for much more. As I say, it doesn’t even appear that he thought that they could stand with the greats, though he certainly considered their work superior. What he was trying to accomplish concerning these four writers, it seems, is what I’ve been trying to do with this blog and the study of Yvor Winters: put out commentaries on Winters’s ideas and work in the hope that they will inspire people to read Winters. I think this is what Stanford was mostly trying to accomplish concerning these authors.

Middleton also feels that the new book makes “a defense of reasonable poetic experimentation that does not discard [the] essential defining characteristics of poetry.” This issue plays a small role in the book, as I read it, but Stanford only sketches such issues as he runs through each career. As I have said, he spends much less time on the writers’ poetry than I had expected to find.

By the way, Middleton states that he considers poetry “a regularly repeated rhythmic or syllabic patterning.” Now there’s a suitable definition for us of the Stanford School, SOME KIND of pattern defines poetry. And not an ersatz pattern, I would add. A poet can’t just mill a thicket of prose into stanzas of four lines of roughly equal length and call it a poetic pattern -- though that seems to pass muster for thousands of poetry critics and so-called poets nowadays. Stanford, as Middleton puts it, hoped that more poetry would keep to the “significant and longstanding practices and inclinations of English writers, especially poets, including the use of classical myth, the evocation of natural beauty, the deliberate employment of an elevated poetic diction, and the presentation of subjects from history.” True, true, and well said. Overall, Middleton’s "Introduction" is not so much an opening for this study of the four Victorian authors as it is a general overview of the achievement of Donald Stanford. It deserves thoughtful reading.

You can read some reviews of the book at the Edwin Mellen site, which are, naturally, glowing, in the nature of blurbs. William Bedford Clark’s blurb (he’s from Texas A&M University), is almost rapturous in its praise:
By any measure this is an important and commanding work... [I]t represents the judicious ‘last testament’ of Professor Stanford... [His] acute sense of how poetry works and how it derives from a dynamic interpretation of literature and life is evident on every page... [T]his posthumous contribution... to our understanding of modern literature will prove a lasting one.

My goodness! But as much as I respect the literary achievement of Donald Stanford, these comments are somewhat misleading. This book is hardly Stanford’s “last testament,” which implies that the book somehow sums up his career. Moreover, the book, as I have already suggested, contains little on Stanford’s modern classical theories of poetry. Finally, the book has little to say to “modern literature,” mostly since the four authors have no standing in modern literature in any sense I can think of. I can only hope Stanford and the four authors will find some readers, but it seems that it will take a long, long time for it any of them to receive ANY recognition, let alone become “lasting” (whatever that might mean). More’s the shame.

Finally, with a $120(!!) price tag in the U.S., I don’t know how soon I’ll be getting my hands on this book. I managed to track it down on the interlibrary network in the State of Michigan. One library had it on the shelves, praise be! Now it’s time for one of these libraries to get Donald Stanford’s Collected Poems, which was the subject of a previous post on this blog.

To conclude this post, I want to mention that I have been reading some of the poetry of Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan and would be happy to post some observations some time if anyone is interested (please let me know). In the meantime, if anyone else knows some of their work well enough to comment on it, I will be pleased to post your observations on this blog. For starters, here is Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem entitled “Clifton Chapel,” which Stanford commended:

This is the Chapel: here, my son,
Your father thought the thoughts of youth,
And heard the words that one by one
The touch of Life has turn’d to truth.
Here in a day that is not far,
You too may speak with noble ghosts
Of manhood and the vows of war
You made before the Lord of Hosts.

To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth.—

My son, the oath is yours: the end
Is His, Who built the world of strife,
Who gave His children Pain for friend,
And Death for surest hope of life.
To-day and here the fight’s begun,
Of the great fellowship you’re free;
Henceforth the School and you are one,
And what You are, the race shall be.

God send you fortune: yet be sure,
Among the lights that gleam and pass,
You’ll live to follow none more pure
Than that which glows on yonder brass:
‘Qui procul hinc,’ the legend’s writ,—
The frontier-grave is far away—
‘Qui ante diem periit:
Sed miles, sed pro patria.’

This is a well-wrought poem on a conventional theme, at least for the times -- near the opening of the First World War. The conceptual treatment of the theme is a somewhat trite, almost clichĂ©d, but the diction is superb and the metrical control is strong. The iambic tetrameter is managed nicely, even though it is so very regular that you would think it might become dull. I have my reservations about the poem as a statement. What the poem is saying to us makes me quite nervous, for the poem is a call to military sacrifice, seeking to inspire other young men to make wasteful sacrifices like those made in the terrible, wasteful, foolish war that stands in its background. I think of William James’s great essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” as a counter to such sentiments: if only most of the energies of sacrifice were to be spent on peacemaking.

For another starter, here is Margaret Woods’s “Genius Loci,” which Stanford singled out for its excellence. This poem can be found in many anthologies and appears to be well known in some circles:

PEACE, Shepherd, peace! What boots it singing on?
Since long ago grace-giving Phoebus (1) died,
And all the train that loved the stream-bright side
Of the poetic mount with him are gone
Beyond the shores of Styx and Acheron,
In unexplored realms of night to hide.
The clouds that strew their shadows far and wide
Are all of Heaven that visits Helicon (2).

Yet here, where never muse or god did haunt,
Still may some nameless power of Nature stray,
Pleased with the reedy stream's continual chant
And purple pomp of these broad fields in May.
The shepherds meet him where he herds the kine,
And careless pass him by whose is the gift divine.

1. Apollo or God the sun
2. abode of the muses and sacred haunt of Apollo

This is very strong work, nearly as good as some of the finest work of Robert Bridges. The metrical scheme is brilliantly executed, and the diction is profound and powerful. This poem is worth knowing well. The subject is a typical one for Romanticism (even for ever more Romantic times), but it is a fine example of a more intellectual treatment of such a theme.


marjan said...

I found this site which gives book reviews on video, you should give your reviews here !

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating to me. Donald Stanford was my uncle. His wife, Maryanna, was my mother's only sister. I remember Uncle Don as a fun-loving, witty, and cheerful man who loved to have conversations, even when I was just a little girl. I am discovering more about him and his distinguished career and am amazed that he was such a modest, low-key person. Thank you for the information I found here.