Nov 13, 2007

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 4

The Lute Obeys
(Note: Yvor Winters modernized the spelling.)

Blame not my lute! for he must sound
Of these and that as liketh me;
For lack of wit the lute is bound
To give such tunes as pleaseth me
Though my songs be somewhat strange,
And speaks such words as touch thy change,
Blame not my lute!

My lute, alas! doth not offend,
Though that perforce he must agree
To sound such tunes as I intend
To sing to them that heareth me;
Then though my songs be somewhat plain,
And toucheth some that use to feign,
Blame not my lute!

My lute and strings may not deny,
But as I strike they must obey;
Break not them then so wrongfully,
But wreak thyself some wiser way;
And though the songs which I indite
Do quit thy change with rightful spite,
Blame not my lute!

Spite asketh spite, and changing change,
And falsed faith must needs be known;
The fault so great, the case so strange,
Of right it must abroad be blown
Then since that by thine own desert
My songs do tell how true thou art,
Blame not my lute!

Blame but thy self that hast misdone
And well deserved to have blame;
Change thou thy way, so evil begone,
And then my lute shall sound that same;
But if till then my fingers play
By thy desert their wonted way,
Blame not my lute!

Farewell, unknown! for though thou break
My strings in spite with great disdain,
Yet have I found out, for thy sake,
Strings for to string my lute again
And if, perchance, this silly rhyme
Do make thee blush at any time,
Blame not my lute!


Like most of the other poems of Thomas Wyatt that Yvor Winters selected for Quest for Reality, he only mentioned this poem a couple of times in his essays. Like many others as well, Winters never discussed the “The Lute Obeys” in detail or made a case for its inclusion in what I call the Winters Canon. Further, as with Wyatt’s other poems, no Wintersian that I know of has ever considered whether the inclusion of this poem in Quest for Reality is justified (which depends on what each writer considers the purpose of Quest). I have seldom found the poem even mentioned in essays and books on Winters’s career. Once again, if Winters’s goal was to get the poems of Quest read and studied as exemplary models, he didn’t do enough to promote the excellence of this poem in print -- though he might have done much more to do so in his Stanford poetry classes. In general, the poem is rather infrequently chosen for anthologies or selections of Wyatt’s poetry.

Furthermore, I notice that John Fraser has cut this poem from his quasi-Wintersian anthology, A New Book of English Verse. I wonder why. Fraser does not mention the poem in his lengthy introduction, so we can only guess at his reasoning, unless Fraser were to take some time to write to this blog (which is unlikely). As you will see in a moment, its removal is, in my view, wrong-headed (1). For I hold that this might be Wyatt’s greatest poem.

The few comments Winters made about “The Lute Obeys,” in accord with the main currents of his literary career, suggest that he did not consider this poem one of the greatest poems, though he did judge it to be a particularly good one -- hence the star-rating I believe Winters would have assigned to it (had he not been appalled at the concept of ratings). He did NOT mention the poem in the first published version of his influential essay on Renaissance poetry, “The Sixteenth Century Lyric in England” (Poetry, 1939), which was expanded, revised, and retitled decades later as “Aspects of the Short Poem in the English Renaissance” (Forms of Discovery, 1967). In the second version of the essay (considered by many to be his finest work), Winters quotes this poem in full and comments on it briefly, though the comments are somewhat odd. Concerning the poem’s themes, Winters wrote in “Aspects” that Wyatt was advocating a plain style of love-making through his use of the plain style in his poems about love. Now, this might be accurate to some small degree, but this is hardly the central theme of the poem, which concerns the Petrarchan convention of the unfaithful lover, once again. (Wyatt, like many Petrarchans, beat this theme to smithereens, which is a literary-social issue worth studying.)

As with other poems by Thomas Wyatt, Winters seems to have thought that the WAY Wyatt composed this poem is salutary: the regular meter, the rational shape of the argument, the controlled diction. Though the content of the poem is, again, strictly conventional, the treatment is expert. But these are only my informed guesses, as they must be with all of Wyatt’s works. I can file no petition for other views, since no member of the Stanford School, the so-called Wintersians, has ever bothered to scrutinize the poem in detail -- I’ve never seen it even mentioned.


Though I have read almost no literary artworks that emulate this poem in the history of English poetry, I consider it a superior model for poetic composition in almost every way.

The overt subject matter, the paraphraseable content, is again indefinite as to the specifics of the moral circumstances, since we cannot discern the exact moral relationship between the speaker of the poem, a courtly lover it seems plain, and the woman who allegedly has wronged him and wants to keep him from proclaiming her transgressions -- that is, singing of them with his lute. It remains unclear what kind of relationship the speaker had with the woman, a sexual union only or a marriage -- or possibly some other kind of relationship. The poem’s speaker, whether we see him as Wyatt or not, is a man who wants his betrayer and the world, it seems, to know of the wrong the woman has committed against him in her unfaithfulness. Interpreting the poem in the light of Thomas Wyatt’s lusty life, the speaker’s treatment of this subject seems a touch juvenile to me, wishing the worst on a woman who has rejected him. Since the poem does not specify or delineate how the woman was unjust or immoral, how she betrayed the speaker, we have no adequate means to judge the moral rightness of his claims against her and must try to see the poem as a general statement upon the experience of being wronged.

Yet the poem, even more so than “My Lute Awake,” successfully rises above the specifics of courtship to concern itself with a general and timeless moral principle. (Dan Savage, whom I have featured before, offers a funny look at the blame-game.) With a steady thematic focus and gathering force, the poem line by line deepens our understanding of the importance of the public recognition of immorality. This poem deserves greater study. No member of the Stanford School has bothered with it. That is a sad commentary.


This poem has been on my mind for decades. I wonder whether that has been so for anyone else. The poem is a powerful expression of the need for social sanction as one of the central keepers of morality, which is the subject of countless artworks in literature and cinema. One might compare the poem to a massive array of fine novels and films, such as, to choose just a few quick examples from the modern era, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Wharton’s Age of Innocence and, in film, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Kobayashi’s Hara-Kiri, and Peter Mullen’s recent Magdalene Sisters (2). I have reflected long on its main ideas, on the emotional power of its rational treatment of its concepts, and on its sharp, controlled, profound style.

Several lines stand out with great force in context. The sudden turn to the positive imperative in the lines from the fifth stanza, which begin “Blame but thyself” and “Change thou they way,” strike with great power and meaning. Up to this stanza, Wyatt’s diction and syntax have slowly gathered momentum, before suddenly sounding on the strong accents of the two lines and the change in syntax from the negative to the positive imperative. This draws considerable meaning from these lines with great emotional power.

Also forcefully, yet very differently, the poem ends on a much softer note, the high emotions of the discussion of betrayal having been spent in the first five of the poem’s six stanzas. But the quiet ending is also quite emotionally striking, following upon the stately build-up to the ringing fifth stanza. “Yet have I found out, for they sake” stands out as a superb line in context. By slowing and quieting the stern, riotous emotions embodied in the diction of what has come before, even in the immediately previous lines, this one line embodies a righteous anger and a thirst for justice that still seethes.

We are forced to assume, of course, as I have mentioned, that the woman is truly to blame, for it is only her transgressions that the poem focuses on. But I am an advocate of removing the speck from my own eye before trying to remove the plank from my sister’s. For this reason, in the application of the poem to my life (as contrasted to the interpretation of it), I see it as a call to me: “Blame but thyself, Ben...” and “Change thou they way, Ben...,” as it were. These are just and good commands, to be seen as responses to the wrongs I have committed against others, for the times that I have been the betrayer.


(1) Another project I have for this blog, as I mentioned in just my second post, is a study of Fraser’s anthology, as lengthy as that will have to be. (So much to do, so much to do!)

(2) I have been at work for some years on a study of cinema through a Winters-influenced critical system. In my judgment, these films turns out to be several of the finest works of cinematic art when studied from a Wintersian perspective. There are many other films worth study, though, and some day I will publish the results of my labors in this vein.


Alice said...

What an awesome analysis!

It is so rare to find such a comprehensive AND personal response to a poem on the web (as opposed to being flooded with advertisements to purchase "high quality" essays on the subject. It was a pleasure to read.


Anonymous said...

PLEASE HELP... ı need the theme, the aim of the poem, analysis, and the type of the farewell,love and blame not my lute...