Dec 21, 2007

Recent Writings on Yvor Winters: “Allusion to the Poets”, 2002

Christopher Ricks regards literary allusion as highly meaningful, an essential and powerful aspect of literature, perhaps the core of literary experience. I would say that he loves allusions; he finds great meaning and pleasure in finding them, understanding them, experiencing them as he reads. He has written a learned book about the theory and practice of allusion in literature. Naturally, since he loves allusion so deeply, he doesn’t appreciate writers who, somehow, oppose allusion -- or even fail to pay enough attention to it in their criticism. This appears to be the “sin” Yvor Winters has committed against allusion, in Ricks’s mind. For Ricks in his much admired 2002 book on allusion has included a chapter on both Winters’s lack of attention to allusion in his criticism and on his quasi-hypocritical practice of alluding in his poetry while “opposing” the concept of allusion.

The essay on Winters is only a small part of a large book, which, overall, is a broad study of the ways and means of allusion as illustrated in the work of a group of specific poets. Ricks thinks that repeating or nearly repeating, or somehow echoing or pointing to, words and phrases of poets and novelists, those whom he calls “ancestral voices,” is a region in which poetry hides much of its great power, an idea I find quite overblown. Through allusion, Ricks claims, poets pay homage to the “immense debts” they owe to their ancestor poets and immeasurably deepen the meanings of their own poems. The book consists of 12 essays on allusion and its permutations. Ricks focuses mostly on the uses of allusion among English poets from the early Romantic and Victorian periods (the standard-issue “greats”).

Before he gets to Winters, Ricks spends the first half of his book on “The Poet as Heir.” This section consists of six essays devoted to individual poets, Augustan, Romantic, and Victorian: Dryden and Pope, Burns, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Tennyson. In the course of these essays, Ricks opines that allusion is a form of inheritance, which should not be hoarded or squandered. Ricks tries to grasp how a poet imaginatively cooperates with those from whom he has received a legacy. Ricks sees the writings of the past as bequests that entail obligations. The words and phrases and ideas of past writers live with later writers more vitally than thrones or lands, even more than languages, the human senses, or money. They are, to Ricks, literature itself, and literature seems to form some sort of sacred Olympus in Ricks’s mind. The second half of his book contains six essays on various aspects of his theory of allusion: its relationship to plagiarism (allusion being its opposite, in Ricks’s understanding); its affiliation with metaphor; its part in literary loneliness (allusion provides company to the lonesome writer); its use in prose (concerning Housman); its importance to translation as a form of allusion (concerning David Ferry); and to the clash between poetic practice and critical principles -- that’s the one on Winters.

Now, I find allusion to be a mildly engaging topic, but not nearly so profound as Christopher Ricks takes it to be. After skimming most of the book, however, I’m not sure why Ricks bothers with Yvor Winters, except, it seems rather clear, to set up and knock down a straw man[1]. By propping up Winters as a dogged and hypocritical antagonist to his own position, Ricks seems to feel that he can better show that allusion, his fixation, is a central feature of poetry and of criticism -- is everywhere in literature and is everywhere profoundly valuable. The problem is that Ricks seems to be under the illusion that Winters thought ill of allusion.

So let’s start there, with Winters’s views on allusion. Ricks is clearly troubled by Winters’s theoretical objections to what Winters called “pseudo-reference.” Ricks appears to think (he is less than clear on this) that pseudo-reference is an exact synonym for allusion, and that since Winters objects to pseudo-reference, he must also object to allusion in some unspecified, undefined way.

This is a faulty argument. Winters’s discussion of pseudo-reference is found in Primitivism and Decadence, his first book. This is a complex subject, and I do not have the time to make a case for my views here. But I opine that this term does not mean allusion, but what I might call “empty” allusion -- repetitions of words and phrases made for the sake of appearing to discuss concepts or stories or scenes or situations that are not properly fleshed out. But a discussion of pseudo-reference and Winters’s views on proper allusion is a big topic that will have to wait. All I wish to point out now is that in my judgment Christopher Ricks does not understand what Yvor Winters means by pseudo-reference and takes his own meaning as Winters’s. That is a basic critical error. Though my case will have to come later, you can start by reading the relevant materials, Winters’s essay and the relevant parts of Ricks’s book.

For this reason, I find Ricks’s discovery of hypocrisy, Winters’s practice of alluding in his poetry while opposing allusion in his criticism, to be neither compelling nor interesting. Ricks hears what he wants to hear in Winters: a poet-critic who objects to allusion but who hypocritically alludes in his poetry anyway (we will get to some of those specific allusions in a moment). By showing this, he believes he is demonstrating, negatively, how important allusion is, since he believes he has found a determined opponent of allusion who still made allusions. This seems to have been Ricks’s chief purpose in studying Winters. Once he picks a few passages from Winters that appear to stand in opposition to allusion, as Ricks understands it, and then gathers a string of allusions from Winters’s poetry he has enough to show Winters up -- or so he thinks.

Worse than misunderstanding the concept of pseudo-reference, Ricks appears to have no interest in understanding Yvor Winters’s poetry, nor even in seeing how Winters’s alleged allusions to Ricks’s favored 19th-century poets deepen the meaning of Winters’s poetry -- nor even in uncovering how Winters’s allusions react to or change or reflect the poetry to which he supposedly alluded. Now, it’s not so surprising that Ricks pays attention to these poets, for the early English Romantics and Victorians of the Standard Canon are Ricks’s specialty. But his essay doesn’t elucidate or hardly touch on their work or Winters’s in any meaningful way. Ricks, as I will illustrate below, spends no time even trying to fathom or evaluate Winters’s poetry, or anyone else’s, in this essay. He appears to want to write about Winters solely because Winters’s views on Victorian poetry bug him -- and to catch Winters in literary hypocrisy. Not only does Ricks charge Winters with making allusions at the same time that he allegedly thought allusion to be worthless, but also, worse to Ricks, with alluding to poems that Winters did not judge to be great, but that Ricks, we can only surmise, considers superior. Thus, Ricks’s essay endeavors to show how wrong and foolish Winters was not only in opposing allusion but in alluding to poems by authors whose work he considered less than great, flawed, or downright bad to one degree or another.

Before considering these charges, I must point out that there is little doubt that Yvor Winters alluded continuously in his poetry. To my mind, the fact is entirely unremarkable if one knows his work. Winters’s allusions are worth deeper study as well, though many of the Stanford School have already examined his allusions in some depth, if not as part of some grandiose, comprehensive theory of allusion. Ricks appears to think he has made a stunning discovery -- a gleeful “Gotcha!” He thinks he has revealed a “clash” between Winters’s practice and his critical principles. But this is hardly so. Winters alluded because he read, as most writers do, and he read a lot of poetry. He said once that he read the entire corpus of Robert Browning, a stunning admission from a critic who did not judge Browning’s work highly. It is natural for writers, as it was for Winters, to allude to what they read, to respond to ideas or comments, to address issues they find other writers addressing and consider important -- or to echo words or turns of phrase or ideas or concepts that they find insightful or compelling or useful in one way or another. Winters seems to have had no objection to allusion as such, though he found it, I would guess, as unremarkable as I do. It’s a natural part of writing, not some mysterious, magical property. This is probably why Winters spends little time studying it, though I am only guessing.

A look at two secondary questions will help us see how far Ricks has gone off the mark: (1) Did Winters allude continuously to poems he considered less than great? (2) What is the meaning of his having alluded to poems Ricks thinks are better than Winters did, if he so alluded? Whatever value Ricks’s essay might have will lie in his answers to these questions. Ricks starts out early on the attack, making it plain what he thinks of Winters:

Winters as critic does not have much time for many poets; as poet, though, he has not only time but place for many poems, including those by poets whom as a critic he “places” to the point of displacing them. Particularly, of course, poets whom he finds guilty of Romanticism: William Collins, Keats, Tennyson, and Arnold.

This short, irritable passage is full of unfounded, ignorant, or ill-considered charges and assumptions. First, Winters spent time with hundreds of individual poems in his criticism, perhaps more than any other critic I know. The charge that he didn’t take time with poems is foolish. What he didn’t take time with are those poems Ricks loves most -- the poems, we might say, Ricks thinks better than the poetry Winters judged great.

Further, Winters had no desire to “displace” poets, which seems to mean to Ricks to keep them from being remembered or read, to see them forever banished from literary culture in some fashion. Since Ricks does not define this term “displace,” a major critical blunder, I must guess at his meaning. If he means what he appears to mean, I deny the charge. Winters did not believe, I ascertain, that we should in some sense discard all poems that he judged less than great or “displace” them from memory to such a degree that they are never to be read again[2]. The charge, as vague and as common as it has been, is blatantly silly. Winters regularly read and appreciated countless poems that he judged less than great. He even esteemed mediocre poems written by poets who he believed had written great poems. For example, judging from all his writings on Hart Crane’s work, it is obvious that Winters had no desire to displace (discard?) Crane’s poetry, even though he judged that Crane had not written a single great poem, a single poem worthy of the Winters Canon. Nor, to consider another example, did Winters wish to displace Robert Bridge’s poem “London Snow” (a Bridges poem often chosen for anthologies) because he didn’t judge it as great. Nor did he wish that no one would ever again read Eliot’s “Gerontion,” a poem Ricks discusses briefly, because of his judgment that it is less than great (and by a good measure).

Similar examples could easily reach the thousands. Ricks and all Winters’s opponents should read him for understanding if they wish to comment on his poetry or his criticism. At the end of his essay, Ricks ridiculously accuses Winters of being “monstrously unjust” in his judgment of “Gerontion,” but what I find truly unjust (let’s just charitably overlook the ridiculous hyperbole of that word “monstrously”) are Ricks’s ignorant assumptions and baseless summary judgments concerning Winters.

As I have argued repeatedly on this blog and on my web site, the primary goal of Winters’s criticism was to identify the very greatest poems we have, the exemplary standards by which all other poetry should be judged, the greatest achievements in poetic discourse ever composed; he did NOT endeavor or desire to separate the “sheep” from the “goats,” as though every work of literary art that was not reprinted in Quest for Reality or tagged as “great” in one of Winters’s essays should only be consigned to the Lake of Fire and forgotten forever. I will continue to do all I can to counter this ugly, ignorant, dim-witted misconception of Winters’s critical theories and principles to the end of my days. I wish members of Stanford School would do something to help me along, but, alas, contributions on this important task have been nil.

Also in the passage from Ricks I last quoted from there is the usual misunderstanding and mischaracterization of Winters’s judgment of Romanticism. Romanticism, to Winters, is not something one can be guilty of when writing, as Ricks claims by implication. It is something that logically engenders flaws in one’s writing and thinking, as Winters discussed time and again. Whether one agrees or not with Winters on Romanticism, one should properly and fully understand him. Ricks’s comment is foolish and ignorant.

Following this stumbling, rather hostile opening, Ricks begins to study Winters’s allusions to show, it appears, how hypocritical he was about allusion. He first finds a bit of William Collins in one line. I find the discovery sketchy and unimportant, at best. But Ricks draws an enormous conclusion from this one supposed allusion:

The great are not forgotten, and Winters’s calling upon Collins on such an occasion... must accord to Collins, in this poem at least, that endurance that Winters the critic denies.

How silly. Winters made no such claim, that Collins doesn’t deserve to “endure,” whatever that means to Ricks (he unacceptably fails time and again to define such loose terms). Winters assumed that readers could and would continue to read Collins and many a poet of similar standing[3]. Such a matter was past considering. For Winters, what was worth weighing is exactly how valuable Collins’s work is. He concluded that it’s weak and flawed. Ricks doesn’t bother with any case for why Collins’s poetry should be understood differently or judged more highly. Nor does he bother with the idea that Winters might have found some of Collins’s flawed work to be, nevertheless, profitable, in the largest spiritual sense of that term.

Turning next to the 19th-century English Romantics, Ricks finds that one poem, Winters’s sonnet “Appollo and Daphne,” contains allusions to Keats. Perhaps it’s true. I don’t find Ricks’s case convincing, but the notion isn’t half-crazed. But Winters never said that Keats could not write a good line or never offered a single valuable insight or idea in his poetry. Winters certainly read Keats, perhaps read every line he wrote more than once. Why wouldn’t he echo a particularly fine line from a poet he had read so much or occasionally address themes that Keats wrote about that Winters also considered important? There would be nothing the least surprising in Winters alluding to Keats, if so he did (which, to repeat, I find not fully convincing). Winters didn’t think Keats worthless garbage. What he didn’t think was that Keats’s poetry was GREAT. Winters even stated that Keats wrote a few fine lines, a point which Ricks either didn’t notice, couldn’t understand, or (much worse) chose to ignore. Winters’s discussions of Keats do NOT imply that he thought every line Keats wrote is hell-bound rubbish, not worth reading or remembering by ANY reader EVER again -- as Ricks appears to think Winters believed.

Rick’s next covers a handful of alleged allusions to Tennyson. These turn out to be sketchy as well. You can decide for yourself on Tennyson and several additional poets, if you think the matter worth considering. I won’t go through Ricks’s unimpressive list of Tennyson allusions one by one. I find them all not only doubtful but inconsequential. But this slap at Winters at the end of the discussion of Tennyson borders on silliness:

That Tennyson is one of the lasting voices, whatever the critic Winters might rule, comes out in this sense that two poems of his have gone to the fashioning of what Ulysses glimpsed, “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

This quoted line is not clearly reflected in the Winters’s poem in which Ricks claims to find its reflection (you can look it up for yourself, if you care to). At best, the allusion is a reach. Ricks’s claim almost looks absurd to me, but he could be right -- who knows for sure? But the central point is that Winters never thought Tennyson would not last. As with Keats, he simply wanted his work downgraded, and quite a bit, whether one agrees on the downgrading or not. Still, I’d be interested to hear from anyone who finds Ricks’s purported allusions to Tennyson convincing. I’m open to having my mind changed.

Ricks’s reaches his big finish with Winters’s purported allusions to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (the photo is of Dover Beach, England) found mostly in one Winters poem, “The Slow Pacific Swell,” which is part of the Winters Canon of the greatest poems in the English language as anthologized in Quest for Reality (Ken Fields chose the Winters poems for that anthology after Winters died). In this case so many of Arnold’s words in “Dover” are repeated in Winters’s poem that it appears hard to claim that Winters was NOT alluding to Arnold. But let’s look at his list of alleged allusions to “Dover” in “Swell” (Arnold first then Winters, in each pair):

stand vs. stands
land vs. land
tranquil vs. tranquillity
sound vs. sound
distant vs. distance
darkling vs. dark + darkening
dreams vs. dreaming
sea vs. sea
hear vs. hear
night vs. night
withdrawing vs. withdrawing
“Into the mind the turbid ebb” vs. “ebbing out of mind”
moon vs. moon

That’s quite a lengthy list, and perhaps its length shows that it’s undeniably allusive. What do you think? Was Winters alluding to Arnold at the same time he thought the poem not even worth alluding to, as Ricks implies? I’d really like to know whether anyone out there buys this argument. For are these not extremely simple, common words. Sound? Stand? Sea? Dark? Hear??! Night??!!!! Combinations of four or five of these words could coincidentally be found in thousands of poems. Ricks makes no case that they are allusions. He just lays out the pairs and assumes we will be convinced. Are you? Well, I am not. It’s POSSIBLE, somewhat remotely, that they are allusions, but I’m not convinced they are, mostly since nothing in the content of “The Slow Pacific Swell,” not even in Ricks’s discussion of it, reflects in any clear and specific way the themes of Arnold’s poem. I could accept that a few of Arnold’s lines and bits of diction might have been influential with Winters, but I don’t see them as allusions. Winters doesn’t appear to be answering or reflecting upon Arnold’s poem or working out from his themes in any significant way.

Thus, the biggest problem for Ricks’s position is that it doesn’t really matter whether Winters alluded to Arnold. For Ricks has nothing to say about the themes of EITHER poem and, unconscionably, even appears to have no desire whatsoever to understand Winters’s poem. He does not discuss the themes of “The Slow Pacific Swell” or “Dover Beach” at all. This means that he never even gets to the crucial matter of whether the poems “talk” to each other in some vital, meaningful way through the allusions. Near the end of this essay, Ricks opines, sharply, that Winters “impoverishes” his critical understanding by paying too little attention to allusion, implying that he leaves his analyses of poems in some cases “needlessly amputated.” But it is Ricks’s criticism that betrays signs of impoverishment, whose views seem amputated, because he pays no mind to the themes of the poems in which he finds such wide, endless streams of allusions.

Further, and most damning, Ricks appears to be entirely unaware of what Winters’s poem clearly alludes to: the symbolism of the sea in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is a matter of some extensive and insightful commentary in several books on Winters (see Dick Davis’s Wisdom and Wilderness, Terry Comito’s In Defense of Winters, and Don Stanford’s Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry). Ricks can’t even be bothered with chronology. “Swell” was written in the early 1930s. Yet Winters’s final, much lower rating of “Dover Beach” didn’t come until the late 1960s. Such errors of commission and omission bring into serious question everything Ricks writes about Winters.

Ricks winds up his presentation with a discussion of one supposedly major allusion that Winters makes to Arnold: the word “certitude.” Winters used this word a number of times in his poems, as Ricks shows. Ricks also opines that the only significant use of the word “certitude” in English literature is in the poem “Dover Beach.” Because of this, Ricks thinks the connection between Arnold and Winters is unmistakable. I find this argument rather meager. It’s just ONE WORD, for goodness sake. It is pretentious to think that Winters’s use of one word renders all his work indebted to Arnold in some crucial way (which Ricks doesn’t even bother explicating) or undoes Winters’s evaluation of Arnold’s poetry or is in some way hypocritical. Further, Winters knew the poem “Dover Beach” very, very well. Apparently, judging from his letters, he thought about it a lot. Once, he thought highly of it -- indeed, until the latter half of his career. He even once judged it one of our greatest poems. Yet he came to believe that it should not be considered one of the best and later came to judge that it is badly flawed[4]. Assuming Winters actually did allude to “Dover Beach,” which I find doubtful -- and at least unverified on Ricks’s evidence -- Winters did nothing wrong in employing in his own poetry one word from a poem that he appraised as at least good during most of his career. But Ricks thinks that his use of this one word constitutes some sort of hypocrisy:

It is of the nature of literary art that certainty is not even to be aspired to; certitude is another matter [“SUBJECTIVE certainty” is the definition Ricks adopts from the OED], and I trust in the certitude of “Dover Beach” and its being called into play by Winters’s poems, whatever as critic he might have preferred to be the case.

My certitude is fairly strong that Ricks is wrong that Arnold is “being called into play” in any vital way. More importantly, Ricks fails to prove that this is the case. I will admit that it’s POSSIBLE that Winters could have picked the word “certitude” up from Arnold, but so what? He read the word, liked it, used it. There’s nothing significant in that -- if it is so. Yet the greater problem is that it is wrong for Ricks to think that Winters wanted no one ever to read “Dover Beach” again. Winters didn’t prefer anything (to sum up his changing position on “Dover” as one overarching judgment) other than that we NOT consider the poem one of our greatest artistic achievements. Again, Winters thought it was a fine poem, flawed, but fine. At the end of his career and life, he thought the flaws of the poem greater than he had through most of the decades he had known the poem well. Overall, I think Winters judged that it failed by a good measure to meet the standards of the Winters Canon, but that it is still a fine work of art[5]. Ricks’s implication is wholly mistaken, that “Dover Beach” meant nothing to Winters and was worth nothing in Winters’s critical judgment. It did mean a good deal to him, and he did not wish to “displace” it, as we see from his letters and published writings.

The blurbs call Ricks a "brilliant critic,” a man with “valuable insights into the human psyche and the 'moral life'." Other blurbs says that Ricks “examines the transfer of poetic power in his brilliant and witty study.” They say he is “a painstaking scholar and editor as well as the most stringent and imaginative of close readers.” The Guardian’s almost silly review (U.K.) says that no critic “has dared to isolate this wonderfully ramifying, richly human subject [allusion]... and given it such intensive treatment. With this book about poets and their gratitude, Ricks has earned ours." I don’t what “daring” such an act took, but it certainly took daring to write about Yvor Winters without knowing his ideas or poetry very well. Further, Ricks’s supposed stringent and imaginative skills at close reading are not on display anywhere in his Winters essay.

As I have mentioned, what Ricks pays no attention to whatsoever is all the allusions to poetry that Ricks has no interest in, to Thomas Campion and Fulke Greville (he does mention Ben Jonson, but does not delve deeply enough into Winters’s many allusions to his work), to Herman Melville and George Herbert, to J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers and Robert Bridges and Paul Valéry. It’s early Romantic and Victorian literature that Ricks finds important, so Ricks has no time for Winters’s allusions to the English Renaissance and modern poetry that Winters considered great almost beyond measure, his true partners of discussion in poetry.

Moreover, I find little that is “brilliant” in Ricks’s ignoring how Winters’s supposed allusions deepen the power or meaning of Winters’s poetry. Ricks has next to nothing to say about the meaning of Winters’s poems. As I have said, this essay appears to have been written only with the nasty, narrow purpose of showing that Winters was hypocritical in opposing allusion when he practiced allusion. To be honest, I suspect that Ricks hasn’t read Winters much, either the poetry or the criticism. Ricks doesn’t seem even marginally conversant with Winters’s poetry nor moved by what he had to say through it. Sadly, I conclude that Winters is a straw man for Ricks. He keeps to his preferred poets in any case, Keats and Tennyson, et al. They are his second loves (his first is T.S. Eliot, I’ve read), the standard greats of 19th-century poetry. He has no awareness, it seems, of the many allusions to other, better poets throughout Winters’s poetry, the great artworks of the Winters Canon. Inexcusably, Ricks seems not the least interested in Winters’s discussion of matters that are related to allusion when they concern poets that Ricks has no apparent regard for.

The consequences of Ricks’s essay can be severely damaging to Winters’s reputation, as we can see from the comment of one critic on the essay:

... [the Winters] essay takes the belligerently anti-allusive critic Yvor Winters and demonstrates to comic but powerful effect that in his fine work as a poet he was acutely allusive to Keats and Tennyson, poets he was rude about in his prose.

These are a sample of the results that faulty scholarship and bad argumentation can yield: dreadful misconceptions and errors. I find little that is comic in this essay. And Winters wasn’t “anti-allusive,” whatever that means. Neither Ricks nor his reviewers seem to feel the slightest need to define such terms.

It surprises me that this essay has yet had no answer from a critic of the Stanford School. It demands one. Yet it doesn’t surprise me that Christopher Ricks has no particular regard for the poetry or criticism of Yvor Winters, for Winters sought to downgrade many of the poets Ricks believes are great (I presume) and are his favorites (as is obvious). His judgment on such matters is his privilege to give or take. But his erroneous judgments on Winters should be countered. That no Wintersian has stepped forward to address the weaknesses and errors of this essay is, at best, disheartening.


[1] I have a guess about what might first have drawn Ricks’s ire. Looking at his career as a whole, Ricks was probably irritated with Winters’s strong objections to the poetry and critical theories of T.S. Eliot, who is reportedly the poet and critic Ricks most admires.

[2] I countered this charge, in another context, on my Yvor Winters web site years ago. I took this post off line for various reasons, but I will attach it to this post in the near future as a comment.

[3] Strangely, Ricks seems to think Williams Collins is much more highly regarded and much, much more widely read than appears to be the case. Collins has hardly any standing left in the Standard Canon, let alone in Winters’s. He is almost a forgotten poet -- outside a few small academic circles of scholars like Ricks -- whether his status is deserved or not.

[4] The poem might not be as flawed as Winters came to judge late in his career. How the Stanford School should rate “Dover” is a matter that needs consideration.

[5] I must at some time reconsider this whole complicated issue, since, for one matter, John Fraser includes “Dover Beach” in his quasi-Wintersian New Book of English Verse, a decision Fraser does not explain or justify. Further, I need to try to fathom why Winters judged the poem to be more flawed in his final assessment. Perhaps someone who took classes with him at the end of his career could enlighten us. Someone like Francis Fike, retired Hope College professor and former Winters student who is still writing on poets of the Stanford School, might be able to help us on this.

No comments: