Dec 22, 2008

What I Hope to Work On - Part 1

I said I would review what I have on my list of recent or somewhat recent writings on Yvor Winters that I would like to discuss on this blog. I hope my readers will write me about any other articles, essays, or books that they know of not listed here. This and the next post concern writings that are directly concerned with the poetry or criticism of Winters. In my third post, I will list a dozen writings or so that are somehow closely related to Winters’s work. ANYONE with ANY comments on these writings is welcome to post on this blog -- without my gloss (though I will almost certainly comment on anything posted).


Recent Essays on Winters:

1. In 2006, James Matthew Wilson published an essay on Emily Dickinson and Yvor Winters’s essay on her poetry. Wilson’s piece appeared in Christianity and Literature. I have been studying this dense essay and believe it deserves thoughtful consideration, which is the reason I haven’t yet discussed it.

Wilson, by the way, has become a columnist on American conservatism. He has been writing a regular column for the First Principles web site entitled “The Treasonous Clerk.” Though I am not a political conservative in most ways (as Yvor Winters, I pause to note, was not either), Wilson has already had some worthwhile things to say in his column. I believe his work bears watching.

2. In 2005, a professor by the name of David Reid published an essay, “Rationality in the Poetry of Yvor Winters,” in the Cambridge Quarterly. It was an insightful overview of some of Winters’s poetry and the idea that Winters’s commitment to reason met an intellectual and psychological need. The essay deserves careful study.

3. Going back even further, actually more than five years, to the annual poetry issue of the 2003 New Criterion, Adam Kirsch published a piece entitled “Winters’ Curse.” I have been planning for a long time to get to that one.

4. In 2001, Wesley Trimpi, poet, critic, and former student of Winters, published a piece on Winters and classicism in the International Journal of the Classical Tradition. The piece was entitled “Yvor Winters and the Educated Sensibility in Antiquity.” It is about the importance of Aristotle in Winters’s criticism and is deserving of careful study and discussion.

5. I want to discuss various introductions to Winters’s writings, such as to the Swallow Press’s edition of Winters’s Selected Poems (edited by Robert Barth). The erudite introduction to that volume was written by poet Helen Pinkerton, a superb (if not great) poet and a fine critical stylist.

6. Another introduction I have wanted to discuss is Thom Gunn’s brief one to the small Library of America volume of Winters’s selected poetry.

7. Going further back, another introduction that I think needs a look is Ken Fields’s to the most recent edition of Winters’s In Defense of Reason (1995 or so). I found his introduction to be puzzlingly weak. I need to explain why I think so. My guess is that Fields is no longer much of a Wintersian.

8. A fellow who has written of Winters on a blog entitled “God of the Machine” also has written on Wikipedia about Winters’s theories of the Renaissance plain style. Aaron Haspel is his name. I would like to discuss his take on the matter.

9. Haspel also has written on his blog about his views on Winters’s theories on scanning free verse. Haspel has written that he thinks his own theory of free verse scansion is stronger than Winters’s. By the way, Haspel has suspended “God of the Machine” for more than a year now. I hope he gets recharged and starts writing again -- and writing about Winters too.

10. Finally, Haspel wrote a piece entitled “Winters’ Discontents” at “God of the Machine.” It is an overview of Winters for web searchers, and it’s another of Haspel’s writings I would like to take a look at.


I have a dozen more writings directly concerned with Winters coming in my next post. That post will be followed by another concerning writings indirectly related to Winters.

Dec 15, 2008

On Finding Nazareth

Soon after reporting on the lack of response to this blog in my last post, a buddy of mine who has almost no knowledge of Yvor Winters wrote me that he had purchased a copy of the recent Selected Poems of Yvor Winters, edited by Thom Gunn and issued by the "Library of America." Greg Stone is my friend’s name, and he comes to Winters’s poetry cold. I think his reading of a short poem of Winters’s, one I discussed a couple years ago at Christmastime, to be enlightening. The following is our brief exchange. Greg’s letter is just the kind of thing I’d like to see happen more often on this blog.

From Greg Stone:


I'll give you my impression of "Fragment". I often feel that poems are structures that we fill with our own personal experience. As the structure fills, the meaning crystallizes.

First, despite being four lines the poem feels very complete so I take the title to be a comment, perhaps that Christianity is not a central theme in his life, but an unfinished discarded fragment of meaning.

I cannot find my way to Nazareth.
I have had enough of this.

seems clear enough. The first line refers in present tense to a pursuit. The second sentence in past tense shows a definite end. [Note: The photo, posted by Ben, is of the Basilica of the Annunication, which looms large in the city of Nazareth.]

Thy will is death, and this unholy quiet is thy peace.

More difficult - I take "will" (which is probably a double meaning) as a "last will and testament". He was promised eternal life, but understands now that he will be bequeathed simple death from an impersonal ("thy" uncapitalized) god, perhaps nature as god. A lifetime of an unresponsive god shows him that that quiet which had been charged with expectation of reassurance was simple emptiness.

Thy will be done; and let discussion cease.

Again, "will" maintains it's double meaning and "discussion cease" refers to the end of his pursuit and the end of his life.

I can't argue that this was Winters intent, but the poem connects to me in a complete and satisfying way.




A nice take on the poem -- and in the ball park as to what Winters intended, though that is far from certain. We do not know whether he tried to find God or what he called "the Spirit" from any of his writings. We do not exactly know what many of these terms mean, though some few writers have grappled with the issue in what are now very obscure writings.

I have written in my book on Winters on my web site about his views on Christianity. The passages are easy to find by using Google, such as searching on "Year with Yvor Winters Ben Kilpela Christianity". I could go on at length about Winters's views, but I'm not sure you are interested in them as deeply as I am, so I will forbear.

I enjoyed your note, though. I took it, at first, that you were agreeing with Winters, but I see, on closer inspection, that that is not the case. You're simply saying that you understand and appreciate what Winters appears to you to be saying to you as the reader. You must turn to "To the Holy Spirit" to dig deeper into these matters. Two poems by Edgar Bowers written in the 1950s, a one-time Winters student and very great writer, are directly concerned with such issues as well. I'll send them to you if you're interested ["The Virgin Mary" and "The Astronomers of Mont Blanc"]. Both poems were judged by Winters to be among the greatest ever written, and I would agree.

But, tell me, how does the poem "connect" to you. Do you mean something more than understanding? Do you agree to some extent?

Finally, may I publish this short note on my blog? It's exactly the kind of thing I wish to encourage. I'll try not to gloss your gloss with too much gloss.


Nov 12, 2008

Central Purposes of This Blog

It has been more than two years since I started this blog. Comments to my posts and comments as separate posts, which I welcome, have not even begun to trickle in. Let me just repeat that a main purpose behind my writing this blog is to create a community of and discussion among the like-minded, or at least like-interested. For the study of Yvor Winters to continue, for his ideas and literary style to find new adherents, and for his advocates to develop his ideas in new ways, people who might be drawn to Winters’s brand of modern classicism need to become informed about Winters and to discuss his writings.

My goal is certainly not to get everyone in the world, or even in the U.S., to agree that Winters is right or that the Winters Canon of greatest poems should be adopted, though the theory and practice of that canon are fine topics for discussion. As I have written before on this blog, there is no chance that literary culture in general will agree to the rightness of Winters’s ideas in my lifetime. But I do hope that, though they are few now, ever more readers and writers will undertake and advance the study of those ideas as they learn more about Winters, employ his theories and principles in new ways, and built out and up from his critical system.

This has already happened once in my lifetime, in LSU’s Southern Review in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was then that Professor Donald Stanford, during his editorship of that journal, fostered a Wintersian enclave in the form of a periodical that would publish writings about and in tune with Winters’s classicism. During Stanford’s tenure from 1965 to 1982, the Southern Review published dozens of poets and critics who analyzed and evaluated Winters’s critical ideas and wrote of and about and according to Wintersian classical principles. Writers and critics quickly disbanded the Southern Review “enclave” upon Stanford’s retirement from LSU in 1982. (I hope to do an overview of the Southern Review “enclave” some time -- yet one more matter to get to.)

There are now very few Wintersian writers left whom I am aware of. Poet Helen Pinkerton is still living and writing, though she is past 80 now. Poet John Finlay died more than two decades ago. Poet David Middleton, once Stanford’s student, is around and writing some poetry and some short essays, but he has not published a lot. Poet and critic Tim Steele has been in the game pitching from time to time, but he has not been devoted his latest work to classical principles (his main interests right now appear to lie with the New Formalism, which is certainly not a bad place for them to lie). I have discussed John Fraser's web site many times, and it deserves your careful reading for many reasons related to the study of Wuinters. I do not consider former Winters students Donald Hall, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass, though they are prominent in American literary culture, to be Wintersians -- or even classists of any kind. To their credit, Pinsky and Hall have dabbled in the New Formalism, but Hass is hardly a poet. I think of him as a prosetic muser.

Steele’s and Middleton’s work deserves more attention around here, along with Pinkerton’s latest book of poems, Taken in Faith, which is very fine (if not close to great). But what the study of Winters needs are more people writing in and telling me what they know, where the new Wintersian writers and critics might be (if there are any), and who is taking Winters seriously (and mostly positively or approvingly) in their writings. I hope as well that people will start responding on what I have been writing about. Or I invite you to offer suggestions about new topics, or to let me know about recent writings that should be taken note of for having some important relationship to Winters thought and poetry. Also, as always, I invite people willing to post on some aspect of Winters as well, though that, it seems, will take much longer.

I still hope for community through this blog -- or another blog or email list, if my methods do not appeal to enough people to get discussion on Yvor Winters started. My hope appears to be barren at the moment, but the time for a new enclave might come around again.

In my next post, I will review the recent writings on Winters that I am aware of and want to bring attention to and hope to comment upon in the months ahead.

Nov 5, 2008

Faint Taste for Hart Crane

Did you notice that William Logan, poetry critic of the New Criterion and occasional poetry reviewer for the New York Times, came out with a defense of his challenge to the value of Hart Crane’s poetry? I discussed the challenge briefly on this blog a good while back, mostly because of its important bearing on the study of Yvor Winters. (The short piece came out in Poetry last month, and you can find it easily with a search engine.) Apparently, perhaps inevitably, Logan got a truckload of irate mail concerning that review he wrote in the Times about a year ago about the Library of America’s new edition of Crane’s poetry and letters. In that earlier piece, Logan took a couple genial swipes (rather correctly placed swipes, in my view) at the merits of most of Crane’s work.

Logan doesn’t exactly back down in the new piece in Poetry. He calls a good deal of Crane “gassy” and bashes a few lines as “embarrassing,” with the implication that a lot of Crane is just as, if not more, inept. But he doesn’t quite give what I would call a vigorous rational defense of his views, either. In fact, I found the new piece rather disappointing. I was looking forward to Logan’s lacing up the gloves and throwing a few good punches in the form of some sound reasons for his judgments concerning Crane. But in the Poetry article he no more than briefly repeats a few of his opinions concerning Crane’s style but then, quite feebly, defends those views on grounds of the infinite variability in literary taste. I must says that I find Logan’s stand on the relativism of judgment (to be facetious) rather distasteful:

You can't stand that ditherer Coleridge, she can't stand that whiner Keats, I can't stand that dry fussbudget Wordsworth, and we all hate Shelley -— poets are Rorschach tests.

This from a poet and critic as erudite and as sure of himself as William Logan? I find such comments rather alarming. I could hardly credit that I read them. Come on, Bill. Give us reasons. I agree with you on Hart Crane. I think he is far overrated. He IS full of gas. But enlighten us with some of your good reasons why you think he is.

Yet even Logan belies this limp defense. For at the end of the Poetry piece, he faintly, very faintly, implies that there is something more at stake in seeing Hart Crane’s work for what it is than a matter of relative taste:

If the critic were meant to offer solace, he would have taken up a different line of work. All he can do is record his feelings for the one or two readers willing to look again at Crane -- the critic's job is not to pat the reader on the head and whisper sweet nothings in his ear.

But why bother with trying to get anyone to “look at” Crane again if taste is wholly relative? There is no reason to look again if taste by this definition is all that counts and if one taste is as good as another. But Logan seems to want to say that something important is at stake in recording “his feelings.” It seems that he thinks that there is something important to readers looking at Crane again, whatever that might mean exactly and concretely. Tell us what it is, Bill.

Evaluate Yvor Winter’s judgments and tastes as you will, but he certainly took pains to give reasons in defense of his views -- and he gave them sometimes quite forcefully. (Nonetheless, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, more often than people realize Winters didn’t bother defending himself against many of his attackers.) Winters was out to change tastes and more. Something big was at stake. Winters fought his position in the belief that we readers of the modern age NEED to develop, first, a taste for a new brand of classicism so that a few and ever more poets would away from the damaging practices fostered by Romanticism.

What William Logan claims is that it comes down to style concerning Hart Crane: “If there's a negative case for Crane, it lies in all that waxy rhetoric, glossy on the outside and rotten within.” But Yvor Winters, as a classicist, thought Crane’s weaknesses laid in much more than his decidedly breathlessly bombastic rhetoric. Here is a taste of Winters’s sharp comments on Crane from Primitivism and Decadence, as reprinted in In Defense of Reason:

... the fragmentary, ejaculatory, and overexcited quality of a great many of the poems of Hart Crane is inseparable from the intellectual confusion upon which these particular poems seem to rest (for examples, The Dance, Cape Hatteras, and Atlantis). Crane possessed great energy, but his faculties functioned clearly only within a limited range of experience (Repose of Rivers, Voyages II, Faustus and Helen II). Outside of that range he was either numb (My Grandmother's Love-letters and Harbor Dawn) or unsure of himself and hence uncertain in his detail (as in The River, a very powerful poem in spite of its poor construction and its quantities of bad writing) or both (see Indiana, probably one of the worst poems in modern literature).

Well, I suppose I must admit that these particular reasons are not much fuller (and no sharper) than Logan’s in his two recent pieces. But in the context of Winters’s study of modern American poetry in Primitivism and Decadence, his assessment of Crane gives us much deeper insight into Crane’s weaknesses than William Logan has so far given us. The blatant, resigned relativism of Logan’s latest effort in Poetry helps little to clarify his views or further debate on Hart Crane or any other critical issue he has fulminated upon. For such ideas actually thwart debate -- by laying the whole of all such matters at the feet of the infinitely variable, ever-changing gods of mere taste. Despite this setback, I am still hoping for a lot more from William Logan.

Oct 29, 2008

A Canon in Film

I mentioned some time ago that I have put some work into a book of film critiques from a Wintersian-classicist point of view. This work led me to many books of film reviews and criticism, many of which involve ranking and rating films and making a “canon” of the great films. One recent book in film criticism in particular, despite the fact that I disagree with the critic on most of his judgments about specific films, made some excellent points about canon-making that I think are germane to the discussion and defense of Yvor Winters’s ideas about evaluation.

The book I am referring to is Jonathon Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004). Rosenbaum (pictured), knowledgeable and discriminating film critic of the Chicago Reader, opines that though they are much maligned, canons are highly valuable for getting a grasp on any particular field of artistic study, for forming one’s own values, and for refining one’s critical judgment. Now, these views seem consonant with Winters’s and mine on the making of canons, even though Rosenbaum’s introduction is much more circumspect on the question of “necessity” than his bold subtitle.

In his book Rosenbaum tries to convey his pleasure in watching films, especially those that have yet to find their way onto U.S. screens. Much as Winters believed of poetry, Rosenbaum believes that too many films of too great achievement and value have been overlooked. This was exactly Winters’s point about the development of classical poetry in English through the past five centuries. Almost exactly like Winters on poetry too, Rosenbaum is passionate about the subject of film and its canon, the discoveries he has made and the effort to draw attention to them. Rosenbaum, as Winters did with classical literature, cares about what the Hollywood machine has kept us from seeing and aims to enrich our viewing with the films he believes to be neglected masterpieces and talented filmmakers who are difficult to pigeonhole. Rosenbaum is certainly more eclectic about film than Winters was about poetry, I will not deny. But he points out the blind spots and arbitrariness of the commercial distribution system in film.

This was exactly Winters’s viewpoint, and this is a primary purpose of setting a canon. Exactly, it is my primary purpose in discussing and trying to develop Winters’s canon in the discussion of the poems of Quest for Reality and my repeated endeavors to bring attention to John Fraser’s New Book of Verse.

Rosenbaum’s liking for Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis -– he calls it “the best piece of literary criticism that I know” -– is revealing about the canon he sets. Films, for Rosenbaum, as literature for Auerbach, are supposed to depict reality, i.e. represent the life of “the common people.” Erudite as it is, the book has a tendency to favor realistic films with a social value as the authentic artistic form. Experimental films do not easily or clearly fit into this vision.

Seeing such things, however, is just what is so useful about a canon -– to get into the mind of the critic. It is the best and fullest way to fathom the critical principles by which the critic judges and by which he thinks we should all judge. That was Winters’s purpose as well. It is my purpose too.

I have not read all of Rosenbaum’s book. Frankly, he is no Wintersian -- nor even classicist in any sense. I found it surprising that he looked to Auerbach, for his judgments are almost entirely anti-classical. (Film has never had a classicist critic. John Simon might be the closest so far.) But my central point is that his justification of canon-making is helpful in the study of Yvor Winters.

Oct 10, 2008

On the Beauty of Puddles

Did you happen to notice and read the graduation speech of David Foster Wallace’s published by the Wall Street Journal upon the news of his suicide? The main point of his talk to the graduates, which you can find at the WSJ web site, was to find spiritual strength and perhaps happiness in recognizing that water is WATER. Twice he told the grads to say to themselves, “this is water, this is water” when they come upon a spill or a puddle or a pool or a pond. By cultivating amazement at the recognition of the magical, mysterious existence of water, Wallace believed they will be able to get through the tiresome, nettlesome days of their humdrum lives to come. (The photo is one of mine, of a pond in a garden here at Michigan State University.)

It doesn’t surprise me that a literary, or High-Cult, writer came up with this idea in this chatty, witty talk to students (and I think fairly highly of Wallace’s writing, I must add as disclaimer). Writers and critics by the hundreds have proffered marvel and wonder as the highest purposes of literature, particularly poetry. My view is that this idea, as insipid as it is, has become a leading cliché in our dominant literary culture, as I have pointed out and discussed a couple times on this blog already. I believe it stems from Romanticism, this hyper-concern with knowing small, commonplace things to be amazing. We see the idea everywhere. One of the most idiotic manifestations I can think of off the top of the head is from the somewhat recent Oscar-winning film American Beauty, in which a main character marvels at his videotape of a plastic shopping bag being blown about an empty sidewalk (by the way, I’d love to see some more examples). Is this the best and most important work poetry and literature can perform, to help us marvel and wonder at small things? Yvor Winters would have wretched at the thought. The idea reached one summit in Oscar Wilde’s discussion of beauty in “The Critic as Artist,” in which he proclaims his belief that finding beauty is the essence of all things:

Æsthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong. Æsthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilisation, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Æsthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not because they make the renunciations of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without hurt to the soul, and can wish for nothing that can do the soul harm, the soul being an entity so divine that it is able to transform into elements of a richer experience, or a finer susceptibility, or a newer mode of thought, acts or passions that with the common would be commonplace, or with the uneducated ignoble, or with the shameful vile. Is this dangerous? Yes; it is dangerous -- all ideas, as I told you, are so.

This sort of talk is a cross between what Winters called the Hedonistic and Romantic theories of literature, as deliberated in the “Foreword” to In Defense of Reason. The overt hedonism of such thinking about literature did not so much morally trouble Winters as overwhelm him with the pointlessness of the idea:

The chief disadvantage [of the Hedonistic theory] is that it renders intelligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high position among other human activities. Art, however, has always been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should be able to account for this fact.

Is Wilde’s brand of emotionally indulgent, antinomian thinking dangerous (Wilde, by the way, gleefully admitted that it IS antinomian), as Yvor Winters might have thought, or is it just trite? Or is it dangerous because it’s so trite? Any views? And how are the Hedonistic theories and the Romantic theories of literature interrelated, as I believe they are?

Oct 3, 2008

The British Debate the Question of What a Poem Is

The matter bubbled up some months ago, a debate that began in Britain about what poetry is, which led to a number of articles and responses in British magazines. This debate started when the Queen's English Society, through a representative by the name of Michael George Gibson, decided to publically announce the judgment of the QES that certain prize winners in a recent British poetry competition are not poetry because the winners -- and all the finalists, for that matter -– were written in free verse. On behalf of the QES, Gibson claimed that “true poems” are written in some discernible measure and most often in rhyme. True poetry, said Gibson, gives the reader or listener a “special pleasure.”

Gibson, however, made a colossal blunder in defense of the position of the QES, for he foolishly chose to illustrate the claim with a supposed non-poem by English Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, “The Golden Rule” (recently commissioned for Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday). Despite Gibson’s confident pronouncements for the QES that “The Golden Rule” is written in prose, it is a formalist poem in every way. It’s written in a clear and very regular blank verse, which shows that even the well-meaning folks of the QES are as ignorant as that reviewer in the New York Times who said that Robert Pinsky’s recent, much-discussed piece “Poem of Disconnected Parts” is written in blank verse, which obviously it is NOT (see my earlier post on that matter). Anyway, take a gander at Motion’s fine work in an obviously and highly formal meter:

The Golden Rule

The waves unfurl and change the shape of coasts,
The shrinking woods fall backwards through their leaves,
The night-horizons twist in chains of light:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The language bursts its bounds and breaks new ground,
The fledgling words lay down a treasure-trove,
The speed of heart-to-heart accelerates:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The sun unwinds its heat through threadbare sky
The lakes and rivers map their stony graves,
The stars still shine although their names grow faint:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The black-and-white of certainty dissolves,
The single mind insists on several lives,
The ways to measure truth elaborate:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

Motion’s iambic pentameter seems stodgy, almost wooden, to those who have lost or have never had the taste for meter. There is hardly any variation whatsoever. The only major departure I see is in the phrase “their names grow faint,” which ends its line in a near spondee. And yet Motion handles the rigid meter** very well. The final stanza, in particular, reaches a powerful moment of insight, the idea of certainty dissolving expressed in a methodical and conventional meter. Gibson, for the QES, said of the poem, “It is in pairs of lines and I will assume they are measured out in a formal way, but beyond that there is no other formal principle. It falls short of being a poem.”

Dead wrong, Mr. Gibson.

I feel almost incredulous that such a mistake could be made -- and then followed up with wide publication. By using a search engine, you can easily find lots of commentary on the QES challenge on the definition of poetry.

Naturally, the British Poetry Society, which put on the competition responded to Gibson’s criticisms. One trustee said: “There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.” That is a position that is simply unacceptable to me, that anything anyone says is a poem is one. Such a view leads, and has led, to a lot of nonsense in the world of poetry and to a significant diminishment of poetry’s importance and beauty. Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet (unknown to me) and former chair of the Poetry Society, added, “As for ‘what poetry is’: in The Use of Poetry T.S. Eliot said, ‘We learn what poetry is -- if we ever learn -- by reading it.’” I would also disagree with that, for it also leads to the incoherent position of accepting as poetry anything that anyone says is poetry.

Another British poet, by the name of Michael Schmidt, claimed that the campaign of the QES is similar to a movement in the U.S. labeled "New Formalism." Followers of that movement, Schmidt claimed, “set up a magazine” (just one?) that included any poem as long as it “rhymed and scanned.” The comment about rhyme is incorrect. I don’t know what single magazine Schmidt was speaking of, but there have been several U.S. journals devoted to formal verse in recent years, and none of them made rhyme a requirement and many of the meters employed have been highly experimental. Schmidt was quoted further as saying, “But the bankruptcy of that [the use of meter and rhyme, that is] has been recognized.” The “bankruptcy” of formalist poetics?!

Dead wrong, Mr. Schmidt.

Even in British publishing “new formalism” has had a vibrant life, thanks in part to the work of Janet Lewis’s longtime friend, the late Donald Davie (who was, by the way, editor of Yvor Winters’s Collected Poems).

Interesting to many might be to discover that Yvor Winters, who has so often been chided and derided for his conversion to formalist poetics early in his career, had little to say against free verse in and of itself. In fact, his letters discuss free verse very seldom, as it might be astonishing to realize, and he never railed against free verse in his letters or published essays. In fact, he wrote fondly and insightfully of free verse even after his conversion away from the Imagist poetics that he subscribed to at the beginning of his career. Winters’s views are made more complex because he believed that the best free-verse poetry was not truly “free,” but followed patterns of continual variation. We get some insight into this knotty concept in a letter to John Crowe Ransom in May of 1928 (when Winters was 28 and in the midst of leaving free-verse Imagism behind), in which he wrote informally of his belief that free verse can be scanned:

The question of meter is again too complicated for this letter, but if you are interested, I will send you some specimens of scansion some time in the next year or so. Specimens of “free” verse, that is. My own, {William Carlos] Williams’s, Miss [Marianne] Moore, perhaps [Ezra] Pound’s. I believe that, allowing for irregularities (as in much blank verse) most of the good free verse -– and there is quite a bit of it -– is based on a line of primary and secondary stresses, the first being normally of a fixed number and the second and unstressed syllables varying. Sometimes the line is deformed for various reason, but can usually be straightened out if one has a counting-complex. At any rate I will fight for what pleases me, not for what can be measured by a footrule, and I believe that the above-named poets write verse whether it can be measured or not. I can, incidentally, scan most of my own verse of the last five years on this principle, having done it.

Winters’s formal writings on the scanning of free verse are of great interest (if mostly unconvincing to me). You can find them in his first book Primitivism and Decadence, which can be found as the first part of In Defense of Reason, his most famous work.

** Footnote: I should explain that I do not use the word “rigid” here as a pejorative , as it has been so used in many comments about formalists and Yvor Winters’s own verse, in particular (even among those who admire his work). Rigidity can be beautiful, as beautiful as or even more beautiful than looseness. Andrew Motion’s lines have great character and a certain strong beauty. Of course, I am aware of the current general bias in literary culture against regular meters in our time. But the continuing popularity of old formal verse (Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, et. al.) promises that some day a new and perhaps even large cadre of poets will devote themselves to the use of meter.

The beauty of rigidity, I think, needs a defense for our time.

Sep 24, 2008

A Mirror for Witches, by Esther Forbes

Janet Lewis thought highly of the fiction of Esther Forbes, an author best known nowadays for her fine children’s book set in the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain. One of my books for summer reading was Forbes’s A Mirror for Witches, which Lewis recommended to readers in the book Rediscoveries some years back. What did I discover? A very fine novel on the Salem witch trials that should not be forgotten, that might even be highly important. The novel might truly deserve to last – that is, to command our attention as one of the finest novels we have. I believe Lewis might have been right that A Mirror for Witches is deserving of rediscovery.

The book concerns our sense that the events in Salem 300 years ago were incredible and singular. Forbes surely knew that we would be drawn to the story she tells and her manner of telling it simply because most American readers find it bewildering that so many people could have been caught up in the ignorance and mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. (Without question, general incredulity might have diminished in light of the bizarre sex crime scares in the US about 15 years ago.) The novel appears well researched, as evidenced, in part, by its selection for the college textbook, What Happened at Salem? (out of print), which was edited by the fine historian David Levin (once Yvor Winters’s colleague at Stanford). In my considered judgment, the book is exceptionally well written, in a style that is profound, moving, and sharply appropriate to its purpose.

Forbes’s tale concerns the fictional Doll Bilby, a young woman who was adopted by an American-to-be as a small child after seeing her own parents burned alive as witches in France. The man who adopts her, a sympathetic ship’s master, is drawn to Doll’s merrily unruly temperament, which was, Forbes makes clear, shaped by the distress of watching her parents being executed in such a ghastly manner. The intellectual and psychological devastation Doll seems to have suffered, however, does not lead Forbes to a modern take on demon possession. In Doll’s era, mental illness was often seen as evidence of possession by demons, and anyone so controlled must either be in league with them or at least be highly dangerous to everyone else. Forbes portrays Doll as truly possessed; Doll believes it herself. Forbes’s accomplished exposition, written in the style of the 17th century (slightly modernized), evokes both the time and the place and the thoughts and feelings of her characters so powerfully and accurately that we feel as though we have been transported back to colonial times and can thereby more deeply, fully, and sympathetically fathom the colonial mind that brought about the Salem trials. Allow me to quote one important and moving passage of the novel that strikes me as central to its themes. This is part of the scene in which Doll first discerns that she has been in league with demons, whose reality she never doubted, but whose presence she had not yet known fully or clearly:

Now was she no longer alone in this sad world, for her god (that is, Satan) had come to succor her, or had at least sent her a messenger. She asked him which he was, Satan or lesser demon. At the mention of Satan’s name, he bowed his head reverently. He admitted that he was but one of many fallen angels who had left Paradise with the Awful Prince. At first she was cast down, for she had hoped to hear that it was the Prince himself. But she looked again, and marked how handsome a man he was and of what a fine ruddy complexion. She saw how strong were his shoulders, and how arched and strong his chest. She was thankful then that Satan had not seen fit tom send her merely some ancient hag or talking cat, ram, or little green bird, but this stalwart demon. She thought, “He can protect me even from the hate of Mrs. Hannah.” She though, in her utter damnable folly, “He can protect me from the Wrath of God.”

The whole barn fell into the cellar hole. As she looked towards this glowing pit, she thought of that vaster and crueller bonfire in which her soul would burn forever. She thought well to ask him a little concerning those pains which she later must suffer. He laughed at her. There would be, he said, no pain. Those who served Satan faithfully in this world were never burned in Hell. Was not Satan Kind of Hell? Why should he burn those who loved and obeyed him? She was stuffed full of lunatic theology. The only souls that suffered in Hell were such of God’s subjects as had angered Him and yet made no pact of service with Satan....

I could discuss this one wonderfully composed passage at length, for there is much to ponder here, from the author’s voice to the complex meaning of the passage. I quote it just to whet your appetite, though I also want you to see how Forbes delves so deeply into her subject matter that it become a full reality to her readers.

I believe it was this sense of transport that Forbes was trying to achieve. She was not trying to tell us that she believes in demons -- and that we ought to as well. She was trying to fathom what it really felt and feels like to believe in demons so deeply that it could steer people who so believe into unwitting error. By recreating the form, atmosphere, and tone of a seventeenth-century chapbook, in which sinister events are presented as though they are literally true, the 20th-century reader is brought up short, startled with the trueness of other conceptions of life and the world. Reader will take one of several stances on the meaning of the short, violent life of Doll Bilby, "who took a fiend to love." But Forbes wanted something much more, to get us to see that outwardly outlandish beliefs of bygone ages were once really reality, penetrating to every corner of life, deeply influencing, perhaps overmastering, all thought and feeling. I believe that Forbes’s theme can help us in many ways to understand those who are different from us and better comprehend our own past, the essential beliefs of others, and how beliefs shape who we are and what we do. Forbes does no overt moralizing on Doll’s case, though Doll is, of course, condemned. Forbes’s moral is to guide us to a much deeper understanding of human beliefs about the supernatural. The sharply, expertly controlled tone conveys powerful insights into how a young girl could have been be destroyed by ignorance and prejudice that was beyond the full control of those who were ignorant and prejudiced. The story amounts to tragedy. Forbes’s tragic treatment of this theme suggests that, rather than feeling superior to the countless dupes and fools we can prop up from our past, we must look closely and conscientiously at how we are ignorant and prejudiced.

Finally, one of the ideas that lies in the background of the novel, as we see it from our age, was once so deeply believed that it cannot even credibly come into play in the novel. This is the idea that a government has a right and a moral duty to kill those who hold noxious ideas. Forbes could not even explore this theme, so deeply was this view held in the time of the Salem trials. Another novel I have been meaning to recommend as one of my own “rediscoveries” gets to the heart of this matter, Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels. Does anyone else know this very fine novel (by an author of children’s books, too)?

Esther Forbes’s A Mirror for Witches is a truly superb American novel, perhaps even great (I will be pondering that issue) that has been long forgotten. Please check it out.

Sep 19, 2008

The "Fray" Puts Us in a Fray

I wrote a response to Ron Rosenbaum's post on Slate (in their so-called "Fray") about the poem Rosenbaum considers the best ever written in English, John Keats's "To Autumn." My response, which merely pointed out some of Winters's judgments on the issue, gave rise to a mild attack on Yvor Winters's critical ideas that was, to be kind, quite poorly reasoned and filled with those common misconceptions of Winters that -- I have no illusions -- will not go away any time soon. I will respond to the attack, but I am hoping that someone who is interested in Winters's theories will chime in. See the posts in the "Fray" appended to the original artricle on Keats at:

My title says "us," but I have no idea whether there is any "us" to speak of. It appears to be "me." But I will soldier on, nonetheless, in the hopes of some day seeing that "us" make itself known or come to pass.

Sep 18, 2008

What Might a Man Dancing in Front of Your Desk Be Doing?

I have been going back through some notes on topics that I meant to get to before I took a summer hiatus from this blog (which doesn’t appear to have bothered anyone in the least). One of the small, lighthearted matters I wanted to draw your attention to, from this past spring, was a cartoon animation at the web site of the New Yorker, which I don’t think is available online any longer. The cartoon started with a guy dancing gaily in front of his boss in a corporate office. The boss says, “Say what’s on your mind, Harris -- the language of dance has always eluded me.” It’s a great line, and it brought to mind one of the central issues of modern literary study and practice, the issue of the final cause of literature. The photo is a shot of one of my sons dancing, rather vigorously, around our living room last winter. I can't remember ewxactly what he was trying to say.

On a narrow plane, the issue of cause nowadays often concerns whether poetry or literature in general have special functions or purposes that are above or beyond any purpose behind non-fiction writing or “communications” of any sort. There have been many critics over the past 50 years and even further back, Gerald Graff called them “anti-realists,” who have gone so far as to say that literature has NOTHING to do with life, but only with itself, a truly absurd conception that won’t go away since Mallarmé, for one, so successfully foisted it upon his admirers. (Stanley Fish has become one of our more famous anti-realists, as evidenced in his recent book Save the World on Your Own Time, which is being discussed in many places around the web. I might have to discuss Fish’s views some time.) But the cartoon trades on the idea that the arts really do say something, or, in effect, make statements of some kind. Even the metaphorical use of the word “language” in this way shows that the postmodern critics haven’t yet stripped literature of every shred of hope of realist importance or efficacy. It was Yvor Winters’s belief that literature’s final cause was to make statements, to communicate, even propositionally (God forbid!), and one that plays a central role in his criticism.

The cartoon also trades on another notion as well, that there is something very distinctive about what dance or painting or poetry or other arts communicate. I sense that the feeling is that, like the “language of dance,” the language of poetry is so different from “ordinary” language, written or spoken, and so important as well, that what can be said through the “language” of literature can be done in no other way (Winters believed it could be done in NO better way than poetry, a position I find a little extreme). Harris must speak to the boss through dance, because ONLY dance can say what he needs to say. Yvor Winters believed that poetry and literature are crucially different from or higher than ordinary uses of language.

But poetry and literature, at their core, were for Winters, simply, ways to make statements about life. He hinted on occasion that the notion that poetry was extremely different or even wholly other could be highly damaging to literature and forced many writers and critics down roads that they have gotten lost on. Winters’s rather pedestrian view, a matter of common sense all in all, is that literature, specifically poetry, is a form of communication, akin to all forms of language. Put simply, writers are trying to say something to us, to communicate, about the world we live in. This implies, I believe, that literature and poetry have the same purpose and share the nature of any kind of writing or speaking: memos, letters, news, reports, speeches, lectures, essays, monographs, works of journalism or history or social science. What are the dangers in regarding literature as a nearly wholly different mode of expression or import, something more like dance than a lecture? That is a matter for reflection. Any comments?

Sep 9, 2008

A Writer Declares Which Is "The Greatest Poem"

Ron Rosenbaum came out in "Slate" this past Friday with his judgment that John Keats's ode "To Autumn" is the single greatest poem in the English language. He asks readers to submit their opinions on the greatest poem at the end of the piece, which can be found at:

I offered a comment on Rosenbaum's piece "Slate"'s so-called "Fray", in which readers can comment upon the site's essays. Yvor Winters, as I point out, was at one period in our literary history often and sternly chastized for choosing the greatest poems or writings in any language, but it seems that the practice has now achieved some sort of sanction. Still, Rosenbaum is a journalist, not a scholar or a leading literary critic; so it might be that he feels freer to offer opinions on such matters.

Anyone got an opinion on "To Autumn"? The poem was rated, by the way, as the third greatest poem in William Harmon's Columbia anthology of the greatest poems -- based on frequency of appearance in other anthologies. (Keats's manuscript is pictured here.) I certainly do not consider it to be among the greats of English poetry. Nor did Yvor Winters, though Winters did write, late in his career, that the poem has certain felicities that should not be overlooked. In fact, in Forms of Discovery, the only consideration of Keats in his published career, he wrote that it was Keats's most fully realized and coherent poem, though he also wrote that it is not a "serious" poem, however that might be taken. I explained in my comment on "Slate"'s Fray that Winters, as well as I can tell, would have judged Ben Jonson's "To Heaven" or George Herbert's "Church Monuments" as the greatest poems in English. At his web site, John Fraser has devoted a long essay to Herbert's poem, which suggests his very high opinion of it. Fraser, also, selected "To Autumn" for his important quasi-Wintersian New Book of Verse, a decision he does not defend. I presume that he thought Winters's comment in FD partly justified the selection. Also, I wrote on "Slate" that he probably would have thought that Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" the greatest poem of modern times, though I am less certain on Winters's judgment on that. Any opinions on what Winters would have thought on this score, on the greatest poem of, say, the past two centuries?

Further, any opinions from Wintersians or people interested in Winters on what is the greatest poem in the language? Rosenbaum invites his readers to write two-line blurbs on why their greatest poem is the greatest. That sounds like fun. Maybe I'll try to come up with some blurbs for the Winters greats. On a British web site and at some years back, I offered my judgment that Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit" is the greatest poem in English. Naturally, few on the British site had even heard of Winters or the poem, and few gave me any credit for the judgment. Any reactions to my judgment?

In connection with Wallace Stevens's later poetry, Donald Stanford discussed "To Autumn" in his great crtitical work from the 1980s, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry. Stanford seems to have had a moderately good opinion of the Keats poem, though he does write that it lacks in "ideational content," which is a crucial issue in the Wintersian classical conception of literature. Indeed, in my view as well, the Keats poem is a rather simple, bland affair that offers rather little to the mind or the emotions. Rosenbaum does nothing to convince me that it is the greatest poem with his blurbing on the matter.

The idea of considering blurbing as an literary art form, the main theme of Rosenbaum's short "Slate" piece, I will leave for later consideration. I right now don't wish to get myself all upset about the inane ideas that trundle in through the web door so often nowadays.

Jun 4, 2008

Eloquence Receives the Attention It's Due in a New Book

Professor and literary critic Denis Donoghue has come out with an engaging and important book, in which he endeavors to understand and foster the appreciation and study of eloquence. What he appears to mean by the concept of eloquence, in my judgment, is intrinsically beautiful writing of some sort, and the book makes a valiant attempt to define beauty in literature and illustrate the truly beautiful. I think the book, On Eloquence, is well worth study, for it not only presents an enlightening case for the importance of eloquence but also suggests ways forward in augmenting the literary ideas of Yvor Winters. I hope to find time for a deeper look at the book some time in the near future. (The photo is a shot of someone kissing Ireland’s Blarney Stone, the so-called “Stone of Eloquence.”)

To offer a few summary comments, Donoghue makes a nearly absolute distinction in the book -- questionably absolute, in my view -- between the practical, persuasive discipline of rhetoric and the elevated aesthetic value of eloquence. I think the distinction is useful, to a degree. But I don’t think Donoghue makes a sound case for setting a hard line between the two. In fact, I believe a hard line can lead to a lot of nonsense and the continuing marginalization of literature, especially poetry, and to the uncertainty and desperation about what literature actually accomplishes or can accomplish in our lives. Eloquence, for Donoghue, comes in our time not from the realm of what he calls public speech but from that of literary writing. But the difference between such speech -- what is often called “communication” nowadays -- and literature is not so great as Donoghue thinks. Literary writing, as Yvor Winters opined, is a form of communication. It is a making of statements that seek a deeper or broader understanding of vital human experiences. In Winters’s stronger conception, literature endeavors to employ all aspects of language to enrich our understanding and our emotional alignment to that understanding. Yet a detailed comparison of Donoghue’s theory of eloquence with that of Winters’s theory of literature will have to wait for another post.

In the opening section of the book, Donoghue summarizes the aspects of literature that he cares about as a reader and teacher: "aesthetic finesse, beauty, eloquence, style, form, imagination, fiction, the architecture of a sentence, the bearing of rhyme, pleasure, 'how to do things with words.'" As a professor, he says that it has become more difficult nowadays to get students to see that these aspects are interesting and valuable. Donoghue believes passionately that literature is too often read, and expected to be read, in our age as a reflection of writers’ prejudices and the historical and political currents of the world in which it was written. Something vital, something truly life-enhancing risks, being lost in this view, in Donoghue’s mind. The truly vital, the truly life-enhancing, are found, for Donoghue, in the idea that literary eloquence is like dancing:

The dancing of speech is eloquence: the aim of a dance is not to get from one part of the village green or the stage to another, it is to create and embody yet another form of life beyond the already known forms of it. In dancing, the dancers enjoy the certitude of being alive in their bodies. That is eloquence.

What does this analogy amount to? What is the literal activity involved with the making of literature that writers “enjoy”? And what do readers literally enjoy in reading literature? Donoghue doesn’t make this clear. As such, this clichéd analogy is inapt and pretentious (as common as it has become). Donoghue thinks that literature is eloquent when it is at its “most irreducible, when it is most utterly itself.” Unwilling to define such blather, it is at this point that Donoghue goes further and asserts an absolute distinction between the “merely” practical business of rhetoric and the aesthetic charm of eloquence:

Eloquence has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice. The main attribute of eloquence is gratuitousness: its place in the world is to be without place or function, its mode is to be intrinsic. Like beauty, it claims only the privilege of being a grace note in the culture that permits it.

There is something distinctly unsettling, wrongheaded, and perhaps even dangerous to literature in the implications of that word “gratuitous.” The common fear of art having a purpose seems quite overblown, even paranoid, as I have written on this blog many times. Donoghue, impassioned on the point, even claims that eloquence isn't “even a distant cousin of rhetoric,” which

... comes from a different family and has different eyes, hair, and gait. Long thought to be a subset of rhetoric's devices, eloquence has declared its independence: It has no designs on readers or audiences. Its aim is pleasure; it thrives on freedom among the words. Unlike rhetoric, it has not sent any soldier to be killed in foreign countries.

I disagree with these comments almost entirely, and the last comment is downright silly. Donoghue fails to make his case -– actually, he doesn’t even try to make a case. He simply states and restates and restates yet again that rhetoric and eloquence are unrelated (whatever that might mean). You can accept the idea, but Donoghue gives no sound reason for doing do so, and nothing Donoghue says persuades me. He doesn’t seem to realize how long eloquence (“beautiful” writing and speaking) and killing have strode together through history. Consider Caesar and his masterly chronicle of Rome's Gallic Wars. The dictator’s iron-sharp eloquence has inspired the military-minded for millennia. Consider Lincoln and his "Gettysburg Address." His exhortation for the nation to give “the last full measure” was an unmistakably direct reference to killing and dying on behalf of the ideals Lincoln and millions more believed were at stake in the American Civil War. Also, there’s Lincoln dizzyingly eloquent "Second Inaugural," in which he sees the myriad deaths in the war as payment for sins. Consider Churchill during the blitz saying that his country shall not yield. Consider FDR’s eloquence, too, upon the attack at Pearl Harbor. Consider Kennedy’s eloquence in 1961, asking us not to ask what we can do for ourselves, but what we can do for our country. Did this eloquent call to devotion not include, in Kennedy’s mind, military conflicts like tha one he would soon expand step by step, the low-level military conflict we came to call the Vietnam War? Was Kennedy’s stirring line any less eloquent because it was intended to -- and almost surely did -- contribute to killing and to many being killed? Donoghue doesn’t seem well suited to deep reasoning, at least not on this direly crucial point. But I can’t overlook such a large blunder. Nonetheless, as I say, a deeper look at Donoghue’s rigid distinction between rhetoric and eloquence will have to wait.

Turning from definitions to illustrations, Donoghue finds eloquence in small lines and phrases, just as Yvor Winters did (though Winters was tiresomely and wrongly vilified for the practice again and again and again by critics of all stripes and colors). In discussing these one-liners, one reviewer has written that Donoghue looks “where others might never think to look.” But that’s hardly so. It is a regular practice among professors and critics to offer opinions about both eloquent and poorly turned or garbled lines and sentences and short passages in books and writings of all sorts. Take John Updike for just one example. I have read hundreds of his reviews, and hundreds are the one-liners or short passages that he has singled out as beautiful writing in one way or another.

But back to Donoghue’s examples. He lays out many bits and pieces of literature that he considers eloquent. For example, he points to a sudden switch by Dante into Provençal in the Divine Comedy. Not bad. Later, he claims that the knocking at the gate in "Macbeth" is particularly eloquent. I’d have little trouble agreeing with that. Yet later, he says he likes the eloquence of the ambiguities in Donne's poem "The Extasie." Here I begin to part ways. But like Winters, Donoghue even draws attention to single words, such as the word "indignant" from Yeats’s famous and over-praised poem "The Second Coming." I have my doubts about any of these samples being especially eloquent, no matter the definition settled upon.

Donoghue even says that for him the contexts of eloquent writings often recede, that he is content even to ignore contexts, in favor of their isolated eloquence. For example, he claims that George Herbert’s line "Then shall the fall further the flight in me" is truly eloquent, even though he can’t name or describe the context of the poem it stands in. He thinks Milton’s line "Love without end, and without measure Grace," found somewhere in Paradise Lost, is very fine. Yet out of context, I can’t see either line as particularly eloquent. "That mine own precipice I go" is Donoghue’s choice of an eloquent line from Marvell, but he admits that he has entirely forgotten the poem. That’s downright sad. In one early passage in the book, Donoghue goes on at length with examples of eloquence:

"Christ, that my love were in my arms, / And I in my bed again" is perennial poetry, exempt from contextual limitation. "The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" is from a psalm, which one I forget. "Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke; the ashes shame and scorns" is the only line I recall from Southwell's "The Burning Babe." "From you have I been absent in the spring" is from a minor sonnet of Shakespeare's, not minor to me. "There is in God (some say) / A deep, but dazzling darkness" is from Vaughan's "The Night," which I can't further recite.

Donoghue is proud of remembering bits and pieces. Winters, too, paid very close attention to other bits and pieces in like manner. But in the classical, Wintersian view, it is the total poem that engenders the greatest eloquence in individual lines and sentences. My case for that view will have to wait for later, though Donoghue’s book gives us many useful concepts and illustrations to work from in making and refining such a case. Overall, I find many of his examples witty, but not especially eloquent.

For Donoghue’s judgment becomes suspicious at times. For instance, he discusses with rapturous praise a rather mediocre passage from Walt Whitman on death. I find the passage less than eloquent and not a match for, say, Frederick Godard Tuckerman in “The Cricket.” Can we trust Donoghue? The passage from Whitman includes not one, but two lines repeating a single word: “death, death, death, death.” Donoghue sees such pretensions, such obvious weaknesses, as examples of supreme eloquence. All too often, his take on the bits and pieces he finds so eloquent can seem jejune, in my judgment.

But such comments raise the central and thorny issues of what beautiful writing actually is and who gets to decide. Taste, it would seem. But who decides what is truly tasteful? That obvious, weighty, problematic question is left hanging. Donoghue, as far as I have studied his book so far, seems to have no clear notion of what taste is or how it is acquired or judged. He seems to think that we all know what beautiful writing is already -- and if we don’t, all we need do is trust to him or the group of professors he approves of. But classical Wintersians have distinct problems with the tastes of modern writers and critics, even ones as solid as Denis Donoghue. Our classical tastes are very different, and we can and do defend them, as few as we are. But Donoghue must see that the matter comes down to taste, as Janet Lewis once said to her own husband. I forget where I read this, but Lewis said to Winters that his sharp and profound disagreements with modern literary critics and poets came down to matters of taste. Winters gruffly agreed. For taste is a powerful, underlying aspect of Winters’s ideas. He sought a revolution in taste, a revolution that would bring us back to the classical spirit. (It has brought some few of us back, and this blog is intended to invite others back.)

In light of Donoghue’s illustrations, I should spend more time on this blog putting on display and letting my readers put on display the truly great, truly eloquent lines from the classical tradition that gather dust in almost complete obscurity in our time. Quickly, here’s one off the top of the head, Winters’s own opening lines from “Time and the Garden”:

The spring has darkened with activity,
The future gathers in vine, bush, and tree.

There is true, if unrecognized, eloquence -- in context (of necessity, contra Donoghue). There are many, many other examples of supreme eloquence throughout the Winters Canon and in other poems of the poets he championed. But acknowledging this raises many difficult questions. Is Adelaide Crapsey, whose work appears in the Winters Canon, more eloquent than Walt Whitman, whose work does not so appear? How about Frederick Godard Tuckerman than Thomas Gray -- or, say, Tennyson? Was that line of Wordsworth’s that Winters put down in Forms of Discovery truly ineloquent? I say, Yes, to all these questions and many similar ones. Yes, we need to focus on eloquence. The problem is that Denis Donoghue doesn’t appear to know what truly great eloquence is in many, many cases.

As a last classical example, let me put before you one of the supremely eloquent poems of the English language, J.V. Cunningham’s modern epigram “In whose will.” It is truly eloquent, however much its eloquence remains veiled in obscurity:

In whose will is our peace? Thou happiness,
Thou ghostly promise, to thee I confess,
Neither in thine nor love’s nor in that form
Disquiet hints at have I yet been warm.
And if I rest not till I rest in thee,
Cold as thy grace, whose hand shall comfort me?

Yes, we need to herald more writing of such inestimable eloquence on this blog. Send me your examples, and I will post them.

I hope to come back to Denis Donoghue’s On Eloquence some time for a deeper examination of its insights and arguments.

May 29, 2008

A New Study of One of Winters’s Best Poems

It has taken me two years to get around to this brief consideration of a young critic who has embarked on a study of modern poetry, essay by essay, that is, in part, bringing attention back to some of the most significant work of Yvor Winters. It has been a long time since Winters’s poetry has received the kind of careful scrutiny that James Matthew Wilson offers in some of his work. A few of Wilson’s essays have been published in the past couple years in Contemporary Poetry Review, an online journal of growing influence. CPR has published some strong criticism on poets who are writing in traditional form rather than free verse or, Lord preserve us, more prosetry. I haven’t been able to find the time for an extended consideration of James Wilson’s work. So I offer this glance at the Wilson piece that CPR published in 2006 on one of Winters’s great poems, entitled “Classic Readings: Yvor Winters ‘The Slow Pacific Swell’.” Accessible only to subscribers, the essay can be found at: 10/2/2006

The very fact that Wilson pays close attention to this one poem in a long essay is a measure of his regard for it. He believes that “Slow Pacific Swell,” little known or studied as it is, is a poem to be deeply admired because it observes the traditional as it embarks on important poetic innovations. This appears to mean to Wilson the ways in which the formal aspects of the poem relate to its modern themes. (The photo, by the way, is of a swell coming ashore on the Pacific.) For Wilson, the poem is important because it speaks of the “eternal in the evanescent,” which is a difficult, abstract theme that the essay tries to elucidate.

In the essay, Wilson first considers another great Winters poem “To the Holy Spirit.” In Wilson’s mind, “Spirit” stands out as one of the finest balanced expressions of Winters’ constant theme (Wilson thinks it might be limited): the struggle of the human reason to perceive and understand the order we can find in a messy and heartless universe, a theme which also forms “Slow Pacific Swell.” Wilson gives a fair reading of “Spirit,” which elsewhere on the web I have written might be the finest single poem in the English language. In his discussion of this poem, Wilson theorizes that most of his Winters’s poetry explores two “modes” of order, intellectual and formal. Some of Winters’s poems strain to understand how the mind can overcome sensory and psychological limitations to "encounter Being and reality in Truth," which Wilson regards as Thomistic concepts. In other poems, those focused on the cognitive, Winters studies the mind in romantic or irrational states, seeking a proper attainment of a classical or stoic balance.

Wilson admits to being frustrated with Winters in his tight focus on the self -- and he is not alone in this. The focus becomes, for Wilson, monotonous. It does seem so to me as well at times. This monotony, nearly an obsession, is a subject for further study.

Wilson believes that “To the Holy Spirit” and the poems on similar themes express, in sum, Winters’s attitude to reality. He says that they are not experiments in the presentation and judgment of reality itself. I don’t quite fathom the distinction Wilson makes on this point. Winters seems to me to have clearly to have sought a judgment of reality in “Slow Pacific Swell.” I might have to come back to this larger topic at a later time for a closer look.

Wilson next turns to the formal aspects of Winters’s poetry. He opines that poetic formalism is crucial to “Pacific Swell” and its take on reality. Wilson says that the rhyme scheme, heroic couplets (of all things), contributes a “virtuous poetic order,” what he calls “good making.” For Wilson, the opposite of rhyme, it seems, or of poetic form in general, is the chaos of unmaking that “verges on prolific non-existence.” This is another difficult phrase, both in and out of context. I’m not certain Wilson explains well enough what he means here, but a study of this matter will have to wait. Yet Wilson states clearly his belief that Winters’s poem deserves our admiration for the virtuosity and variety of its strong heroic couplets, an opinion with which I concur wholeheartedly.

The conceptual structure of “The Slow Pacific Swell” is masterly and crucial, Wilson next claims. Winters presents us with a quasi-allegory, which Wilson discusses at length. He says that the poem’s symbol gradually form a parable. Gradually, readers become uncertain whether the poet is speaking of the literal Pacific, as in the first stanza, or of the effects of cruel nature on the struggling intellects of men and women. But there is, in my view, little uncertainty, as Wilson also appears to see. It is both: the coastal scene described informs the parable as symbols. This conception of the poem is close to Winters’s own discussion of it in one of his letters (the letters were published just eight years ago). In 1958 Winters wrote to Allen Tate at length about the poem and its symbolism:

The ocean throughout this poem is the familiar symbol of the eternal non-human and sub-human of the universe. It is seen from three points of view, and these are arranged in a properly rational order: first the remote view from the hill-top and childhood; send the immediate view of semi-immersion in the thing itself; finally from the relatively mature view of accustomed and occasional contemplation.

In the same paragraph Winters compares his use of symbols to Donne’s much more famous use of them in a poem Winters often discussed:

Here as in [my poem “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight”], the sensory details CONTAIN the theme, but they are not illustrations or ornaments. [John] Donne’s gold and compasses [in the Elizabethan poem “A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning”] are more quotable than any of my details: that is, they are more easily detachable. This is because they are, in a sense, attached, they are ornaments -- extremely good ornaments, but ornaments.

There is a message of sorts to the theme embodied in these symbols, Wilson says. Winters, he says, is telling us that reason, wherever it may take us, is our “chief resource” and cannot, should not, be set aside even when we come to those watery margins that can flood over it. The shore of the Pacific stands for the margins of human experience. Reason not only corrects and validates, but moves beyond the physical senses. Wilson claims that “The Slow Pacific Swell,” surprisingly to him, succeeds not at adapting the heroic couplet to the modern lyric (if the poem may be called it a lyric at all), but rather stands alongside other modernist allegories, of which he names several.

In summary, Wilson believes that the careful deployment of allegory and controlled formal structure in “The Slow Pacific Swell,” as a sonnet sequence written in heroic couplets, makes the poem one of “almost unsurpassed mastery and beauty.” This is a bold, atypical claim with which I wholly agree and which needs badly to be heard. But, as Wilson says, the poem is masterly and beautiful because of its intellectual purpose, to see what constrains and limits the mind, as well as what constrains poetic form itself.

I hope you’ll search out this and other essays by James Matthew Wilson. I hope to give this and him closer study in the months ahead.

May 16, 2008

Rankings, Ratings, Voters, and MVPs Too

I have yet to generate much comment or discussion on this blog, but I have soldiered on ruminating on my passions and concerns as they relate to the art and thought of Yvor Winters. One of the foundations of my understanding of Yvor Winters as both critic and poet is his principle of evaluation, which means, as it meant in Winters’s practice, identifying the best poems ever written. As I have mentioned several times in the past two years that I’ve been keeping this blog, this subject has not held much interest for scholars who study Winters and admire his art or are sympathetic to his theories to some significant degree. As Robert Barth once pointed out to me (he’s the editor of Winters’s selected letters, a recent edition of his poetry, and a recent edition of Janet Lewis’s poetry), Winters’s ideas about evaluation have much more often drawn the scornful attention of scholars who think little of his poetry and are largely hostile to his critical ideas.

In our culture, as probably everyone knows, the work of rating and ranking and making best-of and top-ten lists has become a common practice in almost all areas of human endeavor, though it is widely practiced especially in the arts and humanities -- and sports. Have ratings and lists and the like become a joke? Has the practice of rating works of literature been badly tainted because ranking and rating is so prevalent in sports and so many other areas? Perhaps. Yet many are the “credible” scholars who engage in making rankings and best-of lists of artworks, such as Harold Bloom, to consider just one example among dozens. Yet, in light of the scarcity of trustworthy ratings, the plethora of silly lists, and the depth and breadth of disagreement among all the lists, Yvor Winters’s practice of evaluation, of choosing the best and greatest, feels rather cheap -- a forerunner of the tiresome ranking craze that grows ever crazier by the year.

With such notions in mind, I had a good laugh about a recent Washington Post article, “Top 10 Dumbest Sports Trends” (April 17, 2008). Its #1 trend was: “meaningless rankings, power polls, and ‘MVP races.’” The author of this lighthearted, satirical piece is Neal Pollack, and I believe you can find it easily enough online. Pollack’s #1 dumb trend focuses in on the recent practice of making lists of pro athletes who might qualify for a top award in one league or another. This new practice of tracking an evaluation that will be made by vote in some time to come has really become silly because of the hundreds of sports articles over the last winter concerning who was supposedly “leading” the supposed “race” to the MVP in pro basketball, as Pollack discusses:

Sportswriters and pundits... are treating the MVP race with the gravitas of a presidential election. That's because they make up the Electoral College. When they're debating who's going to win the award, they're not really talking about who they think the best player is; they're talking about whom they should pick as the best player. It's the ultimate circle-jerk of sports-guy self-regard.

I hope that my focus on evaluation in interpreting Yvor Winters’s criticism, and even his poetry, is not a matter of bogus, pretentious gravitas. I am trying hard not simply to draw attention to myself by debating with myself. I have loved and benefited greatly from Winters’s work in large part because he chose to say which works of art he thought are truly great, nearly perfect, in sharply specific terms -- and, insightfully and movingly, why he thought so. This is a serious business in my eyes. I hope such work is of much greater implication all the hype surrounding the NBA MVP “race.” I hope the ratings hype in other venues does not taint Winters’s theories and practice of evaluation, or the very idea of evaluation.

Yet, it appears, this subject makes even scholars sympathetic to Winters very, very uncomfortable, almost queasy. For they can’t seem even to bring themselves even to talk about Winters and evaluation, to defend his ideas, alter them, improve them, or discard them. I think evaluation, the work of rating and the justifications of ratings, is central to the study of Winters and central to the future of literature -– or at least of classical literature in our time. For how can we know what to pay attention to, how can we recognize excellence and foster future excellence, how can we properly judge that which is new or unfamiliar or even experimental, unless we know what is great and why it is great? I strive, full of hope, to keep the study of this broad subject matter from becoming a matter of icky, pretentious self-regard.

The business of attention is, after all, crucial. Here in Michigan, from where I write, some state agency has embarked on an effort to commemorate and publicize Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories far and wide because of some anniversary of the stories. This summer there will take place more than 200 events concerning the stories. 200?! I suppose this is partly a good thing, since it encourages reading. But Hemingway’s early stories, weak and almost insipid as they are, are being touted as “masterpieces” across the state. Winters wanted to pay close attention to evaluation because evaluation makes us pay attention. All too often confused evaluations have drawn attention to seriously weak or badly flawed artworks. I have struggled through Hemingway’s sloppy, jejune Nick Adams Stories a couple times, but they are almost worthless in comparison with Janet Lewis’s fine, unpardonably obscure chronicle-novel of a historically prominent family of Michigan’s Sault Sainte Marie, The Invasion, which was first published in 1932 but which has been reissued recently by the MSU Press. I wrote a review of The Invasion for several years ago. Here it is:

“Lovely Portrayal of North Country Indian and Frontier Life,” September 22, 2000, by Ben Kilpela: This book is more a chronicle than a novel, and wonderful it is to see it back in print. Janet Lewis wrote this account, imaginatively elaborated, of one of the most important families in the history of Michigan using the journals of John Johnston, the family patriarch, other family journals and memoirs, and personal interviews with members of the fourth generation Johnstons, whom Lewis knew as a girl. It is a superb read, nonetheless: rapt, poetic at times, historically accurate, elegant, and absorbing. It contains one of the finest depictions of Indian life ever written and certainly offers one of our finest portrayals of the "invasion" of Indian country by the fast encroaching Europeans in the late colonial period. Lewis's style is not for everyone, however. Her writing, as polished as it is elsewhere in her oeuvre, is a tad uneven in this, her first prose work (first published in 1932 by the excellent and now defunct Swallow Press). That's hard for me to say, since I love her novels and have long been one of their leading advocates. The narrative loses momentum and wobbles at times, and some characters are rather poorly sketched. Some scenes appear to be unfinished, dashed off, or ill-conceived. Her descriptive passages are, moreover, very intensely beautiful, almost imagistic. Lewis was a fine poet -- a very fine poet, I should say -- and her bent toward Imagism, as found in the poetry of Ezra Pound and many another leading poet in the first half of the 20th century, deeply influenced her narrative style. I love her passages of description, but I realize that not everyone takes to this sort of lyrical style. To sum things up, the novel is an account of the family of John Johnston, an Irishman who came to the wilderness around incredibly remote and rugged Lake Superior as a trader at the end of the 18th century. He married the daughter of an Ojibway "chief" (her nickname became Neengay), and established himself as one of the community elders in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, which was British at the time of his arrival in 1791, but became American in the War of 1812, an affair which plays a role in the story. Midway through the book, the narrative turns to the next generation of the Johnstons, John and Neengay's children, and later moves on the 20th-century Johnstons. It is astounding how quickly the world of the Indians changed, in less than 100 years, and the invasion that brought this change about is the main theme of Lewis's chronicle. In the opening, we read about John Johnston struggling to survive the winter in a small drafty cabin on the uninhabited western shores of Superior and in the end see the Soo Locks open and the Indians witnessing the once unimaginable event of long steamers coming up the once impassable rapids on the Saint Mary's River and entering Lake Superior. A number of important historical figures come into the account, such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Johnston's son-in-law, who used Neengay's stories to form the tales that Longfellow later used to write "Hiawatha" (a somewhat sad fate for the fascinating myths of the Ojibway), and Lewis Cass, who led an expedition across Superior in 1820 after visiting Johnston's outpost and eventually became the first governor of Michigan. There's plenty more to keep your interest, and the history is mostly accurate, so far as I am able to judge. In The Invasion, you will discover some of the most perceptive writings on the life of the northern Indians and the frontier, as well as explore the meaning of the invasion that forms its theme. I hope you will give Janet Lewis a try.

Perhaps a proper evaluation of both Hemingway’s and Lewis’s works will draw more attention to the works that truly deserve it and truly repay the attention paid. I can only hope.

May 13, 2008

A New Edition of George Gascoigne

I have arrived at the poems of George Gascoigne in my re-examination of the Winters Canon on this blog. I want to pause in that work -- Gascoigne's "Woodmanship" is upcoming -- to note something that I failed to notice several years back, in 2001, to be exact: that a new edition of Gascoigne's poetry was issued by a British publisher and that this new edition of Gascoigne's A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (edited by G.W. Pigman) was reviewed in the London Review of Books. I do not have the web address for the review, but I do believe that it is available online in the issue pictured here. Use a search engine to find it. The new edition itself is available online in a limited, yet generous and handsome, preview at Google books, which will be easy enough for you to track down. An Oxford scholar by the name of Colin Burrow, who is unknown to me, is the author of the LRB review. Burrow offers an insightful overview of Gascoigne's life and poetic career. I learned a few new things about George that will be beneficial in studying his work. He pays some attention to "Woodmanship," which Winters considered a great poem -- indeed, one of the greatest of the greats in the English language, as I shall discuss in my short study of the poem forthcoming. Thankfully, Burrow takes Gascoigne's poetry seriously, though, perhaps, his judgment of his achievement is not nearly so high as Winters's. In particular, Burrow appears to have no knowledge of how Gascoigne sought to adhere to the traditions of classicism in his art, which I consider an error of some importance. But Burrow's review will prove to be a helpful starting-point for your deeper look at the fine classical poetry of George Gascoigne.

May 7, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 8

“Lullaby of a Lover,” by George Gascoigne (c. 1525-1577)

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest;
And lullaby can I sing to,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguil'd,
Full many wanton babes have I,
Which must be still'd with lullaby.

First, lullaby my youthful years,
It is now time to go to bed;
For crooked age and hoary hairs
Have won the haven within my head.
With lullaby, then, youth be still,
With lullaby, content thy will,
Since courage quails and comes behind,
Go sleep, and so beguile thy mind.

Next, lullaby my gazing eyes,
Which wonted were to glance apace;
For every glass may now suffice
To show the furrows in my face.
With lullaby, then, wink awhile,
With lullaby, your looks beguile,
Let no fair face nor beauty bright
Entice you eft with vain delight.

And lullaby my wanton will,
Let reason's rule now reign thy thought,
Since all too late I find by skill
How dear I have thy fancies bought.
With lullaby, now take thine ease,
With lullaby, thy doubts appease,
For trust to this, if thou be still,
My body shall obey thy will.

Eke, lullaby my loving boy,
My little Robin, take thy rest;
Since age is cold and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best.
With lullaby, be thou content,
With lullaby, thy lusts relent,
Let others pay which have mo pence,
Thou art too poor for such expense.

Thus lullaby, my youth, mine eyes,
My will, my ware, and all that was!
I can no mo delays devise,
But welcome pain, let pleasure pass.
With lullaby, now take your leave,
With lullaby, your dreams deceive,
And when you rise with waking eye,
Remember Gascoigne's lullaby.

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest,
And lullaby can I sing too,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguiled,
Full many wanton babes have I,
Which must be stilled with lullaby.


Yvor Winters did not list this poem among George Gascoigne’s finest work in his earliest published study of Renaissance poetry, his once-famed essay, “The 16th Century Lyric in England” (Poetry, 1939). That essay remains Winters’s most influential piece, though it is seldom given credit for its influence (indeed, it’s hardly mentioned any longer).

Frankly, it’s hard to see how Winters could have missed “Lullaby.” It is a superb poem, a playful, yet serious and classical statement of order and reason in private life.

Winters’s high estimation of the poetry of George Gascoigne is one for which he took a lot of heat in his lifetime. But despite the slumbering obscurity from Winters could not awake Gascoigne, it can hardly be said that Winters was wrong. This is a great poem, one of several great or near-great poems Gascoigne composed. Winters often tried to understand why Gascoigne’s art attracts so few. He believed early English Romanticism, which quickly gained wide influence some 150 years after Gascoigne wrote, was to blame, in great part, as he said when discussing Charles Churchill (another great poet unrecognized as such, whom I have discussed a couple times on this blog) in his first book Primitivism and Decadence:

... Charles Churchill, like Gascoigne at an earlier period and like [Samuel] Johnson in his own, was a great master obscured by history, that is, by the mummification, for purposes of immortal exhibition, of a current fashion -— Gray and Collins, slighter poets in spite of all their virtues, were of the party that produced the style of the next century and they have come to be regarded, for this reason, as the best poets of their period.

The theories of Romanticism, in Winters’s view, took English poetry down a different road than the classical and that circumstance has obscured Gascoigne’s greatness. No critic has re-assessed Gascoigne from Winters’s point of view (we’ll come back to that lamentable situation later).

Winters finally discussed “Lullaby of a Lover” in print 28 years later, in his revision and expansion of the “16th Century Lyric” essay, which became the first chapter of his last book, Forms of Discovery (1967). It seems that his judgment of the poem had risen to considerable heights between 1939 and 1967.

Some critics have guessed that the poem is the most frequently discussed in Gascoigne’s body of work. But critical and popular discussion has concerned mostly the fifth stanza, in which the speaker playfully discusses singing a lullaby to his penis. This figure has amazed, or rather titillated, readers and critics alike down the years. But is this some big deal? Hardly. It’s a typical rhetorical device, called synecdoche. That it concerns the speaker’s precious “member” is not all that remarkable, except that it’s rather unusual for our sexually buttoned-up culture. Robert Pinsky recently told a great story about Yvor Winters and this stanza on After being read the fifth stanza in the interview, Pinsky commented:

[The poem is] Gascoigne's "Lullaby of a Lover" and it's one of my 3.5's [poems he thinks are very good, I suppose]. He puts to sleep his eyes and then his will and then his fancy, one stanza for each, and in the last stanza, this one, he puts to sleep his penis and says, Now I'm too old: "Let others pay which hath mo pence."

I remember thirty years ago, Yvor Winters reading that poem to me and chuckling very hard while telling me that Sir Arthur Quiller Couch in the Oxford Book of English Verse omitted that stanza. (Laughter.) I also remember Winters saying that he had shown the stanza to Virgil Keble Whittaker, the chairman of the Stanford English Department at the time and a sixteenth-century scholar. Winters said, "Ho-ho. Whittaker had no idea what this stanza was about. Ho-ho-ho." The poem could be called an example of late sixteenth-century phallocentricism in a very charming and appropriately grave mode.

Piquant story. But that’s a big word that is decidedly pretentious here. There’s nothing phallocentric about the word or the treatment of the idea or the poem as a whole. Discussing one’s penis in Gascoigne’s way is a playfully rhetorical device that, in this case, expresses a common fear among men, the loss of sexual potency and desire. More is said about still sophomoric critics and readers getting all worked about the figure than that Gascoigne wrote it.

Though critics have mentioned “Lullaby” here and there, few have analyzed or discussed it in detail. No Wintersian has bothered with it at all, at least that I know of, even though Gascoigne’s poetry is one of those hard cases that I think would have drawn the attention of some Wintersian. It seems that someone should have believed that Winters’s position on Gascoigne was in need of full or partial justification -- or at least another look.

Academic critic Richard Panofsky, in the Critical Survey of Poetry (1992), wrote briefly of the poem. He, like others, seems to think it has received the most attention in Gascoigne’s body of work, paltry as that attention has sadly been. He thinks as well that it shows Gascoigne at his best. I agree that it is great, but it is not the best (as we shall soon see). Panofsky notices that the poem itself constitutes the lullaby by which the speaker endeavors to still and control the youthful urges that linger on in old age. That rhetorical shift is wonderfully expressive. Panofsky believes, nonetheless, that the lullaby is a “frail distraction” from desires and capabilities of youth. This phrase betrays that Panofsky is reading his own feelings into the poem, in my judgment. There’s little hint that Gascoigne considers his lullaby a “frail” answer to his troubles.

By the way, John Fraser does include “Lullaby of a Lover” in his New Book of English Verse.


The poem is written in a regular iambic tetrameter rhyming in an uncommon eight-line stanza, ababccdd. The two couplets that form the final quatrain of each stanza are composed with consummate mastery. Each stanza’s first couplet, lines 5 and 6 in each, pick up noticeable speed over each ope3ning quatrain as each stanza reaches its culmination. This is a striking and expressive verse form. Poets should have put it to more uses than they have. Perhaps this blog will help renew interest in the strong structure it provides.

The speaker of the poem begins expertly by grabbing our attention, making us want to know what he is going to compare to mother’s singing a lullaby to a restless baby. Our interest in this leads us into the theme with great skill. The playfulness of the opening also prepares us for the witty discourse to come.

In stanza 2, the speaker states his purpose to quiet his youthful years. It’s a strange rhetorical device, Gascoigne’s use of personification throughout the poem. The speaker writes as though the years themselves are bawling in the cradle as he tries a song to quiet them. “Courage quails” strikes me as a forceful phrase that embodies a moving theme. But despite the speaker’s fears, we sense strongly at this point that the speaker, if not the poet, is trying to adjust himself to his circumstances rationally, which is the most profound and important work of the human psyche -- and the essence of stoicism as well.

Stanza 3 turns to quelling the speaker’s memories of his youthful good looks, and by extension of all the trappings of beauty. How much we rely on our looks. How important they are to us in every stage of life. Coming to this is a rational step in the argument the poet is making. The poet shows that he wants to be free of illusions. Again, he employs the striking device of personification, as though he sings to the eyes to quiet them, those eyes crying like babes over passing time, which is revealed in the furrows etched into the face. These are complex figures pregnant with meaning and emotion.

In stanza 4 comes the imperative turn: let reasons rule. The speaker gives himself and us a call to a life of reason. Reason ought to reign over thought, over fancies, over will. In singing this to the will, the speaker is able to quiet its crying, and the body shall obey the will as directed and controlled by reason. In such ways, the stanza gathers together complex and powerful ideas that form the foundation of the classical life.

Stanza 5 moves boldly on to sexuality, which will be brought under control as well. The whole stanza stands as a powerful expression of the classical frame of mind, as mischievous and witty as it is. The speaker endeavors to quiet his bawling penis, which stands in for the sexual essence, our sexual nature. After the lullaby, the lusts the penis gives rise to will relent.

The conclusion in stanza 6 mentions pains, which brings something new to the poem. The speaker strives to let pleasures go. But are there no compensating pleasures in loss of age and beauty? This idea about pain goes a bit too far, in my judgment, the only flaw in the poem.

The final lines show how deeply the classicist endeavors to look to language and song, to the province of true art, to properly adjust his mind and will and emotions to the conditions of loss. David Hume wrote, not all that long after Gascoigne, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Gascoigne’s poem is one answer to such cynical sentiments. It trusts that granting rule to reason will be effective and that art can be enlisted on behalf of reason. With all this in mind, is it any wonder that Yvor Winters came to judge this poem so highly?

Finally, I should point out that the very word and concept of “lullaby” has myriad connotations in our culture. Thousands upon thousands are the subtly different uses of the word and in thousands of subtly different contexts. The very act of writing of singing a lullaby to still the soul electrifies my mind with reflections, as it should. Gascoigne’s great poem should play a much larger role in the cultural meaning of this word and the concept behind it.


The poem makes an exquisite and profoundly moving classical statement of commitment to reason and to the proper adjustment of the emotions. Though it is stirring and offers deep pleasures in its rhetorical play and the skillful composition of its verse, “Lullaby” induces a deep melancholy in me. It makes me deeply mindful of the passing of time, the wasting away of life, as movingly given form in the loss of sexual pleasures. Yet this poem has never been an important one in my life, even though every time I have read it I have been struck by the virtuosity of Gascoigne’s poetic expression and his superb thematic control and depth. Now that I have studied it again, I suspect that it might stay with me longer and more solidly.

All comments welcome.