Jan 22, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 5

I have been remiss in getting to the next poem in the Winters Canon, but here it is:

“Varium et Mutabile”
by Thomas Wyatt

Is it possible
That so high debate,
So sharp, so sore, and of such rate,
Should end so soon that was begun so late?
Is it possible?

Is it possible
So cruel intent,
So hasty heat and so soon spent,
From love to hate, and thence for to relent?
Is it possible?

Is it possible
That any may find
Within one heart so diverse mind,
To change or turn as weather and wind?
Is it possible?

Is it possible
To spy it in an eye
That turns as oft as chance on die,
The truth whereof can any try?
Is it possible?

It is possible
For to turn so oft
To bring that lowest that was most aloft,
And to fall highest, yet to light soft
It is possible.

All is possible,
Who so list believe;
Trust therefore first, and after preve,
As men wed ladies by license and leave,
All is possible.

3] “rate”: quality, pace
14] “as weather and wind:: proverbial
18] “die”: dice, with quibble on the verb "die"
24] “to fall highest”: being highest, in falling.
26-30] The punctuation and segmentation are editorial. Different interpretations may be obtained by pointing these lines differently. E.g., one might read
All is possible.
[For] Whoso list believe
Trust therefore first and after preve,
As men [who] wed ladies by licence and leave,
All is possible.
27] “Whoso list”: whoever please to.
28] “preve”: prove, find out if true.


Winters discussed this poem very little during his career. It is possible only to guess at his reasons for including it in Quest for Reality. Is it one of our greatest poems, or is it a particularly salient example of the rational, controlled style that he venerated and wished to foster in modern times? I cannot say for certain. No Wintersian has discussed the poem, at least that I am aware of[1]. John Fraser does include the poem in his New Book of Verse without explanation.

Despite Winters's lack of comment, I think we can say that the poem appears to be a superior example of the classical rational structure that Winters highly approved in poetry. Let’s look at the progression of thought in this poem. It starts in stanza 1 with a general idea about differences of opinion. Stanza 2 moves to the passions of debate, which is a rational step in the development of the theme as we know it so far. In stanza 3 the poem turns to the waywardness of discussion and belief, an aspect of the theme which follows clearly and strongly from the discussion of the passions. Then the poem studies one aspect of human waywardness in stanza 4. This sharpens the central theme by illustration. In stanza 5 comes the first change in the lines repeated. Here the poet gives a general answer to the question he has posed in the opening stanzas: yes, human intellectual and moral waywardness is bound to happen. The poem then concludes with its “moral” in stanza 6: the poet gives sound, welcome advice that we should prove what we first believe.

The rational structure is lucid and sound. Though the poet could have explored his broad, abstract theme much more deeply, the sharp, condensed manner in which he covers the theme, rationally moving from idea to insight -- and concluding with a sharp and moving close -- is ideal, in Winters’s classical view.

Despite the taut form and the controlled, nonfigurative language, the poem expresses the emotions proper to the statement it makes through its tightly controlled diction and metrical movement. We feel the poet’s frustration, feeling even a hint of his longing to live according to the truth rightly and properly.


I mostly agree with Winters, as I suppose his position to be, that this is a striking examination of the mutability of human belief and action. It is a sound, moving warning that people can change their minds, sometimes greatly and often without rational soundness -- and sometimes very rapidly. The diction is strong, the metrical control superb. It is moving in the way of classical poetic statements. The thoughtful emotion does not burst outside the bounds of rational understanding.

However, I think the poem too general and abstract. It does not delve deeply enough into its theme, which is a common weakness of poems from the English Renaissance, as Winters pointed out several times in his essays on the period.


The poem feels a little dull, far too abstract, until one fully concentrates on each word and line. Its moral import has struck me when I have attended closely to the meaning and the rational movement of the verse. The emotions are almost mute, but they gather great power because they are under such strict control. The emotions are expressed through Wyatt’s word choices and the metrical variations of the iambic lines. This style surely was a model for Winters of classical rationality, the proper control of the emotions, which he and all classicists prize. The lines in stanza 4 about beliefs turning as often as a die, as oft shown in the eye, gather considerable power after several readings. As Wyatt teaches, I acknowledge that I like all people wander in my endeavors to believe and live according to truth. Wyatt’s poem is an expression of the waywardness of intellectual and moral commitment.

“Varium et Mutabile” reminds me in style and thematic treatment of a number of poems that Winters judged as great. For example, the poem has echoes with “Church Monuments” by George Herbert (I agree with Winters strongly that Herbert’s is one of our greatest poems). In that poem Herbert similarly reaches a rational conclusion about preparing to face the circumstances of life that the poet has perceived -- in the case of Herbert’s poem, knowledge about one’s own death. To me, the Wyatt poem also feels similar in theme to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s two poems on human folly chosen for Winters’s anthology Quest for Reality, “Veteran Sirens” and “The Wandering Jew.” Both of these poems concern aspects of human folly, in particular our determined adherence to foolish ideas. Wyatt is exploring a different aspect of human intellectual waywardness, but I see important similarities in theme and treatment.


[1] I do not have the time to check thoroughly on whether anyone in the Stanford School has written about each of the poems published in Quest for Reality, as I hope you have understood. I do my best to examine the main sources on such matters, such as Grosvenor Powell’s Bibliography of Yvor Winters (which covers essays written to 1982), and to recall from memory. I hope people will send me additional information about Wintersians or classicists I might have missed who have written about the poems I am considering in this series.

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