Feb 25, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 6

“It Was My Choice”
By Thomas Wyatt

It was my choice, it was no chance
That brought my heart in others' hold,
Whereby it hath had sufferance
Longer, perdie, than Reason would;
Since I it bound where it was free,
Methinks, iwis, of right it should
Accepted be.

Accepted be without refuse,
Unless that Fortune have the power
All right of love for to abuse;
For, as they say, one happy hour
May more prevail than right or might;
If fortune then list for to lour,
What vaileth right?

What vaileth right if this be true?
Then trust to chance and go by guess;
Then who so loveth may well go sue
Uncertain Hope for his redress.
Yet some would say assuredly
Thou mayst appeal for thy release
to fantasy.

To fantasy pertains to choose:
All this I know, for fantasy
First unto love did me induce;
But yet I know as steadfastly
That if love have no faster knot,
So nice a choice slips suddenly:
It lasteth not.

It lasteth not that stands by change.
Fancy doth change; fortune is frail;
Both these to please the way is strange.
Therefore me thinks best to prevail:
There is no way that is so just
As truth to lead, through t'other fail,
And thereto trust.


in other's hold = under the rule of another

sufferance = suffering

perdie = par Dieu (by God)

than reason would = than is reasonable

I wis (or iwis) = surely

For as they say etc. - The meaning of these three lines seems to be "For, as it is said, an hour of good fortune is worth more than all the rights and obligations in the world. Hence when fortune is bad (lours) one's rights count for nothing."

go by guess = play it by ear

So nice a choice = so delicate and whimsical a choice (of lover), i.e. one that
is based only on fantasy

the way is strange = the means (of satisfying both fortune and fancy) is irrational and fickle

As truth to lead = as to lead by truth

thereto = in addition


“It was my choice” is seldom found in anthologies and can be hard to find. Winters drew more attention to this poem than any critic or scholar ever has, that I am aware of. He appears to have judged it a great poem, one of the finest ever composed in the English language, though his views are by no means certain. It is one of those judgments that when Winters was alive seemed and still seems a little perverse. Every other expert or scholar has missed it. How could that have been or still be so? If it is indeed great, critics and scholars would not have missed it to that degree, would they? (These questions come up time and again, like bells tolling, in any consideration of Winters’s career.) Yet it is one of those poems that is so expertly written that it can markedly increase your confidence in Yvor Winters’s judgment. For it was he who found it and properly discerned its excellence. Rather than thinking him perverse, you might, like me, think him brilliant for championing this poem. If his system yields judgments like this, your reasoning might go -- as mine has gone -- he must have known something other critics do not, had skills that others do not possess.

Winters discussed this poem a couple times in his writings. But he did not discuss it early, not even in the early essay “The 16th Century Lyric in England,” which was published in Poetry in 1939. This became his single most influential essay, I and many others believe. Judging from all his writings, I believe that he considered this a great poem, one of the summit works in English poetic literature. Yet he never clearly stated his specific reasons. His brief discussion of the poem came late in his career, in his extensive revision and expansion of the “16th Century Lyric” essay, which was published 28 years later as the first chapter in his final book, Forms of Discovery, and entitled “Aspects of Poetry in the English Renaissance.” My informed guess is that Winters considered this poem to be a supreme example of a rational statement under precise emotional control, which was the classical ideal that he strove to foster in his own work and in literary culture in general. The poem certainly exhibits a rational structure. It moves from proposition to proposition, in an obviously logical and rhetorical manner. Winters is clear that he thought the final stanza raised the poem to a level of profundity and greatness.

In the “Aspects” essays, he pointed to a couple lines that he considered especially important and well composed. The first line was one:

It was my choice, it was no chance....

This line struck him, it appears, as a powerful example of the aphoristic power of poetry, the summary statement charged with deep, general meaning. The other line is the second line of the third stanza:

Then trust to chance and go by guess;...

Winters apparently believed that this line carries an intellectual profundity and a sharp, condensed moral import of the kind that Winters valued very highly. As a meditation on the morality of making a decision of commitment in courtship (putting aside the specific circumstances found in the poem), the poem in its movement to these lines, and toward the powerful final stanza, becomes a weighty and insightful meditation on morality and its relations to truth, chance, and desire.

Some scholars have thought of “It was my choice” as probably written as a song for lute accompaniment. One can hardly imagine this densely argued, metrically complex poem working well as a song. It is often seen as a companion piece to the more familiar song “Blame not my lute,” which we have considered earlier in this series. It plays on many of the conventional courtly themes of early Renaissance poetry in England, themes that were prevalent across European high culture. The persona, a young lover wooing a mistress who, it seems, has first accepted and then rejected him, faces the continuing rejection of his love. He tries to persuade her to favor his suit with a logical argument and raises his reflections, as Winters believed and as seems quite evident, to a much higher plane of moral thought.

Finally, I must take note that John Fraser chose not to include this poem in his quasi-Wintersian New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing off and on. Fraser offers no explanation for his decision. I think the exclusion a mistake, however we might interpret the purpose of that book -- which I am still not sure of. (No one is pressing me for an examination of Fraser’s Preface, so I will let that broad, tangled subject wait for later study.)


There are not many poems like this in all English literature -- in any literature, in fact. I have run across few poems that resemble it, a love poem that considers love and courtship it as a matter of logical moral inquiry. Perhaps only Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” in English approximates the structure, though Marvel’s poem is much more playful. (I would be glad to be reminded of other similar poems from my readers.) We have come so far in modern literature from poetry that is written in any manner like this that it is almost impossible to believe that poetry like this could be written again. Think of even the finest work of the Wintersian classicists. Very little of the poetry they have written has this linear style or takes this kind of baldly logical approach to human experience. Only the work of J.V. Cunningham seems to be truly comparable. (Yet, I hasten to note, there have been several interesting overtly logical poems similar in manner that have been written in response to Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress,” such as Archibald MacLeish’s “To You, Andrew Marvel.” Such poems have shown that some modern poets can think like a classicist, even with heavy modern irony, when they have a mind to.)

My judgment is that the poem is one of the greats of our language, but has several small, peculiar faults that damage it. Clearly, the premise that leads the poet into his examination of reason and truth is shaky -- that anyone is obliged to return love and intimate allegiance to another just because the other desires the same of her or him. Winters mentions this fault, but I believe it to be more serious than he does, though not ruinous. Also, the poem takes its persona, the speaker, to be of stronger character than is creditable. That the speaker of this poem is in some sense above fantasy or chance shows Wyatt to be distinctly unaware of his own predilections and limitations as a man. These two faults weaken the poem, though I still consider it very fine work, as my rating is intended to show. But I have little difficulty saying that it is a beautiful exploration of a broad human experience, expertly rendered and profoundly thought. It calls us to a life of intellectual meditation, a posture of great value to life. The poem exhibits supreme craft -- certainly it is one of the most skilled poems in the history of English.

Nonetheless, the profound themes are treated very generally. We gain little from it that could help us live day to day other than to inspire us to set aside fancy and fortune as motives for our actions and seek truth alone. I have known the poem for a very long time and consider it worth the study of a lifetime.


As an exhortation to leading one’s life by reason and shunning fantasy and fancy, the poem is a profound and moving statement. But it can only go so far to help us fathom and properly address the specific issues and decisions we face in our personal lives. For we sense, nowadays, that we are not quite free to follow reason and truth as faithfully as we might hope -- and even not quite fully able to discern where truth lies or what reason might be urging us to follow. Our powers of choice are not wholly free, most of us accept nowadays. We are not fully in control of our choices. Those are commonplaces in our postmodern times, which seem vastly truer than they ever could have seemed to Thomas Wyatt. Chance is one powerful external force in our lives. But there are other external AND internal forces as well that Wyatt was unaware of or did not credit: genetics, environment, past experiences, and more. It is good to be called to commit oneself to living according to reason, to the truth, but we always face much work in discovering where reason is properly leading us, choice to choice and day to day.

Concerning the issues of choice and chance, I have enjoyed studying “The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website,” a strong and challenging collection of essays edited by the philosopher Ted Honderich. The site has many writings on the philosophical question of freedom and determinism, and the complex modern theories of compatibilism and incompatibilism, and the implications of various views on these abstruse matters:


Judging generally from the writings on Honderich’s fascinating site and elsewhere, I believe that determinism has become widely accepted among philosophers, and that near-total determinism has become popularly believed among the generally educated. (A sizable number of thinkers, judging from my reading, still hold out a small portion of life from complete submission to external and internal forces that are beyond a person’s direct control.) What does this mean to Wyatt’s exhortation? The question of how free we might be can haunt us, much more than it did the writers and thinkers of the English Renaissance -- though some of them struggled with it as well in other ways. For a very recent example of how it troubles and fascinates us, consider the American film that plays with an idea of fate and chance and choice, No Country for Old Men, directed by the Coen brothers (winner of the Academy Award last night). I do not consider this a good film, but it is pertinent to my discussion here in that a killer twice flips a coin to see whether someone will live or die.

Even more bothersome on these matters, the opening line of the poem, “It was my choice, it was no chance,” seems slightly facile. For even in Wyatt’s age it was recognized that courtship, sexual desire (passion), and love were somehow outside the complete control of a person experiencing them. It seems mildly foolish for Wyatt or his persona to claim that, unconstrained by any internal or external forces, he chose freely to desire and court the fictional woman of the poem. But we know that we do not fully or even mostly control our desires in many areas of life, though perhaps in some cases we do seek to and sometimes gain a measure of control over them. This is a fascinating subject worth pondering through this poem.

Further, Wyatt claims that “Fancy doth change; fortune is frail....” His case is that fancy and fortune are uncertain and, therefore, untrustworthy. They don’t last. They wander and waver. They’re downright fickle. So, Wyatt concludes, trust to truth, to reason. Sounds good. But reason and truth waver as well, do they not? Deciding how truth shall lead is often no less difficult and uncertain than acting upon fancies or trusting to the turns of fortune’s wheel. Reason can be fickle, too. My views on many momentous issues have changed dramatically over my lifetime. I was once a “born-again” Christian but left that faith, coming to believe it as doctrinally false (though mythically compelling in many ways). If we should distrust fancy and fortune because they do not endure and waver, then what better reason do we have to trust to “truth,” that star we believe to be fixed but that wanders in our sight and often seems to guide lonely barks far out on the sea so very differently? This issue, in my judgment, is one of the crucial challenges facing any classical conception of life and art.

To conclude, this poem has considerable emotional power, in the very expression of its moral concepts. This kind of writing was what Winters was talking about when he wrote of the power of meter and diction to deliver and adjust the emotion. It is difficult to describe the overall effect, as Winters himself said. I will surely return in time to try to define it more rigorously. Of course, all views on these matters are welcome.


Anonymous said...

Feel free to post some of your poems on my website I started. It seems to me you have quite the writing talent. Peace

Rhapsodysinger said...

Brilliant work you are doing here...I want to post this article in full in my literature blog and then take it up from there...if it is alright with you, then do please get back to me...the poem just zapped me; especially the last part. Thanks.

Ben Kilpela said...

rhapsodysinger: Sure, it's all right. Just let me know when you post something so I can refer readers to your comments.

Ben Kilpela