Mar 4, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Conclusions on Thomas Wyatt’s Poetry

We have finished considering each of the six poems by Thomas Wyatt that Yvor Winters chose for Quest for Reality (which reprints the poems in chronological order). Before moving on to the next poem in the “Winters Canon,” it’s a good time to ask whether we can reach any conclusions about Wyatt’s work? More broadly, can we reach any early conclusions about this study of the Winters Canon?

First, it is striking how little very little poetry or criticism the artworks of Thomas Wyatt appears to have inspired among those with interests in Yvor Winters. None of the poetry from the past few decades that I know works with or out from the methods Wyatt employed. Not even Winters seems to have built out from Wyatt’s favored techniques. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, only J.V. Cunningham in the modern age has tried to use a plainly and overtly logical manner in modern poetry, though Cunningham’s methods betray little influence from Wyatt. It might be time for renewed efforts to study, learn from, and re-employ the techniques of Thomas Wyatt.

Second, Wintersian critics, if there truly are any, have not concerned themselves with Wyatt at all since Yvor Winters championed his work during his career. I wonder why this is. There is much to discuss, as I believe I showed in some of my personal reflections on the six Wyatt poems that Winters chose for the his canon. And there is much more in Wyatt’s classical body of work worth careful study. It appears, however, that Wyatt has not “endured” even among those tempted to agree with Winters that he wrote great poetry. Wyatt has been left to scholars. He doesn’t seem to have any influence or significance any longer. Indeed, his work doesn’t seem to have had influence for a long, long time. This is far from true of some other lyric poets from his era, generally speaking. Shakespeare is one obvious example, Donne the other. There is no reason why Thomas Wyatt’s poetry could not have drawn the same level of attention and generate the same personal interest that Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence draws. My guess is that Wyatt simply hasn’t inspired enough poets, critics, general readers, or even scholars in such a way as to generate some kind of momentum that would bring him a wider readership. Why is that so? That’s a matter for reflection and discussion.

The logical method, of course, is very, very little used in our times. Yet if you are drawn to and see the great value in poetry that is written in an overtly logical manner, J.V. Cunningham’s essay “Logic and Lyric” can help you study some of the possibilities of that kind of poetry. The essay can be found in Cunningham’s truly great critical collection Tradition and Poetic Structure: Essays in Literary History and Criticism. After briefly and generally laying out Romantic ideas about literary structure, which routed logical poetry from the field as much as 200 years ago, Cunningham studies a fine poem that exhibits such a structure:

But may the chain of propositions and reasonings [in a poem] be not merely plausible and specious but even sufficiently just and exact? May the poem be not merely subject to logical analysis but logical in form? May, to return to our point, the subject and structure of a poem be conceived and expressed syllogistically? Anyone at all acquainted with modern criticism and the poems that are currently in fashion will think in this connection of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” The apparent structure of that poem is an argumentative syllogism, explicitly stated. "Had we but world enough and time," the poet says, “This coyness, lady, were no crime....”

Later, at the conclusion of the essay, Cunningham suggests that the logical method might be much more valuable than recognized in our times. Consider these comments on Thomas Nashe’s “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss” from Summer’s Last Will and Testament:

The experience of [Nashe’s] poem is the experience of syllogistic thinking with its consequences for feeling, attitude, and action. It is a mode of experience that the Renaissance practiced and cherished, and expressed with power, dignity, and precision. It is a poetical experience and a logical one, and it is both at once.

Though Cunningham doesn’t quite say so in this essay, he implies quite strongly, quite obviously, that the time was ripe (30 years ago) for some poets to adopt overtly logical methods once again, even to the point of poetic syllogisms.

On the broader question, I have received only one comment about any of Wyatt’s poems, and that was only a comment saying that someone would comment elsewhere on one Wyatt’s poems. I do not know how many people are reading this blog. It is probably not many. I know very little about how anyone perceives this blog. I do not have any answer why Wyatt has generated no comment, other than that less than a handful of people are reading these posts.

And so we move on in the Winters Canon from Thomas Wyatt to one poem by Thomas Lord Vaux, Winters’s next selection in Quest. I will get to that soon.

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