Apr 23, 2008

Roundup 2

1. John Milton turns 400:

Born in 1608, Milton is a difficult case for Wintersians. Winters slowly downgraded his canonical short poetry decade by decade. Late in his career, Winters even severely downgraded his estimation of Paradise Lost (and all epic poetry, for that matter) in the essay that vexed not a few critics in its day, “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.” At the last, he tried to poke some even larger holes in the standing of Milton’s short poems, including the much praised, beloved, and widely taught “Lycidas” (the discussion occurs in Forms of Discovery, published in 1967, Winters’s last book). Winters’s main complaint about Paradise Lost was that the style was far too lofty for the material. For this reason, he judged that the emotions evoked are inappropriate to much of the conceptual subject matter, the paraphraseable content, to employ the still-useful term common among the New Critics. I’ve been thinking about that charge against Paradise Lost for 30 years, and it seems about right to me. O the heresy of it! Here’s what’s interesting: no Wintersian scholar or defender of Winters has endeavored to reassess Winters’s judgment of Milton at any length to determine whether and how much Winters might have been right, first about Milton’s epic and second about the short poems. Further, no Wintersian ever has hinted that he or she might agree with Winters.

But is this unusual? Consider the “Problems” essay. It seems to have made even Wintersians intellectually quite uncomfortable, judging from the fact that not a single scholar, critic, or poet has sought to study that essay sympathetically (an approach which, as I imply, I think it deserves). Yet Winters was hardly uniformly or severely negative about Paradise Lost. Winters made a comment in the “Problems” essay that he believed that certain sections of the epic should be judged great lyric poetry. Winters mentioned Book XI as containing several passages of great poetry. (The etching, by Gustave Dore, is of Adam and Eve learning from Gabriel.) But, like all else concerning Winters’s judgments on Milton, no one has followed up on that fascinating suggestion and tried to determine which sections might be judged so highly. Winters chose none of Milton’s verse for the Winters Canon. The time has been ripe for 50 years and more for someone with a classical bent to reassess Milton’s short poetry, his epic, and his poetic dramas in light of Winters’s judgments of them.


2. A new book on Romanticism in Germany:

The subtitle tells us what the author takes to be the main doctrine of early German Romanticism, “The Enchantment of the World.” This new book is the work of the German scholar Rüdiger Safranski. I have read a couple reviews, which find the book an exciting account of a pivotal period in German intellectual history. One review, from Ulrich Greiner, can be found on line at:


Greiner’s review offers a number of insights, such as this one on Romanticism’s desire to break down all inhibitions:

According to [Isaiah] Berlin, in the subjectivity of its aesthetic imagination and the joy in ironic play, Romanticism allowed for an uninhibited profundity, and a subversion of the conventional moral order. [Eric] Voegelin makes a similar argument, but identifies the subverted order as 'theomorph' and extends the criticism of subjectivity to accuse Romanticism of deifying its subject.

Such ideas, which the book appears to cover thoroughly, are germane to the study of Yvor Winters for two reasons. First, that phrase “uninhibited profundity” suggests the course that Romanticism would take on the continent and in the new United States, a course which is still being pushed farther into the hinterlands. Of course I don’t know what that phrase means to Safranski yet, not having read his book, but it points to the ol’ Romantic objection to classicism, that it is somehow inhibiting, somehow unable to reach the heights and depths of emotion or experience. Wintersians say, Nonsense.

Second, the “subversion of the moral order,” as is illustrated daily in our culture, continues to be a central objective of Romantic artists and thinkers, an objective which arose partly from and within Romanticism. By the way, Eric Vogelin was the object of much study in the Southern Review, Second Series, while it was under the editorship of Donald Stanford, one-time student of Winters and perhaps his greatest adherent. Winters focused on literary matters when discussing Romanticism, but his ideas about the movement are germane to Vogelin’s discussion of deification.

So what was Romanticism? According to Safranski, it was, among other things, an "extension of religion by aesthetic means.” To which he adds, “One could also say, a surpassing of religion through the release of the powers of imagination, which reinvented the world in a playful way.” Under the enduringly powerful sway of Romanticism, such ideas common to conceptions of art to this day, which, please note, I discuss in oblique ways in items 5 and 6 of this roundup. Yvor Winters, however, focused almost wholly on Romanticism’s emphasis on the power of art to elicit emotion. Yet the spirituality of the movement was important to those powers and to the vast influences it has had on our general culture and literary culture. These notions shaped the way in which modern poetry and fiction developed in momentous ways, in the work of Mallarme to Pound to Williams to Stevens to Joyce to many, many more and on to many writers of the present. Safranski’s book looks as though it could help us a great deal in enriching Winters’s understanding of Romanticism.

Romanticism remains as powerful today as it was 150 years ago and more. And it was central to the critical thought of Yvor Winters, though he never discussed the European roots of the movement. I think this book might be well worth studying closely.


3. Graff’s work re-emerges:

Professing Literature, Gerald Graff’s 1988 history of American academic criticism, has drawn renewed attention lately, even garnering an overview in The Nation, which will be easy to find with a search engine. The occasion is the book’s 20th anniversary, though I must say I was surprised that this book was deserving of such notice. It was the object of some discussion back in the ‘80s, yes, but it hardly rocked the literary world. The book was once considered the standard history of the profession of American literary studies. It begins its story back in America’s colonial days and moves quickly forward, unearthing along the way lots of dimly-remembered ideas and debates that created the literature department as, roughly, it has become today. Of course, Yvor Winters’s career was part of this history, and Graff, who was once Winters’s student at Stanford in the ‘60s, writes of Winters here and there in the book. It’s an enjoyable story, sometimes even funny, as Graff tells it. Graff shows that the heated conflicts of the recent so-called culture wars are similar to controversies over the teaching of literature that began in the 19th century.

I have not read Graff’s new preface yet, but he supposedly addresses many of the challenging arguments that have been made against his work since 1988. Some have said that Professing Literature remains an essential history of literary pedagogy and a critical classic. How Winters fits in with the development of American literary studies, how his ideas might help us break through the impasses that have been created, are certainly matters for further study, even though Graff gives no weight to Winters’s views in the present ideological battles of the day. I believe, nonetheless, that those views are profoundly germane and could be highly productive in improving the course of literature and literary study in our time. No critic or scholar sympathetic to Winters to any degree has sought to use Winters’s ideas to study such matters. The time has come for that.

I have been meaning to get to Graff more broadly on this blog, but I have not yet found time to examine some of his recent writings. But Professing Literature might deserve a close look in the near future.


4. The Hyper Texts: http://thehypertexts.com/

Have you heard of this web site (rather poorly named in my opinion), which once a month publishes selections of modern formalist poetry and essays on formalist poetry of various kinds? I’ve been following it for a time and have made some discoveries of particularly well-turned poetry. I hope I can post some reviews of the poets who are being published on the Hyper Texts. A monthly issue of poems and articles usually highlights the work of one or two recent poets, including a featured poet called the “Spotlight Poet.” Check the site out. I think you’ll find some of the poetry worth your time. For example, I was deeply moved by the second poem, a sharp and powerful sonnet from Spotlight poet Judith Werner “Why I Do Not Write Sonnets” in the February 2008 issue, which appears on the web only:

When to my meditations over art’s
place I summon up tsunamis from the news,
I sigh at nature’s—and the human heart’s—
evils that find no help and no excuse.
Then I despair of using brush or pen,
which just reflect cosmic chaos unfurled:
my inner ugliness mirrored again
in death and entropy, body and world.
Much easier to make ears deaf, eyes blind
with hate, love, sex, fame, wealth, pursuit of power
flickering on a screen than face the mind’s
need for order in grief’s helpless hour;
But when I see things formed and elegant,
I pick up my pen, I suffer, I relent.

Copyright, Judith Werner

In March, Joseph Salemi, the author of some sharp, satirical poems, was the poet in the Hyper Text Spotlight. Take a look at the poem on modern sexuality entitled “The Missionary's Position” to see a fine example of his work. He was followed as poet in the spotlight in April by Charles Martin, a frequent and skillful translator of the ancient Romans. He also offered a poem on modern sexuality that is worth your time: "Victoria's Secret." Let me know what you think of these poem or anything else you discover on the Hyper Texts.


5. Describing a memory of the colors of paving stones:

I found beneficial and enjoyable a recent essay by Craig Raine, “Look Back in Wonder,” in the Guardian (U.K.) on the work of writers to remember as fully, as accurately, and as meaningfully as possible. I don’t have the address to hand, but I would encourage you to look for the essay using a search engine. Raine claims that there is great meaning and pleasure for readers in seeing how authors endeavor to remember through their novels and stories and poems, even in trying to “resurrect” experience in some deep sense in the recording and transforming of memories into literary art. There is little doubt that this is one of the high, though secondary, purposes of literature. Remembering is not what Winters called its “final cause” (a concept which I have discussed at length recently on this blog).

Raine gets a little overheated about Proust’s exhibitions of memory: “I suggest that the pleasure, the joy really experienced by Marcel, and by the rest of us, is bound up with the sensation of imminence, suspense and arrival -- common to sex and simile.” Well, my O my! I can just hear myself saying tonight: “Honey, I can do without the sex tonight; I had a big helping of the ol' simile down at the library.” Though some of Raine's comments are quite overeager, I see his underlying point. To wrest important, telling details from the helter-skelter of private experience is important work for art, though Raine doesn’t seem to understand the difference between experience and art’s descriptions of experience -- that is, the differences between text and gloss, as J.V. Cunningham, longtime friend of Yvor Winters, so brilliantly explored in his poetry and criticism. Raine appears to have no notion of how a reader takes pleasure from an author’s recounting of memories. He doesn’t even realize, it seems, that our finest literary artworks achieve much, much more than the restoration of past experiences, as Yvor Winters argued forcefully in several seminal essays (which, I have said time and again, have received too little attention). Works of art achieve more than resurrected memories, but true understanding and precise emotional fitness, as Winters aptly and powerfully theorized. Still, Raine’s essay is worth reading -- in tandem with a knowledge of Winters’s critical principles.


6. Adam Kirsch in Poetry on Heidegger and his conception of art.

It is with unease that I recommend Kirsch’s short essay on Heidegger that came out in Poetry in January of this year. I would like to have the time to examine the piece in detail, but there is simply too much else to do. The essay gives you a clear sense of where the claptrap about poets seeing things “in themselves” has come from, or at least one of its many sources, Heidegger (though all such aesthetic theorists are probably merely riding the same swift and powerful current of Romanticism). Emily Dickinson stood in thrall at times to this conception of poetry:

Eden is that old-fashioned House
We dwell in every day
Without suspecting our abode
Until we drive away.

Well, yes and no. It hasn’t quite been Eden, and it hasn’t been Eden at all for many, many millions (though we of such riches in the West can hardly complain). This quatrain expresses Kirsch’s sense of Heidegger’s conception of art, which he apparently approves strongly. This leads to works of art that Kirsch calls the “poetry of earth,” the finding of extraordinariness in the ordinary, a notion that has become a rampant cliché of our times. How lost our writers, especially our poets, have become in such fancies. Take a look at my earlier comments on Adrienne Rich on this puerile take on art. It will take a long time to undo, simply put, all the damage that continues to be done under their mesmerizing sway. In any case, I think Kirsch’s discussion is worth studying for the purpose of refining the classical ideas and ideals that stand in opposition to these Romantic notions.

Apr 17, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 7

Thomas, Lord Vaux (1510-1556)

When all is done and said, in the end thus shall you find,
He most of all doth bathe in bliss that hath a quiet mind;
And, clear from worldly cares, to deem can be content
The sweetest time in all his life in thinking to be spent.

The body subject is to fickle Fortune's power,
And to a million of mishaps is casual every hour;
And death in time doth change it to a clod of clay;
Whenas the mind, which is divine, runs never to decay.

Companion none is like unto the mind alone,
For many have been harmed by speech; through thinking, few or none.
Fear oftentimes restraineth words, but makes not thoughts to cease;
And he speaks best that hath the skill when for to hold his peace.

Our wealth leaves us at death, our kinsmen at the grave,
But virtues of the mind unto the heavens with us we have.
Wherefore, for virtue's sake, I can be well content
The sweetest time of all my life to deem in thinking spent.


Winters discussed this poem only once, and only very briefly, in his career. The discussion occurs in Forms of Discovery, his last book, which concerned his radical history of English poetry. We can only guess at how highly he judged the poem and what he exactly he thought about it. My sense of things, overall, is that he thought this an exemplary poem, though perhaps not one of the very greatest of the language.

The poem is yet another written during the Renaissance about disillusionment with the world and its titivations. The speaker tells us that all the pleasurable trimmings of this world fail to last or to pay off well in the long run. But thinking provides help, comfort, and joy through all of life and into eternity. This draws on the stoic conception of life, which Winters was drawn to and highly approved. I have noticed that the poem is often quoted on “inspirational” web sites of various kinds as a comment on the supreme value of reflection. In such contexts, the poem becomes a little trite.

I note that John Fraser omits this and all of Lord Vaux’s work from his quasi-Wintersian anthology A New Book of Verse. Fraser offers no comment on this specific matter, even though Fraser told me in correspondence that one of the chief purposes of that online book was to show that Winters recommended many more poems than he anthologized in Quest for Reality. For this reason as well, it is even odder that Fraser excluded this poem in light of Winters’s short list of well-struck poems written by Lord Vaux in his famed 1939 essay on the 16th-century lyric.

Finally, the poem has received almost no critical discussion of any sort that I have been able to discover, not from Wintersians nor from scholars and critics of any sort. What does this lack of attention indicate, that Winters’s regard for the poem has not been seconded by a single critic or poet, not even by a man or woman sympathetic to his views and aims? I have been pondering that, but I have reached no conclusions yet. This issue keeps coming up, though, during this tour of the Winters Canon, as you might have noticed as I worked my way through the poems of Thomas Wyatt.

BEN KILPELA’S EVALUATION: 3 stars, solid work.

This is a sharp, beautifully rendered classical statement. It has a few mild clichés that damage it slightly. But it is controlled, restrained, emotionally true and proper. Also, it displays a strong commitment to the conceptual nature of poetic statement. Yet though the theme is certainly important, Vaux does not explore his subject matter deeply enough, all in all.


I have known this poem for a long time, but it has never played any large role in my contemplative life. There simply isn’t much in it, despite the elegance and distinction of the writing. The poem stands as a model of clear, controlled, graceful statement, but it has, simply put, little conceptual depth.

The problem might be that the poem is too abstract, too generalized, however much Winters praised and I still applaud crisp, insightful generalization as a foundation of poetic discourse. For example, from the poem we gain no insight into what having a “quiet mind” might mean. Yet the phrase feels flush with meaning ready to be coaxed to the light. Also, we no longer have the Vaux’s sturdy, cheery confidence that thinking alone can help and comfort us as nothing else in our lives. For thinking can be, at troubling times, as untrustworthy as riches or physical ability. Thought can be discouragingly, frighteningly fickle. Thought can lead, often, to “disquiet,” as J.V. Cunningham wrote of in his great epigram “In whose will is our peace.” (That poem is part of the Winters Canon, but we have more than 160 poems to go before I reach it.) By the by, I have written a book on a topic that, roughly, relates to this subject, A Journal on Doubt, which directly concerns my struggles with a life of thought that gave rise to doubts of the Christian faith to which I once adhered (the book is available my web site).

Further, we sometimes discover to our horror that our minds and thoughts are subject to Fortune as well. As much damage as postmodernism has wrought in our culture and in our philosophy, it has helped us to see that we cannot change our minds as easily as we like to believe -- or that we can find our minds changing without our bidding. Such revelations are truly spiritually, psychically disturbing, despite those blithe postmodernists who seem not the least troubled that all their thoughts are subject to whims that have no discoverable, controllable source or power. Thinking can also lead us astray from virtue (witness, to consider one example among millions, our nation’s long embrace of slavery) and from contentment (witness those who struggle to address the evil acts their own thoughts goad them into carrying out). Thinking can decay, too. And it can be overrun by fears, as often as the body at times. Vaux does not not appear to have thought through his subject carefully enough.

Yet there is a good deal to ponder in this poem. It is well struck, superbly composed. But its conception of the life of reflection is perhaps not as satisfying or re-assuring as its author hoped long ago.

Apr 4, 2008

The New Criterion Digs into Poetry Again

Quick Note:

The New Criterion has come out with its annual poetry issue, which has become a regular event, perhaps the only one of its kind in general publishing. The issue appears to offer a number of strong essays and some compelling poetry, particularly from Bill Coyle (winner of the journal’s 2008 poetry prize). One of the essays, by New Formalist David Yezzi (whom I have written about several times on this blog), is a review of that new anthology of the New Critics, Praising It New, which Swallow Press released a couple weeks ago. I discussed that book briefly a couple months ago, if you’d care to look up my preliminary comments. Yezzi offers a few sharp and intelligent paragraphs on Yvor Winters’s contribution to the anthology, the essay “Preliminary Problems,” which is a very important piece, one which I summarized in my post about the anthology. Yezzi takes very seriously Winters’s ideas about the control and proper adjustment of the emotions, and I hail Yezzi’s take and emphasis on this matter, as he tries, with acumen and sympathy, to cultivate Winters’s theories for a new generation.

But the issue includes a lot more. There is a piece on Walter de la Mare that looks beneficial. Winters did not have much to say about de la Mare’s work, so far as I know. Perhaps he needs a reconsideration from Wintersian classicists. There is, furthermore, a piece on Rudyard Kipling, a poet whose reputation was never high and has fallen far, as most everyone who cares knows. It might surprise you that Yvor Winters thought rather highly of Kipling’s poetry (though he did not judge it as great). I find a lot that is highly valuable in the Kipling’s poetry, and I look forward to studying Roger Kimball’s take on him.

There is more in the issue, but any consideration of the various pieces will have to wait until I get a chance to read the issue thoroughly. I will note that William Logan, a favorite critic of mine, is going to try to resurrect the reputation of a 19th-century American poet by the name of John Townsend Trowbridge (who is pictured here). You might want to check out a few pieces of Trowbridge’s at bartleby.com before reading Logan’s attempt at resurrection. I have found Trowbridge’s writing compelling at points, though judging from what I know so far I couldn’t yet put him near to the class of Jones Very (a Winters great) or William Cullen Bryant (a Winters near-great) or even Walter Landor (a strong poet whose work Janet Lewis much admired). I think Winters -– he never mentioned Trowbridge in any writing -- would have judged his poetry to be tainted by Romantic clichés, which I also find a moderately damaging weakness in his artworks. Still, Trowbridge is not a poet to discard blithely. I want to read what Logan has to write.