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.

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