May 29, 2008

A New Study of One of Winters’s Best Poems

It has taken me two years to get around to this brief consideration of a young critic who has embarked on a study of modern poetry, essay by essay, that is, in part, bringing attention back to some of the most significant work of Yvor Winters. It has been a long time since Winters’s poetry has received the kind of careful scrutiny that James Matthew Wilson offers in some of his work. A few of Wilson’s essays have been published in the past couple years in Contemporary Poetry Review, an online journal of growing influence. CPR has published some strong criticism on poets who are writing in traditional form rather than free verse or, Lord preserve us, more prosetry. I haven’t been able to find the time for an extended consideration of James Wilson’s work. So I offer this glance at the Wilson piece that CPR published in 2006 on one of Winters’s great poems, entitled “Classic Readings: Yvor Winters ‘The Slow Pacific Swell’.” Accessible only to subscribers, the essay can be found at: 10/2/2006

The very fact that Wilson pays close attention to this one poem in a long essay is a measure of his regard for it. He believes that “Slow Pacific Swell,” little known or studied as it is, is a poem to be deeply admired because it observes the traditional as it embarks on important poetic innovations. This appears to mean to Wilson the ways in which the formal aspects of the poem relate to its modern themes. (The photo, by the way, is of a swell coming ashore on the Pacific.) For Wilson, the poem is important because it speaks of the “eternal in the evanescent,” which is a difficult, abstract theme that the essay tries to elucidate.

In the essay, Wilson first considers another great Winters poem “To the Holy Spirit.” In Wilson’s mind, “Spirit” stands out as one of the finest balanced expressions of Winters’ constant theme (Wilson thinks it might be limited): the struggle of the human reason to perceive and understand the order we can find in a messy and heartless universe, a theme which also forms “Slow Pacific Swell.” Wilson gives a fair reading of “Spirit,” which elsewhere on the web I have written might be the finest single poem in the English language. In his discussion of this poem, Wilson theorizes that most of his Winters’s poetry explores two “modes” of order, intellectual and formal. Some of Winters’s poems strain to understand how the mind can overcome sensory and psychological limitations to "encounter Being and reality in Truth," which Wilson regards as Thomistic concepts. In other poems, those focused on the cognitive, Winters studies the mind in romantic or irrational states, seeking a proper attainment of a classical or stoic balance.

Wilson admits to being frustrated with Winters in his tight focus on the self -- and he is not alone in this. The focus becomes, for Wilson, monotonous. It does seem so to me as well at times. This monotony, nearly an obsession, is a subject for further study.

Wilson believes that “To the Holy Spirit” and the poems on similar themes express, in sum, Winters’s attitude to reality. He says that they are not experiments in the presentation and judgment of reality itself. I don’t quite fathom the distinction Wilson makes on this point. Winters seems to me to have clearly to have sought a judgment of reality in “Slow Pacific Swell.” I might have to come back to this larger topic at a later time for a closer look.

Wilson next turns to the formal aspects of Winters’s poetry. He opines that poetic formalism is crucial to “Pacific Swell” and its take on reality. Wilson says that the rhyme scheme, heroic couplets (of all things), contributes a “virtuous poetic order,” what he calls “good making.” For Wilson, the opposite of rhyme, it seems, or of poetic form in general, is the chaos of unmaking that “verges on prolific non-existence.” This is another difficult phrase, both in and out of context. I’m not certain Wilson explains well enough what he means here, but a study of this matter will have to wait. Yet Wilson states clearly his belief that Winters’s poem deserves our admiration for the virtuosity and variety of its strong heroic couplets, an opinion with which I concur wholeheartedly.

The conceptual structure of “The Slow Pacific Swell” is masterly and crucial, Wilson next claims. Winters presents us with a quasi-allegory, which Wilson discusses at length. He says that the poem’s symbol gradually form a parable. Gradually, readers become uncertain whether the poet is speaking of the literal Pacific, as in the first stanza, or of the effects of cruel nature on the struggling intellects of men and women. But there is, in my view, little uncertainty, as Wilson also appears to see. It is both: the coastal scene described informs the parable as symbols. This conception of the poem is close to Winters’s own discussion of it in one of his letters (the letters were published just eight years ago). In 1958 Winters wrote to Allen Tate at length about the poem and its symbolism:

The ocean throughout this poem is the familiar symbol of the eternal non-human and sub-human of the universe. It is seen from three points of view, and these are arranged in a properly rational order: first the remote view from the hill-top and childhood; send the immediate view of semi-immersion in the thing itself; finally from the relatively mature view of accustomed and occasional contemplation.

In the same paragraph Winters compares his use of symbols to Donne’s much more famous use of them in a poem Winters often discussed:

Here as in [my poem “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight”], the sensory details CONTAIN the theme, but they are not illustrations or ornaments. [John] Donne’s gold and compasses [in the Elizabethan poem “A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning”] are more quotable than any of my details: that is, they are more easily detachable. This is because they are, in a sense, attached, they are ornaments -- extremely good ornaments, but ornaments.

There is a message of sorts to the theme embodied in these symbols, Wilson says. Winters, he says, is telling us that reason, wherever it may take us, is our “chief resource” and cannot, should not, be set aside even when we come to those watery margins that can flood over it. The shore of the Pacific stands for the margins of human experience. Reason not only corrects and validates, but moves beyond the physical senses. Wilson claims that “The Slow Pacific Swell,” surprisingly to him, succeeds not at adapting the heroic couplet to the modern lyric (if the poem may be called it a lyric at all), but rather stands alongside other modernist allegories, of which he names several.

In summary, Wilson believes that the careful deployment of allegory and controlled formal structure in “The Slow Pacific Swell,” as a sonnet sequence written in heroic couplets, makes the poem one of “almost unsurpassed mastery and beauty.” This is a bold, atypical claim with which I wholly agree and which needs badly to be heard. But, as Wilson says, the poem is masterly and beautiful because of its intellectual purpose, to see what constrains and limits the mind, as well as what constrains poetic form itself.

I hope you’ll search out this and other essays by James Matthew Wilson. I hope to give this and him closer study in the months ahead.

May 16, 2008

Rankings, Ratings, Voters, and MVPs Too

I have yet to generate much comment or discussion on this blog, but I have soldiered on ruminating on my passions and concerns as they relate to the art and thought of Yvor Winters. One of the foundations of my understanding of Yvor Winters as both critic and poet is his principle of evaluation, which means, as it meant in Winters’s practice, identifying the best poems ever written. As I have mentioned several times in the past two years that I’ve been keeping this blog, this subject has not held much interest for scholars who study Winters and admire his art or are sympathetic to his theories to some significant degree. As Robert Barth once pointed out to me (he’s the editor of Winters’s selected letters, a recent edition of his poetry, and a recent edition of Janet Lewis’s poetry), Winters’s ideas about evaluation have much more often drawn the scornful attention of scholars who think little of his poetry and are largely hostile to his critical ideas.

In our culture, as probably everyone knows, the work of rating and ranking and making best-of and top-ten lists has become a common practice in almost all areas of human endeavor, though it is widely practiced especially in the arts and humanities -- and sports. Have ratings and lists and the like become a joke? Has the practice of rating works of literature been badly tainted because ranking and rating is so prevalent in sports and so many other areas? Perhaps. Yet many are the “credible” scholars who engage in making rankings and best-of lists of artworks, such as Harold Bloom, to consider just one example among dozens. Yet, in light of the scarcity of trustworthy ratings, the plethora of silly lists, and the depth and breadth of disagreement among all the lists, Yvor Winters’s practice of evaluation, of choosing the best and greatest, feels rather cheap -- a forerunner of the tiresome ranking craze that grows ever crazier by the year.

With such notions in mind, I had a good laugh about a recent Washington Post article, “Top 10 Dumbest Sports Trends” (April 17, 2008). Its #1 trend was: “meaningless rankings, power polls, and ‘MVP races.’” The author of this lighthearted, satirical piece is Neal Pollack, and I believe you can find it easily enough online. Pollack’s #1 dumb trend focuses in on the recent practice of making lists of pro athletes who might qualify for a top award in one league or another. This new practice of tracking an evaluation that will be made by vote in some time to come has really become silly because of the hundreds of sports articles over the last winter concerning who was supposedly “leading” the supposed “race” to the MVP in pro basketball, as Pollack discusses:

Sportswriters and pundits... are treating the MVP race with the gravitas of a presidential election. That's because they make up the Electoral College. When they're debating who's going to win the award, they're not really talking about who they think the best player is; they're talking about whom they should pick as the best player. It's the ultimate circle-jerk of sports-guy self-regard.

I hope that my focus on evaluation in interpreting Yvor Winters’s criticism, and even his poetry, is not a matter of bogus, pretentious gravitas. I am trying hard not simply to draw attention to myself by debating with myself. I have loved and benefited greatly from Winters’s work in large part because he chose to say which works of art he thought are truly great, nearly perfect, in sharply specific terms -- and, insightfully and movingly, why he thought so. This is a serious business in my eyes. I hope such work is of much greater implication all the hype surrounding the NBA MVP “race.” I hope the ratings hype in other venues does not taint Winters’s theories and practice of evaluation, or the very idea of evaluation.

Yet, it appears, this subject makes even scholars sympathetic to Winters very, very uncomfortable, almost queasy. For they can’t seem even to bring themselves even to talk about Winters and evaluation, to defend his ideas, alter them, improve them, or discard them. I think evaluation, the work of rating and the justifications of ratings, is central to the study of Winters and central to the future of literature -– or at least of classical literature in our time. For how can we know what to pay attention to, how can we recognize excellence and foster future excellence, how can we properly judge that which is new or unfamiliar or even experimental, unless we know what is great and why it is great? I strive, full of hope, to keep the study of this broad subject matter from becoming a matter of icky, pretentious self-regard.

The business of attention is, after all, crucial. Here in Michigan, from where I write, some state agency has embarked on an effort to commemorate and publicize Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories far and wide because of some anniversary of the stories. This summer there will take place more than 200 events concerning the stories. 200?! I suppose this is partly a good thing, since it encourages reading. But Hemingway’s early stories, weak and almost insipid as they are, are being touted as “masterpieces” across the state. Winters wanted to pay close attention to evaluation because evaluation makes us pay attention. All too often confused evaluations have drawn attention to seriously weak or badly flawed artworks. I have struggled through Hemingway’s sloppy, jejune Nick Adams Stories a couple times, but they are almost worthless in comparison with Janet Lewis’s fine, unpardonably obscure chronicle-novel of a historically prominent family of Michigan’s Sault Sainte Marie, The Invasion, which was first published in 1932 but which has been reissued recently by the MSU Press. I wrote a review of The Invasion for several years ago. Here it is:

“Lovely Portrayal of North Country Indian and Frontier Life,” September 22, 2000, by Ben Kilpela: This book is more a chronicle than a novel, and wonderful it is to see it back in print. Janet Lewis wrote this account, imaginatively elaborated, of one of the most important families in the history of Michigan using the journals of John Johnston, the family patriarch, other family journals and memoirs, and personal interviews with members of the fourth generation Johnstons, whom Lewis knew as a girl. It is a superb read, nonetheless: rapt, poetic at times, historically accurate, elegant, and absorbing. It contains one of the finest depictions of Indian life ever written and certainly offers one of our finest portrayals of the "invasion" of Indian country by the fast encroaching Europeans in the late colonial period. Lewis's style is not for everyone, however. Her writing, as polished as it is elsewhere in her oeuvre, is a tad uneven in this, her first prose work (first published in 1932 by the excellent and now defunct Swallow Press). That's hard for me to say, since I love her novels and have long been one of their leading advocates. The narrative loses momentum and wobbles at times, and some characters are rather poorly sketched. Some scenes appear to be unfinished, dashed off, or ill-conceived. Her descriptive passages are, moreover, very intensely beautiful, almost imagistic. Lewis was a fine poet -- a very fine poet, I should say -- and her bent toward Imagism, as found in the poetry of Ezra Pound and many another leading poet in the first half of the 20th century, deeply influenced her narrative style. I love her passages of description, but I realize that not everyone takes to this sort of lyrical style. To sum things up, the novel is an account of the family of John Johnston, an Irishman who came to the wilderness around incredibly remote and rugged Lake Superior as a trader at the end of the 18th century. He married the daughter of an Ojibway "chief" (her nickname became Neengay), and established himself as one of the community elders in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, which was British at the time of his arrival in 1791, but became American in the War of 1812, an affair which plays a role in the story. Midway through the book, the narrative turns to the next generation of the Johnstons, John and Neengay's children, and later moves on the 20th-century Johnstons. It is astounding how quickly the world of the Indians changed, in less than 100 years, and the invasion that brought this change about is the main theme of Lewis's chronicle. In the opening, we read about John Johnston struggling to survive the winter in a small drafty cabin on the uninhabited western shores of Superior and in the end see the Soo Locks open and the Indians witnessing the once unimaginable event of long steamers coming up the once impassable rapids on the Saint Mary's River and entering Lake Superior. A number of important historical figures come into the account, such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Johnston's son-in-law, who used Neengay's stories to form the tales that Longfellow later used to write "Hiawatha" (a somewhat sad fate for the fascinating myths of the Ojibway), and Lewis Cass, who led an expedition across Superior in 1820 after visiting Johnston's outpost and eventually became the first governor of Michigan. There's plenty more to keep your interest, and the history is mostly accurate, so far as I am able to judge. In The Invasion, you will discover some of the most perceptive writings on the life of the northern Indians and the frontier, as well as explore the meaning of the invasion that forms its theme. I hope you will give Janet Lewis a try.

Perhaps a proper evaluation of both Hemingway’s and Lewis’s works will draw more attention to the works that truly deserve it and truly repay the attention paid. I can only hope.

May 13, 2008

A New Edition of George Gascoigne

I have arrived at the poems of George Gascoigne in my re-examination of the Winters Canon on this blog. I want to pause in that work -- Gascoigne's "Woodmanship" is upcoming -- to note something that I failed to notice several years back, in 2001, to be exact: that a new edition of Gascoigne's poetry was issued by a British publisher and that this new edition of Gascoigne's A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (edited by G.W. Pigman) was reviewed in the London Review of Books. I do not have the web address for the review, but I do believe that it is available online in the issue pictured here. Use a search engine to find it. The new edition itself is available online in a limited, yet generous and handsome, preview at Google books, which will be easy enough for you to track down. An Oxford scholar by the name of Colin Burrow, who is unknown to me, is the author of the LRB review. Burrow offers an insightful overview of Gascoigne's life and poetic career. I learned a few new things about George that will be beneficial in studying his work. He pays some attention to "Woodmanship," which Winters considered a great poem -- indeed, one of the greatest of the greats in the English language, as I shall discuss in my short study of the poem forthcoming. Thankfully, Burrow takes Gascoigne's poetry seriously, though, perhaps, his judgment of his achievement is not nearly so high as Winters's. In particular, Burrow appears to have no knowledge of how Gascoigne sought to adhere to the traditions of classicism in his art, which I consider an error of some importance. But Burrow's review will prove to be a helpful starting-point for your deeper look at the fine classical poetry of George Gascoigne.

May 7, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 8

“Lullaby of a Lover,” by George Gascoigne (c. 1525-1577)

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest;
And lullaby can I sing to,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguil'd,
Full many wanton babes have I,
Which must be still'd with lullaby.

First, lullaby my youthful years,
It is now time to go to bed;
For crooked age and hoary hairs
Have won the haven within my head.
With lullaby, then, youth be still,
With lullaby, content thy will,
Since courage quails and comes behind,
Go sleep, and so beguile thy mind.

Next, lullaby my gazing eyes,
Which wonted were to glance apace;
For every glass may now suffice
To show the furrows in my face.
With lullaby, then, wink awhile,
With lullaby, your looks beguile,
Let no fair face nor beauty bright
Entice you eft with vain delight.

And lullaby my wanton will,
Let reason's rule now reign thy thought,
Since all too late I find by skill
How dear I have thy fancies bought.
With lullaby, now take thine ease,
With lullaby, thy doubts appease,
For trust to this, if thou be still,
My body shall obey thy will.

Eke, lullaby my loving boy,
My little Robin, take thy rest;
Since age is cold and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best.
With lullaby, be thou content,
With lullaby, thy lusts relent,
Let others pay which have mo pence,
Thou art too poor for such expense.

Thus lullaby, my youth, mine eyes,
My will, my ware, and all that was!
I can no mo delays devise,
But welcome pain, let pleasure pass.
With lullaby, now take your leave,
With lullaby, your dreams deceive,
And when you rise with waking eye,
Remember Gascoigne's lullaby.

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest,
And lullaby can I sing too,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguiled,
Full many wanton babes have I,
Which must be stilled with lullaby.


Yvor Winters did not list this poem among George Gascoigne’s finest work in his earliest published study of Renaissance poetry, his once-famed essay, “The 16th Century Lyric in England” (Poetry, 1939). That essay remains Winters’s most influential piece, though it is seldom given credit for its influence (indeed, it’s hardly mentioned any longer).

Frankly, it’s hard to see how Winters could have missed “Lullaby.” It is a superb poem, a playful, yet serious and classical statement of order and reason in private life.

Winters’s high estimation of the poetry of George Gascoigne is one for which he took a lot of heat in his lifetime. But despite the slumbering obscurity from Winters could not awake Gascoigne, it can hardly be said that Winters was wrong. This is a great poem, one of several great or near-great poems Gascoigne composed. Winters often tried to understand why Gascoigne’s art attracts so few. He believed early English Romanticism, which quickly gained wide influence some 150 years after Gascoigne wrote, was to blame, in great part, as he said when discussing Charles Churchill (another great poet unrecognized as such, whom I have discussed a couple times on this blog) in his first book Primitivism and Decadence:

... Charles Churchill, like Gascoigne at an earlier period and like [Samuel] Johnson in his own, was a great master obscured by history, that is, by the mummification, for purposes of immortal exhibition, of a current fashion -— Gray and Collins, slighter poets in spite of all their virtues, were of the party that produced the style of the next century and they have come to be regarded, for this reason, as the best poets of their period.

The theories of Romanticism, in Winters’s view, took English poetry down a different road than the classical and that circumstance has obscured Gascoigne’s greatness. No critic has re-assessed Gascoigne from Winters’s point of view (we’ll come back to that lamentable situation later).

Winters finally discussed “Lullaby of a Lover” in print 28 years later, in his revision and expansion of the “16th Century Lyric” essay, which became the first chapter of his last book, Forms of Discovery (1967). It seems that his judgment of the poem had risen to considerable heights between 1939 and 1967.

Some critics have guessed that the poem is the most frequently discussed in Gascoigne’s body of work. But critical and popular discussion has concerned mostly the fifth stanza, in which the speaker playfully discusses singing a lullaby to his penis. This figure has amazed, or rather titillated, readers and critics alike down the years. But is this some big deal? Hardly. It’s a typical rhetorical device, called synecdoche. That it concerns the speaker’s precious “member” is not all that remarkable, except that it’s rather unusual for our sexually buttoned-up culture. Robert Pinsky recently told a great story about Yvor Winters and this stanza on After being read the fifth stanza in the interview, Pinsky commented:

[The poem is] Gascoigne's "Lullaby of a Lover" and it's one of my 3.5's [poems he thinks are very good, I suppose]. He puts to sleep his eyes and then his will and then his fancy, one stanza for each, and in the last stanza, this one, he puts to sleep his penis and says, Now I'm too old: "Let others pay which hath mo pence."

I remember thirty years ago, Yvor Winters reading that poem to me and chuckling very hard while telling me that Sir Arthur Quiller Couch in the Oxford Book of English Verse omitted that stanza. (Laughter.) I also remember Winters saying that he had shown the stanza to Virgil Keble Whittaker, the chairman of the Stanford English Department at the time and a sixteenth-century scholar. Winters said, "Ho-ho. Whittaker had no idea what this stanza was about. Ho-ho-ho." The poem could be called an example of late sixteenth-century phallocentricism in a very charming and appropriately grave mode.

Piquant story. But that’s a big word that is decidedly pretentious here. There’s nothing phallocentric about the word or the treatment of the idea or the poem as a whole. Discussing one’s penis in Gascoigne’s way is a playfully rhetorical device that, in this case, expresses a common fear among men, the loss of sexual potency and desire. More is said about still sophomoric critics and readers getting all worked about the figure than that Gascoigne wrote it.

Though critics have mentioned “Lullaby” here and there, few have analyzed or discussed it in detail. No Wintersian has bothered with it at all, at least that I know of, even though Gascoigne’s poetry is one of those hard cases that I think would have drawn the attention of some Wintersian. It seems that someone should have believed that Winters’s position on Gascoigne was in need of full or partial justification -- or at least another look.

Academic critic Richard Panofsky, in the Critical Survey of Poetry (1992), wrote briefly of the poem. He, like others, seems to think it has received the most attention in Gascoigne’s body of work, paltry as that attention has sadly been. He thinks as well that it shows Gascoigne at his best. I agree that it is great, but it is not the best (as we shall soon see). Panofsky notices that the poem itself constitutes the lullaby by which the speaker endeavors to still and control the youthful urges that linger on in old age. That rhetorical shift is wonderfully expressive. Panofsky believes, nonetheless, that the lullaby is a “frail distraction” from desires and capabilities of youth. This phrase betrays that Panofsky is reading his own feelings into the poem, in my judgment. There’s little hint that Gascoigne considers his lullaby a “frail” answer to his troubles.

By the way, John Fraser does include “Lullaby of a Lover” in his New Book of English Verse.


The poem is written in a regular iambic tetrameter rhyming in an uncommon eight-line stanza, ababccdd. The two couplets that form the final quatrain of each stanza are composed with consummate mastery. Each stanza’s first couplet, lines 5 and 6 in each, pick up noticeable speed over each ope3ning quatrain as each stanza reaches its culmination. This is a striking and expressive verse form. Poets should have put it to more uses than they have. Perhaps this blog will help renew interest in the strong structure it provides.

The speaker of the poem begins expertly by grabbing our attention, making us want to know what he is going to compare to mother’s singing a lullaby to a restless baby. Our interest in this leads us into the theme with great skill. The playfulness of the opening also prepares us for the witty discourse to come.

In stanza 2, the speaker states his purpose to quiet his youthful years. It’s a strange rhetorical device, Gascoigne’s use of personification throughout the poem. The speaker writes as though the years themselves are bawling in the cradle as he tries a song to quiet them. “Courage quails” strikes me as a forceful phrase that embodies a moving theme. But despite the speaker’s fears, we sense strongly at this point that the speaker, if not the poet, is trying to adjust himself to his circumstances rationally, which is the most profound and important work of the human psyche -- and the essence of stoicism as well.

Stanza 3 turns to quelling the speaker’s memories of his youthful good looks, and by extension of all the trappings of beauty. How much we rely on our looks. How important they are to us in every stage of life. Coming to this is a rational step in the argument the poet is making. The poet shows that he wants to be free of illusions. Again, he employs the striking device of personification, as though he sings to the eyes to quiet them, those eyes crying like babes over passing time, which is revealed in the furrows etched into the face. These are complex figures pregnant with meaning and emotion.

In stanza 4 comes the imperative turn: let reasons rule. The speaker gives himself and us a call to a life of reason. Reason ought to reign over thought, over fancies, over will. In singing this to the will, the speaker is able to quiet its crying, and the body shall obey the will as directed and controlled by reason. In such ways, the stanza gathers together complex and powerful ideas that form the foundation of the classical life.

Stanza 5 moves boldly on to sexuality, which will be brought under control as well. The whole stanza stands as a powerful expression of the classical frame of mind, as mischievous and witty as it is. The speaker endeavors to quiet his bawling penis, which stands in for the sexual essence, our sexual nature. After the lullaby, the lusts the penis gives rise to will relent.

The conclusion in stanza 6 mentions pains, which brings something new to the poem. The speaker strives to let pleasures go. But are there no compensating pleasures in loss of age and beauty? This idea about pain goes a bit too far, in my judgment, the only flaw in the poem.

The final lines show how deeply the classicist endeavors to look to language and song, to the province of true art, to properly adjust his mind and will and emotions to the conditions of loss. David Hume wrote, not all that long after Gascoigne, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Gascoigne’s poem is one answer to such cynical sentiments. It trusts that granting rule to reason will be effective and that art can be enlisted on behalf of reason. With all this in mind, is it any wonder that Yvor Winters came to judge this poem so highly?

Finally, I should point out that the very word and concept of “lullaby” has myriad connotations in our culture. Thousands upon thousands are the subtly different uses of the word and in thousands of subtly different contexts. The very act of writing of singing a lullaby to still the soul electrifies my mind with reflections, as it should. Gascoigne’s great poem should play a much larger role in the cultural meaning of this word and the concept behind it.


The poem makes an exquisite and profoundly moving classical statement of commitment to reason and to the proper adjustment of the emotions. Though it is stirring and offers deep pleasures in its rhetorical play and the skillful composition of its verse, “Lullaby” induces a deep melancholy in me. It makes me deeply mindful of the passing of time, the wasting away of life, as movingly given form in the loss of sexual pleasures. Yet this poem has never been an important one in my life, even though every time I have read it I have been struck by the virtuosity of Gascoigne’s poetic expression and his superb thematic control and depth. Now that I have studied it again, I suspect that it might stay with me longer and more solidly.

All comments welcome.