Sep 9, 2008

A Writer Declares Which Is "The Greatest Poem"

Ron Rosenbaum came out in "Slate" this past Friday with his judgment that John Keats's ode "To Autumn" is the single greatest poem in the English language. He asks readers to submit their opinions on the greatest poem at the end of the piece, which can be found at:

I offered a comment on Rosenbaum's piece "Slate"'s so-called "Fray", in which readers can comment upon the site's essays. Yvor Winters, as I point out, was at one period in our literary history often and sternly chastized for choosing the greatest poems or writings in any language, but it seems that the practice has now achieved some sort of sanction. Still, Rosenbaum is a journalist, not a scholar or a leading literary critic; so it might be that he feels freer to offer opinions on such matters.

Anyone got an opinion on "To Autumn"? The poem was rated, by the way, as the third greatest poem in William Harmon's Columbia anthology of the greatest poems -- based on frequency of appearance in other anthologies. (Keats's manuscript is pictured here.) I certainly do not consider it to be among the greats of English poetry. Nor did Yvor Winters, though Winters did write, late in his career, that the poem has certain felicities that should not be overlooked. In fact, in Forms of Discovery, the only consideration of Keats in his published career, he wrote that it was Keats's most fully realized and coherent poem, though he also wrote that it is not a "serious" poem, however that might be taken. I explained in my comment on "Slate"'s Fray that Winters, as well as I can tell, would have judged Ben Jonson's "To Heaven" or George Herbert's "Church Monuments" as the greatest poems in English. At his web site, John Fraser has devoted a long essay to Herbert's poem, which suggests his very high opinion of it. Fraser, also, selected "To Autumn" for his important quasi-Wintersian New Book of Verse, a decision he does not defend. I presume that he thought Winters's comment in FD partly justified the selection. Also, I wrote on "Slate" that he probably would have thought that Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" the greatest poem of modern times, though I am less certain on Winters's judgment on that. Any opinions on what Winters would have thought on this score, on the greatest poem of, say, the past two centuries?

Further, any opinions from Wintersians or people interested in Winters on what is the greatest poem in the language? Rosenbaum invites his readers to write two-line blurbs on why their greatest poem is the greatest. That sounds like fun. Maybe I'll try to come up with some blurbs for the Winters greats. On a British web site and at some years back, I offered my judgment that Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit" is the greatest poem in English. Naturally, few on the British site had even heard of Winters or the poem, and few gave me any credit for the judgment. Any reactions to my judgment?

In connection with Wallace Stevens's later poetry, Donald Stanford discussed "To Autumn" in his great crtitical work from the 1980s, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry. Stanford seems to have had a moderately good opinion of the Keats poem, though he does write that it lacks in "ideational content," which is a crucial issue in the Wintersian classical conception of literature. Indeed, in my view as well, the Keats poem is a rather simple, bland affair that offers rather little to the mind or the emotions. Rosenbaum does nothing to convince me that it is the greatest poem with his blurbing on the matter.

The idea of considering blurbing as an literary art form, the main theme of Rosenbaum's short "Slate" piece, I will leave for later consideration. I right now don't wish to get myself all upset about the inane ideas that trundle in through the web door so often nowadays.

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