Feb 25, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 6

“It Was My Choice”
By Thomas Wyatt

It was my choice, it was no chance
That brought my heart in others' hold,
Whereby it hath had sufferance
Longer, perdie, than Reason would;
Since I it bound where it was free,
Methinks, iwis, of right it should
Accepted be.

Accepted be without refuse,
Unless that Fortune have the power
All right of love for to abuse;
For, as they say, one happy hour
May more prevail than right or might;
If fortune then list for to lour,
What vaileth right?

What vaileth right if this be true?
Then trust to chance and go by guess;
Then who so loveth may well go sue
Uncertain Hope for his redress.
Yet some would say assuredly
Thou mayst appeal for thy release
to fantasy.

To fantasy pertains to choose:
All this I know, for fantasy
First unto love did me induce;
But yet I know as steadfastly
That if love have no faster knot,
So nice a choice slips suddenly:
It lasteth not.

It lasteth not that stands by change.
Fancy doth change; fortune is frail;
Both these to please the way is strange.
Therefore me thinks best to prevail:
There is no way that is so just
As truth to lead, through t'other fail,
And thereto trust.


in other's hold = under the rule of another

sufferance = suffering

perdie = par Dieu (by God)

than reason would = than is reasonable

I wis (or iwis) = surely

For as they say etc. - The meaning of these three lines seems to be "For, as it is said, an hour of good fortune is worth more than all the rights and obligations in the world. Hence when fortune is bad (lours) one's rights count for nothing."

go by guess = play it by ear

So nice a choice = so delicate and whimsical a choice (of lover), i.e. one that
is based only on fantasy

the way is strange = the means (of satisfying both fortune and fancy) is irrational and fickle

As truth to lead = as to lead by truth

thereto = in addition


“It was my choice” is seldom found in anthologies and can be hard to find. Winters drew more attention to this poem than any critic or scholar ever has, that I am aware of. He appears to have judged it a great poem, one of the finest ever composed in the English language, though his views are by no means certain. It is one of those judgments that when Winters was alive seemed and still seems a little perverse. Every other expert or scholar has missed it. How could that have been or still be so? If it is indeed great, critics and scholars would not have missed it to that degree, would they? (These questions come up time and again, like bells tolling, in any consideration of Winters’s career.) Yet it is one of those poems that is so expertly written that it can markedly increase your confidence in Yvor Winters’s judgment. For it was he who found it and properly discerned its excellence. Rather than thinking him perverse, you might, like me, think him brilliant for championing this poem. If his system yields judgments like this, your reasoning might go -- as mine has gone -- he must have known something other critics do not, had skills that others do not possess.

Winters discussed this poem a couple times in his writings. But he did not discuss it early, not even in the early essay “The 16th Century Lyric in England,” which was published in Poetry in 1939. This became his single most influential essay, I and many others believe. Judging from all his writings, I believe that he considered this a great poem, one of the summit works in English poetic literature. Yet he never clearly stated his specific reasons. His brief discussion of the poem came late in his career, in his extensive revision and expansion of the “16th Century Lyric” essay, which was published 28 years later as the first chapter in his final book, Forms of Discovery, and entitled “Aspects of Poetry in the English Renaissance.” My informed guess is that Winters considered this poem to be a supreme example of a rational statement under precise emotional control, which was the classical ideal that he strove to foster in his own work and in literary culture in general. The poem certainly exhibits a rational structure. It moves from proposition to proposition, in an obviously logical and rhetorical manner. Winters is clear that he thought the final stanza raised the poem to a level of profundity and greatness.

In the “Aspects” essays, he pointed to a couple lines that he considered especially important and well composed. The first line was one:

It was my choice, it was no chance....

This line struck him, it appears, as a powerful example of the aphoristic power of poetry, the summary statement charged with deep, general meaning. The other line is the second line of the third stanza:

Then trust to chance and go by guess;...

Winters apparently believed that this line carries an intellectual profundity and a sharp, condensed moral import of the kind that Winters valued very highly. As a meditation on the morality of making a decision of commitment in courtship (putting aside the specific circumstances found in the poem), the poem in its movement to these lines, and toward the powerful final stanza, becomes a weighty and insightful meditation on morality and its relations to truth, chance, and desire.

Some scholars have thought of “It was my choice” as probably written as a song for lute accompaniment. One can hardly imagine this densely argued, metrically complex poem working well as a song. It is often seen as a companion piece to the more familiar song “Blame not my lute,” which we have considered earlier in this series. It plays on many of the conventional courtly themes of early Renaissance poetry in England, themes that were prevalent across European high culture. The persona, a young lover wooing a mistress who, it seems, has first accepted and then rejected him, faces the continuing rejection of his love. He tries to persuade her to favor his suit with a logical argument and raises his reflections, as Winters believed and as seems quite evident, to a much higher plane of moral thought.

Finally, I must take note that John Fraser chose not to include this poem in his quasi-Wintersian New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing off and on. Fraser offers no explanation for his decision. I think the exclusion a mistake, however we might interpret the purpose of that book -- which I am still not sure of. (No one is pressing me for an examination of Fraser’s Preface, so I will let that broad, tangled subject wait for later study.)


There are not many poems like this in all English literature -- in any literature, in fact. I have run across few poems that resemble it, a love poem that considers love and courtship it as a matter of logical moral inquiry. Perhaps only Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” in English approximates the structure, though Marvel’s poem is much more playful. (I would be glad to be reminded of other similar poems from my readers.) We have come so far in modern literature from poetry that is written in any manner like this that it is almost impossible to believe that poetry like this could be written again. Think of even the finest work of the Wintersian classicists. Very little of the poetry they have written has this linear style or takes this kind of baldly logical approach to human experience. Only the work of J.V. Cunningham seems to be truly comparable. (Yet, I hasten to note, there have been several interesting overtly logical poems similar in manner that have been written in response to Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress,” such as Archibald MacLeish’s “To You, Andrew Marvel.” Such poems have shown that some modern poets can think like a classicist, even with heavy modern irony, when they have a mind to.)

My judgment is that the poem is one of the greats of our language, but has several small, peculiar faults that damage it. Clearly, the premise that leads the poet into his examination of reason and truth is shaky -- that anyone is obliged to return love and intimate allegiance to another just because the other desires the same of her or him. Winters mentions this fault, but I believe it to be more serious than he does, though not ruinous. Also, the poem takes its persona, the speaker, to be of stronger character than is creditable. That the speaker of this poem is in some sense above fantasy or chance shows Wyatt to be distinctly unaware of his own predilections and limitations as a man. These two faults weaken the poem, though I still consider it very fine work, as my rating is intended to show. But I have little difficulty saying that it is a beautiful exploration of a broad human experience, expertly rendered and profoundly thought. It calls us to a life of intellectual meditation, a posture of great value to life. The poem exhibits supreme craft -- certainly it is one of the most skilled poems in the history of English.

Nonetheless, the profound themes are treated very generally. We gain little from it that could help us live day to day other than to inspire us to set aside fancy and fortune as motives for our actions and seek truth alone. I have known the poem for a very long time and consider it worth the study of a lifetime.


As an exhortation to leading one’s life by reason and shunning fantasy and fancy, the poem is a profound and moving statement. But it can only go so far to help us fathom and properly address the specific issues and decisions we face in our personal lives. For we sense, nowadays, that we are not quite free to follow reason and truth as faithfully as we might hope -- and even not quite fully able to discern where truth lies or what reason might be urging us to follow. Our powers of choice are not wholly free, most of us accept nowadays. We are not fully in control of our choices. Those are commonplaces in our postmodern times, which seem vastly truer than they ever could have seemed to Thomas Wyatt. Chance is one powerful external force in our lives. But there are other external AND internal forces as well that Wyatt was unaware of or did not credit: genetics, environment, past experiences, and more. It is good to be called to commit oneself to living according to reason, to the truth, but we always face much work in discovering where reason is properly leading us, choice to choice and day to day.

Concerning the issues of choice and chance, I have enjoyed studying “The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website,” a strong and challenging collection of essays edited by the philosopher Ted Honderich. The site has many writings on the philosophical question of freedom and determinism, and the complex modern theories of compatibilism and incompatibilism, and the implications of various views on these abstruse matters:


Judging generally from the writings on Honderich’s fascinating site and elsewhere, I believe that determinism has become widely accepted among philosophers, and that near-total determinism has become popularly believed among the generally educated. (A sizable number of thinkers, judging from my reading, still hold out a small portion of life from complete submission to external and internal forces that are beyond a person’s direct control.) What does this mean to Wyatt’s exhortation? The question of how free we might be can haunt us, much more than it did the writers and thinkers of the English Renaissance -- though some of them struggled with it as well in other ways. For a very recent example of how it troubles and fascinates us, consider the American film that plays with an idea of fate and chance and choice, No Country for Old Men, directed by the Coen brothers (winner of the Academy Award last night). I do not consider this a good film, but it is pertinent to my discussion here in that a killer twice flips a coin to see whether someone will live or die.

Even more bothersome on these matters, the opening line of the poem, “It was my choice, it was no chance,” seems slightly facile. For even in Wyatt’s age it was recognized that courtship, sexual desire (passion), and love were somehow outside the complete control of a person experiencing them. It seems mildly foolish for Wyatt or his persona to claim that, unconstrained by any internal or external forces, he chose freely to desire and court the fictional woman of the poem. But we know that we do not fully or even mostly control our desires in many areas of life, though perhaps in some cases we do seek to and sometimes gain a measure of control over them. This is a fascinating subject worth pondering through this poem.

Further, Wyatt claims that “Fancy doth change; fortune is frail....” His case is that fancy and fortune are uncertain and, therefore, untrustworthy. They don’t last. They wander and waver. They’re downright fickle. So, Wyatt concludes, trust to truth, to reason. Sounds good. But reason and truth waver as well, do they not? Deciding how truth shall lead is often no less difficult and uncertain than acting upon fancies or trusting to the turns of fortune’s wheel. Reason can be fickle, too. My views on many momentous issues have changed dramatically over my lifetime. I was once a “born-again” Christian but left that faith, coming to believe it as doctrinally false (though mythically compelling in many ways). If we should distrust fancy and fortune because they do not endure and waver, then what better reason do we have to trust to “truth,” that star we believe to be fixed but that wanders in our sight and often seems to guide lonely barks far out on the sea so very differently? This issue, in my judgment, is one of the crucial challenges facing any classical conception of life and art.

To conclude, this poem has considerable emotional power, in the very expression of its moral concepts. This kind of writing was what Winters was talking about when he wrote of the power of meter and diction to deliver and adjust the emotion. It is difficult to describe the overall effect, as Winters himself said. I will surely return in time to try to define it more rigorously. Of course, all views on these matters are welcome.

Feb 18, 2008

Elitism and Dana Gioia

Quick Note:

Dana Gioia was the subject of an article in the Wall Street Journal a weekend ago. Gioia is a New Formalist poet who has been the director of the National Endowment for the Arts for several years. Gioia has had interests in the work of Yvor Winters. He was even one of the presenters at the Winters Centennial held at Stanford University in 2000. Nonetheless, Gioia has not written extensively on Winters -- if at all -- nor would I classify him as a Wintersian. The recent article was one in the WSJ's "Cultural Conversation" series and was entitled "Great Art for the Greatest Numbers." I believe it is available online, but I do not have the web address at hand. It is worth reading. The central point of the article comes out in a quotation from Gioia:

See, I don't believe that artistic quality and democracy are irreconcilable. I don't believe you either have to have mediocre art or elitist art.... And so I'm trying to reach the broadest number of people possible with the best art possible.

This comment brings us back to the issue of the elitism of Yvor Winters's theories and the purposes of this blog. I am in the business here of popularizing Winters's ideas, under the obvious assumption that such ideas can be beneficial (in a broad spiritual sense) to a wide, generally educated audience. Winters wrote little about this assumption and, to the contrary, wrote several times in his letters that he believed his literary ideas and theories would be mostly incomprehensible to those "masses" whom I am trying to reach with his ideas (and among which I classify myself). What hope could there be for masses, Winters seems to have believed, if even the finest scholars of modern times and almost all lovers of high art in the modern age have actually favored art that Winters judged clearly to be mediocre. I am fairly certain that Winters would find Gioia's judgment of the "best art" to be mediocre as well. But I don't have any idea of what Gioia thinks of what Winters probably would have thought of him.

Is it possible for Winters's notions of "artistic quality," so lofty and unusual as they are, to find favor in a country devoted to pop culture (Low-Cult)? Even among those devoted to Mid-Cult or High-Cult art (to use Dwight McDonald's highly useful terms). To be honest, almost certainly not W I D E favor. But SOME marginal favor is possible, if unlikely. I labor on in hope that others who need Winters will find him, as I need him and as I believed he is needed by many others, whether those others have yet recognized their need of him or not.

Feb 15, 2008

Mina Loy

Quick Note:

This week, poets.org put up a short overview of the early 20th century American poet Mina Loy. If you are interested in the study of Yvor Winters, you will want to check out this short article and read the two poems that poets.org has on its web site by this very obscure poet. Loy was a writer of a very dense, abstract, non-syntactical short-line free verse that Winters thought very highly of. Two of her poems (neither of which can be found on the web, so far as I know) made it into the Winters Canon, as published in the anthology Quest for Reality.

Winters judged Mina Loy's poetry highly even from his earliest days. He mentioned her in a letter written when he was 19 years old. He first wrote at length of her work far back in 1927, which was the time when he was beginning to change his literary direction from free-verse imagism to modern "formalist" classicism. To the puzzlement of many, he thought Loy had achieved some of the finest work in the modernist movement. He listed her work among all the other modernist poets who remain so well known, Pound, Eliot, W.C. Williams, Stevens, and the rest. Notably, Donald Stanford also considered Loy a fine imagist poet, though he judged her work to be as minor as Pound's and Eliot's. It will take some time to get to Mina Loy's poetry in my reconsideration of the Winters Canon, but some day we shall get there. I will probably take a look at Donald Stanford's judgments of her at that time as well.

I am highly interested in whether any of my readers have been reading Mina Loy and what they have discovered in reading her. Please write with any comments on her work.

Feb 12, 2008

A Great Historian Comes to the Web

The writings of William Robertson, an historian of the 18th century, who was once considered one of the finest craftsmen of the grand, stately English prose of that era, which enjoyed the work of Samuel Johnson and David Hume and many another great prose stylist, have found their way to the web. At last! Robertson is surely one of the most obscure of the great English-language historians. Yet Yvor Winters considered Robertson’s work some of the finest prose literature ever written in the English language. The eight volumes of Robertson’s collected works have been out of print for nearly a century. For the first time ever, Robertson’s obscure histories have been published on the web as page images, pdf files, and text files. They can be found at:


Yvor Winters wrote only once -- and only briefly -- of Robertson, in his essay on Henry Adams, which can be found in In Defense of Reason. A major section of that essay concerned Adams’s obscure history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, inclusive of the War of 1812 (about which I have written on this blog). Winters considered this obscure work to have been Adams’s finest achievement. Selections from Adams’s long-neglected work itself have been issued in a fine new edition, which includes a laudatory preface from American historian Gary Wills. In the course of his discussion of Adams’s historical writings, Winters paused to give an overview of what he judged to be the greatest historical literature in English. This section of the Adams essay is only about four pages long, but it has long been of great interest to me. Winters mentions seven other historians besides Adams as the finest writers of historical literature in our language: Englishmen David Hume, Edward Gibbon, William Robertson, and Thomas Babbington Macauley, and Americans William Hicking Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman.

William Robertson lived from 1721 to 1793. He was a leading historical figure of the 18th-century Enlightenment, though he has long been almost entirely forgotten in modern times. He was one of the trio of historians, with David Hume and Edward Gibbon, who profoundly shaped European cultural consciousness in his time, especially concerning the idea of empire and colonization. A fairly recent book on his role in this intellectual movement, William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, offers essays from many historians and scholars on Robertson's achievement, particularly his treatment of the theme of empire and European expansion. But the best place to start with Robertson is his histories themselves.

Winters was drawn to historical literature as literary art, in part, by the scholarship of J.B. Black, who wrote a superb and compelling book on history as literature in the 1930s, entitled The Art of History. I have read this splendid book (which has been long out of print) and also quite a bit in the works of William Robertson. Both Black and Robertson are well worth your time. Robertson’s major subjects include a history of Scotland, a history of Charles V and his era (a study which was finished by the American Prescott almost a century later), and the history of the Spanish discoveries and conquests in the Caribbean and Central America -- as Robertson called it, from the perspective of the 1780s, The History of America.

Let me pause to consider a broad side issue. The time has long been ripe for a reconsideration and an enlargement of Winters’s views on history as literature. No Wintersian I know of has undertaken to re-assess his ratings of the greatest historians or individual historical works. Nor has anyone tried to determine and re-assess the criteria he employed in making these ratings. Nor, further, has anyone sought to uncover exactly how his theories of poetry and, perhaps more pertinently, fiction are related to his theory of historical literature -- nor to advance the brief and general ideas that formed his theory. Yet another notable matter that deserves some consideration is why Winters’s judgments on historical literature are so much less controversial than those on poetry.

But I should turn back to William Robertson. His first major work was The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and James VI. This long work, which occupies the first couple volumes in the collected works, was published in 1758. It was a huge success in the public and among scholars. Its style and content had widespread appeal because Robertson studied the emerging Scotland of his present in light of a sometimes hostile, even insular past. After spending a long time on his deep study of Imperial Emperor Charles V, which was published in 1768, Robertson turned to a new historical project which he had mentioned in that book's preface. He wrote that he had not discussed New World colonization in Charles V for reasons of coherence, though he noted that his account of Europe in the 16th century was incomplete without it. The project was to include the history of Spanish, Portuguese, and British colonization, but Robertson chose to concentrate on the Spanish, which was naturally rooted in his study of Charles V.

Although Robertson’s original intention was to complete a full history of New World colonization before going to press, he decided to publish his study of the 16th-century Spanish conquest and colonization alone. I have read that this was because the events of 1776 had changed the direction his narrative was taking. The History of America, released in 1777, gathered considerable attention on the continent, where it was deemed Robertson's masterpiece. It went through nine editions between 1777 and 1780. Without doubt, The History of America reveals the Eurocentric limits of Robertson’s thinking. It has been said that it presents a less than supportive report on America’s first peoples while concealing, downplaying, or explaining away the many European barbarities of the era. Yet Robertson does get the facts in there, for the most part -- even if he does not interpret and judge those facts quite the way in which we would nowadays.

Robertson wrote a lapidary, polished prose of great movement and precision. As a stylist, he is the near equal of Hume, though this is not the common judgment. Hume achieved greatness in Winters’s eyes through his great History of England, which Winters praised very highly. Robertson also was a superb classical stylist who deserves your attention, even if it will take a bit of time and effort to become accustomed to his dense, measured style. Here’s a long sample from The History of America, "Volume 6" in the Collected Works:

About half a century after Marco Polo, sir John Mandeville, an Englishman, encouraged by his example, visited most of the countries in the east which he had described, and, like him, published an account of them. The narrations of those early travellers abound with many wild incoherent tales, concerning giants, enchanters, and monsters. But they were not, from that circumstance, less acceptable to an ignorant age, which delighted in what was marvellous. The wonders which they told, mostly on hearsay, filled the multitude with admiration. The facts which they related from their own observation, attracted the attention of the more discerning. The former, which may be considered as the popular traditions and fables of the countries through which they had passed, were gradually disregarded as Europe advanced in knowledge. The latter, however incredible some of them may have appeared in their own time, have been confirmed by the observations of modern travellers. By means of both, however, the curiosity of mankind was excited with respect to the remote parts of the earth; their ideas were enlarged; and they were not only insensibly disposed to attempt new discoveries, but received such information as directed to that particular course in which these were afterwards carried on.

While this spirit was gradually forming in Europe, a fortunate discovery was made, which contributed more than all the efforts and ingenuity of preceding mariner's ages to improve and to extend navigation. That wonderful property of the magnet, by which it communicates such virtue to a needle or slender rod of iron, as to point towards the poles of the earth, was observed. The use which might be made of this in directing navigation was immediately perceived. That valuable but now familiar instrument, the 'mariner's compass,' was constructed. When, by means of it, navigators found that, at all seasons, and in every place, they could discover the north and south with so much ease and accuracy, it became no longer necessary to depend merely on the light of the stars and the observation of the sea-coast. They gradually abandoned their ancient timid and lingering course along the shore, ventured boldly into the ocean, and, relying on this new guide, could steer in the darkest night, and under the most cloudy sky, with a security and precision hitherto unknown. The compass may be said to have opened to man the dominion of the sea, and to have put him in full possession of the earth, by enabling him to visit every part of it. Flavio Gioia, a citizen of Amalfi, a town of considerable trade in the kingdom of Naples, was the author of this great discovery, about the year one thousand three hundred and two. It hath been often the fate of those illustrious benefactors of mankind, who have enriched science and improved the arts by their inventions, to derive more reputation than benefit from the happy efforts of their genius. But the lot of Gioia has been still more cruel; through the inattention or ignorance of contemporary historians, he has been defrauded even of the fame to which he had such a just title. We receive from them no information with respect to his profession, his character, the precise time when he made this important discovery or the accidents and inquiries which led to it. The knowledge of this event, though productive of greater effects than any recorded in the annals of the human race, is transmitted to us without any of those circumstances which can gratify the curiosity that it naturally awakens. But though the use of the compass might enable the Italians to perform the short voyages to which they were accustomed, with greater security and expedition, its influence was not so sudden or extensive as immediately to render navigation adventurous, and to excite a spirit of discovery. Many causes combined in preventing this beneficial invention from producing its full effect instantaneously. Men relinquish ancient habits slowly, and with reluctance. They are averse to new experiments, and venture upon them with timidity. The commercial jealousy of the Italians, it is probable, laboured to conceal the happy discovery of their countryman from other nations. The art of steering by the compass, with such skill and accuracy as to inspire a full confidence in its direction, was acquired gradually. Sailors unaccustomed to quit sight of land, durst not launch out at once and commit themselves to unknown seas. Accordingly, near half a century elapsed, from the time of Gioia's discovery, before navigators ventured into any seas which they had not been accustomed to frequent.

This measured, stately prose can still stand as a model of English as a classical language: well reasoned, dignified, ordered. It uses a technique of accumulation that Yvor Winters prized highly, as Robertson gradually lays brick upon brick in his argument and builds an edifice of understanding. Like the best in a great era in prose era -- known for its clarity, urbanity, precision, and periodic expressiveness -- Yvor Winters’s own prose has the ring of Robertson’s, I think, more so than some of the other prose stylists that he thought had achieved greatness, Johnson or Hume or Adams.

I must note that two recent studies of Robertson, however obscure he is, have been published. The first I have mentioned, Cambridge University Press’s 1997 book, William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, which is part of its "Ideas in Context" series. I have skimmed this book and found it a beneficial addition to the recent bicentennial emphasis on Edward Gibbon. The essays as a collection are of great value to our understanding not only of Robertson but also of important aspects of 18th-century literary culture. It opens new ways of studying Robertson’s importance to historiography and to English culture in his time. The second recent volume is Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820, by Mark Salber Phillips, published by Princeton University Press (2000). Phillips’s study appears to be a dense study of the importance of changing conceptions of history in the time of William Robertson. In the following passage from the first chapter, note that Phillips draws attention to the general idea that the passage I have quoted from Robertson also deals with, commercial and technological advance (in specific the compass):

The power of commerce, however, only gives us the beginnings of the eighteenth century’s groping toward a new definition of its historical interests. A much wider spectrum of subjects is implied when the Monthly reviewer speaks, for example, of the need for “knowledge of the internal economy of the state, or the private situation of individuals.” As is so often the case, it is easiest to say what was displaced: gone, certainly, was the old restriction of history to statecraft and military maneuver —- and with it an easy accommodation to the clarity and linearity of classical ideals of narrative. In its place stood a much wider, but less easily defined set of concerns for which contemporaries did not really have a name, though philosophical history was a useful term for designating the literary form that did its best to encompass all the parts of this expanded subject. As the philosophical histories of Hume, Robertson, and others attest, the “matter” that history now needed to “imitate” (to adopt the terms of Aristotle’s Poetics) had enlarged itself enormously. It incorporated not only commerce and navigation, but the history of literature, of the arts and sciences, of manners and customs, even of opinion and sentiment. It needed to consider the experiences of women as well as of men, of “rude nations” living without the institution of property, as well as of those of commercial societies. But this diversity of subject matter was only a part of the problem; a further challenge was added by the belief that to write history at its highest level would mean being able to describe the underlying connectedness of all of these different aspects of life in the past, each of which was acquiring a literature of its own.

Phillips is accurate in his description that William Robertson concerned his three major histories with much more than political action. I hope you’ll take some time to explore Robertson’s work. You certainly don’t need to start with "Volume 1," which concerns medieval Scotland, and labor on to the end to the collected writings. Just stroll into Robertson’s account of some time period that you’ve always been interested in to give him a try. The sweep and complications of European politics at the time of the early Reformation in The History of Charles V might be particularly enlightening. Robertson is sure-footed and at times brilliant in his study of Charles V’s snarled conflict with the King of France, Francis I, a lengthy and complicated quarrel that can be thoroughly bewildering.

Feb 6, 2008

A Single Poem Reaches the General Culture

Rarely has a single poem garnered so much attention in the general intellectual culture. The poem is entitled “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” which is the work of Robert Pinsky (pictured), whose recent widely-reviewed collection is entitled Gulf Music. Pinsky was a student of Yvor Winters’s in the 1960s, in the last years of Winters’s life, when he was getting, it has seemed, even more crotchety than he had been for most of his life. I have commented a couple times on Pinsky on this blog. Some consider him a Wintersian, a follower of Yvor Winters in some sense, though I do not. He certainly doesn’t write anything even close to what I would consider classical poetry.

In major publications on the web, you can find at least a dozen reviews or essays on this poem and the collection that it appears in. Google or another search engine will help you find them. Just this week, the New York Times Book Review came out with its review of Gulf Music and devoted considerable space (two long paragraphs, which is a massive amount for one poem in that paper) to “Poem of Disconnected Parts.” You can find the poem in several locations on the web as well, though I intend to reprint it when I consider it.

That a poem by a one-time student of Winters has generated so much comment is an important event. Hence, I feel that I must offer a consideration of the poem, which I will have ready shortly. You can probably guess, if you have spent any time reading this blog and have read the poem, that I think this poem is very far from a good poem, though it isn’t worthless junk, certainly. Pinsky does appear to have made a serious effort at understanding and trying to inspire us to do something about the injustice of wrongful imprisonment by the U.S. government. The title of the poem is clearly -- and rather unfortunately -- ironic, in that all the poem’s disheveled parts are indeed connected, though in a very loose way. In the meantime, you can find my previous brief comments on Pinsky through the search box at the top of this front page and find the poem by searching through Google.

It’s worth noting that the discussion of Pinsky’s poem has provided the occasion for one of the funniest comments on Yvor Winters I recall in recent decades. Poet and critic William Logan (whom I have also mentioned on this blog) reviewed Gulf Music in the New Criterion recently. He received a letter objecting to his review, and his reply to the letter has been published in the most recent New Criterion. In that reply, Logan goaded the letter-writer with the claim that he would rather watch Yvor Winters break-dance than Robert Pinsky try to use playful nonsense words. Just that one flash of Yvor Winters -- a jowly, thickset, gray-suited, pipe-puffing, furrow-browed professor -- break-dancing was thoroughly amusing.

I probably won’t go into detail on William Logan’s take on Gulf Music, though I do want to take a moment to comment on one general aspect of criticism that I find irritating and unwarranted. Logan complains of Pinsky’s earnest tone. Critics often complain similarly about some general feel of an artist’s work that doesn’t appeal to them. They often imply, as Logan does, that no poem should be written in such a tone. Such a tone, they imply, SHOULDN’T appeal to anyone. But I think there is room enough in the vast world of arts and letters for earnest writing (even for preaching and didacticism, God forbid), as much as for experimental play and downright childishness, among many other styles and tones. Though I favor classicism, though I believe classicism to yield our finest artworks, I try to stay away from thinking that everyone must write in a single way or single set of ways. If Robert Pinsky wishes to write with a politically earnest tone rather than in an engagingly playful manner, he is welcome to do as he thinks best. We already have masses of poets who are playful aplenty. Some earnestness can be good, no? Maybe a lot of earnestness[1]. Now, let me be clear, I’m not LIKELY to think the playful great art or fine writing, the best that can be done -- but playful has its place. Critics need to back off on extraneous points.


1. This raises the issue of expectations, what we look for when we take a poem in hand. In general, readers no longer look to poetry for political comment. We tend to think overt political comment or advice or opinion is inappropriate to poetry. Further, modern critical theory across the arts and letters disapproves, generally, of what is called “preaching,” overt counsel, recommendation, or exhortation. It is even generally thought inartistic, bad form, to “preach” in ANY way. This rather large theoretical issue needs some close study, for Winters spoke on occasion about the matter in his essays.

Feb 1, 2008

Coming Soon: A New Anthology of the New Criticism

An anthology of essays from the New Criticism will soon be published, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The anthology will include one of the most important essays of Yvor Winters, “Preliminary Problems,” which is one of his most frequently read and reprinted critical writings. It stands as one of the central essays of his career, for it lays out many of the general theoretical principles that form the foundation of his critical examinations of hundreds of individuals poets and novelists. Some time in early 2008, Ohio University Press, through its Swallow Press (which was the publisher of much of Winters’s work 40 years ago and more), will issue Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism. CHE’s Chronicle Review article is entitled “What We Owe the New Critics,” by Mark Bauerlein. The article is online, though I believe it is available only to CHE subscribers:


The New Criticism, as famous as it is, greatly waned in influence a couple decades ago and among our postmodern critics has almost become passé. The goal of the anthology, Bauerlein says, working from an interview with its editor, is to give professors a means by which to bring the New Criticism back into college classrooms, which is a crucial way to revive its influence:

Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism and Geoffrey H. Hartman's Beyond Formalism had discussed New Critical theory closely, but for younger readers the message lay all in the titles. [Paul] De Man and others contested the New Critics at length about organicism, self-referentiality, intention, and irony, but their students didn't recognize the respect implied in mounting arguments against precursors. All they heard was, "The Old Guard was wrong." Why bother with them? Why read them? It was easier to win, casting them as benighted apostles of "transhistorical truths," "timeless verities," "objective interpretation," and other exploded notions.

Those titles implied that the New Criticism and anyone associated with it were dead issues. To me, it still stings, if not sickens, to read such phrases as “timeless verities” being disparaged (as they have been for so long now). Obviously, someone thinks the New Criticism worth much more than as an example of outmoded theorizing or faded foolishness. The attention of the classroom is crucial in reviving the New Criticism, as it was and is and will be for every literary movement of any kind or purpose in the modern age, including the theories of Yvor Winters. I have written of how important the classroom will be to the creation of a Stanford School enclave of modern classicism, and Bauerlein appears to agree:

New Criticism will carry on only if it survives in the classroom, which is to say only if instructors have a handy anthology to assign. They'll get it in early 2008...

My Yvor Winters web site and this blog are my two efforts to revive the study of Yvor Winters in the same way. This new anthology might give a bit of help. Winters’s essay “Preliminary Problems” is one of seminal essays of his career. I think it might be helpful to summarize it briefly to try to inspire you to look it up and study it closely. It could be life-changing. It is one of the two or three best essays for those just getting introduced to Winters.

The essay (it is still in print and can be found in In Defense of Reason) examines a series of problems designed to show that meaningful value judgments, in literature and other areas of life and thought, outside an absolutistic frame of reference, are impossible. The essay defines the nature of poetry and the central issues and procedures of literary criticism. Early on, it reissues Winters’s usual definition of poetry: a poem is "a statement in words," a statement which has "by intention a controlled content of feeling". This simple definition can alter your understanding of poetry radically.

One of his central theoretical tenets, laid out in sharp detail in this essay, is that a poem is written in verse rather than prose because "the rhythm of verse permits the expression of more powerful feeling than is possible in prose when such feeling is needed, and it permits at all times the expression of finer shades of feeling." Nonetheless, this important idea is one that I have the most doubt about -- which is a matter for examination in another post. For Winters part, he argues that words have denotative content and vague associations of feeling. The poets refines words with precision through the control of diction, context, and the details of style. Conceptual content cannot be eliminated from words, and the poet's main task is to fuse concept to feeling through just motive. In contrast, the Romantics sought to suppress the conceptual content of words and to present unmotivated feeling for its own sake.

The essay also presents Winters’s crucial critical tenet of moral judgment in literature, a matter with which I wholly agree. Winters claims that a reader discovers whether feeling has been justly motivated through an act of moral judgment. In human life, he writes, distinctions between better and worse are distinctions between the degrees to which people fulfill the potentialities of their nature, an aspect of Winters’s criticism influenced by Thomism. The existence of clearly incomplete and unfulfilled human beings demonstrates the existence of greater or lesser fulfillment and, therefore, of greatest fulfillment. Winters does on to make the general case that a reader should judge a poem or other work of literary art by the fullness with which it employs the possibilities of the poetic medium, which he defines as versified language, and the extent to which the feeling in a poem (or any work of literature) is adequately and correctly motivated by concept. The better poets try to use the full potentialities of their minds and the medium, and better critics should do likewise in studying their poems. Critics should consider the relevant history behind each poem, the biography of the poet, and the relevant tenets of good literary theory, as well as the paraphrasable content of the poem and the feeling motivated by the details of style, all to make a final act of judgment.

Finally, Winters claims that right judgment, in the case of both poets and critics, is an act of intuition as much as rational understanding. The final judgment is a unique act. (To me, this idea has always sounded strangely Romantic -- and thus has always troubled me a bit. But a consideration of it must wait.) But, for the most complete act of human judgment, Winters states that rational understanding must be fully present in a work of literature.

No Wintersian, no member of the Stanford School, has ever endeavored to reassess this essay, point by point. I believe that such a reconsideration is needed in order to advance Winters’s theory, to search out and shore up its weaknesses (or even to abandon them) and reinforce its strengths. Another matter that has received very little study is Winters’s connections to the New Critics. Scholars have often said that he is not a New Critic, though he did share a few of their traits and concerns. Yet his writings have often been reprinted with the New Critics and discussions of the New Criticism often involve him to one degree or another. I would agree that Winters is not a New Critic, but then why might it be appropriate to include him in an anthology of the New Criticism? How did he shape what we think of as the New Criticism? How much and in what ways did he influence individual New Critics? These are questions that could use some answers.

Perhaps this new anthology will provide an occasion for such work. More information on the New Criticism anthology can be found at the web site of the Ohio University Press: