Jan 6, 2009

Are the Religious Strongly Drawn to Yvor Winters?

Definitely, some connection exists between the literary thought and art of Yvor Winters and religion, and, further, specifically between Winters and Christianity. I haven't addressed this issue directly on this blog, but I have noticed the matter again and again through the years. I was reminded of it again when a recent correspondent wrote to me about how he came to become interested in Winters. He had been introduced to Winters's ideas and art in a college course taught by one of Winters's former students some decades ago. But his interest sharpened, it appears, when he learned of Winters's use of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and other classical Catholic thinkers in the development of his critical theories and his poetic art. My correspondent has become a Catholic himself.

There is more. Much more. The story of my correspondent is only one of a dozen instances in which a person has written to me about how he (the correspondents have all been male) met Winters's writings. In a majority of these cases, the men were religious, in one sense or another, at the time they first met Winters's writings. Many of these men were and remain Roman Catholic (the painting, by the way, is of Aquinas defeating Averroes in disputation). It appears that people have often been drawn to Winters's thought and poetry because of its congeniality to or accord with religious ideas and feeling, with a religious worldview, often specifically Christian. On the other hand (though I haven't yet studied the matter closely), few published scholars, poets, or critics who have had interests in Winters have been overt Christian believers.

What about me? As I have written elsewhere, I also was a Christian at the time I first read Winters. This took place in the mid-1970s while I was in college. I was an Evangelical Protestant at that time; I even dabbled in Pentecostalism (which, it might surprise you, is not irrelevant to Winters -- yet another topic for study). Like so many others, I was drawn to Winters because of the religious feeling in and behind his thought and art. There was something congenial to religion and Christian faith in his ideas that I haven't fully identified or come to fully understand. This feeling remains attractive and compelling to me, even though some years back I converted away from Christianity to religious pluralism, of a sort. (I'll spare you the details, unless I am asked to write on the matter. It might have some bearing on this blog, it's true.)

I also am writing on this topic because I recently re-read Alan Shapiro's highly amusing essay "Fanatics," which was reissued in his book The Last Happy Occasion. In that essay, Shapiro, an American poet of minor standing, wrote of his passion for Winters as a literary "prophet" during his years at Stanford in the 1970s, a few years after Winters died (Winters had been a professor at Stanford for nearly his entire career). Shapiro explicitly compares his zealous devotion to Winters to the religious devotion of a Jewish friend who in the 70s had converted to Lubavitcher Hasidism under the leadership of Rabbi Menachim Schneerson:

Just as Billy believed that the Torah was not only the law of the Jewish people, but the cosmic law of the universe, so we believed that Winters' definitions and prescriptions were true not only for the poetry he wrote and admired, but for any poetry at all that aspired to be deathless and universal.

Hard to mistake the point there. Shapiro sees his onetime devotion to Winters (he says he is no longer an adherent of the "prophet") as some kind of religious commitment -- one that was nearly fundamentalist in nature, much like the commitment of his friend to Hasidism.

No one I know of has studied the matter of the religious slant of Winters's writings in depth, but it seems clear that some religious ideas and moods and attitudes in Winters's writings, in his appraoch to literature and philosophy as a whole, draws in the religious believer, makes him feel at home in Winters's poetry and criticism. This seems evident despite the fact that Winters was not a religious believer, at least of any conventional or traditional sort.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Winters considered some explicitly Christian poets to have written some of our greatest poems. These are poets who have received only short shrift in modern times. Fulke Greville, for example -- though there are more than a dozen others. Further, Winters wrote about his being what he called an absolutist and even a theist in one of his seminal essays, the "Foreword" to In Defense of Reason. I should note, though, that the Being Winters came to believe in was not much like the Christian trinitarian diety, but, rather, a Being of "pure mind," a difficult concept that is almost incomprehensibly vague in Winters's poetry and criticism. As the late John Finlay discussed the matter in 1981 (Southern Review volume 17, number 3), Winters refashioned God to make Him presentable in more "intellectually respectable" terms:

But the unqualified theism [of the "Foreword"] is still intellectual to the core. Instead of extracting the divine essence out of God and setting it up as concept, Winters now leaves that divine essence within God, but eliminates everything else from Him, so that He becomes what that essence is defined as being, which, in Winters' case, is "pure mind."

As intellectually respectable as this might be, I cannot say that I fully understand Finlay's conception of Winters's conception of God as delineated here. But what's germane to this post is that certainly Winters's embrace of theism is something that would draw the religious believer to his work. A conventional believer would take note of the oddness and difficult nature of Winters's theism upon deeper study, and even then it would appear to be congenial -- to some degree -- to orthodox Christian theism, as it appears to have been to the Catholic John Finlay (who was, by the way, a very fine poet if his work is now, sadly, almost entirely forgotten).

Finally, Winters's whole critical system is built upon ideas of morality, which religion is, of course, deeply concerned with. I should note, though, that what Winters meant by "morality" and what religious believers commonly mean by that broad, vague, difficult term can differ considerably.

But in addition to all this, there is something more, something about the way Winters thinks and writes, the indistinct foundations of his work and art. I would like some comment on this matter, especially from the Christian believers who have written to me about their attraction to Winters's work, though I am not averse to hearing from those without religious beliefs who have interests in Winters. Naturally, I hope to offer some more thoughts on the matter myself as time goes on.