Apr 16, 2009

Agnes Lee? Who's That?

Another of those seemingly bizarre judgments Winters made concerned the excellence of a small poem by Agnes Lee, a now almost entirely forgotten American poet of the late 19th century. The poem in question is "The Sweeper," which can be found on the web. It is hard to say exactly how highly Winters judged this poem, though that he judged it very highly and wanted to draw attention to it are without question. Some critics suspect that he didn't really consider it one of our greats, which doesn't touch on the question of whether we should consider it great. Those are important subjects for discussion when I come to the poem in my reƫvaluation of the Winters Canon. For now, let me offer another poem by Lee, which in tone and structure is much like "The Sweeper."


The snow is lying very deep.
My house is sheltered from the blast.
I hear each muffled step outside,
I hear each voice go past.

But I'll not venture in the drift
Out of this bright security,
Till enough footsteps come and go
To make a path for me.

I admire this poem a good deal. It is hard to know without some deep study what exactly Lee might have been sheltering from and what the footsteps symbolize in this little parable. Was it religious belief? Judging from many of her other poems and the charged diction (blast, bright security), it seems so, though I do not know enough about her to venture a guess as to what exactly she believed about ultimate reality or religion. But the poem is poignant and thought-provoking. Of course, it runs against the American myth of rugged individualism, but that myth has always been very much more observed in the breaking than in the keeping. There is much more good stuff in the poetry of Agnes Lee. I'll get back to her -- she deserves the attention.

For now, another matter to think about is Yvor Winters's strident conventionalism, the idea that a rational society and culture are built on the shoulders of of our greatest thinkers past, who laid down the footsteps we should follow (to mix metaphors). Winters believed that modern literary practices and theories threatened the whole rational order of Western civilization. (The pictured T-shirt, by the way, reads: "Conventional wisdom is the ruin of our souls." There's a foolish saying for you, but it has surely become a modern myth in our society.) It is a position that no one I know of has tried since to make a case for or develop. Winters himself was fairly sketchy about the whole idea, with however much table-thumping certainty he wrote of the matter (as of nearly all matters). It's an idea that needs and deserves a new look, though no one has yet bothered to take it.

Also, I should mention that J.V. Cunningham, Winters's friend and one-time student, was closely interested in this matter of convention. He wrote a number of superb poems that reflected on the issue, as well as a lot of criticism that addressed it. Though only a Wintersian in a rough sense, Cunningham certainly was a classicist who gave us some exceedingly important insights into modern literature that, alas, have been mostly ignored. One of his epigrams from The Judge is Fury came to mind when I was pondering Lee's short poem:

Epigram 12

I was concerned for you and keep that part
In these days, irrespective of the heart:
And not for friendship, not for love, but cast
In that role by the presence of the past.

This poem is about human motivation, a frequent topic in Cunningham's verse, but also about conventions and social expectations. Particularly, it concerns conventions that are somehow assigned to us in living our lives as social creatures. I have been pondering this little poem for a long time. It troubles me. It is partially true, as a general idea, but it is not the whole general truth about familial concern.

Finally, let me mention as well that commitment to following the footsteps of others through the storms of life does not gaurantee virtue or success or safety. Following convention, as an abstract principle, is morally neutral. It promises neither good nor evil. For some conventions are evil and should be discarded. Slavery, to trot out one obvious example. Conventions, we could say, are good when put to good purposes, evil when put to evil purposes. Some conventions are so good that they are worth keeping against all enemies and defending with one's life. People disagree about which conventions are which, of course, which good, which evil. It takes great wisdom to know. It takes, too, in the end, a leap of faith, and often faith in other people. This is a matter I have written about in my on-line book A Journal of Doubt (1991), especially "Part V," the last part. The immediate context of that book was a struggle with believing Christianity, but my discussion has more general application to the difficulties surrounding setting, finding, and following the wisdom of the past, which hardens at times into convention.

Well, I have wandered far afield from Agnes Lee's little poem. Perhaps I had better bring these reflections to an end.

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