Apr 2, 2009

A Poem by T. Sturge Moore

I wrote last of Elaine Showalter’s new book on American women novelists, saying in part that I would to see whether she had included any writers whom Yvor Winters or Janet Lewis considered significant or particularly valuable. Upon finding at my local Barnes and Noble that Showalter does not even mention Janet Lewis, does not discuss Catherine Gordon except for a lone comment about her civil war novel None Shall Look Back as compared with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and includes no discussion of any other writers the Winterses found compelling besides Katherine Anne Porter -- that took all the wind out of my sails ever since.

I have spent the last week or two just recovering from the blow that what I am doing with this blog has almost no meaning or importance. Yvor Winters and modern classicism are just too obscure, too long forgotten, too different to create a community of modern Wintersian classicists (non-academic classicists), despite a few essays that have shed a little light on his work (such as in the New Criterion, David Yezzi’s 1997 piece and Adam Kirsch’s 2003 piece).

But, hardheaded as I apparently am, I have come to feel compelled to try something new. I have been working through the Winters Canon, stalled as I am at Gascoigne for now. But I will continue that work in time. What I want to do now is add some poetry, especially the work of those authors whom Winters championed but who remain preposterously obscure. I will try to put up one little known poem a week from great or very good, but little known, poets whom Winters judged highly over the next year or so, while I try, meantime, to find some energy to labor on with my notes on current critical issues and my re-examination of the Winters Canon.

Forthwith, let me begin this series with a poem from Thomas Sturge Moore, a British poet of the late 19th and early 20th century, whose work is included in the Winters Canon, but who receives precious little attention nowadays -- and who is usually deployed as an example of the folly of Yvor Winters (something to this effect: "How could he champion Moore over Years?! Hah Hah!"). Here’s one poem I consider very strong, a classical poem with strong rational content, but yet subtly powerful emotions:

Value and Extent

The more they peer through lenses at the night,
The finer they split the rays of stellar light,
The vaster their estimates
Of distances, of movements, and of weights!

The stupor of this unimagined size
Like a mole’s eyelid palls the keenest eyes.
Yea, like unearthed moles,
We, by truth tortured, writhe outside those holes…

Dark homely galleries of confined thought,
Whose utmost reach must now be held as naught
Compared with that grand space
Which those unlike us may superbly grace.

Substance more subtle, forms of comelier growth,
Diviner minds, nothing but mental sloth
Prevents me thus to bid
Against the size revealed, with worth still hid.

No reason can be urged why all this room
Should hold no more life than, within a tomb,
The first small worm that stirs;
For all known life is less in the universe.

Undreamable communications, sun
To sun, may be the hourly routes they run,
Swifter even than light,
On business purer than a child’s delight!

But that I can, like scornful Plato, fear
Our fine things but poor copies of true worth;
Proportioned to this earth,
There thrill and shape small genuine glories here.

This poem reminds me of another and favorite poem of mine (though it’s actually a prosetic musing), John Updike’s “Mites,” a poem about how insignificant humans are in light of the immensity of the universe, like the microscopic mites who live with us in our world. I couldn’t find that poem online, but it can be found in Updike’s Collected Poems. It was published in the New Yorker many years ago, which is where I first read it. On a similar theme, Moore’s is much the better poem and deserves and repays careful study. I find the simile on moles to be particularly striking and moving. I have felt at times, in the face of my own struggles with skepticism (as recounted in my online book A Journal on Doubt) like a mole writhing outside its hole. Those brilliant lines are worth knowing well. But there are many more superb turns of phrase and strong lines in this compelling, insightful poem.

Suggestions and contributions are welcome. Want to hear from a certain poet, or have a certain poem of your own with some classical bent, drop me a line.


Anonymous said...


Just browsing through your old posts. What happened to your application of YW's ideas to film? Sounds good, you should do a post on it.

Ben Kilpela said...

I've been working on that, Anon. I'm not pleased with the results yet. I have always loved film and drama, but often been frustrated with the weakness of many, many films considered as among our best. In studying the matter closely as a Wintersian classicist, I have found out why, at least. I don't know when I'll be able to share what I learned with the world, as if the world cares.

Thanks for asking about the matter, Ben Kilpela