Yvor Winters is not much read or even remembered these days, as a critic or as a poet. When he is, he is thought of as a conservative and a reactionary. In his case, these words, usually thrown about with no concern for their actual content or relevance, are both meaningful and accurate. Winters explicitly set out to conserve and preserve, not to say revive, a rationalist, neo-classical discourse in poetry. He equally explicitly reacted against what he saw as the confused, confusing, and dangerous irrationalism of Modernism, an anti-rationalist ideology ultimately deriving from Romanticism (one of the reasons that he dismissed almost the entirety of the literary nineteenth century both British and American) and the eighteenth century cult of sensibility. In his words,
“The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life. When this notion is combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to impulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve a kind of mystical union with the Divinity…. A psychological theory which justifies the freeing of emotions and which holds rational understanding in contempt [can] break the minds of a good many men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously” (In Defense of Reason).
It is no accident that Winters’s most famous book of criticism is called In Defense of Reason. For him, reason was a moral and not only an intellectual principle. (I might point out, arguing once again against the facile connection between literary conservatism and political conservatism, that Winters was a lifelong member of the ACLU and the NAACP, at a time when such organizations were not popular, and that he once contemplated joining the Communist Party.)
The trap of subjectivism is one with which modern artists have never ceased to grapple, and from which perhaps none of us has successfully escaped. Winters’s solution was a non-subjective absolutism grounded not in theistic or otherwise transcendent certainties (what Derrida called the transcendental signifier) but in a total faith in the power of reason to discover and understand reality, including the reality of emotional experience. In his words, “The absolutist believes in the existence of absolute truths and values…he does not believe that he personally has free access to these absolutes and that his own judgments are final; but he does believe that such absolutes exist and that it is the duty of every man and every society to endeavor as far as may be to approximate them” (“Introduction,” Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English).
Winters was not, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, a disbeliever in reality. He did not doubt the reality of reality, but he was not naïve about it. “The realm which we perceive with our unaided senses...may be an illusion; but in that illusion we pass our daily lives, including our moral lives; this illusion is quite obviously governed by principles which it is dangerous, often fatal, to violate; this illusion is our reality. I will hereafter refer to it as reality” (op. cit.).
For Winters, reason was not opposed to emotion, but encompassed and accounted for emotion. As he defined it, “The artistic process is one of moral evaluation of human experience, by means of a technique which renders possible an evaluation more precise than any other. The poet tries to understand his experience in rational terms, to state his understanding, and simultaneously to state, by means of the feelings we attach to words, the kind and degree of emotion that should properly be motivated by this understanding.”
This required, for one thing, that the poem be discursive and abstract, not Symbolist-associationist and imagistic, as most poetry since the Moderns has been. (Winters’s stylistic model was the plain style poetry of George Gascoigne and Fulke Greville, whom he considered two of the greatest poets of the English Renaissance.) The morality of poetry consisted in a proper and properly articulated relation of intellect and emotion.
While it would be impossible to agree with most of Winters’s literary judgments (although he esteemed Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens and thought well of William Carlos Williams, he placed Robert Bridges above T.S. Eliot, and T. Sturge Moore above W.B Yeats, and considered Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman to be two of the three greatest poets of the nineteenth century, along with Dickinson), it is also impossible not to admire the clarity, rigor, and consistency of his arguments, his willingness and ability (not the same thing) to articulate the premises on which those arguments were based, and his willingness to follow those premises to their logical conclusions, however outrageous. One also must admire the seriousness with which he took literature and its role in the world, and the high standards he set for literature, idiosyncratic as his application of those standards was. For him, literature was no mere pastime or entertainment.
I have no doubt that my work would fail to satisfy his strict strictures, but I have learned a great deal from Winters about the importance of clear thought in my own writing and in reading others’ work, and in speaking and writing about poetry.
I find Winters’s later poetry rather stiff and narrow, not because it is written in traditional forms, but because he too rigidly prescribed what could be done or what could happen within those forms. This is a danger that all systematic poetry faces, whether “experimental” or “traditional.” The later poems obey his critical strictures all too faithfully. Stylistically, there is also too much archaic diction and phrasing. As Robert Hass notes, “What is damaging about the later work is that, in addition to adopting the forms and themes of the English [Renaissance] poets, he adopted their diction. He never solved for himself the problem of getting from image to discourse in the language of his time, and instead borrowed the [language] of another age” (Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry). (This is a problem that Ezra Pound often shared. Many of the numinous moments in The Cantos are couched in the diction of the late nineteenth century English Decadence.) But the earlier poems have a wildness and a strangeness that I find quite compelling. It seems to be exactly this quality against which Winters reacted in his change of style:
“In the long run, however, the free verse and the associational procedure in the use of imagery and in the interrelation of images and other passages proved severely restrictive…. [T]he movement, and consequently the diction, were often violent; form dictated the state of mind and often the subject, and these were not always intelligent. Sometimes the subject justified the state of mind and the form, but not always…. I had pushed this method past the limits of its efficaciousness, and...I found myself unable to write what I wished, and I therefore changed my method” (“Introduction,” The Early Poems of Yvor Winters 1920-1928).
Winters was well aware that free verse was not formless, and indeed developed a system of free verse scansion that works quite well for the material on which he based it, the Imagist poems of W.C. Williams and H.D. in particular, which were highly influential on his own early work. As he writes of his abandonment of free verse for rhyme and meter, “My shift from the methods of these early poems to the methods of my later was not a shift from formlessness to form; it was a shift from certain kinds of form to others.” Winters believed that forms had intrinsic meanings and carried intrinsic values; he wrote of meter as having a moral significance. This is not a view that I share, but it is consistent with his approach to literature as an ethical endeavor.
The three poems I post here present a reflective consciousness in stark confrontation of the otherness of a phenomenal world that has no place for that consciousness. Winters rejects, not just intellectually but first viscerally, any hint of pantheism or a willed unity with nature. The recurring cold is not just a physical but a spiritual state, one from which the speaker finds no escape.
The Rows of Cold Trees
To be my own Messiah to the
burning end. Can one endure the
acrid, steeping darkness of
the brain, which glitters and is
dissipated? Night, the night is
winter, and a dull man bending,
muttering above a freezing pipe;
and I, bent heavily on books; the
mountain, iron in my sleep and
ringing; but the pipe has frozen, haired with
unseen veins, and cold is on the eyelids: who can
remedy this vision?
I have walked upon
the streets between the trees that
grew unleaved from asphalt in a night of
sweating winter in distracted silence.
walked among the tombs—the rushing of the air
in the rich pines above my head is that which
ceaseth not nor stirreth whence it is:
in this the sound of wind is like a flame.
It was the dumb decision of the
madness of my youth that left me with
this cold eye for the fact; that keeps me
quiet, walking toward a
stinging end: I am alone,
and, like the alligator cleaving timeless mud,
among the blessèd who have latin names.
The algebra of miracles, that
cold that stills the bone to rigid
shadow set in air; the winter sun
which stirs so slowly that it draws the
dim sky with it.
Then one budges from
his door like a deliberate word.
I met the Christ—we quarreled
over sins in various seasons and the venial
pulchtritudes, and I consigned him to the flame;
his only answer was that one elegiac smile—
he granted nothing; but at last
we settled it like gentlemen and
walked away; fastidiousness had
filled us as delight a shining flower.
And now the trees burst into light, the
streets the color of the flicker of the
steady feet alike deliberate in swiftness
in a world of vigor where I speak to
one beneath a rigid violence of
sun in leaves and pass along—
the wilderness, inveterate and
slow, a vastness one has
never seen, stings to the tongue and
ear. The terror in the taste
and sound of the unseen has
overwhelmed me; I am on the
mythical and smoky soil at last—
But no: it is
another matter here; the ice becomes
embedded beneath shingles; and, between the
seasons, one is stricken with his consciousness
of cold and his stupidity; trapped and morose.
I met God on the streetcar, but I could not
pray to him, and we were both
embarrassed; and to get away I chose
the first finality—black streets like
unlit windows, coffee hour by hour,
and chilling sleep.
“Quod Tegit Omnia”*
Earth darkens and is beaded
with a sweat of bushes and
the bear comes forth;
the mind, stored with
magnificence, proceeds into
the mystery of Time, now
certain of its choice of
passion, but uncertain of the
Plato temporizes on the nature
of the plumage of the soul the
wind hums in the feathers as
across a cord impeccable in
tautness but of no mind:
the sine-pondere, most
imperturbable of elements,
assumes its own proportions
silently, of its own properties—
an excellence at which one
living fact, the poet
mounts into the spring,
upon his tongue the taste of
air becoming body: is
embedded in this crystalline
precipitate of Time.
*The title of this poem is a quote from the first few lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum/unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,/quem dixere Chaos” (Before the sea and lands and the sky which covers all things/there was one face of Nature in the whole world,/which men called Chaos). The italicized phrase translates the poem’s title.
These three poems are taken from The Early Poems of Yvor Winters 1920-1928, published by Alan Swallow in 1966 and now out of print. (I have not figured out how to preserve the indentations of some lines.) I assume that they are included in the Library of America American Poets Project volume of Winters’s Selected Poems, edited by Thom Gunn, which according to Booklist includes a substantial selection of early poems.