What You Need to Know About Yvor WintersBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
This is the first entry in FPR’s One Thousand Words series. Over the next few months, perhaps longer, several dozen contributors will tell us what we need to know about a wide variety of figures—some obscure, some not—in one thousand words or less. Forthcoming: posts on Dwight MacDonald, Mozart, Chekhov, Foucault, Leo Strauss, Paul Gottffried, Charles Taylor, Irving Babbitt, Bernard Lonergan, Machiavelli, HansUrs von Balthasar. And many more.
Yvor Winters was a serious man.
A poet and literature critic, Winters ordered his moral and intellectual life to accord with the spiritual discipline of literature.“It behooves us to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how one may evaluate it.It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important a fact as atomic fission,” he writes in the foreword to his greatest prose book, In Defense of Reason.One will get no help in making this discovery from the typical literature professor, he warned, for they are all hedonists and romantics, “with the result that the professors of literature, who for the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor defense of their profession.”
A doctoral student and then professor of English at Stanford, Winters knew and loathed these men. Against their insouciant relativism, which took for granted that one could enjoy pernicious and self-destructive ideas without being affected by them, Winters held up the suicide of the poet Hart Crane as one of many instances where someone died precisely because he had attempted to live according to bad ideas—in Crane’s case, the irrational romantic mysticism of Emerson and Whitman.Winters’s writing gives voice to a theory of literature that cultivates reason andcordons off the soul from the disintegrating effects of emotion, thereby enabling one to live well in the world.
For Winters, literature was not a mystical indulgence, but a spiritual discipline.The craft of poetry may be a “means by which the poet arrived at a realization of spiritual control.” Poetry is “a technique of contemplation, of comprehension, a technique which does not eliminate the need of philosophy or of religion, but which, rather, completes and enriches them.”Every syllable of a poem contributes to the evaluation of experience, the relating of “motive” to “feeling” that calls upon and completes the “full life of the spirit.”
Many artists treat their “creativity” as license to make of themselves, of reality, of morality, whatever they please.Winters insisted that this “hedonism” was the death of literature and the human being.The discipline of writing and reading verse provides a model for the exploration of the form of reality.It alerts us to the limitations and just perceptions necessary for living in accord with our natures and the moral order of the universe. In its halls, there is no place for the indulgences of mediocrities and fools.
Winters was born into a wealthy Chicago family in 1900.He briefly studied at the University of Chicago (during which time he became acquainted with Harriett Monroe, the founder of Poetry magazine) before a diagnosis with tuberculosis led to his removal to New Mexico.He would spend the rest of his life in the states of the far West, settling for good in the area around Stanford in 1927.For much of his youth, he was a philosophical materialist loosely influenced by the poems of American Indians. He believed that the purpose of poetry was to merge with the atoms of the environment, to hear the raw “testament” of the stone.Then he read more deeply.
In fact, Winters read every extant poem in the English language, making systematic annotations along the way. After Stanford’s William Dinsmore Briggs set him reading in philosophy as well, Winters discovered Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.“I myself am not a Christian and I fear that I lack permanently the capacity to become one,” he would write, “but Aquinas’s examination of the nature of man appears to me acute and extremely usable, and his disposition of theological difficulties perhaps the best disposition possible.”
Winters became a champion of traditional metrical forms—especially the sonnet and heroic couplet—and of a poetry of methodical meditation that always aimed at a just evaluation of the human condition.Man has reason, but is beset by an external nature potentially hostile to that reason as well as an internal temptation to subordinate reason to emotionality.Winters’s own poetic style and subject matter were restrained and display a beauty akin to that of wrought iron.In a poem for his student and fellow poet Howard Baker, he writes,
Now autumn’s end draws down
Hard twilight by the door;
The wash of rain will drown
Our evening words no more.
Words we have had in store.
But men must move apart
Though what has gone before
Have changed the living heart.
Music and strength of art
Beneath long winter rain
Have played the living part,
With the firm mind for gain.
Nor is the mind in vain.
Through his criticism, Winters provided the first systematic treatment of poetic form in modern poetry (Primitivism and Decadence, 1937). And he skewered the American romantic tradition from Emerson and Poe to Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot (in Maule’s Curse, 1938, and The Anatomy of Nonsense, 1943).A hardening of his intellectual arteries set in with The Function of Criticism (1951), but his Forms of Discovery (1967) constitutes the encyclopedic survey and evaluation of the short poem in English.
Winters defended the liberal arts against the shoddy emotionalism and politicization of his age, and he provides a model for how to do so in ours.He offers perhaps the richest “conservative” or, in his words, “reactionary,” theory of art and culture produced in the last century.And his teaching and example was formative for a whole school of poets, including three Poet Laureates of the United States.A friend of the agrarians and new critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, he was unstinting in his criticism of the limitations of their political and literary imaginations.Politically liberal himself, Winters’s work brilliantly defends a Catholic vision of reason, a sober reverence for place and for the natural world, and a commitment to the classical virtues in both private and public life.
A Few Links. . .
Just over a decade after Winters’s death, substantial scholarship began to appear on his work. Dick Davis’s Wisdom and Wilderness (1983) is the most sophisticated, while Elizabeth Issacs’ An Introduction to the Poetry of Yvor Winters(1981) serves as an excellent overview.Robert Archambeau’sLaureates and Heretics(2010) offers an unorthodox but sympathetic account of Winters and his poetic descendants.
The place for most readers to begin reading the man himself is In Defense of Reason; beginning with the first two chapters of Primitivism and Decadence then skipping to Maule’s Curse is recommended for the new reader.While a couple selections of Winters’s poetry have appeared in recent years—Thom Gunn’s and R.L Barth’s, the latter containing some good previously unpublished poetry as well as an excellent scholarly apparatus—Winters’s own selection, the Collected Poems, though long out of print is still available and definitive.
Recent shorter studies of Winters’s work include David Yezzi’s “The Seriousness of Yvor Winters”; James Matthew Wilson’s “Representing the Limits of Judgment” and “Yvor Winters’s ‘The Slow Pacific Swell.’”; William Edinger’s “Yvor Winters and generality: a Classical/neoclassical perspective”; and David Reid’s “Rationality in the Poetry of Yvor Winters.”All these works are appreciations that testify to the enduring intellectual and artistic importance of Winters’s work; for another, more dour, perspective, see this excerpt from the late Richard Elman’s memoir.