Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“To the Holy Spirit” is concerned with the logical conflict of faith with reason. The speaker, until the last stanza of the poem, is trying to comprehend how he can know an unknowable, and he is uncomfortable in exchanging sensory truths for acts of faith. Yet he feels limited in knowing that the end of life is only death. He settles on the realization that what he thinks will not affect his ability to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and the existence of God. Only the living are preoccupied with the meaning of death; the dead are experiencing it. Only the living worry about what there is to know, and the speaker appears, at the end of the poem, to be solaced by his awareness that when death comes, he will be rationally and spiritually prepared because he has had God revealed to him in the graveyard. It is important to recall that Winters’s speaker accepts the existence of God but makes no claims for the validity or purpose of any particular religion. This speaker is ultimately satisfied with a hierarchical worldview in which he is a rational believer in the existence of a higher power.
“To the Holy Spirit” is acknowledged by critics as among Winters’s best poems in both form and content. John Finlay wrote of the poem as “a summary of Winters’ entire poetic career, one which began in free verse, imagism, and aesthetic relativism and which ended in traditional meter, classicism, and theistic absolutism.” In becoming a critic of his own desire to have faith, the speaker challenges himself to deal with cultural assumptions about the limits of reason and the need to believe in the existence of anything greater than humanity. When he leaves the graveyard, the speaker has driven away the irrational facet of faith and replaced it with a reasonable observation: “And I, alas, am bound/ Pure mind to flesh and bone,/ And flesh and bone to ground.”