Witter Bynner Essay - Critical Essays


Witter Bynner’s poetry has not enjoyed popularity in the years since his death, probably because he wrote mainly for himself and was consequently his own best audience. This fact sets him apart from the more famous poets of the twentieth century, and any assessment of his work as a whole must take this fact into consideration. Readers tend to find him facile to the point of glibness, and his wit sometimes seems misplaced. It is also easy, perhaps excessively so, to dismiss his quasi-mystical philosophical convictions. However, when a general assessment of the poetry of the first half of the twentieth century is made, Bynner emerges as an honest if garrulous voice and a poet whose response to the modernist predicament is quite possibly as creditable as anyone else’s.

“An Ode to Harvard”

Bynner’s first significant published poem was “An Ode to Harvard.” In this poem, written at the beginning of his long career, Bynner assumes an imposing poetic voice which speaks in hieratic tones that implicitly warn against the analysis of vision. The incantatory rhymes reinforce the Wordsworthian tone, and the whole passage resounds with an honest sincerity rarely, if ever, paralleled in Bynner’s subsequent poetry. However, the very uniqueness of this poem requires the reader of Bynner to examine it carefully. When Bynner sent William Butler Yeats a copy of his poem, the great Irish poet responded, “you have the control of a powerful, eloquent, vehement language and thought that rushes on impetuous to its sentient end.” It is not clear what Yeats meant by “to its sentient end,” but Bynner evidently soon changed his mind about continuing to write in this fashion, and he adopted the witty, facile, sometimes even gossipy style that pervaded his work for the next half-century. However, the assertion in this passage of the oneness of life, the shared destiny of living things, remains one of Bynner’s essential poetic premises throughout his long life.

Poetic forms and the unity of life

In “The Dead Loon” (Grenstone Poems), Bynner reflects...

(The entire section is 865 words.)