Winters, (Arthur) Yvor
(Arthur) Yvor Winters 1900–1968
(Also Ivor Winters) American critic, poet, short story writer, and editor.
Winters's prominence as a critic is based largely on his analyses of poetry. Although he was generally associated with the New Critics, whose critical methods adhered to close readings of a text, Winters was concerned with the functional relationship between content and form. He proposed that poetry should evoke a rational and moral observation of human experiences. Throughout his criticism, Winters expounded upon the importance of morality in literature. To the dismay of his professional colleagues, he often praised minor poets that met his criterion over more established writers. Because of Winters's insistence on absolute values and ethics in poetry, some critics found his doctrines rigid and dogmatic. However, his critical theories have been regarded highly for their clarity and force.
In Primitivism and Decadence (1937), Winters introduced the principles and concepts he was to follow throughout his career. He argued that rhythm and meter induce emotion in poetry and he believed that a poem's success lies in its ability to elicit strong moral impact through a balance of rhythm, emotion, and motivation. He extended his theories in Maule's Curse (1938), a study of obscurantism in the works of such nineteenth-century poets as Jones Very, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his best-known work, In Defense of Reason (1947), which combines Primitivism and Decadence, Maule's Curse, and The Anatomy of Nonsense (1943), Winters examines the roles of didacticism, hedonism, and romanticism in literature. The book provoked diverse reactions among critics, many of whom contended that Winters failed to attack the issues most pertinent to his theories. Some felt that his metrical analyses were too ambiguous for a full comprehension of the literary function of poetry. However, the book helped solidify Winters's reputation as a significant literary scholar.
Winters published several volumes of his own poetry that were well received. His early verse, like the poems of H. D. and Ezra Pound, is experimental and imagistic. Much of his early poetry contained naturalistic themes and subjects which reviewers found rich in emotional intensity and perceptual power. His later poems shifted away from free verse toward the classical tradition which he championed in his criticism. These poems concentrate on more philosophical subjects. Among Winters's important volumes of poetry are The Immobile Wind (1921), The Magpie's Shadow (1922), and Collected Poems (1952).
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in The Southern Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1938.]
Mr. Yvor Winters has written [Primitivism and Decadence,] a book which every serious American writer, and indeed every-one with the least pretense to serious interest in literature, ought to buy and ought to study. This is said by way of qualifying radically many of the difficulties which I wish to point out in his notions about the nature of poetry. And one ought also to say at the start that there are many remarkable insights in this book: Winters seems, for example, to have predicted, indirectly, Crane's death; he has managed, apparently by a deliberate effort, to extend his taste from such writing as Joyce's to such an opposite extreme as Churchill and Gay, and in doing so he has provided us with the means of extending our tastes in like manner; and he is, I think, the first American critic of the present century to concern himself explicitly with meter…. Winters is the first critic, I should think, who has attempted to show the specific ways in which meter, morality, structure, and meaning are related, and, in a way, identical.
It would seem ungrateful, then, in view of all this extremely valuable work, to turn about and say that in section after section, Mr. Winters indulges himself in excess and exaggeration, displays prejudices which are wholly arbitrary, and is...
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Maule's Curse, which is supposed to relate "the history of ideas (a history of ideas that, neglecting both science and philosophy, is almost wholly theology) to the history of literary forms," is interesting and plausible; but some of the parts of the argument are unproved, one or two unprovable—for instance, the vital point that the doctrine of predestination necessarily leads to religious apathy—and a disproportionate importance is given to causes that were certainly partial. Many or most of the good writers of the Nineteenth Century were similarly cut off from the religion of their predecessors. Mr. Winters might just as well have named his book Copernicus' Curse (or Galileo's, or Darwin's, or a hundred others'): for it is the development of the sciences (along with a good many minor causes) that has produced the changes in the world that seem to Mr. Winters so unqualifiedly evil. His indictment of the Puritans boils down to this: their mistaken dogmas led to religious apathy, thence to moral confusion; their continued emphasis on a harshly inadequate morality permanently soured their dispositions, and left them with an exaggerated moral sense after the morality which had produced and directed it had disappeared. The first point hardly seems of paramount importance, since the correct dogmas, throughout Europe and America, led to an equal apathy and confusion; the second point anybody who has known a New Englander admits already....
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John Crowe Ransom
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in The Southern Review, Summer 1940.]
The critic who is best at pouncing upon the structure of a poem is Mr. Yvor Winters. There may be guardians of the honor of poetry who are grimmer; that would be because they are more literal, less imaginative, than he is…. Winters is not hostile to the modern poets as such, and in fact he works with them chiefly, and as lovingly as his conscience allows. He is not their most severe critic, yet he is a severe critic. In citing him as the ablest logical critic, I do not mean necessarily, and it would not follow, that he is blind to what I have called the texture of poetry; but his conscious theory does not know how to take hold of texture; and his distinction is his skill in analyzing structure. (pp. 211-12)
Winters is a poet, and in his writings about poetry he gives a proper impression of intimacy, so that he is anything but the illiterate moralist breaking into literary criticism. But he is an unusual case; if it were not for declared apostates on the order of Chaucer and Father Hopkins who recant from their literary careers and want their books burnt in honor of their conversion to some conflicting interest, I should think he is almost the most extreme case of his kind. Spontaneously on many occasions, and ex cathedra when he rehearses his careful theory of criticism, he subordinates the...
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R. P. Blackmur
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in Poetry, November 1940.]
What is most valuable about Yvor Winters as a critic is just what is most valuable about him as a poet: his power of controlled discernment of matters usually only observed fragmentarily, by the way, willy-nilly, with the merely roving eye. His observations carry the impact of a sensibility which not only observed but modified the fact at hand; and we feel the impact as weight, as momentum, as authority. The weight is of focussed knowledge, the momentum that of a mind which has chosen—by an ethic of the imagination—its direction, and the authority is the authority of tone: the tone of conviction that cannot be gainsaid without being undone. The weight and momentum, as we feel them, give our sense of value—of the reality and exigence of what is said. The tone of authority, however, variously emphasises, impedes, or irritates—for it appears in the guise of explicit assertions of fact and affords the reader sensations—our sense of the validity of the judgments it is meant to buttress. This is another way of saying that Mr. Winters does not apparently find enough authority within his sensibility—in the very tone of experience itself—and is compelled to resort to constructions of the mind outside the data of experience, either because they ought to be given or because they are consonant with the emotion of what has...
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As the title [of The Anatomy of Nonsense] is somewhat too cumbrous for convenience, perhaps we should use a short form of it, in the manner of the newspaper Variety. Two possibilities present themselves, and depend on the part of the book we are describing. Anatomy first of all defines a poem: a statement about an experience, real or imagined, in which the poet tries to understand the feelings that the experience gives rise to. Writing a poem is thus an act of moral judgment upon the feelings in question…. To make possible the judgment, the poet first organizes the experience so as to exclude all but the relevant feeling. Here the meter helps. Bearing in mind that "the emotional content of words is generated by our experience with the conceptual content," the critic tries to decide whether or not the poet has motivated the feeling—that is, understood it.
Anatomy then applies this definition to Adams and Stevens, and compares it with the critical definitions of Eliot and Ransom. Adams' confusion and bewilderment constituted a mere "literary mannerism." Stevens' poetry has declined. (This study does not reach Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.) Eliot wrongly defended his chaotic form: as a poet, was describing not chaos but his understanding of the chaos. Ransom's doctrine of irrelevance, which, as in his remarks on Lady Macbeth's speech, "When Duncan is asleep …," insists on the irrelevance of...
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[Yvor Winters] is not amiable, not charming, obviously very earnest, and willing to split a hair to any distinguishable degree of fineness. Moreover, he exhibits all the rancor of a man who has pondered a matter long and carefully, and knows that he is right. He is perhaps our most logically rigorous critic; he is certainly one of the most intelligent; and he is undoubtedly the most cantankerous. (p. 283)
[The Anatomy of Nonsense] breaks up into five sections. The first treats Henry Adams under the damning subtitle, "The Creation of Confusion." It is a useful and able essay. Adams has, in my opinion, much to answer for, though the subtitle overstates the case. Winters is not interested in the whole story, and Henry Adams may well look elsewhere for his full due. But the negative job needed to be done, and Winters has done it thoroughly.
The second section interprets Wallace Stevens—as a hedonist. His progress of poetry since the publication of Harmonium is seen as a course of steady disintegration; the later poems, as a falling away from the early and fine "Sunday Morning." (pp. 283-84)
It is curious to see how Winters arrives at this conclusion. My own views of the nature and function of metrics are not too far from Winters' own. Moreover, I think I see what Winters means by the "imitative fallacy," and am in accord with his reprehension of it: a poet cannot excuse his own...
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["In Defense of Reason"] is a particularly good book to buy; one can put it between Empson's "Some Versions of Pastoral" and Eliot's "Selected Essays," and feel for them the mixture of awe, affection and disagreement that one always feels for a first-rate critical book. But the proportion of disagreement, often of incredulous and despairing disagreement, is extraordinarily high as one reads Winters: there is no critic of comparable eminence who has made so many fantastic judgments.
Winters is what Kierkegaard said he was—a corrective; and Winters' case for the rational, extensive, prosaic virtues that the age disliked, his case against the modernist, intensive, essentially romantic vices that it swallowed whole, have in his later criticism become a case for any academic rationalistic vices, a case against any complicated dramatic virtues. Winters' tone has long ago become that of the leader of a small religious cult, that of the one sane man in a universe of lunatics; his habitual driven-to-distraction rages against the reprobates who have evidenced their lunacy by disagreeing with him go side by side with a startled, giant admiration for the elect who in a rational moment have become his followers.
His arguments often remind one of Tolstoy's: he takes a few facts, disregards the existence of the rest, and reasons simply, clearly, and convincingly to a partial and extravagant conclusion. All his vices are...
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[In a] general sense Yvor Winters is one of the philosophical critics, and his work may be taken to illustrate both the difficulties and the dangers of the critical search for order. Now … [with In Defense of Reason] we have his three books within one cover, the occasion seems at last to have arrived for something like a summation of what we owe him. I do not pretend to anything so ambitious; what I have to offer are only some preparatory notes toward such an eventual and complete analysis, which we hope will soon assign Winters his just place.
Since he describes himself as a "moralistic critic" (a term he admits needs considerable definition), the questions I have to ask fall naturally under three headings: (1) the moral theory that is advanced or implied in support of his judgments; (2) the literary or aesthetic theory that derives from the moral premises; and (3) the actual work of taste itself, the perception brought to bear upon particular works and particular authors. (p. 533)
Just what Winters's positive moral theory is, is not easy to say. We know that he is an "absolutist" rather than a "relativist," but these particular terms are likely to play the trick, under dialectical pressure, of converting into one another, so that they do not by themselves take us very far. Perhaps his morality is best defined negatively, by its rejection of hedonism. But it is not always clear that Winters means one thing...
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It should be remembered … that Winters is a poet as well as a critic. His critical theories derive from his experience in writing poetry; his application of these theories to specific poems is marked by a perceptual sensitivity and understanding that can come only from a poet. Basic to all the essays in [The Function of Criticism] is his general theory of poetry—that a poem, the result of an act of contemplation, is a statement about human experience, that this statement should be rationally apprehensible and should communicate emotion appropriate to the rational apprehension of the subject. Closely linked with this theory is his analysis of the fallacy of imitative form—the "procedure by which the poet surrenders the form of his statement to the formlessness of his subject matter", and his distinction between prose and verse—"verse is metric or measured language", the rhythm of which is more effectively expressive of emotion than prose.
The first, longest, and most impressive essay in the book, Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature might have been entitled The Battle of the Genres. The lyric (or short poem) takes on all major contenders and wins…. [For Winters, the short poem is] the only literary form in which the mature and civilized poet can at all times employ the best poetry of which he is capable on subject matter of major importance. And as an illustration of what a modern civilized poet...
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It is my understanding that the figure the story makes is crucial in the definition of Mr. Winters's work; what it marks is not merely one theme among many. Mr. Winters is concerned, unless I have misunderstood him, with life on the brink of darkness, where fear and terror come unsolicited and the available forms of order, to be good enough for the need, must be, in their own way, implacable. The forms of order which persuade, delight, and beguile are not enough: they are no good, it seems, when darkness insists. If much of Mr. Winters's work is dour and sullen, the reason is that this is the only kind of order he is prepared to invoke, darkness being what it is. It is hardly necessary to say that in his critical work the hated darkness takes the form of error, the stupidity of powerful men, the conspiracy against intelligence.
But this is to anticipate. It is interesting to see how often in Forms of Discovery Mr. Winters moves toward poems which share, in one way or another, the experience of invasion….
There is a corresponding poetic theory, first outlined in Primitivism and Decadence, repeated in The Function of Criticism and now in [Forms of Discovery]. Language is essentially "conceptual or denotative." Words acquire "connotations of feeling," since human experience is not purely conceptual. The good poet makes a statement about a human experience, real or imagined, and makes it "in...
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W. W. Robson
I cannot admire [Forms of Discovery]. It does not seem to me, as a whole, either sound literary history or sound criticism. Clearly Winters is not a writer like W. P. Ker, who tries to give as thorough and impartial an account of his subject as he can, given the inevitable limitations of his knowledge, taste, and capacity. He writes as an advocate, in causes in which he feels justice has not yet been done. And this is a perfectly legitimate way to write…. But the critical advocate does best when he takes us, his readers, by the hand, and shows us the evidence on which we can form our own opinion. He always remembers that critical argument can at most be persuasive, never demonstrative. In these respects Winters seems to me often to fail.
Then there is much in Winters's critical theory which I find unsatisfactory, and which I think has led him into wrong or blinkered judgments. I cannot see that the issue of 'absolutism' versus 'relativism' is worth all the fuss Winters makes about it. Presumably the absolutist does not claim to be actually in possession of absolute truths—at any rate, Winters does not. But in that case all he can do is what any other critic does: give reasons for his views, make plain what his judgments apply to, and allow them (in Plato's phrase) to run the gauntlet of argument; always bearing in mind that the criteria he employs, and his mode of arguing, are themselves open to further discussion. And if he...
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W. W. Robson
[Yvor Winters: Uncollected Essays and Reviews] contains about forty essays and reviews by Yvor Winters which he did not republish in book form…. I found the collection disappointing. For one thing, Winters's forte seems to have been the full-dress discussion of an author (such as his treatment of Henry James in Maule's Curse). He did not have T. S. Eliot's gift for making a memorable essay out of an occasional review. The good formulations in this book are all to be found, better stated, elsewhere in his writings. Nor did he have Eliot's extraordinary power of quotation. But above all his particular judgments are again and again quite unconvincing…. Distinguished critics have, of course, sometimes made very odd judgments…. But aberrations simply abound in Winters's pages. (p. 169)
The main thrust of [Winters's] polemic is directed against the romantic theory, which he sees as still the dominant one in our time. This theory holds that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience. Behind it lies the conviction that man is naturally good; if he will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life. When Pantheism is added, as it often is, he will achieve a kind of mystical union with the Divinity. Literature thus becomes self-expression, which is good in itself. Many romantics are also determinists…. Hedonists too are often determinists, because determinism is hostile to the intellect....
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[The essay from which the following excerpt is taken was originally published in a slightly different form as "Two Essays: 'Quantity and the Meters of Yvor Winters' and 'Being, Poetry, and Yvor Winters' Criticism'," in The Denver Quarterly, Autumn 1975.]
It is easy to ridicule a man who, like Yvor Winters, argues that poetry is a moral evaluation of experience and that poetry should use the full resources of the language. It is particularly easy in this century, since romantics seem, by and large, to have forgotten the religious origins of their position….
Winters' crucial stance, despite all of its apparent unfashionableness and antiromanticism, was actually the romantic position that a poem is the result of a religious act, that it is an organic whole, and that reading it is a fusion of one's consciousness with the universe of the poem. The difference between Winters and virtually everyone else interested in poetry nowadays is that he acted on these principles while the majority of critics and poets merely affirm them. Whenever Winters encountered a similar degree of seriousness in another writer, he showed his admiration even when he disapproved of the other's position. (p. 3)
As a critic, Yvor Winters applied the logical and dogmatic method appropriate to theology to the analysis of literary content and form. At first consideration, this might seem an illegitimate procedure, but...
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"Yvor Winters: poet, professor, critic …" This original sequence still holds when one turns from critical theory to actual practice in the development of Winters' double career. One need always remember that he developed his particular theories of criticism as a result of certain necessary practices in the creation of his poetry. His first published works were all poems, and his later critical canon is the direct result of his practical poetic experiments….
It is ironic that he has been more widely acclaimed as critic than as poet since his controversial critical career was actually always secondary for him. He hoped people would read his poetry first and thereby better understand his criticism, since that was the order of its genesis; but few ever did…. It is a fact that his poetry was consistently read through the years only by other poets who understood how much might be learned here: Marianne Moore, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Louise Bogan, John Crowe Ransom, John Ciardi, Donald Justice, Thomas Gunn, J. V. Cunningham. (p. 65)
Before the poetry of Winters can be properly examined, it is necessary to review his own conception of the nature and function of poetry. "I believe that a poem is a statement in words about a human experience. In each work there is a content which is rationally apprehensible and each work endeavours to communicate the emotion which is appropriate to the rational apprehension of the...
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