(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 guilty either of misconstruction or ignorance. But each of these charges can be clearly demonstrated…. [In] the most general terms, Winters' error is that of the reductive fallacy, which has many instances in the history of criticism: the critic, that is, decides to define Beauty (or aesthetic value, or worth, or whatever he calls it) and he decides that Beauty is unity in difference, or significant form, or the expression of the class struggle, or pleasure; and having decided this, he rules out all instances which do not conform to his definition or he attempts to reduce unlikely instances to the unique definition. The ruling definition for Winters is regularity of meter. This is a crude way of stating it; Winters has other criteria, which modify it; but I shall try to give a more adequate statement of this view later on.
Primitivism and Decadence divides itself into five parts, each of which reflects backward and forward upon the others; the subjects, in order, are: morality insofar as it is involved in poetry, structural methods of presenting the subject matter, poetic convention (a really illuminating discovery), ways of classifying types of poets, and finally, meter. All five refer to aspects of any given poem which are, ultimately, identical: the moral insight exhibited in a poem is, for example, the same thing as its firmness and lucidity of structure…. The range of his awareness is commensurate with the kind of meters he uses and the type of poet that he is and the way in which he presents his subject.
Beginning with the first and the most fundamental aspect of the poem with which Winters deals, one finds that the writing of a poem is a moral act because it is an attempt to order, control, and understand one's experiences. Each of the constituents of poetry is, in its very nature, an instrument of perception, so that poetry is "the last refinement of contemplation," "the richest and most perfect technique of contemplation."
Now the first difficulty is Mr. Winters' singular view of morality in general. Not only does he say that religion may be and philosophy can be a preliminary to poetry, but his whole view of what constitutes a moral act seems to be based upon a very narrow view of what the poet is involved in when he writes a poem. He thinks, for example, that social conditions and modern thought do not change the mode which moral responsibility will take and the mode which style and meter can take. Those who think these matters make the task of the modern poet different and more difficult suffer from "group hypochondria." This accusation when added to the different charges against various modern poets—Mr. Eliot's "spiritual limpness," for example—and when added to a good deal else which cannot be mentioned in a review, imply that Winters sees the poet operating in some kind of vacuum in which not only his act but the circumstances in which he acts depend upon his own choice…. [It] is worthwhile considering the moral preeminence which Winters gives to the act of writing a poem. He says that it is no substitute for action "in the face of a particular situation," but merely "a way of enriching one's awareness" and thus becoming more intelligent about the future; yet the emphasis betrays him: religion and philosophy are merely preliminary and the richest way of knowing is the act of writing a poem and the great poet has triumphed (in the terms of Mr. Richards' rhetoric) over life itself. (pp. 332-35)
[It] is worthwhile considering … what seems to be the root of Winters' critical method. This is to be found, I think, mainly in the little book by I. A. Richards called Science and Poetry, and also in his Principles of Literary Criticism and certain pages on the "sincerity ritual" in Practical Criticism. The ideas of Richards are well-known and may be rapidly summed up. He thinks the poet is, in the poem, engaged in organizing his impulses—his appetencies and aversions: the good poem is the one in which a psychological balance or harmony—synaesthesis is Richards' term—has been achieved. And this view flows from the belief that nature has been "neutralized," that most of the values of the past have been unmasked and repudiated, and that poetry alone is left to the human being as a means of integrating his life. Richards attacks Yeats, De la Mare and Lawrence as poets who refuse to face the modern situation, the neutrality and meaninglessness of nature, and who attempt to provide elaborate fictions to belie the truth. Winters duplicates this attack in some of his statements about Yeats and Crane. The difficulty here is that Winters has obviously changed his mind: he no longer accepts the crude naturalism of Richards—which Richards in Coleridge on the Imagination turns upside down into a kind of subjective idealism, and which was initially derived from doctrines which Lord Russell has long since abandoned—and Winters has taken upon himself beliefs and values of a neohumanist variety. One is permitted to change one's mind, but a certain thoroughness is preferable. Winters, however, still drags along Richards' psychological-moral notion of the substance of a poem. The mixture is indeed curious. Winters is perhaps as sensitive as anyone could be to the concrete poem, and he must know that a poem is not primarily a balance of appetencies and aversions, but an effort at perception and evaluation. But the former belief remains, transformed into the idea that the creative act itself, with all the absorption and effort it necessitates, makes the writing of the poem a moral act. One can only observe that the criminal may also exhibit a like devotion and concentration. (pp. 335-36)
Mr. Winters makes a good many of his judgments on the basis of the metrical character of a poem. From the meter of the poem he infers the spiritual or moral character of the poem.
There is, to begin with, the statement that "the limp versification of Mr. Eliot is inseparable from the spiritual limpness that one feels behind the poems."...
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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...
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[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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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,...
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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...
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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,...
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