Yvor Winters Essay - Winters, Yvor (Vol. 8)

Winters, Yvor (Vol. 8)

Winters, Yvor 1900–1968

Winters was an American poet, essayist, and critic whose strict adherence to what some considered a rigid concept of poetry made him extremely controversial. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

When D. H. Lawrence died, E. M. Forster, in his famous letter to the Nation and Athenaeum, observed that "no one who alienates both Mrs. Grundy and Aspasia can hope for a good obituary press." Where criticism rather than sex is concerned, the cases of F. R. Leavis and Yvor Winters are somewhat analogous. I have spoken elsewhere … of some of the ways in which their work can offend academics. This offensiveness would not by itself, however, have been enough to account for the boycotting that for a number of years their works endured in the academic world. For even academics, faced with disturbing critical innovators, can be intimidated or impressed if it is known that those innovators are in good standing in intellectual circles outside the academy. (p. 963)

Well, obviously enough, [this] could not be said of Leavis or, after the early thirties, of Winters. Leavis on Auden, Woolf, Joyce, the Pound of the Cantos, Marianne Moore, Wyndham Lewis, Lawrence Durrell, the Sitwells and so on; Winters on Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Hart Crane, et al.—the record is horrendous, or at least has generally been judged to have been so. Actually the record is a trifle more complex than that. I mean, if there is a book that takes one more illuminatingly than In Defense of Reason into the dynamics of modern American poetry, I have still to come across it. (p. 964)

[It] seems to me that something more is involved than simply the nature of specific judgments—something involving the whole notion of the "modern" in relation to the "traditional." The real offense of Leavis and Winters consisted—and still consists—in their having presumed to attack a sizable number of avant-garde writers at all. And to admire either or both of the two men strongly is to feel ineluctably, at least if one is an academic oneself, that one is liable to be considered guilty of opting for an inhibitingly academic kind of traditionalism, as against the stir and flow of all that is vital today. (pp. 964-65)

[One must note] the intensely individual quality of both Leavis and Winters, their obvious striving to see as precisely as possible, to record as precisely as possible, and to act upon as full a range of their perceptions as possible. And both men are in fact intensely "modern" in the sense in which such figures as Kierkegaard, Camus, and Eliot are "modern." This is most apparent, perhaps, once one gets past his alleged and much misrepresented classicism, in Winters' case, especially in his poetry and in that very distinguished short story "Brink of Darkness." "Every poem of Winters'," Alvin B. Kernan observes in the course of an excellent brief discussion of Winters' verse …, "is a dramatization of the conflict between the moral perceiver and a spiritually empty world which is nevertheless so solid and real that the confrontation cannot be avoided…. In this war the struggle is a deadly one, and it is always intensified by the attraction that the object exerts over the poet, threatening to pull him into its chaos, its emptiness, its darkness…." But this same metaphysical dread seems to me to pervade his critical prose too, not in the sense that a thesis is being argued but in the sense that to admire the works that he celebrates, in the contexts that he furnishes for them, is to feel oneself being edged toward a perception of the world that is at times almost overpowering in its absence of reassuring solidities and unquestionable "natural" données. And when, apropos of Hopkins' "No worst, there is none," he says impatiently, "But what are these mountains of the mind? One does not enquire because one holds them cheap, but because one has hung on so many oneself, so various in their respective terrors, that one is perplexed to assign a particular motive," one believes him as one would believe virtually no other critic…. [In] general, if what we are talking about are the intense, and often intensely painful or disturbing, experiences of very sensitive, intelligent, passionate and complex minds, then both Leavis and Winters, in the revealed quality and scope of their awareness of their times, are modern in a way that our professional propagandists on behalf of The New—promoters, that is, of a reassuring collective sense of what stratagems we should be using to avoid being annoyed or puzzled or overly agitated by the unfamiliar—never come within streets of.

But of course with both men we are also about as far as one can intelligently get—outside of an orthodox religious system at least—from any notion of discrete selves, creative or otherwise, flourishing by virtue of an inner light or faltering because that light mysteriously dims or because there is an insufficient confidence in it. Both of them have again and again emphasized the fact that, in poetry especially, the preponderant tradition at any time (which is not to say the only tradition) helps to nurture or to starve a writer's native talents. (pp. 967-68)

[What] we see in Winters, I believe, is a heroic endeavor … to give back to ideas their existential weight by looking intently at the quality of individual minds engaged in certain kinds of dealing with them (Henry Adams, Emerson, Melville, Poe, Eliot, Hart Crane, and so on). He has brought out brilliantly the key positions that certain figures occupy in relation to twentieth-century American thought, either as enthusiastic participants in it, or as the makers of certain moves in the past that are logical prerequisites for some of the moves made now, or, obliquely, as exemplars of major qualities that are now significantly undervalued. (His dealings with the formal aspects of poetry in terms of the implicit revelations in specific works of possibilities inhering in certain forms, conventions, and procedures are similarly existential.) And among the more memorable of his tracings of the existential histories of ideas … are his eight pages in The Anatomy of Nonsense about Deism and Romanticism, his discussion in the same book of New England theology from Calvinism to Unitarianism, and the masterly long paragraph in Maule's Curse, apropos of Henry James, about New England intellectual history. Furthermore, when he says, "I do not believe … that the history of literature can be grasped unless one has a critical understanding of it; but it seems to me equally obvious that a critical understanding is frequently quite impossible unless one knows a good deal of history. The critical and the historical understanding are merely aspects of a single process"—he is clearly not speaking only of the history of literature and ideas. Though one would not immediately adduce his work as evidence of what Leavis calls "the inevitable way in which serious literary interest develops towards the sociological," one carries away from a reading of it as a whole a considerably stronger sense of the density and intractability of past phases of society than one does from, say, such critics as ostensibly preoccupied with the past and "tradition" as Eliot, Pound, and Tate…. [The] actual number of pages or passages [in Maule's Curse] touching on [historical] topics may be relatively few. But I can only say they tell and that when, for instance, apropos of the history of frontier America, Winters casually lets fall a remark like, "Anyone who will take the trouble to acquaint himself with the works of Parkman—and anyone who will not is to be commiserated in general and distrusted in particular as a commentator on certain aspects of American literature and history …," one believes him.

In sum, then, I think that one can see Winters as having been engaged in a lifelong struggle with the sort of conditions that Leavis points to when, apropos of a particular kind of "mistaken preoccupation with being American," he comments that "it rejects something profoundly and essentially American that held the promise of a rich future, and rejects it for what is American in an excluding and impoverishing way…."… [It] is, one feels, with a peculiarly insidious kind of temporal provinciality that Winters has been concerned in his animadversions on a particular kind of modernity. It is the kind that involves an attempt to shake free of "forms," an excessive confidence in the goodness of the untutored human heart (as located in the bosom of the untutored or self-tutored artist), and a general conviction—fostered, ironically, by a good many "traditional" academics—that in any particular period the distinguished artist not only does but ought to surrender himself gratefully to the procreative embraces of whatever is assumed to be the Zeitgeist. I have in mind here such things as his reference to "Dr. W. C. Williams,… who more perhaps than any writer living encourages in his juniors a profound conviction of their natural rightness, a sentimental debauchery of self-indulgence …"; or his judgment that "It does not occur to Frost that he might learn from his betters and improve himself; he can see only two possibilities in his relationship with them—he can be silenced by them or he can ignore them and proceed as before"…. And one very important consequence of Winters' steady concern with the kind of tradition constituted and the kinds of standards provided by the works, American and European, in which one finds the highest concentration of ordered energy and intelligence is that he can successfully bring off moves that are difficult in the normal American Studies approach to American literature. In the latter, however strong the revealed desire to display the depths and cultural richness in American masterworks, one is all too often, in the absence both of effective comparisons with other works and of firm discriminations between the works of individual authors, faced with what seems to be merely a more sophisticated form of the kind of America First approach of Van Wyck Brooks. But when Winters, in contrast, points to individual works by Americans, whether James or Cunningham, Hawthorne, Stevens, or Bowers, as being quite simply among the greatest in the language, or when, apropos of English poetry from Wyatt to Dryden and American—or largely American—poetry from Jones Very to the present, he declares that "as a result of almost endless reconsideration of the materials of both periods, I have come to the conclusion that the second is certainly the greater"—the judgments, I can only say, invite a good deal of very respectful pondering.

I would like to glance, finally, at [his] handling of the quasi-philosophical position underlying a good deal of modernist thinking. I am speaking of the assumptions that at bottom all is a flux and that the only options are to assume that all perceptions and values are equally unreal and "subjective" or to believe that one can somehow break through to a different and superior kind of reality if one can only get free of enough mind-forged manacles. Certain related moves seem to me involved in [Winters'] dealings with this position.

One—the simplest—is a flat insistence on experiential psychological realities that require no traditional metaphysical underpinning to make them real. I am thinking here of such things as … Winters' assertion that: "The realm which we perceive with our unaided senses, the realm which our ancestors took to be real, may be an illusion; but in that illusion we pass our daily lives, including our moral lives; the illusion is quite obviously governed by principles which it is dangerous, often fatal, to violate; this illusion is our reality. I will hereafter refer to it as reality…. [It is] the situation in which we live, from which there is no escape save self-destruction, and which we would do well to endeavor to understand." (pp. 976-80)

The second move, which is in no way in conflict with this sort of insistence on the ineluctably given in each person's reality, is not simply an acceptance of but an insistence on the made aspect of reality and on the centrality, in that making, of all that we mean by "language."… This is Winters: "It would be false to say that the occidental mind created the languages of metaphysics, scholasticism, and modern science in order to express what it knows; it created these languages slowly, as ways of living and discovering. The languages were modes of being which were slowly enlarged to discover and embody an increasing extent of reality; they were forms of being and forms of discovery." Here he is again: "But to say that the scholastics made Latin a tool for thought is imprecise: they made it rather a way of thinking, the life of the mind…." (pp. 980-81)

John Fraser, "Leavis, Winters and 'Tradition'," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1971, by John Fraser), Vol. 7, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 963-85.

The Yvor Winters collection [Uncollected Essays and Reviews] could only be called distinguished by those who think him a distinguished critic (and he is usually thought a distinguished critic only by those who think him a distinguished poet), but it should prove very useful as an extended demonstration of how he arrived at his hopelessly limited view of poetry, despite a bitter rearguard action fought by his natural intelligence—his crankiness had thoughtful beginnings….

Winters was always a theoretician, yet his early theories were so complicated that anything good could gain acceptance. Lyric poetry was the only kind of poetry you could have. There were, however, five different kinds of lyric, and each kind could have an 'essential unit' composed of either an 'image' or an 'anti-image', which really made, by my calculations, at least ten kinds altogether. There was no hope of applying this scheme with any rigour, and responsiveness was unfettered as a result—everything he admired could be accommodated in it somewhere. He admired extravagantly, but there are worse faults in a young critic, and anyway his heroes and heroines included Marianne Moore and Hart Crane, about both of whom he said some acute things. (p. 243)

It was a considerable gymnastic feat on Winters's part to transform this impressionable but energetic flexibility into the dogmatic torpor he evinced in the Thirties, when Robert Bridges became 'the most valuable model of poetic style to appear since Dryden', and the drear T. Sturge Moore was presented as outsoaring Yeats. Formal versatility and purity of diction: those were the new watchwords. That Bridges's diction abounded with nays, thro's, 'neaths, 'tises and yeas, and that Moore's diction was choc-a-bloc with fains, quaffings, e'ens and dosts, and that the 'formal versatility' of either bard was the most abject pattern-making, Winters didn't mind or even mention. (pp. 243, 46)

Clive James, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 21, 1975.