The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

“To the Holy Spirit” is written in rhyming trimeter divided into four stanzas of varying lengths. The expansion of the stanzas—from ten lines in the first, to twelve lines in the second and third, to fourteen in the fourth—reflects the development of the subject of the poem. The title suggests a prayer or a petition to the Holy Spirit. This part of the Holy Trinity traditionally is a source of hope, inspiration, forgiveness, and consolation for humans. The Holy Spirit is the mediator between God and humans. The poem is written in the first person, and the speaker is calling on the Holy Spirit to come to his aid as he tries to believe in God.

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The poem’s epigraph, “from a deserted graveyard in the Salinas Valley,” sets the poem in California. It also allows the speaker the opportunity to meditate on life and death in a serene environment. The graveyard is abandoned, and the speaker of the poem has arrived there in late morning. Once there, the speaker observes how nature and death possess powers that humans cannot easily comprehend. The graveyard setting lends itself to contemplations of the limits of reason and ultimately of human mortality. While the speaker does not seek immortality, he does appeal to the Holy Spirit to guide him in understanding how God and he can coexist in the world.

In the first stanza, the speaker arrives in the graveyard on a hazy, not too warm summer day. He seems to be surprised to have encountered the site on his walk. As the speaker surveys the scene of neglected graves, he contemplates how death is the great equalizer: “the bones/ Beneath are similar:/ Relics of lonely men,/ Brutal and aimless, then,/ As now, irregular.”

The speaker recognizes individual dignity (“relics”) in these graves and is forced to consider the relationship between life and death that is a part of all humans. The speaker’s acknowledged problem in stanza 3 is how to think about the Holy Spirit and God, abstractions in which he feels compelled, irrationally in the presence of death, to believe. In stanza 4, he longs for the blind faith he presumes the dead have. He then concludes the poem by suggesting that whatever his thoughts are on life, death, immortality, and God, they are irrelevant in the face of the reality of mortality. In his own mind, through his meditations, the speaker has established a reason to believe in God. His position is theistic—that is, a belief in the existence of God, who reveals himself to humans.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

Imagery, language, and meter are carefully chosen to produce the meaning and effect of “To the Holy Spirit.” Winters was particularly attracted to the barren ordered beauty of the desert landscape and the open spaces of New Mexico and California. He spent his twenties in New Mexico and later moved to California; he was a college professor at Stanford University for over thirty years. The images of the desert, with its wordplay on “deserted,” are created in the first two stanzas of the poem. They yield a sense of limitlessness and some discomfort in the dry heat, dust, and sand. Although the poem has an emphasis on landscape, it is not a Romantic poem. Instead of images of lush, fertile, friendly nature, this landscape is harsh, yet uniquely beautiful; the mood is tense, and the speaker struggles to find reconciliation in nature.

The language is clear and direct. The use of older forms of address in stanza 3, “Thou,” “thee,” and “thine,” lends seriousness to the speaker’s reflections. They carry the weight of tradition. The image patterns in the poem move from obscurity to clarity. In the first stanza the haze blocks the speaker’s ability to see the vista he suspects is before him. In the second, with the advent of noontime, the haze begins to clear. By the third stanza he sees more clearly in his mind the nature of his problem with belief in God, and in the fourth his physical eyes and his mind’s eye see the truth of his situation.

The poem’s vocabulary is specific yet rich in connotation. The first two words, “Immeasurable haze,” create an image of vastness, a picture of an open landscape marked only by a few paltry trees. They give an immediate sense of the limits of sight but not of imagination. Measurement is a precise activity, and the speaker recognizes the haze as “immeasurable.” The haze, which engulfs the speaker and obscures his vision, is not cloud or fog, but particles of water vapor, smoke, or dust; again, natural elements symbolize the speaker’s condition and how he has defined himself in nature. A third word that carries precise meaning is “graveyard.” While the dictionary shows cemetery and graveyard as synonyms, Winters chose the latter to name the poem’s setting. Cemetery’s root word, from the Greek, means “to put to sleep,” whereas graveyard is an Anglo-Saxon compound noun. It includes the word “grave,” which means several things besides a burial place for the body. Of special note are its meanings as an adjective—describing situations or places filled with great importance, filled with danger, or solemn and dignified. In this one word the reader perceives the poem’s content as active, not passive, and as serious, not lighthearted or superficial.

The poem is written in the three-foot line known as trimeter, a nice choice as the three-beat line keeps the three-person God in focus. Trimeter was popular with some British Romantic poets as well as with the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Using trimeter allows Winters to participate in the tradition of writing about nature’s role in leading humans to certain understandings of the world.

Each stanza rhymes irregularly. Couplets are used in stanzas 1, 2, and 4. Stanza 3 is the climax of the poem, and here Winters uses alternating rhymes (ababcdcdefef) to echo the speaker’s indecisiveness. As a formal poet, one who used rhyme and meter, Winters was aware of the value of traditional versification in giving structure to verse. The variations in rhyme combined with the metrical steadiness create a feeling of ambivalence while promising resolution.

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