The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

“On a View of Pasadena from the Hills” is made up of seven stanzas of varying length written in heroic couplets (units of two lines of rhymed iambic pentameter that are self-contained in meaning and terminate in a full stop). The physical setting is the home of the poet’s father, a man in late middle age. The speaker may be identified as a version of the poet, a man in his early thirties. As the poem begins, the poet notes the subtlety of the transition from night to day at dawn: “No light appears, though dark has mostly gone.” There are no sharp distinctions between one stage and the other, yet there are boundaries and divisions. The garden is arranged in terraces supported by concrete. The poet’s mind shifts to the past as he notices what is not there. The palms of his childhood have disappeared, and this observation gives rise to a vivid memory of walking in this area before the changes. However, images of “powdered ash, the sift of age” suggest that impermanence and mortality had their place in the design of things even then.

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In the fifth stanza, the place is specifically identified and the poet’s father is situated in that place, his home, his “phantasy of Paradise.” He is also situated in time. He is approaching the last stages of a life that has included some success but has been ultimately unfulfilling, each “stepgained” matched by a “loss of heart,” at least in the eyes of his grown son. The poet’s father is also situated within his generation, his friends who “With tired ironic faces wait for death.” Even at home, the father is held within limits: He is “Forbiddento climb.” For his part, the poet holds himself, at least to some extent, apart from the scene, knowing as he does that he will never live here. This is his father’s home, not his.

In the sixth stanza, Pasadena, the California city named in the title, finally appears. Or does it? It is concealed by mist. Yet the poet senses its presence at dawn on the edge of sleep—that is, on the edge of waking. The poet also notes in the neighboring hills the evidence of the automobile culture that for some passes for progress and others revile as decline. Of such issues he has nothing to say. The poem ends neither in celebration of progress nor in nostalgia for an irretrievable past; rather, the closing lines include the marks of modernity in the larger setting, as much natural as it is anything else. The poet sees not a war between nature and civilization but a whole containing both.

The reader senses the poet’s willingness to be poised on the edge between sleep and waking, night and day, past and present, nature and civilization, father and son, and life and death. His position allows him to hold these opposites in a delicate balance, acknowledging both difference and continuity. He feels no need to move to a higher level where all opposites can be reconciled and the many can finally be perceived as one. In both his poetry and his criticism, Yvor Winters has turned away from the Romantic tradition in poetry. In the resolution of this poem, he rejects a strategy of transcendence characteristic of that tradition.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

The heroic couplet, the verse form adopted by Winters for “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” dominated English poetry in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period often referred to as the neoclassical age in English literature. It largely fell out of favor in the course of the nineteenth century, although it was still occasionally and effectively employed. By the 1930’s, when Winters wrote this poem, the form had been largely abandoned as tied inextricably to the ideologies of earlier eras. Thus Winters went against the grain of contemporary poetic practice, a move he was never unwilling to make. In its days of dominance, the heroic couplet was often put to satirical or didactic use by poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope, its most revered masters. Winters’s application of the form, however, is more reminiscent of the practice of George Crabbe, who emphasized the form’s descriptive and expository possibilities. Robert Bridges, one of the few poets of the nineteenth century who excelled in couplets and a poet Winters greatly admired, may also have served as a model.

One of the attractions the heroic couplet may have for a poet is the discipline it imposes on the expression of feeling. Another is the possibility it affords for subtlety. Because the rules are so rigorous, the slightest variation can assume expressive power. For Winters, the poet must match emotion precisely to motive, to the event or occasion that gives rise to the emotion. Rhythm is an essential component of that precision, and working with and against the restraints imposed by the couplet’s conventions can create the finest of rhythmic nuances. To take just one example, note the force in the first stanza of one of the poet’s few deviations from the practice of ending each couplet with a full stop: “The hills/ Lie naked but not light. The darkness spills/ Down the remoter gulleys.” Rhythm and darkness spill together. Furthermore, as Winters knew from the examples provided by poets who had gone before him, the closed couplet allows a cadence not dissimilar to that of the speaking voice while at the same time imposing the formality of artifice. In turning to what others might have regarded as an obsolete form, Winters escaped the vernacular of a particular time and place without abandoning the sense of actual speech.

Of the many critical utterances of Winters, perhaps none has been quoted more often, whether in agreement or disagreement, than his observation that a poem is a statement about a human experience. His adversaries have zeroed in especially on the word “statement,” suggesting that it is scarcely adequate to the intensity and variety of poetry. It should be noted, therefore, that “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” while it contains statements, is in no sense the poetry of statement. Rather, it resolutely evades any final summarizing statement, finding its resolution in a rich and ultimately ambiguous image.

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Themes