Born in the first year of the twentieth century, Arthur Yvor Winters spent his earliest years in Chicago and in Eagle Rock (a district of Los Angeles), California. The landscape of Southern California near Pasadena provides the setting for two major poems in heroic couplets, “The Slow Pacific Swell” and “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills.” Later, he returned to Chicago, graduated from high school, and for one year attended the University of Chicago, where, in 1917, he became a member of the Poetry Club, which, in his own words, “was a very intelligent group, worth more than most courses in literature.” By then, he had begun to study his contemporaries—Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Stevens, William Butler Yeats—and the diverse poetic styles appearing in the little magazines.
In 1918, having contracted tuberculosis, he was forced to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and confined to a sanatorium for three years. The debilitating fatigue and pain, the resultant hypersensitivity to sound and sight and touch, and the sense of death hovering were experiences indelibly etched in his poetry, then and later. In 1921, Winters began teaching grade school—English, French, zoology, boxing, basketball—in a coal-mining camp called Madrid, and he taught high school the following year in Cerrillos. These five years in the southwestern United States were a slow period of recovery in isolation, a time when his own study of poetry continued and his correspondence with many contemporary poets was active. It was also the time of his earliest publications. The landscape of New Mexico suffuses the poetry of his first four volumes.
In the summer of 1923, Winters began the academic study that would eventually bring him to Stanford for his doctorate, earning a B.A. and an M.A. in romance languages, with a minor in Latin from the University of Colorado. The skills he acquired enabled him to translate many poems from French and Spanish (including thirteenth century Galician) and, between 1925 and 1927, to teach French and Spanish at the University of Idaho at Moscow. During this period, he married Janet Lewis, later a distinguished novelist and poet, whom he had met in 1921 on a return visit to Chicago; their wedding was in 1926 in Santa Fe, where she, too, had gone to cure tuberculosis. Together now, they moved to Stanford in 1927, when Winters was twenty-six years old; then, under the tutelage of his admired mentor in Renaissance studies, William Dinsmore Briggs, he began the systematic study of poetry in English that occupied him for the rest of his life.
Winters’s life in California as a teacher, husband, father, and involved citizen is reflected everywhere in his later poetry. He became a legend at Stanford. Depending on which students were reporting, he was dogmatic, shy, reasonable, surly, kind, hilarious, humorless, a petty tyrant, or an intellectual giant. His disciples and detractors felt intensely about him; few were indifferent. The marriage of Winters and Janet Lewis was a lasting and loving one, and it nurtured their independent careers as writers. Their daughter Joanna was born in 1931 and their son Daniel in 1938. Hardly one to withdraw into an ivory tower, Winters liked to get his hands dirty. The raising and breeding of Airedale terriers was a lifelong activity. He kept goats and a garden. He became deeply involved with the trial of David Lamson, a friend unjustly accused of murdering his wife. During World War II, he served as a Citizens’ Defense Corps zone warden for Los Altos. These experiences are the kinds of occasions he wrote about in his later work.
Before his retirement from Stanford in 1966, Winters had already endured the first of two operations for cancer, the disease that killed him in 1968. His final effort as a writer, amid acute pain, was to see his last book, Forms of Discovery, through to publication after the death of his publisher and old friend, Alan Swallow.
Arthur Yvor Winters was a poet,...
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