Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847

Arthur Yvor Winters was a poet, literary critic, college professor, and breeder of airedale terriers. Born in Chicago, as a child he also lived in California and Oregon, returning with his family to Illinois in 1913. Although his parents hoped Winters would be a doctor, they underwrote his efforts to...

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Arthur Yvor Winters was a poet, literary critic, college professor, and breeder of airedale terriers. Born in Chicago, as a child he also lived in California and Oregon, returning with his family to Illinois in 1913. Although his parents hoped Winters would be a doctor, they underwrote his efforts to earn degrees in languages and literature. Winters’s dedication to writing poetry and to the study of literature began when he was a high school student in Chicago, where he read Poetry, a leading monthly publication specializing in new American verse, and corresponded with its editor, Harriet Monroe.

In 1917 Winters entered the University of Chicago, but he was forced to withdraw in 1918 after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He left the Midwest for New Mexico, where he resided in a sanatorium from 1918 to 1922. During this time, he read widely and began writing poetry. Monroe accepted his first efforts in 1920 for Poetry. The next year, Winters published his first book of verse, The Immobile Wind, a collection of nineteen poems on the observation of nature. In his earliest work, it is possible to detect Winters’s preoccupations with formal techniques of verse composition, his interests in the power of evocative language, and his ability to compose poems with strong images. His second book of verse, The Magpie’s Shadow, was published in 1922.

With his health improved, Winters enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in Romance languages. In 1925 he was hired by the University of Idaho as an instructor of languages, and he remained there until 1927. He married the writer Janet Lewis in 1926; in 1927, he published a third book of poems, The Bare Hills, again drawn from his observations of the natural world, especially the landscape of New Mexico.

Winters enrolled at Stanford University in 1927 to study for his doctoral degree. In 1928 he was appointed a lecturer. While teaching, Winters continued to write and study poetry, publishing in 1930 The Proof, a significant work in his canon. Divided into three sections, the book features free-verse poetry, Winters’s first published sonnet sequence, and a thematic section on loss. In The Proof, Winters demonstrated how powerful traditional forms of poetry could be in expressing current ideas, observations, and emotions. His fifth book, The Journey, and Other Poems, furthered Winters’s explorations of such themes as wisdom, being, time, the seasons, and human actions and their consequences. By 1934 Winters had earned his Ph.D.; his thesis was indicative of his research and verse writing at this time: “A Study of the Post-Romantic Reaction to Lyrical Verse, and Incidentally in Certain Other Forms.” He published another book of poetry, Before Disaster, which contains some of his better-known work, including “To My Infant Daughter” and “By the Road to the Sunnyvale Air-Base.”

From 1934 to 1966, Winters was a professor at Stanford. He published two more collections of poetry in 1940 and 1952. The first, called simply Poems, contains verse written between 1939 and 1940; it was printed by Winters at his Gyroscope Press in Los Altos, California. The second, Collected Poems, was published in 1952 by Alan Swallow Press of Denver.

Simultaneous with his verse writing, Winters was a student of literature and of literary criticism. Between 1937 and 1967, he published six books reflecting his theories of literature and verse composition. As a critic, Winters showed great range, commenting on a diverse group of writers including Emily Dickinson, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Hart Crane.

Forms of Discovery, Winters’s major critical book, is noteworthy as an example of his ability to define his positions and to support them with strong examples. In this work, he divides poetry into two main groups: one located in English poetry before 1700 and the other in American poetry written after 1830. To illustrate his claims, Winters lists and analyzes many individual poems, and he argues that verse should be ranked and judged according to the quality of the formal elements: tone, style, logic, rhythm, and word choice, especially as these make the meaning of a composition clear to the reader. Winters’s insistence on these quantitative aspects of verse made him unpopular as a literary critic, as poetry is often written without formal structure. Winters, though, was concerned with the effect the poem had on the reader rather than with the poet’s objectives in writing the piece. Winters’s reading and appreciation of the theological writings of St. Thomas Aquinas was the greatest influence on his critical method, and Winters addressed the moral effect of poetry’s form, content, and meaning in the scope of his entire critical work.

Winters also translated French and Spanish verse for magazine publications; wrote book reviews and literary articles, many of which are collected in Uncollected Essays and Reviews; operated his own printing press; published a short-lived magazine, The Gyroscope (1929-1930); wrote studies of the poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and William Butler Yeats; and edited the poetry of Elizabeth Daryush for publication in 1948. He died of cancer on January 25, 1968. In 1993 his letters were released from the terms of his will and became available for scholarly use and publication.

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