Yvor Winters Winters, Yvor (Vol. 4) - Essay

Winters, Yvor (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Winters, Yvor 1900–1968

Winters was an American poet and critic. His literary criticism was among the most influential in modern letters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Winters is a serious man, and in some respects quite a useful one, and it is regrettable that to a generation of writers younger than himself he has become largely a comic figure, the man who thinks that Elizabeth Daryush is our foremost living poet and that Edith Wharton is a better writer than Henry James. Winters has made these statements, and others more extreme, but he is our foremost and perhaps sole representative of a vanishing art, Johnsonian criticism, and he is well worth careful study….

Implicit in [his] view of the moral nature of art and criticism is the obligation on the critic to "correct" traditional opinion in so far as he believes it to be wrong. Without question, this wearying ethical burden is in part responsible for some of Winters's wilder evaluations…. [There is] a possibility that after disposing of American literature he looks forward to rearranging the history of English literature or even of world literature.

Into this giant project in the correction of opinion only now beginning to emerge, all of Winters's critical writing is designed to fit….

It is obvious that Yvor Winters is … a throwback to the violent oracular tradition of an earlier century, [for he] bases his evaluations in classicism and traditionalism, and … enlists his evaluations in the cause of political reaction….

The vocabulary and examples of Winters's criticism are contemporary, but his heart and mind seem firmly back in the London of 1700….

Winters has contributed a number of things of value to contemporary criticism: some good metrical analyses; some brilliant close reading and studies of poetic structure;… salutary insistence on "the intellectual and moral significance of literary forms," and the relationship between beliefs and forms (although most of the specific relationships and significances he points out are foolish). Most important, he has, almost single-handedly, kept an important critical function, evaluation, alive for us. His evaluations tend to be made in terms that are semantically meaningless, contradictory, purely subjective, and never defined…. He gives only his conclusions, almost never with any evidence approaching adequacy, and in a form in which it is impossible to argue with him or even understand what he is trying to say. Nevertheless, he does evaluate, does compare, contrast, grade, rate, and rank, at a time when most serious criticism only analyzes and interprets…. What criticism can adopt from Winters is his vigor and boldness of evaluation, while making sounder evaluations than his, making them on a basis of more significance to literature than his concepts of "rationality" and "morality," and with them giving the reader the whole structure of analysis, to serve as a basis for the reader's checking the evaluation or making his own on the evidence. Winters's own five-stage process culminating in evaluation [elaborated elsewhere in Hyman's essay] is a fairly good basis for such a process. Winters himself has seldom taken advantage of it. Testing it first by turning it on him, as this essay has attempted to do, it works out pretty well. We find Yvor Winters, in a "unique act of judgment" dogmatic and impolite enough to flatter his methods, an excessively irritating and bad critic of some importance.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Yvor Winters and Evaluation in Criticism," in his The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism (copyright © 1947, 1948, 1955 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Knopf-Vintage, 1955, pp. 23-53.

[Professional critics] are those who are vowed to the job by a kind of act of faith. They make their living out of literature in the true sense, which is not a question of cash but of moral habit. In short, they use literature to build up for themselves a world of values. Inevitably, they don't like much, for in all viable moralities the elect are, of necessity, few. So their work is devoted to keeping up the standards, always with an intellectual passion, sometimes with a certain savagery. Like old-fashioned doctors, they believe that blood must at times be let to preserve the health of the system. In England, the foremost professional critic is in this sense F. R. Leavis; in America, he is Yvor Winters.

In Defense of Reason has taken a long time to reach us…. It is a pity that the book has been so long on the way, for original ideas spread their light before them; a number of Winters's suggestions have become fashions and he has not been given credit for them. He was, for instance, the first man to debunk Eliot's claims to classicism by showing how his theories descend straight from the late Romantics; he attacked the vagaries of neo-Symbolism and the craze for Laforguian irony (which he blandly equated with 'careless writing'); he praised Melville, James and, with reservations, Stevens, Crane and Hawthorne, long before any of them had become cult-figures. All this he had writ large in the thirties and early forties. We are just catching up with him.

But Winters would wish to base his ultimate reputation less on his originality or on the profundity of his insights than on his ability to produce a system that works. He has a rage for order and is fierce in proportion to an author's lack of it. He calls himself an absolutist, which means he demands nothing less than everything….

[There] is no arguing with Winters. But principles, particularly when they concern the enormous complexity of artistic and moral judgement, are better left brief or implicit than explained. The critic creates his audience and his context more by his intellectual tone than by spelling things out. Leavis, when challenged to define one of his terms, would, I imagine, prefer to point to a work of art than to launch into abstractions. Winters, on the other hand, is determined to have everything down in black and white. The results are often less flexible and profound than his practice…. The business of the poet is to know himself: by his art he makes clearings of sanity in the encroaching jungle of experience; and because of his skill, these clearings are more lucid, more precise, more generally meaningful than those of other people. His method, for Winters as for Wordsworth, is that of 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'….

Winters makes it sound as though the rational understanding always came before the poem rather than during the process of writing, or even after it; as though each poem were accreted round a separate pearl of wisdom. He also implies that there are rules for the degree of emotion proper to each subject. It sounds more like a Renaissance than a modern theory. What he is describing, I suggest, is less the act of poetry than the act of criticism.

It is easy to see why. Like Winters, I too dislike obscurantism and the cant of blind inspiration. I am all for poets knowing what they mean. But knowing is not a clear-cut business. In the twentieth century, to be intelligent does not mean simply to be rational. It means the ability to make one's reason supple and subtle enough to include the irrational without being overwhelmed by it. The physicists have long worked with this element of irrationality, which they call entropy, the measure of chance or probability. In other terms, the whole of Freud's work was devoted to showing how irrational desires and fears run deep and compulsively below the most rational motives. The irrational, in short, is a vital element in modern reason.

When Winters, however, calls his book In Defense of Reason he really means it. He is not only Johnsonian in style; like the Doctor, he believes absolutely in the power of rational common sense. Because he is a peculiarly fine critic, his logic is always instinct with feeling, but he seeks to reduce everything to its terms. It doesn't always work. Eliot's importance, for example, has nothing to do with his Symbolist tricks and obscurity: instead it is in the way he worked out for our time a language in which great formal intelligence combines with great psychological depth, in which the rational and irrational meet and illuminate each other. But Winters will have none of him. He opts instead for the totally rational. And that means Robert Bridges, Adelaide Crapsey and Elizabeth Daryush, 'the finest British poet since T. Sturge Moore'—'that sheep', Yeats called him, 'in sheep's clothing'.

It is perhaps the least distinguished 'great tradition' any important critic has produced. Yet although Winters has deliberately set his face against American modernism, his choice is not dictated by mere perversity. Like Zeno with his arrow, he is in a logical quandary: Winters admires above all sureness and clarity of moral choice; therefore he is against the experimental because it attempts to cope more or less directly with 'the confused and therefore frightening emotion' of unregulated experience; therefore he makes a virtue out of the traditional which 'endeavours to utilize the greatest possible amount of the knowledge and wisdom, both technical and moral … to be found in precedent poetry. It assumes the ideal existence of a normal quality of feeling'; therefore he chooses Bridges & Co. The flying arrow does not move; the great poets are the consolidators, not the transformers of art. For all his originality, Winters is, by force of logic, profoundly reactionary.

Yet this taste for clear logic and moral certainty is also the strength of his criticism. His method is to combine literary insight with the history of ideas. Lucidly, stringently, he builds up the world of ideas and beliefs in which his authors wrote. He then goes through their works showing how the ideas were transformed and coloured by the writers' sensibilities. It is a kind of paraphrase done from the inside, so that at the moment of defining what a work of art says, Winters is defining how it feels…. It takes a major critic to combine that degree of aesthetic understanding with so firm and pervasive a judgement.

So in the end, his tight, restrictive moral system seems not only justified but necessary. He is a man of acute moral instincts with no strong moral system to which he can instinctively adhere. Although he deeply understands the New England tradition, he is not part of it. He belongs, apparently, to no organized church. So he is left with his belief in literature, his logic and his considerable ability as a writer (he is also a distinguished poet). From these he has erected, by Johnsonian reasonableness, a moral and literary tradition of his own. One may not agree with it, but it is impossible not to admire his skill, his courage and the superb criticism it has enabled him to write.

A. Alvarez, "Yvor Winters" (originally published in The New Statesman, 1960), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1968, pp. 255-59.

[The] early poems which Winters has seen fit to supersede are very much influenced by those of William Carlos Williams, but they seem to me better than any poems Williams has ever written. They not only show great spontaneity and imagination—an imagination really working with and in and through its subjects—but also a high degree of intuitive linguistic perceptiveness; above all, they are wonderfully free of the will, that Medusa-face that turns hearts and poems to stone. They are very much the poems of a man who, though not quite sure of what he is doing, is yet seeing and experiencing newly, freshly, in each poem as if for the first time, his world and the words by which it may be explored and lived. I believe this Winters entirely when he says, "Adventurer in / living fact, the poet / mounts into the spring, / upon his tongue the taste of / air becoming body." Among certain reviewers in the past it has been a commonplace to denigrate Winters's later poems by praising his earlier ones, but these first poems exist, and there are always going to be people like myself who prefer them. Their most surprising characteristic is their wonderful feeling for motion—one somehow thinks of Winters as inert—their feeling for color and light, set down with young uncertainty and eagerness….

[The later style makes its appearance] in a poem called "The Moralists." It begins, "You would extend the mind beyond the act, / Furious, bending, suffering in thin / And unpoetic dicta; you have been / Forced by hypothesis to fiercer fact." Here in full force is the kind of writing by which Winters wishes to be remembered: the strict metrics, the hard, obvious rhymes, the hard-jawed assurance, the familiar humorless badgering tone, the tendency to logic-chop and moralize about instead of presenting, the iron-willed determination to come up with conclusions, to "understand" and pass definitive judgments no matter what. As one reads, it gets more and more difficult to believe that a man's life is supposed to be contained in these pages, with the warmth, joy and sorrow, the disappointments and revelations that must surely have been parts of it. One can't help being struck by the poverty of Winters's emotional makeup; there are only a few things which seem to have made much of an impression on him. The principal one of these is what he conceives to be the function of the university intellectual, the teacher, whose role it is to instill "precision" in the students' minds….

The tightness and concision of his writing are bought at altogether too high a price: that of deliberately stifling the élan and going-beyond that first-rate poets count on blindly and rightly. This results in calcified and unlikely poems, academic and "correct" according to the set of rules one has arrived at, and doubtless from this standpoint capable of being defended logically and/or eloquently, but only in arguments which are, in view of what they come to in the poems themselves, simply beside the point. It is evident that this kind of poem is principally an exercise of the logical faculties, a display of what one has come to deem proper as to method and statement. Even this might be all right if the qualities Winters has chosen were not so drastically limiting, or if his means of embodying them were other than they are. The kind of thinking and writing that Winters fosters is good enough for small poets, and doubtless enables them to concentrate and consolidate their modest gifts in a way which is as good as any they may hope for. But for a big talent, which must go its own way, it is and probably has been ruinous, and I am haunted by the vision of a Yeats or Dylan Thomas or W. S. Graham laboring diligently to get into the same Stanford Parnassus with J. V. Cunningham, Donald Drummond, Howard Baker, and Clayton Stafford. The trouble with verse of this sort is, quite simply, that is is all but dead, not only to the power of giving something of the mystery and fortuitous meaningfulness and immediacy of life to the reader, but dead also, and from conception, to the possibilities of receiving these upon itself.

This is not quite, however, the whole story on Winters's later verse. From poems like "To the Holy Spirit" and "Moonlight Alert," one comes to see that Winters's most enduring and characteristic theme is not really the teacher's part, but Nothingness, and the perhaps illusory stand of the mind against it. The pessimism and stoicism and honesty of his poems about himself, not as laying down the law in the William Dinsmore Briggs Room, but as a solitary night-watching man, are utterly convincing. Though they are not free of the moralizing tendency that ruins so many of the later poems, the occasions for this and his other familiar qualities seem more nearly right, and for that reason, and because of Winters's awesome unflinchingness in the face of approaching old age, they are good poems, and compare favorably with the best of the early ones.

James Dickey, "Yvor Winters" (1962), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 182-86.

[Winters] was the poet-critic of our time who combined an understanding of general philosophical ideas with a sensibility almost hypersensitive in its awareness of the most minute particulars of poetic style. For him, criticism was nothing unless it was evaluative. He constantly applied his general principles to individual poets—and not only to individual poets, but to specific poems, lines, and phrases. His unorthodox judgments were the delight of his graduate students and the irritated despair of his colleagues, particularly those who specialized in the romantic and Victorian periods.

His early poems from which, shortly before his death, he published a selection with an illuminating introduction, were in the free verse forms of the imagists. His mature work, all of it in conventional meter—is not imitative of but has affinities with certain poems of Gascoigne, Greville, Jonson, Hardy, and Bridges. In a lecture given at the Johns Hopkins Poetry Festival he spoke of a post symbolist poetry which would combine the rational content and structure of medieval and Elizabethan lyrics with that peculiarly modern awareness of the sensory world so beautifully found in the verse of Valéry and Wallace Stevens. This synthesis is, I believe, what he himself was striving to achieve in some of his finest poems: "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight," "To the Holy Spirit," and "At the San Francisco Airport."…

[No] other critic was so capable of fully entering into the spirit of a poem, of perceiving its virtues and its weaknesses, of discovering ways of revising in keeping with the intentions of the author. His greatness as a teacher of young poets lay in his enthusiasm for the job, the seriousness with which he took their efforts, and his uncanny ability to discern potential talent in a welter of bad adolescent writing. His influence on American poetry of the last thirty-five years has been far greater than is generally recognized.

Donald E. Stanford, "Yvor Winters, 1900–1968," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 861-63.

[Winters] was our most cantankerous literary critic, willing to take on any of his colleagues in a no-holds-barred free-for-all the like of which is seldom seen in this age of polite tolerance for any opinion about anything. In Forms of Discovery he writes off the poetry between George Herbert and Thomas Hardy as decadent in thought and language, with rare and curious exceptions; he writes off the work of other scholars and critics as foolish for foisting off on their readers and students literature he considers second rate; and, unlike most contemporary critics, he prefers the right-handed insult to the left-handed compliment. When he does compliment a living poet or scholar, his reader is likely to learn that the fortunate person had been a student of Winters….

Yvor Winters was arrogant, and arrogance always looks a bit foolish; he called himself an absolutist, and if one's own absolute or one's own skepticism runs counter to that of Winters, Winters will appear thoroughly ridiculous. If Winters found very few poems worthy his praise and few scholars and critics whom he did not attack, it was because of his extremely high standards for literature and for literary study. As a theorist, Winters asked for poetry that appeals to the senses, to the emotions, and to the mind; a poem that fails to work on all three levels is, for Winters, distinctly minor—it is not bad, it just has not come up to the highest standards, and those are the standards by which Winters believed that poetry must be judged. As a polemicist, Winters was a savage opponent because he took literature seriously and because he trusted his own judgment infallibly; as a professional critic, he felt it his responsibility to challenge his colleagues whenever, in his opinion, they erred. To leave professional stupidity unchallenged would have been, for Winters, a sin of the gravest kind; literature for Winters was something very special, and those who professed to understand it were under obligation to prove their competence….

One could make a long list of Winters' eccentricities of judgment and an almost equally long list of absurd categorical statements. But despite the faults, there are advantages to reading Winters. He is a critic who states his position so clearly and so forcefully that readers are shocked into thought; and his theoretical position is so strong that, in disagreeing honestly with Winters, one is forced to think about literature widely and deeply.

Lee T. Lemon, "Winters as Critic," in Prairie Schooner (© 1968 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1968, pp. 277-78.

I am far from intimating that the earlier books have been rendered obsolete by Forms of Discovery. On the contrary, Winters was working on major problems and recording major discoveries in them, and one can now use those discoveries much better than before….

I suggest that if occasionally the theoretical assertions in Forms of Discovery should appear a trifle blunt, they are capable of being sharpened, unlike, say, almost any of the more ambitious generalizations of Northrop Frye. They point to real phenomena, like gunsights which might benefit from a little adjustment but with the aid of which a marksman can still hit the target….

Winters has helped to bring more distinguished poems into the light than any other American critic, both directly and through the activities of people intelligent enough to learn from him….

Despite the protestations of catholicity one hears, there is indeed an official map of poetry, and the quickest way to find out what it is is to go through a few historically organized anthologies for undergraduates, bearing in mind that such anthologies probably do more to shape the history of poetry for their readers than anything that normally comes their way later….

[Part] of Winters' greatness is that he does not operate in terms of systems or "worlds" or of minds considered as wholes, and neither permits his readers to relax illegitimately nor seeks to force them into a position of de jure subservience to poems as things to be gratefully "understood." He is looking all the time at this or that specific piece of discourse without any preconceptions as to how it relates to other pieces from the same hand, and without any presumption that either goodness or badness travels osmotically. His condemnations of particular poems, and sometimes of almost the whole body of poems, by writers to some of whose poems he gives high praise are frequently as vigorous as anyone could wish; it is not Bridges and Moore as wholes that he is elevating, for example. Similarly the greatness that he discerns in, say, part of Bridges' "The Affliction of Richard" is not presumed to make the rest of it great, any more than he sees the faults of Wordsworth's Mutability sonnet as militating against the undoubted greatness of the last two-and-a-half lines of it. In this connection his essay elsewhere on "The Audible Reading of Poetry" is indeed, as he says, of the utmost importance, with its emphasis on poems as discourse and not as maps—discourse that may in some places falter and fumble and in others rise to greatness, just as happens in prose. And his insistence that "if poets have any value, it is because of their superior intelligence …" is salutary in the extreme. I believe that when he demonstrates that the assertions made in this or that poem are foolish or naïve or patently unsound by any reasonable standards, and that the line of argument in a "serious" argumentative poem is self-contradictory or in some other way confused, and that specific metaphors and similes are grossly untrue to the hard physical realities that they purport to remind us of, he has made unanswerable objections, he has pointed to faults….

I think that Winters has called a number of major bluffs. And I believe that his doing so is of especial importance today, when the emphasis on romantically freer and "truer" ways of seeing and modes of expression seems to be, if anything, intensifying…. The notion of the unarmored simpleton or inspired madman traveling by very different roads from most of us and getting much further has its charms, I suppose. And it is true that there have been a few men of genius, such as the Douanier Rousseau, whose work has sometimes been characterized by an almost magical freshness and innocence of vision, and that there have been others, such as Céline and Van Gogh, whose lives have been characterized by the most appalling intensities and anguishes. But the two I have just mentioned, during the periods in which they were doing their greatest work at least, were highly intelligent and articulate men with a formidable mastery of the technical resources of their art, and when their control in fact deteriorated, so did their art….

[Where] I think Winters most right and most important is in his challenge to our continuing, if unconscious, professional contemplation of poetry through the distorting medium of the Romantics. (I am, of course, taking a tip from his brilliant paragraph about the effects of reading Keats when young.) That bias manifests itself in a variety of ways, of course, among them an excessive esteem for the Romantics themselves, a naïvely organicist notion of what poems are, an uneasy mixture of expressive and mimetic theories of art, a preference for magniloquence to truth, and a superstitious awe of poets and poetry in general. The continuing excessive appeal of Romanticism for academics derives substantially, I suspect, from the fact that judged by their own standards the Romantics were failures and that it is by the same standards that many academics secretly judge themselves…. Hence it is natural enough to want to see the Romantic pattern as the norm—I mean, to see muddle and weakness and decline of one sort or another as being inevitable and somehow rather noble. Some such hypothesis, at any rate, seems called for to explain our collective over-indulgence towards such things in poetry, given that we are in a profession that pays a good deal of lip-service to the idea of a steady and self-disciplined advance in knowledge, skill, and wisdom during one's professional lifetime, and a passing on of such virtures to the young, especially the young who desire to enter our guild.

John Fraser, "Winter's Summa," in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 184-202.

Though his admirers are far-flung, Winters is still largely a coterie poet. It is not that he wrote only for the delectation of a select group, but most critics and readers have never discerned his intentions and recognized his accomplishments…. Most of his best poems are written according to a method or style which he called post-Symbolist. This is, briefly, a way of charging sensory details with abstract meaning: a particular variety of metaphoric language. The post-Symbolist method repairs deficiencies in each of the two other principal methods Winters used at various times to relate the concrete and the abstract: the style of his free verse and his later abstract style.

In the twenties Winters was writing experimental free verse which was rapid in movement, spare, and frequently violent. He was influenced by Williams, by the Imagist movement and its offshoots, by translations of American Indian poetry. His early poetry aimed at intensity of individual images and lines; rational content was not a primary concern. He described his early poems later as "material cohering by virture of feeling and rhythmic structure, and very little by virture of intelligible theme." Some of the poems confine themselves to description, or description for the sake of mood, and make no attempt to deal with ideas….

In some of the early poems Winters deals with intellectual themes, but never straightforwardly. For a brief time in the twenties he favored the term "anti-image" to describe an idea in a poem. An idea was only poetic if it fused with sensory images and sound patterns, or other, apparently unrelated, ideas, to become an anti-image. The single idea, directly expressed, had no place in his system. "Even perspicuous generalities do not constitute poetry." Intellectual statements sometimes appear in the early poetry, but they never have an easily definable relation to each other, and to the other elements of the poem. If the ideas were obscure, Winters believed, this might facilitate the real work of the poem….

When Winters switched abruptly from free verse to regular meters in 1928, he began to make increasing use of undisguised abstraction in his poetry. He was no longer opposed to perspicuous generalities. Most of his poems still depended primarily on sensory detail, but by the time of Before Disaster (1934) he had developed an almost purely abstract style, and he wrote in this style intermittently throughout the rest of his career…. The influence of the plain-style poets of the Renaissance, especially Ben Jonson, is perceptible in some of these poems. One frequently expressed view of his poetry as a whole is that it slavishly imitates Renaissance models; Winters is a warmed-over George Gascoigne. This is true to a degree of those poems in the abstract style, though there are other influences, and though some of the poems are vigorous and memorable whatever their affinities; but his abstract style is only a minor part of his mature poetic work….

Winters' post-Symbolist poems are the most characteristic and important of his mature work. They belie the common view of Winters as primarily a poet of abstractions; and if he is didactic and moralistic, these qualities inhere in poems displaying a surface texture of intense sensuousness. In discussing these poems I have concentrated on their abstract significance, in order to show something of the way his method works. This sort of analysis is one-sided, and it makes the poems sound mechanical. The poems I have discussed are extraordinarily perceptive in respect to the external world they describe and in respect to language; the precise yet evocative language is, in his own phrase, a form of discovery. The lines are living lines.

Winters is, I think, a major poet, a poet of no less stature than Williams, Pound, Eliot, Crane, or Frost. If this is true, then the low state of his reputation may seem to require some explanation. One problem is that to many readers his poems have seemed old-fashioned, having nothing to say to them, not "modern." His restrained tone, his emphasis on rationality and control of the emotions, his sometimes explicit moralism, are partly the basis of this feeling, along with the regularity of his metrical and stanzaic forms. Even poets like Frost or the early Robert Lowell, who use regular meters, are rougher in their rhythms, closer to speech. Neither Winters' ideas, his tone, nor his forms provide for many readers anything they can identify as modern, and it seems reasonable to them to conclude that he is irrelevant to the course of poetry in this century….

Winters' matter is modern in that it builds upon the romantic and Symbolist traditions in opposing them. As a "counter-romantic," he was on the same track as Yeats and Crane, though he was going the other way. J. V. Cunningham, who called him a "congenital romantic" despite Winters' notorious repudiation of romanticism, recognized that Winters' concern with self-control arises out of a specifically romantic context. The temptations which the poet of "The Slow Pacific Swell" must resist are the temptations which Wordsworth and Crane invited. "A Spring Serpent" and "Midas" are replies to Mallarmé, rather than abstract speculations about poetic pitfalls….

The majority of reviewers have taken his poems in the abstract style as typical of his later verse; they have not been aware of how the post-Symbolist poems work, or what they are about. There is also a tendency to regard his poems as versified footnotes to his criticism, which has attacked virtually every well-known literary figure since the eighteenth century and earned Winters the reputation of a crank. Winters' best post-Symbolist poems, though their paraphrasable content is consistent with his critical essays, are less assertive and dogmatic. His ideas, in the adventure with form that produces poetry, are complicated and qualified; but critics have used his more immediately accessible poems in the abstract style to attack his "banality and over-simplification." The effect of Winters' criticism is to imply a position of exclusiveness: if you admire Robert Bridges, you cannot admire T. S. Eliot. His detractors have taken him at his word, and admiring the poets he denigrates, they have brushed aside his own poetry. Scornful of his claims for Elizabeth Daryush or T. Sturge Moore, they have assumed that Winters' poems must be more of the same.

Winters' poetry commends patience, fortitude, thoughtfulness, and self-control. He does not commend passion, perhaps the cardinal virtue to the modern mind, and this has led many readers to suppose that his poems must be passionless. For them, the self-discipline which restrains the forces of the irrational is the only visible element in the poems. It is as if a party of the gods were to yawn at the tableau in Venus' boudoir; were, unconscious of the activity caught beneath the remorseless fibers, to find the workmanship of Vulcan's net empty formalism….

When young, Winters was obsessed with what he called "the metaphysical horror of modern thought," and this was an immediate fear, almost a physical fear. The state of mind in the poems verges on madness, and the poet, the voice speaking, knows this. After 1928, the horror, the violence, the madness are restrained, but their effect on the poetry is as important as before; they are the impetus behind his adamant faith in reason. Irrationality, spontaneous impulse, "spiritual extroversion" seemed to him the first step to madness; and the annihilation of the mind was associated with physical dissolution. "Ruin has touched familiar air," he wrote of a garden, and ruin was always imminent. This is the central theme of his mature poetry; it is the theme even of so apparently "literary" a poem as "Midas."…

To see Winters' later poetry as cold and emotionless is to miss half the point.

There is a hardness, a "cold certitude," an immobility in Winters' poems, but this is the result of the spiritual discipline which formed the man and the poems, not the result of congenital stolidity. He achieved the stasis of his poetry only at great cost, and the cost is evident in the poetry.

Howard Kaye, "The Post-Symbolist Poetry of Yvor Winters," in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 176-97.

Yvor Winters is a very considerable poet indeed, with a most curious career…. When most of his friends and most of his literary generation went to Paris and met the great, Winters discovered he had fairly advanced tuberculosis and was forced to live the rest of his life in a dry climate. He taught school for a while in an ugly mining town, Raton, New Mexico, and then college in Moscow, Idaho, and finally in the late Twenties he came to Stanford, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was the true exile, the true aliené. Years must have gone by where nobody knew what he was talking about except his wife, or his echoing students. He became cranky and cantankerous and is responsible for some of the most wrong-headed and eccentric criticism ever written.

He changed the style of his verse to a stark neo-classicism of his own invention, which he always insisted owed much to, of all people, the late Tudor writer of doggerel, Barnaby Googe…. Winters stood Dadaism on its head, as Marx did Hegel, and his critical ideas cannot be appreciated unless this is understood.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, pp. 92-3.