Yvor Winters Analysis

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Though Yvor Winters believed his poetry to be his principal work, he was, during his lifetime, better known as a critic. His criticism was virtually coextensive with his poetry, the first published essays appearing in 1922 and the last volume in 1967. Controversial because of its wide-ranging and detailed revaluations of both major and minor writers in American, British, and French literature, the criticism indirectly but indisputably illuminates his own work as poet by suggesting explanations for the changes it underwent, for the main styles he attempted, and even for details in individual poems.

His single short story, “The Brink of Darkness”(1932, 1947), is autobiographical. Its setting (the southwestern United States) and subject matter (hypersensitivity in isolation, the advent of death, psychological obsession to the brink of madness, the recovery of identity) are those of many poems, especially early ones, in the Winters canon.


Among his contemporaries, Yvor Winters was something of an anomaly. Instead of moving from traditional to experimental forms, he seemed to reverse that process. Before 1928, his published work was largely what is loosely called free verse, influenced by such diverse sources as the Imagists and French Symbolists, possibly Emily Dickinson, and certainly translations of Japanese and American Indian poetry. After 1930, Winters’s published work used traditional metric and rhyme patterns exclusively. He appeared to stand against all the main poetic currents of his time.

At no time, however, early or late, did his poetry ignore modern influences. Among the poets he continued most to admire and emulate were Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valéry, Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, and Wallace Stevens. His effort consistently was to make use of the most fruitful traditions among all at his disposal, not merely those in fashion. Thus, many of his later poems are written in the great plain style of the Renaissance. In his most distinctive work, Winters tried to combine the sensitivity of perception that the recent associative and experimental methods had made possible with the rational structures characteristic of the older methods. The result was something unique in modern poetry. Even before his death, his influence was beginning to be felt in such poets as Edgar Bowers, J. V. Cunningham, Catherine Davis, Thom Gunn, Janet Lewis, N. Scott Momaday, Alan Stephens, and others.

In his...

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Gelpi, Albert. “Yvor Winters and Robinson Jeffers.” In A Coherent Splendor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Gelpi notes that Winters’s early poems belie his critical precepts. They display the strong influence of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, despite Winters’s furious anti-Romantic denigration of both poets in his criticism. Winters strongly identified with the California landscape, as can be seen in The Magpie’s Shadow.

Gunn, Thom. “On a Drying Hill.” In The Occasions of Poetry. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985. Gunn was a student of Winters at Stanford University. He describes Winters’s strong personality and his efforts to convert his students to his critical principles. Foremost among these was the rejection of Romantic poetry.

Hoffpauir, Richard. The Contemplative Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, and Yvor Winters. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. Hoffpauir compares and contrasts the poetry of Winters, Edward Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost, concentrating on what Winters terms “contemplative poetry.”

Kaye, Howard. “The Post-Symbolist Poetry of Yvor Winters.” Southern Review 7, no. 1 (Winter, 1971): 176-197. Winters’s poetry strongly evokes landscape. His ability to portray the external world in a precise...

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