Yvor Winters: A Man for all Reasons

An unpublished piece on the US poet, critic and scholar Yvor Winters, written circa 1985 and put into the public domain on my website in the first edition of the Revivalist series. [http://www.the-rathouse.com/YvorWinters.html]

Winters combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar despite the resistance of superiors who tried to convince him early in life that these roles are not compatible. He insisted that literature is too important to allow its various aspects to be hacked up and distributed to different groups of specialists. In his opinion both poetry and criticism have suffered severely from the rift between poets and critics, which he attributed largely to the ‘romantic’ view of creation.

Yvor Winters (1900-1968) was one of those critics who fall between the cracks of all the theoretical compartments. In addition to his poetry he wrote a lot of criticism including numerous essays devoted to the principles of criticism although he is not a protagonist in the contemporary debate and is not mentioned in it. Even in his lifetime he was a marginal figure, sometimes lumped with the New Critics, sometimes dismissed as a simple-minded moralist. However, his ideas have lasting interest and at the height of his powers he wrote prose of marvellous clarity and vigour. Some of his best essays stand as works of literature in their own right, something that cannot be said of very many modern works of criticism or scholarship.

Winters in effect offers a three-pronged response to the deconstructionists. First, there is his robust sense of the reality of the external world, as one might expect from a man well versed in the system of St Thomas Aquinas (and also a breeder of Airedales). He wrote in the polemic preface to In Defense of Reason:

I am acquainted, for example, with the arguments which prove that the wall is not there, but if I try to step through the wall, I find that the wall is there notwithstanding the arguments.

This is reminiscent of Dr Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s arguments to prove the non-existence of matter, consisting of kicking a stone ‘I refute it thus’.

Second is Winters’ insistence on the impact of literature on the world and the moral responsibility that this places upon writers and critics to be clear about what they are doing and its likely effects if they are taken seriously.

Third is his attention to the living presence of literature that is achieved by appropriate meter and rhythm. On the significance of literature he wrote:

The power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson and Hitler we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history…it behooves as to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does and how it does it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important as atomic fission.

One of his missions in life was to combat the flight from reason and moral responsibility that he saw as a major theme in modern literature, under the influence of the idea that literature, like art in general, is a form of self-expression. He called this the Romantic theory, though under the influence of Jacques Barzun’s defence of romanticism I am not prepared to join the ranks of those who reflexively beat romantics for imagined sins, only for real ones.

The Romantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience…that man’s impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely on his impulses, he will achieve the good life.

He argued that this line of argument leads to a doctrine of automatism because it encourages people to submit themselves to whatever impulse moves them at the moment. He also noted a link between Romantic theory and the theories of determinism and relativism. This comes about because Romanticism teaches the desirability of automatism while determinism teaches that there is no way to avoid it. At this point the thrust of Winters argument converged with Popper’s work on determinism and historical inevitability in The Poverty of Historicism.

At the risk of arousing mirth in progressive circles, Winters declared himself an absolutist, that is, a person who believes in the existence of absolute truths and values. He did not suggest that he personally had access to these things, or that his own judgments were necessarily correct. However it is the duty of every man and of every society to try as far as may be to approximate to them. He suggested that our system of justice, our universities, and the practice of literary criticism itself presupposes the existence of various absolutes, despite all the arguments that are raised against this notion.

As noted, Winters combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar despite resistance which he blamed on the ‘romantic’ view of creation. Under the influence of this doctrine, the critic came to be regarded as an inferior being, rather like a teacher who really should be doing something else if only he had the ability to do so. With this low regard for critics and commentators went the idea that the poet is set apart from the common herd, divorced from the mundane problems of the world and devoted to a special kind of communication that is only accessible to equally enlightened folk. Winters would have none of that. For him, creative literature and poetry are extensions of ordinary language, perhaps distinguished by a high level of skill and precision in achieving certain effects, but not set apart on the other side of a great divide. He also detested pure theory, divorced from the practical task of crafting words into poetry.

His concern with reality, rationality and morality converge in the final judgment on a poem. He believed that a work of literature “in so far as it is valuable, provides a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth”. Poetry is the most concentrated vehicle that is available for this purpose; the poet makes his statement in such a way as to use both the descriptive meaning of words and their emotional connotations as well.

The poem is good in so far as it makes a defensible rational statement about a given human experience and at the same time communicates the emotion which ought to be motivated by rational understanding of that experience. This notion of poetry will account for both the power of poetry and for the seriousness with which the great poets have taken their art.

He made much of the idea of problem solving in the craft of the poet, grappling with the linked problems of organizing intellectual, emotional and technical aspects of the work into a coherent form. The work that the poet has to put into solving these problems should make him a more effective thinker and actor in the world; similarly the effort required to understand what the poet has done should help the attentive reader in much the same way. This is why he speaks of the best poetry as “a moral success in the face of certain experiences” and he contends that the degree of greatness in the work depends on the difficulty of the experience that had to be faced, assuming that technical perfection was achieved at the same time. He suggests that the great tragic poets such as Shakespeare, Hardy and Racine convey the impression of a victory over life itself ”so much is implicated in the themes”.

Winters did valuable work on verse forms and meter to remind us that a poem is a living presence through its rhythms and its sound structure, in addition to its paraphrasable content and other rhetorical features. This effect is achieved, if it is achieved, by a happy combination of rhythm and form. Form in turn has two aspects, one the orderly arrangement and progression of thought, the other a kind of rhythm that goes beyond the stresses of the individual line to encompass the whole poem. “The poem exists in time, the mind proceeds through it in time, and if the poet is a good one he takes advantage of this fact and makes the progression rhythmical.”

In an essay on the audible reading of poetry Winters explains some of his most useful ideas about the sound structure of poetry and he suggests that modern reading habits have done great damage to our capacity to read properly or to gain an audible impression of literature when we are not reading aloud. He is especially scathing in his comment on the modern vogue of rapid reading courses; such scanning, he claims, cannot properly be called reading at all. A commentator has suggested that:

Winters writes like a man who has the whole history of English and American verse (and much French as well) sounding physically in his ear. The loss of this sort of intimacy with the most fundamental mode of a poem’s existence, he warns in perfect seriousness, has brought us to the edge of a new barbarism. The inability to hear is also an inability to read: literature remains a ‘closed book’ to those who are insensitive to the living presence of what lies within. What is at stake, and the stakes are very high indeed, is the ability to recognise in a poem where and how its meaning is conducted.

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