Friday, April 29, 2011

`Still Raise for Good the Supplicating Voice'

“…Johnson, nevertheless, attains a greatness, even a universality, in a few poems, which appears scarcely inferior to Pope, chiefly by virtue of the way in which the dignity and grandeur of his character, his curious combination of private bitterness, public generosity, and Christian humility qualify his apprehension of relatively simple themes.”

That’s Yvor Winters on Dr. Johnson and his verse in Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry (1937; collected in In Defense of Reason, 1947), though it might almost be Winters on Winters. Neither poet, in fact, dealt in their best work with “relatively simple themes.” Winters was not a Christian but remained for years on the cusp of faith, and wrote in “A Fragment”: “I cannot find my way to Nazareth.” He reminds us of Hawthorne’s description of Melville in 1856:

“He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”

Much of Winters’ greatness as poet and critic is rooted in the tension between reason and faith, unbelief and his attraction to what he calls in his poems the “Holy Spirit,” “Eternal Spirit” and “Absolute.” The poet-critic John Finlay described Winters as an “intellectual theist.”

Winters never devoted an extended work to Johnson, but references abound. In The Anatomy of Nonsense (1943) (also collected in In Defense of Reason), Winters delivers his most generous encomium:

“A great critic, indeed, is the rarest of all geniuses: perhaps the only critic who deserves the epithet is Samuel Johnson.”

Or, in the short list of other contenders for the title, Winters. In the same book he writes:

“Samuel Johnson had nothing but contempt for deism, yet his style shows the influence of deism; the influence upon his prose was small, for that was the medium he cultivated most assiduously, but the influence upon his verse was great. The prologues to Comus and to A Word to the Wise, which are probably his greatest poems, are stereotyped in almost every detail of language, but are poems of extraordinary power because of the conviction and intelligence of the author…”

A quibble: Johnson’s greatest poem is The Vanity of Human Wishes. In adapting Juvenal’s satire, Johnson modified the ending, ameliorating the Roman’s cynicism and despair – in effect, Christianizing it, offering hope. With allowance for matters of style and temperament, some of the words have a Wintersian ring:

“Enquirer, cease, Petitions yet remain,
Which Heav'n may hear, nor deem Religion vain.
Still raise for Good the supplicating Voice,
But leave to Heav'n the Measure and the Choice.”

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