“I repeated to myself the awkward formula: it is and I am, and the vast expanse of time separating the dates of our birth contracted, vanished. We were contemporaries.”
The writer is Zbigniew Herbert in “Acropolis,” from his third essay collection, Labyrinth by the Sea (The Collected Prose 1948-1998). This most tradition-minded of poets is describing his first sight of the Parthenon in Athens, but with a single change of pronoun he might be describing the affinity, unbounded by space or time, I know with a small clutch of writers: “We were contemporaries.” I adore Shakespeare but have never mistaken him for my contemporary (despite Jan Kott). What I’m describing is covert kinship, a resonance with the voice one hears in a writer’s life and work. I hear it in Dr. Johnson, of course, and in Melville, Henry James, Chekhov, Herbert and in the newest member of this exclusive little club, Yvor Winters. Only the last two (born in 1900 and 1924, respectively) were alive during my lifetime.
Winters’ hold took me by surprise. When the student is ready, I’ve heard, the teacher appears, and only recently have I become ready for Winters. When I was young, he seemed too austere. The failing was mine. I mistook passion and rigor – virtues rarely coupled -- for austerity and closed-mindedness. He scared me, a useful quality in a teacher, though not sufficient unto itself.
Among Winters former colleagues at Stanford University was David Levin, described to me by Helen Pinkerton as a “longtime professor of American literature at Stanford.” Included in Poems in Memory of Yvor Winters on the Centenary of his Birth (edited and published by R.L. Barth, 2000), is a sonnet by Levin, “To a Moral Navigator, Observed on His Way to Class,” written “For Yvor Winters”:
“Solemn as Queequeg, porting an old harpoon,
You march in sunshine, stepping forth to teach
Young navigators how to haul, to reach
The mystery of Melville, whale, typhoon.
You have not flung your quadrant at the moon,
Or thrown away your pipe, or scorned the beach,
Or, with some captains of demonic speech,
Followed dumb feeling to a blind lagoon.
“Yet reason must be brought to your defense.
You reach a faith too brave for dogmatists.
Unable to receive the Holy Ghost,
And knowing what your unbelief has cost,
You use dead reckoning, and meet white mists
In the pure style of grave intelligence.”
In a nice stroke, Levin likens Winters to Queequeg, the master harpooner, not mad Ahab. In “The Quadrant,” Chapter 118 of Moby-Dick, Ahab curses the navigational instrument and smashes it on the deck, vowing to navigate the Pequod with “the level ship's compass, and the level deadreckoning, by log and by line” -- typical self-destructive bravado. Instead, Winters shares with Queequeg “the pure style of grave intelligence.”
In 1978, ten years after Winters’ death, Levin published a remembrance of his teacher, “Yvor Winters at Stanford,” in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Levin confirms that Winters each year carried a harpoon to one of his lectures on Moby-Dick. Levin writes:
“Just as the intensity of his passion must sometimes have moved his fingers over keys that expressed more anger than the occasion deserved, so his perfect ear for the language and his scorn of circumlocution must occasionally have brought reasonable indignation closer to the sound of fury.”