Sunday, June 05, 2011

`Wisdom and Wilderness'

“Joy to him was experience transformed to language, both mysteries to probe, both joys to encounter with the fullness of one’s powers.”

Henry C. Ramsey is writing of Yvor Winters but he might be describing any writer for whom arranging words is more than a parlor game or strictly utilitarian. Winters probably would have agreed with Dr. Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Both impulses are born in joy (the writer’s) and give joy (to the right reader).

Around 1930, Winters famously changed his poetic style. “Simplex Munditiis” dates from this period. We might call it late early Winters or early late Winters. The title is from Horace’s Ode I, 5, rendered by Milton as “Plain in thy neatness.” One of Winters' great poetic models, Ben Jonson, also used the tag as the title of a poem. I like “artful elegance.” Here is the poem, one of the two I can find in which Winters uses the word “joy”:

“The goat nips yellow blossoms
shaken loose from rain—
with neck extended
lifts a twitching flower
high into wet air. Hard
humility the lot of man
to crouch beside
this creature in the dusk
and hold the mind clear;
to turn the sod,
to face the sod beside his door,
to wound it as his own flesh.
In the spring the blossoms
drown the air with joy,
the heart with sorrow.
One must think of this
in quiet. One must
bow his head and take
with roughened hands
sweet milk at dusk,
the classic gift of earth.”

Winters’ poems often are autobiographical, but not in the banal sense. The poet kept and milked goats, and raised and showed Airedales. For so formidably intellectual a man, he had an earthiness about him. He was drawn to the elemental, in language and life, suggested by the intermingling in his poem of joy and sorrow. Here is my favorite line, the most evocative, implying the fear of madness or “The Brink of Darkness” (the title of his only published fiction), an anxiety he shared with Johnson: “One must think of this / in quiet.” The bowing of the head when milking, leaning against the goat’s flank, suggests prayer and the “Hard / humility” cited earlier. Elsewhere in “Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis 1929-1932” (Sequoia, Autumn 1989), Ramsey writes:

“Arthur [Winters’ given first name], like many of us, was a person of paradox and `mighty opposites’ [Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2], but within his capacities, disciplined, sound, kind, generous, and brilliant. He was, as he characterized Herman Melville, one of his heroes, `wisdom and wilderness.’”

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