Sunday, February 12, 2012

`Unmoved by Praise or Scorn'

The photographs, promised by Helen Pinkerton, arrived. Two are black-and-white 8-by-10 glossies shot in 1962 by José Mercado of the Stanford New Service. The first, of Yvor Winters, is taken from the front and slightly to the left of its seated subject, who looks forward, as though ignoring the camera. He wears a suit jacket, probably gray or blue, white shirt and dark patterned tie. Behind him, out of focus, are books on shelves and a window full of sunlight. Winters holds a pipe in his right hand, the stem almost touching his sealed lips. His forehead appears bunched in thought and he is not smiling. The picture seems to confirm Charles Tomlinson’s assessment of Winters in 1959:

“The dignity and dimension of the man unmistakably communicated themselves, as did a capacity for friendship, rather than friendliness. Winters showed no desire to please, but, as in his urging to try a particularly fine wine, he was eager to share what he deemed best.”

In the other photograph, also taken by Mercado at Winters’ home in Palo Alto, probably the same day, the poet has moved outdoors. He’s dressed the same and is holding a pipe. Behind him is an out-of-focus tangle of branches and leaves. To his left stands his wife, the poet and novelist Janet Lewis. She wears an open-collared print dress and a necklace of what look like large pearls. Her hair is pulled back and fastened behind her head. Winters looks off-camera, eyes squinting in the sun. His face is softened into what might be a muted smile. Lewis is looking at her husband, with a smile slightly less ambiguous than his. Winters turned sixty-two that year; Lewis, sixty-three.

One thinks: These are serious people, though not humorless, who understand each other and have little interest in impressing others. One also thinks of the first line of Winters’ “To a Portrait of Melville in My Library”:

“O face reserved, unmoved by praise or scorn!”

Helen also encloses a color snapshot of Geoffrey Hill and the late poet Elizabeth Jennings taken in June 1953. Hill turned twenty-one that month. I would never have recognized the poet who now looks like King Lear. He’s smiling. His hair is full and dark. He wears a salmon-colored shirt and what I think is a black cravat about the size of a lobster bib. He looks happy.

As a bonus, Helen includes a chapbook with these words printed on its pale blue cover: “SAMUEL JOHNSON LL.D.” The title page, across from an engraving of Johnson based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, reads:

“Dr. Johnson on Reading, Conversing, and Writing;
being a keepsake
issued on the occasion of
an exhibit of books and manuscripts
marking the 200th anniversary of the passing of
and featuring the collection of
Francis A. Martin, Jr.
Stanford University Libraries
Louis R. Lurie Rotunda, Cecil H. Green Library
October 28, 1984 – January 15, 1985”

Reprinted inside is The Adventurer #85, published Aug. 28, 1753, in which Johnson writes:

“To understand the works of celebrated authors, to comprehend their systems, and retain their reasonings, is a task more than equal to common intellects; and he is by no means to be accounted useless or idle, who has stored his mind with acquired knowledge, and can detail it occasionally to others who have less leisure or weaker abilities.”

[Go here to see a photo of Winters taken during the same session as those described above, plus a brief remembrance of Winters by his former student, the poet Kenneth Fields.]

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