Poe? Lovecraft? Some other neo-gothic hack? No, a very different sort of writer, one who respected the seductive power of madness and the irrational without succumbing to their Romantic charms. On these two sentences pivots Yvor Winters’ only published work of fiction, “The Brink of Darkness,” published in 1932 (collected in Selected Poems, ed. Thom Gunn, Library of America, 2003), soon after his repudiation of free verse and embrace of poetic form. One suspects Winters’ story is deeply autobiographical, though not in the banal sense. His friend Hart Crane, whom he called “a saint of the wrong religion,” took his life that year, and Winters dedicated the rest of his life to a critical and poetic project he summed up in In Defense of Reason (1947): “The poem is a statement in words about a human experience.”
An essential quality of sanity is recognition of its proximity to madness. Like Dr. Johnson, Winters was never complacent when it came to soundness of mind, especially his own. As Winters puts it in “The Brink of Darkness”: “It was as if there were darkness evenly underlying the brightness of the air.” In his introduction, Gunn says of his teacher’s story, “the emotional impact of the events described exceeds any rational explanation.” One wishes Winters had written more fiction. The theme of sanity and its absence is central to our post-Romantic era. A statement he made in In Defense of Reason seems more apt than ever: “A psychological theory which justifies the freeing of emotions and which holds rational understanding in contempt appears to be sufficient to break the minds of a good many men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously.”
Winters, born on Oct. 17, 1900, in Chicago, died on Jan. 25, 1968. Gunn concludes his introduction with a moving tribute to his friend, a poet unlike himself: “For all his respect for the rules of poetry, it is not the Augustan decorum he came to admire but the Elizabethan, the energy of Nashe, Greville, Gascoigne, and Donne, plain speakers of little politeness.” Winters remains one of the few essential poets and critics of the twentieth century.