That line from “The Last Visit,” an under-anthologized poem by Yvor Winters, has haunted me for a long time. It dates from 1930, when Winters was moving away from unremarkable experimentalism and becoming a master of iambic meter and traditional prosodic forms. The poet was thirty years old and the poem reads like a life-tempered old man’s:
“The drift of leaves grows deep, the grassIs longer everywhere I pass.
And listen! where the wind is heard,
The surface of the garden’s blurred—
It is the passing wilderness.
The garden will be something less
When others win it back from change.
We shall not know it then; a strange
Presence will be musing there.
Ruin has touched familiar air,
And we depart. Where you should be,
I sought a final memory.”
Winters appends a dedication: “For Henry Ahnefeldt, 1862-1929.” Ahnefeldt was his uncle and owner of a dairy farm in Riverside, Calif., where Winters had worked as a teenager. Winters wrote a letter to Allen Tate on Dec. 29, 1930 (Selected Letters, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000), in which he discusses the Southern agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, to which Tate had contributed an essay. Winters is characteristically combative, this time about academic dilettantes playing farmer:
“You will never be a decent farmer and you would be a first rate teacher. The colleges will be rotten just exactly as long as the best people are outside them….I have had a taste of professional agriculture and want no more of it.”
Winters then recalls his late uncle:
“My uncle, Henry Ahnefeldt, died last year, an exhausted farmer; he started life as a brilliant classical scholar. A farmer has no time to be a scholar or a poet, regardless of how big a place he runs. And I’ll bet a dollar that half you agrarians don’t even raise your own milk. Anyway, the industrial mess is with us, and we’ll hardly get rid of it. We’ll simply have to learn to live in it and control it or else go under. And your view of the industrial peasant, like that of all New Yorkers, is provincial.”
Read with this in mind, “The Last Visit” is an elegy for a man, an era and a way of life: “passing,” “ruin,” “depart.”