Saturday, February 20, 2021

'A Matter of Poems Rather Than Poets'

One of many lessons learned from Yvor Winters is the importance of thinking in terms not of poets but of poems. Granted, casual, off-the-cuff language is slippery and no grown-up holds it to the highest of literal standards. If you tell me, “I love Keats,” it would be priggish of me to reply, “God, he wrote some awful stuff.” What you probably mean is that “To Autumn” is an excellent poem, one of the finest in the language, which has no bearing on how terrible “Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain . . .,” one of his earliest extant poems, undeniably is. 

In a May 6, 1950 letter to Donald Davie, Winters  lambasts some of his usual targets – “Romantic nature lovers” generally, Emerson specifically. Emerson, he writes, “did not realize the ghastly implications of his doctrine. . . . Whitman was quite as wholehearted, but of course wrote so badly that one has to be a true scholar to find out what he was talking about.” Nothing offends Winters’ critical sense so powerfully as earnestly soft-headed nonsense.


On May 27, Winters responds to Davie’s reply to his earlier letter, writing that he is “bored with romantic lovers of nature who have never looked at nature.” Specifically he dismisses Wordsworth, whose “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a “tissue of cliches.” But he goes on to describe the “Ode to Duty” as “one of the few great poems of the 19th century, in spite of a few bad lines.” And who would expect Winters to have anything good to say about Tennyson? He continues:


“[T]ell your student that Tennyson does not look so damn sick if you take his best poems. ‘Tiresias’ is pretty impressive in spite of the Tennnysonian close; the vision of Athena, the naked truth, and her striking Tiresias blind is great poetry. ‘Demeter’ is quite a poem also, and, in a smaller way, 'Tithonus.' Nineteenth century poetry is a matter of poems rather than poets. Browning’s ‘Serenade at the Villa’ is a great poem, for example; and so is Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Pause of Thought.’ I could name a few others.”


Readers can rely on Winters’ tastes and judgments. He is never so dogmatic as his reputation suggests.


[The quoted passages are from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), edited by R.L. Barth and published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press.]

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