Sunday, October 17, 2021

'They Are Gone to Milk the Bull'

“I believe that the work of literature, in so far as it is valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth.” 

Certain readers, perceiving the confidence with which Yvor Winters utters these words, will be stricken with philosophical apoplexy. Don’t worry. They’ll live. The rest of us will think a little harder about Winters’ observation from the foreword to In Defense of Reason (1947), and read a little further:


“The absolutist believes in the existence of absolute truths and values. Unless he is very foolish, he does not believe that he personally has free access to these absolutes and that his own judgments are final; but he does believe that such absolutes exist and that it is the duty of every man and of every society to endeavor as far as may be to approximate them.”


In other words, Winters makes no claims to revealed truth. He’s no know-it-all, philosophically or otherwise. The truth humbles all of us. One can read his work in prose and verse as a lifelong pursuit of truth – knowing it is there, seeing it in furtive glimpses, sensing its presence while it remains elusive. “A Dedication in Postscript” is dedicated to “Agnes Lee shortly before her death”:


“Because you labored still for Gautier’s strength

In days when art was lost in breadth and length;

Because your friendship was a valued gift;

I send these poems—now my only shift.

In the last years of your declining age,

I face again for cold immortal page:

The statue, pure among the rotting leaves,

And her, forsaken, who Truth undeceives.

Truth is the subject, and the hand is sure.

The hand once lay in mine: this will endure

Till all the casual errors fall away.

And art endures, or so the master says.”


At the end of “The Unfleshed Eye,” his essay on one of Winters’ greatest poems, “To the Holy Spirit” (Hermetic Light, 1994), John Finlay quotes a line by Dr. Johnson I am unable to find in Johnson’s work: “One does not make truth; one can only hope to find it.” Boswell does report Johnson saying:


“Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.”


Winters was born on this date, October 17, in 1900, and died on January 25, 1968.

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