The New Compass: A Critical Review



[Home]   [About TNC]   [Current Issue]   [Archive]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]   [Contact]



Winters on the Web


John Baxter



For Jonathan Swift, the battle of the books happens in the library, though the definitive showdown—between the spider and the bee—takes place in the upper reaches of its windows. With the internet, the battle often moves out well beyond any library, through any number of windows. There are, of course, still a great many spiders and even a few bees in this web. The question is (borrowing Matthew Arnold’s understanding of the honey and wax of Swift’s fable): how much is there of sweetness and light?


            Yvor Winters is, to use Thom Gunn’s phrase about him, “the maverick’s maverick,” so it’s not too surprising that several mavericks of the internet are now finding their way to his work. As of mid-May, 2004, a search for “yvor winters” on Google yields some 3,940 results. Not all of these, of course, are very radical; some are even decorous or staid: booksellers trying to get their books into the library or even into the hands of old-fashioned readers, or The Academy of American Poets (, with a prim biography of Winters, a selected bibliography, a shopping tip, and a discreet referral to two other sites, one of which is the Modern American Poetry Web Site (


            This site, an online journal and multimedia companion to the Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford, 2000), has an entry on Winters prepared and compiled by Edward Brunner. It includes examples of Winters’s early experimental poetry and also a section on “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” including two letters by Winters (though not the poem itself) and excerpts from three commentators: Grosvenor Powell, Elizabeth Isaacs, and Terry Comito. The commentaries are intelligent and helpful guides to a poem which is difficult but central to an understanding of Winters’s art and procedures. To these, it would have been useful to add a passage from Dick Davis, Wisdom and Wilderness (Athens, 1983), pages 99-101, which makes important points about this poem and the question of Winters’s own romanticism.  The letters, to the editor of the New Republic (June 2, 1937) and to Allen Tate (April 7, 1958), are invaluable supplements to the poem. The bibliography on the site, however, makes no mention of The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (Swallow/Ohio, 2000), edited by Bob Barth. This academic web-paper, consequently, receives a B minus.


            Two other academic sites are well worth checking out. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory contains a useful discussion of Winters’s criticism by Terry Comito ( Comito sets Winters apart from the New Critics (with whom he is often erroneously identified) and also from the didacticism of the New Humanists, such as Irving Babbitt. The moral intelligence that Winters prized in poetry is, Comito argues, a form of pragmatism, and his “most striking and durable achievement is his account of the morality of poetic meter.” Rhythm, in this view, is a form of consciousness and a form of discovery. The other important (indeed indispensable) site is the description of the Winters-Lewis papers held at Stanford University ( The description is fairly detailed, and it also offers two biographical notes, one on Yvor Winters and the other on Janet Lewis Winters. These biographical bits are the most accurate and authoritative yet available, and other web accounts should be balanced against these. It is especially good to have the information on Janet Lewis, which is not easily available anywhere else. It would have been even better to list her separately in the table of contents rather than to hide her, as so often in literary discussion generally, in a secondary strand of the Winters note. B plus.


            As for the mavericks, they are (naturally) a lot more fun—and much more wildly various and irregular in terms of quality. If you go to and then type in the words “critical cults” in the selection box, you get a short essay by Aaron Haspel which concludes that F.R. Leavis and Yvor Winters are “the preeminent cult critics of the 20th century.” What Haspel, like Swift’s spider, really likes is the vitriolic put-down. And I imagine that he has plenty of company here, for unless you are the object of the put-down or identify too closely with the put-downee, the critical demolitions are often irresistible. Haspel also suspects that his cult critics (especially Winters) are fundamentally right about most of the important points and that this accounts for their staying power. Unfortunately, this way of speaking, with its commitment to the notion of “cults,” is unlikely to get at either issue. It’s a kind of security measure or defensive gesture. You don’t have to engage with the followers (or the opponents) of a cult nor submit to the discipline of finding out how Winters’s influence really operates. You need never venture beyond the confines of your own website.


Greg Perry’s Poetry Blog, Natural Ramble, and Pop/Wine Review ( offers a different sort of buzz. If you don’t get it from the poetry, you can always try the merlot. The site has so far posted six entries on Winters. What Perry likes is the nature poetry, and in the entry for March 6, 2004, he offers a particularly subtle and acute reading of the poem, “On Rereading a Passage from John Muir.” The entry for March 1, 2004, does less well by “John Day, Frontiersman,” and it opens with objections to poems that are “over-rational.” He may mean “overly-rational,” but who knows? There are perils in writing for the net without the safety net of a copyeditor. But even if he did mean that, what would that mean? Earlier entries invoke help from David Yezzi from the New Criterion (mostly direct quotations from Winters) and Ben Kilpela (about whom more later). Which only goes to show that there are interconnections on the web, however frail the filaments.


            If you check out “The Rathouse: The Philosophy Site of Rafe Champion” (, you get a sense of robust activity, for this is a site that boasts a total of 35,355 visitors as of April 14, 2004, and if Perry were to look for help with the question of Winters and rationality, he might try Champion, who posted a thoughtful essay on this topic in 2002. The Rathouse, in spite of its unpromising name, is a commodious dwelling. Champion’s site also features a separate section called “The Revivalist,” an on-line journal (four editions so far) paying tribute to important figures who have been “forgotten or overlooked.” The first note in the first issue is on Winters. What Champion likes especially is the way he “combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher, and scholar” and “insisted that literature is too important to allow its various aspects to be hacked up and distributed to different groups of specialists.” Champion offers, moreover, a kind of rallying cry to the world at large: “the task of imaginative criticism belongs to all thinking people, although it has been institutionalized with certain organizations such as the universities and with occupational groups such as academics, including philosophers.” And he follows this up with a judgment on our current plight: “This process of institutionalization has almost proved fatal. It sometimes appears that the institutions and groups who have the most responsibility for the health and vigour of our thinking have in fact done much to mutilate and debilitate our heritage.” Strong words, which go some way to account for the positive side of internet networking: an independence from said institutions and a strongly egalitarian and democratic ethos.


            Like Rafe Champion, Ben Kilpela operates a site that has every appearance of being a hive of activity and of independent thought. “The Yvor Winters Web Site” ( is an offshoot of the Ben Kilpela Web Site, but it has grown to massive proportions. It opens with an introduction entitled, “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Yvor Winters.” Given that Kilpela presents himself as rescuing Winters from a nearly total obscurity, one might pause for a moment to wonder who is asking with such frequency? The other sections include “The Major Writings of Yvor Winters” (a bibliography, with Kilpela reviews attached to each entry), “The Winters Canon” (the table of contents for Quest for Reality, with a short preface), and “The Winters Issues Page” (only partly up and running, though the longest part, “How did people discover the thought and writings of Yvor Winters?” has the feel of a fan club in the making, but also, on the evidence of the first entry, with the potential to be something more important and more serious than that). But the longest and most ambitious section of the site is “A Year with Yvor Winters: a day by day selection of his writings with comments from Ben Kilpela,” and yes, there are 365 days, each with about a page, divided fairly evenly between quotation and commentary. It’s impossible not to feel a kind of awe. Kilpela’s passion, energy, and admiration are evident on every page.


            And yet, though he aspires to be a bee, Kilpela is still three-fourths spider in disguise. And Winters, who more than anyone devoted his life to “long search, much study, and true judgment of things,” is rather entrammeled in this web. Kilpela’s principle for selecting quotations is more or less random: ‘I like this, and this, and also this’—there’s something genuine and touching about his method but also something self-defeating. The principle tends to obliterate a sense of Winters’s development. So impressed is he with the coherence of Winters’s thought that Kilpela has little sense of its tensions, its mobility, its dynamic. And because the passages are random, there is no argumentative momentum. The arguments caught in this web have nowhere to go. Kilpela acknowledges that his method is “un-Wintersian,” but it may in a sense (and contrary to his obvious intention) be anti-Wintersian. The essence of Winters’s criticism is on-going argument, pushing forward—agreement and disagreement are both obliged to work hard to keep up. Furthermore, the principle tends to undermine a sense of Kilpela’s own development, or developing understanding, and without this the site contains unfortunate echoes of the “cult” mentality of thegodofthemachine.


            Partly the problem is a matter of the difficulty, even the impossibility, of simply taking over a judgment from someone else. Winters himself comments on the “unique” nature of a critical judgment. Kilpela, for example, in his entry for January (1/19) credits Winters’s comments on Ben Jonson’s “To Heaven” as decisive for converting him “into a Wintersian.” It’s an impressive choice, and it reveals something rather noble (or potentially noble) about Kilpela’s project. But he doesn’t really offer to show what in the poem moves him, how it challenged or re-organized his own mental and emotional economy. What is he being converted to?—a certain critical approach to poetry or to Christianity? To Jonson, or simply to Winters himself (the shadow of the cult again)?


He speaks dismissively about Renaissance studies and Jonson specialists, and while these folks may well continue to deserve censure for failing to give the poem its due, the judgment here is second-hand Winters, frozen in time. It appears unaware of the influence Winters did have. The poem is now available in a number of the standard anthologies (Norton, for example) thanks in no small measure to Winters. And as for Jonson specialists, well, there is, to start with, Wesley Trimpi, Ben Jonson’s Poems: A Study of the Plain Style (Stanford, 1962).  There’s a short circuit in Kilpela’s critical process here: ‘this was Winters’s judgment, I see immediately that it was right, now it’s mine.’ Though this is offered as a climactic and decisive moment, it takes place more or less in a vacuum. There is little testing out, of Winters or of Kilpela himself, and no real engagement with anyone else either, and the judgment in this context (however accurate in others) remains inert, web-bound.


            Similarly, with comments on the poems, the judgments are often highly appreciative but also highly impressionistic—and too easily content with generalizations. On “The Slow Pacific Swell,” for example, compare Kilpela (January 1/7) with Richard Hoffpauir, The Contemplative Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, and Yvor Winters (Lewiston, N.Y., 2002), pages 195-200. Kilpela has general remarks on Winters’s love of “precise and moving description”; Hoffpauir has detailed remarks on how the details work. The one argues that the landscape of California “often played a major symbolic role” in the poetry but no specific comparisons are invoked; the other discusses the poem in the context of several others and in the context of Winters’s comments on Melville. The one treats the poem as if no one else had ever talked about it; the other enters into a discussion about it with Helen Pinkerton Trimpi and Grosvenor Powell. Hoffpauir could be wrong about the poem, but he is willing to risk some quite specific judgments about the nature of the human concerns in which it might find a hearing and make its presence felt.


Now, at this point I can imagine an objection to my comparisons that would run roughly as follows: what you summarize from the book is academic writing; the website is a popular venue; Kilpela is perfectly free to voice his opinion (popular or unpopular). And so he is. But he is also engaged in proselytizing, in trying to persuade others to attend more closely to Winters, and for that I honour him. The honour of the cause, in fact, is exactly why it calls for more adventuring forth, less hunkering down, fewer retreats to one’s own turf—a miniature, backyard academy. Pop culture and the academy, as Rafe Champion sees, are interconnected, or ought to be. Why stall out at the undergraduate level when the web offers you the great wide world? The moral seems clear. Kilpela needs to get away from his own website more often. He needs to pay closer attention to the advice of his master (know more, write less). He needs also to visit the library and find out more about the range of possible questions (some frequently asked, some not).


            Finally, of all the busy bees on the web the busiest may well be John Fraser (, though his name pops up during a Google search of “yvor winters” only after the first 140 results. This is no doubt because the site is focused primarily on other things. One half is devoted to the splendid paintings of Carol Hoorn Fraser. The other now contains the equivalent of four web books by John Fraser, the last of which, Voices in the Cave of Being, includes a good bit of material of interest to those interested in Winters. This book deserves a review of its own, but I have time here for only a few remarks on selected portions. Fraser has well-established credentials in the world of regular print (three books with Cambridge University Press and a long list of essays and reviews), but he has thought hard about the special demands of web publication. His book is reader-friendly, written in a lucid, lively prose that is sectioned off so that you can take it in screen by screen.


            Second, the book comes at the nature of poetry from a wide variety of angles. The concluding section, “Resources,” for example, contains three different parts: a “Reservoir” of poems difficult to find elsewhere; “Aurals,” a selection of 21 poetry readings; and an annotated “Bibliography.” The annotations are often quite extensive: the one on The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters runs to four or five pages and amounts to a short (and astute) review. The introduction contains, among other things, a brief autobiographical description of Fraser’s first encounters with Winters’s criticism in the early fifties (material, perhaps, for the “Winters Issues Page” of Kilpela’s site). Fraser’s accomplishments, in fact, include seminal reviews of both The Function of Criticism and Forms of Discovery when they were first published. And in the decades that followed he went on to a highly original series of essays comparing the criticism of Leavis and Winters.


            But Voices is not a book that rests on past laurels; it is in several ways a new and groundbreaking work. Like Kilpela, Fraser thinks that Winters is fundamentally right about which are the greatest poems in English, but he repeatedly tests the claims, particularly in a remarkable essay called “Inner Spaces: Voicing Church Monuments.” It illuminates Herbert’s greatness by taking you inside the experience of reading the poem, and not merely of reading it but of memorizing it, and of finding (even so) that some of it still eludes comprehension. And this adult experience is set alongside a comparable one from boyhood in “Poetry and the Headmaster’s Wife” with a section from near the close of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. These essays give a fascinating account of the process of arriving at a personal judgment, however indebted the reader is to the prompting of Winters (or the Headmaster’s Wife).


            In contrast with these vividly concrete explorations, other essays range more broadly over a series of theoretical issues—“Powers of Style,” “Language and Being,” “Vision and Analogy”—though Fraser’s discussions of theory are always peppered with a wealth of striking or even peculiar examples. Consider this, from the opening of the essay on “Winters, Leavis, and Language”:


As William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said about its brassy music, “Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?” Meaning, here, what chutzpah it is to imply that “theory,” literary theory, didn’t really begin until Derrida and DeMan, in their twin act, hit East Coast American academe like the Beatles.


The whole of the essay, along with much else in Voices, demonstrates conclusively the sophistication of Winters and Leavis about language and meaning, and it shows why (to return to the point that Aaron Haspel intuits) they have staying power—and why the cult of literary theory does not.


            But Fraser is not simply a propagandist on behalf of his favourite critic (or critics). A middle section of Voices is given over to defining “A New Book of English Verse,” and it includes “an introduction and a table of contents for an unpublished anthology.” This is a project that he worked on years ago with Donald Stanford, but this new (and expanded) version is prompted in part by a reaction to what Kilpela calls the “Winters’s Canon.” In fact, the original project was also something of a reaction to the anthology “Quest for Reality,” a desire for a fatter anthology but one still based on Forms of Discovery. “A New Book” continues to wrestle with the question of what exactly Winters’s principles are and which poems may be thought to meet them—and whether there are further principles (of comparable weight) and other poems (of comparable standing). Kilpela, on his site, reports on an interesting exchange with an unnamed critic (almost certainly Fraser) on these issues.


            Finally, however, since the battle of the books is about the moderns as well as the ancients—and it’s significant that Winters had a foot in both camps—I conclude with a few gems from Fraser’s lovely conclusion, “Lagniappe and Leftovers.” He explains the unusual term (with a little help from Webster): “Lagniappe, lagnappe (lan-yap, lan’ yap) [Creole] [Dial], a small present given to a customer with a purchase.” The section is a sort of commonplace book (like Jonson’s “Discoveries”), and it’s full of small presents and even some not so small: an analysis of the lyrics from musicals (Cole Porter, Irving Berlin), with interesting comments on Winters’s sensitivity to minor as well as major poetic achievements; notes on teaching (George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls); recent discoveries of new poems, both in free verse (Susan Goyette, “The Season of Forgiveness”) and in the form of a villanelle (Martha Collins, “The Story We Know”); meditations on Fichte, Schelling, and Coleridge, and so on. Such gifts are a demonstration that the windows of the web can lead back into the library as well as out from it and that to take one’s bearings from Winters is to acknowledge, as Fraser puts it, “the vitality of modernism (however you define that term)” along with the energies of more traditional writing.






Baxter, John. “Winters on the Web. The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>