The New Compass: A Critical Review



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“This Act of Weighing”


Sarah Emsley




To be critical means, according to the OED, to be “Given to judging; esp. given to adverse or unfavourable criticism; fault-finding, censorious” (definition 1).  Critics, literary or otherwise, often find themselves characterized as censorious—none moreso than American poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900-1968), who is featured in this issue of The New Compass [1]—but there is much more to criticism than the finding of faults.  To be critical in the sense of being “Occupied with or skilful in criticism” (definition 3a), means to practice “The art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work; the function or work of a critic” (“criticism” definition 2).  Estimating the qualities and character of a work involves judging what is excellent as well as what is faulty. Adverse criticism can seem to be wholly destructive, but a healthy criticism, which can distinguish the negative from the positive (even when the latter is wholly hypothetical), which can describe the true character of a work, and which can offer a reasoned account of its significance, gives life to literature. Some, even much, critical work will be unfavourable, but it must give reasons for the faults it finds, and it should offer alternative visions of what could be or could have been.


            The criticism of Winters finds faults, but, as Gordon Harvey points out in his essay on t  he critic at work, Winters also had a “terrible gift for imagining what might have been, in a poem as in a career.”  Harvey argues that “the recurring note of regret at how poets of genius— Williams, Pound, Stevens, Crane, and other heroes of his youth—were in the end limited by their lack of intellectual perspective […] isn’t the ungracious pulling down of the great that some have imagined.” The strength of Winters’s criticism is instead his ability to see both what is good in a work or body of work, and what could have made it better.  It is generosity that motivates such criticism: as Harvey suggests about Winters’s treatment of his own students, “in his generosity to individuals he is also looking out for the interests of posterity.”


Like fiction and poetry, criticism is a process of discovery, or, in terms of Winters’s last book, all are “Forms of Discovery.” The critical art, like the creative art, is not simply a thing or an attitude, a judgment or a fact, but a living process; hence Winters’s important questions in In Defense of Reason about the precise nature of that process as it unfolds.[2] Winters, like F.R. Leavis, is often criticized for making monolithic judgements, but just as Leavis’s detractors tend to minimize the importance of the “Yes, but…” response that he insisted was essential to any critical discussion of “This is so” judgements, critics of Winters may not always give him credit for the extent to which he emphasized process.  In The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, edited by R.L. Barth and reviewed by Jeffrey Goodman in this issue, Winters describes what he calls “this act of weighing”; that is, the full process of making a critical judgement, weighing knowledge, theory, motive, and style.


            In this third issue of The New Compass, several of our contributors participate in the process of weighing Winters’s weighing, in his poetry, criticism, and letters.  Richard Hoffpauir compares the poetry and pessimism of Winters and Thomas Hardy, Kenneth Fields focuses on “the aesthetics of recuperation” in his discussion of the relation of Winters’s work and his early experience of tuberculosis, and Gordon Harvey analyzes Winters’s criticism and letters to show how “the experience of his criticism is one of character, as embodied in style.”  All three of these articles were first delivered as talks at the Yvor Winters Centenary Symposium held at the Stanford Humanities Center from November 16-18, 2000.  The symposium was organized by Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, a former student of Winters, whose “Letter from Palo Alto” in this issue explores the tradition of the verse letter in relation to the poems of Winters, his wife Janet Lewis, J.V. Cunningham, Kenneth Fields, Timothy Steele, and Dick Davis.


In addition to Jeffrey Goodman’s review of The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters and John Baxter’s survey of Winters-related sites on the internet, our review section includes Jennie Batchelor’s assessment of Anne Stott on the relationship between conservatism and radicalism in her sympathetic biography of the complex woman of letters Hannah More—whom Stott calls the first Victorian—and Bruce Stovel’s assessment of Beth Lau’s New Riverside Edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (2002) against Claudia L. Johnson’s Norton Critical Edition of the novel, published in the same year.


            Baxter’s exploration of “Winters on the Web” demonstrates that Winters studies flourish—in several different forms—in cyberspace, even as the poetry and novels of his wife continue to be all too often represented as a footnote to his work. We can hope that in future more readers and critics will investigate Janet Lewis’s fiction and poetry, and in the meantime we’re pleased to publish Bradin Cormack’s poem in memory of her, “July in the Garden (1996),” along with poems by Jeffrey Goodman, Carmen Bugan, and David Sanders.


We conclude, in the spirit of critical debate, with replies to Ian Robinson’s article on Conrad’s Victory and to Pat Menon’s article on Wharton’s The Reef (both of which appeared in our last issue).  The process of debating, arguing, and weighing is central to the practice of living criticism, and we continue to encourage our readers to join our conversation.  Send us your “Yes, but…”—or even your “No, in fact…”.  You can reach Michael at, and I am at







[1] The photograph of Yvor Winters is from the collection of Daniel Lewis Winters.

[2] See especially page 372 (Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason [Chicago: Swallow Press, 1947]).






Emsley, Sarah. “Editorial: ‘This Act of Weighing.’” The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>