The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Man at Work:

The Phenomenon of Yvor Winters’s Criticism


Gordon Harvey



In his own day, it was the phenomenon of the singular species: “no critic of comparable eminence,” wrote Randall Jarrell in 1947, “has made so many fantastic judgments.”[1] In our day, it’s the phenomenon of an order gone extinct, the order of eminent critics. By the time of his death in 1968, Winters’s judgments, and his direct way of making them, had hurt his chances of long-term survival in bookstores and on syllabi; but we nonetheless find him at the time, in the selection of his letters recently edited by R. L. Barth, beset by invitations to contribute and comment. The near silence that has now greeted the publication of these letters, finally unsealed after 25 years, bespeaks more than a mixed reputation; it bespeaks a climate shift in literary academe.


Among other symptoms, one thinks of the shift from criticism, considered as canon defining, to “critical thinking,” with its attention to ideology and pluralism; from a focus on the classic genres, poetry having pride of place, to an eclectic sense of “text” that includes less self-conscious documents more responsive to critical thinking; from debating theories of literature to a cooler, been-there done-that historicism—not, to be sure, the history of ideas that Winters practiced, but rather cultural, material, and institutional history, the new literary historians having learned close reading from their literary-critic teachers and turned it to analyzing the cultural logic of intellectual processes and categories themselves, including those of literary critics.  It’s not surprising, in this climate, that most graduate students at Harvard or Yale or Berkeley know of Winters, if at all, as a specimen for classification. But it’s disappointing to find their classifications so familiar. I recall, from conversations in recent years, “a renegade New Critic,” “a throwback moralist and rationalist,” “the most eccentric of the American formalists,” and “went the way of Ransom, Tate, Blackmur, and the other belletristic poet-critics.” These clichés, of genus and species, are more or less the ones applied to Winters in his own day, despite the pains he took to distinguish his views from those of his supposed cohort, and they seem just as uncontaminated by actual experience of his work, let alone of the unclichéd accounts of it that appeared in the decades after his death.[2] For a man for whom discrimination was everything, among critical ideas as among literary works, it seems a cruel fate.


Yet it hasn’t been his only fate, and I don’t refer simply to the number of poems discovered by Winters that are now widely anthologized. Given the changed climate, a gathering like the present symposium is itself a phenomenon.[3] No following exists for Ransom, Tate, or Blackmur—one knows without making a study—like the one that Winters commands, of students, students of students, and diverse others; of poets and scholars, on both coasts and in the middle, and abroad, for whom he is not only a critic but the critic, a force in their lives. This kind of ardor is possible because Winters’s work still lives on the page, is a phenomenon in the original sense of apprehended subjective experience:


We read [him] . . . for the vigor that comes from a powerful mind and a profoundly serious nature, and the weight that seems to be a matter of bringing to bear at every point the ordered experience of a lifetime. . . . When we read him we know, beyond question, that we have here a powerful and distinguished mind operating at first hand upon literature. This, we can say with emphatic conviction (the emphasis registering the rarity), really is criticism. The critic knows what he means and says it with inescapable directness and force (deliberately, not dogmatically), and what he says is clearly the expression of intense and relevant interest.[4]


This experience—it is F.R. Leavis’s of Samuel Johnson—is the experience of genius for getting to the heart of the matter, an experience impossible to explain to someone who doesn’t experience it, and one is tempted to leave the matter there.


Given the caricature by which Winters seems in danger of being remembered, however, it seems at least worth recalling how much of one’s experience of him is at odds with it—with both his genus as new critic-formalist-moralist, and his differentia as a renegade or eccentric. Winters lives on the page because he was closer both to the energies of his time and to the universal energies of literature than anyone fitting those classifications could have been, and because he was a great enough literary artist himself to embody those energies in a compelling presence.




            Many of Winters’s admirers regard him not as critic, primarily, but as a poet who from necessity also taught criticism and literature. Certainly he was a poet first, and quick enough to reject suggestions that his criticism determined his poems. And certainly that criticism is distinguished above all by his practitioner’s expertise. Yet a good many comments in the letters cut the other way, echo Winters’s 1949 response to Hayden Carruth on “The Poet and University”: “Had it not been for my academic career, it is quite possible that I should still be a minor disciple of W. C. Williams, doing little impressionistic notes on landscapes.”[5] The very tone of Winters’s essays makes clear that he didn’t think of them as “workshop criticism” (as Eliot called his—”a by-product of my private poetry workshop”), or think of academe as his day job. “My art is poetry,” he put it to Malcolm Cowley, “my profession is scholarship” (273).[6] And although he somewhat cultivated the image of writing from the rugged hinterland to the spoiled centers of power, the idea of Winters as academic renegade or eccentric distorts his actual relation to the university.


The background here is the struggle in American universities, before and after World War I, between scholars and critics, a struggle waged in faculty meetings, hiring debates, MLA addresses, and elsewhere.  The scholars, upholding the standards of the German research university, are professionals of philology, grammar, textual and historical fact. The critics are serious amateurs, often literary journalists or writers themselves—like James, Pound, Eliot—who find the usual responses of scholars to literature inadequately aware of its function as (in Arnold’s phrase) “a criticism of life.” The scholars are unwilling to admit as literature works being written by contemporary writers (like the critics), or to admit as university colleagues people who deal with older literature impressionistically, whose approach seems insufficiently grounded in fact—in a consistent method for treating empirical detail—or in evolutionary understanding. And so, with college enrollments rising and teaching opportunities opening up, the critics professionalize: they take on the challenge of giving rigor to their work, writing self-scrutinizing essays with titles like “Is Criticism Possible?” and “The Present Function of Criticism,” and eventually become an important minority in the literary professoriat. 


Winters touches on these events himself in “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” in 1956; and indeed this story, the move from outside the university to inside, is his own story. It’s the story of how his precocious intellectual appetites and energies, which for three convalescent years in New Mexico exercised his mind while his body lay passive, were harnessed to the project of making criticism serious and central in the university.    


Winters’s approach to the project is deliberate and decidedly unbelletristic. He sets himself the task, as we say today, of theorizing his discipline: “this conception of literature has not been adequately defined in the past” . . . [but only] loosely implicit in the inexact theorizing which has led to the most durable judgments.”[7] He embarks on major taxonomic projects, defining types of convention, structure, verse, and including contemporary literature in his data. He rejects the impressionism of the “spirit of the age” approach to literary history, which he finds in supposed challengers of the status quo like Eliot and Ransom, whose manner he finds genteel and “indeterminate,” and he replaces it with a style that is bracingly down-to-business. He banishes their cosmopolitan allusions, woolly phrases (“the religious imagination”), and winsome formulations (“they feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose”), eschews not only their opening gambits and leisurely development but structural and verbal cleverness of any kind.


            Instead he starts an essay, “It is my intention to begin by comparing three poems,” and works through his material text by text, by means of unsubtle transitions: “I shall now endeavor to draw certain conclusions regarding the poetic effectiveness of a few basic types of meter.” He makes his claims sharply, without metaphors; rather than assume a genteel agreement about terms and values, he supplies clear definitions and premises, sometimes restating these verbatim from essay to essay. He appeals bluntly to evidence, sometimes filling a whole paragraph with a line-by-line account of meter and syntax (of which he does assume a reader’s knowledge), or with a list of the best poems, or with a concise summary of (not a knowing allusion to) the relevant background events or ideas, these too sometimes repeated from essay to essay. He quotes inelegantly long stretches of critical prose and subjects them to inelegantly logical analysis.


            He is, to borrow his own compliment to R. S. Crane, “a man at work.”[8] He adopts a vocabulary for that work that is pointedly responsible, anti-impressionistic. He approves what is “serious” and “sound,” disdains what is “foolish.” He speaks of “precision” and “principles,” signaling the impartiality of the enterprise. No writer is to be granted special protection from the most serious bearing down upon, is to be approached in a tone like this: “It is proper that we celebrate the hundredth and fiftieth birthday of the birth of Keats by testing our powers of reading him.”[9] For Winters it is Keats who must be tested—and not as some wholesale entity that is the Major Figure, but poem by poem and line by line.


            It was for not taking seriously this academic project of bearing down that Winters criticized his academic colleagues—for their conformity to clichéd categories and valuations, in the face of which he had to teach the young “corrosion and distrust.” But the conformity was a symptom of a deeper lack of seriousness, an inability to imagine how literature and ideas have implications for life, how they can be life-determining, salvational, dangerous. On hearing of Hart Crane’s death in the spring of 1932 and suspecting suicide, Winters writes to Tate that “I had just completed my book of criticism, & all my analysis of his work pointed that way: quite hair-raising . . . . At least he had the courage of his convictions, whatever cloudy notions they were based on, & definitely called the bluff of a hundred odd years of hypocritical pantheistic mysticism” (184-5).


            Against the hypocrisy of Professor X, who spouts such ideas to students but wouldn’t dream of acting on them, we may set the immediate relationship to ideas displayed in Winters’s remark (to Donald Davie) on his “personal struggle with the temptations of the romantic tradition”:   


I am constantly being bewildered by romantic lovers of the bucolic who have never milked a cow or goat, who have never trimmed a terrier, who cannot tell a finch from a thrush, who have never pulled a carrot fresh from the ground and eaten it raw, who have never had to battle with a natural and impulsive love for too much alcohol, and who never got any pleasure out of a fight with their bare fists. These things and others loosely related have been the great temptations of my life. (301)



The range of what counts as a temptation here suggests how hard Winters bore down on his own character; one is reminded of his Sir Gawain describing himself as having “lived in riot like a fool.” But one is reminded also of the note of regret that concludes “At the San Francisco Airport,” where Winters sees his daughter off to her future of vital experiences not yet mastered by the mind, while he remains “In light, and nothing else, awake.”[10]


            It’s in view of the life pictured in this letter that we must understand Winters’s responding, after his retirement, to an open invitation to visit campus, “I never was an academic man, I merely had scholarly interests” (399). This is a man exhausted, to be sure, by decades of conscientious university work, and the social and bodily fatigue (a recurring topic in the later letters) that comes with it. But it is also a man of the physical world, alive to natural rituals, pleasures, and dangers that engage him as no purely intellectual life could—the Winters who, as he reflects in one of his most touching poems, might have been John Muir. It is also perhaps a man acknowledging how much he remained, even after joining the academic community, toughly self-sufficient, his tendencies in this regard having intensified during his semi-isolation at Sunmount and later in the tough Western towns where he taught school, where he had to think positions through for himself, from the beginning, taking nothing for granted, working by trial and error.


            What “I never was an academic man” doesn’t mean, however, is “I should have stuck to poetry.” Winters’s early isolation and self-educating entailed a vulnerability—to both the zeitgeist and his own idiosyncrasies—that it was his salvation to have escaped, and that he sought to spare his own student poets. He came to see it as his main work as a teacher to break down the prejudices dividing poets and scholars, to the detriment of both; and many of his students—Baker, Stanford, Trimpi, Helen Pinkerton, Gullans, Fields, and others—became poet scholars. “Fill your head up with facts,” he tells Stanford, going off to study at Harvard, “skip the appreciative stuff” (217). And to Carruth, again on the poet in the university:


I have trained people who (believe it or not) will be among the permanent poets of our time and among the distinguished scholars of our time; I have caught them young and shown them the foolishness of being irritated by professor so-and-so because he is not as fine a critic as God-Almighty, when he can teach them something about Renaissance texts and the language of Chaucer. I have civilized a lot of young geniuses who could easily have blown their tops at an early date.  (287)


This “civilizing” came with a good deal of a quality that Barth finds predominant in the letters, “a radical generosity that neither asked for not expected anything in return” (xv). Winters’s generosity towards his students appears as an equally solemn care for their living arrangements as for their souls, the latter sometimes manifest (as care often is in Winters) in not-so-solemn bluntness—e.g. “Don’t be a jackass”—but always quite sincerely signed “Best wishes, Arthur.” 


            The care is manifest also in the judicious biographical sketches of his students that Winters writes to others, which remind us that in his generosity to individuals he is also looking out for the interests of posterity. Hence the poignant solicitude of his letters to a young writer of talent as yet uncorrupted by anti-academic prejudices like the Nisei fiction writer Hisaye Yamamoto, whom he persuades to apply for a Stanford fellowship, but who turns out to have just enough of those prejudices to get cold feet:


I have just read your misguided letter and am asking you to reconsider. Don’t go Zen on me; don’t go Whitmanian on me . . . The land is not the only fundamental. It is O.K., if you don’t get mystical about it. But your mind is important too. A year here would do a lot for your mind and your art; and at the end of the year the land would still be there, and you would be better prepared for it and for other things. (327-8)


The counterpart in Winters’s criticism to such anxious concern is 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. This isn’t the ungracious pulling down of the great that some have imagined; it comes from a terrible gift for imagining what might have been, in a poem as in a career.


           It would be going too far to say that Winters’s later heroes are scholars, but when he writes to Don Cameron Allen that “I have always thought of poetry as the highest form of scholarship,” he is clearly paying a tribute to both (379). In his great poem “Time and the Garden,” he presents poet and scholar as sharing the same drive towards an intense, gathered awareness: the scholar, inheriting as an object of study the poet’s passion to condense hard-won wisdom into lines, inherits also a version of that same passion, “to condense from book to book / Unbroken wisdom in a single look.” And one is struck, reading Winters’s work against that of his cohort, by how much more affirming it is of the patient work of teaching and learning, how studded the essays and later poems are with grateful references to editors, literary historians, and other scholars—notably to the two who most helped civilize him, W. D. Briggs and J. V. Cunningham, the latter despite the fact (hard as it is to imagine) that he came to Stanford as a gangly, uncouth prairie kid with knowledge of classics but little of English literature. All the more generous and honest, then, seems Winters’s dedication to Cunningham of The Function of Criticism in 1957 as one “whose work in prose and verse alike has been more valuable to me than that of any other writer of our time.”


            Winters’s inclusion in Function of his review of C. S. Lewis’ English Literature in the Sixteenth Century suggests the complexity of his seriousness about scholarship. He has learned from Lewis’s overview, yet he makes it a foil for the idea at the heart of his own very different academic project: the idea that literary history is necessarily critical, since it can only be (if one is not to be bound by blinkered ideas of periods and schools and Major Figures) the history of the best works. And yet again, he defends the expertise of specialists: “It is the work of a man who has read most (perhaps all) of the literature in the field but who is competent to discuss only a small part of it professionally,” and further, “the first rate monograph, or the first rate critical essay, is never superseded; it becomes part of literature; but the text book is a hugger-mugger affair, no matter who writes it.”[11]


               Some of Winters’s staunchest defending of learning as necessary to criticism comes in the late letters. By this point it has become depressingly clear to him that the determination of which works and values are central is more likely to be based on genteel consensus than on informed judgment. To Malcolm Cowley:


                       I know you all regard me as an eccentric. But you are the eccentrics,


rather the provincials. . . you don’t know enough. You know damned little except each other’s opinions and the prejudices of your generation and of the preceding generation. . . . I have been grubbing in this stuff professionally, while you people have been agreeing privately and publicly with each other.”  (356)


A few months later, in a few weeks in the spring of 1958, comes a remarkable outpouring of a dozen letters to Tate, compulsively responding and re-responding to Tate’s positive but historically naïve and inaccurate essay on Winters’s poems (“You are writing like one of my students on a final examination” 362). These letters, the most detailed commentary we have by Winters on Winters, and his most direct confrontation with a gifted former hero lamed by an unwillingness to educate himself, also powerfully assert that a literary judgment isn’t a rubber stamp, that even if basically right it can’t be true unless based on real understanding.                                  




            Winters’s embrace of academic work in some ways parallels his shift in poetic method. Both entailed accepting a larger sense of audience and mission, a deeper awareness of shared enterprise with other minds throughout history. Where the early free-verse poems tend to be private, their implied relation to audience, and to meaning, skeptical and ironic, the later poems in traditional meters and structures are forthright and stately, willing to risk earnest sentiment. (“You people strike me as afraid not to be clever,” he writes to Davie of certain British poets. “It is easy to be clever. I was clever as hell when I was 25, but I gave it up” [376].)


               Both developments, however, strike one as actualizing impulses that Winters felt from early on. “The young romantic eventually understood,” writes Barth, “the limitations of his position, and began to change himself,” and “this change was achieved only at great cost” (xii). And doubtless it was, at the level of positions (“St. Thomas tortures me with an inescapable logic that I cannot accept” [128]). But the poet we encounter in the earlier letters seems restlessly ready to change, his enthusiasm for his latest works repeatedly turning to distaste, as if he is responding to critical promptings that he can’t yet articulate or act upon. And whatever Rimbaudlian states he entered into to write those poems, the Winters in the early letters doesn’t strike one as a “young romantic.” He strikes one as young, to be sure, but also as just the hard-headed, precise, and independent mind for which academic criticism was waiting.


            It is the mind, we should recall, of a self-made businessman’s son, whose first passion was zoology, with its combined pleasures of observational specificity, natural and evolutionary process, and classification (“at the age of 16 . . . I knew Jordan’s Manual of the Vertebrates practically by heart” [241]). Having turned to poetry, he is at 18 (one is somehow not surprised) already theorizing about it: “Hardy is perhaps the best example of my theory. In his greatest work (“During Wind and Rain,” etc.), he gives the impression of being a terrifyingly ominous force holding himself in check with great effort” (7). Confined off and on to bed, he is teaching himself French and Spanish and reading through modern literature, with great excitement and remarkable circumspection. He makes reading lists for his correspondents (“I would advise you to read as much of the following as you have not read, and then re-read the rest” 12), advises them to “avoid the mannerisms of people whose mannerisms are so strong” (i.e. Yeats and Stevens, 30), and generally to toughen up: “You have a trusting soul. You will have a longer and happier life if you train it” (31). His language for literary vices is substantially that of the later criticism: “facile,” “cliché,” “sloppy,” “melodrama,” “imprecise,” “loose,” “journalistic,” “sentimental.” And “intelligence” is already his central virtue: “it is unfortunate for M.A. and company,” he writes at 18, “that intellect is not as contagious as are idiosyncrasies” (9). And so early did Winters begun the study of technique, especially that of sound and rhythm that would most distinguish him as a mature critic, that he can tell Harriet Monroe at 23, “I have, in the past few years, conducted investigations into the nature of poetic method farther than anyone else, past or present, has ever done” (71).


            Winters’s early judgments (including those of himself) swing wildly, but the crucial qualities of mind are there: the interest in particular achieved works, rather than wholesale Major Figures; the respect for exact knowledge and technical competence; the conviction that one should be able to articulate one’s principles, and that one should always act on them, however doing so may conflict with social ease. These are the qualities, along with a capacity for focused work, that would allow him to accomplish—as well as any one person could—the work of his historic moment: to create a philosophically grounded, evidentially precise and evolutionarily coherent account of past and present literature.


            Although Winters’s account is primarily of poetry, and incomplete even as that, and although its drift resembles the general anti-romantic drift of Eliot, Ransom and others, it goes well beyond them in both evidential detail and historical and philosophical coherence, and challenges comparison only with the work of Leavis and Scrutiny. Any one piece of Winters’s account would be for most academics a triumphant life’s work: the historical and re-seeing of the Renaissance short poem in the 1939 Poetry essays; the seeing of American literature whole in Maule’s Curse (arguably the inaugural text of American Studies) and The Anatomy of Nonsense; the re-connecting of romantic and modern poetry in “Poetic Styles Old and New” and other essays of the mid fifties, through the concept of post-symbolist imagery. And this is not to mention the many other essays that lay technical and theoretic groundwork, or clear away bloated Major-Figure reputations obscuring the true shape of history (e.g. of Frost, Hopkins, Yeats, Stevens, Eliot), or bring to light particular obscured poems and poets (Churchill, Tuckerman, Bridges, Sturge-Moore, Cunningham, Bowers). Whatever its gaps, the assemblage that is Forms of Discovery soars above the poetry criticism of its era in the explanatory power of the map it offers of turning points, intellectual forces and stylistic alternatives, decisively compared key figures and decisively clear examples.  




            Historically, then, the Winters phenomenon is the phenomenon of the great academic critic: the professor with the genius, energy, and confidence to develop a comprehensive evaluative vision. It was a phenomenon of the formative, expansive days of English departments; the anger that Winters inspired had much to do with the threat his kind of bearing down posed to the expansion, with its assumption of unassailably permanent Major Figures. It may be that, in the mid 20th century, the great critic had to be an academic one, the work requiring a slow digesting of literature and scholarship and history that seems at odds with the life of the literary journalist, at-large man of letters, or workshop critic. The work was surely helped more than hindered by the conditions of teaching: the need to assemble survey courses, to decide what works to teach and how the works relate, to re-read works year after year, to articulate and demonstrate ideas clearly enough to hold an audience of students.


            The fact that circumstances of his period made Winters possible, however, doesn’t make him period-bound, any more than it does Samuel Johnson, for readers who care about the works he discusses. Indeed, if one appeal of Winters’s criticism is the energy of progress and adventure—forging a new unity in the profession to meet the challenge of the times—another is the energy of re-grounding, of broadly familiar and commonsensical notions reinvigorated.


            Winters’s characterization of his view of literature as “moral” has allowed easy dismissals by those who conflate the term with “moralistic,” but this seems another refusal to let literature connect with real life. To call literature a moral act is to say that writers work their medium so as to treat their subject as justly, exactly, and completely as possible, that they inevitably do this with judgably greater or lesser success, and that this judgment matters. It matters because just, exact, and complete acts of understanding, discovered in the works of others or arrived at in one’s own struggles, make one more aware and alive. To call this situation “moral” is to stress the deliberate, independent acts of weighing and deciding involved, and the deliberate effort. Since one’s natural impulse is to settle for the good enough, to let one’s thinking go slack, blurry, clichéd, and since external nature tends no less to such entropy than does internal, subtle acts of discovery and understanding aren’t likely to result from surrendering to or going with the flow.


            It’s hard to see how this view isn’t basic to writing generally. Even the fear of surrendered will, though indeed temperamentally strong in Winters, isn’t far from Orwell’s vision in “Politics and the English Language” of the politician in a “state of reduced consciousness,” having surrendered his thinking to the verbal atmosphere around him: “the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.”[12] And Winters’s view seems relevant to most kinds of writing, precluding as it does any magical divide between poetic or literary composition and other forms (such as the historians that Winters taught as literature). “My idea of a writer,” he tells Malcolm Cowley, “is somebody who has something to say which will interest superior adults and knows how to say it” (375), and this practical attitude is at the heart of his project. Despite the special kinds of work his criticism does—historical, formal, ethical, metaphysical—it never seems in danger of devolving into one of them; nor, although Winters was active in social causes, does his criticism tend outward to the kind of contemplating of culture that we find in Eliot, Leavis, the Agrarians. It keeps returning, rather, to the work of bearing down on specifics of composition.


            I don’t refer here to the more obvious compositional remarks, like the punctuation lesson Winters gives Tate in the letters, or like his review of Jarrell that finds an “utter incapacity to state anything memorably”: “Had I received this description, written out as prose, from a student in freshman composition at Stanford, there is scarcely a phrase in it which I should not have underlined as either trite or clumsily obvious; furthermore, I think that there is scarcely a teacher of freshman composition at Stanford (I should hesitate to speak for the teachers in the great universities of the east) who would not mark it similarly.”[13] I mean, rather, that the criteria implied in Winters’s evaluative comments, and in his key concepts—poem as statement, understanding vs reflecting experience, denotation grounding connotation, relationship of motive to emotion, rational form, the plain style, the imitative fallacy, and so on—are familiar criteria that he, or anyone, might in different language offer up to a composition class. 


            Your subject,” he might tell his students, “should be one you care about; but don’t give me a report of your impressions or feelings, or a compilation of observations or facts, however interesting you may find them. Give me your understanding of these experiences, some shareable insight into them that isn’t trivial or obvious, and persuade me that your understanding is just. You’ll discover the nuances that will make your idea compelling only in the act of writing; but everything in your finished piece should clearly bear on it; no bits should be merely striking in themselves, or allowed to run on beyond their relevance. You’ll need some general terms in which to formulate your understanding (although in patches of description or narration, if the context is clear, you can also imply it) and a structure that organizes your thoughts and details and guides your reader through them. This structure will to some extent arise out of your material, but it won’t reflect the private logic of your mind; it will develop through one or more of the standard kinds of rational progression, which will allow your composition to be more considered and economical than is your conversation or your everyday flow of thought, and more shareable by others.”


            “Your language,” he might go on, “should at every point clarify your particular take on your subject and reflect your emotional attitude towards it—the attitude you’re inviting me and other readers to share as a just one. So bear down: stay in word-by-word control of your tone, syntax, rhythm, sound. Make your style as forthright and concise as possible, your diction sharp and clean: avoid the sentimental and journalistic clichés and the predictable details that will first come into your head. But don’t over-write: dramatic or ingenious effects, unless they’re warranted by the understanding of the topic that you’re articulating, will seem mannered and will call attention away from your subject to themselves, or evoke feelings and associations that your understanding doesn’t warrant, or that obscure what you’re trying to say.” 


            To suggest that Winters invokes these basic criteria—of relevance, clarity, coherence, economy, and so on—isn’t to suggest that poems are essays, or as easily come to terms with. Winters’s judgments everywhere reflect his account in Primitivism and Decadence of how the features of a line of poetry—meter and rhythm, compression of statement, conventions of feeling—exist in an “almost fluid complex” of inter-relationships.[14] But even the subtlest of these relationships, he is concerned to show, has its significance in the context of a certain understanding that the whole poem is trying to communicate, which, as an understanding and not just an experience, is answerable to the basic criteria for communicating ideas. It’s surely the centrality of these criteria that Winters has in mind in telling Cowley and Tate that they are the eccentrics, and in responding to an evidently large compliment from Charles Gullans (“this Great Man business gives me a pain in a place I won’t mention”) that “if the principles which I have taught you kids . . . are correct . . . they are not my property but are universals. Jan thinks that I have damaged all of you. What I was trying to do was knock a little common sense through your skulls” (338).


            This last hardly captures the effect Winters’s critical prose (though it captures an element of it), but the common sense of his principles does help explain why that prose still lives on the page, where discussions by his cohort of “tension” in poetry or “pure and impure” poetry do not. The presumption of these principles is what allows us to readily grasp the significance, in Winters’s account, of Shaftesburian deism, romantic organicism, and modernist ideals of eliminating the author and imitating a streaming consciousness or the texture of modern life. Winters was singularly sensitive to the elusive nuances, the effects of sensory intensity and emotional suggestiveness, that such conceptions produced; but these become valuable for him, in particular poems and in the history of poetry, to the extent that they participate in a larger act of communicated understanding that involves ideas or implied ideas. The mind’s presumption of this rational basis, indeed, is what makes extra-rational effects perceptible. 


            The younger Winters sometimes seems to take such effects as the basis, to regard poetry as working not by sequential statement but bursts of epiphanic implication: “a poem for me is the condensation into more compact and consequently more intense terms of the facts or suspicions of one’s existence (97); or “the best poems of Williams or Hardy lay the complete world naked at a stroke” (88). The appeal of this stroke in art, Winters later acknowledges in “Time and the Garden,” derives from a common fantasy in life of all-at-once knowing, whereas real knowing is won only through time and in articulated statement. Here again, however, the early thinking looks forward to the late: from early on he wants a sharp structure or “noticeable outline” (78), and he values in the epiphanic poems above all their compression, or what he in several letters calls “specific density.” A remark like the following from 1931 points ahead, but also seems no dramatic break from what has come before: “The theme is definite, the procedure is economical, the feeling is exact, each detail contributes a definite and necessary part to the statement” (191).


            And the remark could be made, my point is, about most pieces of good writing. The coherence among human attempts at understanding that Winters conveys is one of the pleasures of reading him, as is the experience of revitalized common sense one gets from his engagements with particular works, on which he brings to bear familiar criteria that one brings to many exchanges in life.  If a poem is a statement about experience—rather than a fiction, a drama with a speaker, an ironic construct of opposing forces —it should be a statement worth making (“It seems to me the business of a poet to arrive at an attitude he can offer without apology” [181]) that requires the resources of poetry to make well.


            Notwithstanding the elaborate forms of apology that some poets write into their style, or that some critics offer on their behalf, a good many famous poems simply don’t have much to say that will interest superior adults. It’s liberating, and startling, to come across Winters calmly observing that most of Shakespeare’s sonnets display “an attitude of servile weakness on the part of the poet in the face of the person addressed that renders a sympathetic approach almost impossible,” and that even Herbert’s better poems exhibit “a cloying and almost infantile pietism . . . that leads him into abject clichés,” and that “To His Coy Mistress” is “an exceptionally brilliant academic exercise on a set theme, but it is no more than that.”[15] One may at first resist, having perhaps written clever papers on these Major Figures; but even in resisting one knows that Winters has cut through to something true, which our better self may even have dimly recognized before our clever, conformist self suppressed the recognition.  


            Winters’s boldest profession of the “statement about life” criteria comes in “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature,” with its comparison of literary genres in terms of their potential as intelligent statements about life. The comparison shows the man at work, bearing down on the materials of the profession and following out the logic of his premises—to the conclusion that the short poem is inherently a greater form than forms like the novel, since the poet need not limit his intelligence in portraying less than fully intelligent characters. The fact that this conclusion, by the time Winters arrives at it, collides with, rather than revitalizes, common-sense experience, suggests one kind of limit to his criticism: he had neither the time nor the inclination to do the systematic work on prose fiction, the re-reading and scholarly steeping, that would have allowed a just treatment of its effects and potentials.


            To be sure, his treatment in Maule’s Curse of Hawthorne, Cooper, Melville, James is permanently illuminating and alters the way one reads those writers. And that treatment does take its bearings from the basic criteria for articulated understanding, about which these writers have inherited some Calvinist-inspired skepticisms, which manifest themselves as a desire to seize the Big Meaning in a stroke, to leap or plunge directly into experience, to use a private vision and language, to focus intensely on small details at the expense of larger significance, to allow moments of deliberately obscure motivation. But however coherent may be Winters’s account of the literary tradition that is his immediate inheritance, one wouldn’t turn to him (as one would to Leavis) for an account of the fluid complex of inter-relationships in a novel that would match the account he can give of those in a poem. His conclusion that the novel is a lesser vehicle for intelligence seems abstract and arid, in view of Middlemarch or The Rainbow. It also seems, given the infinitely many and infinitely fine judgments of appropriateness such works make in delineating the relationships between characters and between characters and their world, and in expressing these relationships as plot, strangely at odds with Winters’s own notion of literature as moral judgment.              


            Yet one isn’t sorry for the experiment, that Winters pushes his logic—and our own—as far as he has. It is what we expect and want him to do. And this suggests a final aspect of the Winters phenomenon worth remembering: the extent to which the experience of his criticism is one of character, as embodied in style.




            Criticism on Winters’s scale, however it may be anchored in passages of close analysis here and there, must be largely a matter of establishing authority and trust regarding the greater mass of material that the critic can’t treat, but can only invite extrapolation about or characterize in a way that invites the reader to follow up. The great critic, that is, must have a great style. 


            Here again, comparison is revealing. Where many a sentence in Tate, Ransom, Jarrell, & co. might be mistaken for a sentence by one of the others, a Winters sentence is always recognizably his. Many critics might have written “the dimension in which a poem moves is not one which excludes ideas, but one which includes attitudes,” or “the total complex of sensibility and thought, of belief and experience, in the society from which the poetry emerges is the prime limiting factor,” or “the poet imposes unity on his variety, form on his matter, just as the mind imposes order on the universe.” But none is sharp enough to possibly be Winters.  Nor is this:


Both odes are constructed pictorially in spatial blocks, for the eye to take in serially. Though to my mind this method is better suited to the subject of the Grecian Urn, which is itself a plastic object, than to the Nightingale ode, I take the latter, in spite of the blemishes of detail (only some of which we have looked at) to be the finer poem. If there is not so much in it as in the Grecian Urn for the elucidation of verbal complexity, there is nowhere the radical violation of its set limits that one finds in the last stanza of the Grecian Urn.[16]


Though not untypical of 50s criticism, such prose discourages serious attention, the result of which could only be to expose the sources of discouragement: the muddiness of “pictorially” (and its ugly pairing with “serially”), “spatial blocks,” and “plastic object,” the latter also inviting an absurd image that then draws out the physicality of “blemishes” even as it clashes with the tone of genteel triviality carried by that word and by “the finer poem.” And then the pseudo-exciting cliché of “radical violation” completed by the flat and vague “set limits.”


            This isn’t a style that sends one back to the poems in question, so little inward acquaintance with them does it display, and so little confidence that what is being said about them matters—so little, that is, of what is everywhere present in Winters:


The remainder of the poem is stereotyped, but the rhythm of the third line of the third quatrain is fine; the anapest in the third position, a very light one, followed by the very lightly accented syllable of the subsequent iamb, makes the sliding perceptible, however subtly. The couplet is commonplace, but honest. The subject is serious; the language is the small change of Christian moralizing, but it is sincerely felt and gracefully arranged: the rhythm is beautiful. The poem is moving but essentially second rate.[17]


In its assured assembling of relevant perceptions, this is the man at work, although no ordinary man at work could deliver them with such persuasive authority. The very austerity of assertion, in conjunction with the precise metrical notations and scrupulous qualifying, manifests long and close acquaintance with the poem—as teacher and working poet steeped in scholarship—and with many other poems that make up its immediate comparison group, and with the universe of poems in English. “Essentially second rate” isn’t dismissive—in fact this style does send one back to the poem—but merely exact.  The style is more that of a man at work than Johnson’s, but it has the weight that Leavis feels as a “bringing to bear at every point the ordered experience of a lifetime.” 


            The passage was indeed composed near the end of Winters’s life, when he was racing to finish Forms of Discovery before his painful cancer finished him, which makes the achieved sense of ordered experience fairly heroic. But it’s typical in the way it achieves definitiveness. Although Winters can turn out memorable formulations at will (Frost is “a poet of the minor theme, the casual approach, and the discreetly eccentric attitude”[18]), he usually lets his language gather weight by its spare simplicity, its avoidance of even the mildest jargon (“plastic object”) but also of lexical brilliance (such as sometimes flashes out in Leavis). He puts his rhetorical energy rather into syntax, in sentences that are often longer than their directness would suggest, and that are assembled not by accretive or parenthetical constructions (such as in Leavis suggest exploratory energy) but by sharp oppositions and firm cadences.[19]


            Winters’s gift for syntax, and his attunement to its effects in poetry, was augmented by his reading of the great historians. His comment about one of them is apt to himself:


Hume, in common with the best stylists of his century, possessed a command of the rhetorical possibilities of grammatical structure. Accumulation, climax, antithesis, the ironical by-thrust; the exact identification of causal, temporal and other relations by means of grammatical form; perfect clarity at every moment in the process of difficult stylistic maneuvers, variety and precision of rhythm: such mastery is the norm of his style.[20]


A command of balance in particular, often antithetical, accounts for a good deal of Winters’s own mastery. It is mutedly present in the passage on Sidney (“commonplace, but honest”; “moving, but essentially second rate”), but is often allowed more snap: “This kind of poetry is not a new kind . . . It is the old kind with half the meaning removed.” And often it orchestrates a complex thought, in a way that both clarifies and emotionally heightens it:


The inept deism of the “Essay on Man” was not forced upon Pope by the age: Pope himself, by virtue of his inability to think and his ability to write as if he thought perfectly, did at least as much as Shaftesbury to impose it on the age; and had he possessed as sharp a mind as Samuel Johnson the history of the age might easily have been greatly different from what it was.[21]


Such organizing of thought by balances within balances reminds one more of Johnson, indeed, than of most modern critics—except that the balancing is tamed to the purposes of the man at work by a plainer diction than Johnson’s, by a movement closer to speech (Johnson wouldn’t have used the insistent repetition of “age” to bring out the words I’ve emphasized, or come to rest on “was”), and by a favorite Winters construction, whereby a balance hinged on and or but or on a paratactic semi-colon or colon is immediately extended by a third, usually co-ordinating element. “The inept Deism was not forced upon Pope; Pope imposed it on the age; and the age might have been different.” And, “The language is the small change of Christian moralizing, but it is sincerely felt and gracefully arranged: the rhythm is beautiful.” The effect is to moderate the settled effect of the balance by immediately pushing forward from it, so as to suggest unfettered alertness to implication but at the same time give a clinching completeness to the thought. Thus also: “Any such attempt would be the work of the lifetime, and my life is nearly spent; and I have written other books.” Or:


The pigeons cannot be separated from the idea: they are part of the universe which the poet is trying to understand, and at this point they are an efficiently representative part. The rational soul and the sensible soul are united: we do not have the purely rational soul of Jonson nor the purely sensible soul of Pound; and there is no decoration. The universe which Stevens describes is ambiguous in its ultimate meanings. But there is nothing ambiguous in the style; ambiguity is rendered with the greatest precision. And the universe is one which we can recognize as our own.[22]


Any writer can make this kind of move, of course; but in its fit with Winters’s mind and purposes it creates particular energy and presence in the prose, the presence of a mind at work.     




            And not just a mind but a person. This person emerges in part because, to a degree rare in academic criticism, his personal world emerges. To finally read Winters’s letters, full though they are of new information, is to realize how much one already knew, how much a picture of his life coalesces in his criticism. This critic, we are aware, has a job, at which he has worked hard and steadily, at a place in a provincial relation to “the great universities of the east”; has students, freshman and graduate; has exasperated and exasperating colleagues, keeps Airedales and goats and fruit trees, writes poems, follows boxing, is married to a modest but considerable writer, has been through an extended illness and some life changes, has walked up to the abyss and hung on sheer cliffs of the mind.


            But Winters is also thickly present as a distinct character. Although his prose is funnier than is acknowledged [23], the character in it clearly isn’t the genial sophisticate projected by most “lively” writing, with whom one is to imagine oneself conversing. In fact the Winters character emerges in his moral difference from us, in the fact that his bearing down and following through consistently go beyond what we could do or perhaps would want to.


            One thinks, again, of the way he bears down on his own life, so that a prefatory personal sketch like his introduction to the Early Poems, which for most poets would be an off-duty occasion for relaxed and self-ironic remembering, for Winters requires a display of grave exactitude in recounting only the relevant facts of his life. One thinks also of his strict following through to conclusions, no matter how off-putting they may be for readers otherwise well disposed—so that, for example, this natural-born empiricist, not remotely likely to join Tate and others in Catholicism, is led by logic to declare himself a Thomistic absolutist. And there is his perfectionism, apparent in observations like “the remainder of the poem is stereotyped, but the rhythm of the third line of the third quatrain is fine,” which requires that one or two faultless poems be singled out from a life’s work that may contain twenty astonishing pieces with a small lapse here or there (he finds Larkin’s lovely “At Grass” “all but ruined” by a difficult juncture of two consonant sounds in the last line of the fourth stanza [376]). And there is his extreme sensitivity to the mind’s precariousness and the dangers lurking in ordinary activities, evident in his interest in the themes of dissolution and invasion of identity, for example, and in the language of catastrophe that runs through his literary and historical analyses: “disastrous,” “damage,” “collapse,” “failure,” “destroyed.” Granted that the times—Depression, World War, atomic bomb and nuclear détente—were indeed perilous, it’s striking that one so sensitive to melodrama in the works of others could title one of his own “The Brink of Darkness.”  


            Here, it may seem, one can speak of eccentricity: the character in Winters’s criticism is eccentrically serious, is serious in excess of the mean, is extreme. And yet if this is true of Winters, it is true in the same sense it is of Socrates, whose character, following through on his premises all the way to the hemlock (“the test,” as Winters treats it in his poem, of his “long / Uncertain labor to discern the best”), is at once extreme and exemplary, enjoining us in its very extremeness to a seriousness that we will never achieve but should strive for more often than we do. 


            As similarly enjoining characters, one thinks perhaps of Lawrence in his essays, again of Johnson, of Ben Jonson in his epistolary poems. In these, as in Winters, the man and the cultural enterprise seem perfectly integrated; one can’t imagine any off-duty life, any extra-curricular pursuit conducted in a different spirit. The seriousness of Winters’s comments in his letters on raising and showing Airedales, especially on the qualities of particular dogs (and dog judges), bears this out. In general the letters confirm what we already knew from the criticism, that no biographer will be coming along (as did for Marx, Nietszche, Frost) to reveal a gap between the values implied in the work and the private conduct of the man.


            And although the Great Man business may give Winters a pain in a place he won’t mention, one feels him in the criticism quite as aware as Jonson that his style and comportment exemplifies and enjoins to an attitude towards life. One feels it, for example, in moments of self-consciously unfashionable, didactic earnestness: “I have tried to understand this for my own improvement and for the improvement of my students.”[24]  One feels it also, as a more ironic playing to type, in some of his reported conversational remarks: “An Airedale can do anything any other dog can do, and then kill it.”[25]


               Such moments remind us how much tougher, lonelier, and more vigilant is the character in Winters’s criticism than the one in “Inviting a Friend to Supper” or the “Preface to Shakespeare.” He can’t speak as a participant in a common classical tradition, nor even as a participant in a national tradition, as Tate could as a Southerner, or Leavis could as an English cultural critic in the line of Eliot, Arnold, Ruskin, and others.[26] But Winters’s lone vigilance, motivated as it is by an obvious love for poetry and the beauties to be found in it (“beautiful” appearing quite as often in his criticism as “intelligent”), is what gives him such a strong existence in one’s mind, even when one isn’t recalling something specific that he has said. He is one of those powerfully consistent characters for whom we can imagine what he might say about a certain topic, or about the sloppy thoughts we ourselves are saying about it—who commands a place on the small committee of inner consultants we each retain as spurs to our ever-failing integrity.


However Winters is remembered, and by whom, it will be a crime if his criticism is remembered as a crotchety, cerebral backdrop to his poems. Whether he is greater as a poet or critic is difficult to say; but whether he matters more as one or the other isn’t an idle question, nor one answerable by acknowledging that criticism is by definition a derivative and secondary activity. For if criticism depends on poetry, so do poems—for their very existence as available and influential objects—depend on criticism. ("I was prevented from reading Verlaine for three years by the quotations I had seen in anthologies and essays. When I read the Romances sans paroles I could have wept" [79]). And though it may be bearing down too hard to say, as Winters does, that only Johnson deserves to be called a a great critic, there are distinctly fewer great critics in English than there are great poets. As a poet Winters has many equals, as a critic maybe two or three. Without Winters’s criticism, moreover, we wouldn’t understand how great his poems are—no other critic could have equipped us to see.


            The number of great poets who were also great critics is smaller still, of course. The number of these who were married to a considerable poet who was also a considerable novelist must be exactly one. And to the fact that this poet-novelist could at the same time somehow maintain a household we owe, in no small measure, the work of the man at work that is the phenomenon of Yvor Winters’s criticism.  


What if there were some odious drudgery in teaching? Who expects to get by without odious drudgery? My wife, who has never been strong, has gone through 23 years of the odious drudgery of keeping house, and has managed in the process to produce three novels, a nouvellete, a book of short stories, and a book of poems; she thinks I lead the life of Riley, and in comparison, I do.[27]







[1] “Corrective for Critics” (1947), in Kipling, Auden, and Co: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964, 143.

[2] Among other items are illuminating summaries in Grosvenor Powell’s Language as Being (1980) and Dick Davis’s Wisdom and Wilderness (1983), and a recent essay by Wesley Trimpi that vivifies the idea of post-symbolist imagery by linking it to the ancient ideal of the educated sensibility (International Journal of the Classical Tradition (2001-2002), 195-204.  But the most moving and vital response to Winters’s criticism has been that of John Fraser, originally in articles published just before and after Winters’s death, more recently on Fraser’s website  See especially “Yvor Winters: Perils of Mind” and the five essays comparing Leavis and Winters (which pairing, should anyone ever really do a critical history of criticism in the 20th century, will have to be central).  Citations to these are on Fraser’s website, along with a remarkable array of different responses by Fraser to Winters’s critical promptings, including commentary, audible readings, alternative anthologies.  

[3] An earlier version of this paper was given at the Winters Centenary Symposium at the Stanford Humanities Center, November 16-18, 2000, a project spearheaded by Helen Pinkerton.  Barth’s excellent edition of the letters was unveiled at the symposium.

[4] “Samuel Johnson,” in The Importance of Scrutiny, ed. Eric Bentley (New York: NYU Press, 1984), 51-2. 

[5] “The Poet and the University,” Uncollected Essays and Reviews, ed. Francis Murphy (Chicago: Swallow, 1973), 308.  See Eliot, “The Frontiers of Criticism,” in On Poets and Poetry (NY: Farrar Strauss, 1961), 117.

[6] Parenthetical page numbers refer to the splendid Selected Letters, ed. R. L. Barth (Athens, OH: Swallow/Ohio UP: 2000).

[7] In Defense of Reason (Denver: Swallow, 1947), 3.

[8] The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises (Denver: Swallow, 1957), 19.

[9] Allen Tate, “A Reading of Keats,” in The Man of Letters in the Modern World (New York: Scribner’s, 1955), 193.

[10] Poems are quoted from the Collected Poems, ed. Donald Davie (Manchester: Carcanet, 1978).

[11]  The Function of Criticism, 197-8. 

[12]  A Collection of Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1953), 166. 

[13] Uncollected Essays and Reviews, 22. 

[14] In Defense of Reason, 19.   

[15] Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (Chicago: Swallow, 1967), 53, 88, 104. 

[16] The sentences are by Brooks, Tate, and Jarrell, respectively; the passage is by Tate from “A Reading of Keats,” 206.  It’s only fair to add that Tate’s prose, although consistently hurt by its attempt to imitate Eliot’s ease, has better moments than this, and that, if one never finds such bland and sloppy passages in Winters, neither can one find a charming literary performance like Tate’s “Miss Emily and the Bibliographers.”

[17] Forms of Discovery, 34, in the account of Sidney’s “Leave me, O Love.”

[18] The Function of Criticism, 159. 

[19] Although the sentences become shorter in some of the hurried writing for Forms of Discovery, the care Winters put into the longer constructions is evident, among other places, in his remark to the editor who broke some of them up, in the essay on James:  “You seem to have found my sentences in many cases too long; but the sentences were correctly constructed and said what I had in mind fairly accurately and concisely. Your shortening of the sentences results in sloppy relationships, redundancies, and from time to time nonsense” (Letters, 247).

[20] In Defense of Reason, 417.

[21] In Defense of Reason, 488.  

[22] Forms of Discovery, xi, 267.

[23]      Which is why it comes as no surprise to find Winters’s letters shot through with humor. In the criticism the humor usually comes as flashes of deadpan that play off or exaggerate his normal formality.  These sometimes involve emotional hyperbole: “The ignorance both of philosophy and theology in such ideas is sufficient to strike one with terror” or “I believe that nothing but confusion can result from mistaking the Mississippi Valley for God” (IDR 588, 592).  Or a quick comic analogy: “The reviewer is helpless to identify honest writing, but he can easily fasten himself to a mannerism more or less the way in which a barnacle fastens himself to a pile”--where the quasi-measured “more or less” is part of the effect. The same is true, in the sentence following the assertion that “The only important difference between a chimpanzee and a professor of English is that the professor has a greater command of language,” of the opening qualification and the phrase “beyond argument”:  “The professor may think himself more handsome, but the chimp thinks otherwise, and the chimp is beyond argument the better athlete” (FD xviii). And also of the opening phrase in the sentence concluding the summary of Yeats’s ideas on women: “So far as I can recollect, the ladies are not required to go fishing” (FD 208).


            There are memorable moments of exasperated sarcasm, as about the last line of The Waste Land, and Eliot’s even more pretentious footnote on it: “Surely there was never another great sentiment expressed with such charming simplicity!” (IDR 500).  And occasional opportunistic pounces on a lapse, the observation that Ransom’s observation “’the deaths of little boys are more exciting than sea surfaces’ . . . seems worthy of a perfumed and elderly cannibal” (IDR 518).  And there is even, in a discussion of famous metaphors using Richards’s tenor/vehicle terminology, a terrible pun made funny by a straight delivery that continues on without missing a beat, and by the fact that the statement is also literally true:  “The most famous Renaissance vehicle, as far as I know, has been Marvell’s chariot.  It functions in much the same way as Donne’s gold and compasses” (FD 73).

[24] Forms of Discovery, xi.

[25] Ken Fields, personal communication, May 1982.

[26] Ian Robinson’s study of this tradition in The English Prophets might also be regarded as a contribution to it, so well does the book deliver on the promise of its subtitle: A Critical Defence of English Criticism (Edgeways Books, 2001).

[27] This was 1949.  Janet Lewis produced a fourth novel (1959) and several more collections of poetry.






Harvey, Gordon. “Man at Work: The Phenomenon of Winters’s Criticism. The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>