The New Compass: A Critical Review



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“Putting by the Claims of the World”:

Negations in the Poetry of Thomas Hardy and Yvor Winters


Richard Hoffpauir



No, I do know that I was born

To age, misfortune, sickness, grief;

But I will bear these with that scorn

As shall not need thy false relief.

(Ben Jonson, “False World, Good Night,” ll. 61-64)


It is not surprising that Yvor Winters liked Thomas Hardy’s poetry as much as he did for as long as he did.  We note several outward similarities.  Both were mavericks and controversialists, obtaining some pleasure, I suspect, from provoking people.  Both stood apart, somewhat isolated, living and working far from intellectual and literary centers: each referred to himself as provincial.  Both had impressive prose careers but thought of themselves as primarily poets.  Both were anything but casual:  deeply serious men of rectitude and reticence, they profoundly disliked hedonism and refused to separate art from life.  Both disliked the label “rationalist” but championed reason and scientific discipline.  Both returned again and again, Hardy almost obsessively, to themes of loss, death, and the ruins of time.  Both were generally non-political but on occasion espoused liberal causes, and each had a highly developed sense of justice.  War particularly assaulted that sense:  the Boer War and World War I for Hardy and World War II for Winters tended to harden their pessimism, deflating Hardy’s tentative faith in meliorism and stiffening Winters’s defensive retreat to classical, as opposed to modern, notions of civilization. Both believed that the twentieth century was entering “a new Dark Age.”  That phrase is Hardy’s, from his “Apology” to Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), in which he discusses the difficulty of keeping poetry alive in an age characterized by “the barbarizing of taste in the younger minds by the dark madness of the late war, the unabashed cultivation of selfishness in all classes, the plethoric growth of knowledge simultaneously with the stunting of wisdom, [and, quoting Wordsworth] ‘a degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.’”[1]  A few years later Winters justified his aggressive critical writings as contributing “in some small measure” to the rescue of “our literary culture (to mention nothing more) [which] appears . . . to be breaking up”; four years earlier he had written:  “We do not enjoy a high degree of civilization, and I believe that probably we never shall.”[2]


            It is in the context of that last comparison that we should approach Winters’s own words in praise of Thomas Hardy.  The appreciation was especially intense in Winters’s formative years, when he saw Hardy as a model whose presence made it easier for young poets to write good poetry.[3]  The kind of model Hardy offered changed and somewhat narrowed for Winters over the years.  Throughout the 1920s Hardy was for Winters a model particularly of almost classical resignation.  If Eliot in this period was a prime example for Winters of the modern poet “exploiting his inability” to find “a workable substitute for God,” Hardy found himself in the same predicament, said Winters, but maintained “spiritual dignity and vigor.”[4]  Other poets are measured by Winters against Hardy’s “sturdiness,” mastery of human emotions, and “classical dignity of attitude toward human destiny and human experience”; behind his lines one feels “a lifetime of monstrous discipline,” such that he “fulfills the necessary ‘balanced ration’ for modern consumption.”[5]


            When Winters changed his poetic method in 1928, it was because he knew he could never hope by the method he was using to approach the quality of the work of the poets he most admired:  Baudelaire, Valéry, Bridges, Stevens, and Thomas Hardy.[6]  Thereafter, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he tended in his critical writings to emphasize Hardy as a model of technical expertise and virtuosity:  the rich connotations by which he gets at “the wealth of the race,” the exemplary use of traditional forms, proving that one can confront “the chaos of this graceless” modern world without giving in to formlessness and that strict meter is itself a technique of definition and control of experience.[7]  The enthusiasm wanes a bit by the time he offers his one sustained commentary on Hardy, those scant five pages in Forms of Discovery (1967).  He continues to declare Hardy a master of the “management of stanza, meter, and rhythm” and adds that the older poet “had the best eye for natural detail in all British poetry.”  But he seems a little less forgiving than he was in the 1930s of what he now calls Hardy’s “melodramatic and amateur philosophy”; Hardy is “essentially a naïf, a primitive,” whose work has a “home-made quality.”[8]


            I would like to suggest that Winters, in his poetry at least, has more in common with Hardy than those later comments would seem to indicate,[9] especially in matters moral and epistemological.  Winters’s most telling comment on Hardy comes in “The Morality of Poetry” (the first chapter of Primitivism and Decadence [1937]).  After pointing to the attempts by many contemporary “mystic” poets (such as Hart Crane and W. B. Yeats) to set up a “theoretic escape” from the necessary task of comprehending life’s most difficult experiences, he reminds us that the older religions were fully aware “that one can escape from the claims of the world only by understanding those claims and by thus accustoming oneself to the thought of eventually putting them by”:  that essentially tragic attitude is expressed memorably in Sidney’s “Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust” and Herbert’s “Church Monuments.”  One doesn’t have to be a Christian to feel the moral pressure and relevance of that attitude.  Because Hardy’s sense of form is always firm, Winters continues, he can be said to have not pushed his “mythic and animistic” determinism to its logical ends, where it would have “eliminated the human struggle.”  So—and here is the sentence that most interests me—“the tragic necessity of putting by the claims of the world without the abandonment of self-control, without loss of the ability to go on living, for the present, intelligently and well, is just as definitely the subject of Hardy’s poetry as of Herbert’s,” and I will add, just as definitely the subject of Winters’s poetry as of Hardy’s.[10]  The following comments on some shared structural and thematic patterns of negation will, I hope, help a little to clarify certain issues, especially Hardy’s “pessimism” and Winters’s “dogmatism,” that have darkened and muddled the reputations of these two poets.


            The western literary theme of putting by the claims of the world is as old as Christianity and probably as old as the idea of tragedy.  Donatus, as J. V. Cunningham recalls, said that “the moral of tragedy is that life should be rejected.”[11]  We have then the long and prosperous Christian tradition of contemptus mundi with the related asceticisms of the Middle Ages, one of the key stimulants of which is the first epistle of John 2: 15-17:


                                   Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.

                       If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

                                   For all that is in the world, the lust of the eyes, and the pride

                       of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

                                   And the world passeth away, and the lust there of: but he

                       that doth the will of God abideth for ever.


This theme finds its way into the hardly ascetic sixteenth-century England—in those poems by Gascoigne and Raleigh, amongst others, dealing with “Christian pessimism, or disillusionment with the world,” that Winters liked so much [12]—and then into George Herbert (the poet Winters compares to Hardy), where the emphasis is on the need fully to acknowledge that tragic fact of death and to make the proper moral adjustment:


                       [. . . ] the blast of death’s incessant motion,

                       Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,

                       Drives all at last.

                                               (“Church Monuments,” lines 4-6)


            There are echoes of this older tradition in Hardy and Winters.  Hardy variously refers to the world as “a welter of futile doing” (“In Tenebris III,” line 3), “this region of sin” (“Midnight on the Great Western,” line 19), “this wailful” place (“A Plaint to Man,” line 17).  Existence in such a world is, he writes in an amusing epigram from 1866,


                       A senseless school, where we must give

                       Our lives that we may learn to live!

                       A dolt is he who memorizes

                       Lessons that leave no time for prizes.

                                               (“A Young Man’s Epigram on Existence”[13])


Much more serious is the much more sophisticated version of this sentiment in the last stanza of Winters’s “A Testament to one now a child”—another Hardy moment in Winters’s poetry:


                       O small and fair of face!

                       In this appalling place,

                           The conscious soul must give

                                Its life to live.[14]


Earlier in that poem he offered the examples of Jesus and Socrates whose life-clarifying wisdom was passed on to us only by their enormous sacrifice (“These gave us life through death” [line 9]).  In “The Cremation,” he goes so far as to say that the world actually resents our attempts to be human, to be more than simply natural.  He questions the ash of a cremated body:


                       And where is that which made you just?

                       Which gathered light about the bone

                       And moved the tongue, in earth’s despite.  (lines 9-11; emphasis mine)


In response, Winters teaches the young “corrosion and distrust” (“On Teaching the Young,” line 3)—distrust specifically of spontaneous speech.  And what is spontaneity but, in a sense, an unguarded responsiveness to the claims of the world?  A world that resists, even is contemptuous of, verbal attempts to comprehend experience, is a diminishing force.  (That is why, as he says, “in the great tragic poets [. . .] one feels that a victory has been won over life itself.”[15])  And that which diminishes our being is evil.  So Winters (answering Frost’s embarrassingly inadequate “lover’s quarrel with the world”) says, “much of the world is evil, and the evil had better be recognized and taken seriously.”[16] The recognition is the prerequisite to “fit[ing] thyself against thy fall” (as Herbert says to his body in “Church Monuments”).  Hence the rigorous and uncompromising realism of both Hardy and Winters.  Hardy’s famous line from “In Tenebris II”—“if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (line 14)—was, Henry Ramsey tells us, particularly liked by the Winters he knew at Stanford in the early 1930s.[17]


But Hardy and Winters were not, of course, Christians, much less ascetics.  For them there was no transcendence, no immortal soul, no otherworldly reward to compensate for not loving the world.  Hardy did retain an emotional attachment to religious ritual, and he was, apparently, a life-long communicant of the Established Church.  He called himself “churchy.”[18]  But he was essentially an agnostic, in Huxley’s original sense of the word:  “its import lies in being a confession of ignorance--a warning set up against philosophical and theological phantasms,”[19] a warning in other words against certainty and the presumption of knowledge.  Winters was an agnostic by the early 1930s, agreeing with Hardy that religion was highly desirable but unavailable.[20]  He became over the next ten years a theist,[21] but he continued to deny the possibility of understanding the Divine:  in prose in 1935—“the Absolute is in its nature inscrutable and offers little material for speculation, except in so far as it is a stimulus to moral speculation,” and in verse in 1946—“Thou dost elude my speech” (“To the Holy Spirit,” line 26).[22]  Both Hardy and Winters were certainly impatient with Christian theological speculation; it is another temptation they put by.  At the end of “The Impercipient,” after declaring that he’d rather be able to believe, Hardy simply sets the issue aside:


                       Enough.  As yet disquiet clings

                                   About us.  Rest shall we.  (lines 31-32)


Winters says almost the same thing in “A Fragment”:


                       I cannot find my way to Nazareth.

                       I have had enough of this.  Thy will is death,

                       And this unholy quiet is thy peace.

                       Thy will be done; and let discussion cease.   


For these two poets, putting by the claims of the world is not a theological imperative so much as an epistemological reservation.


            We get a clearer sense of this epistemological emphasis in their putting by the world if we consider what they add to, or choose to draw out from, the classical and Renaissance conception of tragedy as, in Cunningham’s plain words, “the fall from prosperity of a character of high estate,” a fall “consumated [sic] by death.”[23]  In a note from November 1885, Hardy observed, “a tragedy exhibits a state of things in the life of an individual which unavoidably causes some natural aim or desire to end in a catastrophe when carried out.”[24]  He is not talking about the missed opportunities and frustrations of everyday life; those are simply life’s little ironies or “satires of circumstance.”  Real tragedy reports assaults on natural aspiration.  Winters’s notion of tragedy takes this a step further.  For him, the modern equivalent of “a character of high estate” is the “conscious and energetic” intellectual represented by Valéry’s serpent in “Ebauche d’un Serpent.”  Winters says of this serpent in the Garden of Eden:  “He is so created that he desires infinite knowledge, and he is so created that he cannot have it.  The desire is his nature, his greatness, his sin, and his torture, and it is inescapable [. . . ].  The theme is the most inclusive of tragic themes:  one might describe it as the theme of tragedy.”[25]  Hardy’s “some natural aim or desire” is narrowed by Winters to the intellectual aspiration for the impossible:  absolute knowledge and the infinite perfection of which man is by nature deprived.


            Hardy and Winters were not, of course, alone in acknowledging the tragic nature of the human situation, but they almost were in the ways they defined that tragic nature and especially in their concern with putting by the claims of the modern world.  This is my main point and the one on which I wish to focus for the remainder of this paper.


What truly distinguishes Hardy and Winters is their denial of the claims of the world as those claims determined the expression of the consolations offered by their contemporaries.  These presumptuous respites and refuges include (1) nature, (2) much nineteenth-century metaphysical aspiration, and, later, (3) utilitarian, positivist, and other progressive schemes and systems. Winters would have agreed with Hardy’s contention (in a note from 1885) that “Experience unteaches—(what at first one thinks to be the rule in events).”[26]  Many of their poems are structured to unteach the reader, specifically by defining a deceptive temptation, acknowledging its fascination and strength, then negating it or putting it by.  It is a decidedly anti-Romantic movement of the mind as it restructures its emotional commitments.


As we consider examples of their poetic dealings with those three consolations, we should not overlook a significant difference in the two poets’ presentation of the same denial:  Winters is generally more assertive, expository, and intellectual than Hardy.  “No answerer I,” Hardy says of himself in the final stanza of “Nature’s Questioner.”  In 1882 he went so far as to say, “I am content with tentativeness from day to day.”[27]  Winters, of course, was a professional academic; Hardy never attended university (it is, says Irving Howe, one fact central to Hardy’s life, although we mustn’t forget how astonishingly well-read he was.[28]).  There are several reasons for Hardy’s more tentative poetic voice.  Although he felt dwarfed by the Romantics, he also found them embarrassing.[29]  One of the lessons he learned from William Barnes, the Dorset dialect poet he greatly admired, was that in a post-Romantic period “quietness and modesty are traits not necessarily unbecoming in a poet.”[30]  There was also the enforced restraint he learned (and that perhaps became habitual) during his career as a successful Victorian novelist:  how to be popular without giving in to sensationalism, how to question Victorian values without offending his readers.


            First, then, the consolation seemingly offered by nature.  Winters most often negates or turns his poetic contemplations of nature’s attractions with simple, blunt, corrective statements:  for instance, “It is nothing” from “Jose’s Country,” “These are not signals” from “December Eclogue,” “Here is no music” from “The Empty Hills,” “It is the passing Wilderness” from “The Last Visit,” “That is illusion” from “The Slow Pacific Swell”—all five poems puncturing any tendency and hope we might have to find meaningful continuity or approachable peace in non-human nature, even when it is domesticated or pacific on its surface.  He spells it out in “The Manzanita”:  “This life is not our life” and “There is no wisdom here; seek not for it!”  It is as if, 140 years later, Matthew, Wordsworth’s childhood friend, has finally been given a chance to answer William’s one-sided argument in “The Tables Turned”:


                       Books!  ‘tis a dull and endless strife:

                       Come, hear the woodland linnet,

                       How sweet his music! on my life

                       There is more of wisdom in it.  (lines 9-12)


            “In a Wood” is Hardy’s equivalent answer to Wordsworth.  The poet comes to a wood


                       Dreaming [a significant word] that sylvan peace

                       Offered the harrowed ease—

                       Nature a soft release

                                   From men’s unrest.  (lines 13-16)


But amongst the growth there he finds only Darwinian combat.  In the last stanza then he retreats to the human world:


                       Since, then, no grace I find

                                   Taught me of trees,

                       Turn I back to my kind,

                                   Worthy as these.

                       There at least smiles abound,

                       There discourse trills around,

                       There, now and then, are found

                                   Life-loyalties.  (lines 33-40)


The note of reticence in the “as” of the fourth line, the “at least” of the fifth, and the wonderful “now and then” of the seventh are quite typical of this very English poet.


            Even more typical are declarations of ignorance by him or his characters, for instance, the last line of “The Darkling Thrush”:  “And I was unaware.”  But we mustn’t be misled by the modesty:  Hardy is almost as dismissive of sentimental readings of nature as Winters, but he is less direct.  In that poem, the pathetic, aged, isolated bird, flinging its soul on the gloomy, desolate landscape, completely out of tune with and unaware of the natural world, gently brings to mind those human, famous, frustrated flingers of souls, Shelley and Keats (poets who really did envy birds).  Such an association saps the feasibility from the “blessed Hope” that Hardy momentarily and fancifully and, I think, ironically, entertains. He is a little more direct in “Proud Songsters,” where other thrushes, along with finches and nightingales, “In bushes / Pipe, as they can when April wears, / As if all Time were theirs” (lines 4-6; emphasis mine).


            Turning from nature to the second and closely related but broader refuge of Romantic aspiration itself, let us consider some poems that not only correct but also begin to define an alternative, for instance, Hardy’s “Lying Awake” (first published in 1927) and Winters’s “The Fable” (published only two years later [31]).  In “Lying Awake” Hardy visualizes what can be seen outside on this very early morning.  The poem is literally calling attention to the poet’s “characteristic ability to see vivid pictures in memory or reverie,”[32] but more importantly through its structure it suggests his lack of Romantic ambition.  The order of the list is significant:  a Star, beech trees, a meadow, and finally a churchyard with the names on the tombstones “creeping out everywhere.”  As his imaginative eye moves down to earth, he also moves away from the symbolic temptations of the star down to the significance of human time--the threat of death and the hold the past can have on us.  Winters in “The Fable” invites the reader to move his gaze in a more complex, repetitive motion:  from the protecting rock near the shore, out to sea (dissolving elemental process), then back to the wash of the sea on the shore, then back further to the protected hills, then forward to the meeting of sea and land, where, now stabilized, he is able to judge the danger of his alluring natural context (line 11).  Both poets move (Winters a little more circumspectly) to secure their mental footing, but they are never completely secure:  Hardy has his obsessive memories and Winters his obsessive need to know against just what he needs to defend himself.  What Thom Gunn says of Hardy’s regret for the past can be said of Winters’s insistent defensiveness:  it was the source of each poet’s strength [33]--the breadth of understanding they could bring to a determined effort to keep their bearings and secure more than momentary stays against loss as well as confusion.


            Another set of poems with retreating movements that this time end with similar desires in each poet to settle into their respective “provincial” rooms is Winters’s “December Eclogue” and Hardy’s “Shut Out That Moon.”  Winters, like Hardy, at one period anyway, had an unsettling past from which he had to detach himself.  In “December Eclogue” he explicitly bids farewell to his youthful involvements; the poem charts a movement from outside his little room to inside, where he pursues his literary studies, a movement away from the disturbing images of his early verse:  a bleak “fevered” landscape, burning frost, running figures, even a scream (see “The Bitter Moon” and “The Crystal Sun”) to that assertive dismissal:  “These are not signals, and I go my way” (line 6).  He achieves a calm that is nevertheless uneasy and frequently disturbed:


                       Perusing now a more sombre solitude,

                       Chaotic by the moon, inane and rude,

                       I settle deeper in the earthy gloom,

                       Disposed at last to this provincial room.  (lines 25-28) [34]


This echoes the last stanza of Hardy’s “Shut Out That Moon” (1904), which could be read as a sequel to “Lying Awake.”  Again, he acknowledges the temptation but backs off.  Each of the first three stanzas opens with a command:


                       Close up the casement, draw the blind [. . .]

                       Set not forth on the dew-dashed lawn [. . .]

                       Brush not the bough for midnight scents [. . .]


If the order were reversed, we would have a dramatic presentation of a backing into the room.  By shutting the window first, he avoids the direct view that would tempt him to indulge in nostalgic yearnings and raise memories of irretrievable pleasures with his father, mother, and wife.  The memories are there in each stanza but are kept at a distance; the moon (in both Hardy’s and Winters’s poem) can after all steal our hard-won composure.  This is the fourth and final stanza:


                       Within the common lamp-lit room

                                   Prison my eyes and thought;

                       Let dingy details crudely loom,

                                   Mechanic speech be wrought:

                       Too fragrant was life’s early bloom,

                                   Too tart the fruit it brought!


In both sets of poems, the poets struggle to negate threats (Romantic in their intensity) that are themselves nonetheless vividly realized.


            Finally, let me point to a few poems by each in which they put aside the strictly secular consolatory aspirations of more recent, especially positivist, thinkers, aspirations that militantly oppose such retreating movements.  In “God’s Funeral,” Hardy has the mourners ask,


                                   ‘And who or what shall fill his place?

                       Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes

                       For some fixed star to stimulate their pace

                       Toward the goal of their enterprise?’  (lines 45-48)


The need is to bring the authority, the absolute, into this life:  it can no longer, in the modern world, be a mystery.  As A. N. Wilson generalizes, “Dethroning God, that generation [in the later decades of the nineteenth century] found it impossible to leave the sanctuary empty.  They put man in His place.”[35]


            I would here lend my voice to those, like Steven Shankman and Helen Trimpi,[36] who find the analysis of the modern Western crisis by Eric Voegelin particularly relevant to the concerns of poets like Yvor Winters, and, I would add, Thomas Hardy, who wish to retrieve certain traditional and even classical perspectives.


            According to Voegelin, the greatest goods of the Western tradition are the life of the spirit as developed by the Christian church and the life of contemplative reason as defined in classical philosophy.  Central to those lives of faith and reason was the full consciousness of the inevitable tension that results from the “In-Between” state (Platonic Metaxy) in which man exists, “the in-between of divine and human, of perfection and imperfection, of reasons and passions, of knowledge and ignorance, of immortality and mortality.”[37]


            The secular enthusiasts of the Enlightenment, attacking the classical and Christian traditions, presumed they could “know the mystery of the horizon and its beyond as if it were an object this side of the horizon.”[38]  The claim that humans can perfect themselves in this world and that the mystery can be clarified led to man’s total immersion in time, to the definition of man as “a world-immanent entity,”[39] or, we might say, as someone who has allowed his existence to be defined by the claims of the world.


            The two poets are particularly critical of these secular dogmatists, whose presumption of final knowledge only exacerbated the inevitable tension resulting from the In-Between state by (among other things) reducing reason to a utilitarian instrument and wiping out all prior traditional restraints.[40]  Hardy wrote in a note from 1907:  “Rationalists err as far in one direction as Revelationists or Mystics in the other; as far in the direction of logicality as their opponents away from it”; both claim a knowledge of the universe they cannot demonstrate.[41]  In defending in 1915 Herbert Spencer’s very unpopular doctrine of the Unknowable, Hardy wrote to a correspondent:  “I am utterly bewildered to understand how the doctrine that, beyond the knowable, there must always be an unknown, can be displaced.”[42]  But, of course, it was displaced.


            Hardy deals with those “Rationalists” in poems such as “In Tenebris II” (1895-96), where he defends his lack of “vision” against the blinkered optimists who robustly cry, “Our times are blessed times, Life shapes it as is most meet, / And nothing is much the matter” (lines 10-11; emphasis mine).  (We are reminded of the century-ending “ecstatic” song and “blessed Hope” of the darkling thrush in a poem written only four years later.)  In “We Are Getting to the End,” from 1928, he openly dismisses both their utopian promises and his own earlier flirting with meliorism:


                       We are getting to the end of visioning

                       The impossible within this universe,

                       Such as that better whiles may follow worse,

                       And that our race may mend by reasoning.  (lines 1-4; emphasis mine)


Note how in line 2 the very light second foot, following the opening anapest, strengthens the preposition in the third foot:  “within.”  We are reminded of Voegelin’s point about “intramundane perfection” and his criticisms of the Positivists’ “dream of automatic progress” and the idea of the “authoritative present.”[43]  Other poems by Hardy that question the cult of progress include “Christmas 1924,” “‘And There Was a Great Calm,’” “Channel Firing,” and “The Convergence of the Twain.”[44]


            Winters, being a more thoroughgoing classicist than Hardy, delves more deeply into the problem.  Before the threat of war stimulated his overt criticisms of too exclusive a faith in technological progress (see “An Elegy, for the U.S.N. Dirigible, Macon,” “By the Road to the Air-Base,” and “An October Nocturne”) he wrote two sonnets, “The Invaders” and “The Moralists,” in which he deals with the initial presumption:  physical scientists and moral theorists are so inflexibly attached to their respective abstractions that they deny whatever stability and more human meaning are to be found in the dense wisdom of the past.  Their advance has “packed” away “the old meanings” (“The Moralists,” line 8); their tread “dissolves our heritage of earth and air” (“The Invaders,” lines 3-4).[45]  The ever forward-looking scientific mind is compared significantly to a locomotive plunging “through distance that has no meaning and no bound” (“The Invaders,” lines 5-6).  One of the surest ways of destroying human identity is to destroy man’s sense of his own limitations.[46]  Fixed certainty is “the prerogative [. . .] only of the dead,” as Terry Comito says in discussing “Inscription for a Graveyard”[47]; one can back away from the “wilderness” and “swarm of hours” (lines 13-14), but not be completely free of temporality.  Here is one version of the In-Between state.  The questing intelligence must ever find its stability between the draw of the absolute or pure mind and the draw of nature or pure body:  “bodiless thoughts” and “thoughtless bodies” he calls them in “Sonnet to the Moon.”  The unavoidable tensions of existence in this state are explored in several other poems, most notably “Time and the Garden” and “A Prayer for My Son.”  And we find complex variations of what Voegelin calls the “closed intramundane person” of cold inflexible judgment [48] in several of Winters’s poetic characterizations:  the new academics in  “An Ode on the Dispoilers of Learning in an American University 1947,” those Athenian judges in “Socrates,” and especially Hippolytus in the first part of “Theseus: A Trilogy.”


            The classic case of one who tries to escape altogether the tension of existence in the In-Between state is Midas.  While I agree with those who read Winters’s poem by that name as an allegory of the self-enclosed creative sensibility,[49] Midas can also be seen more broadly in the first instance as the ultimate materialist.  Like most ideologues, he is “dream-enwound,” but his is a dream not of social perfection, but of self-importance and gratification in the world.  And being too much of the world, he is closed to questions of meaning.[50]  He blithely vaults the gap between desire and its realization, and thereby loses his humanity:


                       Mineral his limbs were grown:

                       Weight of being not his own.

                       Ere he knew that he must die,

                        Ore had veinëd lip and eye:

                       Caught him scarcely looking back,

                       Startled at his golden track,

                       Immortalized the quickened shade

                       Of meaning by a moment made.  (lines 7-14)


Not having educated his desires and fit himself against his destined fall, radically unadjusted to his own mortality (line 9), he is likewise separated from his own past.  When he does look back, it is too late: he can only discover the loss, the literal disintegration of his own being (“his golden track”).  Looking back (that preoccupation shared by Hardy and Winters) helps one to understand obligations and consequences, to understand that moral meaning has a long growth and is not “by a moment made.”


            The solution to the crisis for Voegelin is a return to belief in the transcendental grounding of experience.  Hardy was unable to return to such a belief, but Winters did approach at least a non-Christian version of it.  Both poets certainly had intimations of the absolute:  Hardy wanted to believe more than he could; Winters would rather (according to John Finlay [51]) have done without God but could not avoid the conclusion that there must be some purpose to the universe.  Hardy was most concerned to register that early awareness of cosmic indifference to help his readers realize just how wide the gap was between the way things ought to be and the way they are.  But while he spent much of his poetic energies on “exacting a full look at the worst,” he was concerned with moral consequences, with ways of getting on “intelligently and well.”  Besides the implicit moral control he exhibited in his best poems, he explicitly promoted endurance and compassion, measuring human action against the principle of “Life-loyalties,” or “lovingkindness.”  Winters lived longer with the literary consequences of the crisis and was more concerned and intellectually more able than Hardy to shore up his defenses [52]; his is a more determined morality:


                       God is revealed in this:

                       That some go not amiss,

                             But through hard labor teach

                                   What we may reach.  (“A Testament,” lines 5-8)


            In his 1981 essay, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” Voegelin invokes Plato’s myth (from Book I of the Laws) of man as the “puppet of the gods,” drawn on the one hand by the flexible golden cord of the Word or virtue and on the other by the rigid, steely cords of worldly temptations or vice.  Voegelin then proposes his “answer to the question raised by the process of reality,” an answer that is very close to that sentence by Winters on “putting by the claims of the world” with which I started:  “The answer [says Voegelin] . . . is not to be found by imaginative dreaming:  it is to be found through participation in the process, following the pull of the golden cord as far as the counter-pull of the steely cords will allow.”[53]   “As far as the counter-pull . . . will allow.”  Hardy, perhaps, does not follow the pull of the golden cord quite as far as Winters does, but both had a good hard look at those steely cords.  And in their common and insightful denials of the popular and less exacting consolations or imaginative dreams (Christian, Romantic mystical, materialist), they remain two of the more disquieting poets of the modern period.







[1] The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, ed. James Gibson (London:  Macmillan, 1978), 560.

[2] In Defense of Reason (Chicago:  Swallow Press, 1947), 13, 411 [hereafter IDR].

[3] IDR  23.

[4] Uncollected Essays and Reviews, ed. Francis Murphy (Chicago:  Swallow Press, 1973), 52 [hereafter UER].

[5] UER  29, 55, 59, 226; the last quotation is Hart Crane’s paraphrase of a passage in a letter he received from Winters in early 1927 (Thomas Parkinson, Hart Crane and Yvor Winters: Their Literary Correspondence (Berkeley:  Univ. of California Press, 1978) 90.

[6] UER 314.

[7] IDR  28, 498, 26.

[8] Forms of Discovery (Denver:  Alan Swallow, 1967) 189-93 [hereafter FD].

[9] The one comment on Hardy I could find in The Function of Criticism  (a collection of essays previously published between 1948 and 1956) is a passing one on the condition of poetry in the nineteenth century:  “there is not much intelligence until one gets down to Bridges and Hardy” ([Denver:  Alan Swallow, 1957] 68).

[10] IDR 26.  Of all the commentators on what Hardy meant to Winters, Dick Davis comes closest to my contention, even if he doesn’t focus on that sentence in “The Morality of  Poetry”:  Winters “liked poems that take account of the néant of the world, but that nevertheless resist  it, usually by the invocation, implicit or explicit, of absolute values from an undefined, or barely adumbrated, divine source”; Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Racine, and Hardy, the poets he lists as his favorites at the beginning of “The Extension and Reintegration of the Human Spirit” (1929), write just such poems (Wisdom & Wilderness:  The Achievement of Yvor Winters [Athens, Ga.: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1983] 61-62).

[11] The Collected Essays of J. V. Cunningham (Chicago:  Swallow Press, 1976) 30.

[12] FD 15-29.

[13] The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy  299.  All further citations from Hardy’s poems are taken from this edition.

[14] Yvor Winters, Collected Poems, rev. ed. (Chicago:  Swallow Press, 1960) 129.  All further citations from Winters’s poetry, unless otherwise noted, are from this edition.

[15] IDR 25.

[16] FC 178.

[17] Henry C. Ramsey, “Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis 1929-1932,” Sequoia 28 (Autumn 1984): 50.

[18] See for example, Martin Seymour-Smith’s discussion of Hardy’s complex and inconsistent attitude toward religion (Hardy [London: Bloomsbury, 1994] 114-17) and A. N. Wilson’s chapter on Hardy in God’s Funeral (London: Abacus, 2000) 1-18.

[19] Bernard Lightman, The Origins of Agnosticism:  Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1987) 137.

[20] See IDR 24.

[21] IDR 14.  One wonders how strong his theism remained.  In an interview long after her husband’s death, Janet Lewis, when asked whether Winters was a believer, replied:  “I guess Arthur was an agnostic.  The most religious statement I ever heard him make was, “I don’t think the universe can be an accident’” (Richard Stern, “Janet Lewis,” Virginia Quarterly Review 69 [Summer 1993]:  542.

[22] IDR 27.  See Helen Trimpi’s discussion of “To the Holy Spirit,” “Introduction,” Selected Poems of Yvor Winters, xlii-xliv.

[23] The Collected Essays of J. V. Cunningham 38-39.

[24] Qtd. by Florence Emily Hardy [sic], The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1928  (London: Macmillan, 1975) 176.

[25] FC 64-65.

[26] The Life of Thomas Hardy 176.  Unteaches” reminds us of another negating device in his verse:  his many negative nonce-words and coinages, as if the English language was insufficient to express all that he wished to deny.  For ten nonce words in the O.E.D . Hardy is the only citation, and five of those words are negatives:  “unbloom,” “unfulfill,” “unsight,” “untouched” (as a transitive verb), and “unvision.”  Dennis Taylor lists thirty-two such creations in the Word Index at the end of his definitive study of Hardy’s literary language (Hardy’s Literary Language and Victorian Philology  [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993] 157, 428), and my review of the poems uncovers seven not on his list.  Some of the most notable, given my emphasis here, are “unhope,” “unknow,” “unrecognize,” “uncare,” “unforeboded,” “unblind,” “unbegun,” and, of course, “unbe.”

[27] Hardy, The Life 155.

[28] Howe, Thomas Hardy  (New York: Macmillan, 1967) 3; Seymour-Smith 658.

[29] See James Richardson, Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Necessity  [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1977] 1-2.

[30] Howe 9.

[31] I am referring to magazine publication.  “Lying Awake” subsequently found a place in Winter Words (1928) and “The Fable” in The Proof (1930).  The dates in either case are too close for me to be able to claim a direct influence.

[32] J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy:  A Handbook and Commentary (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1970) 589.

[33] Thom Gunn, “Hardy and the Ballads,” Agenda 10 (Spring-Summer 1972) 33-34.

[34] The Journey and Other Poems (New York: Dragon Press, 1931) 29.

[35] Wilson 397.

[36] I am greatly indebted to Steven Shankman’s summary of Voegelin’s difficult argument and to his and Helen Trimpi’s explication of the relevance of the notions of the in-between condition and the balance of consciousness to the work of Yvor Winters (Shankman, In Search of the Classic [University Park, Penn.:  Penn State UP, 1994] 35-36, 49-54; Trimpi, “Introduction,” The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters xxiv-xxv).

[37] Voegelin, “Reason:  The Classical Experience,” in Anamnesis, trans. Gerhart Niemeyer (Notre Dame:  U of Notre Dame P, 1978) 112.

[38] Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” Southern Review 17 (Spring 1981) 245.

[39] Voegelin, “Reason: The Classic Experience,” 104.

[40] See William C. Havard, “Voegelin’s Diagnosis of the Western Crisis,” Univ. of Denver Quarterly 10 (Autumn 1975) 131-32.

[41] The Life of Thomas Hardy  332.

[42] The Life  370.  He was particularly attracted to Darwin because he offered “a provisional view of the universe” (Life 205), which helped one (in Maynard’s words) “guard against the temptation to embrace absolutist concepts, without abandoning the exercise of reason and scientific thought” (Katherine Kearney Maynard, Thomas Hardy’s Tragic Poetry: The Lyrics and The Dynasts  [Iowa City:  U of Iowa Press, 1991] 74).

[43] See Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, ed. John H. Hallowell (Durham, N.C., Duke UP, 1975) especially chapter iv.

[44] Shankman analyzes Winters’s “An Elegy, for the U.S.N. Dirigible, Macon,” using Voegelin’s sense of rationalism, as a criticism of the attempt to escape the tension of the In-Between state by “focusing the mind too exclusively on the tangible results of technological progress” (In Search of the Classic  36).  In this context I would point to Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain,” his most direct assault on human pride in technological progress.  In the poem Hardy charts an extension of human ingenuity that results in a wedding of a man-made force with the natural force it presumed to suppress:

                       Alien they seemed to be:

                       No mortal eye could see

                       The intimate welding of their later history.  (lines 25-27)

Winters’s “An Elegy” is an account of a similar human attempt to rival or even transcend natural forces that ends in a descent, this time by both man and nature, into primitiveness as man crowds “the world with strong ingenious things” and thereby uses up “the provision it could not replace” (lines 25-26).  The potential reduction of man to the level of utilitarian or mechanical existence is part of the complex subject matter of “By the Road to the Air-Base” and “An October Nocturne.”

[45] See my “Strategies of Knowing:  The Proof  Sonnets of Yvor Winters,” English Studies in Canada  23 (March, 1997):  78-80.

[46] See Clive Wilmer, “Adventurer in Living Fact:  The Wilderness in Winters’s Poetry,” Southern Review 17 (Autumn 1981) 969.

[47] Terry Comito, In Defense of Winters:  The Poetry and Prose of Yvor Winters (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986) 122.

[48] From Enlightenment to Revolution  59.

[49] See Donald Stanford, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry: Studies in Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Yvor Winters (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1983) 220; Dick Davis, Wisdom  and Wilderness:  The Achievement of Yvor Winters  (U of Georgia P: Athens, 1983) 120; Comito, 183.

[50] See Voegelin, “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme,” Southern Review 17 (April 1981) 240.

[51] “The Unfleshed Eye: A Reading of Yvor Winters’s ‘To the Holy Spirit,’” Southern Review 17 (Autumn 1981) 873-74, 886.

[52] Winters’s definition of an absolutist is close to Voegelin’s definition of absolute truth: “The Absolutist [says Winters] 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 to approximate them” (IDR 10); “Truth is a perspective [says Voegelin] of reality, arising from man’s participation, with his conscious existence, in the reality of which he is a part [. . .] .  The mystery is the horizon that draws us to advance toward it but withdraws as we advance; it can give direction to the quest of truth but it cannot be reached; and the beyond of the horizon can fascinate as the “extreme” of truth but it cannot be possessed as truth face-to-face within life” (“Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme” 245).

[53] “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme” 255.






Hoffpauir, Richard. “’Putting by the Claims of the World’: Negations in the Poetry of Thomas Hardy and Yvor Winters. The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>