Forms of Discovery
by Yvor Winters
The Swallow Press, 377 pp., $8.95
(The following review was written before news of Professor Winters’s illness and death reached the reviewer.)
In 1932 Yvor Winters published in Hound and Horn a story called “The Brink of Darkness.” It is my impression that traces of that remarkable work may be found in everything he has written since that time; in the poems, essays, certainly in Maule’s Curse, and now, unless I am mistaken, in Forms of Discovery. The story is more readily available, by the way, in a splendid collection of psychological fiction called Anchor in the Sea, edited and published some years ago by the late Alan Swallow. I shall not discuss it in detail. It is enough to remark the pattern the story embodies, the invasion of a young man’s personality by forces which he conceives as the powers of darkness. The immediate effect is that the young man’s mind ascribes a cumulative and sinister meaning to what would otherwise have appeared mere contingency. Finally, the darkness recedes, the mind recovers itself.
It is my understanding that the figure the story makes is crucial in the definition of Mr. Winters’s work; what it marks is not merely one theme among many. Mr. Winters is concerned, unless I have misunderstood him, with life on the brink of darkness, where fear and terror come unsolicited and the available forms of order, to be good enough for the need, must be, in their own way, implacable. The forms of order which persuade, delight, and beguile are not enough: they are no good, it seems, when darkness insists. If much of Mr. Winters’s work is dour and sullen, the reason is that this is the only kind of order he is prepared to invoke, darkness being what it is. It is hardly necessary to say that in his critical work the hated darkness takes the form of error, the stupidity of powerful men, the conspiracy against intelligence.
But this is to anticipate. It is interesting to see how often in Forms of Discovery Mr. Winters moves toward poems which share, in one way or another, the experience of invasion. At one point he discusses Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXVII. “Thy Glass Will Show Thee How Thy Beauties Wear,” which was apparently written to accompany the gift of a blank book. Mr. Winters quotes the poem in full, but he concentrates on these lines:
Look, what thy memory cannot contain
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nurs’d, deliver’d from thy brain.
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
Then he comments:
This command, in isolation, is merely a command to make good use of the book, and the remainder of the passage deals wholly with the advantages of doing so; yet the command follows the lines in which we have observed the destruction of the physical being by time, and in this position it suggests the destruction of the mind itself. This terrifying subject, the loss …
It Was Wond'ring March 28, 1968