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The Black Ox

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 of identity before the uncontrollable invasion of the impersonal, is no sooner suggested than it is dropped.

Later he quotes and discusses Robert Bridges’s poem “Low Barometer.” The poem, he says, “deals with an attack on Reason by the ‘unconscious’ mind, which is seen as an inheritance from a remote and savage past.” Glossing Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” and particularly the lines about the quail which “whistle about us their spontaneous cries,” Mr. Winters says: “the quail are non-human, free, spontaneous; they can be admired, but not understood; they are a part of the wilderness.” The same idiom points toward several poems by J. V. Cunningham, discussed in a later chapter of Mr. Winter’s book.

I am implying, of course, that Mr. Winters’s entire work has been propelled, driven—the word suggests itself—by a sense of implacable wilderness, and a corresponding sense of the mind’s exposure. The only answer is an order commensurate in force and scope. The answer has various names, but one character: Reason, mind, wisdom, truth. In the poem “To a Portrait of Melville” Mr. Winters writes: “Wisdom and Wilderness are here at poise.” It marks the ideal condition, apparently. Generally, wisdom is knowledge, often in the form of power, insistent and, if necessary, rude. Mr. Winters writes as if he were convinced that what we don’t know is bound to destroy us.

THERE IS a corresponding poetic theory, first outlined in Primitivism and Decadence, repeated in The Function of Criticism and now in the new book. Language is essentially “conceptual or denotative.” Words acquire “connotations of feeling,” since human experience is not purely conceptual. The good poet makes a statement about a human experience, real or imagined, and makes it “in such a way as to employ both concept and connotation as efficiently as possible.” But concept is master. The poem is “what one should say”: the happiest condition is one in which the poet speaks with certitude and finality. It seems clear that this account of language is related to Mr. Winters’s distrust of process, the flow of experience. The fluidity of process is alien to him; it is too indeterminate, too dangerous. Wilderness and the heat of the day are inescapable, but it is foolish to conspire with them. Poems are written in the cool of the evening, the invasion sustained, survived.

Mr. Winters says in the new book that J. V. Cunningham’s way in writing poems is to draw abstractions from the experience, discarding the experience itself. The observation applies to Mr. Winters as poet and critic: in his work the experience itself often seems a necessary evil, tolerable only in the degree to which it has been mastered, held at bay. No experience is valued while it is happening. This accounts for Mr. Winters’s insensitivity to the dramatic mode of life: he seems terrified of things while they are taking place. The sooner Act V comes, the better. If form is understood as finality, there is no welcome for the provisional experience, even when it is vivid. In Mr. Winters’s aesthetic to say that something is dramatic or dynamic is not to praise it; it is to mark a mode of being which comes as danger, a threat to poise, an invasion. Good poems are retrospective: after a storm of feeling, since storms will come, the mind labors to recover itself, to command the wilderness. This is the classic pattern in the great poems: Gascoigne’s “The Constancy of a Lover,” Ben Jonson’s “False World, Good-Night,” Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” Greville’s “Down in the Depth of Mine Iniquity.” In the nature of the case, good poems are likely to be short, not because a poet’s breath is short, but because process is not to be entertained. The psychological doctrine of Association is a menace because it invites a movement from one image to another along lines which are casual, contingent, therefore irrational. According to Mr. Winters, this denial of the purposive nature of the mind is the main source of the bad poetry which disfigures the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Gray, Collins, Wordsworth, Tennyson. Among the human resources, sensory perception is suspect, unless it is tied to the wheels of a conceptual chariot. The best literary forms are those which maintain, against flux and process, the finality of their own nature, their self-possession. The best vision is hindsight. We look before and after, but after is to be preferred: historians are more useful than prophets.

Forms of Discovery is not a history of English literature; it is a collection of chapters in the history of the short poem. In The Function of Criticism Mr. Winters argued that the short poem is, after all, the best form; better than the novel, the epic, the drama, because more stringent, more economical. Better also, I think he implies, because it is self-contained, restrictive, ascetic. So we are not to expect in this book an acknowledgment of The Dunciad, Emma, or King Lear. In the first chapter Mr. Winters examines the short poem as it was developed in the sixteenth century. The basis of the chapter is a famous essay published many years ago in Poetry; an attempt to put the poems in order. Mr. Winters begins with Wyatt, although a glance at More and Skelton would have been useful. The new chapter extends the survey to the seventeenth century with some pages on Milton and Marvell, but its force is still the old discrimination, the best poems, the best styles.

The second chapter is an extremely interesting account of Charles Churchill (1731-1764), an attempt to establish him as a major poet. This claim is developed from the last chapter of Primitivism and Decadence, but the extension is justified by the new context. The difficulty is that the case for Churchill, even on Mr. Winters’s showing, rests upon one poem, the “Dedication to the Sermons.” It is, indeed, a magnificent piece, and Mr. Winters’s analysis is excellent. The “Dedication” was probably Churchill’s last work, and he seems to have given the copy to his friend, the great John Wilkes, when they met at Boulogne in the winter of 1764. “I have something on the sheet that I think will please you,” Churchill wrote to his friend. Wilkes corrected the proof-sheets of the poem and it was published with the extremely dubious Sermons in 1765. Mr. Winters quotes the entire poem from Douglas Grant’s edition, including the lines:

…despise not One,
For want of smooth hypocrisy undone,
Who, far below, turns up his won- d’ring eye,
And, without envy, sees Thee plac’d so high.

The poem is addressed to the hated Bishop Warburton. The combination of “wondering” and “without envy,” Mr. Winters says, “exhibits Churchill’s genius at its best.” It is brilliant, certainly, but I suspect that Churchill intended the more commonplace “wandering,” a cliché but more probable on that account. I have not examined the proofsheets or the several editions, so I can only report that my own copy, the sixth edition (London, 1767) has “wandering,” not “wondering.” Professor Grant does not record this variant, but I have a feeling that it may be Churchill’s word. The third chapter of Mr. Winters’s book is concerned with the mediocrity of the short poem in the Dark Ages, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fourth chapter deals with Hardy, Bridges, T. Sturge Moore, and Yeats; the fifth, with Tuckerman, Emily Dickinson, and Stevens; the sixth, largely, with Mr. Cunningham. The last chapter glances at Pound, Williams, Miss Moore, Eliot, Allen Tate, E. A. Robinson, Adelaide Crapsey, Janet Lewis, Elizabeth Daryush, Alan Stephens, and Thom Gunn.

It is difficult to be just to the book. Many paragraphs are painful to read, and would be tolerable only in an autobiography. I am sure that Mr. Winters has often felt the pain of being right while multitudes were wrong: over the past forty years, I am ready to believe, he has sustained injury and contempt from men who were not fit to tie his shoelaces. Now celebrated, he recalls every insult. Many injuries, bitterly remembered, are committed to the waste blanks in a footnote, a parenthesis. It is impossible to play Solomon to these occasions, beyond saying that it is a pity to see a man of Mr. Winters’s stature so constantly exasperated. “He may be thought to mention himself too frequently,” Samuel Johnson wrote of Dryden; “but, while he forces himself upon our esteem, we cannot refuse him to stand high in his own.” I shall give Mr. Winters, I am afraid, further cause of impatience. I am sorry, for instance, that he abuses Thomas H. Johnson, the Editor of Emily Dickinson’s poems, for what is at worst an error of judgment in the treatment of doubtful signs.

Mr. Winters’s own record is not impeccable: one page of the chapter on Mr. Cunningham contains five errors, makes a complete mess of a quoted poem and a mess only less complete of a passage in prose, changes “projection” to “perfection,” “unrippled” to “rippled,” writes “rippled” again where the poet wrote “willowed.” I am sorry, too, that Mr. Winters seems more interested in telling us, as Churchill said of Warburton, “where Pope was wrong, where Shakespeare was not right” than in showing forth the good work. Shakespeare’s poems are mostly bad, we are told, but there is no mention of “The Phoenix and Turtle.” In everything except “The Ancient Mariner” Coleridge “is merely one of the indistinguishably bad poets of an unfortunate period.” Tennyson “deserves the neglect into which he is obviously falling.” Wordsworth is “a very bad poet who nevertheless wrote a few good lines”: the proof of his penury is a passage from the “Immortality Ode,” misquoted to make it worse. Milton’s short poems are poor things, Blake was mad, and Yeats (the implication runs) a fool and a charlatan. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Mr. Winters says, “there is very little minor poetry which is readable today.” I am forced to wonder whether he has not, on that score, dispensed himself from the labor of reading it at all. It is hard to believe, for instance, that Mr. Winters took down Sir Harold Williams’s edition of Swift’s poems and worked through the three big volumes in the hope of finding good poems: if he did, it is even more difficult to understand how he passed “On Dreams” and the “Satyrical Elegy” without pausing to admire achievements just as high as that of Churchill’s “Dedication.” Mr. Winters is equally contemptuous of modern English poetry, but I see no evidence that he has ever read a line by Auden, Empson, Graves, or Muir. Again and finally, I am sorry to see that in Forms of Discovery Mr. Winters now rejects poems which, thirty years ago, he admired. “The Vanity of Human Wishes” was a good poem at that time, but now it makes “very dull reading.” Even the poems which persist, like Sturge Moore’s “To Silence,” are not as good as they appeared in 1937 to the author of Primitivism and Decadence. This aspect of the new book is tedious. Richard Blackmur once remarked that no order remains vital unless it has retained intimate contact, at some point, with the disorder or the unknown order which gave rise to it. In this sense the order of “The Brink of Darkness” was a vital order, but it begins to appear that Mr. Winters is ready to disown experience altogether, since it has not had the good manners to behave itself.

I want to say this quickly and be done with complaint. Mr. Winters is a major critic, one of the few critics who make a difference. In an age of bewilderment he has fought for intelligence, mind, the rational imagination. This must be acknowledged, even if we think that he has seen the mind only in one of its manifestations. But the new book lacks magnanimity. In Mr. Winters’s finest work, in Maule’s Curse notably, we are reminded of Samuel Johnson. There is in both critics a remarkably keen sense of the values (or some of the values) upon which poetry and criticism depend. There is no limit, we feel, to their concern, their gravity, their care; no point at which they are prepared to yield. Fulke Greville said in his Life of Sidney:

For my own part I found my creeping genius more fixed upon the images of life than the images of wit, and therefore chose not to write to them on whose foot the black ox had not already trod, as the proverb is, but to those only that are weather-beaten in the sea of this world, such as having lost sight of their gardens and groves, study to sail on a right course among rocks and quicksands.

Mr. Winters quotes this passage in the new book: he is one of the few critics who could do so without arousing an imputation of grandiloquence. He has earned the right to quote such sentences by the labor, the care, of forty years. But Greville’s prose has the effect of making Mr. Winters’s later chapters sound fretful rather than grave. We seem to have moved from Johnson to F. R. Leavis, a great critic too, but a writer to whom magnanimity comes hard. The best work of Johnson, Leavis, and Winters seems to me to occupy the same universe of concern and perception, but their risk is that concern, abused by the easy world, turns to petulance and then to venom. It is possible to say of Mr. Winters, for instance, that he is a crank; or, more accurately, that he has become a crank. But it is then necessary to consider the forces which have driven him into that corner. Critics who avoid this predicament are not therefore better critics or better men; more frequently, they are merely those whom Fate has disdained to wound. But while we feel in Mr. Winters’s book the black ox of adversity, we also suspect, in certain pages, that he is engaging in what Johnson called “the habitual cultivation of the powers of dislike.” Near the end of “The Brink of Darkness” the narrator says:

It was as if there were darkness evenly underlying the brightness of the air, underlying everything, as if I might slip suddenly into it at any instant, and as if I held myself where I was by an act of the will from moment to moment.

Perhaps this is the hint we need. The act of the mind is made possible by an act of the will, moment to moment. This is not Homo Ludens. The labor is appalling, the resultant order too rigid, too “Plantaganet” (Stevens’s word) to be borne. The new book testifies to the need, and the cost.


It Was Wond’ring March 28, 1968

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