Yvor Winters


In Defense of Reason, Allan Swallow, Denver, 1947

THE ESSAYS NOW REPRINTED in this volume are the work of more than fifteen years. Although this collection, like any collection of essays, suffers from its miscellaneous character, there is a single theory of literature developed throughout and a single theory of the history of literature since the Renaissance. These theories are developed mainly with reference to American literature. It may be of some service to the reader if I recapitulate briefly.

There have been various ideas regarding the nature and function of literature during the twenty-five hundred years or so that literature has been seriously discussed. One might think, offhand, that the possibilities were limitless; but they are actually limited and even narrowly limited-the ideas are all classifiable under a fairly small number of headings. I shall not attempt an historical survey but shall merely attempt a brief classificatory survey. The theories in question can all be classified, I believe, under three headings: the didactic, the hedonistic, and the romantic. I am not in sympathy with any of these, but with a fourth, which for lack of a better term I call the moralistic. This concept of literature has not been adequately defined in the past so far as my limited knowledge extends, but I believe that it has been loosely implicit in the inexact theorizing which has led to the most durable judgments in the history of criticism.

The didactic theory of literature is simple; it is this: that literature offers us useful precepts and explicit moral instruction. If the theory is sound, then literature is useful; but the question arises as to whether there may not be other fields of study, such as religion or ethics, which may accomplish the same end more efficiently. The question is usually met by the Horatian formula, which combines the didactic with the hedonistic, telling us that the function of literature is to provide instruction (or profit) in conjunction with pleasure, to make instruction palatable. Of this I shall say more later. There arises another question in connection with the didactic theory: can one say, as someone-I believe it was Kenneth Burke-has remarked, that Hamlet was written to prove that procrastination is the thief of time, or to prove something comparably simple? Or is there more than that to Hamlet? And if there is more, is it worth anything? It seems obvious to me that there is more and that it is worth a great deal, that the paraphrasable content of the work is never equal to the work, and that our theory of literature must account not only for the paraphrasable content but for the work itself. The didactic theory of literature fails to do this.

The hedonist sees pleasure as the end of life, and literature either as a heightener of pleasure or as the purveyor of a particular and more or less esoteric variety of pleasure. The term pleasure is applied indiscriminately to widely varying experiences: we say, for example, that we derive pleasure from a glass of good whisky and that we derive pleasure from reading Hamlet. The word. is thus misleading, for it designates two experiences here which have little relationship to each other. There is a great range in the kinds of pleasure advocated in various hedonistic philosophies, but in general one might remark this defect which is common to nearly all, perhaps to all, such systems: pleasure is treated as an end in itself, not as a by-product of something else. If we recognize that certain feelings which are loosely classifiable as forms of pleasure result from our recognition of various kinds of truth and from the proper functioning of our natures in the process of this recognition, we then have a principle which may enable us to distinguish these pleasures from pleasures less important or less desirable, such as the pleasures or satisfactions which we derive from the gratification of physical appetites or from the excitement of stimulants, and a principle which may even enable us to evaluate relatively to each other the 4 higher pleasures themselves. But pleasure then becomes incidental and not primary, and our system can no longer be classified as properly hedonistic. Furthermore, there is this distinction at least between hedonistic ethics and hedonistic aesthetics: hedonistic ethics, as in the philosophy of Epicurus, may take on a somewhat passive or negativistic character; that is pleasure may come to be more or less nearly identified simply with the avoidance of pain. But one cannot praise a poem or a picture merely by saying that it gives no pain: the experience of the poem or of the picture must be strongly positive. Hedonistic theories of literature tend in the main, and this is especially true in the past two hundred years, to take one of two forms.

The first might be connected with the name of Walter Pater. According to this view there is a close relation between hedonistic ethics and hedonistic aesthetics. Pleasure is the aim of life. Pleasure consists in intensity of experience;. that is in the cultivation of the feelings for their own sake, as a good in themselves. And literature, or at any rate the arts in general, can provide a finer technique of such cultivation than can any other mode of activity. We meet here the first difficulty which I mentioned in connection with hedonistic doctrines; namely, that unless we have illicit relations with some non-hedonistic ethical theory, we have no way of distinguishing among the many and diverse excitements that are commonly described as pleasurable. And we shall discover, as a matter of human nature which is recorded in the history of literature and the other arts, that this search for intensity of experience leads inevitably to an endless pursuit either of increasing degrees of violence of emotion or of increasingly elusive and more nearly meaningless nuances, and ultimately to disillusionment with art and with life. It is possible, of course, that art and life are really worthless, but on the other hand-it is possible that they are valuable. And until we have made sure that our hedonistic theory offers a true description of human experience, that no better description is possible, we should be unwise to commit ourselves to it, for the ultimate consequences appear both certain and unfortunate.

The second form of hedonistic theory tends to dissociate the 5 artistic experience sharply from all other experience. T. S. Eliot, for example, tells us that the human experience about which the poem appears to be written has been transmuted in the aesthetic process into something new which is different in kind from all other experience. The poem is not then, as it superficially appears, a statement about a human experience, but is a thing in itself. The beginnings of this notion are to be found in Poe and are developed further by the French Symbolists, notably by Mallarme. The aim of the poem so conceived is again pleasure, pleasure conceived as intensity of emotion; but the emotion is of an absolutely special sort. Some such notion of the artistic experience is the essential concept of Santayana's aesthetics; in fact, it is essential to almost any treatment of "aesthetics" as a branch of philosophy, and one will find it everywhere in the work of the academic aestheticians of the past half-century. The nature of the "aesthetic" experience as conceived in these terms has never been clearly defined; we commonly meet here a kind of pseudo-mysticism. The chief advantage of this kind of hedonism over the Paterian variety is that one can adhere to it without adhering to a doctrine of ethical hedonism, for art and life are absolutely severed from each other. Eliot, for example, considers himself a Christian. The chief disadvantage is that it renders intelligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high position among other human activities. Art, however, has always been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should be able to account for this fact.

Certain theorists who have been aware. that art is more than moral precept on the one hand and more than a search for cultivated excitement on the other have tried to account for its complexity by combining the didactic and the hedonistic, theories: this gives us the Horatian formula, that art combines profit with pleasure. When this formula occurs, as it often does, in the writing of a great poet or of some other person who takes his poetry seriously, it apparently represents a somewhat rough and ready recognition of the fact that poetry has intellectual content and 6 something more; that its power is real and cannot be accounted for too easily. But if one regard the doctrine itself, and regard it as pure theory, it is unsatisfactory; or at any rate it relegates art to an unsatisfactory position. For the didactic element in art so conceived will be no more efficient as didacticism than we have seen it to be before: that is, the serious moralist may quite reasonably argue that he prefers to get his teaching in a more direct and compact form; and the pleasure is still in the unhappy predicament in which we found it in the purely hedonistic theory.

The Romantic theory of literature takes account more seriously than the theories which I have thus far mentioned of the power which literature seems to exert over human nature, and to that extent offers a more realistic view of literature. I am concerned with literature which may be loosely described as artistic: that is, with literature which communicates not only thought but also emotion. I do not like the expression imaginative literature, for in its colloquial acceptation the phrase excludes too much: it excludes the persuasive and hortatory, for example, the sermon and the political tract; and imagination as a term of sophisticated criticism has been used so variously and so elusively, especially during the past hundred and fifty years, that I am not quite sure what it means. But the power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson, and Hitler, to go no further, we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history. The Gospels gave a new direction to half the world; Mein Kamp f very nearly reversed that direction. The influence of Rimbaud and of Mallarme' is quite as real but has operated more slowly and with less of obvious violence. It behooves us to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how one may evaluate it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important a fact as atomic fission. In our universities at present, for example, one or another of the hedonistic views of literature will be found to dominate, although often colored by Romantic ideas, with the result that the professors of literature, who for the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor defence of their profession, and the professors of science, who are frequently men of great intelligence but of limited interests and education, feel a politely disguised contempt for it; and thus the study of one of the most pervasive and powerful influences on human life is traduced and neglected.

The Romantics, however, although they offer a relatively realistic view of the power of literature, offer a fallacious and dangerous view of the nature both of literature and of man. The Romantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience, that man is naturally good, that man's impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life. When this notion is combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to impulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve also a kind of.mystical union with the Divinity: this, for example, is the doctrine of Emerson. Literature thus becomes a form of what is known popularly as self-expression. It is not the business of man to understand and improve himself, for such an effort is superfluous: he is good as he is, if he will only let himself alone, or, as we might say, let himself go. The poem is valuable because it enables us to share the experience of a man who has let himself go, who has expressed his feelings, without hindrance, as he has found them at a given moment. The ultimate ideal at which such a theory aims is automatism. There is nothing in the theory to provide a check on such automatism; if the individual man is restrained by some streak of personal but unformulated common sense, by some framework of habit derived from a contrary doctrine, such as Christian doctrine, or by something in his biological inheritance, that is merely his good fortune-the Romantic doctrine itself will not restrain him. The Romantic doctrine itself will urge him toward automatism. And the study of history seems to show that if any doctrine is widely accepted for a long period of time, it tends more and more strongly 8 to exact conformity from human nature, to alter human nature. The Romantic theory of literature and of human nature has been the dominant theory in western civilization for about two and a half centuries. Its influence is obviously disastrous in literature and is already dangerous in other departments of human life. There are certain other general notions of human nature and of values which are related to the notions which I have been discussing, but which are not exactly correlative with them. I shall refer to them rather baldly as determinism, relativism, and absolutism.

Determinism is that theory of the universe which holds that the whole is a single organism, pursuing a single and undeviating course which has been predestined by God or determined by its own nature. It sees the human being simply as a part of this organism, with no independent force of his own. One must distinguish sharply between a deterministic theory and a theory which recognizes the real existence of influences outside of the individual, whether those influences be historical, biological, or other. One may even take a pessimistic view of such influences without being a determinist. If one admits that man may understand in some measure the conditions of his existence, that as a result of such understanding he may choose a mode of action, that as a result of such choice he may persevere in the mode of action chosen, and that as a result of his perseverance he may in some measure alter the conditions of his existence, then one is not a determinist.. Few people who profess deterministic doctrines are willing to envisage clearly their implications, however. As a result, one will find all three of the views of poetry which I have mentioned held by determinists.

It is natural that deterministic and Romantic theories should coincide, for Romanticism teaches the infinite desirability of automatism, and determinism teaches the inevitability of automatism. Determinism is Romanticism in a disillusioned mood; Henry Adams is little more than the obverse side of Emerson, the dark side of the moon. And since hedonism is, like determinism, an anti-intellectualistic philosophy and is somewhat vague in all its tenets, it is not surprising that determinists should sometimes appear as hedonists: since they cannot control in any measure the courses of their lives, the determinists sometimes find solace in seeking pleasure along the way, without stopping to consider that such a search is a willful activity involving at least limited consideration and choice. It is curious that the didactic view of literature should so often be adopted by determinists, however, for the determinist really has no right to the didactic method. Yet the most vigorous, one might say the most religious, of the various species of determinist, such for example as the Calvinists of the past and the Marxists of the present, are commonly the most didactic of men, both in their literature and in their behavior.

The absolutist 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 and of every society to endeavor as far as may be to approximate them. The relativist, on the other hand, believes that there are no absolute truths, that the judgment of every man is right for himself. I am aware that many persons believe that they have arrived at some kind of compromise between these two positions, but actually no compromise is possible. Any such- attempt at compromise, if closely examined, will exhibit an ultimate allegiance to one position or the other or else will exhibit simple confusion. It is popular at present to profess relativism and yet in important matters to act as if we were absolutists. Our ideas of justice, which we endeavor to define by law and for which wars are often fought, can be defended only by invoking moral absolutism. Our universities, in which relativistic doctrines are widely taught, can justify their existence only in terms of a doctrine of absolute truth. The professor of English Literature, who believes that taste is relative, yet who endeavors to convince his students that Hamlet -is more worthy of their attention than some currently popular novel, is in a serious predicament, a predicament which is moral, intellectual, and in the narrowest sense professional, though he commonly has not the wit to realize the fact.

The Romantic is almost inescapably a relativist, for if all men follow their impulses there will be a wide disparity of judgments and of actions and the fact enforces recognition. The Emersonian formula is the perfect one: that is right for me which is after my constitution; that is right for. you which is after yours; the common divinity will guide each of us in the way which is best for him. The hedonist is usually a relativist and should logically be one, but there is often an illicit and veiled recognition of absolutism in his attempts to classify the various pleasures as more or less valuable, not for himself alone but in general. The defender of the didactic view of literature has been traditionally an absolutist, but he is not invariably so: didacticism is a method, and when one sees literature only as didacticism one sees it as a method, and the method may be used, as Emerson used it, to disseminate relativistic doctrine.

The theory of literature which I defend in these essays is absolutist. I believe that the work of literature, in so far as it is valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth. The form of literature with which I am for the most part concerned is the poem; but since the poem exhausts more fully than any other literary form the inherent possibilities of language, what I say about poetry can be extended to include other literary forms with relatively unimportant qualifications, and in point of fact I devote considerable space to other literary forms. The poem is a statement in words about a human experience. Words are primarily conceptual, but through use and because human experience is not purely conceptual, they have acquired connotations of feeling. The poet makes his statement in such a way as to employ both concept and connotation as efficiently as possible. The poem is good in so far as it makes a defensible rational statement about a given human experience (the experience need not be real but must be in some sense possible) and at the same time communicates the emotion which ought to be motivated by that rational understanding of that experience. This notion of poetry, whatever its defects, will account both for the power of poetry and of artistic literature in general on its readers and for the seriousness with which the great poets have taken their art. Milton, for example, did not write Paradise Lost to give pleasure to Professor So-and-So, nor did he write it to give free rein to his emotions; he wrote it in order to justify the ways of God to men, and the justification involved not merely a statement of theory but a conformity of the emotional nature of man with the theory.

Poetry, and in a less definite fashion all artistic literature, involves not only the two aspects of language which I have just mentioned, but also the rhythmic and the formal. Rhythm, for reasons which I do not wholly understand, has the power of communicating emotion; and as a part of the poem it has the power of qualifying the total emotion. What we speak of loosely as the "form" of a poem is probably, at least for the most part, two-fold: we have on the one hand the rational structure of the poem, the orderly arrangement and progression of thought; and we have on the other a kind of rhythm broader and less easily measurable than the rhythm of the line-the poem exists in time, the mind proceeds through it in time, and if the poet is a good one he takes advantage of this fact and makes the progression rhythmical. These aspects of the poem will be efficient in so far as the poet subordinates them to the total aim of the poem.

One criticism which has been made of me repeatedly is this: that I wish to discard every poem to which I make objections. This is not true. Probably no poem is perfect in the eye of God. So far as I am concerned, a good many poems approach so nearly to perfection that I find them satisfactory. But there are many poems which seem to me obviously imperfect and even very seriously imperfect, which I have no wish to discard. Some of these I have analyzed both in respect to their virtues and to their defects; others, because of the nature of my discussion, mainly with reference to their defects; but I have dealt with few works which do not seem to me to have discernible virtues, for to do otherwise would seem to me a waste of time. If we were all to emulate Hart Crane, the result would be disastrous to literature and to civilization; it is necessary to understand the limitations of Hart Crane, which are of the utmost seriousness; but when we understand those limitations, we are in a position to profit by his virtues with impunity, and his virtues are sometimes very great. If we are not aware of his limitations but are sufficiently sensitive to guess in some fashion at his virtues, he may easily take possession of us wholly. This difficulty indicates the function of criticism.

Certain poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries approximates most closely the qualities which seem to me the best. It seems to me, as it has seemed to many others, that there has been a general deterioration of the quality of poetry since the' opening 'of the eighteenth century. Like many others, I have endeavored to account for this deterioration. It would surprise no one if I stated that Collins' Ode to Evening was an imperfect and secondary poem if judged in comparison with all English poetry; but it arouses antagonism when I give reasons, partly because there is a general dislike for reasons, and partly because my reasons are not complimentary to the orthodoxies of our time. I regret the antagonism, but since I believe my reasons to be sound and the matter in general serious, I must maintain my position and take the consequences. These essays, then, endeavor not only to defend a theory of poetry and to judge certain writers with reference to that theory, but to outline as far as this kind of writing permits certain historical tendencies and the reasons for them. I do this in the hope that my efforts may in some small measure contribute to the alteration of these tendencies; our literary culture (to mention nothing more) appears to me to be breaking up, and the rescue of it appears to me a matter of greater moment than the private feelings of some minor poet or scholar.

I should perhaps call attention to one other matter in connection with my aims. It seems to me impossible to judge the value of any idea in a vacuum. That is, the hedonistic view of literature may conceivably appear sound, or the relativistic view of literature and morals may appear sound, if the idea is circumscribed by a few words. But either idea implies a fairly complete description of a large range of human experience, and if the description does not agree with the facts as we are forced to recognize them, then something is wrong. I am acquainted, for example, with the arguments which prove that the wall is not there, but if I try to step through the wall, I find that the wall is there notwithstanding the arguments. During the past century or so, the number of poets who have endeavored to conform their practice to the ideas which seem to me unsound has been rather large, and we can .judge the ideas more or less clearly in the light of these experiments. A large part of this book is devoted to the analysis of such experiments. Finally, I am aware that my absolutism implies a theistic position, unfortunate as this admission may be. If experience appears to indicate that absolute truths exist, that we are able to work toward an approximate apprehension of them, but that they are antecedent to our apprehension and that our apprehension is seldom and perhaps never perfect, then there is only one place in which those truths may be located, and I see no way to escape this conclusion. I merely wish to point out that my critical and moral notions are derived from the observation of literature and of life, and that my theism is derived from my critical and moral notions. I did not proceed from the opposite direction. All of the concepts outlined briefly and incompletely in this foreword, with the exception.of that mentioned in the last paragraph, will be found more fully explained at various points in the present volume. These remarks are not offered as a complete statement, but are offered merely as a guide and an introduction.

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