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Yvor Winters at Stanford

[clock] 35-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1978

When I first met Yvor Winters 26 years ago, on my arrival as a new instructor in the Stanford English Department, he was nearly 52 years old and I was 27. I could not then have imagined that at 53 I would dare to write a little memoir about him. Although I hardly knew him, I quickly learned that he felt strongly opposed to narratives about the personal qualities of writers and that he intended to ask his correspondents not to preserve his letters. But now, ten years after his death, I have decided it would not be a betrayal of friendship to record some little-known evidence of his value as a friend and colleague.

In those first weeks I would not have dreamed that I could ever want to write sympathetically about Winters. The image of him that I had brought with me from Harvard seemed to have been accurate spiritually even though totally wrong visually. From the few of his essays that I had read, and from his reputation as a Western curmudgeon, I had expected to meet an ascetic man whose person carried as little fat as his prose. I had not yet read his splendid poem in celebration of California wines, I was surprised to find him a rotund figure with a florid complexion. One could tell even before hearing him speak lovingly about ways to cook chili or prepare escalloped potatoes that this man enjoyed good food. But his conversation was even more serious and spare than I had expected it to be, and in my anxiety as a new colleague on my first fulltime appointment I felt threatened by it. I remember very clearly that soon after his first cordial greeting at a reception for new faculty members he suddenly asked me a question about the four American historians on whose work I was writing my Ph. D. thesis: “Which one was the best?”

He did not put the question rudely. I remembered, too, that he had treated me generously in unsolicited and very helpful correspondence about living arrangements for my family soon after he had heard about my appointment. But he had so strong a reputation for insisting on firm judgments, and he had put his question so directly, that I fumbled in an embarrassed search for an answer. I had been preoccupied with interpreting the material and with proving relationships among my four historians. I had thought very little about ranking them. They were all interesting, all valuable; what did I care about comparative judgments? I finally brought out my answer, the standard opinion: “I suppose Parkman was the best historian.”

“Parkman’s the worst,” Winters replied, biting down on his pipe; “Motley’s the best.” His eyes told me that he took some comic pleasure in expressing that unconventional judgment, but I knew, too, that he meant it.

Years later I saw in this first literary conversation an epitome of the most exemplary service that Winters’ criticism and his personal conduct performed for me and many others. He not only provoked me to think seriously about value but repeatedly showed me the value in writers I had neglected or underestimated. I often learned, too, from his celebrated or notorious strictures on Whitman, Emerson, Frost, Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, but for me he became much more valuable as a literary rescuer than as an executioner. John Lothrop Motley was only the first of a number of major and minor writers whose worth Winters helped me to appreciate. Although his criticism of Francis Parkman helped me to see some defects that I might otherwise have missed, I did not need to reject Parkman, Frost, or Emerson—nor did Winters himself totally reject any of these writers—in order to perceive the value that Winters showed me in neglected works by Ben Jonson, Jones Very, James Fenimore Cooper, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, or E. A. Robinson. The scandal of Winters’ reputation fed on his vehement denunciations and his idiosyncratic praise. More important to me than whether Tuckerman’s The Cricket was the best poem of the 19th century, or Jones Very a better poet than Emerson, or J. V. Cunningham the best poet now writing in English, is the certain fact that I never knew some excellent works of those writers and others—works as distant from one another as Ben Jonson’s To Heaven and Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre and The Invasion— until Winters introduced me to them. In the 15 years of our association, I never heard him praise a literary work in which I failed to find genuine excellence.

That first laconic exchange also left me with the feeling that I was somehow obliged to fill a great barrel of silence, which Winters himself had opened. Even after I had come to know him well, he remained one of several friends who left silences for others to fill, friends whose mute, expectant bearing suggested that their own silence had been provoked by the inadequacy of their interlocutors. Winters was not at ease in idle conversation, He frequently spoke with startling wit, and he was an excellent raconteur, but casual speech often seemed to make him uncomfortable. He preferred to write, and he often did. Two instances that occurred during my first months at Stanford will illustrate the range of this preference.

At lunch one day with several other colleagues, I happened to fill one of those silences with some chatter about our pregnant cocker spaniel. Winters, whose office wall displayed a photograph of himself with one of his champion Airedales, remarked jovially that a cocker spaniel is not a dog, and then, in what I took to be the same tone, he asked me whether I knew how to construct a whelping box. The conversation ended in general laughter when I said I had never heard of such a thing. The next morning I found in my mailbox at the Department of English a three-page, single-spaced letter from Winters, with lucid instructions for making a whelping box, attaching the burlap, getting the dog accustomed to the box, and helping with the birth in an emergency. Without that explicit letter, we would surely have lost one of the puppies that were successfully born in our whelping box two weeks later, for an emergency did occur and Winters’ instructions helped us to revive an apparently stillborn puppy.

The other episode was somewhat less pleasant at the time, and I still have mixed feelings about it, although I did belatedly learn that my own presence in Winters’ seminar must have made him slightly uncomfortable. Winters offered one of the few courses anywhere on the literature of historiography, a two-term graduate seminar called American Historians as Men of Letters. I had asked him to let me audit his informal lectures during the first term, for I had completed my research and was now writing my Harvard thesis in absentia, on several of the historians considered in his seminar. The class was held in Winters’ office, a large, dark room on the ground floor of Building 40 in the Inner Quad. The memorable features of the room, besides, the Airedale prize photograph and one or two other pictures on the wall, were the very high ceiling and the old Morris chair in which Winters could often be seen reading as one passed the open doorway; there must also have been a desk and some kind of seminar table, but these have been supplanted in my memory by the much more elegant furniture that was crowded in, along with the Morris chair, when the office was shrunk and the ceiling lowered seven or eight years later. Winters sat behind his desk and lectured from notes jotted inside the front cover of a book by William H. Prescott. His notes must have consisted largely of page numbers; looking up at the four or five students, he would make a few admirably precise and coherent remarks, including both biographical information and critical judgments, and then he would open the book to a marked page, read a few lines of Prescott to us, and comment further. When he had finished, he asked me whether I had any comment to make on his judgments. I had nothing to say then, but in a brief private discussion after class I told him I had evidence to show that Motley, whom Winters had praised in contrast to Prescott, had been guilty of some of the same evasions, anti-Catholic prejudices, and critical fallacies for which Winters had justly but severely criticized Prescott. Before we parted, Winters expressed some interest in seeing my evidence.

He opened the next meeting of the seminar by reading a long typewritten statement that he had written since the time of our last conversation. In the extensive preamble he explained that he had for years been teaching courses ranging over the whole history of English poetry and of literary criticism; he had dared to teach this course in historiography only because the worthy subject had been neglected. Mr. Levin, he said, professionally trained in a large Eastern university, had had time to specialize in American subjects and in history as well as literature. But of course the overworked, self-taught, Western amateur had an answer for the professionally trained Easterner, and that argument in itself was very strong. The issue had to do with absolute and relative standards of historical judgment, and Motley, forthright in recognizing and expressing the severity of his judgments against tyrants and bigots, had the better of Prescott, whose allegedly flexible standards of judgment tended both to weaken any basis for moral judgment and to disguise his own ethnocentric prejudices.

In another context I would say more about my personal reaction to Winters’ presentation of that paper to his seminar, but the point here is that he had written the paper and that he expected me to reply. When I decided not to beard him in front of his students, but to write up my evidence and give the paper to him after the term had ended, I misjudged him. A few days later he reminded me of my statement that I had some evidence to contradict his comparative judgments of the historians, and he insisted that I read it to the seminar. Since the question was largely factual, my demonstration that Motley, too, had sometimes conveniently used a shifting standard of judgment brought another long silence to that dark room. Eventually Winters said, “Thank you,” and those were the last words I ever heard from him on the subject. Only from a colleague did I learn, more than a year afterward, that Winters had expressed pleasure at my willingness to disagree with him.


That “Thank you” and the other laconic comments I have remembered here were only a few of the observations by which the combination of Winters’ characteristic brevity and his willingness to judge established his role among his colleagues. Although I became his friend and worked closely with him for more than twelve years, and although he read and approved of my scholarly and critical work, he did not talk to me about the things that mattered most to him. These were questions of poetry and philosophy, and it was to these questions that he referred when he told me, on more than one occasion, but with no intent to wound me even though we both knew his remark was excluding me from a select company, that there were only two colleagues on our faculty with whom he could really talk.

The most emphatic demonstration of Winters’ laconic judgment of his colleagues occurred in a private conversation that another friend reported to me. Winters had been provoked by some departmental controversy to observe that an absent colleague was full of banana oil. My informant, who felt unwilling to consent by silence to so strong a condemnation of the colleague, struggled to think of a virtue that Winters might also recognize in the man, and he heard himself protesting weakly that the colleague in question was at least sincere. Winters’ reply, I was told, was instantaneous: “He’s sincerely full of banana oil.”

Long before my arrival at Stanford, the relationship of Winters to the other senior members of the English Department had been established through reciprocal judgments that, though less emphatic than the comment on banana oil, were nonetheless mutually condescending. Of course there were individual exceptions in both friendship and hostility, but in general Winters and his senior colleagues had tacitly conceded spheres of academic influence across borders defined by mutual respect and condescension. Winters had a deep respect for literary scholarship and for the learning of some of his colleagues. Throughout the time of our association he consistently opposed efforts to abolish or reduce various scholarly courses that had traditionally been required for the Ph. D. in English, and he regularly advised young poets to take courses in the history of their language, in other languages, and in the history of English and American literature. Yet he believed and he had said publicly that many of his colleagues had no informed interest in contemporary poetry or in major philosophical issues, and that most of them were indifferent to the implications of their philosophical beliefs. He sent his students to learn what could be learned from those colleagues, but everyone knew that the best of his students had access to a world the professors could not enter.

By 1952, all his colleagues knew that Winters had won international distinction with both his criticism and his poems. His prize from the National Institute of Arts and Letters was only the latest accolade. These colleagues were not the men who had held back Winters’ promotion to a full professorship until he was 50 years old. They admired his intelligence, at least some of his poems, and the strength of his prose, and they seemed genuinely fond of him. Yet they condescended to what they considered his eccentric judgments, they understandably resented his blunt public statements about their own collective inadequacies, and they were sometimes outraged by the presumption of a Winters student. They conceded to Winters virtually total control of advanced instruction in 20th-century poetry and American literature. The only senior professors who taught American literature during my first few years at Stanford were Winters and Wallace Stegner, both of whom, though they had earned Ph. D. degrees, were primarily known as creative writers. The subjects that were conceded to Winters were subjects about which his traditionalist colleagues cared relatively little. Until about 1960, moreover, it was easy for a Stanford graduate student to earn a Ph. D. in English without having read a single work of American literature, or even of English literature after the 1870’s, the decade in which the 19th century was decreed to have ended.

The ceremony at which a newcomer had a chance to observe these relationships, which were much more complex than my crude generalizations can indicate, was a luncheon meeting known as the Klatsch. Every day at noon Winters would stroll across the hall from his office to the even larger and darker room shared by the two senior philologists, Herbert D. Meritt and Robert W, Ackerman. Hung with tapestries and crowded with books, including the Department’s copy of the multi-volume Oxford New English Dictionary, this office was shaded by the colonnades that protect Stanford’s central quadrangle from brilliant sun through most of the year and from steady rains in the winter. My memory probably exaggerates the darkness of the room at noon on sunny days, and I surely err in remembering the still atmosphere as if it had come from Hawthorne’s Custom House, or Varner’s store in The Hamlet, or Nicholas Vedder’s inn in “Rip Van Winkle.” Many lively and delightful conversations and some very serious ones occurred during the hundreds of noon hours that several of us passed there in the company of Winters, our genial hosts the philologists, and two or three other professors. But I am sure my recollection of Winters’ presence in those meetings is accurate. He always sat in the straight oak chair that filled the space between the doorway and the heavy volumes of the New English Dictionary, and one or two of those volumes were usually open on the tilted reading shelf just to the right of his ruddy face. He never ate lunch but quietly smoked his pipe as we ate our sandwiches. A vigorous gardener in those days, and the proud cultivator of at least one specimen of every fruit tree native to California, he was nonetheless a portly figure, and he seemed almost to sag into the chair as he puffed gravely or smiled over his pipe.

He was also the central figure. Sometimes he joined in the banter and the anecdotal conversation, but his characteristic role, which he and his fellow professors established collaboratively, was that of an eccentric adversary whom they provoked to answer piquant questions about his bizarre opinions, or who challenged them with new judgments or with new questions about the opinions they already knew. He would often begin his part of these colloquies by addressing us all as “my learned colleagues” or “you professors.” Most of these exchanges were friendly and even jovial; these men shared with Winters memories of academic life in the 1930’s, when they had all occupied desks in a great room called the bull-pen, when their salaries had been fixed at $1600 a year, and when the standard teaching load had been five sections of freshman English, with 125—150 themes to be read each week. (Exhausted by my unsuccessful efforts to write my thesis under a teaching load of three sections and 75—80 themes a week, I once asked Winters when he had found time to write his critical essays during the 1930’s, and he promptly answered, “Two o’clock in the morning.”) Sometimes, however, the air would seem to vibrate with tension, as it did when Winters, having challenged the value of Gray’s Elegy or Thomson’s The Seasons, refused to accept a colleague’s appeal to “the standard judgment” but insisted on hearing the man’s own judgment and the reasons for it.


Exciting, too, in a different way, was Winters’ unforgettable account of the Lamson case, the conviction, later overturned by the California Supreme Court, of a Stanford University Press editor for the alleged murder of his wife. Winters’ account of the circumstantial evidence on which a county prosecutor convicted Lamson led to a splendid exposition of the circumstantial evidence that proved Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor’s case. I was one of the two or three new colleagues for whom Winters was persuaded by the veterans of the Klatsch to tell that story once again; and when he came to the grisly behavior of some Stanford administrators and a Stanford Medical School pathologist in the prosecution of an innocent man, we newcomers had to notice both Winters’ total absorption in the narrative, and his veteran auditors’ mixture of admiration and amused detachment. Here, they seemed to feel, is our distinguished zealot, who can still work up a passion over issues that would not have impassioned us even when they were current nearly 20 years ago. The tension of Winters’ narrative was destroyed by one of these veterans just as Winters was describing the Lamsons’ bathroom so that we could understand the circumstantial evidence to prove Mrs. Lamson had not been beaten to death but had fallen in the tub.”Now here is the bathtub,” Winters said, gesturing toward one desk, “and here is the door.”

“Then what’s that that Herb’s sitting on?” asked an irreverent colleague who had heard the story before. Winters lost no dignity or emphasis when he continued his narrative after the laughter had subsided.

Since I heard Winters tell the Lamson story in the autumn of 1952, when we were also discussing the first Elsenhower-Stevenson campaign, I never doubted that in politics he was a liberal who had supported the New Deal and the Fair Deal. Not until I had known him for several years did I learn that an article in American Scholar had referred to him as a Fascist (whereupon Winters had resigned from Phi Beta Kappa), and that Leslie Fiedler had convicted him (by association) of being a conservative Catholic gentleman! Many people simply assumed that this “absolutist” and “reactionary” critic must be a political reactionary. But Winters had belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California ever since its founding in the mid-1930’s. He was a Life Member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He had spoken and acted in defense of Japanese-American citizens who were sent to detention camps during World War II. In the autumn of 1952 he endorsed a letter that many Columbia University faculty members had published in criticism of General Eisenhower’s presidency of Columbia. When more than a hundred Stanford faculty members gave money and signed their names to publish a copy of that letter in the local newspaper, a great roar of indignation in the press and the university deplored the enormity of our having associated the name of Stanford with a political campaign. In those days no political speeches were allowed on the Stanford campus. The winds of freedom, proudly claimed in Stanford’s motto, blew in nothing more political than Herbert Hoover’s allegedly nonpartisan addresses. When Hoover’s private secretary, who had concentrated in English as an undergraduate long ago, threatened publicly to monitor the future conduct of the new young English instructors who had signed the infamous letter, Winters went out of his way to reassure us.

In the 14 years between my arrival and his retirement, Winters proved the validity of these credentials in several incidents that in one way or another brought together his literary or professional judgment and his humane attitude toward social issues. At a meeting of the Stanford chapter of the American Association of University Professors during the worst days of McCarthyism, for example, Winters spoke forcibly in defense of a Communist’s right to teach—so long as particular doctrines did not vitiate one’s ability to teach one’s subject, as Winters believed certain forms of Marxist literary criticism would do. He insisted that candidates for new appointments be judged according to their professional work, and of course that tenure rights be respected. Later on in the 1950’s, Winters accepted a lucrative invitation to speak at the University of Texas. As the date of his lecture approached, he received a letter from Texas enclosing forms for him to sign. In order to receive his honorarium, he was told, he would have to provide not only his social security number but a statement saying whether he belonged to any organization on the United States Attorney General’s list of subversive groups. Winters replied that he had not read the Attorney General’s list, but that he had better cancel the lecture because he had long been a member of two organizations he knew to be unpopular in Texas, the AGLU and the NAACP. At last the authorities at the University of Texas found a way of paying Winters’ honorarium and expenses without requiring him to answer the offensive question.

During all his years at Stanford, Winters had never read his poems to a Stanford audience, although the English Department and the University annually sponsored at least half a dozen readings by major and minor poets. He had long since bought his Life Membership in the NAACP, but as I became involved first in some local efforts to end discrimination, and consequently in NAACP membership drives, Winters surprised me one day by offering to read his poems at a benefit for the NAACP. He would not give a reading at Stanford, he said, but he felt so strongly moved by the civil rights campaign that the only purpose for which he would give a reading was an NAAGP benefit. That was in 1959, about two years before the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee gained national attention. Winters’ reading was a financial success for the NAACP, and a personal triumph. His theory about the oral reading of poetry was as controversial as some of his other critical judgments, but hearing him read some of his own poems in his deep, almost chanting rhythms, gave me and many others in that audience an exhilarating appreciation of his method. The local chapter of the NAACP bought Mrs. Winters a Life Membership with the proceeds of her husband’s reading.

In the early 1950’s John Loftis was the only member of our department who owned a television set, and even he was able to attribute this anomaly to the unsolicited generosity of his father. Several of us would meet at the Loftis house occasionally to watch a Hallmark-sponsored Shakespearian play. Winters, I remember, went there with us to watch some of the day-time sessions of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. When I bought a television set the next year, Winters expressed interest in some of the championship boxing matches that were then among the most popular athletic contests one could watch at home. He had done some boxing as a young man rebuilding his strength after he had recovered from tuberculosis, and although I later decided that professional boxing was a business too brutally destructive to be regarded as a sport, we shared an admiration for Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore. Winters came to my house several times to watch championship fights during the period when Moore was light-heavyweight champion and Robinson was not only welterweight and middleweight champion but almost won the light-heavy weight title as well. Since these fights were scheduled for Prime Time in the East, they would end before eight o’clock Pacific Time. We would have an early dinner before the fight and Winters would leave soon after the last round, for he observed a strict routine of rising very early in the morning and retiring very early at night.


Even in those days when he led a relatively active social life, he and his wife lived in extraordinary simplicity. The plain furniture in their small house in Los Altos did not change in all the years of our association, and Winters drove a 1950 Plymouth Suburban from 1949 until he stopped driving in the year before his death. In his last several years he virtually stopped accepting invitations and entertaining guests at home, although he did like to receive visits from individual friends during the day. In both the early years and the late ones he was a gracious host, whether he cooked and served the meal outdoors in his shaded garden or simply served a glass of bourbon before taking up his accustomed place in the old Morris chair in his living room. At Christmas time he would provide holly and other greenery for decorations for his friends’ houses, and as we young colleagues built houses of our own he provided us with small bay and loquat trees out of his garden.(When he first offered me a loquat to eat, I asked hesitantly whether it tasted like a cumquat or a peach, or a lemon. He replied, “It tastes like a loquat.”)

As he went out less, he would telephone more. For a man who spoke relatively little, he was surprisingly uninhibited in his willingness to telephone. During the years of our closest professional association, from about 1959 to his retirement in 1966, he would often call to discuss departmental affairs, or a dissertation we were both assigned to read, or a publication of my own that I had given him. His comments on both of my books and several of my articles and reviews came to me in this form—partly, I suppose, out of considerate understanding that an author would appreciate having some response to a work soon after a friend had finished reading, but perhaps also because he found it easier to converse over the telephone, when he chose the momentary occasion, than face to face, at a time that had to be arranged and in a situation that could not be so readily terminated. It was during one of these calls that he told me of his encounter with the University of Texas,

When he telephoned me, he always identified himself as Yvor if my wife answered the phone, but if I happened to answer first he would simply greet me by name and count on me to identify his voice. I never presumed to ask him about the two different names by which people knew him. His full name was Arthur Yvor Winters. He signed his work as Yvor Winters and, so far as I can remember, was addressed by all his Stanford colleagues as Yvor, until one of his former students joined the faculty. But his wife, the students (especially the poets) who had worked closely with him, and old non-academic friends always called him Arthur. This double identity has bothered me only on those occasions, which still occur now and then, that find me conversing about Yvor with someone who continues to call him Arthur. I have not yet ventured to adopt my interlocutor’s version of the name, for fear that presumption might be more offensive than confusion.

Winters was an unusually responsible colleague even after his eminence had been belatedly recognized by a good salary and an endowed chair. He made up and read the departmental language examinations in French and Spanish; characteristically, he made them up stringently and graded them generously. When he and I were the two readers of the French examinations, he would regularly read them first, indicating the errors in translation by making a small check mark against the margin for each error that occurred in any line of the student’s prose. He also submitted questions regularly for the Ph. D. comprehensive examinations and served as a reader of those examinations until his first cancer operation in 1964. For at least a decade I saw and discussed with him a great variety of examinations, and I found him as consistently fair and even as generous as anyone else with whom I shared similar duties. I knew students who trimmed their opinions to please him in his own courses, and others who said that a student had to do so to survive. In the examinations we shared, I saw abundant evidence to contradict such charges. Many students made no concessions to his opinions, beyond reading material that he had assigned and writing intelligently about it. They prospered nonetheless.

Winters sat regularly as an examiner in the three-hour oral examinations. These were scheduled at the student’s request, at almost any time in the academic year, but the calendar naturally became quite crowded toward the end of the spring term. In one exhausting period of ten days in May, Winters and I spent six afternoons together, along with a varying . roster of colleagues, examining Ph. D. candidates on American literature. In an effort to avoid boring Winters, I tried to refrain from repeating any question I had asked one of the preceding candidates in that unending parade. Winters entertained me by asking all six students precisely the same question: Discuss Edgar Allan Foe’s conception of the relationship between melancholy and beauty. Only one of the students answered that question satisfactorily. Both Winters and I were surprised that the later students had not been fore-warned of the question, but of course Winters asked all of them many questions that they could answer, and he agreed to pass them all.

The same generosity characterized his behavior in departmental meetings about faculty appointments and promotions. Like many strong figures who have established a distinctive set of principles in an institution, Winters was distressed by his failure to see those principles secured by the appointment of a successor who was committed to them, or at least one whose poetical and critical work could be certified as excellent according to those principles. In the decade before his retirement he tried several times to persuade the Department to invite Edgar Bowers or J. V. Cunningham, the poets he admired most, to join the faculty. Eventually Kenneth Fields, a younger poet who had worked closely with Winters, was appointed to an assistant professorship after Winters had retired, and Winters was pleased by the subsequent appointment of Donald Davie. But during the period of Winters’ active service and in the first year of his retirement he had no indication that his ideas would be perpetuated at Stanford in advanced classes in the writing of poetry. Believing as he did that several worthy candidates were available if only his colleagues would choose among them, Winters might well have tried to block appointments favored by some of his colleagues in other fields, especially those appointments that would increase what he regarded as the faculty’s disproportionate emphasis on modern fiction and impressionistic criticism. He could easily have blocked several promotions and senior appointments in the seven years of my membership on the committee that made such decisions, but he did not block a single one. He even endorsed for the Department chairmanship Thomas C. Moser, a man whose chief publication was a psychoanalytic study of Joseph Conrad’s fiction.


My purpose here is to testify that despite his strong judgments and feelings Winters was usually a responsible, generous, and flexible colleague. The truth of this generalization does not require me to deny that he also had a powerful temper, whose severity some of his colleagues, and especially the chairman, occasionally experienced. Not all of his letters to colleagues were about how to build a whelping box; some concerned how not to build a university faculty or curriculum in English and American literature. Although I never received one of these letters, I saw two or three examples. Like some of the severe pronouncements in Winters’ criticism, these denunciations gained impact from his superb control of his rhetoric. Just as the intensity of his passion must sometimes have moved his fingers over keys that expressed more anger than the occasion deserved, so his perfect ear for the language and his scorn of circumlocution must occasionally have brought reasonable indignation closer to the sound of fury.

One of our few conversations about his own essays gave me a rare glimpse not only of the biographical significance in Winters’ vehemently anti-Romantic criticism, but also of his self-knowledge. I often heard him laugh heartily at humor in literature and in conversation, and he often joined in witty banter that placed him and his interlocutors in a circle of privileged vulnerability to retorts, but I cannot remember that I ever heard him really laugh at himself. His response to a question about his essay on Hart Crane therefore had especial meaning to me. Some time in the early 1960’s I reread that essay, “The Significance of The Bridge, . . .or What are we to Think of Professor X?” and I asked Winters to explain the ethical reasoning behind the concluding paragraph. There Winters declares a strong preference for Crane, “a saint of the wrong religion,” the genius whose willingness to act out his pernicious principles damaged other human beings, wasted his own literary gifts, and destroyed his life. Winters has just deplored that waste, but he insists that he prefers Crane to the professors of literature who, though they profess the same self-indulgent Romantic principles, lead conventional lives themselves.

Although I had not then heard Winters’ remark about the man who was sincerely full of banana oil, my question implied the same criticism of Winters’ preference for Crane, who had “the courage of his convictions, the virtue of integrity.” I could see the justice in scorning genteel hypocrisy or philosophical inconsistency, but I asked why one ought to prefer an actively destructive person to a responsible citizen whose actual behavior did not live down to the destructive tendencies of his principles. Winters’ answer was as brief as some of the others I have recorded here.”You forget,” he said, “that I once nearly fell into that Romantic world.” There ended the discussion. I now take Winters’ comment as an allusion to the experience recounted later, in his preface to The Early Poems of Yvor Winters, an allusion to his own belated discovery that commitment to free verse and “associational” images is at last not liberating but tyrannously restrictive. What I believe he conceded in our brief exchange was the persistence of an allegiance he could not rationally justify. The power of his remembered attraction to Romantic or at least experimental views of the artist’s vocation, and the even stronger power of his revulsion from the consequences of those views, were both perceptible in his essay and in our conversation about it. He does not merely joke when he declares that he would “gladly emulate Odysseus, if I could, and go down to the shadows for another hour’s conversation with Crane on the subject of poetry; whereas, politeness permitting, I seldom go out of my way to discuss poetry with Professor X.”

In the last four or five years before his retirement, Winters gave up some of his old courses. For 20 years he had taught a course called Representative American Novelists, because he believed the curriculum would otherwise neglect them, but he had told me (quoting himself) that novels are for the very young. He was happy to reduce the range of that course from seven novelists to two, Hawthorne and Melville, and in 1961 he gladly surrendered to a new young colleague Hawthorne and Melville, along with the harpoon that he annually carried to one lecture on Moby-Dick, When he stopped teaching his seminar on American historians, he gave me his valuable edition of Henry Adams’s History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. When he stopped teaching James Fenimore Cooper, he gave me his set of Cooper’s novels, an edition that had no commercial value beyond what Winters’ own characteristic notes—check marks in the margins and page numbers inside the front cover—might one day give them. Coming across some of those check marks in the texts that I have read since receiving the very useful gift, I have often been reminded of Winters’ remark a year or two before his retirement, that if he had to choose between rereading Cooper and rereading Hawthorne now, he would choose Cooper.

But of course he was rereading neither. In his last years as a teacher his professional actions endorsed the reasoning behind his insistence that novels were for the young. He tried to concentrate on the subjects that were most important to him, the essential things, great poems, central principles, and he left subordinate genres to those who might still be interested in the details of experience. Ever since his early thirties, when he had written a poem describing himself precociously as a middle-aged teacher of “Corrosion and distrust, / Exacting what I must,” he had enjoyed declaring that he would now devote his declining years to the English lyric, and in his last two years of active teaching, after an operation for cancer of the tongue had threatened to prevent him from teaching or uttering his favorite poems, he at last had the opportunity to restrict his energy to the history of English and American poetry and to working with a few graduate students whom he had chosen for fellowships in the writing of poetry. The Stanford English Department recognized this winnowing process by publishing in honor of his retirement a small volume of 25 poems, one of his favorites (so far as Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, who edited the book, could identify them) by each of 25 poets who had worked with him at some time during his four decades as a poet and critic. The title of the volume came from the last line of Winters’ poem On Teaching the ‘Young:

The poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude,
Laurel, archaic, rude.

Winter’s retirement party, which he agreed to attend on condition that there be no speeches, was the last occasion on which his friends and associates were allowed to assemble to honor him. He accepted the surprise gift graciously and seemed to take much pleasure in it. But he continued his recent practice of virtual withdrawal from social life, except for receiving brief visits from friends who would call on him at his house during the day. In order to finish Forms of Discovery, his critical history of the lyric in English and American literature, he postponed a second cancer operation, and the metastasis progressed rapidly after he did submit to the operation.

I visited him several times during his last few months. To replace the dead Airedales who had once been so intimidating to visitors that Winters would lock them away before opening the front door, he had now acquired an English bulldog puppy. This powerful little beast liked to hurl her front shoulders against a visitor’s legs, and she would not desist until her master took her into his lap. Her persistence reminded me of Jim Smiley’s hilarious dog in Mark Twain’s story of the Celebrated Frog, and I was moved by Winters’ hearty laughter, solemn though he usually was in these months, when I read him the familiar tale of the bulldog who always won wagers for his owner by clamping his jaws onto the opposing dog’s hind leg and hanging on until the other dog quit. My last memory of Winters includes Roxy the bulldog, relaxed in his lap. Winters himself seemed to be waiting with a resigned tenacity for the death that he had long ago made up his mind to recognize as annihilation. He had grown a handsome white beard, and wore a flannel mantle, that covered the surgical scars. He had lost a great part of his bulky weight, and he had lost his voice. But he could still whisper his brief, decisive answers, he had told the doctor that there must be no last-minute heroics, and he had decreed that there must be no funeral or memorial service.

Winters said that his friends, who knew him when he was alive, would not need to assemble to hear descriptions of him after his death. This little memoir is not meant to violate the spirit of his prohibition, but to give others who are interested in his work some record of the colleague and the person whom we knew and loved.


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