Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Representing the Limits of Judgment: Yvor Winters, Emily Dickinson, and Religious Experience

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Representing the Limits of Judgment: Yvor Winters, Emily Dickinson, and Religious Experience

Article excerpt

I

During the past dozen years, the central event in the history of American literary criticism--the institutionalization of literature brought about in part by the so-called New Critics--has come under new scrutiny. The reef of decades that divides us from figures such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Yvor Winters has made it possible to conduct such investigations with less reductive and misleading animosity than that found in a work such as Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Mark Jancovich's especially ambitious The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism (1993) highlights the affinities between the practices of Ransom, Tare, and Robert Penn Warren and then-contemporary deconstruction, Marxist criticism, and burgeoning cultural studies. More importantly, it rescues these poet-critics from the inaccurate portrayal of their intellectual program as somehow ideologically repressing history, narrative, and politics in favor of an autonomous aesthetic objet removed from the turning world. (1) Daniel Green, in a recent article, has fairly evaluated the New Criticism both in terms of its worthy efforts to make literature as literature a subject of investigation and of how its very claims left literary studies open to cooptation by critical schools (such as deconstruction, the new historicism, and finally cultural studies) that the New Critics themselves would have found anathema. I wish to extend Green's argument by contending in what follows that at least one New Critic, Yvor Winters, far from eliding the roles history and philosophy in the poetic text, focused upon them in order to work out a systematic method for the evaluative criticism of literature. For him, the text of a poem or novel was never at a remove from history, but it was not reducible to a mere historical artifact either. In his work on Emily Dickinson in particular, he attempted to show how poetic language is informed by its historical condition of production and also how it challenges and even threatens human reason itself---the faculty that makes historical, or any, consciousness possible. As such, Winters provides occasion to reconsider the always contentious frontier where art, history, and--crucially--religion all meet.

In Winters's almost unrelenting condemnation of "American Obscurantism," his volume of essays titled Maule's Curse (later collected with three other critical books to form In Defense of Reason), he picks off writer after writer in a slow campaign to reverse the tragic consequences of the battle between the ecstatic unreason of Calvinism and romanticism and the rational faculties of the American artist. He begins with Hawthorne, whose literary war, in Winters's narrative, was waged by the haunting ghosts of Puritan allegory against the inadequate articulation of rational experience; the romantic devil took possession of Hawthorne's literary activity in the guise of these residual Puritan specters. Winters chronicles this same combat through nineteenth-century American letters, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry Adams to its final decadence in Henry James. These last two geniuses, lacking anything but the half-perceived residual sensation of what once had been a zealous Puritan ethics, were simply exhausted and forced to concede a gentlemanly defeat at the hands of unreason. If every reader of James recognizes his Europeans as courtiers without Castiglioni's guidebook, Winters stands among the first to appreciate that his Americans were not mere innocents abroad but Calvinists in want of the Institutes.

Amid these cursing chapters, where literary admiration but narrowly moderates metaphysical condemnation, rests a short essay on Emily Dickinson. There, Winters peels away what he sees as Dickinson's obscurity of "personal shorthand" and the cuteness of her "content-less catch-phrases" to expose, at the core, a poet of somber and penetrating intellect; a poet capable of describing and speculating on, lamenting and abiding, the "Limits of Judgment" (the title of the essay). …

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