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Winters’s Comment on Hart Crane and "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight"

From Yvor Winters, "Letter to the Editor," New Republic June 2, 1937, p 104.

… I observed the elements that would lead one to identify the knight as some kind of vegetation demon: the greenness, his indestructibility, the remote and wild region in which he lived, etc. Taking him thus, for the sake of the experiment, I proceeded to see what I could extract from him poetically; I took it for granted, incidentally, that a good deal more occurred in the castle than Gawayne later reported explicitly. Thus we get a vegetation demon, a demon of growth (physical growth), sense, nature in all its non-human signification, tempting and trying a human, the human surviving more through habitual balance than through perfect control at the height of the temptation, but gradually recovering himself. If you like, at a more general level, it is the relationship of the artist toward sensibility: [Hart] Crane was a Gawayne who succumbed.

Excerpts from an April 7, 1958, letter to Allen Tate

My Gawaine poem was written around 1936-37—quite late enough to have been influenced by my Elizabethan studies. But it is not very Elizabethan. Compare it to [John Donne's] "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning": not with regard to which is the better, nor with regard to individual virtues and defects of writing, but with regard to method.

Donne's poem is typical of high Renaissance in certain respects: the rational (almost logical) structure, which, in Donne as in Sidney and in others, is often perversely misused but is still there . . . the fact that the superficial or explicit subject of the poem is the real subject—the poem is a poem about the temporary parting of lovers.

My poem is narrative in structure (no serious divergence here, but one not common in the Renaissance).The superficial or explicit theme of my poem is not the real theme: the explicit theme is a curious adventure and love affair; the real theme is a relationship between what Aristotle and Aquinas would have called the rational soul and the sensory soul. Gawaine at the first level is the rational soul, but ultimately he is the whole man, and the Green Knight and his lady are a part of him, and he emerges at the end for a temporary respite. His first act, the beheading, might be called a premature and naive generalization with which he hopes to put an end to the real difficulties; the rest of the poem deals with the consequences of his error. This is nowhere stated explicitly, but it seems to me obviously implicit throughout, and the descriptive language implies it at every moment. When I said that my poem was narrative in structure, I meant at the superficial level: the narrative is condensed, and is used for an expository purpose.

There are important differences in the use of figurative language. Donne uses explicit similes and metaphors to develop distinct aspects of his argument. There is, I believe, only one simile in my poem: "like a forest vine." There are two explicit comparisons which can hardly be called figures of speech: "Green as a bough," "like a fool"; and I suppose you can add "Reptilian green." But the whole poem is a metaphor, and explicitly stated, but each detail supporting the other to the extent that any descriptive detail (e.g., "Where growth was rapid, thick and still") means more in the poem than it does at the descriptive level of its passage.

This method is not Elizabethan or even 17th century. It is post-symbolist and post-imagist. You will find it here and there in [Wallace] Stevens (see the pigeons at the end of "Sunday Morning"). Occasionally in Louise Bogan (see "Simple Autumnal"), allover [Paul Valery's] "Le Cimetiere Marin" ["Seaside Cemetery"] and the "Serpent." I have used this procedure most consistently and more skillfully than any other poet in English. It is not the only procedure that I have used but it has been my favorite. The corresponding symbolist (or imagist) procedure occurs in [Hart] Crane's "Repose of Rivers." The vehicle (to borrow [I. A.] Richard's jargon) is explicit and rich; the tenor is more than uncertain except in a vaguely general way. This unbalance never, I think, occurs in my poems after the early and imagistic period. It certainly does not occur in the Gawaine.

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