Witter on Winter

Witter Bynner (1881-1968) is entirely new to me.  Saddled with a rather unfortunate name, this son of New York and Massachusetts pursued a career in journalism, was booted out of his position of Professor of Oral English the University of California after he served booze to his students during the prohibition and finally settled in Santa Fe to get down to some serious writing.

Welcome to ‘The Wintry Mind’:

Winter uncovers distances, I find;
And so the cold and so the wintry mind
Takes leaves away, till there is left behind
A wide cold world.  And so the heart grows blind
To the earth’s green motions lying warm below
Field upon field, field upon field, of snow.

A somewhat curious verse form, no?  The rhyming pattern (AAAABB) is used in marsiya, an elegiac form of poetry mostly written in Persian or Urdu, and Bynner was certainly influenced by many oriental verse forms.  The marsiya, properly speaking, is a poem of mourning for martyrs, however, and clearly Bynner isn’t doing that here.

The chief thing I love about this poem is the precision of its construction: neat lines of pentameter and a rhyming pattern that presents two formidable challenges.  The poet must restrict themselves to only two rhymes, and somehow prevent the poem from becoming cheesy or predictable.

Bynner avoids the Roquefort and repetition, I think, by being a bit brutal on the rhythmic side of things.  The first word ‘Winter’ is a trochee (one stressed, then an unstressed syllable: winter) – and a stressed syllable at the start of any line of pentameter is always a bit of a jolt.  The rhythm of the rest of the line isn’t quite what we might expect either: ‘uncovers distances I find.’

The harsh, toe-stubbing journey of that first line sets us up rather nicely for the central concerns of the poem: the barrenness of winter and its effect of inducing a barrenness of the heart and mind.

This poem can be broken up into two related thoughts: the first is expressed by the initial three and a half lines, with the caesural full stop bringing it to an abrupt end, and the second thought follows, ending as the poem does.  Again, you’ve got to tip your hat to the construction.

But enough of the fawning.  There are a few little moments that I’m not such a fan of.  How about ‘the heart grows blind’, for example?  I’m not concerned here with the biological fact that hearts and eyes are as distinct as ears and livers: but it sounds like a cliché in waiting, to me – it lacks the tense and unforgiving clarity of the ideas and images which surround it.  And I’m not convinced by the repetition of ‘field upon field’ – the sense of vast empty space is provided by the initial phrase: the immediate re-statement doesn’t seem to me to add anything.  It’s just making up the numbers.

I’m very glad that I’ve met Bynner: I think his opening thought here, ‘Winter uncovers distances’, is a stroke of such acute observation that it approaches genius.  But ultimately this is not a poem I’d call a masterpiece.  Bynner reminds us that strict poetic form is not restrictive of ideas – that’s a reminder I’m always happy to receive.  But he also reminds us that even acute observation can be tarnished by a careless phrase.  That’s a less welcome, but no less forceful and important point.


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