Stay Awake: Death, Catholicism, and Yvor Winters

Although not a Catholic, the poet and critic Winters held that the intellectual and moral life must entail the practice of open-ended contemplation. That practice specifically entailed meditating on our own finitude, our mortality, and the event of our death.

Detail of a portrait of Yvor Winters, from the cover of "An Introduction to the Poetry of Yvor Winters" (1981) by Elizabeth Isaacs (Image: Screenshot); right: Detail from "Repenting Magdalene" (c. 1638-43) by Georges de la Tour (Image: WikiArt.org)

The great American poet and critic Yvor Winters (1900-1968) was sometimes mistaken for a Catholic, though he himself just barely owned to being a “theist,” and he deemed even that modest statement an “unfortunate” admission. In one such mistake, the editors of the Catholic scholarly journal, Renascence wrote to ask him for a submission in “support the neo-Catholic revival” in arts and letters.

They had some reason for their assumption, however errant it proved in fact. In Winters’s literary criticism, he repeatedly praised Saint Thomas Aquinas as among the greatest of thinkers. He held up Aquinas as the antithesis to such unsatisfactory modern minds as Henry Adams, whose irrationalism, relativism, and determinism would, if true, make it impossible for human beings to take intellectual and moral responsibility for their lives. Aquinas, in contrast,

endeavored as far as possible to establish a separation between philosophy and theology; philosophy was guided by natural reason, theology was derived from Revelation. But he believed that philosophical knowledge as possible, and in his pursuit of it, he composed the most complete and lucid critique of previous philosophy that had been made, and the most thorough and defensible moral and philosophical system, in all likelihood, that the world has known.

We sometimes forget that the revival of Aquinas’s thought in the last century extended so far beyond the Church that some of its best known exponents included non-Catholics such as Winters or those, such as Mortimer Adler, who only entered the Church long after they had become professing Thomists. Some within the Church malign the Thomistic revival as the Church turning its intellect away from the questions raised by the modern world; but Winters and many others testify that the inhabitants of the secular, or at least the non-Catholic, world at large found in Aquinas a clear intelligence that provided a compelling alternative to the confusions of the day.

Winters in particular followed Aquinas in his acceptance of the argument that God’s existence can be known “from the gradation to be found in things.” That is, among “beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like,” and therefore “there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.” Having followed Aquinas thus far, Winters sought to cultivate the life of the mind so as to attain as much as possible a true philosophical knowledge of things good, true, and noble. He did this primarily through the study and writing of poetry and literary criticism. In his case, however, that study was conducted in the company of Aquinas, the leading neo-Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson, and a handful of intellectual historians who looked at the past with a subtle, but marked Catholic perspective.

It may seem from the passage quoted above that Winters would follow Aquinas only so far. He may affirm philosophical knowledge, based on natural reason, but set aside theological knowledge as, in the words of one late Winters poem, “irrelevance.” This is not quite the case, however. He praised and in fact followed the example of those poets and literary characters who sought to venture beyond the mundane limits of reason in order to attain some taste, some intimation, of the absolute cause, the Being Itself of God.

He viewed Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, for instance, as an allegory about man’s need to know not just truths but the Truth. When we follow this need to the point of abandoning reason, we destroy ourselves, but when we pursue it under the guidance of that reason, encountering and even daring beyond our natural limits will only strengthen our wisdom. Winters agreed with both Aristotle and Aquinas who held, in Jacques Maritain’s paraphrase, “to propose to man only that which is human is to do him disservice, for by virtue of the most excellent part of himself, which is the intellect, man is called to something better than a purely human life.”

In writing of the poet Emily Dickinson, Winters especially admired her poems that speculated about death and the afterlife. For death is indeed one of those limits of human reason and the poetic imagination was one means of grappling with the meaning of death by asking what might come after it. Many of Dickinson’s most compelling poems are those that fancifully peek into the mystery of the grave. This he approved as Dickinson’s development toward “a more nearly Catholic Christianity.”

What Winters admired in Melville and Dickinson, he also practiced in his literary life. One of his chief subjects was specifically the contemplation of our human mortality and the recognition that our moral life here depends upon an understanding of the significance of death. How we ought to live is clarified through contemplating the nature and meaning of our death.

Although many of Winters’s poems suggest this, his “Inscription in a Graveyard” does so in a particularly vivid manner. “When men are laid away,” it begins, we see the turning of the seasons bringing new life but also disintegrating the “clay” of those who have died. “Death is Eternity,” it continues, and those who, living, had choice, now have “certainty.” Their choices have been made and the form of their lives is now past change. Temporal nature, meanwhile, continues its dizzying mutability as if “Dazed in a swarm of hours.”

The first four stanzas of the poem describe this general contrast between the living and the dead, but, in the final stanza, the poem takes a turn from the impersonal to the personal, or rather, it turns from the universal to each of us:

The dead are left alone—
Theirs the intenser cost.
You followed to a stone,
And there the trail was lost.

The poem has led us on a trail through the graveyard, and that trail is our life. It leads to a gravestone, which is like a round-topped door without a handle. We can approach it, but not open it to see beyond. This may at first sound as if Winters were saying that, here, all knowledge about life must give out and we should turn elsewhere. To the contrary, the gravestone itself is the object presented to us for meditation.

Winters thus presents what the philosopher Eric Voegelin once called a “border experience,” where our “knowledge of transcendent being” shapes our understanding of the “mundane being” of our lives. Voegelin cites Judaic, Islamic, and Platonic instance of such experiences, where we learn to live properly in this world by doing so in light of the judgment of eternity: “life should be led in anticipation” of that “final transparency,” where “the soul stands stripped of the husk of the body and the cloak of earthly status.”

Matthew’s Gospel provides still another such “border experience.” Jesus speaks to his disciples of the “coming of the Son of Man” (Mt 34:37). He compares it to those eating and drinking in the days just before the coming of the flood; he prophecies that “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left.” And then, he tells us of the master of the house. If he only knew the hour that the thief would come, the master would stay awake, prepared. “You also must be prepared,” says Jesus (Mt 24:44). Because we do not know the hour of judgment, we must live each hour of our lives as if it were the final hour. This is living our mortality in the light of immortality. It is living in time under the species of eternity.

Here we find still another excuse for mistaking Winters for a Catholic poet. For, long before meditation on death became his poetic practice, it had long flourished as Catholic devotional practice. In the meditations of Saint Francis DeSales or the Exercises of Saint Ignatius, we are called to meditate over Christ’s death and also our own. In the great paintings of Georges de la Tour, we are to look in the mirror of our souls seeing in the glass not only the light of our intellect but also the skull, the death’s head, that reminds us of Adam’s sin and of our mortality. The good news of the Catholic faith proclaims that our lives here will not be lived in vain if we live them, not only as an anticipation of eternal life, but live them under the judgment of the eternal eye of God. Recalling our mortality recalls us to the presence of the God who himself knew death but is also the Everlasting.

As Voegelin shows us, this is hardly exclusive to Catholicism. And yet it is surely essential to Catholicism and, moreover, attains a particular intensity there. The Japanese novelist, Ayako Sono, notes in her novel about Maximilian Kolbe (Miracles), that Catholics consciously meditate on the nature and meaning of death, they “face death squarely.” To the Japanese, however,

death is something “inauspicious,” as we say. We only remember it when we go to someone’s funeral, and when we get home we toss purifying salt at the entrance to our homes with some incantations that we hope will not only keep death itself but even the very thought of death away from our door. Not only that, but if someone’s house is in a period of “misfortune,” we consider it commonsense to “cut ties” with them until the period is over.

Sono is right that Catholicism does not avert its gaze from death, but looks squarely upon it. The very rhythm of the Church’s life places time under the scrutiny of eternity and does so by memento mori, by recalling and recalling again the fact of death. It does so with its meditations on the lives and deaths of the saints; with its prayers for the dead souls in Purgatory; with its summons to place ourselves constantly in the presence of God, within our souls, before our heavenly maker and our crucified redeemer, and also before the Blessed Sacrament; and, above all, with its consistent admonition that we are free—free to act, and free to repent in Confession—here and now, but that a moment when all choice ends is coming, we know not when. Every element of Catholic life, from the Stations of the Cross to the Crucifix above the altar, from the bell in its tower to the light in the sacristy—each of these things is a reminder of at least two things: to know that you will die, and to know that you must stay awake.

Winters was not sure what that final judgment would look like, but he too knew it was coming and that living well entailed standing prepared for death. In another poem set in a graveyard, “To the Holy Spirit,” he observes that natural reason is sufficient to affirm the existence of God as the very ground for our knowledge of everything else. When “I go from sense,” he writes,

And trace thee down in thought,
I meet thee, then, intense,
And know thee as I ought.

As Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas both show in different ways, God is present at the very center of our intellectual souls, nearer to us than we are to ourselves. But, as the poet’s eye turns outward and looks upon those closed and impassable doorways of the gravestones, his mind goes from knowledge to uncertainty and speculation: “Where is the trammeled ghost? Was there another birth?” The only certain answer he can pronounce over the dead men about him and over all men is this: “these die.” While he confesses God’s reality as necessary for the very intelligibility of our lives in this world, he could look only with fear and wonder at what may be the destiny of our souls beyond this world.

Having followed Aquinas the philosopher, he was conscious of not following Aquinas the theologian. In one late poem, he states, “I cannot find my way to Nazareth.” Conversion seems now impossible, and so he ends, tersely: “let discussion cease.” In the poem that follows, discussion refuses to cease. The title is “A Song in Passing,” and it is once again the passage of time and the passage beyond time that he struggles to understand. On the one hand, he knows that his life here has been lived as if under the present judgment of God. He has, as it were, stayed awake, and so he declares, “Eternity is here. / There is no other place,” not to deny eternity’s reality but to show that temporal existence is subject to it, enfolded within it (as it must be, if God, as eternal, is outside of time). But in the next and final pair of lines, he recognizes that living in uncertainty and wisdom alike entails living in fear of the final judgment:

The only thing I fear
Is the Almighty face.

Winters had at least this much in common with the Catholic religion in which he could not believe. He held that the intellectual and moral life must entail the practice of open-ended contemplation. That practice specifically entailed meditating on our own finitude, our mortality, and the event of our death. Our means to this meditation was reason, but reason must in some way go beyond itself. It must do so, because reason depended upon the light of the infinite, the absolute, and the eternal intelligence, judgment, and “face” of God even to know the truth about the things of this world. For Winters, the intellect’s eye searching beyond the grave was necessary if we are to live well here and now. It was his great burden to die unsure whether he might yet live on in the hereafter.


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About James Matthew Wilson 21 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).

4 Comments

  1. A pity that he never knew the resurrected Christ. A pity, too, that he was not baptized into Christ’s death so that he might know that he would rise with Christ into eternity. Of course, this knowledge must rightly inform our moral choices since it is Christ, through His Church, who lives in Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium.

    Of course, Winter’s eternal fate is ultimately in God’s hands.

  2. Man may pursue truth, as alluded by Wilson, “He viewed Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, for instance, as an allegory about man’s need to know not just truths but the Truth”. And not find it, that is, its end.
    A supreme being has many intellectual conceptualizations, which seems likely with Winters. A love of justice, beauty evident in his work. Arrival at a conviction of a personal God, a concept which Melville struggled with is found in Christ, and that, the work of grace.
    Herman Melville’s Moby Dick if read in context of his exchange of letters and friendship with believer Nathaniel Hawthorne indicate Melville’s angst with suffering and death and an impersonal god, to wit the White Whale. “For Winters, the intellect’s eye searching beyond the grave was necessary if we are to live well here and now” (JM Wilson). Wilson is insightful in seeing a similarity with Melville.
    Winters’ fear of death is significant to his belief disbelief syndrome featured in Wilson’s essay. A virtual belief he would not follow to Nazareth. A Song In Passing. Where am I now? is well chosen and analyzed by Wilson. We may come so close to saving faith as did Winters, others like him, Cicero [Marcus Tullius] whose immense grasp of natural law and justice comes to mind. Or does that virtual belief dispose us to God’s merciful grace at the end, as Thomist Fr Cornelio Fabro might propose in God in Exile: Modern Atheism?

  3. We read: “Winters in particular followed Aquinas in his acceptance of the argument that God’s existence can be known ‘from the gradation to be found in things.’”

    Not only from “gradations” among things, but firstly the absolute difference between the existence of everything finite, and absolute non-existence. Imagine “nothing.” Then creation ex nihilo. “Why anything rather than nothing” (Leibniz)?

    Other than the Incarnation–the historical fact and mystery of the absolutely transcendent God willfully entering as a singular Person into his own creation (!)–other than this, the “boundary” between gradations of stuff and no-stuff-at-all (!) is the only “paradigm shift” that should claim our attention.

    Charlatan “facilitator”-bishops of only “walking together,” take note! The difference, too, between soles and souls…

  4. We live in a pagan world where appealing to the Winters and other intellectuals of the world isn’t enough. Poetry is a part of the new evangelization but we have to reach those who are far from faith. Much like the apostles and early disciples. We don’t get this yet.

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