Friday 14 July 2023

'You keep both Rule and Energy in view'

 This morning's stab in the dark was another lucky strike: the (very slim) volume turned out to be Thom Gunn's Poems 1950-1966: A Selection (Faber paperback, 1969), and it fell open at this, Gunn's heartfelt but perfectly balanced tribute to his mentor at Stamford, Yvor Winters,  written in the style of its addressee. One fine poet salutes another – 

To Yvor Winters, 1955

I leave you in your garden.
                                            In the yard
Behind it, run the airedales you have reared
With boxer's vigilance and poet's rigour:
Dog-generations you have trained the vigour
That few can breed to train and fewer still
Control with the deliberate human will.
And in the house there rest, piled shelf on shelf,
The accumulations that compose the self –
Poem and history: for if we use
Words to maintain the actions that we choose,
Our words, with slow defining influence,
Stay to mark out our chosen lineaments.

Continual temptation waits on each
To renounce his empire over thought and speech,
Till he submit his passive faculties
To evening, come where no resistance is;
The unmotivated sadness of the air
Filling the human with his own despair.
Where now lies power to hold the evening back?
Implicit in the grey is total black;
Denial of the discriminating brain
Brings the neurotic vision, and the vein
Of necromancy. All as relative
For mind as for the sense, we have to live
In a half-world, not ours nor history's,
And learn the false from half-true premises.

But sitting in the dusk – though shapes combine,
Vague mass replacing edge and flickering line,
You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence
Built by an exercised intelligence.
Though night is always close, complete negation
Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion,
Night from the air or the carnivorous breath,
Still it is right to know the force of death,
And as you do, persistent, tough in will,
Raise from the excellent the better still.


  1. I've just finished Larkin's selected letters (finally) and he never did seem to warm up to Gunn. I wonder why?

    1. Yes, he seems to have been lukewarm at best – one of his blind spots perhaps?