Yvor Winters, a modernist with a difference (and to some, one belonging to the New Critical movement, but not to others), wrote this short poem, “A Song in Passing,” about death, and dying, and the experience of mortality:
“Where am I now? And what/Am I to say portends?/Death is but death, and not/The most obtuse of ends./No matter how one leans/One yet fears not to know./God knows what all this means!/The mortal mind is slow./Eternity is here./There is no other place./The only thing I fear/Is the Almighty Face.”
According to Wikipedia, Winters felt that even an poem about disintegration should not have a structure which imitates disintegration. He referred to this form of writing, which he eschewed, as the “fallacy of imitative form.” He felt that the Whitmanesque tendency to create sprawling style in order to write about the greatness and spread of the American continent was a mistake. Instead, one’s structure in a poem should contain the meaning without imitating one’s subject.
In the poem quoted above, the frequent modernist tools of an irony of double-edged words and contradictory statements carry the weight of portraying the speaker’s fear of death and the hereafter. For example, to begin with the title, “A Song in Passing” sounds light-hearted and lyrical until one realizes that “passing” has a more ominous meaning than the same sort of lyrical emotion generated by such a song in Robert Browning’s poem sequence, “Pippa Passes,” in which “God’s in his heaven–/All’s right with the world!” In Winters’s short poem, “God knows what all this means!” is at first a casual non-religious expression of ignorance in which “God” signifies only mystery, and then when the capping line of the stanza comes, “The mortal mind is slow,” the notion of God begins to seem more like a real possibility.
This more serious “passing” contradicts the idea of a “song” to the extent that the poem is about death and dying and thus the effort to “sing” is full of attempts to be conclusive. But then there are those pesky moments of apparent bewilderment, then more definitive statements, and finally (in the last stanza) an outright reversal of rhetorical direction.
The one significant repeated word/concept, “fear,” is at the very heart of the poem. If one were to discuss in Shakepearean terms the proposition contained in the abrupt about-face of the last stanza, “The only thing I fear/Is the Almighty Face,” one would look to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, in which he speaks of the country of death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourne/No traveler returns,” the country which “…makes us rather bear the ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of….” Yet note how it’s the back and forth from attitude to attitude, from pose to pose, from concept to concept, which dictates the movement of the poem, and not an emotional outpouring, not even Wordworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” This poem smiles wryly and nervously, like someone with a slight facial tic attempting to control his or her movements, and yet we see the cause of the repressed feeling just as clearly as if the poet had wept buckets of verbal tears over his topic, which on the whole would probably have struck us as cloying.
This is a poem whose wit is as evident as its statements are terse, and it seems obvious that Winters’s light touch is meant to convey neither a faith in God nor an atheist’s skepticism, but the average person’s quandary when confronted with the question of final things. Though the situation may be average, however, the poem shows an outstanding and spectacular mastery of form, which helps the ordinary person in real life to cope with such overwhelming questions and the possibility of even more overwhelming answers in the end. How fortunate we are to have a poet whose perspective is not so far from the average, yet whose means of expression is so extraordinarily lithe and graceful!