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Witter Bynner, born in 1881 in Brooklyn, New York, is an American poet and translator who defies easy classification. Operating in the intellectual milieu of the early-to-mid 20th century, Bynner contributed to various poetic traditions and engaged in diverse literary and cultural endeavors. This essay will investigate Bynner's literary background, his early influences, associations with poetic schools or movements, the phases and themes in his oeuvre, his influence on later generations, and honors he received.

Literary Background and Early Influences

Bynner graduated from Harvard University, where he was a member of the literary circle that included Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. His early work, characterized by formal structure and Romanticism, was deeply influenced by traditional European poetic forms. He was also notably affected by the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and the American Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Whitman.

Poetic Schools and Movements

Bynner is challenging to pin to a single school or movement. Initially influenced by the formalist tendencies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he later moved towards free verse and modernist styles. His work intersects with Imagism, especially in his collaboration with Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, yet he never fully committed to any single movement.

Phases and Themes in Poetic Oeuvre

*Romantic and Formalist Phase: Early in his career, Bynner produced work filled with romantic imagery and formal structure, as seen in his collection "An Ode to Harvard."

*Modernist Tendencies: Influenced by the burgeoning modernist movement and his interactions with figures like D.H. Lawrence, his style became more experimental, as evidenced in works like "New Poems."

*Transcendental Themes: Throughout his career, themes of spirituality and natural harmony recur, reflecting the influence of Emerson and other Transcendentalists.

*Political and Social Commentary: Bynner did not shy away from making political statements, particularly in his later years when he addressed issues like war and social justice.

*Translation and Adaptation: Bynner was well-known for his translations of Chinese classics, especially his rendering of the "Tao Te Ching," which contributed to the West's understanding of Eastern philosophy.

Influence and Honors

Bynner’s influence is multifaceted. He was a prominent figure in the Santa Fe literary scene and mentored several younger writers. His translations of Chinese classics had a significant impact on Western understanding of Eastern philosophy and spirituality. While not as celebrated as some of his contemporaries, Bynner received various awards and honors, including several honorary degrees.


Witter Bynner remains an intriguing figure in American literary history. His wide-ranging influences, eclectic style, and intellectual pursuits render him a multifaceted poet who engaged with various trends and movements of his time. While he may not have been as influential as some of his more famous contemporaries, his work offers valuable insights into the intellectual and poetic currents of early-to-mid 20th century America.

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