April 29, 2016KR OnlineNonfiction

Notes on the Poetry of John Crowe Ransom at His Eightieth Birthday

From The Kenyon Review, Summer 1968, Vol. XXX, No. 3

Notes: That is all I am prepared to give, and the fact is strange. Strange, because since the first issue of the Fugitive magazine I have read, I think, every poem of John Crowe Ransom as it appeared, sometimes even in manuscript, and have memorized many of them. Once, some thirty-five years ago, I wrote an essay about them, which, after two or three years, was published. Between that time and this, I have looked back over it only once, and with distaste. Looking back at it again, I am confirmed in an old feeling that the piece did not really indicate the deeper reality I had sensed in the poems. Now that I am invited, for a happy occasion, to write something on John Crowe Ransom, I find that, even today, I do not have the right topic, the name for the thing, whatever the thing may be, that has held me year after year.

There was, however, a period—when I was nineteen to twenty-five years old—when I rebelled against that power exercised by the poems—and exercised, so unwittingly I may add, by their author. It was not merely that I, overwhelmed by the new poetry of Eliot, was puzzled and confused by the coldness of Ransom toward it: puzzled, confused, and at moments outraged, chiefly because of my passion for Ransom’s poetry. Nor was it merely that as I blundered into my own poetry I had to fight off, not always successfully, what William Yandell Elliott, one of the Fugitives, had called “Johnny’s bag of tricks,” as well as T. S. Eliot’s. Nor merely that the very coherence, intellectual and emotional, of Ransom’s poetry was a painful reproach to my own attempts at poetry, which fact I blindly resented. My rebelliousness stemmed, I now suppose, from a resentment against the cast of the author’s mind, a mind which made such graceful gestures, enunciated such deep truths, and exercised such fascinating authority for me, even as I knew, in despair, that I could never emulate that grace, live by those truths, nor accept such authority. My own nature was too volatile, awkward, and angry, and all the harmony and control embodied in the poetry and the man seemed to undercut life-possibility for me and deny life-need.

But the rebellion was imperfect. Even then I was still immersed in the poetry, and was gradually coming to understand that what continued to move me was not “Johnny’s bag of tricks,” and to understand, however dimly, that the pervasive theme of the poetry, even the very existence of the poetry, involved, in all its harmony, the disharmonies of life, mastering them without denying them. The writing of that old essay signified, I should now hazard, the end of the imperfect, and loving, rebellion against the poetry, as well as of the other more unconscious rebellion. By that time no longer a student, but a colleague, even if a very junior one, and a friend, if a very overawed one, I discovered in that house a characteristic gaiety, and easy gallantry against the difficulties of life, a spirit of play which pervaded even the most serious concerns, and which merged, I am tempted to say, with a sense of ritual. All this was a revelation to me, who had lived by the excitements and violences of life, rather than by acceptances; and was, no doubt, behind that fumbling little essay.

Now, looking again at the old essay, it occurs to me that what was wrong with it was a mechanical quality. I was so concerned to define a focal origin for the poetry that I sometimes confused the idea of such a focal origin with that of a formula. I was trying to find a mere pattern of ideas when I should rather have been trying to find a characteristic movement of mind—of being. My desire to fix on such a focal origin for Ransom’s poetry sprang not merely from the youthful notion that there is a master-key for everything, a magic word, but also from a need to place Ransom’s poetry, which I had found indispensable to me, in relation to the Pound-Eliot strain, which dominated the age into which I had been born. And the need to do this may have had its roots in the fact that I myself, in trying to write poetry, and in thinking about poetry, was torn between the Pound-Eliot strain and another possibility, shadowy to me and undefined, which, though not like Ransom’s poetry, then seemed nearer to it, in some way, than to anything else.


I do not now want to rewrite that old essay, but what I then thought I had found was that the irony of Ransom—his parables of men without sense of direction, of men who, incomplete, could not fathom nor perform their natures—was derived from the same fragmented world as were The Waste Land, the Cantos, and The Sound and the Fury. In other words, if Ransom did not, like Pound, Eliot, and Faulkner, dramatize a world suffering from the then famous “dissociation of sensibility,” and devise an allusive, fragmented style to illustrate the malaise, he at least offered, in his sequential narratives and orderly style, a diagnosis of that malaise as his subject, and found in the malaise the grounding of his characteristic irony of “chills and fever.”

When I showed him the essay, he read it with attention, and then, with charming but (I thought) irrelevant friendliness, asked if he couldn’t have his middle name back. The title, by some slip, was “The Irony of John Ransom”—and so “Crowe” got put back where it belonged. After some thought, he made a remark about hoping that his poems were worthy of the attention lavished upon them. Then he got up, strolled over to a window of his office, looked out for an instant, and as a kind of afterthought added that, as far as “dissociation of sensibility” in the modem world went, he was rather inclined to think that man was, naturally, born as a kind of “oscillating mechanism.” That was all.

The subject of my essay was, it seemed, politely declining to be saved for modernity. That much must have penetrated my density as I walked away with the manuscript in my pocket. He was saying, it occurred to me years later, that he was not writing about modern man, but about man. If modern man came This content downloaded from in as a case in point (as modern man most surely did), it was under that rubric.

But, meanwhile, I kept remembering the phrase “oscillating mechanism.” So that was what he saw as the underlying fact of his poems, the source of his style! With that in mind, I reread—and now reread—that first strange little volume. Poems about God, which appeared in 1919 by a “lst Lieut. Field Artillery, AEF.” There are, in fact, several strange things about it.

The earliest piece in the book, “Sunset,” was written in May 1916, and one strange thing here is that the author, who was twenty-eight, had never written a poem before. Another strange thing is that the poem is, in its own awkward way, concerned with the theme that was to prove central to Ransom’s poetry: the haunting dualism in man’s experience. Most bookish young men try their hand early at poetry. Why hadn’t this one? Most poets have to work from poem to poem over a considerable length of time toward their central concern, have to discover it through their poetry. Why could this tardy poet hit so soon on his? There are, of course, no final answers to such questions, but we must risk some.

Here we must first hazard an answer to the second question, and that would be that Ransom had been living, consciously and unconsciously, with that central concern, in one form or another, for a long time and with great intensity. In other words, the underly theme did not need to be discovered; it must have been there, and urgently.

To come to the first question, we may surmise that Ransom turned to poetry, even so tardily, because there was more than intellectual urgency involved. And here, as an aside, he had never written any prose either, beyond that required by the routines of his life. If the theme of the poetry had been, we can argue, of merely intellectual urgency, it would seem logical, in the light of his special philosophical training and interest, to suppose that he would have approached the issue by way of prose speculation. In any case, the issue was not only there, it was not of merely intellectual and professional concern; it had been, and was being, lived into. It was, in fact, life, and, as life, not ever to be totally defined intellectually, a polarity of life having many manifestations, constantly changing its terms, a split in the human possibility, a tension among desires, among obligations, among pieties. From this the poetry would spring, because poetry gave the only way to deal with the issue.

Not that the first poem, or any poem ever to come, could resolve the issue. It could not even, in the end, name it. It could merely give one dramatic manifestation of the unnamed—or even unnamable—root-issue, just as subsequent poems could merely multiply and refine new manifestations. As Ransom once remarked, there is always something “inconclusive” about the endings of his poems—and how could it be otherwise if the very theme is one of ambiguities, of “oscillation,” of a split in the self as well as in the world? If, however, the poetry could afford no conclusions, it could afford a release and a mastery through objectification; and afford, through the mounting variety of instances, the sense that the issue was not special to the self but built into the human condition, and could therefore more readily, in its commonness and inevitability, be confronted.

Here, however, we get ahead of ourselves, and, in doing so, leave out of account the very things that make Ransom’s poetry special and durable: the voice, the tone, the scrupulous distinctions and shadings of attitude, the wit and, even, the passion. Those things had not, of course, emerged in that first volume; certainly not as clearly as the thematic concern, however rudimentary that concern may there seem in comparison with later work. But though it was rudimentary in the first book, it was still put with considerable selfconsciousness. The preface, which, dated France, May 13, 1918, is significantly the first published prose of the author, instructs us that the poet had decided that “God” was “the most poetic of all terms possible, was a term always being called into requisition during the great moments of the soul, now in tones of love, and now indignantly; and it was the very last word that a man might say when standing in the presence of that ultimate mystery to which all of our great experiences reduce.” The poet, therefore, reached about in his experience and imagination for various occasions at which men call into requisition the great name. The name, however, was “taken here in ways” that were not “the ways of the fathers.” So one obvious manifestation of the root-issue was the split between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy, between “belief” and “unbelief.” Some of the poems directly concern this issue, and all indirectly. But another issue lurks in the background: in what way can the technical “unbeliever” still “believe”—still have reverence before “that ultimate mystery to which all our great experiences reduce”? The division, here, is between those who have a reverence for, and appreciation of, life (whether technical “believers” or not), and those who do not—who are the truly secular, who, unlike Miranda in the poem “Men,” cannot clap hands in “sudden joy” upon seeing the “dirty strangers” and cry out: “O brave new world!”

To this issue, we must add another, that of the painfully dubious relation of body and soul. In “The Cloak Model,” we find

God’s oldest joke, forever fresh,
The fact that in the finest flesh
There isn’t any soul.

Or we find the shock of the filthiness of flesh, of body as merely the medieval “sack of stercorry”—as in “Grace,” when the pious hired man dies in his own vomit between the corn rows. In “Morning” we find the most explicit statement:

Three hours each day we souls
Who might be angels but are fastened down
With bodies, most infuriating freight,
Sit fattening these frames and skeletons
With filthy food, which they must cast away
Before they feed again.

I have remarked on some of the ways in which Poems about God is a strange little book, but the more one looks at it the stranger it gets. Strangely, all the writer’s subsequent work is in little here. God without Thunder comes straight out of it, with its answer to the question of belief in the conception of myth. The author’s introduction to I’ll Take My Stand comes out of it, and so does the criticism. And the poems most explicitly. But let us remember the strange preliminary fact that the writer should have come back to Tennessee at all to write this book.

Frost deliberately went back to country New England in 1915 to “Yankee-fy” himself. We can readily understand the impulse of a writer like Frost, or Faulkner, to immerse himself in his special world. But Ransom, when he came back to Tennessee, had given no sign that he even vaguely thought of being a writer. He was aiming, if at anything, at being a teacher, had already, in fact, been teaching in a preparatory school in New England, and he was eminently well-equipped, with his brilliant undergraduate record in America, his honors degree in “Greats” from Oxford, and his intellectual power, to distinguish himself in the graduate school of any of the Eastern universities, and thence proceed apace to the top of some academic heap. But he turned his back on opportunity and ambition and took an instructorship in a small Southern university, where salaries were low, teaching loads heavy, and promotions slow.[1] He was not a man of random impulses, and it is not unlikely that the decision to turn away from the path dictated by common sense and ambition represented the scrutinized recognition of a deep need.

Whatever dissatisfaction with the world of ambition and modernity forced him back, and whatever pieties drew him, he did not now enter a world where all that had been riven was made whole; and so we have Poems about God. About God, because reared in the atmosphere of belief, and with full awareness that men of philosophical learning and culture equal to his own had lived in belief, he, with his own skeptical cast of mind and faithfulness to experience, had to confront the problem of belief.[2] There was a split, the split indicated in the preface, between him and his traditional world, a split that, if we are to accept as autobiographical the poem “Plea in Mitigation” in the next volume, Chills and Fever, grew more complex with time, for he was, he says,

            a headstrong man, sentenced from birth
To love unusual gods beyond all earth,
And the easy gospels bruited hither and yon.

There was also a split in himself, a quarrel with the self, a drama of the self. Now, back in Tennessee, was the inherited scene for the action of such a drama, the place where the scene could, in fact, be the action. The scene could be the action in the deepest way, and what the drama quickly involved, by implication at least, was a whole tangle of issues.

The issues were, and remain, of great import in the modem world, but then they were set in a peculiarly restricted and un-modern environment. And here is a contrast between Ransom, Frost, and Faulkner on one hand, and Pound and Eliot on the other. Pound and Eliot deal with many of the same issues as do Ransom, Frost, and Faulkner, but they set the issues on a world stage, and the issues become aspects of their major theme of the crisis of culture. This expansiveness is precisely the opposite of the reductiveness of the others mentioned, for whom the great issues are most poignantly or forcefully dramatized in the local and small. In Poems about God, Ransom even bypassed the not very big city of Nashville, and its unimpressive modernities, and set his poems in the rural world of his childhood.

Here the most common persona, sometimes specified, sometimes implied, is that of the farm boy following the plow or sweating with the harvest hands; it is also a reduction, as the Shropshire farm boy was one for Housman, the classical scholar turned poet (who may have given a suggestion to Ransom), or the New England farmer for Frost (who at that early date would scarcely have afforded Ransom a model). Such dramatization of great issues by reduction is, of course, at the heart of the pastoral tradition: the irony of wisdom out of innocence, the clarity of the human outline when set in the light of nature, the shock of truth out of naïveté.

There was much naïveté in Poems about God, but for the purpose in hand it is the wrong kind, because it stems, not from a coherent dramatization, not from a realized persona, but from a lack of dramatization. That is, though the poems belong to a special world, this world is given no proper “voice”; therefore the reduction of a great issue often seems merely absurd, merely bathetic. What a farm boy might say is not what we will permit the twenty-eight-year-old scholar to say, and we don’t quite know who is talking. To state matters another way, the trouble is that the poems have no style, no “voice.”

But the basis on which Ransom was to discover a voice—and the right ratio between that voice and the self—was already in Poems about God, and in the situation in which he found himself back in Tennessee, or rather, in memories of an earlier situation when he had taught school, and heard his pupils droning over their Greek. Here is the second stanza of “The School”:

Equipped with Grecian thoughts, how could I live
Among my father’s folk? My father’s house
Was narrow and his fields were nauseous.
I kicked his clods for being common dirt,
Worthy a world which never could be Greek;
Cursed the paternity that planted me
One green leaf in a wilderness of autumn;
And wept, as fitting such a fruitful spirit
Sealed in a yellow tomb.

The resolution of the problem in the poem itself does not concern us here. What does concern us is the recognition of the difference between the son, with a head full of “Grecian thoughts,” and the “common dirt” of “a world which never could be Greek.” Here we do not have the farm boy as persona, but the displaced scholar, uneasy in the natural world of his “father’s folk.”

Here is the grounding of the voice Ransom was to discover, and a right fiction for the persona, with, in the background, as both a model and a reproach, not the farmer-father of the poem but Ransom’s own scholar-father, the translator of the Bible into Portuguese and the student of theology who, by an act of faith and without condescension, could make a full life for himself as a minister in churches of back-country Tennessee. The father, in other words, could live in that world, in both difference from it and identification with it.

The fiction behind Poems about God did not provide the basis for a style. This is not to say that such a fiction, theoretically regarded, might, if developed dramatically, not give a style. It is merely to say that it clearly did not give one to Ransom; with it, he was too close to his subject, and yet not close enough. Only by accepting his distance, by speaking not through the farm boy immersed in that world but as the young scholar with his head full of “Grecian thoughts,” could he really “see” his subject: that is, by accepting the responsibility of a fuller use of his own sensibility and his own history, in another and more fruitful ratio of the persona to the self.

We all know how, when one opens Chills and Fever, published in 1924, only five years after Poems about God, lines and phrases that never could have appeared in the earlier volume leap off the page. In “Spectral Lovers”:

He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched his heart
Unfitly for his art.

In “To a Lady Celebrating Her Birthday”:

This day smells mortuary more than most
To me upon my post.

Of the tree in “Vaunting Oak”:

“Largely, the old gentleman is,” I grieved, “cadaver . . .”[3]

In “Nocturne”:

The white moon plunges wildly, it is a most ubiquitous ghost . . .

In “Prometheus in Straits”:

And comfort my knees with red bruises of prostration . . .

In “Captain Carpenter”:

And made the kites to whet their beaks, clack, clack.

And let us not forget the famous “vexed” in “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” and the “thole” in “Here Lies a Lady.”

Vocabulary, syntax, imagery, and rhythm, not to mention the range of reference and the varieties of dramatic context in individual poems, all constitute the voice which affirms the new persona and establishes the distance from the subject at which the persona is located. This is the distance at which, as we have said, the subject was really to be “seen”; for in poetry a subject can be “seen” only if we can believe in the posited “see-er,” and I his is possible only if he is at such a distance from the subject that we can clearly distinguish him from it.[4] The true drama, the true “insides,” of a poem is in the act of the “seeing”—in the vital interrelation of the “see-er” and the “seen.” So in these matters we must play with a paradox: near is far, and far is near. No: near may be far and far may be near, for this is a world where no rule is hard and fast.

In any case, in Ransom’s poetry, the characteristic tenderness, the charity, the pitifulness appeared, paradoxically, only when the persona was more rigorously detached from the world of the subjects, when the “see-er” was located at a greater distance. Thus irony—the index of the distance, the mark of un-involvement—made the tenderness, the involvement, possible. The tension between the irony and the tenderness, between the impulse to withdraw and the impulse to approach, became a fundamental aspect of the drama of the poetry.

Poems about God was very specifically rooted in Tennessee, but what about the poetry of the new persona? Ransom has said that he never consciously set out to write “Southern” poetry—as Frost, it may be added, set out, with his project of “Yankee-fying” himself, to write Yankee poetry. Ransom, in fact, discovered his new style, at a single stroke, in a poem that, in the literal sense, is about as far removed from the South, in place and time, as possible—in “Necrological,” which had been suggested by his reading of the death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, whose body was left to the wolves outside the walls of the city of Nancy, which he had been besieging. In the poem, a young friar comes out at night and ponders the field:

The lords of chivalry were prone and shattered,
The gentle and the bodyguard of yeomen;
Bartholomew’s stroke went home—but little it mattered,
Bartholomew went to be stricken of other foemen.

In this poem appears for the first time the special “learned” vocabulary (and imagery, for often the two cannot be distinguished), the fields “white like meads of asphodel,” the bodies “gory and fabulous,” the firmament a “blue ogive.” It is a vocabulary and imagery that give the whole poem the “distance” of events as on a tapestry, and are at the same time both romantic and anti-romantic, heroic and mock-heroic. But the focus of the poem is the young friar, who, in his person, dramatizes the issue. The “paternosters” have not stilled the “riddling” in his head, and he is drawn forth to ponder the scene, to try to find meaning in the fact of violence, suffering, love, devotion, courage, and death that all, in the end, seem to come to nothing, to be part of an aimless repetition, for the victor himself goes to “be stricken of other foemen.” The friar has the perspectives of theology and history, but how can he relate them to each other, or to the brute facts of the world? Yet he must try to relate them; and once he has drawn the “crooked blade” from the dead man’s belly, and fingers it, he, the unworldly man, is feeling himself into the role of those who act and suffer in the world, sitting so still he likens himself to those dead, whom “the kites of heaven solicited with sweet cries.” So he, the detached one, enters empathically the pathos of the world; and in the poem Ransom discovered, it would seem, not only the new stance and new style, but also the new persona, the first of many variants.

There were many poems to come that involve these variants of the persona, in Chills and Fever most notably “Agitato ma non troppo,” “Plea in Mitigation,” “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” and “Philomela,” and in Two Gentlemen in Bonds, of 1927, “Persistent Explorer,” “Semi-Centennial,” “Man without Sense of Direction,” and, one is tempted to add, “Antique Harvesters.” These are poems about the nature and role of the poet-and, hence, of poetry. In one perspective they belong, in their own wry fashion, among the poems of the Romantics written to celebrate the poetic imagination, poems like “Kubla Khan,” The Ancient Mariner, The Prelude, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Man is the “persistent explorer” who, though he knows that the sound of the waterfall is not the voice of a god, and that water is only “the insipid chemical H2O,” will still let his “enemies” (the literalists) “gibe,” and would throw this continent of literalism away and “seek another country.” Man is, as the aging man of “Semi-Centennial” says of himself, a god with the “patrimony of a god,” and, though he cannot control the objective world, he knows that the “better part of godhood is design”: he can still satisfy his “royal blood” by projecting his poems, his myths, his values upon the blankness of the world. This much, even though he, like the aging man, is sometimes “too tired” to work his magic.

I have said man, not poet, in discussing the last poem about the variants of the persona, for it is important to sense that, in Ransom’s way of thinking, man to be fully man must, some way or another, fulfill himself as poet. Is it by accident that in the volume Two Gentlemen in Bonds the poem “Morning,” which is not obviously about man as poet, comes immediately after “Persistent Explorer”? For the poems are theoretically linked, are complementary. In “Morning,”[5] then, Ralph wakes so gently that

before the true householder Learning
Came back to tenant in the haunted head
He lay upon his back. let his stare
Penetrate dazedly into the blue air
That swam all round his bed.
And in the blessed silence nothing was said.

In this moment of enchantment,

He would propose to Jane then to go walking
Through the green waves, and to be singing not talking.

But “he remembered about himself,” his “manliness returned,” the “dutiful mills of the brain” whirred again, and, suddenly rising, he “was himself again,” and it was “simply another morning, and simply Jane.” The other Jane who is not “simply Jane” must be created by the poet—Ralph which is not to say that she, the other Jane, is more of a fiction than the “simply Jane.”

And this returns me to the idea that I might add “Antique Harvesters” to the list of poems that presents variants of the persona. I refer to the revised versions, in Selected Poems, with a new stanza added at the end:

True, it is said of our Lady, she ageth.
But see, if you peep shrewdly, she hath not stooped;
Take no thought of her servitors that have drooped,
For we are nothing; and if one talk of death—
Why, the ribs of the earth subsist frail as a breath
If but God wearieth.

This stanza does flow naturally from what has gone before, and summarizes the preceding matter. But it adds an entirely new dimension. If the earth subsists merely in God’s will—and by His love—then the “Lady” subsists only in what has been “done in love” for her; and, as corollary, we, her servitors, “are nothing” unless we create ourselves in the service “done in love.” So this is a poem about creation, too, in a complex and deep way. It is also another poem in which, as in “Morning,” man and poet are merged.


But “Antique Harvesters” is also the poem in which Ransom most specifically treats the South and regional piety, and this fact invites a side-glance at the question of his “Southernness.” One feels the poems to be very Southern, and yet only two, “Antique Harvesters” and “Old Mansion,” directly engage the subject. There are, in general, only faint vestiges of local color: in “Lady Lost,” the reference to the “West End,” a section of Nashville; in “Two in August,” the hackberry trees, which are characteristic of the region; in “Nocturne,” the seersucker coat, which in the 1920s was as characteristically Southern as mint julep and the “Bonnie Blue Flag”; and, in “Dead Boy,” the reference to “Virginia’s aged tree” and the “county kin.” This is a small showing for even so small a body of work as Ransom’s, and most of the items are trivial. What we should look for, in fact, is not such items, but the language and the attitudes of the persona, and even the context in which the persona could be developed.

As for that context, I have already referred to the father, with his difference from, and identification with, the world of back-country Tennessee. But behind the father there would have stood many other figures—divines, scholars, statesmen—who had also borne an ambivalent relation to the actuality of America, who, by their learning and tastes, were anomalies in the raw land, but who, out of their learning, could, ridiculously or grandly, dream that raw land as a new Athens or a new Roman Republic with virtues to be kept forever untarnished, or even as a new City of God. Such men were different from, and, at the same time, identified with, their world. But another kind of doubleness came in, too. For the images of the antique world that they carried in their heads—Jew, Greek, Roman—could, in ironical contrast, reduce the raw actual world to a pitiful triviality, or could, by the same token, elevate its rawness to the full dignity of its place in the story of Divine redemption or in the story of human liberty. This doubleness was built into the American, and specifically into the Southern, tradition, where it anachronistically lingered long after it had disappeared in more thriving regions. And this fact gives us another perspective in which to regard the poet’s discovery of the persona, and by which to localize it, another dimension of irony.

For another context, it can be argued that Ransom’s concern with the pathos of defeat, and with the spirit in which defeat can be borne, has some relation to the fact that the South is the only part of America that knows defeat, and that the poetry, at a considerable remove, echoes the Confederate disaster and all the ironies, casuistries, and theological debates later provoked in the South by this inscrutable act of Divine Providence. By this reasoning, then, even the battlefield of “Necrological” is not merely a medieval scene but a scene reflecting the Civil War, as the “riddlings” of the Carmelite reflect those of a good Confederate pondering the destiny of his land. So, with old Grimes, of “Puncture,” as the image of dignified acceptance of fate in contrast to the young companion who rails and could kick the dead; and, in support of this thesis, one may adduce the last two puzzling lines of the poem:

Smoke and a dry word crackled from his mouth
And the wind ferried them South.

Even “Armageddon” may be read with a historical dimension, with its ironies of inversions and interpenetrations applicable to the struggle of 1861 – 65. Or, to take “Captain Carpenter,” which treats the tragic story of the common human lot and celebrates the common courage of man, it can be argued that, somewhat more indirectly, it treats the Confederate story, ironically reducing it by the mock-heroic tone.

Further, the mock-heroic tone, here and elsewhere, may be taken to represent an ironical reduction of official Southern 1hetoric, an echo which we get with different intent, an irony within an irony, in “Antique Harvesters,” in the stanza:

We pluck the spindling ears and gather the corn.
One spot has special yield? “On this spot stood
Heroes and drenched it with their only blood.”
And talk meets talk, as echoes from the horn
Of the hunter—echoes are the old men’s arts,
Ample are the chambers of their hearts.

And not only, one may guess, may the ironical reduction in Ransom’s style refer to official Southern rhetoric. It may also refer to the pride of provincial learning in showing off its wares—the big words and highfalutin references and elegant quotations in old-time pulpits and editorials, on the hustings and the street corner.

Sometimes, more important than the mock-heroic strain, is another kind of echo in establishing the world of a poem. In this connection, F. O. Mattlhiessen gives a very perceptive reading of “Antique Harvesters.” After remarking on the “contemplative distance” set up by the word antique in the title, and by the bank sinister in setting the scene, he contrasts with these ironical “literary” devices other elements: in the words runnel and meager, we hear, he says, the “old-fashioned expressions, the Elizabethan or seventeenth-century usage that was brought to this country by the first settlers and that has disappeared now except for remote rural and mountain areas, especially in the South.” And, as he adds, there are the “elaborate courtly phrases of an older public speech: ‘Therefore let us assemble.'” Ransom has given here “essential traits” of the older culture of the South; but not only here. In “Blue Girls,” how subtly works the word seminary and the phrase “your teachers old and contrary”! And what would “Conrad Sits in Twilight” be without the discreetly colloquial tone with which the last stanza opens? In short, the Southernness of Ransom’s poetry is a reflection of the dimensions of the persona, with both the tension and the loving interplay between a man and his heritage, the drama of “difference from” and “identification with.”


It is hard, sometimes, to distinguish between poems in which the persona is actually the subject of a poem, is defined in a poem—as I have somewhat hesitantly taken “Antique Harvesters” to be—and those poems in which the persona is presented in the act of commenting on a subject; it is hard to know where to set the knife edge down. The only place where the author himself has set down the knife edge appears, in the volume Two Gentlemen in Bonds, in the distinction between the two groups labeled “The Innocent Doves” and “The Manliness of Men.” The first section is clearly composed of poems about the gentle ones who are caught in the cleft stick of the world, the Blue Girls, Janet and her hen, and the Lost Lady. It is the second section that causes trouble, and the chief trouble is that we know that this author never causes trouble irresponsibly. He means the trouble to mean something. The section is not a mere catchall or grab bag, with a cute label stuck on.

But let us forget the label for a moment, and simply see what we find here. “Our Two Worthies” opens the section and “Equilibrists” closes it. What logic puts these poems here? The “Worthies” are Jesus the Paraclete and Saint Paul the Exegete, between whom, the poet says, let there be no “schism.” But the schism is inevitable, between the “comforter” and the “explainer,” the intuition and the word, the spirit and the organization, the City of God and the Church Militant.

As we look further, we find, in that jeu d’esprit “Survey of Literature,” a sly tangential resemblance to the poem just cited: literature is made of what writers “had to eat and drink” (out of the raw experience of life), but it is also a thing of “consonants and vowels” (of all the more abstract aspects of language and technique). So here we have another “schism.” But there are other “schisms” in the section—between the view held by the family and that held by the observer in “Dead Boy,” between Grimes and the admiring narrator in “Puncture,” between man and nature in “Semi-Centennial,” between the husband and wife of “Two in August,” among the birds in “Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom,” between actuality and dream in such poems as “Persistent Explorer” and “Morning,” between the two views of “dog” in the poem of that name, between the lovers in “Jack’s Letter,” between the literal and the poetic evaluations in “Antique Harvesters,” between the obsession which the “Man without Sense of Direction” suffers and the natural peace he craves, between the two avatars of the “Amphibious Crocodile,” between the official version of the Last Judgment in “Fresco” and all the forces released, including the widow’s curse and Cleopatra’s re-enactment of her wiles. And the last poem of the section, “Equilibrists,” also deals with a “schism”: the beautiful lovers are made for each other, but, without even the memory which Paolo and Francesca might cherish in the whirl of the hot wind in the Inferno, they are caught like “two painful stars” in the “equilibrium” of their “prison world.”

So all the poems in this section involve “schisms.” The splits here are of two kinds, not always at the same level,[6] but the recurrence, in variety, is the fundamental unifying fact of the section. In other words, here is a brief survey of the world man must live in and make his terms with, a more systematic presentation of what we have already found in Chills and Fever. But what relevance does this bear to the title of the section—”The Manliness of Men”? The answer is easy. This world of the “splits” is exhibited that we may see more clearly the way man, to fulfill his “manliness,” must deal with it.


At first glance, certain poems in this section scarcely seem to belong here, for instance “Dead Boy” and “Jack’s Letter.” Both of these little pieces, beautiful and tender as they are, might seem better wrought for a place among “The Innocent Doves.” But, at second glance, we see that the difference between such pieces and those of the first section is the intrusive presence of the observer, and the fact that the chief business of the poem is to show him in the effort of trying to come to terms with the situation. In “Dead Boy,”‘ the observer distinguishes between the two ways of regarding the boy, the view of the grief-stricken family and the literalistic view of one, like himself, from “the world of outer dark,” who sees “the pig with a pasty face” as scarcely worth all this expense of emotion. But the observer will admit that he, in spite of his “rational” view, is moved, too: at least, he confesses ironically that he doesn’t “love the transaction.” He understands, in other words, that values are created, are relative not absolute, and in his understanding he grieves, as it were, with the grief of the family, not for the loss of the “pig,” absolutely considered. Love, in one sense, creates the thing worthy of love—and of grief.

As a corollary of this, there is, in the course of the poem, a slight shift in the understanding of the bereavement. We start with “Virginia’s aged tree” and “county kin” with some implication of family pride and vanity as components of the bereavement; not the nature and value of the dead boy but a “dynastic wound” would seem to be at stake. But at the end of the poem a shift of emphasis, slight but significant, has occurred. The “limbs” of “Virginia’s aged tree” are aggrieved, not out of offended pride and vanity, but because there is a rupture of the elemental life process. The limbs are “shorn and shaken” in this rupture of their commitment to the ineffable blood continuity, in this outrage to a natural value beyond rational discussion. But this, as I have said, is only a corollary of the main idea, the creation of value by the fact of love.

In the same spirit we may look at “Jack’s Letter,” beginning by setting it against another poem about a love letter, but a stranger kind of love letter, “Parting without a Sequel,” in the first section. At first glance, again, it would seem that “Jack’s Letter” might well go back with the other poem, among “The Innocent Doves.” Then we notice a difference. The touching subject in “Parting without a Sequel” is presented on its own merits, as it were. We have the word issuing from the persona but we do not “see” the persona. In “Jack’s Letter,” the observer, however, significantly intrudes. Jack, we are given to understand, is no great hand as a letter writer, and what he says is no great matter. What, then, can such a letter mean to his distant beloved? It may mean everything, the observer intrudes to explain, if “she should lay it to her bosom.” Doing that, she would “create” its meaning, and, as the poem implies, “create” Jack. And so we are back to the theme of “Dead Boy,” and to those other poems from this section which we have previously discussed in relation to the persona, and to the topic of poetic creation, as the act by which man fulfills his “manliness,” and proclaims his mastery over nature and fate.

Even the placement of the poems is sometimes of importance. “Jack’s Letter” is followed by “Antique Harvesters,” which seems so different, but is, if our earlier discussion of it is valid, a repetition, in another range, of the same theme of the creative power of love. In “Two in August,” the distraught husband, after a nocturnal quarrel, goes out of the house and hears the night birds crying:

Whether those bird-cries were of heaven or hell
There is no way to tell; In the long ditch of darkness the man walked
Under the hackberry trees where the birds talked
With words too sad and strange to syllable.

Thus the poem ends with the ambiguous birds, to be followed immediately by “Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom,” in which the speaker of the poem affirms that when the birds (“of heaven or hell” in “Two in August”) fall out and “croak and fleer and swear,” he himself must seek

Otherwhere another shade
Where men or beasts or birds
Exchange few words and pleasant words.
And dare I think it is absurd
If no such beast were, no such bird?

Can we avoid the implication of this sequence? If evil (the quarrel even of lovers) is in the world (grounded in nature, even among “birds”), then our role as men in our manliness is to create the vision of a loving peace.

The sequence goes on. Now comes “Persistent Explorer,” in which the hero, like the speaker in “Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom,” though in another context and dimension, “would throw this continent away” (the world of actuality) and “seek another country”: that is, would dream the dream that “manliness” demands. Then comes “Morning,” which we have already discussed.

There is, too, a teasing relationship between “Puncture” and “Semi-Centennial” that could bear scrutiny; in fact, “Puncture” is altogether a poem in a peculiar relation to Ransom’s work, teasingly tangential. The gay poems “Survey of Literature” and “Amphibious Crocodile” come together and thematically supplement each other. They are followed by “Fresco,” which is gay, too, but more precariously and disconcertingly so. But what, then, of “Equilibrists,” the famous piece which winds up this section? How literally are we to take “honor”? Literally, and also un-literally? Surely, but what kind of “un-literalness,” in what dimensions? And, in the light of the cunning interlockings of the poems, should we not look curiously at the end of the poem just preceding “Equilibrists,” and ponder the fact that here Cleopatra, on the Day of Judgment, renews “her harlotries”?—that is, ritually, as it were, re-enacts her necessary nature:

But now in Heaven her harlotries were renewed,
For she loosed the cerements wherewith she was gewed;
Her side was buckled, but she undid the clasp
And showed her small round bosom kissed by the asp.

Do we not have here another of Ransom’s multifarious dualities—the lady who submits herself wholly to the flesh and the lady who, because of “honor” (whatever that word here means), cannot submit at all? But what does it come to in the end? What is the intrusive observer really saying? Would it be possible to answer this question without keeping in mind the theme running throughout this section?


We have insisted on the thematic coherence of the section called “The Manliness of Men,” and the interlocking relations among the poems composing it. This is not to imply necessarily that the section was planned in this spirit. The poems may well have been written before the poet made such a grouping.[7] In any case, in setting up the three sections of Two Gentlemen in Bonds, Ransom is bringing out into the open and refining a distinction implicit in the previous volume, a distinction important in any evaluation of his work. The poems of “The Manliness of Men” are the philosophical ones, those about the poet and his knowledge of, and appropriate attitude toward, the world he must live in. The poems in “The Innocent Doves” are about the victims of the world, who suffer without knowledge, without philosophy, in the world.

These victims are regarded with tenderness and pity, and, even if we come upon poems like “Blue Girls” or “Janet Waking” isolated in an anthology, there is the emotional impact. It would be hard to think of a poem superior to these in perfection of control and clarity of emotional outline. The poems seem perfectly self-sufficient in their dramatic force, for Ransom is a master of the withheld effect that releases a power at the very end, to linger with an increasing afterglow, as in “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” or to burst suddenly forth as in “Vision by Sweetwater.”

What kind of poem would “Vision by Sweetwater” be without the last two lines? It would be charming, beautifully rendered, nostalgic, haunting. But then comes the scream. What power, with what complexity, bursts forth here! Why is the boy “old suddenly”? For one thing, it is a scream hinting, in its very lack of specificity, at terror, loss, pain, containing all the tragic utterance that life may come to demand—bursting forth in sudden nakedness after the prattle of the girls in their “strange quick tongue.” But what strangeness, to the boy, in their prattle has prepared him, and us, for the shocking strangeness of the scream? As a young boy, he is outside the world of the girls, fascinated but uncomprehending, shy but yearning toward their mystery, and when the scream bursts forth, it is charged, not only with terror, loss, and pain, but with sexuality. It is a Dionysiac scream, a darker reality, bursting forth to violate the “innocent dream of ladies sweeping by,” to chill into sudden silence the gay, innocent festival of the “bright virgins” moving by the water in their “delicate paces,” as on a frieze.

What complexity and power lie, too, in the fact that we know nothing of the origin of the scream, not what provokes it, not from what throat it comes. This ignorance, and anonymity, is an index to the archetypal nakedness of the scream—merely scream, the ineluctable scream. It bursts forth in that nakedness from “one of the white throats” where it has been hidden—hidden as though lying in wait, or as though in guilt. Or both. To continue, we may look at another detail: let us think of what the difference would be if the last line read

From one of the white throats among which it hid.

and not, as now,

From one of the white throats which it hid among.

When the poem comes to rest on the word among, the fact that the source of the particular scream (which throat?) is unknown is emphasized. The scream belongs, in one sense, not merely to a particular girl, a particular white throat, but could belong to any; and this is a way of saying that it belongs to all, and will, in the end, in the course of life, leap from each and all. The lingering rest on the word among universalizes the scream and therefore means, too, that the boy will hear it again. The speaker of the poem, now a man, looks back on that first scream, which, in ecstasy or pain, he now knows, well, perhaps too well, and thus can bring his pity, with his knowledge and his sense of fate, into the poem.

Poem after poem exhibits this kind of delicacy and force, and invites us to investigate the strange paradoxical poise of effect. But however complete and self-fulfilling we may find a poem of Ransom’s to be, to isolate it thus is to do more than common injustice. Isolated, the emotion is unmoored, ungrounded, even when in the poem itself there seems to be dramatic completeness. What is missed in isolation is the sense of the meaning of the persona, the sense of the nature and cost of the tenderness and pity, and the sense in which the irony that informs the utterance is, as Delmore Schwartz once put it, “an expression of the very painfulness of the emotion.”

In isolating a poem, we lose something else, too, the sense of the blank backdrop of the world which ironically belittles, and even makes irrelevant, the story of the innocent ones. By the same token, the poem has lost the full awareness of the nature of the act of tenderness, pity, empathy. For the act is, against that blank backdrop, as irrelevant and irrational, as devoid of meaning, as the fate of innocent ones. But, as a last irony returning upon itself, the capacity for this act of pity is all that is available to man, to define himself; by its very gratuitousness and irrationality, the act of pity affirms the “manliness” of man, his special power. It is, in short, the act of the creation of value. It is an act of love by which the identity of the lover as well as of the beloved is established. We are, thus, back to the point where the notion of man and the notion of poet coincide.

Man and poet, life and poetry: this interrelation, as we have seen, is central to the work of Ransom. And the interrelation has a special connection to two peculiar facts of his career. The first we have already discussed: the fact that he came to poetry so late, and, coming so late, struck immediately on his abiding theme as an aspect of his life-process. The second peculiar fact is stranger still. At the very height of his powers, he stopped writing poetry.

After the third volume, Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927), Ransom was to write only five more poems, “Painted Head,” “Prelude to an Evening,” “Of Margaret,” “What Ducks Require,” and “Address to the Scholars of New England” (the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard, in June 1939). All five, even the occasional poem, approach, or achieve, stylistic perfection, and, though all deal with his old theme, all have new tonalities, new ranges of feeling. Even “Painted Head,” which most specifically restates the old themes of the “split,” seems fresh, and “Prelude to an Evening,” certainly one of his masterpieces, seems to promise, with deeper depth and resonances, a whole new phase of development. But the five poems were, in fact, an Indian summer: magnificently brilliant, but the end.

It is hard to know what happened. Or perhaps it seems hard to know only because it is so obvious. At some time in the mid-’30s—I cannot remember exactly what year, but certainly well before the Harvard poem—I was, with a group of friends, at the house of Alec Brock Stevenson, one of the early Fugitives—the only time, I think, I was ever there. During the evening, when Ransom and I were cut off for a few minutes from the general conversation, he remarked to me that he thought he might write no more poetry. When I expressed surprise, he re- plied that he was sure that he could write more poems as good as, or even better than, those already done, but that he couldn’t bear merely to repeat himself. He did not, he explained, want to be a “pro” and merely build a reputation. He wanted to be an “amateur,” he said. He had written his poems out of joy, he added, and did not want to have writing dwindle into a job. Then, after a moment of silence, he added, “Of course, if some day I find a new way in, I’ll probably start writing again.”

Out of joy, he had said. At that time, I did not understand what he really meant. Now I should say that he must have meant more than the special joy of composition; he must have meant that he saw poetry as a natural function of, an adjunct to, the process of living. And this idea, I think, can be distinguished from the idea that poetry is related to life, first as a way of commenting on, or discovering the meaning of, life, or second, as a substitute, or compensation, for life.

Long ago, back in the 1920s,[8] Ransom said that, as a poet, he wanted “to find the experience that is in the common actuals”; that he wanted “this experience to carry (by association of course) the dearest possible values to which we can attach ourselves”; and that he wanted “to face the disintegration or multiplication of those values as religiously and calmly as possible.” This letter is, in fact, a remarkable description of exactly what Ransom did accomplish in his poetry, but for present purposes I quote it because it illustrates how Ransom found his poetry in those “dearest possible values”—which are, I think he would say, the poetry of the life process. And if this is the case, then the writing of poetry would, in his view, be more secondary, more subsidiary to the over-all business of living, because only a part of it. By this line of reasoning, the satisfaction found in the composition might well continue in other ways, from other sources: one might live one’s poetry. And so we come back to the notion, found elsewhere in Ransom’s prose, of living as the great art, and back, in a very special way, to the ancient notion of a good man’s life as a poem.

Ransom did not, however, lose his interest in poetry in the ordinary, narrower sense. The drastic gesture of repudiation made by Rimbaud would be the last thing possible for Ransom, for his commitment to poetry, though fundamental, was of a different order from the commitment of a Rimbaud, for whom poetry was not a function of, but a surrogate for, life—a romantic absolute. Ransom has remained a reader of poetry, with a joyful relish in it; he has carefully and instructively revised his poems; and he is, of course, a hard theorist and critic of poetry.

Which brings us to the criticism. Allen Tate was, I believe, the first to point out, at the level of theory, the peculiar consistency between the poetry and the criticism of Ransom. But there is another kind of consistency that I want to emphasize here. To do this I must comment on the kind of criticism he has devoted himself to. It is a criticism concerned with philosophical groundings, with technical formulations, with structural definitions and analyses. As criticism, it has drawn back from the contours and colors of whatever poetic object was under discussion. It is, if you will, “abstract” in the extreme. And this would seem peculiar, even paradoxical; for one theme of the criticism, as of the poetry itself, is the need to assert the contours and colors of the “world’s body” against “abstraction,” against the violation of the world by the intellect. It would seem, however, that the critic who early saw “abstraction” as the enemy has, as is so often the case in all sorts of crucial struggles, as the poem “Armageddon” points out, taken on the qualities of the evil adversary.

This, however, is not true. Not true, because this criticism itself has, in a very special sense, its own existence as an “art,” with all the concreteness and specificity implied by that fact. It is not merely that, by and large, Ransom’s criticism is far better written than most, more precisely phrased, more urbane and witty. The style itself is merely an indication that the critical effort, which objectively considered seems devoted to salting the tail of an abstraction, is, when subjectively considered, an effort made by a whole man. Passion, wit, and sensuous delight are involved along with the cold intellection.

The style bespeaks an individual; and more significantly, even at its most rigorous, the critical effort may be felt as involving a social occasion, conversation with a glass in hand by the fireside, or on a summer afternoon under the maples, and the courtesies of the occasion are there. As the prose stems from the human depth and fullness behind the critical effort, so one recognizes in its rhythms and its wit, in its tone, the author’s awareness of the reader as a friendly but independent other. The air is not that of a lecture, of a demonstration, but of a dialogue, of a collaborative quest. As a critic, then, Ransom most resembles Dryden. Ransom, at his best, as Dryden at his, seems to understand criticism in its social dimensions, as an art, a dramatic art in fact, which implies the human context of the subject discussed and, too, the human context of the discussion itself. For Ransom, criticism, like poetry itself, is one of the ways of trying to live life with intelligence, logical scrupulosity, and moral rigor, but, withal, with gaiety, feeling, and respect for the human other. As in his poetry, so in his criticism, in the very act of anatomizing the splits and jags of life, Ransom would offer what healing of the splits and jags may be possible in the act of celebrating life.

For that is what Ransom’s work, prose and poetry, sums up to: a celebration of life, as manifested in the virtues of charity and endurance, tenderness and gaiety. And in that work, we sense in what a context of hard realism and of unillusioned clarity of mind, and at what price, these virtues have been affirmed; and we find that, in one sense, this is the heart of the drama underlying the drama in the work itself, the deeper drama which informs and charges the whole. Some years ago, when the poet was a guest in my house, he kindly consented to read a few of his pieces to the company. After he had gone to bed, several people remained a little while, talking over the poems. One of them remarked on the precision, control, and tenderness. Another present, a lady, burst out: “But don’t you see what passion and self-conquest lie behind all that?”

And I felt that she was right. This was what I had not realized when I wrote that little essay thirty years before.


How much of life does Ransom celebrate? That question, in one disguise or another, has been raised by many critics. This is the old, nagging question of scale and evaluation. Ransom has referred to himself as “small,” as a “domestic poet”; and some critics, even some who admit his mastery of the medium, his subtlety and precision, and the clarity of emotion in his work, have insisted, almost angrily sometimes as though having been defrauded of something, on what they would call his “limited range,” on his being a “minor poet.”

That phrase is a tricky one. Its meaning, for one thing, depends on the tone of voice in which it is uttered—that is, on the motivation of the utterer. For another, its meaning depends on the context, specifically on what poets, and what kind of poets, the speaker would assume to be “major.” Are Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton the only major poets in English? What keeps Ben Johnson off the list? Can we add Wordsworth? If so, why not Coleridge? Or is the bulk of his work too small? Can a satirical poet like Pope or Byron be major? Can a poet who, because deeply ironical, does not make an overt commitment, be called major? Can a poet close to us, like Eliot or Pound, be called major? Or must the work stand the test of time?

It is all a mare’s-nest, and perhaps the only thing we can do is to be simple, and say with Ransom himself that for major poetry the “index is the amount of turnover produced in our gray stuff,” adding, however, that there must be a corresponding amount of turnover in our guts, and that, as a corollary to Ilhose propositions, neither perfection nor intensity is enough and the poet’s dramatizations must assert themselves in an appropriate magnitude.

Ransom is, then, a minor poet. But the important problem is always to determine if a poet is really a poet. And then what kind of poet a poet is, to discriminate his value. And Ransom offers a very special case. To consider it, we may turn back to the relation between the poems about “innocent doves” and those about the “manliness of men,” recognizing that this distinction applies to all his work, both before and after the volume Two Gentlemen in Bonds. More than any poems about “the manliness of men,” certain ones about the “innocent doves” offer a haunting power and a magic which Robert Lowell, in writing of Ransom, has equated with the “Celtic” strain in poetry that Matthew Arnold discriminates. For years I could not help but puzzle over the seeming discrepancy between the small scale of a poem about an “innocent dove,” and the abiding emotional force—a force that seemed to involve more “turnover of our gray stuff,” and of our guts too, than the little poem overtly offered. Then I realized that the effect of a poem about an “innocent dove” depends to a considerable extent on the context provided by those about the “manliness of men,” a context giving the philosophical and psychological grounding for, and interpretation of, the gesture of loving pity which the poem about an “innocent dove” is. To state it a little differently, the persona of a poem about an “innocent dove” is defined in the background by the poems about the “manliness of men,” and only in so far as we understand the persona dramatized in those witty and learned poems, with their drier irony, do we appreciate the nature of the dramatization which the gesture of pity is, and fully appreciate what is at stake in that tension between control and heartbreak.

To come at the matter again differently, in these “domestic” pieces, the dramatizations do not directly assert themselves in an appropriate magnitude for “major poetry”; but by implication, if we set the individual poem in its full context, we see that the issues raised do approach the major—that is, are concerned with fundamental questions and, finally, with the tragic dilemma of life. In this sense, Ransom more resembles a poet like Marvell than one like Herrick, to whom he is sometimes compared. Marvell is a minor poet; the dramatizations of, for instance, “The Garden” and “To His Coy Mistress” are not of “appropriate magnitude.” But the poems achieve tremendous resonance by the weight of implication. They are, as it were, exposed nerve ends of great issues, ends of nerves that run far back beyond the poems themselves. For a second comparison, we may turn to the philosopher-poet Coleridge, the haunting force of whose poems cannot be understood except in the light of his philosophy—not as illustrations of the philosophy but as life-thrusts toward the philosophy.


Why did Ransom elect the “domestic”? Did the fact, as some have seemed to imply, represent flight, withdrawal, repudiation? Or, on the other hand, wisdom, self-knowledge, compassion? Or is it the supreme strategy of an ironist who would delight in finding the large in the little, and the little in the large? Or the expression of a reverence for life that would cherish most the “common actuals”?

Perhaps we should say that the question is falsely put, that a man never “elects” such a thing; he can only live into it as the exfoliating sum of his life process embodying thousands of small choices and awarenesses. In any case, the poetry of Ransom is deeply consistent with his life story, the return to Tennessee, the criticisms of modernity, his contempt for ambition (“Ambition is a terrible thing,” I once heard him say), his disinclination to becoming a “pro,” the complex persona of the poetry, the paradox of the “artificial” style and philosophical weighting of the poetry on one hand, and the intensely personal quality on the other, the stoicism mixed with joy, a religious sense mixed with grateful delight, a sense of tragedy mixed with gaiety and the mock-heroic mode. Many years ago, speaking of a certain old man, he said, with a burst of feeling: “But there is always something tragic about old age.” More lately, he has written in a letter: “Growing old, I find I love small, furry things, like kittens, more and more.” So with everything else, poetry and philosophy, war and love, games and work in his garden and friendship, he has lived into that, too.

He has lived, in fact, through himself, into himself. And he has lived into a poetry which is completely and miraculously worthy of that self, and will abide. In the house of poetry there are many mansions, and this one, hung high, with a long view, is swept and garlanded, and shines.


[1] After World War I, he did briefly attend the University of Grenoble, and even toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, a notion he again flirted with about 1930.

[2] Shortly after God without Thunder appeared, he was to remark to me that a man of his turn of mind and temperament was scarcely the man to undertake such a book.

[3] This line was revised, in Selected Poems, to read: “‘The old gentle- man,’ I grieved, ‘holds gallantly . . .'” And in the line from “Prometheus in Straits” the word comfort is revised to practice.

[4] I am not here taking into account another type of poetry or fiction in which the persona bears an obviously ironical or satirical relation to the author.

[5] Not to be confused with the poem of the same title in Poems about God.

[6] The third section, “Two Gentlemen in Bonds,” is a more systematic elaboration of the theme in the second section.

[7] It would he interesting to have the chronology of composition of the poems in this section, to know to what degree, if at all, the interlockings come from the fact that one poem led, as it were, to another. In the preface to Selected Poems, Ransom says that it would be difficult for him “to recover the exact order in which these [and presumably other] poems were composed,” hut he says in that hook the “arrangement is substantially in that order.” In that book, “Two in August” and “Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom” are, for what that fact is worth, in sequence. We know from Ransom’s description elsewhere of his method of work that he usually did two or three poems in a little spurt. A thematic sequence?

[8] In a letter to Allen Tate, quoted by John L. Stewart in The Burden of Time.

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Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was one of the preeminent authors of the twentieth century: a poet, novelist, and literary critic who was one of the founders of New Criticism. He earned a master's degree at the University of California, studied at New College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar; he taught at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State, the University of Minnesota, and Yale University. Warren was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He received the Pulitzer Prize three times, for All the King's Men (1946) and for poetry (1958 and 1979). Three years before his death, he was appointed the first poet laureate of the United States.