Rereading Ransom

Wyatt Prunty

This review appears in the July/Aug 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review

The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom. Ed. Ben Mazer. Un-Gyve Press, 2015. 396 pp. $75.00.

The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom, edited by Ben Mazer, is something those interested in modern poetry need to read. Ransom’s poetry was modern but also one of a kind. In its uniqueness Ransom’s work fit Ezra Pound’s injunction, borrowed from the Chinese, to “Make It New.” And Ransom made things new in other mediums too, as an influential critic and editor, and as a mentor to writers destined for their own significant achievements. Ransom is credited with giving the New Criticism its name. Along with that he wrote enough of his own criticism to make it clear what the name meant. In sum, when one considers John Crowe Ransom one examines a multifaceted writer who cannot be categorized by any one endeavor but instead must be understood in the context of multiple achievements. He was a man of letters who, among many accomplishments, wrote a relatively small body of highly original poems that are permanent.

Ransom’s poems are the subject at hand. They have been reprinted in an elegantly produced Collected Poems. Any reader who opens this book will want to own it. Ben Mazer follows chronological order as the collection begins with Ransom’s Poems about God (Holt, 1919), then progresses through Chills and Fever (Knopf, 1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (Knopf, 1927). Ransom was a reviser; thus, as Mazer tells us, “approximately 400 versions of more than 150 poems are represented in” this volume. That said, the work that anchors Ransom’s Collected Poems derives mainly from the Selected Poems of 1945. In addition to Ransom’s three volumes of 1919, 1924, and 1927, Mazer includes the “Uncollected Poems,” “Distinct Versions,” “Textual Variants,” and three appendices containing an introduction and several prefaces. Added to this, in Selected Poems (1969) one finds “Sixteen Poems in Eight Pairings” with original and final versions studied comparatively.

During the spring of 1969 I listened over dinner as Ransom’s former students Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle discussed two subjects. One was America’s role in Vietnam. By then that war felt unending. Soon I was to graduate college for a shaved head and a salute, so I listened intently as Tate and Lytle—two staunch conservatives in most areas, but not in others—dissected and rejected America’s foreign policy regarding Vietnam. I thought southern conservatives such as Lytle and Tate would be supportive of any war America undertook, except perhaps one of a century before. But what I heard turned out to be the workings of two literary minds not at all inclined the president’s way where America’s Vietnam policies were concerned. Tate’s and Lytle’s arguments were carefully reasoned, as pragmatic as they were moral, framed by historical context, and under the surface angry. I understood the anger better a short while later.

The other topic of conversation between Tate and Lytle that night involved recent revisions John Crowe Ransom had made to his poems. Then too things were framed by reference to the past. To Tate’s and Lytle’s thinking, Ransom had “ruined” much of his earlier work. Ransom’s two friends were as critical as they were because they so much admired the poems in Ransom’s Chills and Fever (Knopf, 1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (Knopf, 1927). The concision of these poems had been one of the early assurances by which Tate, Lytle, and others had begun their own aesthetic development. Yet whatever others thought of his books, the John Crowe Ransom who wrote the two volumes and who in later years revised them, had been, as he said, “tinkering with [his] verse” all along. Here is the early version of “Blue Girls,” as published in 1924 in The Fugitive, the influential but short-lived magazine that Ransom and his fellow writers and students founded at Vanderbilt:

If I were younger, travelling the bright sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
I should get a look, and a thought, or even a word;
But I am old, and of aspect too contrary

For you who are less weary.
For why do you bind white fillets about your tresses
And weave such stately rhythms where you go?
Why do you whirl so lovingly your blue dresses,
Like haughty bluebirds chattering in the snow
Of what they cannot know?

Practice your beauty, blue girls, if you will;
The lean preceptress, she of history,
Showed you the manifold of good and ill,
And all you saw was princes crooking the knee
To beauteous majesty.

Do you think there are thrones enough, one for each queen?
Some thrones are chairs, some three-legged milking stools,
Or you even sit in ashes where thrones should have been;
And it is for this, God help us all for fools,
You practice in the schools.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, nevertheless;
Once the preceptress, learned bitter one,
Printed the sward in a flounce of purple dress
And was a princess pacing as to her throne;
But now you see she is none.

And, much changed, here is the revised version of “Blue Girls,” as the poem appeared three years later in Two Gentlemen in Bonds (Knopf, 1927):

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

As Tate and Lytle rightly argued, Ransom made some serious mistakes with his late revisions, but this did not happen when Ransom revised “Blue Girls” for his 1927 collection. In its final version “Blue Girls” is a stellar example of the light touch by which Ransom could capture innocence faced with menace. There Ransom characterizes matters with words such as “sward,” “fillets,” and the elevated sounding “Practise” and “before it fail.” By touches such as these the world described seems quaint, in the sense of both cunning and attractive—two traits ripe for the irony Ransom had perfected by the time the final version of “Blue Girls” appeared in Two Gentlemen in Bonds. This was during the 1920s when Ransom taught at Vanderbilt University and mentored the first wave of young poets and fiction writers to study with him. Many of these authors went on to make permanent marks on the literary landscape.

During the decade when Ransom wrote most of his poetry, he taught such writers as Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, Ridley Wills, and Merrill Moore, all of whom took part in The Fugitive. A number of these individuals became the Agrarians of the 1929 collection of essays, I’ll Take My Stand. The stock market crash of 1929 made the group seem like prophets. They were not; they were writers. Their arguments—regional, apologetic, and aggressive—were moral, if perhaps so, thanks to military defeat and extended poverty. Also their arguments could sound Victorian in their concerns about the exploitations of industrialism. The solution offered was agrarian, which could not have avoided its own exploitations of labor. As a number of the Agrarians would say later, when they contributed to I’ll Take My Stand, they were very young. Most moved quickly to other subjects. So with Ransom. Ransom’s interests were in his poetry, criticism, and circle of writers. And the subject of his poetry was not region but the isolation of the consciousness.

When Ransom moved to Kenyon College and founded the Kenyon Review he gathered yet another circle of talented young writers. The New Criticism, given its name by Ransom, was the guiding light for the Kenyon Review (1939) and for many other reviews, but also it was formative for the young writers who studied with Ransom. A list of writers who enrolled at Kenyon to study with Ransom must include Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell, Anthony Hecht, James Wright, and Robie Macauley. In their work as poets, fiction writers, editors, and reviewers, Ransom’s students insured the half-life of his ideas and the influence those ideas would have on other periodicals.

In 1958 Macauley succeeded Ransom as the editor of the Kenyon Review. Years before that, in 1935, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren established the Southern Review at Louisiana State University, and during the mid-1940s Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate had edited the Sewanee Review. In 1947 Frederick Morgan, Joseph Bennett, and William Arrowsmith founded the Hudson Review. In the case of each of these magazines, and to a lesser extent other magazines, the aesthetic judgment recommended by the New Criticism guided such projects. But long before this, as early as 1914, Ransom began formulating his take. In 1914 Ransom wrote a long letter to his father, outlining what he had been thinking for some time. This thinking would continue to grow.

Eventually Ransom’s critical interests would distract from his poetry. He wrote few poems after 1927. But the aesthetic principles first touched on in 1914, and over time developed by Ransom’s criticism, cannot be separated from the practice found in his poetry. Each interest contributed to the other. For all his reliance on logic, Ransom never abandoned his ideal of unity, especially where the lyric was concerned. There Ransom argued something unchanging could be recognized from one translation of a poem to another with that poem never being encountered in its original and distinctive meters. This was an argument for essentialism made by a young Ransom writing home well before his experience during World War I. Here is one statement:

I have lately conceived a new theory of poetics. . . . I recognize a good translation of Virgil with no difficulty, and I like it because even the translation is poetry. Yet it lacks meter. Everybody knows that poetry (in its complete form, at least) employs meter: but what else poetry contains no one has yet satisfactorily formulated.

Ransom would devote years to this subject, but as early as age twenty-six he argues that poetry “deliberately prefers, at times, the words that are not the most appropriate, those which mean the given thing yet involve it in accidental associations that provoke the imagination and enrich the logical process of following up their point, yet come perilously near to leading the mind altogether astray.” (One thinks of the roles of paradox, irony, and ambiguity as former Ransom student Cleanth Brooks championed these years later in The Well Wrought Urn.) Pursuing leads “astray” to the point they are part of a complex process of realization was just what young Ransom set about “with malice aforethought,” as he said, “to induce [a] mode of thought that [was] imaginative rather than logical or scientific.” In the 1920s Logical Positivism would appear to challenge this. But in 1914 Ransom wrote, “My theory of poetics aims to show an inevitable union between poetic form and what is called poetic imagination.” Ransom stuck to that thinking.

To Ransom’s mind, early and late, the enemies of poetry were closed modes of thought that precluded the imagination’s workings. Ransom’s project was meant to offset these. As part of what would become the New Criticism and the main vehicle for modernist critical commentary, Ransom built upon the close reading he had employed at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. This approach became a central part of modernist discussion. Ransom wrote his letter of 1914 well after the moment in October 1912 when Ezra Pound wrote Harriet Monroe at Poetry Magazine declaring H.D. an Imagiste, but also well before the 1917 date of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” publication in The Egoist. Ransom had not yet entered the public fray, but his thinking had already engaged with the issues of early modernism.

The much-anthologized “Piazza Piece” fuses formal address and disenchantment. Ransom might say this poem is a good example of what he meant about “leading the mind” to being “perilously near” going “astray.” The archness of the poem turns out to be self-mocking and by that provides the cross checks by which the poem’s argument remains balanced. “Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream,” the “lady young in beauty waiting” says to death, the “gentleman in a dustcoat,” after he warns her of his inclusive politics. This starched debate between old and living features the cold playfulness Ransom used for objectivity. Ransom’s skeptical reasoning was evident in many ways but here it was so in his use of opposites—brutal death and polite exchange.

Then there was the shadowy playfulness of “Janet Waking,” a poem in which a “transmogrifying bee” comes “droning down on” Janet’s pet hen, “Chucky’s old bald head” to leave him dead. As a way of sweeping the mind clear, comedy precedes the point to be made. At first the poem is comfortably colloquial; then something changes: “So there was Janet / Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen / To rise.” This is childhood tragedy possible anywhere but often found in Ransom’s poetry, where small matters wind up telescoped, “Translated far beyond the daughters of men.” A child has “implored” the adult world to wake the dead, and by that reminded her elders just what it is they cannot do, much as the child “will not be instructed in how deep . . . the forgetful kingdom of death” is.

Another stark turn occurs during Ransom’s “Vision by Sweetwater.” The poem opens on a world ordered by familiar people in a familiar place: “Go and ask Robin to bring the girls over / To Sweetwater, said my Aunt; and that is why / It was like a dream of ladies sweeping by.” The young women are described as having “Laughed and talked, and tinkled light as wrens.” So far this is an idyll circa 1900 based on a seemingly ideal world. Then Ransom plunders the event:

Let them alone, dear Aunt, just for one minute
Till I go fishing in the dark of my mind:
Where I have seen before, against the wind,
These bright virgins, robed and bare of bonnet,

Flowing with music of their strange quick tongue
And adventuring with delicate paces by the stream,—
Myself a child, old suddenly at the scream
From one of the white throats which it hid among?

To judge by life and letters, Ransom lived happily. Eros had to have been present for the poems to be written, but Ransom’s biography reveals little of that. Still, without Eros, Ransom’s poems would not exist. In this as in other matters Ransom leaves us to puzzle. Added, there is Mazer’s introduction, which poses another question to consider. Mazer includes a quotation from an account by Warren of a conversation Warren had with Ransom over Ransom’s choice to stop writing poetry:

We were sitting by the fireside one night, and he said, “You know, I think I will quit writing poetry.” Now, he was at his very peak, and I said, “You’re crazy.” He said, “No, I know what I’m doing.” John was, in everything he did, intellectual and introspective—he knew his own mind. But this is one time when he did not know what he was doing. He went on to say, “I know I can write better poems than I’ve ever written; I know how to write my poems. But I want to be an amateur”—and that’s what he was—“I want to love what I’m doing, to do it for pleasure”—that’s his game business again. He said, “I hate a professional poet. I know people who have ruined themselves by being professional poets, because they end up imitating themselves. If I get a new insight, a new way in, if I grow into something different, I will start again, but I don’t want to be the same old John Crowe Ransom.” That’s the way he explained it to me. So I said, “Well, you’re crazy,” and I still think he was crazy.

Writing Allen Tate in 1943, Ransom touches on the same subject, mentioning he will “start shortly” with his Selected Poems and adding there will be “some revisionary touches here and there. . . . But I only have the great desire, no assurance that I can still work at the old trade. I must either do better work or none at all.” Ransom already enjoyed his share of recognition. Two Gentlemen in Bonds received strong reviews from excellent sources, Conrad Aiken, John Gould Fletcher, Allen Tate, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few, and shorter notices from others. Babette Deutsch noted the influence of Robert Herrick and Sir Thomas Browne but added that Ransom’s “cadences [were] peculiarly his own.” Marie Luhrs noted the “freshness of Mr. Ransom’s style” then observed Ransom’s “dangerous originality.” Luhrs also expressed enthusiasm for following Ransom’s poetry in the future “to find out whether the extreme cut of his poetic clothes will make him or break him.” John Gould Fletcher said Ransom’s defining feature was his “sense of geographic location” and that he was a “more urban Frost.” Ransom’s education meant most of the “clothes” Luhrs gave him were durable, and as to Fletcher’s question, much of Ransom’s “geographic location” really existed in the world of ideas. Considering Ransom in this regard, Allen Tate emphasized reason and “location,” especially a storied south as being Ransom’s “location.” Then Tate added that Ransom’s “rationalism” was “the evaluating instrument” to be found in his work.

Ransom’s turn from writing poetry echoed Matthew Arnold’s “evaluating” process, which Arnold announced in his preface of 1853 as he explained his turn to criticism. Ransom’s essay “Observations on the Understanding of Poetry,” published by the Kenyon Review in 1955, has a good bit to say about Arnold in this vein and reveals considerable affinity where a shared interest in criticism was concerned. Ransom had no use for poetry of unqualified emotion. A poem’s truthfulness could only be proved by larger reference. Though Ransom did not make this point explicitly, Arnold’s faith in touchstones fit Ransom’s faith in reason and the tradition. As a twentieth-century poet Ransom might not have been able to write, “Ah, Love, let us be true / To one another,” as Arnold did in “Dover Beach,” but Ransom’s desire to remain the “amateur,” as Warren reports, suggests something more sensitive in Ransom than his reliance on reason and tradition might suggest. As with Arnold, Ransom’s poems dealt with the lack of “certitude.” His use of irony could run close to Arnold’s doubt and Arnold’s stoicism. In his introduction to The World’s Body Ransom disparaged what he called “heart’s-desire poetry.” This thinking echoed Arnold’s “high seriousness.” And there were other affinities between these two poets. Ransom’s enemies were systems akin to positivism; Arnold’s enemies were the Barbarians and Philistines. Of Arnold, Ransom said, “I can liken myself modestly to Arnold in the respect that, though I am not an inspector of schools, I have done a long turn as a schoolmaster of poetry, and even acquired some professional anecdotes of my own.” There was greater overlap here than this statement might suggest. Referring to Arnold’s turn to criticism as “the death of the poet in the living Arnold,” Ransom fails to mention his own turn as a critic to Hegel’s “Concrete Universal” and Kant’s “right way to construe the complex experience of beauty.”

Arnold and Ransom had some similar inclinations but lived in centuries with different expectations. For all its local detail Ransom’s beauty had an added chill to it. There was love somewhere behind the scene, if no one ever saying, “Ah, love.” But mainly visible was the diction and syntax by which Ransom held matters off to see them better. By that practice Ransom managed to write some of the most slyly heartfelt lyrics of the twentieth century—“Piazza Piece,” “Vision by Sweetwater,” “Blue Girls,” “Here Lies a Lady,” “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” “Janet Waking,” “The Equilibrists,” “Antique Harvesters,” and “Painted Head,” to name this reader’s favorites.

Exemplifying this is Ransom’s statement in “Painted Head” that “Beauty is of body.” Here are the concluding lines to that poem:

                                 Beauty is of body.
The flesh contouring shallowly on a head
Is a rock-garden needing the body’s love
And best bodiness to colorify

The big blue birds sitting and sea-shell flats
And caves, and on the iron acropolis
To spread the hyacinthine hair and rear
The olive garden for the nightingales.

Apollo’s Hyacinthus is alluded to in the lines above. He was the victim of athletic games when Apollo threw the discus that struck Hyacinthus in the head. The wound killed him and painted his head red with blood. Apollo memorialized Hyacinthus with the hyacinth’s red color. Here in the manipulation of allusion we find some of the serious playfulness in Ransom that Warren described. But there are gentle matters too—a garden, a chance for song, as beauty and intellection are found each enabling the other.

In his preface to The World’s Body Ransom says “poetry is an event in time.” In much the same way the various games Ransom enjoyed, with their clocks, rules, and spatial boundaries, were events in time. Ransom says “heart’s-desire poetry . . . denies the real world [of consequences] by idealizing” the world. He might say play is a realism that does not idealize. Speaking of what he sees as real poetry, Ransom says it “is the kind of knowledge by which we must know what we have arranged that we shall not know otherwise,” and that “What we cannot know constitutionally as scientists is the world which is made of whole indefeasible objects, and this is the world which poetry recovers for us.” For John Crowe Ransom such recovery was done “not as in a state of innocence . . . that our moderns the scarred veterans [might] enact their poetry, but in the violence of return and regeneration.” Ben Mazer’s edition of The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom offers another return, not to violence, though some poems coolly account for that and other disturbing matters, but to things reasonable and by their reason promising.

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