John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)
About the Poet
Poet John Crowe Ransom accepted the challenge of correlating empirical fact with the shadowy world of feeling. Grouped with Robert Penn Warren, Merrill Moore, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson as one of the original Fugitive Agrarians, an influential circle of Southern scholars, critics, and poets, he was the most distinguished critic and editor of his age. His verse, composed during a complex period of phenomenal scientific and technological advancement, registered a modern paradox — the intellectual delight in progress set against the spirit's ambivalence, a tortuous state that the poet described as a "[walk] in hell." His literary fervor precipitated a rebirth of Southern literature and resultant awards and honors to the era's foremost proponent of modern verse.
Ransom, a native of Tennessee and the third of four children, was born in Pulaski on April 30, 1888, to Sara Ella Crowe and the Reverend John James Ransom, a Methodist minister. He studied at home with his father during his childhood, when the family moved among four parishes. In 1899, he profited at a Nashville boys' academy from the teachings of its principal, Angus Gordon Bowen. Ransom was tops in his high school class, completed two years at Vanderbilt University, then left to teach middle grades in Taylorsville, Mississippi, and Latin and Greek at Haynes-McLean School in Lewisburg, Tennessee.
Ransom was eager to get back to scholarship and completed a B.A. at Vanderbilt, again graduating valedictorian with membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He was selected Rhodes scholar in 1910 after a year as principal in Lewisburg, and he earned an M.A. with honors in the classics from Christ Church College, Oxford, before traveling Europe and the British Isles. After a year of teaching Latin in Lakeville, Connecticut, he returned to Vanderbilt in 1914 to teach English literature, numbering among his pupils Cleanth Brooks, Donald Davidson, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren.
Before serving as first lieutenant in the field artillery in France during World War I, Ransom had already begun submitting poems to Contemporary Verse and Independent. With the help of essayist Christopher Morley and poet Robert Frost, he published Poems About God (1919) in England before returning to the United States. About the time that his conservative discussion group, the Fugitives, was meeting to debate the future of Southern literature, he married Robb Reavill and began a family of three — daughters Helen and Reavill and son John James. Ransom developed into a skilled, restrained wordsmith and a master of clarity who admired dense texts enhanced by precise diction and technical skill.
Ransom continued to issue poems and essays in American Review, Southern Review, and The Fugitive, Vanderbilt's literary-social journal that professed agrarian values and rejected modern technology, big business, and human displacement. In support of his coterie's strongly earth-based, anti-industrial philosophy, he joined eleven regional writers in two literary debates: I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), for which he supplied an opening essay, "Statement of Principles," and Who Owns America? (1936). He published a stand-alone volume of essays, God Without Thunder (1930), which criticized insipid religion, and in 1938 publicly debated the essence of agrarianism.
Ransom established himself among America's finest poets while at the same time growing as a teacher, critic, and philosopher. He produced two volumes in 1924: Chills and Fever and Grace after Meat. The latter was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. He followed with the critically successful Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927), additional submissions to Virginia Quarterly Review and Southern Review, and Selected Poems (1945), a solid contribution to his canon that was twice reissued.
In 1937, Ransom founded and edited Kenyon Review, a leading literary journal for twenty-two years. He decided that he was finished with poetry, but issued revisions in subsequent collections in 1945, 1963, and 1969. Ransom then concentrated on essays, which he published in The World's Body (1938) and The New Criticism (1941), a call for literary analysis that focuses on the work alone, excluding considerations of movement, age, and the author's life. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to the University of the Southwest, Exeter, a Bollingen Prize in Poetry, Russell Loines Memorial award from the American Institute of Arts and Letters, and honorary consultancy in American literature at the Library of Congress.
Ransom remained active, publishing critical essays on poetry and a collection, Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays, 1941-1970, and serving as visiting professor at Northwest University and Vanderbilt. Despite his shift from pure creative art, by the end of his long life, his reputation had already begun to revert to master poet rather than mentor or critic. He died in his sleep in Gambier, Ohio, on July 3, 1974; his ashes were interred at the Kenyon College Cemetery. Posthumous works include Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom (1984) and a compendium of letters in 1985.
"Here Lies a Lady" (1924), a piquant commentary on the clash of reason and sensibility, displays Ransom's early vigor and the focal themes of his later works. The speaker, as though reciting an old English ballad, speaks in four-line stanzas composed of five beats per line and rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh. In line 16, the peculiarities of the lady's demise are neatly summarized: Her last days were marked by twelve episodes, six of depression and six of manic passion. Speaking through the mask of a courtly gentleman, the poet remains involved and yet detached by ordering the four verses with mathematical precision: one to begin the eulogy for the fallen aristocrat, a beloved family-centered woman; two to describe alternating fever and chills; and a fourth addressed to survivors. In mock antique language, the speaker wishes for all "sweet ladies" a balance of bloom and languor. With self-serving irony, he demands, "was she not lucky?" a moot point in the greater question of a promising life plagued by troubles and prematurely snuffed out.
From the same period, "Philomela" is charmingly set in traditional iambic pentameter (five-beat lines) rhymed abbaa and falling away on the last line of each stanza to three beats. Its text draws on a disturbingly tragic pair of myths that Ovid, a major classic poet from the early days of the Roman Empire, states in Book 6 of his Metamorphoses. Unlike most of Ransom's verse, the eight-stanza narrative is a personal statement that recalls his graduate days at Oxford and subsequent return to the United States to write in classical mode. His doubts about American readers appears in line 37, "I am in despair if we may make us worthy," a true question of the nation's capacity for traditions that date to Greek mythology. For all its ponderous diction and mock-serious tone, the poem sets in verse one of the concerns of the Fugitives, who doubted that a bustling country absorbed in industrial and commercial progress was capable of a parallel development of the arts.
"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" (1924), one of modern poetry's unflinching perusals of hard-edged reality, sets out with a courteous, subdued tone and veiled dismay to observe traditional rituals honoring a little girl's passing. The syntax is precise, the imagery lighthearted, yet compelling as the poet surveys the unnatural reserve of a formerly boisterous child. Speaking as a mourner reconciling the perversely mannered stillness of a corpse laid out for burial, the poet can't resist visions of past rascality as she "bruited" backyard wars and, in a pastoral setting, shadow-fenced against her own image. As though unable to allay the grief, the poet hears the honk of the tricky, sleepy-eyed geese calling "alas," an archaism and stylistic connection to chivalric romance.
Deeply respectful of custom, Ransom, speaking from the point of view of a Southern gentleman, controls his probing paradox, carefully rhyming abab and guiding line lengths to four beats. Even the title resists harsher diction, substituting "bells for" as an indicator of death. As though tipping his hat to the inevitable, he lops off the fourth line of each stanza to dimeter or trimeter. Allusions to death are numerous, but restrained — the shadowed adversary, the whitening of grass with snowy feathers, and the irony of a "tireless heart" and "noon apple-dreams," now permanently frozen in time.
Like an overly fastidious adult, the speaker searches for the appropriate terms to fix on the child's unusual torpor. The incongruity of her pose vexes a mind that once demanded ladylike behavior in place of willful caprice. Now, the swift-footed Miss Whitesides is forever forced into a "prim [propping]," another euphemism for death. The formerly durable "little body" — a phrase that allies the double meaning of human frame and corpse — takes on an unnatural reverie, a rigid "brown study" that astonishes with its finality.
"Piazza Piece" (1925), a model of quiet formality, demonstrates Ransom's mastery of the fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet. The poet follows a tight pattern of rhyme, meter, and thought development. He transcends these mechanics by judicious enjambment, which carries over from line to line significant statements, in particular, the focus of the lady's dalliance, "waiting / Until my truelove comes." His rhymes vary masculine and feminine forms, the monosyllabic small/all, moon/soon and the less importunate falling away of trying/sighing/dying. By repeating end words at the beginning and closing of the octave and sestet, he effectively separates the paired statements as though sculpting two figures in confrontation.
Heavily emphasizing the differences in age, the speaker, Ransom's famous "gentleman in a dustcoat," bears the civility and demeanor of a courtly male forced into the role of traducer of beautiful young womanhood. Soon to turn to dust, the lady, idealized in speech and intent, refuses to listen to insistent warnings of mortality from the "grey man." Her vaudevillian reply is the standard line of the stalked virgin. Beneath a frail trellis, symbol of a human effort to shape nature, she stands at the height of loveliness and fools herself into believing that human hands can stay death's menace.
Published in 1927, "Janet Waking," a frequent companion piece to "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," conveys in seven stanzas the poet's ironic commentary on a child's initiation into the finality of death. The title indicates a duality: The main character awakens to search for her hen and is unceremoniously awakened to loss. Like Little Miss Muffet or Goldilocks, Janet appears one-dimensional in her goodness as she kisses mother and daddy, then displays another side of her personality, a childish orneriness toward a brother, an obvious rival. Summoning her pet, she learns the particulars of its death, killed by a bee enhanced to mock epic proportions by the fearful adjective "transmogrifying." The crucial fourth stanza spills over into the fifth as enjambment continues the details of a purple rising and the pseudo-humorous conclusion that the topknot rose, "But Chucky did not."
In imitation of fable, the crux of the poem turns on "So" at the beginning of stanza six as the poet guides the dramatic situation to a jarring moral. Baffled that Chucky no longer can "rise and walk," Janet overtaxes her breathing with a flow of tears. With typical girlish petulance, she begs for adults to revive Chucky and rejects the obvious conclusion that there are laws of nature that humans cannot override. As though tiptoeing past a poignant and private scene, the poet softens his rhymes to breath/death, sleep/deep, an acknowledgement of Janet's painful turning away from babyhood.
A contemporary of "Janet Waking," Ransom's "The Equilibrists," a 56-line mock chivalric narrative, moves back in time with Tennysonian archaisms and Arthurian characters drawn from the tragic love of Tristan and Isolde. In a peculiarly sanitized study of lovers' obsessions, the poet relies on syntactic inversions — "traveled he," "mouth he remembered," and "came I descanting" — and the high-sounding diction of "jacinth," "stuprate," "orifice," "saeculum," and "beseeching" to distance viewer from object. Like an accounting of feminine anatomy in the erotic verse of the Song of Solomon, the speaker inventories the white-armed beauty's loveliness in metaphors: "grey doves" for eyes, "officious tower" for mind, and "lilies," a quaint substitute for breasts.
As the compelling iambic pentameter couplets press on, the crux arises in line 21 — "Predicament indeed, which thus discovers / Honor among thieves, Honor between lovers" — as though man, woman, and the personified abstraction Honor were elements of a stylized love triangle. The speaker toys with the lovers' choices. He muses on the precarious balance of physical attraction held off by high ideals and enhances the standoff with a metaphysical conceit — the farfetched notion of binary stars held in a twirling dual orbit, at once locked in near-embrace and forever imprisoned out of reach by centrifugal force. Like stars, they burn with unrequited love.
Ransom makes a clear break with myth in line 33 to ponder the Christian overtones of the lovers' quandary. Like St. Augustine, they must decide whether to burn or burn in hell — to suffer thwarted passion or be damned eternally for consummating it. From the Christian point of view, the poet acknowledges that eternity lacks the combustible "tinder" (a pun on "tender") and inflaming lechery. After death, flesh is "sublimed away" as heaven refines the liberated spirit. Those "great lovers" who acquiesce to their desires spend the afterlife in tormented embrace. Like predators, their disintegrating bodies forever tear at each other.
Out of awe and reverence for the "equilibrists," the speaker is unable to retreat from their cosmic dance — forever untouching, but linked in a fiery, yet decorous attraction. In a final gesture to their exquisite torment, the speaker offers an epitaph typical of ancient Roman tombstones in its apostrophe to the passing stranger. Although decayed to mold and ash, the lovers remain inextricably locked in a virginal mockery of coupling, their chastity preserved by obedience to purity. For the speaker, their supine splendor is both "perilous and beautiful." For the modern reader, however, their contretemps suggests a cosmic puzzle, an academic paradox that forever teases without hope of solution.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Analyze Ransom's consternation in "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" or "Dead Boy" alongside that of Dylan Thomas's "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London." Determine which poet makes the more universal statement about premature death.
2. Apply the dramatic situations in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to the perpetual separation of lovers in Ransom's "The Equilibrists," "Piazza Piece," and "Winter Remembered."
3. Account for Ransom's use of antique syntax, pronouns (ye, thy), and diction and his penchant for metaphysical conceits or farfetched comparisons. Contrast poses in art works by the Pre-Raphaelite painters William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ransom's traditional male/female encounters set in stylized verse.
4. Trace the theme of evanescence through Ransom's poems in Chills and Fever and Two Gentlemen in Bonds. Account for his persistent lament for endangered art and beauty in the rapidly changing South. Determine whether such preservation of Western tradition is a worthy endeavor or a symptom of a retreat from reality.
5. Discuss the speaker's tone in "Here Lies a Lady." Does the speaker come to terms with the woman's death? Does the poem end on a tragic or accepting tone? How does the poet evoke this tone?