“The Ballad of Billie Potts” is perhaps the most striking of Warren’s early poems. In a little over thirteen pages, it brings together several of the themes that would concern him for a lifetime: the passage from childhood innocence into guilt, the journey that ends with a return to the father or to the place of origin, the undiscovered self, and a certain mysticism that unites each person with humankind and with nature.
Warren prefaced the poem with this note: “When I was a child I heard this story from an old lady who was a relative of mine. The scene, according to her version, was in the section of Western Kentucky known as ’Between the Rivers,’ the region between the Cumberland and the Tennessee.” According to legend, Billie Potts kept an inn on one of the popular frontier routes along which early travelers to the West passed. He communicated regularly with bands of cutthroats, notifying them of the routes his guests were taking into the wilderness. The robbers shared with him any booty that they could acquire from ambushing the travelers.
Billie Potts and his wife have a son whom they both adore. The son, thinking he will prove his worth to his father, attempts to kill and rob a stranger by himself instead of conveying the information to more experienced killers, as he was told to do. He botches the job and returns home in humiliation. His father, in anger, turns him out to make his fortune as best he can.
(The entire section is 530 words.)