“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is a short funeral poem in five quatrains. Through a series of restrained images, John Crowe Ransom transfixes the grief of the entire community over the inexplicable death of a young girl. He accomplishes this primarily by refusing to admit to the fact of death. The speaker of the poem, representing the community, merely declares perplexity at the little girl’s sudden inactivity.
The first stanza uses the past tense to refer to the girl’s former busy activity, then leads to contemplation of her current, mystifying “brown study” (an old-fashioned term for rapt daydream). This attitude suggests that her stillness is unnatural, even perverse—as if she were going through one of those childish stages so incomprehensible to the adult world. This fixity contradicts her former habit of action. Yet this is fitting, for the death of children perplexes the standard assumptions of the adult world for the next generation. Faced with that reversal, spectators can only stop and stare, dumbfounded.
The following three stanzas are run together, one leading immediately to the next, to form a unit commemorating the girl’s activities. Ransom uses language that elevates the girl’s games, giving them public status and the remoteness of romance. In this way, Ransom creates the impression that the townspeople watched this outdoor playing and projected into it their hopes for the future. For example, instead...
(The entire section is 477 words.)