Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” Ransom takes an oblique approach to one of the most difficult human experiences: coping with the death of children. He presents no direct resolution for this ethical dilemma. In fact, he treats it as a cosmic irony, properly placed within a context of ironies. It is almost as if he is suggesting that humans need to use intelligence and wit to insulate themselves against the shocks of experience. Life may be inexplicably painful, but one does not have to be broken by it.

The poem may be considered Ransom’s notion of the mourning of an intellectual. For this reason, upon first reading, it is likely to seem guarded, cold, and impersonal—distant and distancing in its very playfulness. In refusing to grieve, it seems to pretend that human emotions are too elementary to provide satisfying and equivalent responses to loss. It suggests that the heart needs to be shielded against reality.

Subsequent readings disclose that Ransom’s lament is deep-rooted, genuine, and sincere, although it certainly does not wear its heart on its sleeve. On any account, it does not evade the question. The death of children is cruel and inhumane; it violates expectations of the normal and the proper. Death provokes immediate emotional reactions: tears and, paradoxically, laughter—reactions that are not very far apart. Death also requires long-term adjustment because the survivors have to go on with the business of...

(The entire section is 467 words.)