Ransom is best known for the persona, or mask, he establishes in his poems: a courtly, somewhat old-fashioned gentleman, viewing the world with ironic detachment. He accepts the inextricable mix of death and life in human existence. His poetic stance is always aloof. For example, in “Dead Boy” (1927), the persona is almost an outsider, part of “the world of outer dark,” but refers to the boy as “the little cousin,” establishing both kinship with the family and distance from the boy himself and emphasizing the dual perspectives of family and community.
An underlying theme is the disparity between human desires and human destinies. The young girl of “Piazza Piece” (1924) dreams of a fairy-tale lover, but the gray old man is her future. “Blue Girls” (1924) stroll happily, chattering like birds, but Ransom’s persona warns that soon their beauty will fade. Even children are not exempt; for Janet (“Janet Waking,” 1927) a seemingly normal morning holds the lesson that death is an essential part of human experience. “Dead Boy” concludes with unsatisfactory attempts to explain his death, but the speaker turns to one incontrovertible fact: Vitality and an essential life force have been removed from the family tree’s “sapless limbs,” leaving them “shorn and shaken.”
Amid constant mutability, one’s only defense is the sustaining force of sensibility, yet sensibility seems besieged in a world that prefers abstractions. Reason and scientific discourse cannot supply all necessary knowledge; one needs knowledge derived from imagination, myth, and poetry in order to accept the dualism inherent in human experience. “Painted Head” (1945) illustrates Ransom’s “fury against abstraction,” the source of the conflict between science and art. This poem focuses on the interdependence of head (analytical reason, which is capable of knowing) and body (sensibility, which can use beauty to develop a way of perceiving and knowing). Properly joined, head and body create a nurturing home for beauty, myth, and the truths they provide.
Generally, Ransom does not experiment with poetic forms or meter, restricting incongruities to diction and tone. The reader’s emotional distance is established by the diction. In “Dead Boy,” for example, the death is referred to as a “transaction” (a term from commerce) and also as “foul subtraction.” “Foul” suggests extravagant emotion, but its drama is undercut by “subtraction,” which reduces the death to a mathematical process. The speaker further separates event and emotional response by developing the conventional symbol of the family tree into a conceit (a pattern of symbolism which uses domestic images and actions to clarify a serious philosophical concept). Initially the tender young branch has been subtracted; in the final stanza, however, it has been “wrenched away”—a much more violent action, with a much more destructive effect on the tree.
Another distancing device is Ransom’s “habitual ironic humor,” but the irony’s tone is sympathetic. Understatement is frequently used for comic relief, and even Ransom’s most serious poems reveal his fascination with language (especially archaic and regional words). Puns and other types of word play that demonstrate keen wit are found throughout his poems. In “Philomela” (1923), he playfully exploits the tendency to create verbs from almost any noun or adjective, by adding the suffix “-ize.” Thus, Philomela has been successfully “apostrophized” by the Romans and “gallicized” by the French but never “baptized” by Protestant Americans.
Ransom writes minor, domestic poems that deal with ultimate subjects, but he uses community ritual (ceremony) to balance the emotions that these subjects arouse. Ceremony provides a way to transcend the immediate situation because it asserts the most vital human values. Ransom’s decision to write domestic poetry provided the impetus for his most productive period. In fifteen years, he wrote an astonishing number of excellent poems in which ironic wit and understatement allow him to deal successfully with harsh realities of the human condition: Communities cope with the deaths of children (“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” and “Dead Boy”); a young girl learns about mortality (“Janet Waking”); old men take up arms to defend an aging tradition (“Antique Harvesters,” 1927); and young girls are forced to recognize the fate awaiting all beauty (“Blue Girls”). Ransom draws upon the chivalric romance to portray the fate of the epic hero in the modern age: Every attempt at noble action by “Captain Carpenter” (1924) results in destructive violence, yet Ransom’s understatement and archaic diction provide an aesthetic distance that mutes the effect of essentially gory actions.
For Ransom, domestic poetry is a deliberate choice based on self-knowledge. Robert Crocodile (“The Amphibious Crocodile,” 1925) experiences the cosmopolitan lifestyle and wins acceptance by the intellectual elite, but plagued by homesickness, he abruptly discards all the trappings of sophistication and contentedly retreats to the mud of the family bayou, where he chooses to remain.
First published: 1923 (collected in Chills and Fever, 1924)
Type of work: Poem
Discovering that he cannot appreciate Philomela’s song, an American intellectual wonders if the United States can become worthy of the classical aesthetic.
“Philomela” opens by naming the players in the classical myth of the nightingale’s origin. To the American speaker, despite the violence of the story, the sound of their names is pleasing, but the power of myth has waned; the speaker finds the tale “improbable.” Philomela’s song of continuing sorrow is not in harmony with modern American poetry.
Elsewhere, the nightingale has found satisfactory homes, but her myth is at odds with the Puritanism that Ransom considers the most influential force in American culture. Ancient Greeks would consider America “barbarous”; though the speaker never explicitly agrees, he separates himself from overall American culture, conceding that Philomela is unlikely to survive in his “cloudless, boundless, public” democracy. At Oxford, the speaker seeks and finally hears the nightingale but declares her song, supposedly the most beautiful of all songs, a bit flat. Disappointed, the speaker leaves her presence.
In the final stanza, the mature speaker addresses Philomela, questioning whether Americans can become worthy of her. A society where bantering has replaced wit and minute analysis has replaced appreciation of the aesthetic whole seems unsuitable for myths; the nightingale belongs in societies where fables seem possible. “Philomela” can be read as an indictment of American aesthetic, but it also deplores the loss of innocence that has led to “post-scientific poetry” and resulted in humans’ limited knowledge of the world, as they ignore what Ransom calls “the world’s body” and...
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