Ransom, John Crowe 1888–
An American poet and critic, Ransom has been a proponent of the New Criticism. He won the National Book Award for Selected Poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The metaphysical strain is of the fiber of John Crowe Ransom's unique work. His poems are distinguished from those of his confrères by their simplicity, however deceptive, as well as by a livelier wit, a greater gusto, and by their evidence of the poet's singularly nice ear. Ransom is as sensible as any of his companions of the plight of the modern, emphasized for the Southerner by the relics of a decayed tradition. He does not hesitate to make this his theme. But his verse has a kinetic energy that quickens his subtlest intellectualizing, and so bears testimony to the need for participating in an experience with the whole man: mind and body. His poems should not be dismembered, it is only the lyric entire and intact that can convey his meaning. It is his mixture of wit and feeling that gives so fresh a turn to his poetry, whether he engage in theological fencing, embroider with extravagant humor on the bare fabric of a folk tale, or paint a landscape with odd figures who suddenly reach out hands to squeeze the heart….
Ransom is unmistakably a member of the company that not so long ago was in flight from the confusions of our industrialized society into the comparative peace, the stable simplicities of his native region, but he turns a more quizzical eye upon what he finds there. His emotion is so self-analytical as to verge on objectivity, his thoughtfulness too sensitive to lapse into prosy meditation. What other poets strain for, he appears to achieve with felicitous ease…. [Whatever] his subject, little or large, and with Ransom the little is always enlarged by implication, his tone is right. The glint of irony is there, deepened as well as softened by a sensitiveness without a grain of sentimentality. Only rarely is the poetry somewhat obscured by the branching thorns of an excessive wit.
Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 204-09.
The subject-matter of Ransom's poetry is beautifully varied: the poems are about everything from Armageddon to a dead hen. All their subjects are linked, on the surface, by Ransom's persistent attitude, tone, and rhetoric; at bottom they are joined, passively, by being parts of one world—joined, actively, by fighting on one side or the other in the war that is going on in that world. On one side are Church and State, Authority, the Business World, the Practical World, men of action, men of affairs, generals and moralists and applied mathematicians and philosophers you set your watch by—efficient followers of abstraction and ideals, men who have learned that when you know how to use something you know it. There is a good deal of rather mocking but quite ungrudging credit—if little fondness—given to this side of things…. But Ransom's affection goes out to that other army, defeated every day and victorious every night, of so-lightly-armed, so-easily-vanquished skirmishers, in their rags and tags and trailing clouds, who run around and around the iron hoplites pelting them with gravel and rosemary, getting killed miserably, and—half the time, in the pure pleasure or pain of being—forgetting even that they are fighting, and wandering off into the flowers at the edge of the terrible field…. In these ranks are children and the old, women—innocent girls or terrible beauties or protecting housewives, all above or below or at the side of the Real World—lovers, dreams, nature, animals, tradition, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, everything that is at first or at last "content to feel/ What others understand."… [Disenchantment] and enchantment are so prettily and inextricably mingled that we accept everything with sad pleasure, and smile at the poems' foreknowing, foredefeated, mocking, half-acceptant pain. For in the country of the poems wisdom is a poor butterfly dreaming that it is Chuang-tze, and not an optimistic bird of prey; and the greatest single subject of the romantics, pure potentiality, is treated with a classical grace and composure…. Most writers become over-rhetorical when they are insisting on more emotion than they actually feel or need to feel; Ransom is just the opposite. He is perpetually insisting, by his detached, mock-pedantic, wittily complicated tone, that he is not feeling much at all, not half so much as he really should be feeling—and this rhetoric becomes over-mannered, too-protective, when there is not much emotion for him to pretend not to be feeling, and he keeps on out of habit. Ransom developed this rhetorical machinery—tone, phrasing, properties, and all the rest—primarily as a way of handling sentiment or emotíon without ever seeming sentimental or over-emotional; as a way of keeping the poem at the proper aesthetic distance from its subject; and as a way for the poem to extract from its subject, no matter how unpleasant or embarrassing, an unembarrassed pleasure….
Ransom seems in his poems, as most modern poets do not, sympathetic and charming, full of tenderness and affection, wanting the light and sorry for the dark—moral and condemning only when he has to be, not because he wants to be; loving neither the sterner vices nor the sterner virtues…. His poems are full of an affection that cannot help itself, for an innocence that cannot help itself—for the stupid travellers lost in the maze of the world, for the clever travellers lost in the maze of the world. The poems are not a public argument but personal knowledge, personal feeling; and their virtues are the "merely" private virtues—their characters rarely vote, rarely even kill one another, but often fall in love.
Randall Jarrell, "John Ransom's Poetry," in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 87-100.
Ransom is truly a southern writer. But the regional qualities are to be found in his style and his vision rather than his subjects, for in all his career he has published only four poems treating specifically southern themes or backgrounds. The qualities, violence coupled with elegance, affinity for unusual diction, concern with the insignia of feudalism and the chevalier as the embodiment of its values, mockery of the man of ideas, and so forth, are transformed by Ransom's double vision and irony into a poetry so conspicuously his own that his individuality rather than any regionalism first impresses the reader. And quite properly, for the value of Ransom's poetry comes mostly from those aspects which make him different from all other contemporary writers, southern or not. Yet it is difficult to conceive of such poetry being written in twentieth-century America by anyone not from the South. (p. 14)
[The writing,] during the winter of 1921–22 … [of the poem] "Necrological," which resembled neither his earlier work nor any other poetry then being written in America [represented a turning point for Ransom]. Like so many of the poems to come, it was a little fable…. On first reading this poem one is impressed by the knowing antiquarianism, the light, almost mincing manner, and the all-suffusing irony—qualities to be found throughout the poems Ransom wrote during the next six years on which his reputation as a poet is established…. Here, too, were most of the themes Ransom engaged in his mature poetry: the mixed vitality and mortality of flesh, beauty, and love; the disparity between the ideal (the "meads of asphodel") and the actual ("the postured bones lie weather-beaten"); the inadequacy of abstractions such as the friar's dogma in accounting for the range and complexity of man's experience and feelings; and the conflict between duty and desire. Again and again these themes and others like them reappear in the poems and offer a picture resembling the spheres sometimes seen on ancient maps—one sphere representing the world of the heart's desire and the other the world as it truly is; or, to put it somewhat differently, one representing the world as the Hegelian intellect would have it—orderly, predictable, amenable to man's needs and uses—and the other the world known to the poet (if he be a realist)—disorderly, contingent, and indifferent to man. The double vision of the subjects is sustained by the pluralism of their treatment. Mention has been made of the mixing of the rare and the commonplace in diction, but this is only part of the technique which combines the contemporary with the archaic, the lay with the learned, the informal with the formal, the written with the colloquial, and the terse rooted in Anglo-Saxon with the polysyllabic rooted in Latin and Greek. So too the handling of images and tropes: the charming is poised with the disgusting, the dainty with the coarse, the novel with the banal. Even the rhymes and meters mingle extremes of regularity and irregularity, the almost predictable with the wholly unexpected. Conjunctions that would have seemed clumsy in the contexts of the earlier poems now added depth and intensity to the work.
Behind the themes and style was a conception of the mind of as much importance to Ransom's writing as the attitude toward abstractions with which it was closely associated. Ransom believed that man had once been nearly whole and his apprehension and response, though incomplete, had been integrated and effective; but now man was riven into reason and sensibility, which had small communion, with the result that his apprehension was confused and fragmented and his response crippled or even paralyzed. Freud, Eliot, and the bewildering tempo and variety of modern life have helped to make the dissociation of the intellect one of the most pervasive and familiar themes in contemporary literature. But Ransom's conception, though it resembles the binary image of the mind put forward in Freud's early speculations, was essentially his own and derived with his fury against abstractions from his observations. (pp. 20-1)
One might add that such exquisite balancing of powerful opposing forces in the organization of his poems was a particular characteristic of Ransom's style. He liked to work on a narrow line where one false move would plunge him into the ludicrous and sentimental or worse still into archness. He did not often slip. (p. 25)
Ransom is one of the great stylists of modern American poetry. Here is poetry of unabashed elegance and artifice, both carried at times to the edge of affectation and preciousness. This poetry is made and proudly exhibits its technical ingenuity. (p. 28)
[In God Without Thunder, a defense of southern fundamentalists for clinging to their myths as more satisfying representations of life than the new rationalism advocated in the North in the mid-1920's], Ransom suggested that poetry, the arts, ritual, tradition, and the mythic way of looking at nature thrive best in an agrarian culture based on an economy dominated by small subsistence farms. Working directly and closely with nature man finds aesthetic satisfaction and is kept from conceitedness and greed by the many reminders of the limits of his power and understanding. But in an industrial culture he is cut off from nature. He gets into the way of thinking that machinery can give him limitless control over it, and he is denied the little indulgences of the sensibility. His arts and religions wither and he lives miserably in a rectilinear jungle of factories and efficiency apartments. (p. 36)
Throughout the hubbub over Agrarianism Ransom continued to ponder the nature of poetry, and in 1938 he gathered his deliberations in a collection of miscellaneous essays entitled The World's Body. Though he had emphasized the aesthetic satisfaction of the arts when defending an agrarian culture, his main concern in this book was ontological. All art, he had come to believe, originates in a sentimental attachment for beloved objects which the artist wishes to honor through his labor. It is essentially imitative; selection and arrangement of material are governed first by the need for verisimilitude, and the test of success is the accuracy with which it suggests the whole substance of the precious object. As a source of knowledge about the qualities of that object, a work of art is superior to any scientific account. Indeed, it is even better than the object itself because it cannot be used, it can only be contemplated. (pp. 37-8)
[One] wonders how Ransom came to have so much apparent influence. Standing at a distance, one sees that he has contributed little to a theory of poetry and criticism, and what he has rests on some shaky grounds—his conception of a compartmentalized mind, his idea of science, his views regarding the artist's love of nature (he himself wrote scarcely a single line describing nature), his unsatisfactory argument on the ontology of poetry. The climate of the times helped to make him, whether he would or no, the patron of the young Turks of American letters, but that alone could scarcely have given such weight to his views. Then one goes back to his books and all at once the suspect or eccentric assumptions seem far less important and his influence is much easier to understand. There is crankiness in them, but there is also much plain good sense. He may fool himself a bit about poetry, but he almost never fools himself or the reader about a poem. He wants to know what the lines before him mean and how they convey that meaning, and he keeps after them until he finds out. He respects the poem, and as teacher, editor, theorist, and critic, he has helped to make us respect it, too. (pp. 45-6)
John L. Stewart, in his John Crowe Ransom (American Writers Pamphlet No. 18; © 1962, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1962.
John Crowe Ransom refuses to be entombed in the definitions he himself helped formulate. Founder of the Kenyon Review and of the School of Letters, dean of the Southern agrarians and veteran of close textual analysis, he is associated in our minds with the rigid pieties of the new criticism and the nostalgic politics it so often implies. But his generosity of spirit and questing intelligence kept him from ever closing off the literary precincts he controlled from sensibilities alien to his, and even from kinds of madness and passion … he would have considered it poor form to flaunt, as, in the generations since his, it has become fashionable to do. There is a pathos of lastness about him and his accomplishment, the sense of a world already lost to his audience even as he continued to exploit it; but there is never a hint of smugness. And always at work beneath his surfaces, there are, thank God, his own kind of madness and passion—plus a sense of humor both mad and passionate—thrusting against the tight control, the polished form; making the ordered lines buckle, the controlled metaphors blur, the well-bred voice break. Few twentieth-century poems, at any rate, remain as uncomfortably vivid in my memory as his "Captain Carpenter," which I rediscover with surprise on the printed page, having come, I suppose, to believe it a remembered nightmare, or a frightening story heard in childhood from some amiable, terrible old man….
It is possible that Ransom will be remembered as the poet of childhood, for most of his best work rings as if in the ear of a child, or is about childhood itself: that last area of wilderness left to the genteel imagination.
Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Waiting for the End (copyright © 1964 by Leslie A. Fiedler; from the book Waiting for the End; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day, Publishers), Stein & Day, 1964, pp. 223-24.
The reasons for Ransom's comparative lack of fame as a poet are many. Ironically, his great prestige as a teacher, critic, and founding editor of The Kenyon Review has helped to obscure his stature as a poet. Other factors are his extraordinary modesty, typified by his reaction to the Bollingen Prize, and his fastidious refusal to engage in any form of self-promotion. More important, perhaps, has been Ransom's limited and brief output….
As a poet, Ransom remains an original. One can see the faint influence of John Skelton in such a poem as "Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom," of John Donne in "The Equilibrists," of Thomas Hardy in "Puncture" and "Master's in the Garden Again" (the latter dedicated to him), of Wallace Stevens in "Prometheus in Straits" and "Prelude to an Evening." One can see other poems from which Robert Graves has learned, or Robert Lowell, or Howard Nemerov. But in a deeper sense, John Crowe Ransom's poetry seems to be without ancestry and descendants, to spring up timeless and beautiful like Indian pipes in deep woods, to delight our minds and refresh our hearts.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Antique Harvester, Lovely Ritualist," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 163-67.
[No] poet of our age, not even his exact contemporary T. S. Eliot, has surpassed [Ransom] in the awareness of the shadowy back room of the human condition, where "invisible evil, deprived and bold" makes its bid for domination. Yet, looked at closely, all the magnificent poems of the Ransom canon are love poems, celebrating love's triumph even in renunciation. The famous "precious objects" are the objects of love, even though they must, like the lovers, vanish into the thin air of human failure and eventually of death….
Mr. Ransom has lived into this less seemly world, neither accepting it nor rejecting it, neither alienated nor engaged, but balanced between past and present, knowing that all this has happened before, and may happen again. The dustcoat … warns us to slow up, to take thought, to come out of our Gnostic dream of perfection back into the actual world, where human reality is in the commitment to the limited human condition, which allows us only the irony of imperfect love.
Allen Tate, "Gentleman in a Dustcoat," in Sewanee Review (© 1968 by The University of the South), Summer, 1968, pp. 375-81.
Ransom's poetry will outlast his critical theory. His influence has been enormous, particularly during his many years of teaching at Kenyon and editing The Kenyon Review—all out of proportion, really, to his actual accomplishments as a critic. He taught a generation how to write poems and how to criticize them: Do both, he said in effect, in such a way that the Positivists can never find you out and pin you down. In an age unfriendly to myth and rite as well as to poetry, defend all three, he said, protecting yourself as you do so by irony. You will thus be helping to maintain that "genuine humanism" that is not so much a philosophy as a "way of life" resting ultimately on the mythic God who thunders, the God of "orthodoxy."
The strategy aimed at invulnerability is itself vulnerable. The irony that protects one from attack also prevents one from attacking. Irony is not a mood that encourages exploration. Ransom himself has not proved to be a persistent explorer—though of course, he never said he was; his poem has a persona, another device useful for protection in an unfriendly place. He will be remembered as a distinguished minor poet who, chiefly in his early youth, wrote a small number of perfectly wrought, finely textured poems that are likely to be remembered a long time.
Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 530-40.
The present fame of John Crowe Ransom is very great, perhaps greater than it will be in a few decades when the fires are banked down but continuing to throw forth radiant light and steady warmth, but this much is clear: the essential reputation is certain and will endure….
The World's Body is among the most influential works of criticism in this century and … The New Criticism, three or four of the pieces in Poems and Essays, and a good dozen uncollected papers are nearly as important. The World's Body has the richness of texture and the density of meaning which Ransom ascribes to metaphysical poetry….
John Crowe Ransom is the most philosophical of the group he labelled "New Critics," yet he denounces the abstraction that is frequently associated with philosophical thinking and demands concreteness and specificity in poetry. For him the true richness of a poem is found in its local texture of language and metaphor—not in the intended fable and theme, the logical structure or argument. Richard Blackmur has called this aspect of poetry the "principle of indeterminacy, the principal [sic] of complementary variable relations," saying that "indeterminacy is life." Ransom would strongly agree….
Had one to choose a single passage to represent the distillation of Ransom's critical thought, he might quote this one from ["The Concrete Universal"]: "The play between the understanding with its moral Universal on the one hand, and on the other hand Imagination presenting the purposive Concrete of nature, is unpredictable and inexhaustible." These are the essential dimensions of poetry for Ransom, who also remarks that "the poet's theology is metaphorical, and the poet knows it is metaphorical, and insists like Keats in holding by a rule of Negative Capability." The poet fashions his "theology" from the natural world which is "hospitable to the moral Universals" and which provides the metaphorical body for poetry by being its rich and infinite source of analogy. There is another element—meter, the third member of the "trinitarian existence" of a poem. "The rhythm of the meters envelops the two other objects, like an atmosphere…. It is a low-grade object making an elemental, cosmic, and eternal object." Poetry is therefore vastly more complex than a mere Emersonian "meter-making argument," for at its best a poem embodies nothing less than an autonomous segment of the world's body. On the one hand is "pure structure" (both plot and argument); on the other is "pure technique" (meter); and somewhere in between is the texture which includes the "energy of the words" and the metaphors which eventuate in the essence of human experience, a microcosm which contains "nearly everything we can possibly desire. It is the best of all possible worlds."
John Crowe Ransom has long resided in the house of poetry as both critic and poet and carefully explored its many rooms, which are at least as various as those in the house of fiction. He knows that it is a spacious, even an infinite mansion—and more, that "every poet finds his place in the company of poets, and there is no necessity for killing one poet to make room for another."… Ransom has a room to himself in this mansion, but he is by no means confined to it in his taste of poetry—only in his behavior as maker of poetry. That room has a long and bright view, and its French windows open out upon a teeming, busy, intractable world which may be at once public and domestic, decorous and savage, gentle and cruel, stern and playful, austere and lavish, classic and romantic, antique and contemporary (always contemporaneous)….
John Crowe Ransom is his own man with a unique voice which is distinctive by virtue of its language and tone. As Matthiessen and Brooks have shown, the language has an antique quality and many of the same Latinate properties which Ransom has discovered in Shakespeare: it is deliberately archaic yet timeless, occasionally eccentric but never obscure, at once quiet and nervous, pedantic and plain, formal and idiomatic, mannered and colloquial. Ransom the poet and the protagonist-persona of his lyrics always keeps the world at arm's distance, clearly in view—immediately before himself and the reader. The tone frequently involves irony, but a more inclusive term for it is wit, which includes the facetious and droll and whimsical as well as the ironic—and which in the best metaphysical poetry is often redemptive. Wit enables Ransom to present small objects and situations in fragile and restricted settings, whereas irony might explode them—or would at least be harshly out of place…. The play of wit in the poetry of Ransom makes voice and vision one.
George Core, "New Critic, Antique Poet," in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South), Summer, 1969, pp. 508-16.
Few American literary men of this century have been as versatile and influential as this poet, critic, teacher, editor, and trainer of young writers. Few have had the force of personality and style to lead movements and institutions as important to American intellectual life as the Fugitives and Agrarians, The Kenyon Review, and The Kenyon School of Letters. Only Pound and Williams have had as profound a personal impact upon younger writers; for among Ransom's students are Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, and Anthony Hecht. Who besides Eliot can match Ransom for prolific output of critical essays consistent with lucidity, point, and rhetorical finish? (Preface)
As a poet, Ransom is a virtuoso of covertness. Since his early indulgence in straightforward verse, Poems About God, he has been unrelenting in his search for techniques by which to produce poetic effects while securing the author's anonymity. Most of his poems, therefore, invite a critical strictness, an exacting attention to their autotelic design. (Preface)
Many critics have noticed the persistent theme of the divided sensibility in Ransom's poetry, but few have made much of the precedence which Ransom himself gives to the intellect in his implicit preference for tone over emotion. Sentimentality has been as much a tyrant for Ransom as for Hemingway; fear of it and ingenious effort to avoid it have produced many sterile and innocuous poems. (pp. 21-2)
Ransom's 'intellectual' poems are more substantial than his droll narratives. Their genesis may be attributed to an imaginative engagement of central human existence rather than to a blithe indulgence of whimsy; thus they have a more permanent interest for us. Their predominant flaws do, however, remind us to the author's unflagging loyalty to a program of antisentimentality; for, while Ransom seeks to avoid the obviousness of shrill emotion, he succumbs to a counterdistortion—obviousness of rhetoric. (p. 30)
This century has produced uncompromising enemies against the provincialism of America. John Crowe Ransom is a worthy parallel to T. S. Eliot. They are to American poetry what Henry James was to American prose. They are advocates and practitioners of a civilized poetry; in them culminate the esthetic subtlety and scrupulosity that the obdurate American character resisted for so long. (p. 39)
It seems inappropriate and misleading to speak of Ransom's love poems. They are poems about love that have modernist technical guards against obviousness, nȧiveté, and sentimentality. None of them has the passionate, reckless immediacy that we expect of love poems; only two of them have an unqualified commitment to the one emotion that precludes forethought and deliberation. All of them reflect Ransom's conscientious aversion to directness and to revelation of the author's private personality and his faith in distance-creating techniques, his determination to hold the reader at a psychological remove from the emotion and from the imaginary people involved. Some of them are cool—almost philosophical—studies of the opposed human inclinations toward passion and toward restraint in the name of some idealism; some of them reflect a queasiness toward love, a reluctance like Prufrock's; some of them trade on a rather thin irony; some of them have local excellences but no culminating realization of the whole; a few of them succeed. (p. 60)
Ransom's experimental boldness takes an unusual form: the aim is to work with emotional meagerness and transform it. Ransom tries for a startling freshness in wresting a victory from sparsity, in subduing intractable materials and making them serve implausible ends. His is a poetics of voluntarily incurred disadvantages. (p. 61)
Ransom's self-consciousness about his modernism leads him into daring experimentation with emotional meagerness…. His major weakness seems to be that he often settles for a sophisticated execution without emotional power or the clear lyric line: he frequently incurs more disadvantages then he can transcend through a strict fidelity to his principles. His impotent poems about love are skeletal reflections of his fatal obsession with technique. Sometimes his poetry seems like a deliberate, narcissistic cerebral amusement rather than an adventure in the brave encompassing of life. (p. 83)
A proper appreciation of Ransom's poetry calls for a modest cultivation of literary asceticism. The reader must accustom himself to the idea that he will encounter no portrayal of strong personalities, no mighty emotional drama, and (except very faintly and indirectly) little sense of a poet's dreadful self-discovery. He must tune himself to register elusive subtleties of perception and elegances of rhyme, wit, and rhetoric. He must be somewhat willing to forgive Ransom for the acute esthetic self-consciousness that made him habitually subordinate passion to tonal control. He must be indulgent of Ransom's addictions to pale or paralyzing irony and to refined whimsicality. In brief, he should accept the limitations inherent in a civilized poetry and try to savor the fragile excellences. (p. 129)
Ransom's best poems are sterling products of a fidelity to emotional precision. Really excellent ones are few in number, and he had not overlooked any of these when he gathered his first Selected Poems. A fatal consequence of the interest that produced the best poems has been much unfruitful experimentation with detachment, poems that are stillborn because they have too little emotion or zest to be precise and decorous about. The most impressive fact about the revisions is that in 1945, and less spectacularly in 1955, Ransom not only reduced the sentimental phrasing and overstatement—obvious violations of his artistic code—but he was critical even of his peculiar kind of self-indulgence, his predilection for archaism and grandiloquence. In every version of Selected Poems, though, there have been whole representatives of a willingness to sacrifice power to esthetic distance, poems whose slightness is preordained by Ransom's attraction to motifs that have a built-in detachment: fanciful elaborations that lead to no illumination, no startling climax, no virtuosity of emotional control; strained little narratives that embody a transparent irony; thin caricatures. Guards against offensive emotionality are sometimes too patent and are themselves offensive. (p. 140)
Experimentation did not carry Ransom beyond his preconceived dogmas. A meticulous reading of all the poems will diminish the sense of variety and will cause some disenchantment about Ransom's frequency of control over his favorite techniques. It will also lodge with the reader an annoying sense of Ransom's fussy eccentricities: his addiction to archaism and nostalgia, to innocuous drollery, to grandiloquence, to an anti-Victorian toughness, to flaccid irony. The persistence of these odd traits suggests that Ransom is usually in less danger of being carried away by emotion than by decorum. Many of his poems are so dominated by his severe practice of detachment that they seem like little exercises in different methods of subduing personal emotion. Frequently the people and the incidents that he invents are the terminus of his interest, not fictions subordinate to an illuminating perception or a powerful feeling. Symptoms of this autonomous fancifulness are the persistent repetitions of a remarkably few conflicts: desire for a passionate, committed life opposed by old age or emotional impotence; love versus honor; idealism versus disappointing realistic compromise or humiliating sense of limitation. Ransom's is largely a negative and timorous poetry, suffused with an uneasy feeling of mortality and emphasizing the great disparities between what people need emotionally and what they can have. The brave and reckless poems are exceptional, inharmonious with Ransom's standard production. However, I think it does not work entirely to Ransom's disadvantage when we read all of his poems with care. Inevitably this scrutiny will reveal both the astonishing completeness of his esthetic purism and the incredible amount of strain and contrivance in much of his invention, but it will also create a new respect for his most successful poems. His greatest triumphs owe their permanent luster to the unlikely transcendence of his severe standards. He likes to work precariously, sparely; to forswear easy advantages…. (p. 164)
As a critic, Ransom helped to define and establish rejuvenated Classical canons for poetry. As a poet, he worked scrupulously and originally within them. His best work is a brilliant consummation of the sophisticated esthetics that Poe struggled toward and that provincial America resists in all periods. The modern poetic sensibility must acquiesce in the prevailing milieu without surrendering devotion to the creative daemon. Cummings denounced the theory-heavy academy; and while Stevens, Frost, and Williams remained its friends, they kept their distance and haunted racier neighborhoods. Like many American poets in the nineteenth century and many more since World War II in the twentieth century, Ransom worked within its constrictions and suffered its tamenesses. His self-conscious reverence for principles of execution scholasticized his daemon. Ransom is the most distinguished poet of his kind that America has produced. He is an academic poet, always seeking his most potent effect from the built-in paradox of his poetics: the intensification of feeling that comes from ascetic techniques. Academic or not, only a few poets of this century will add eleven works to the permanent tradition of English and American poetry. (p. 165)
Thornton H. Parsons, in his John Crowe Ransom, Twayne, 1969.
Ransom is a genuine dualist. One cannot say that he is at bottom a believer in one or the other of the two opposed attitudes. He protests against the abstracting intellect because he believes it to be, as embodied in modern science, a present danger; the danger is that it may win too complete a victory, drying up or denying the pleasures of the innocent sensibility. But Ransom never repudiates logic or science; he would not give a complete victory to emotion, texture, play, innocence, and uselessness even if he could. His very effective polemic against Romanticism is, in fact, based on the charge that the Romantics made precisely this error: they and their modern descendants try to exclude the intellect from poetry and hence fall into sentimentality and other kinds of false simplification…. As his prose makes clear, Ransom himself has always remained a thoroughgoing skeptic: beneath the personal charm and the gentle and courteous manner he has been detached, unbelieving, unillusioned, perhaps inclining rather more to the scientific attitude, or at least increasingly sympathetic toward it. There has been a radical hard-headed skepticism, a kind of bleakness, beneath the "traditional" surface. The irony in Ransom's poetry is profound and unresolved; it is tragic, for its only resolution is in the idea of death.
Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (© 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 158-59.
In all [of his best] poems, Ransom's charm, his use of texture, his mastery of the adverb and the off-balanced construction, his shifts from Latinate to Anglo-Saxon words and from regional to idiosyncratic diction, and his attention to detail and the placement of words emerge increasingly as his most engaging and enduring traits and provide what joys and lessons a reader eventually brings away.
Jerome Mazzaro, "Ransom's New Selected Poems," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of The Editor of Poetry), January, 1971, pp. 275-76.