Ransom, John Crowe 1888–1974
Ransom was a Southern American poet and critic. His graceful and gently ironic poems were generally consonant with the principles of New Criticism, of which "school" he was a major proponent. With Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, Ransom was also active in the "Fugitive Group" of poets living and working in Nashville from about 1915 to 1928. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 49-52.)
For Ransom the agrarian image is of the kind of life in which leisure, grace, civility can exist in harmony with thought and action, making the individual's life a wholesome, harmonious experience. When Ransom writes of nature, it is almost never as wilderness, but as farmland. His agrarianism is of the old Southern plantation, the gentle, mannered life of leisure and refinement without the need or inclination to pioneer. The necessity for order and stability is uppermost in Ransom's world. His poems reflect his abhorrence of (and, paradoxically, his fascination with) disorder; they are full of violence, bloodshed, gore…. The violence is always presented with mannered gentility, a sense of chivalric decorum in language, that serves only to underscore and emphasize the terror of the action….
Ransom's poetry is that of a gentleman of culture and refinement confronting the savagery and horror that lie beneath the veneer of everyday modern life. The elegance of the diction, the quaintness of the metaphor serve to intensify the desperate nature of the predicament. Everywhere about him he sees violence and terror, and he is appalled at what he sees. Ransom's agrarianism is an assertion of the value of ritual, manners, tradition, as a way of disciplining the passionate violence of the world, while helping to realize its frail loveliness.
Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in his Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country, University of Washington Press, 1963, pp. 166-70.
Mr. Ransom has said that he considers the dramatic monologue the central poetic form, and this is one of his critical dicta rather subtly related to his practice. He has not made the dramatic monologue in the usual sense his characteristic form. But the voice which speaks his poems is always crucial to their effects, and is only deviously the poet's own. Like the fictional point of view it is maneuvered, in its more contracted space, to lead us through a series of perspectives to the essential apprehension. These perspectives may suggest roles, attitudes of participants, may be only the inflections of the unsaid. Sometimes, as with the fictional device, the point of view becomes the real protagonist….
Mr. Ransom has always been as sparingly descriptive as a poet can be, although he has been masterly at suggesting the visual in its repercussions.
Leonie Adams, "Masters in the Garden Again," in the symposium "On John Crowe Ransom," in New World Writing, No. 22, Lippincott, 1964.
A poet's use of literary allusions brings up the problem of obscurity, particularly in this period which has witnessed such a supreme example of the obscure use of erudition as The Waste Land. There are both similarities and pertinent differences in Ransom's and Eliot's allusions. Both poets include a wide range of literature and learning in their allusions, and an understanding of those allusions aids the reader's understanding of both poets. Any kind of allusion implies a necessary obscurity to those ignorant of the thing referred to. But Ransom's allusions are not so frequent or recondite as Eliot's. And perhaps more important, in Ransom's poetry ignorance of the allusions does not destroy the continuity of the logical progress of the poem. He does not place so heavy a burden upon his allusions as Eliot often does. (p. 27)
Ransom is comic in the sense that Voltaire and Rabelais, Swift and Twain are comic: the humor is real, but it is based upon a sense of far-reaching incongruity. The times are out of joint, Ransom seems to say, but we can still take an objective look at things. And a good way to keep one's balance is to look at things through a witty and ironic style. (p. 37)
The metaphor is Ransom's favorite figure of speech, and the study of his use of it provides a good deal of understanding of his poetic techniques and achievements. Ransom infrequently uses synecdoche and metonymy; he uses only a moderate number of similes; the metaphor, the "climactic figure", is overwhelmingly his characteristic figure of comparison. (p. 38)
Whether or not metaphor is a part of everyone's speech, whether intrinsic or acquired, the important thing for the critic remains the quality of the practice of metaphor. It must be agreed that some people demonstrate a superior degree of skill and achievement in the use of metaphor, as in the use of any other element of language. The psychology of creativity remains obscure even this long after Aristotle, but the objective fact of the created work is readily available for study. (p. 39)
Structure and texture are in Ransom's theory contending forces; the logical argument tries to push forward, but the texture of irrelevant details entices the reader "away into passionate excursions". Or, another way of putting it is to say that the "science" of the poem wishes to arrive at its generalized statement while the "poetry" of the poem offers isolated aesthetic pleasures along the way. And in speaking of poetry as knowledge, Ransom places his emphasis upon the kind of thing that science cannot know, texture. Poetry is valuable because it sees the world in its fullness and complexity of details. (pp. 41-2)
The individual image or figure, then, is the key element in the ontological distinction of the poem. It is the element which gives aesthetic pleasure, the thing which recalls for us the world as we have experienced it. And so Ransom's theory of the poem and his defense of poetry as opposed to science suggest why he makes frequent and varied use of metaphors. Images and figures are for aesthetic contemplation, "for exploration and delight"; and it follows that the more striking the imagery, the more delightful it is to contemplate. (p. 42)
The typical Ransom metaphor … cannot be reduced to a single word; it comprises a more extended utterance…. The fact that Ransom's figures of comparison can so seldom be reduced to a single word is significant. His figures are not mere decoration or incidental ornamentation; they are evidences of the quality of his mind. He sees in terms of objects, which makes him a distinctly lyric poet. (p. 43)
Ransom tends to use the practical, the homely image, rather than the technical or abstract one.
These metaphysical qualities in Ransom—extended metaphors or conceits, strict logical consistency, and boldness or wit—these things indicate that the quality of Ransom's poetic performance is closer to the poetry of Donne's school than to that of any later period. Indeed, the implications of the entire study of Ransom's practice of metaphor lead to the same conclusion. The poets of the eighteenth century characteristically preferred the simile to the metaphor, and in their practice they insisted upon decorum (hence Johnson's outrage at the "excesses" of metaphysical wit). Ransom prefers the metaphor, and his ironic attitude leads him to "indecorous" conversions upward and downward. Ransom sets himself apart also from the Romantics and Victorians by his studied maintenance of aesthetic distance and avoidance of the announced message. These are generalizations to which numerous exceptions could be cited, but as generalizations they seem to agree with the conventional findings of literary history. (p. 65)
[One] must turn to symbols in order to see the full significance of Ransom's view of experience in the modern world. The progression from diction to metaphor and then to symbol is a movement in a direct line. The image, the metaphor, and the symbol are indeed so closely related that a particular image may be in the form of a figure of speech and at the same time have symbolic value. And so in turning attention to Ransom's symbolism, one is not dealing with new objects in the poems so much as with the same kind of objects but on a different level. And it is on the level of symbolism that Ransom's poetic thought may be most comprehensively examined.
Among Ransom's major themes are the dissociation of sensibility and mutability, both of which are often developed symbolically. It is not necessary to perform extensive analyses of both themes, however, for several reasons. Ransom's symbols tend to be fluid rather than fixed; that is, they have a general signification which is reduced to particular applications in particular contexts. The same symbols generally are used in developing each theme, and if a symbol's general meaning is understood, then it may be easily enough comprehended in any context…. Secondly, the dissociation of sensibility is Ransom's major theme. (pp. 67-8)
Obscure poetry, according to Ransom, suggests a great deal of meaning but refuses to clarify, organize, or conclude what is set forth. Pure poetry, on the other hand, aims at aesthetic effect without even suggesting any meaning or moral effect; the pure poet "has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art". The kind of poetry which Ransom prefers, however, is neither modern obscure nor modern pure poetry; it is "impure" poetry, a traditional compound of "a moral effect with an aesthetic effect". "As for poetry, it seems to me a pity that its beauty should have to be cloistered and conventual, if it is 'pure,' or teasing and evasive, if it is 'obscure.' The union of beauty with goodness and truth has been common enough to be regarded as natural. It is the dissociation which is unnatural and painful." In his practice of poetry, with its fusion of technical brilliance and significant thematic content, Ransom has avoided the kinds of dissociation which characterize modern poetry. Perhaps the poetic act has been an important means in his own experience of combating the general malady of dissociation in this age. (pp. 72-3)
Ransom has an obvious joy in the fact of physical life itself and in the concrete "world's body". And then he has a high standard for the quality of man's experience in that world. He has a vision of man as a being with a highly refined sensitivity to aesthetic and spiritual values. Man is seen as a creature with natural instincts for a life of fullness and harmony. Ransom's Garden of Eden existed in pre-scientific ages….
The symbols which Ransom establishes to project this view of man are drawn largely from nature or from natural acts. On the one hand there are the objects, colors, and activities which suggest fullness and vitality, images representing the realm of unified experience. Modern man comprehends these qualities only in transient recollections of his pre-scientific nature. He is more familiar with the antithetical qualities of depletion and isolation, suggested by images of coldness, dullness, or unsuccessful activities. (p. 108)
The analysis of Ransom's language on the levels of diction, metaphor, and symbol reveals the richness of the technical skill employed in developing his principal effects and ideas. His diction, which has fascinated many critics by its precision and significant surprises, brings together terms from many sources and levels of language. It moves from the pedantic to the commonplace, from the euphemistic to the starkly shocking, and from the archaic to the colloquial. Ransom's metaphors reveal the boldness of his poetic approach to subjects, an approach which is typically original and markedly metaphysical. The primary quality of his diction and metaphors is irony, which results from the fusing of disparate elements of diction, from applying surprising language to subjects, or from unexpected comparisons. Things subjected to Ransom's scrutiny are placed in new focuses, sometimes being elevated and sometimes apparently being "demoted" in regard to conventional attitudes. The characteristic result is a new attitude toward the subject being presented.
Ransom's symbolism consists largely of a fairly consistent pattern of repeated images, the significance of which is easily seen and analyzed once the basis of the symbols is understood. First, Ransom delights in nature, and then he desires that man lead a full life in harmony with nature. Ransom believes that man's originally coherent relationship to nature has been perverted by the abstractionism which is the concomitant of the scientific method. And thus images and figures and events which are perverted, distorted, or dulled come to symbolize the curse of modernism: the dissociation of sensibility or the fragmentation of personality, Ransom's main concern in his poetry. (p. 110)
Ransom achieves variety in sameness; that is, though he tends to deal with aspects of the same general problem, he does so through original, bold, and varied usage of different levels of language. As concrete objects of art, his works are each distinct, none quite like any other. Only the concept or idea tends to sameness. Even the symbols which recur over and over are fresh, for they occur in different contexts and in varied juxtapositions. The fact that Ransom's variety in manner saves the matter from seeming repetitive is demonstrated by the failure of many of his pre-Fugitive works. Ransom had pretty much the same ideas in all his poetry, but only when he couched his ideas in his mature style did his poetry become successful as art. The significant ideas became significant poetry through skillful techniques.
Ransom is traditional in that he is deeply concerned about the condition of man in the world; he is modern in that he avoids open moralization…. His indirection and objectivity are most clearly indicated by two of the predominant qualities in his work, irony and aesthetic distance. The latter keeps the reader detached from the poetic object, allowing him to get a rounded view unhampered by distracting sentimentalism or other imposed attitudes. Irony, itself a device contributing to aesthetic distance, provides two or more objects or choices, and a choice is generally not easy to make. The fact that Ransom establishes tensions which are not easily resolved suggests his recognition of a difficult world. Life pulls one way and then another, and man tends to take the line of least resistance, often not knowing which choice to make.
The plight of man is Ransom's main thematic concern. In the face of modernism, the loss of God, a rapidly changing order of life, or the prospect of death, man is uncertain, hesitant, confused. Ransom's people more often than not are destroyed, whether physically or spiritually. They are often passive. (p. 111)
Ransom sees human isolation as the condition of modernism rather than as a universal fact of experience. Underlying his work is a nostalgia for a time when it was not this way. In Agrarian terms, man was capable of coherent life before industrialism. In classical terms, man was a creature of integrated experience before science destroyed his ability to see individual objects. This nostalgic view of an integrated world as opposed to the modern world of dissociation is the basic irony which informs Ransom's poetry.
If Ransom depicts the destruction of man, if he presents the cause in the form of abstractionism, and if he usually presents man as a passive object acted upon by the cause, what then keeps Ransom from being a naturalist? First of all, he is essentially classical in his attitudes. He believes in a world of order and balance, a world which at times man has realized. Modern man with his dissociation is viewed in a historical context: man has departed from the way, and the departure is wholesale, but it is viewed in a lengthy perspective of better times and conditions.
And secondly, Ransom's portrait of man is essentially noble…. Ransom says that man is a good deal more than his generally wretched life at present would indicate. (pp. 112-13)
Although his antagonism toward science led him to excessive emphasis upon the separateness of structure and texture, nonetheless one can see in his theory the essential conflict which he projects in all of his thought and work, the conflict between a concrete world of full experience and a debilitating abstractionism. (p. 113)
Ransom himself is apparently caught in the trap of modernism. He is an intellectual specialist in an age of intellectual specialists. (p. 114)
In a positive sense Ransom does not create a myth of man. Modern man has perhaps lost the myth-making faculty…. Ransom does in [one] sense offer a "fragmentary myth". His human failures and defeats are typically played against a background of natural harmony and fullness. Ransom uses nature as a picture of "what might be or ought to be". In other words, his direct approach is to depict the flaws of modernism, which is a negative task; and his indirect approach is to set up as a foil the myth of harmony and coherence. This again is his central tension and the basis of his vision of man as a noble creature fallen upon ignoble times. (p. 115)
In his treatment of a few main ideas he achieves delightful variety through the rich use of multitudinous elements from the "world's body". Because of his limited production and scope, he is a minor poet. Because of his magnificent handling of language and his concern for man's widespread confusion in a difficult world, he is a good minor poet. If he survives the tests of time, it will doubtless be because posterity will remain preoccupied with the confusions of a scientific world and because virtuosity in poetic techniques will remain an admired talent. (p. 116)
Karl F. Knight, in his The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom: A Study of Diction, Metaphor, and Symbol (© Mouton 1964; reprinted by permission of Mouton & Co., Publishers), Mouton, 1964.
[Ransom's speech] is that of the Gentleman, rather than that of the Common Man. The Gentleman is of no definite society usually—from the first the poet was determined not to "lapse" into "those amiable Southern accents"—but of the Anglo-American culture. His sentences have the effect of an ease that can indulge itself in the direction of elegance, except in a few late poems, where they become more nervously elliptical, more conventionally modern. He is learned enough and assured enough to range in his words from the colloquial to the archaic or pedantic (the latter kinds in a tone frequently of self-mockery, for he is conscious of being human, all too human, and does not want his judgments to be taken as final). Or to play a Latinate vocabulary off against an Anglo-Saxon…. The effects of Ransom's poetry are almost exclusively effects of language, and effects that are possible almost exclusively through language. Its irony is a subtle, and gentle, irony of tone, rather than an irony of startling juxtaposition such as we have in Eliot. Imagery is of minimum importance in Ransom, and his poetry may therefore disappoint the reader who takes one of his chief delights in the image. But it is possible, perhaps, to make too much even of image in poetry. (I mean image here in the restricted sense of picture—Eliot's crab at the end of a stick—as distinct from metaphor and simile, which are also effects and means developed best through language.) If it is the image we want more than anything else, we can get it best from the graphic artist. In one sense Ransom's poetry might be said to be of the "purest" kind: in its fidelity to its medium. (pp. 6-7)
Because of Ransom's quietly toned, frequently understated discourse, the reader first may find him "cold."… It is an old misreading of Ransom, and not at all peculiar to the inexperienced reader. (p. 7)
Another error is due to a confusion of the genres that is endemic among modern readers. Because Ransom's poems are based often on a kind of narrative situation—that is, on the kind of situation that the prose fictionist could work with too—the reader may be led, as one generally admiring critic has been, to compare the poet to the novelists and come away complaining that his people are only types. Or he may be led to some extreme judgments, like another critic: to count "Here Lies a Lady," "Piazza Piece," "Hilda" and others as complete failures because the "characterizations" are flat, and to prefer a possibly inferior poem, like "Puncture," because it is a little more like a short story. (p. 8)
The vagueness about the narrator of which the critic complains in "Here Lies a Lady" is due really to the fact that there is no narrator at all—that is, no speaker distinct from the poet, as long as we understand that by poet we do not mean the historical John Crowe Ransom. The I of "Here Lies a Lady" is no different from the I of "The Equilibrists," or "Special Lovers," or "Good Ships"; in these poems there is no intention to make the I a distinct character, with a distinct relation to other distinct characters, as the term "narrator" or "speaker" might imply. (pp. 8-9)
Ransom is subtle in his irony, and the reader who has been trained by the modern critic to have sharp ears for irony, to be wary of taking almost anything at face value, may go too far and begin to imagine a whole complex of little ironies where none are intended. (p. 9)
Robert Buffington, "Introduction" to his The Equilibrist: A Study of John Crowe Ransom's Poems, 1916–1963, Vanderbilt University Press, 1967.
Most of Ransom's poetry is concerned, in various manifestations, with divided man living between polarities, between possibilities; it asserts the honesty, even in the face of inconclusiveness, of acknowledging man's dualism in which mind and body, as in the line from "Painted Head," are "so hardly one they terribly are two." Above all, in the resolution of polarities into something of worth, that value is not necessarily commensurate with ideal moral or aesthetic standards…. Both [Robert Penn] Warren and Ransom record the dangers in the yearning attempts to make the ruck of a fallen, circumstantial world conform to a settled, even abstract, ideal.
The pertinence here is not the originality of this shared vision (an ancient one, which Warren himself has identified as central to several diverse writers), but rather, the similarity and significance of approach, the deployment of a technique that ratifies the vision as a relevant one for twentieth-century man. Both writers create dramatic personae to articulate a view of man struggling, of man in his "precarious balancing of antinomies." As readers have sometimes pointed out, both the Ransom and the Warren personae, however varied and endowed with whatever independent life, are rarely wholly separate from their creators.
Many of Ransom's poems are structured around the figure of an observer whose serious ambivalences help to distance the nostalgia for and sentimentality toward an older time, a more seemly "place," and the informing little ceremonies—antique and perhaps inadequate—which lent a certain meaning to man's life. "Janet Waking," "The Equilibrists," "Blue Girls," "Vision by Sweetwater," "Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom" all locate the pervasive disparity between an innocent ideality and the impossibility of its survival squarely in the sensibility of a detached but sympathetic I. Still others—"Antique Harvesters," "Persistent Explorer," "Captain Carpenter," "Necrological"—are given shape by nothing more felt than an authorial voice also detached but sympathetic. In both kinds of poems a hard wit and a toughminded irony prevent the breaking loose of not merely incipient romanticism but also, more threatening, despair, which may stem from either residual Calvinism or rationalistic unbelief.
The qualities of the Ransom persona have been discussed by no one better than Warren himself. The larger problem of belief in Poems about God (1919), he states, implied a previous split in the poet himself—"a quarrel with the self, a drama of the self." In succeeding volumes throughout the 1920's the drama is more fortunately distanced, in narrative and seminarrative situations, because the recurring persona is set against a microcosmic rural world; the drama reflects the pattern of "reduction" common to the pastoral tradition, which produces "the irony of wisdom out of innocence, the clarity of the human outline when set in the light of nature, the shock of truth out of naivete." The resulting Ransom "voice" then emerges out of the "dimensions of the persona, with both the tension and the loving interplay between a man and his heritage, the drama of 'difference from' and 'identification with.'"
James H. Justus, "A Note on John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the publisher; copyright 1969 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), November, 1969, pp. 425-30.
John Crowe Ransom is the critical champion of the existent in the world and in literature. This, it would seem, would be sufficient reason for the study of him. For if we do not know and revere existence, what do we know or revere? Ransom believes that the world and the poem, which aesthetically reveals the world, should stand inviolate against the critical pragmatists of this age who "go about seeking whom they may devour" so that all things may become their image and their likeness. In short, Ransom is an objective rather than a narcissistic critic. He wishes the world and the poem to be perceived as what they are and not as someone would have them to be…. Ransom is a critic who wishes to be faithful to the reality of 'the world's body', who wishes the poem aesthetically to reveal that reality, and wishes criticism to show the poem as revealing or distorting it. Those whom he calls the moral and scientific pragmatists seek to abstract from the world (that includes the poem) what is useful for their purpose and then order the world to their abstractions. For Ransom these are manipulators, not critics—interested in use, not revelation.
Ransom to a great extent fathered a 'new criticism' which was bent on letting the poem be itself and not something else; not, for example, a means of moral propaganda or psychic therapy…. Ransom believes that in knowing this aesthetic being, the poem, we will more surely and deeply know its correlative—the world, in the fullness and realness of its 'body'. This word 'body' is used deliberately by Ransom to connote the exquisite material being which constantly presents itself to the consciousness of man. Ransom is not a transcendentalist, an essentialist, or a mystic. He is a critic and a poet who is concerned with existent, particular being and man's revelation of it through the poem. (pp. 11-12)
John Crowe Ransom's metaphysical foundation is spread the distance of history: he is so eclectic in his conviction that I do not think that a biographer or critic will find a pure vein of any philosopher in him. What may seem a Kantian mind in one context will be empirical in the next…. Furthermore, Ransom is not 'willfully' idealistic, either subjectively (Kantian) or objectively (Platonic)….
Ransom is Platonic, but in an ironic way. That is, he has been affected by Plato but he reacts against this early affection; for example, his notions of existence, art and poetry rebel against Platonic idealism. If we understand Ransom in his anti-Platonism, we will have understood a great deal of the essential Ransom. (p. 17)
To the extent that the poet becomes a 'moral tailor', Ransom disowns him. For the tailor cuts his matter exactly to fit his blueprint. He is not a discoverer, he does not realize himself more fully for knowing the world, but he has cut the world to the size of his mind. The poet must be a voyager, a seeker who realizes the world as his dynamic and spontaneous complement, and about which he is never, sure. The world is the unpredictable spouse of the poet, through whom the poet comes to know the myriad recesses of his own personality and psychic potentialities. He never superimposes his private morality, his private moral universal upon nature but lets nature engage and, if he is lucky, symbolize his moral universal.
Ransom gives an example of what he means by true aesthetical balance in the process of creation when he rephrases Kant's example of the landscape gardener in his garden. Kant's gardener has a universal of what he wants the garden to look like, but despite this universal and beneath this universal there is the free, intricate play of nature—the tissues of natural irrelevancy that escape the form of the gardener's universal, and yet give it the recalcitrant spontaneity to make it art. "Nature seems to have no inclination to reject or even to resent the human Universal, for now obtains the condition of 'freedom under law', and its consequence of beauty."
The poet cannot and must not try to determine nature, for he is not the exemplar cause of nature. Nature subsists outside himself and is not really under his control; yet it will offer itself to the poet's imagination in order that he may concretize an idea, if the poet is not too procrustean in his demands. (pp. 51-2)
Though Ransom will accept a synchronized existence of the abstract and the embodied universal in the same poem, it seems that he prefers the universal to be totally embodied in words, especially in metaphor. Metaphor is the most complete, most whole and most consonant way of incarnating the universal. (p. 56)
Though Ransom believes that the most accurate and natural poetic means for the poet to embody his notion of the world by the world itself is the metaphor, he will not theoretically admit that the metaphor can be the whole poem or that the attitude embodied in the metaphor can be its unity…. On the one hand, Ransom practically likes the complete submergence of the poet's universal in the flesh of words; on the other hand, he theoretically holds for the poem's ideational 'core' or 'logic' as against 'tissue of meaning' or metaphor. This oscillation and confusion in Ransom's criticism cannot be resolved, but only explained. (p. 59)
[One] might say that [for Ransom] the poem is an unpragmatic attempt to embody metaphorically a universal of man's existence in the world, within a metered and logically structured tissue of words. (p. 69)
For Ransom, the process of development in a poem, or the process of creation in a poet, is a movement from simple realization in the mind to a phrase that textures the realization and stimulates the creative mind into spinning further texture and further poetic suspension, until the original realization has been textured into the web of poetic existence. Ransom would also say that the central meaning of the finished poem would not directly correspond to the original realization of the creator. Rather, the original realization would be the stimulus that generated the concentrated attention of the mind and startled the mind into spinning its verbal web. Ransom implies a great deal of subconscious activity in the creation of the poem; there is an unpredictable predictability about what is happening. The demands of language and the excrescences of the subconscious seem to influence the focus of the conscious mind in the creative act. (pp. 77-8)
What Ransom wants is an emergence from bias and the awakening of an alert sensibility that will respond to the world and the poem as they are: the world as the total fullness of particular being and the poem as an aesthetical being with an ontological reference. The texture of the poem, for Ransom, is a testimony of the poet's faithfulness to reality and to himself, as part of reality. Ransom is almost willing to let the poem go its own unpredictable way, as the world is free to go. In his dialectical fashion, he refuses to assume any degree of critical omniscience or omnipotence. He does not seek to superimpose Platonic forms upon a world that does not fit them, nor will he seek to manipulate things in the scientific exercise of power. He and the poet are subject to the world, and the world is subject to them in their wonder and in their worded creation.
Finally, in his critical procedure he is always incomplete because he is always dialectical—he has never come, he believes, and will never come to the whole truth about anything. Thus, he is irritating in his incompleteness, but there is a reason for it. He will not attempt an exhaustive definition of poetry, perhaps, because there is none. Knowledge has an open end for Ransom.
As is evidenced in The New Criticism, Ransom has read Eliot long and hard, and his style resembles Eliot's. For example, neither Ransom nor Eliot is particularly logical in his critical progression. They lack the order which the mind urges when reading them. They do not define, divide, and discuss very systematically. Both critics intimate a part of a definition, make somewhat arbitrary divisions, and then discuss what they are interested in, with a casual unpredictability. I hope I am not discourteous in saying that they remind me of two venerable beachcombers who search through the sands of texts, sifting them, comparing one item with another, and unexpectedly come up with a gem of an insight, an insight with a memorable formulation: 'structure' and 'texture', 'dissociation of sensibility', 'tissue of irrelevancy', 'objective correlative', and so on…. They have been up and down the beach many times, and when they have discovered something in the sand, one can be sure that it is the result of much labor, much knowledge, and much sensibility. They are not the type to make razor-sharp distinction after distinction…. Ransom's strength is in his combination of a scholarship not as broad as Eliot's, with a poetic sensibility comparable to Eliot's, in addition to an existential philosopher's interest in existing things.
Ransom has given the critical world a redirection…. He has made the pragmatists clear their vision again and again, and made them focus upon the poem, whose reason for existence, he thinks, is to catch up the world beautifully in the texture of its worded being. (pp. 122-23)
James E. Magner, Jr., in his John Crowe Ransom: Critical Principles and Preoccupations (© Mouton 1971; reprinted by permission of Mouton & Co., Publishers), Mouton, 1971.
In his use of wit and irony, in the tension of paradox and ambiguity characteristic of his best verse, Ransom is distinctively a modern poet. His attitudes, however, like the poetic forms he employs, reflect his continuing interest in the traditional. One part of the double vision so obvious in Ransom's poetry reminds the modern Southerner that he must accommodate himself to the harsh and unpleasant realities of life in the twentieth century; the other encourages him to cast a glance backward at the felicities of a previous age. (pp. 23-4)
Few poets of his generation have been able to represent with greater accuracy and precision the inexhaustible ambiguities, the paradoxes and tensions, the dichotomies and ironies that make up the life of modern man. His poetry reiterates a few themes: man's dual nature and the inevitable misery and disaster that always accompany the failure to recognize and accept this basic truth; mortality and the fleetingness of youthful vigor and grace, the inevitable decay of feminine beauty; the disparity between the world as man would have it and as it actually is, between what people want and need emotionally and what is available for them, between what man desires and what he can get; man's divided sensibilities and the wars constantly raging within him, the inevitable clash between body and mind, between reason and sensibility; the necessity of man's simultaneous apprehension of nature's indifference and mystery and his appreciation of her sensory beauties; the inability of modern man, in his incomplete and fragmentary state, to experience love. (p. 26)
Thomas Daniel Young, in his John Crowe Ransom, Steck-Vaughn, 1971.
Poetry for Ransom exists on two levels: the first is the "rational surface" which can be explicitly social in meaning; the other … should be immediately recognizable to any student of Ransom's aesthetics. The "deeper" level is "irrational," in Ransom's use of the term, the realm of sensibility where the poet embraces the particularity of the world rather than its social abstractions. It is primarily this "deeper" meaning that, in full retreat from social norms, provided the basis for the New Criticism; yet finally it must be seen as a step toward the dream world of aesthetic vision—toward the Brooksian world "as it ought to be."
Ransom is a transitional figure for us in this study much as he has been for the general history of American critical theory. He is difficult to place not because he changes or shifts his aesthetic principles (they are … marvelously consistent), but because he adheres to a critical doctrine that is neither here nor there in the common canons of American aesthetic thought. For him,… literary theory is grounded in epistemology. Ransom finds himself confronting the ancient question of poetry and knowledge, and the ultimate criterion of value is necessarily bound up with the determination of the meaning of the poem….
In many ways the most crucial work in Ransom's production was a rather early one, God Without Thunder (1930). He is never very far from it although he repeatedly refines his terminology. Here he makes the first lengthy announcement and exposition of the essential dualism in his theory; "Life" is conceived in Arnoldian fashion as the dichotomy of science and religion; in sociological terms as the dichotomy of city and country; in something like Marxian terms, Industrial and Pastoral; and in metaphorical terms, "Penseroso" and "Allegro." Later in his career he added a psychological dimension by adopting the Freudian oppositions between "ego" and "id." All of these, including the aesthetic dualism which most interests us here, arise from Ransom's Kantian epistemology. The essential dualism which forms the core of God Without Thunder is that of the faculties of reason and aesthetic sensibility. Ransom claims that each gives us a particular kind of knowledge. The reason deals in abstractions and belongs to the rational world of science and general laws based on operational postulates. The aesthetic sensibility concerns itself with the particularities of existence, the objects of perception in all their minute uniqueness and infinite quantity. The former is practical and utilitarian; the latter is fundamentally hedonistic….
Ransom [in The World's Body] assigns the poet a prodigious Bergsonian task—to "perpetuate in his poem an order of existence which in actual life is constantly crumbling beneath his touch. Reality for Ransom is a matter of "flux and blur." There is also some evidence that Santayana entered into Ransom's thinking; the significant coupling of religion and poetry in God Without Thunder has a decidedly Santayanan twist in the insistence that both are fictions which seek to grasp the meaning of the world. Ransom sees, however, a dichotomy in Santayana between the "realm of essences" and the "realm of matter," and he finds too much emphasis on the former. In his own similar dualism he would seek to tilt the balance toward the latter….
Poetic discourse, he tells us [in "Criticism as Pure Speculation"] "is more cool than hot, and a moral fervor is as disastrous to it as a burst of passion itself." Consequently he sees poetic activity as reflective of "the purest esthetic experience"; it eschews all interest in utility…. As a result poetic discourse must avoid any temptations toward social or political activism….
The true poetry has no great interest in improving or idealizing the world, which does well enough. It only wants to realize the world, to see it better. Poetry is the kind of knowledge by which we must know what we have arranged that we shall not know otherwise.
Ransom's attitude that art ought not to participate in social movements also pervades the New Criticism…. Ransom relegates political activism to the speculation of prose discourse, and in its pure form sees poetry as "always something magnificently chimerical, and irresponsible if it would really commit us to an action" [Kenyon Review, 5 (1943)]. His dualistic theory demands that in the realm of poetic discourse the artist must never assert his own personality; he must remain as "nearly anonymous" as possible….
There are a host of difficulties inherent in Ransom's dualism. There is a clear sense of mimesis in his aesthetics, particularly in his insistence on the "representation" of natural objects. He would banish the sentiment of the artist specifically to preserve a strong sense of "realism." Yet total detachment and photographic representation are not what he wants…. In addition, the extent of "reality" is never very clear. For the most part Ransom seems to mean by "the real" only the particularities of nature, yet more than once he proclaims that the poem must contain both particularities and universals to be truly realistic….
There are, to be sure, even more crucial problems arising from the dualism of poetry and prose. A great emphasis in Ransom's theorizing is on making an absolute distinction between the two forms of discourse, yet they must also be seen as working somehow harmoniously within the individual poem….
The exact balance of prose and poetry within the single poem is never clearly stated. Moreover, Ransom's concept of the poem as a whole or an "entirety" results in at least one significant effort to completely dissolve the dualism in the creative act. Murray Krieger [in New Apologists for Poetry] quite accurately points out those passages of The New Criticism where Ransom, in terms very reminiscent of his friend Allen Tate, sets the oppositions of structure and texture (here called "Determinant Meaning" and "Determinant Sound") into a relation of "tension" (to borrow Tate's term) which yields a poem having its own status in being. Such an idea, of course, forms the center of Ransom's theory of ontological criticism and is perhaps the single most influential aspect of his theory on the New Criticism and Contextualism. It is, as Krieger notes, Ransom's approach to Coleridge's organic poem which must somehow fuse into a unity the disparate elements of Imagination and Fancy. But it also runs counter to Ransom's abiding concern with "realism." The poem as an organic unit having its own unique status in being would seemingly be just one more particularity in nature's infinite supply. It would not, by anything other than mere chance, give us knowledge of our environment….
The primary reason for Ransom's claim that poetry gives us knowledge is found in his religious orthodoxy. The dualism he expounded in God Without Thunder exists also as a dichotomy of innocence and experience. The former state is characterized by man's living in nature, the second by man's attempt to gain complete mastery over it—to reduce it to logical systems whereby he might be its god. The first is truely poetic or Edenic while the second is prosaic…. In God Without Thunder Ransom argues for a return to an Old Testament orthodoxy, to the kind of myth which by preserving man's sense of irrationality and mystery would not lead to cold abstractions about existence but would rather demand that he turn again toward a state of natural innocence. Ransom's religious commitment pushes him beyond the particularity of the world's body; not only is the idea of poetry's ontic status undercut, but poetry's balance of structure and texture is justified finally by the vision of a timeless Eden that it gives us. It is the dream of a world returned to its proper proportions.
Wesley Morris, "John Crowe Ransom: Principles for a New Historicism," in his Towards A New Historicism (copyright © 1972 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 108-19.
Ransom's total output of poetry is not large; his considerable reputation as a poet rests on the work he did over a period of less than eight years, but out of those years have come a disproportionate number of the poems contained in the standard anthologies of our day. (p. 6)
Ransom is a poet as the Greek scholar in him would understand the word. He is a maker. His poems are contrived, structured, not to appear as moments torn almost intact from the actual lives of actual people. There is no attempt at realism; rarely does his dialogue afford an illusion of conversation. Ransom doesn't mind that we can see the underpinnings to the art that the welding shows. This is not theater-in-the-round. The proscenium arch is elaborately there, and we imagine that his characters are obliged now and then to step to the footlights and in the manner of Restoration actors declaim a few lines to the audience.
Ransom's poems are mostly about domestic situations; this is perhaps because in the familial he finds the condensation of those questions, essentially theological, which ultimately are the only questions worth asking.
What Ransom treats in his poetry are those concerns which hold the attention of every sensible person: sex, death and religion. Sex here, of course, encompasses all of that which belongs to romantic love, marriage, home-building and childbirth as well as the frustration and satisfaction of the libido. It is the primary life-force and is responsible for the very existence of the man and the woman whose fealty it commands. Death puts an end to that force, and religion attempts to make sense out of both death and the sexuality which tries desperately to overcome death and to make sense out of existence itself, which is anchored to sex at one end and to death at the other. (pp. 6-7)
It should be noted here that Ransom's concern with death—and he has devoted a larger part of his work to this subject than most poets—is not only with death as a dark reality which has to be examined; he is concerned not so much with mortality itself as he is concerned with the proper attitude toward mortality. The noblest characters in his poems are stoic, standing with Ransom in that tradition of the Southern Calvinists which we call Christian stoicism. Ransom dislikes any flagrant emotional display, especially of grief, as such a display reveals at least a temporary dissociation of sensibility, a breakdown in that bond of mind and spirit whose integrity Ransom cherishes. (p. 7)
[His] rhetoric serves the poem in a number of ways, but probably the most important is the laying of an aesthetic and emotional distance between the poem and the reader. Any direct expression of emotion—especially the gentler feelings—is always dangerous in a poem. In the period when Ransom was writing it was especially so. This was the time of the imagists, of the publication of The Waste Land. The experimenters in taste and technique were moving to the hard line, the tough and violent. It was necessary to find some sort of scrim to cover the naked feelings of love, loneliness, compassion, sorrow. But this is only half of it; Ransom was not forced into hiding. If there had been no imagists and no Eliot, he still would have muted his feelings, would have kept us from getting too close to the subjects of his poems. Because that would be indulgence, would play dangerously with pain and pleasure. And Ransom is stoic. (p. 8)
[Although] Ransom has been a great influence as a man of letters, he has had no perceptible stylistic influence through his poems. He has written in a style too much his own for anyone to imitate without copying slavishly. So to understand Ransom, to read him well, we have to go to Ransom. When we do, we see a poet who has known as few have, even in his time, the meaning of tension in verse. We see the poet as the balancer of force; the poet as equilibrist.
Ransom is, and has been found from his earliest publication, opposed to the science-oriented mentality of this century and an enemy of rational positivism. He has been called reactionary, romantic, and decadent. He is a poet of such skill, compassion and elegance, however, as to confound such critics. (p. 10)
In the discussion of tensions and ambiguity which has taken place during the past several years, the apparent influence of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets on Ransom's poetry has been mentioned countless times. To emphasize this influence, I think, is to misread the poetry; it is not metaphysical except in certain of its effects. It draws considerably on the force created by the yoking together of what appear to be incompatibles, but the fairly extended forces in Ransom's work are not a result of those techniques generally thought of as metaphysical. The tension of his poetry lies not very much in the mutual repulsion of two elements of a metaphor, such as Dr. Johnson found to his displeasure in the poems of John Donne, or in the bristling of a poem against a "nonpoetic" language. Ransom is more skilled than most in these techniques, but his poems are charged with another and a stronger force. In almost every one of them, the stage is set between opposing thematic positions, and we find that we are unable to make a choice between them. The poet will not, and so the characters never can either. It is beneath this tension—the polarity of statement—that the minor stresses play through the poems.
One of his best-known pieces, "The Equilibrists," gives in its title, its structure and its texture a touchstone to the sources of this force, this peculiar power which we can call—as an inclusive term—the equilibrium-stress. In this, as in most of his poems, it is Ransom who finally is the supreme equilibrist. He gives us passion in perilous balance with honor—the polarity of statement, the major force. In the texture of the poem itself, the additional sense of balanced forces in the juxtaposing of warm Teutonic and sterner Latinate words, and in the use of slant rhyme, which come to our ears like the notes of close harmony repelling and attracting each other, in the alternate use of modern and archaic terms, the pageantry and the pedantry of the language, the homeliness and nobility of tone. (pp. 19-20)
The forces … that give Ransom's poems their life come from the equilibrium-stress, which is primarily the polarity of statement supported and intensified by the minor stresses of the language. The pathos, the passion of the poetry is found in the losing: it lives in the inevitable passing away. This too, being as it is oxymoronic, irreconcilable, is a polarity creating tension, and so creating life, since for the poems, of course, as well as for the reader, that is what life is. (p. 28)
A sense of irony is the abiding realization that every human statement contains its own contradiction and that every human act contains the seeds of its own defeat. From this comes the realization that there are no pure truths and that there are no pure men or pure women or pure causes or pure motives. There is neither the simply holy nor the simply unholy. John Calvin and Camus alike understood that man's very lot is one of awful irony, as he finds his rational self facing a nonrational universe, his hungering and homesick soul facing an incomprehensible and indifferent God. This is the terrible wisdom which moves perceptibly through Ransom's poems.
He gives irony its most dramatic expression in the polarity of statement. In "Armageddon" it is Christ who is bloodthirsty, while Satan tells us that he is weary of war and prefers the fellowship of good talk; the "Old Man Playing with Children" finds that he and the child are "equally boy and boy"; "The Equilibrists" are beautiful in their eternally unconsummated and undenied love; the Friar in "Necrological" becomes as one with the slain soldiers. (p. 29)
[Irony] is present, spelling out still something of Camus' absurdity, in the confrontation of Ransom's people and the real world they can neither ignore nor live in. This duality is everywhere in the poems, as are the conventionally treated ironic situations, the death of the young, the inefficacy of innocence, the self-destroying essence of sexual love.
All this is structural, but its effectiveness—as in the case of equilibrium-tension—depends on the texture, on the sense of irony which is woven into it. (p. 30)
Ransom contrives (and the term here is not pejorative)—to invest his poems with an objectivity in such a way that we are able to see the contrivance function more clearly—perhaps the word is more dramatically—than we can with most writers. We can see him when he decides to step back from his subject, and we can watch him move in again; we know when, and he intends for us to see by what means, he becomes disengaged or disengages us the readers. (pp. 30-1)
When Ransom shows us one thing to speak of another, he depends not so much upon the symbol as the metaphor.
There are a few words which recur so often in Ransom's poetry that the reader sometimes takes them to be part of a system of symbols, but in the case of substantives, in particular, this is not so. Many of the words suspected of being a part of such a system are in fact not intended to carry any special symbolic import at all. (p. 39)
Now and then Ransom gives a character in his poems a name which reveals something the poet wants us to know about the character. This is not symbolism, because the character is an important figure in his own right and will not be reduced to a symbol; it is not allegory because the character does not stand for an abstract quality, but rather embodies the quality, which interests us here only in terms of this character. Still the name-giving harks back to the morality play or more exactly to the names which the Puritans, in wishful thinking at least, gave to their children. (p. 48)
These are major elements in his poetry, but perhaps the most vital … [is] unconsummated passion, the stuff of which Ransom structures most of his polarities, abstraction though it is, is itself a symbol of that abstraction which to Ransom was most terrible and almost visibly present, almost a living enemy. This is the dissociation of sensibility, that theme which pervades most of Ransom's work and informs his use of contrast and metaphor, his understanding of color. And so the names for the poles which hold our parts apart—heat and cold, bright and dull, flames and ice, chills and fevers, all standing for the intellect and passions, the head and the body—are central to much of Ransom's poetry, as passion too much thought about and so undone, sensibility split in two. This is the schizophrenia from which the majority of Ransom's people suffer. (pp. 48-9)
Miller Williams, in his The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1972.
John Crowe Ransom's literary career may be divided into four distinct periods. From 1918 to 1927 the major portion of his creative energy was expended in writing some of the most carefully controlled and sophisticated lyrics produced in this century, and during these nine years he published four books of poetry: Poems About God (1919), Grace After Meat (1924), Chills and Fever (1924), and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927)…. During the next ten years he produced more than twenty essays on political, social, and economic topics … and published his provocative study of religion and myth God Without Thunder (1930)….
Although Ransom has written only five or six poems since 1927, he has brought out three collections of his verse…. [The] appearance of each new edition is the occasion for the poet to revise his poems, and in some cases earlier versions have been so completely recast that different poems are produced….
[Early] in the 1920's Ransom put aside the style of Poems About God and adopted an entirely new style. Instead of the conventional diction, the obvious and heavy-handed irony, and the often sentimental tone of the early verse, the poet having "mastered a new style" began to present poems in what has come to be known as his mature manner. First there is the language, which is so distinctively different as to be unmistakably Ransom's; then in and through this language comes the ironic suggestion that the distance between what man wants and what he can reasonably expect is seldom bridged. One has come to expect from Ransom a poetry composed of a nice balance of powerful forces, a poetry that appears to be both true and believable because it reflects the inexhaustible ambiguities, the tensions and paradoxes of modern life…. If one studies carefully the revisions of … almost any [poem] which the poet has been rewriting in recent years, he will find that Ransom has altered the dualistic attitude that one associates with his best known poems. Above all else this poetry of the master's old age … reveals a strong urge to resolve some of the conflicts and ease the tensions resulting from the attempt to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at one time. For thirty years or more some of Ransom's strongest supporters have argued that one of the poet's greatest achievements is his ability to maintain in perilous balance some of the basic contrarieties of modern life: heaven and hell, fire and ice, reason and emotion, love and honor….
For the past forty years or more, as we know, the major portion of Ransom's creative energy has not gone into the writing of poetry. Instead he has turned his attention to aesthetic speculation, to probing the nature of poetry, and to demonstrating the manner in which poetry must be read if it is to provide us with the full range of the knowledge that resides within it. Since the publication of The New Criticism more than thirty years ago, Ransom has not, until now, issued a new book of criticism, although during this time he produced with amazing regularity a series of important and influential essays. Almost all commentators … agree that Ransom's career as literary critic has been characterized by a remarkably consistent attitude toward art…. Ransom's interest in poetry and aesthetic theory was a product of his "fury against abstraction" and his discovery that neither philosophy nor classical literature can restore the concrete particularity of "The World's Body" as modern literature can….
[Between] 1925 and 1927 …, Ransom worked out a theory of the aesthetic process from which he has never deviated…. [One] of Ransom's most persistent critical principles [is that] cognition and not instruction is the most important element in the poetic experience.
During the early twenties, too, Ransom published … a number of brief critical pieces which contain the first public statement of some of his most important ideas. In "The Future of Poetry" …, he argues that poetry has to perform a dual role with words. On the one hand they must be arranged in such a manner as "to conduct a logical sequence with their meaning," and on the other they must "realize an objective pattern with their sounds." This is the earliest published statement of his structure-texture formulation, a familiarity with which is essential to anyone who would assess the value of Ransom's criticism…. In "Thoughts on the Poetic Discontent" …, Ransom first presents his argument that only through the ironic mode can man reconcile himself to some of the complexities of the world in which he must live….
As early as God Without Thunder Ransom insisted that the aesthetic attitude is both innocent and objective because with it we look upon the world without desiring to use it or control it. Although he argues for a post-scientific poetry—a literature of experience, not of innocence—and although he admits that science produces useful and necessary knowledge of the world, the scientific attitude is destructive because it encourages man to attempt to possess and control the world and therefore lose its "body and solid substance." Art, on the other hand, "wants us to enjoy life, to taste and reflect as we drink; when we are always tending as abstract appetites to gulp it down" (The World's Body).
A poem, then, becomes a precious object, one that the reader should attempt to know and love in all its fullness and particularity….
Ransom has not altered his critical stance as much as some commentators have suggested, and … the essay which seems to announce a fundamental change of critical position usually represents another attempt to clarify a misunderstood statement by supplying additional details or, as is usually the case, by changing his metaphor….
In the concluding essay to The New Criticism Ransom utters his now famous plea for the ontological critic—one who believes that the poem is an object which has within itself its reason for being, one whose critical energy is consumed in concentration upon the poem itself, and one who is not concerned with the intentions of the poet or with the possible reaction of the reader. Although he finds several critics who participate in the method of the ontological critic, no one completely fills this demanding role…. Ransom comes closest to fulfilling the requirements of the ontological critic, for only to him is the text of a poem a total and consuming occupation….
Some of us might resent the master's tinkering with the phrases and rhythms of the poems that, in Randall Jarrell's phrase, we have long considered "nearly perfect lyrics" because we think he is disturbing the "perilous equilibrium" that makes his poetry one of the aesthetic marvels of his age. But the essays in Beating the Bushes, one of which was written in his eighty-third year, suggest that Ransom's critical vision is as clear as ever, that his view of the critic's function remains unchanged, and that he has few peers in performing this function. We may not have again one who can remind us with such eloquence and force that only through poetry can we reconcile the disparate and seemingly unrelated experiences of modern life.
Thomas Daniel Young, in The Georgia Review, Summer, 1973, pp. 275-82.
John Crowe Ransom's complete theory of poetry is not to be found in any one essay, or even in one book; for Ransom, despite the determinate ring to some of his terms, has not been quite a systematic theorist. However, we can be eclectic among his writings without troubling overmuch about their chronology, for he has not changed his theory of art since God Without Thunder (1930), or his theory of poetry since The World's Body (1938). His most nearly complete formulation is in The New Criticism of 1941. In the thirty years since, critics from time to time have been pleased to report a shift in Ransom's position—toward organicism, or toward a theory of expressive meters; toward a theory that will resolve the tension of Ransom's definition of poetry. The general opinion of Ransom as a theorist seems to be that he is charming and well-meaning, but wrong-headed, and needs to be saved from himself. But Ransom continues unregenerate. For the opening essay of Beating the Bushes (1972), his first collection of prose in 17 years, he goes back to the major chapter of The New Criticism, "Wanted: An Ontological Critic." After his "bold designations" and "heroic dispositions" there, he does grow more modest in tone in the succeeding essays, coming down to 1970—the modesty due to his realization that as a theoretical critic "he cannot support his great ambitions." That is the only change….
The dissatisfaction that … others feel with Ransom is due really to the fact that he does not try to define the poem as an organic unity; and that failure, if it is a failure—Ransom doubts that the world will "stop turning"—that failure has its source not in Ransom's theory of composition, but much farther back, in the philosophical dualism to which he has been faithful in prose and in verse for fifty years, except in a few recent, unhappy revisions of his poems.
Robert Buffington, "Ransom's Poetics: 'Only God, My Dear'," in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1973, pp. 353-60.