Ransom, John Crowe 1888–1974
Ransom, an American poet, critic, and man of letters, was a major proponent of New Criticism. Like most southern writers of his period, his principle theme was the decay of southern lifestyles, beliefs, and integrity. The most significant body of his poetry was written between 1915 and 1928 when he was associated with the Fugitive Group. Most of the work in his Selected Poems, for which he won the National Book Award, is from this period. He is also remembered as a member of the agrarian movement, which sought to defend traditional southern values from encroaching northern industrialism. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 49-52.)
John Crowe Ransom has done a strange thing [in rewriting "Conrad in Twilight,"]: he has made an extension and a transformation. Even while the method is maintained. So that time and choice, which can bear the rhyme away, have with this poem borne it back again in a different life….
Years after "Conrad in Twilight," its first life, the poem has taken on a second life whose meaning is based on—and contradicts—the first. "Master's in the Garden Again" speaks for a further stage of life. It is a declaration, and a celebration; it is offered to the reader as a transparency with a key. (p. 187)
The strength of the new poem is very close to the qualities of Hardy, Hardy old and seen by Ransom in "Old Age of an Eagle," an essay which first appeared in the New Republic in 1952. These qualities, established by admiration and a kind of identity declared and built, will be in the poem as it climbs and rouses past its dripping scene. (pp. 187-88)
The poem sets the scene at once; although "Conrad in Twilight" jumped straight into dialogue, now we are given autumn ("Evening comes early"), the exchange (that is, true dialogue), and the man and woman, the lovers in bonds, conjugate. In the old days, the woman leapt right in, nagging:
Conrad, Conrad, aren't you old
To sit so late in your mouldy garden?
This time, Conrad is called both "dear man" and "surprise" (well, perhaps he is not called surprise, perhaps it is the warning voice of nagging practicality that is surprised by her own thoughts, but I think Conrad is dear man, and surprised, as he is later thinker and master and champion). He is mood; she is "intrusion." (p. 188)
It is possible to be put off early in this poem by what seems like bumpiness, coyness, dated diction. Ransom himself has warned us of this in other poems by other poets. The music he claims is one he has described in the Hardy essay: he uses the folk line, or dipodic line, with its symmetry and a syncopation in a line whose musical expectation is so strong that the pause which can be produced is in itself strong, too. This is a clear and country music on which Ransom counts, and he has provided it with two chief sounds to carry the range of this wide-ranging poem: the long ā established in exchange and late and carried through to the last sound of the last line, and the long ō that begins with bold and cold and takes us to blow and all the variant o's and ow's sounding out toward the end. (pp. 188-89)
In the first "Conrad" it was a matter of tea and slipper and a blazing log at home. In the old...
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[Here] is a poet of middling ambition and gifts, with a stubborn individuality, a poet who has been a most learned and lifelong critic and theoretician of the art, who knows how to think deeper into poetry than anyone you may name, but also how to write simply, more clearly, dispassionately and genially, with ease and wit, than anyone in the business has managed to do in our critic-besotted "academic" time.
Endurance has been the central problem of the arts in the 20th century, and we all know how it obsessed Hemingway and has come to haunt the aged Pound. Ransom, instead of going on and on like Pound in the face of his own doubts of five decades, has chosen to refine his work, selecting and rewriting and rethinking his poems one by one.
This third selection [in the third revised edition of "Selected Poems"] seems to have brought the process down to the point where he has defined his own essence: what he has finally left in glows like a great cabochon: it is the purest of his poetry. And it is very likely to shine long in the dark confusions of our changing fashions (and readers) in the contemporary world.
This is an extraordinary book, and will be a useful key to many, not only for Ransom's treasury, but into the always-hidden secrets of poetry.
Jascha Kessler, "A Master Poet Analyzes His Work," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1969, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1969, p. 49.
[John Crowe Ransom never deviated] from his love for the graces of a civilization and from his faith in the rituals and sanctions of a tradition. This is not to say that he was a conventional writer or thinker—his sensibility was much too keen, his mind much too fine, for sterile conformism.
His spare output of poems, exquisitely tuned, oblique, ardent but understated, leavened by irony, is the gift of his that we treasure most, because it delights us and because it encourages us to believe in the possibility of perfection. (pp. 251-52)
Stanley Kunitz, in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (© 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975.
The greatest stumbling-block to understanding ["The Equilibrists"] is the moral contradiction that holds Ransom's lovers in their state of equilibrium, the curious duality of their allegiance to both chastity and passion…. The lovers are not caught in a struggle to resist a lesser for a higher good, whether that higher good be the things of the spirit or the pleasures of the flesh. Instead, they perform a delicate balancing act, maintaining a fine equipoise between two equally desirable but mutually exclusive values. What set of ethical attitudes would allow for the serving of such contrary masters?
Most attempts to explain the poem founder on this problem. [Robert] Buffington supposes that the lovers are husband and wife but that one of them has a former mate who is now dead. (pp. 51-2)
Bernard Bergonzi, in another important reading of the poem, acknowledges that both passion and abstinence are affirmed, but he divides the allegiances to each between the lovers and the poet…. In his attempt to explain the poem, Mr. Bergonzi invokes the medieval tradition of amor courtois, that secular rival to orthodox Christian morality which celebrated erotic love at the expense of the conventional ideal of chastity. The "sin" of Ransom's lovers, rather than being fornication or adultery, is a sin against this secular ideal of erotic love: "By not consummating their love, or at least by allowing themselves to become separated, the two lovers had sinned against the religion of love itself, a concept familiar in medieval literature."… Not only does this interpretation destroy the equipoise that is part and parcel of the lovers' moral attitude, passion here taking precedence over chastity, but it also misreads the poet's response to the lovers, which develops … from anger at their strictness to an appreciation of their tortuous but beautiful equilibrium.
I should like to venture an additional explanation of the poem, drawing somewhat differently than Mr. Bergonzi does upon the courtly love tradition. It is true that for Andreas Capellanus the goal of loving was, in C. S. Lewis's phrase, "actual fruition." Elsewhere in the literature of amor courtois, however, we find a deliberate encouragement of sexual restraint even to the point of rejecting consummation as the ultimate goal of courtship altogether because of the effect that such restraint has in sustaining and increasing passion…. It is a short step from the desire to strengthen and prolong passion as a preliminary to actual coition to the pursuit of an intense, unconsummated passion that has become the sole reason for loving.
Denis de Rougemont, who has called this phenomenon "The Love of Love" (to distinguish it from the love of one person for another), traces it through the love lyrics of the Troubadours writing in southern France during the twelfth century. (pp. 52-4)
It is to the Troubadours that we largely owe our view of love in western culture, he maintains, and the tremendous impact of these poets upon our erotic sensibilities can be explained by the fact that they speak to a frightening but inescapable impulse in western man: the secret longing for death. The Love of Love, as de Rougemont sees it, is in fact not a love of Love at all but reveals an unspoken infatuation with death. Provençal love poetry arose simultaneously with the flourishing of a neo-Manichaean heresy known as Catharism and, M. de Rougemont believes, is a symbolic expression of the heresy's basic doctrines. Essentially a Gnostic heresy, Catharism espoused a dualistic philosophy. The soul at birth falls from a transcendent realm of perfection and Light into the dark, woeful existence of life in the body. Physical creation is thoroughly evil, and the hope of escaping its fetters is man's only hope of knowing the good. The Cathars owed the polarized metaphors of darkness and light as well as the preference for death over life to their Manichaean antecedents. As M. de Rougemont puts it, "Every dualistic—let us say, every Manichaean—interpretation of the universe holds the fact of being alive in the body to be the absolute woe, the woe embracing all other woes; and death it holds to be the ultimate good, whereby the sin of birth is redeemed and human souls return into the One of luminous indistinction."… (pp. 54-5)
Provençal love poetry, if M. de Rougemont's thesis is correct, is an occult liturgy for the worship of death. The pains and sorrows of unsatisfied love are welcomed as a kind of mortification of the flesh which serves to purge the lover of earthly attachments…. The idealized lady of the lyrics is a poetic symbol of the Absolute, and the perpetual yearning for her represents the longing of a soul for union with that Absolute that is possible only in death. The exclusive command that she holds over the affections serves to protect the soul from unworthy attachments. And finally, the stasis of the lover in his state of perpetual desire, forever frozen as he is on the near side of active consummation, anticipates the final stillness of death. (p. 55)
The poem promises at its start a love story…. We enter the scene of an action already in progress. The medieval couple (the imagery conclusively establishes the specific setting of their tale) are presently separated by the wanderings of the knight, if he may be called that. But things had not always been as they are now: the man and woman had once been lovers or, to be more precise, near lovers…. But their amorousness had stopped just short...
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[Ransom's] appreciation of Allen Tate, written in honor of Tate's sixtieth birthday,… leads us into the heart of his own attitude toward experience. For in this essay Ransom offers the reader a detailed examination of the character of his subject, as much as of his literary achievement. He makes us see what he thinks of Tate not only as a poet and novelist but also as a man, and what he thinks of him is defined in principle in the opening sentence: "The poet, the thinker, the whole man—Allen Tate's personality is greatly distinguished in our time." "The whole man": that is essentially how Ransom presents Tate, and all whom he admires. No praise could be warmer from a person for whom the ideal of human...
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