Ransom, John Crowe (Vol. 11)
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?
(The entire section is 1137 words.)
[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...
(The entire section is 250 words.)
[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 entire section is 126 words.)
W. Potter Woodbery
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...
(The entire section is 2284 words.)
[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 completeness remained a source of continual inspiration—such inspiration, in fact, that it would not be too much to say Ransom's entire work depends on a comparison between this ideal and the sense of fragmentation he associated with more recent events.
Ransom's conception of the whole man does not involve any simplification of experience. On the contrary, its complex and specific nature is constantly emphasized. This is the result, largely, of his belief in the dual nature of the human personality, its indebtedness to both the reason and the sensibility. The reason, as Ransom sees it, man employs in his attempts to understand experience, to discover and use the universal patterns latent in the "world's body." The sensibility...
(The entire section is 2634 words.)