John Crowe Ransom 1888–1974
American critic, poet, and editor.
Ransom is best known as an influential spokesman for two literary movements: New Criticism (the adherence to a textual analysis of poetry) and Agrarianism (the attack on modern industrial society, citing its adverse effect on the arts).
While teaching literature at Vanderbilt University, Ransom joined an informal group of professors and students who read and discussed poetry. In 1922 this group published the first issue of The Fugitive, a journal which contained their view of Southern regionalism and literature as well as their own poetry. In 1930 Ransom wrote the "Statement of Principles" for the book I'll Take My Stand, in which he and other Fugitives, including Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, argued for a return to agrarian culture.
Ransom gained prominence with the publication of The New Criticism in 1942. In this work, he proposed a close reading of the text, insisting that criticism should be based on a study of the "structure" and "texture" of the poem, not its content. The New Criticism outlined a system of critical thought that would dominate the American academic scene for nearly three decades. As George Core has written, "[Ransom's] performance as ontological critic … deeply affected the whole course of contemporary criticism."
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 5, 11 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 49-52 [obituary].)
Mr. Ransom has written ["The World's Body,"] a distinguished book about poetry—a volume of essays that consider the subject from various standpoints, dealing now with the aesthetics of poetry, now the theory of criticism as well as with poetry itself. (p. 462)
But he has not attempted to give us any systematic theory of literary criticism. The book is simply intended as a collection of ideas that may serve as a basis for some such system.
His ideas are characterized by the word "reactionary," in a technical not political sense. Where poetry is concerned—and that is all that concerns us here—the word implies stress on form and technique and a distaste for homiletics in poetry. Mr. Ransom dislikes, for instance, the poetry of vague moods that associates romantic landscapes with man's fate and ends on a moral text.One of his best arguments against the romantics develops out of his examination of Milton's "Lycidas," which is, of course, a pastoral poem. The pastoral type, with its rigid conventions, forced the poet to step out of his own personality and to put on a mask for poetic purposes. Mr. Ransom points out what a valuable technical resource this "anonymity" was: and this was one of the first things the romantics threw away. Expanding this idea into that of "aesthetic distance," the author describes it as a process in which the poet inhibits direct response to the object in order to approach it in a roundabout way through convention and form. The advantages of this "technique of restraint" must be obvious detachment, objectivity, control of the material, and so on.
Going deeper into the subject, he attempts a definition of poetry in terms of cognition. It is a kind of knowledge, and a knowledge that cannot be...
(The entire section is 730 words.)
[What Mr. Ransom pleads for in "The New Criticism" is] a rather commonsensible way of looking at poetry. He asks us to regard it not as an instrument for setting up useful psychological mechanisms, nor as a set of documents to be studied by the literary historian, nor yet as the expression of more or less valuable ethical doctrines, but rather to recognize poetry as offering a knowledge of the world in which we live, as distinct from the world of scientific discourse, and to judge a poem on the basis of its "structural properties."
Mr. Ransom does not explicitly define the "new" criticism, the novelty of which lies for him in its extraordinary acuity, its "depth and precision." He does, however, point out what he considers to be its two chief errors, that of making literary judgments in psychological rather than in cognitive terms, and that of an old-fashioned moralism. He discusses in turn I. A. Richards: "the psychological critic," and his pupil, William Empson; T. S. Eliot: "the historical critic," and Yvor Winters: "the logical critic."…
To Mr. Ransom the important fact about a poem is not that it has its basis in or that it produces feelings, emotions and attitudes, but that it is a way of knowing the world, and further, that the particular form of cognitive discourse which is poetry is distinguished by the presence of a logical structure: the main thought, and a phonetic pattern or texture, and it is in the relation between these two that its interest largely lies. For Mr. Ransom the psychological value of poetry is derived from its texture, its "free detail." Himself the writer of distinguished poetry, Mr. Ransom is at his best in his discussion of the technical aspects of the art, and particularly of the subtle interaction between structure and texture. It is all the more surprising that, in his impatience with Richards's psychologizing, he should fail to appreciate the primary significance of emotion. Not the emotion stimulated in the reader so much as that felt by the writer….
[Mr. Ransom] sometimes writes here as if the poet, observing an object or an...
(The entire section is 873 words.)
In addition to its function as a statement of attitude towards poetry, The New Criticism lays out a project for the technical analysis of poetry (an exposition that is developed through analysis of key terms in the criticism of T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, Yvor Winters, and the "semasiologist," Charles W. Morris). These local contests are fascinating to watch, but we must here confine ourselves to the general thesis that grows out of this dialectical interchange. (p. 130)
[Ransom's] key terms are "structure" and "texture." If structure is the warp, then texture is the woof. Since the terms are used not positively, but dialectically, they do not name two different "things," but a relationship. Hence, what is "structure" in one linguistic situation may be "texture" in another, and vice versa. Usually, a dialectic of this sort treats the details of a work as consistent with some unitary generating principle or "idea." The novel twist in Mr. Ransom's terminology derives from the fact that he stresses the divergent nature of the details. Using a kind of Separationist aesthetic, he calls the unitary interpretation of a poem "Hegelian," and "mystical"; and he likens the poem instead to a "democratic" organization that gives a distinctive measure of local autonomy to the details, or "texture" of the work. In a poem, he says, this textural material is enjoyed for itself, independently of its function in the...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
Ransom possesses a talent sufficiently rare among living critics and poets: he is able, as far as the evidence appears, to mark the scansion of a line of poetry correctly.
But the theory of meter which he erects upon this ability is less admirable than the ability itself. The theory contains two main propositions: the first, that meter is not a means of expressing any part of the meaning or feeling of the poem, but that it offers an independent phonetic pleasure of its own; the second, that such independent activity must interfere with the statement of the meaning as the meaning must interfere with the meter, with the result that irrelevancies are forced upon both in the course of this conflict. (p. 542)
There is no relationship, then, between meter and meaning; the meter, like the meaning, goes its own way, gathering irrelevancies to itself; but the two coöperate to this extent, that in interfering with each other they increase the irrelevancies of the total poem. Ransom at no point explains why we take pleasure in the irrelevancies of meter; he merely states it as axiomatic that we do so. He nowhere suggests the romantic theory that meter is a form of music, arousing the feelings by pure sound: indeed, his theory precludes the possibility of such an idea, for if meter can do this it is expressive of something. Ransom apparently assumes that we take pleasure in metrical irregularities for their own sake, as we might take pleasure (if we were so constituted) in the bumps and holes in a concrete sidewalk. Since the meter has no relationship to any other aspect of the poem, it is easy to see that the writing of regular meter will be merely a mechanical task and beneath the dignity of a true poet, who will take pains to introduce roughness for the mere sake of roughness…. (p. 543)
There are various inconsistencies in Ransom's theory. Ransom objects to relatively regular meter because it is mechanically easy; yet he recommends a mechanical roughening, a roughening which is purely an end in itself. He believes that metrical difficulties force irrelevancies into the logical argument, yet we have seen him admit that Joyce, writing without the aid or obstacle of meter, has achieved greater irrelevancy than any poet he can name. And we are bound to observe in this theory an additional inconsistency with his doctrine of imitation, for a poem which contains a meter which is independent, an end in itself, cannot in any comprehensible sense be called a true imitation of some "object" devoid of meter.
To clear up this whole matter, I think we shall have to start with the assumption that meter,...
(The entire section is 1089 words.)
The real contribution of the New Critics lies not so much in their providing a method for examining a poem as it does in their providing an account of the essential structure possessed by all lyric poems. Once a sense of the basic stuff of the poem is grasped, the method to be followed in analyzing it presents itself quite naturally and unmistakably. "A poem," Mr. Ransom tells us, "is a logical structure having a local texture." He then proceeds to distinguish these two basic elements. He determines the "logical structure" of the poem by formulating a statement of its argument, and he isolates the "local texture" by focusing on "the devices which are, precisely, its [poetry's] means of escaping from...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
The modern poet more often than his predecessors has had to be a critic too, to define his presuppositions, since there were few that he could easily inherit. He has had to invent a dialect for himself, or pick out an eclectic one from the stores of the past, for there was none that was settled and generally available. One way of approaching Ransom's poetry would be through his criticism. Another would be through details of language and style. If I begin by picking about in these areas apparently at random, rather than speaking about the South, the Fugitives, and the New Criticism—the large public facts that have conditioned Ransom's career—the above must be my excuse.
The surface feature that...
(The entire section is 1719 words.)
As one looks back over Ransom's writings on art, poetry, and criticism, the qualities which appear are not always favorable to his standing as a theorist. Though he published nearly thirty essays on these subjects … over a span of nearly forty years, he repeated himself again and again and he kept his speculations within a rather remarkably narrow range. Yet though he went over the same ground many times, he retained in his treatment a quality of amateurishness. This is partially an effect of tone, and the informality, modesty, and whimsy which suggest it are refreshing indeed. Often, though, it almost seems that he used key terms in a deliberately loose way in order to preserve the air of lightness and diffidence:...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
The key to John Crowe Ransom's criticism may lie in his creation and use of a persona who speaks in a modest yet intelligent, ingratiating yet committed manner. The issue of the persona is an important one for Ransom, one that he deals with frequently in his criticism, and his own best poetry shows able use of the device. In terms of its function in poetry, Ransom regards the persona as necessary for the poet's anonymity…. Although Ransom maintains a distinction between poetry and prose … in his critical writings, his own prose does not fall so purely into the realm of scientific discourse that Ransom usually means by "prose." Indeed, he makes skillful use of a "fictitious personality," or persona, as a rhetorical...
(The entire section is 2368 words.)