Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
What parts of John Crowe Ransom’s academic and personal background explain his tastes in English poetry?
Ransom was well acquainted with the King James Bible, and his poems frequently echo the Scriptures in diction, syntax, and metaphysical issues. Examine three or four of his poems and point out examples of direct and indirect influence.
Ransom repeatedly was associated with groups of writers and intellectuals. In what ways were his poetry and criticism changed by association with these critics and writers? In what ways was their work changed by association with Ransom?
Critics have sometimes considered Ransom’s poetry cold and detached. Explain why this criticism is or is not justified. What elements in his poetic philosophy explain the persona he created?
According to Ransom, poetry possesses a dual nature, a logical sequence of meanings and an objective pattern of sounds. How do his choices of metrical forms and diction affect tone in his poems?
Although contemporary poets speak admiringly of Ransom, none has emulated his style, especially in diction and tone. What factors in his background and experiences probably are unavailable to contemporary poets?
Many Ransom poems deal with death, decay or loss. Does his emphasis on these subjects make Ransom’s poems morbid? How does he avoid this problem?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
John Crowe Ransom published a substantial body of prose devoted to social and literary criticism, including more than one hundred essays and more than seventy signed book reviews. The essays and articles appeared in many journals, notably Kenyon Review, Fugitive, and Sewanee Review. The social criticism is concentrated in a ten-year period from the late 1920’s through the mid-1930’s. Of particular interest in this category are his contributions to the Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners (1930) for which he wrote the introduction and the leading essay, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate.” He was to write more than two dozen essays of social criticism in this period, including “The South Defends Its Heritage” (1929), “Modern with a Southern Accent” (1935), “The South Is a Bulwark” (1936), and “What Does the South Want?” which was included in Who Owns America? A Declaration of Independence (1936; Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, editors).
The greater bulk of Ransom’s prose is devoted to literary criticism, dating from his essays in the Fugitive and the Literary Review in the early 1920’s. His three principal book-length collections are God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy (1930), The World’s Body (1938), and The New Criticism (1941). In the first, he established the terms for one of his most fundamental philosophical and critical concerns, the dangers inherent in the abstractions of scientific thought. Recapturing the “completeness of actual experience,” in contrast to such abstractions, is possible, he held, only through art and religious myth. That line of thought was to be pursued through The World’s Body in “Poetry: A Note in Ontology,” and in The New Criticism, with its final essay, “Wanted: An Ontological Critic.” The thesis central to Ransom’s thought is that poetry constitutes a kind of knowledge, and that it is at least as valid as science as one index to the nature of reality.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
John Crowe Ransom’s distinguished career as man of letters has three clearly definable categories. He was a poet, a literary and social critic, and a teacher and editor. Although it is in terms of the first two categories that he is principally known to the world, the third might be seen as all-encompassing and thus as the major achievement. His roles as teacher and editor made him a central figure in the development of Fugitive poetry and the New Criticism, as well as, though to a somewhat lesser degree, Agrarianism.
Central to that all-encompassing achievement as teacher and editor was a philosophical quest that sent him in search of a cognitive process to counter the overwhelmingly pervasive abstractions of modern science. That quest, with its roots in nineteenth century Romanticism, was central to the modernist period and to the development of the New Criticism. Ransom and his peers were trying to solve the century-old problem of the nature of the relationship between the imaginative re-creation of experience and the empirical and rational analysis of it. Thus for Ransom, as for Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren, poetry must be defined as a kind of knowledge, deserving a place in serious epistemological and ontological considerations at least equal to that afforded scientific knowledge. The development and application of that definition as a major premise of the New Criticism is one of Ransom’s two historic achievements. The second is his poetry, and the consensus is that the best of his poetry will constitute Ransom’s most enduring achievement.
In addition to his early scholarships, he received numerous awards and prizes, attesting the national recognition of his stature as perhaps the most influential scholar-critic of his generation. In 1947, he was awarded a life membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1951, he received the Russell Loines Award and the Bollingen Prize. He became an honorary consultant in American Literature for the Library of Congress in 1957, and Selected Poems (1963 revision) won the 1964 National Book Award. The Academy of American Poets gave him a fellowship in 1962. He was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1966, received the Academy’s Emerson-Thoreau medal in 1968 and its Gold Medal in 1973.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Abbott, Craig S. John Crowe Ransom: A Descriptive Bibliography. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1999. Abbott includes complete bibliographic information for each entry as well as an extensive physical description. He also includes the history of each work from conception to publication, making the book interesting to read as well as an important research tool.
Gelpi, Albert. “Robert Frost and John Crowe Ransom.” In A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1916-1950. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Gelpi stresses Ransom’s connection with Robert Frost; the two poets admired each other, and Frost helped to promote Ransom’s work. Includes a discussion of Ransom’s ideological views, as expressed in the Fugitive, the journal of the Southern Agrarians.
Malvasi, Mark G. The Unregenerate South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. A critical study of the works of selected Agrarian writers of the southern United States, including Ransom. Bibliographical references, index.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987. In an earlier edition (1961), this work became a standard survey of American poetry. Pearce brings out the conflict in Ransom between insistence on realism and devotion to a particular vision of history and tradition.
Suchard, Alan, et al. “Crosscurrents of Modernism.” In Modern American Poetry, 1865-1950. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Suchard, although aware of Ransom’s merits, is restrained in his enthusiasm. He claims that Ransom’s devotion to New Criticism helped discourage innovation in American poetry.
Turco, Lewis P. Visions and Revisions of American Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986. Turco sees Ransom as an agonist: a poet who spends most of his time elaborating a theory of poetry. Turco calls Ransom an academic poet, a term he does not intend as praise.
Waggoner, Hyatt H. “Irony and Orthodoxy.” In American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Waggoner notes Ransom’s witty, elegant language but claims that this serves mainly to cover up the precarious balance of his poetry and that Ransom was torn between devotion to tradition and realism.
Wellek, René. “John Crowe Ransom.” In A History of Modern Criticism: American Criticism, 1900-1950. Vol. 6. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A strong analysis of Ransom’s philosophy. Wellek claims that Ransom’s key thought is the contingency of the world. Wellek also clarifies Ransom’s dichotomy between structure and texture.