Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Painted Head” involves an issue central to Ransom: the separation between reason and sensibility. The head’s separation from the body is described as “dark severance”—a sinister act of violence that makes this head appear ghostlike. The speaker believes this head illustrates the instinct of heads (reason) to cut themselves off from the “body bush” (sensibility), which they consider inferior.
The happiest heads are those remaining “married” to their bodies. In this typical Ransom conceit, these heads represent individuals able to maintain a balance of reason and sensibility (in Ransom’s terms, science and beauty). Having remained unknown, these “housekeeping heads” are not tracked by “historian headhunters” (a typical play on words). More highly developed ironic sense and puckish pleasure in punning are seen as the speaker returns to the painted head. The “capital” irony is that an artist (not comprehending the head’s treasonous ambitions) has “abstracted” this head from its body. The action is “capital” in two senses: It is the height of irony, and the artist has decapitated the portrait’s subject, “unhoused” this head from its body. (For Ransom, abstraction is the worst effect of science’s increasing dominance over art.) The conceit is carried to its logical conclusion: Cut off from its body, the head becomes a skull, sometimes called a death’s head. Separation brings the head, not immortality, but death.
“Painted Head” explores the theme of interdependence between head and body. The speaker insists that their separation leads to a terrible outcome (punning with the colloquial meaning of something extremely bad, and the literal meaning, something that causes terror among onlookers). In the proper relationship, the body bears (supports, tolerates), even feeds and obeys the head, but its ultimate goal is not to achieve glory for the head but to increase (strengthen, expand) itself. Beauty (the aesthetic) is resident in the body (the sensibility); the head (reason) is metaphorically a rock garden because its limited flesh cannot display beauty. Thus, the head must accept its need for the body because the body enables it to see the color in the surrounding world and prepares it to absorb myths and ideas; without access to the body (sensibility), art is impossible.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Brooks, Cleanth. “John Crowe Ransom: As I Remember Him.” American Scholar 58, no. 2 (Spring, 1989): 211-233.
Cowan, Louise. The Fugitive Group: A Literary History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
Howard, Maureen. “There Are Many Wonderful Owls in Gambier.” Yale Review 77 (Summer, 1988): 521-527.
Malvasi, Mark G. The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Modern American Poetry Web site. “John Crowe Ransom.” http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ransom/life.htm.
Quinlan, Kieran. John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “The Wary Fugitive: John Crowe Ransom.” Sewanee Review 82 (1974): 583-618.
Young, Thomas Daniel. Gentleman in a Dustcoat: A Biography of John Crowe Ransom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.