Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Written as a Petrarchan sonnet (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhyming abbaacca deeffd), “Piazza Piece” illustrates Ransom’s skill with traditional forms. The octave (first eight lines) and sestet (remaining six lines) are an attempted dialogue between age (an elderly man) and youth (a young lady). Their differing attitudes make “Piazza Piece” essentially a debate poem (two characters argue the merits of diametrically opposite philosophical positions).
The old man’s message is human decline and eventual death. He tries to attract the lady’s attention and point out that decay is a law of nature, seen in the “dying” roses on her trellis and the “spectral” (ghostlike) moon above them. He introduces possible sexual tension when he insists that he is destined to “have” her soon (to possess her, possibly with violence). The final line of the octave repeats the first but with a period, a full stop, at the end. This line therefore becomes a pun on the two meanings of “trying”: The gentleman is attempting to communicate with the lady, but his behavior is very ’trying’ (exasperating, even frightening) to her.
Likewise, in the first and last lines of her stanza, the lady describes herself as “a lady young in beauty waiting.” The placement of the adjective ’young’ after the noun ’lady’—characteristic of chivalric tales, not colloquial speech—removes the lady from the sphere of everyday life. Filled with romantic dreams, she waits for her “truelove” and his awakening kiss; however, her reverie is interrupted by the appearance of a “gray” (old, colorless) man at the foot of her trellis. She knows he is speaking to her, but she cannot understand his “dry,” “faint” words. Still, aware of menace in him, she orders him away, threatening to scream if he does not leave. Her final line indicates that her romantic atmosphere has been restored: She is once again the “lady young,” and she remains in the midst of beauty (her own and that of her dreams) still awaiting her truelove.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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Young, Thomas Daniel. Gentleman in a Dustcoat: A Biography of John Crowe Ransom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.