Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 10)
Warren, Robert Penn 1905–
Warren is an American novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, essayist, critic, editor, and scholar. With major contributions in all these genres, Warren is considered one of the most distinguished men of letters in America today. He has consistently been in the intellectual vanguard of American scholarship: he was a member of the Fugitive poets and cofounder of the group's publication, The Fugitive; founding editor of The Southern Review; and one of the original and most influential of the New Critics. Warren's love of history, as well as the Fugitive conception of art as a vital force and means of expressing ideas and human experience, inform all of his work. Reflected in his writing are his strong moral values and persistent search for truth. He was twice recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, for fiction in 1947 and for poetry in 1958. He has also served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Dennis M. Dooley
Through the three [long, personal digressions in Brother to Dragons], Warren gives us the spiritual history of RPW, a spiritual history which parallels in many respects the spiritual history of Jefferson, the central concern of the poem, and which justifies the superior wisdom of RPW the commentator. (p. 19)
His cousin's butchering of [a slave was] a traumatic experience for Jefferson. Prior to this event, Jefferson saw man as standing between beast and God and aspiring to the divine. Evil was merely the blot of centuries of oppression, which could be erased within the context of the American Eden. In this context, man's basic nobility, goodness and innocence would assert themselves and man would fulfill his God-like potential. The slaying of George is such a traumatic experience for Jefferson that he reverses his philosophic position and denies that man is capable of any good. This is the Jefferson we encounter at the opening of the poem. (p. 20)
The three digressions in Brother to Dragons … can be seen to mark the three stages of spiritual growth of the persona RPW. In the first digression [like Jefferson], he is disillusioned, bitter and alienated. In his ascent of Rocky Hill, the second digression, RPW receives the truths necessary for spiritual growth from the images of his father, the mountain and the snake. The third digression marks the assimilation of these truths, which assimilation permits...
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David B. Olson
The internal level of action—the Jack Burden story with its moral-intellectual probings—which has surrounded the Willie Stark story is not concluded until the final twelve pages of [All the King's Men]. Here we find out what Jack has learned from all his efforts to piece things together. But these final pages are the conclusion of Jack Burden's story, and there is a feeling of anti-climax, not only because Willie is dead and settled but because the conclusion is the wrap-up on a character we have cared very little for from the start.
Yet the final twelve pages are also the conclusion, the all-important finishing touches, of the whole novel. It seems to me that if All the King's Men is a really good novel this ending must somehow contribute to the novel's success…. [Despite] some apparent weaknesses, the conclusion of the novel not only is successful but, in terms of Jack Burden's intellectual and psychological probings, is the consistent and the "right" ending for the novel. (p. 166)
[The] whole effect of the conclusion is one which suggests Warren's apparent confusion about what to do with the internal level of action in the novel. Both Jack's retreat to the past and his hope for the future suggest Warren really knew of no satisfactory way to resolve the course which Jack has followed throughout the novel. All of these present serious and threatening shortcomings for the novel's conclusion. But we...
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On the basis of his recent work, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Warren is the best that we now have, the dean of living American poets, occupying the place left vacant at Robert Frost's death. If this ranking is accurate, it is not generally recognized….
It may be that Warren's versatility has had a detrimental effect on his reputation as a poet. Perhaps we assume that a truly fine poet must give his all to poetry, or that a writer can show true excellence in only one genre…. Another factor in the case, however, has to be the kind of poetry Warren writes, which must seem unfashionable to superficial readers. Poetry is a response to the world in which we live; since before the turn of the century, most poets have been convinced that the modern world is a terrifying, inhuman, and increasingly inhumane place in which to live. (p. 262)
Our poetry has been dominated for many years by despairing and negative voices, voices which have searched in vain for positive support in this world…. Warren's voice is markedly different, part of another tradition altogether. Throughout his career, he has been able to find at least the promise of something positive. Like Frost and Roethke, he has found it in nature; like his fellow Fugitive poets, he has found it in the past and in his native South; and like most poets throughout time, he has found it in an indigenous religious sense allied to nature, the land, and...
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With [Selected Poems 1923–1975] and his … novel A Place to Come to Robert Penn Warren continues to run both poetry and fiction toward the ring of Truth (often his ostensible, even ostentatious, subject). The race in unequal. His fiction is lame and always has been. And for a long time the poetry too was but fair-to-middling down the stretch. But as if more and more goaded by the cheers of death, it has gained speed, mass, power, grandeur. (p. 71)
The novels are dispiriting in every way—personally, morally, aesthetically. They are given over to a somewhat thin, raspy consciousness. The self-loathing of the male narrators glances up against things gracelessly. Something rotten in the South … some compensating "fine woman" worship. Throughout, the novels display what fiction can hardly tolerate, social awkwardness. They lack urbanity: the dialogue is a solopsist's rough copy, the tone is one long discomfort … the reader feels rather bound in. Then the arraignment of human failure before the "awful responsibility of Time" sits in the middle and palls. A little more virtue … the message dies of inanition. A regenerative vision must be radical after all, or it won't fire. Nor, finally, is there any poetry of approach or conception. A Faulkner pitches you toward his "subject" over and over with a tricky imaginative arm and the meaning, the poetry, is the alarmed getting-there. A Welty, even a Flannery...
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Robert Penn Warren's poems [in Selected Poems: 1923–1975] are perhaps … best described as those of a man of letters, novelist and critic as well as poet. His collections tend to follow poetic styles rather than to invent them, but within those inherited styles he can work consummately well…. Even [in early poems such as "Pursuit"] Warren had his storyteller's eye, his easy rhythm, and his feel for the horrible and the hopeful. The earlier poems are, like the later ones, alternately folksy and philosophical, swinging like ballads or tautly analytic, embodying a strange cohabitation, it might seem, of Whitman and Marvell, "Who saw, in darkness, how fled / The white eidolon" crossed with "Ages to our construction went, / Dim architecture, hour by hour." Among these influences there appeared, early on, Warren's own individual slant:
Because he had spoken harshly to his mother,
The day became astonishingly bright.
The rest of that young poem doesn't live up to its beginning, but the second line has the true surprise of an interior state clarified in language. Warren's essential self, early and late, appears not in the skillfully rhymed or fastidiously analytical poems, but rather in his long rambles and his short lyrical songs. (pp. 81-2)
The short lyric "Blow, West Wind," on the other hand, remains unmarred and...
(The entire section is 374 words.)