Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 13)
Warren, Robert Penn 1905–
Warren is an American novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and editor. His work is strongly regional in character, often drawing its inspiration from the land, the people, and the history of the South. The intense metaphysical nature of his poetry and the experimental style of his fiction have brought him critical acclaim. While he often incorporates elements of the past into his work and frequently bases his themes on specific historical events, Warren successfully transcends the local to comment in universal terms on the human condition. Warren has also achieved considerable status as a critic, and is generally regarded as a major exponent of the New Criticism. He has received Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry, and has won the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Warren associated the acceptance of scientific determinism as a philosophy with the rise of totalitarianism—partly, one supposes, because that philosophy appears to be merely an expansion of the idea of cause and effect into a universal principle as applicable to human affairs as to the motion of billiard balls. Such a view seems scientific and therefore carries with it the implicit authority of science…. If, in an historical context, determinism tended to bolster non-ethical forms of authoritarianism, on the level of the individual life, Warren felt, with [John Crowe Ransom] and Allen Tate, that such a view of the world took man dangerously near the abyss. Warren's strategy in exploring that issue in Night Rider is to take a single catastrophic action (such as is imaged in the first scene in the novel) and to examine it in as many of its facets and implications as possible. The underlying question throughout is whether naturalism, as a frame of reference, is adequate to the "data" thus discovered: Does it encompass and account for all that we see? (pp. 43-4)
The issue of determinism is raised at several levels in the novel, most obviously in the political elements of the plot. Warren sets the action in a time of acute crisis analogous to the period in which he wrote, and the urgent and practical questions raised there translate very readily into more modern terms: is it possible to resist "outside" forces which...
(The entire section is 2247 words.)
Mr. Warren's poetry has made itself felt, for some five decades, as a moral presence and a moral pressure of an unusual kind, and he is read by people who are genuinely interested in poetry. Since Promises (1956) the poems have grown steadily more impressive. He is not among the great originals of American poetry, yet, in their power to astonish, his poems resemble Melville's: there is the same tested and life-weary appeal to experience, with the sense of a fierce self-command maintained against all odds.
The modernism in Mr. Warren's poetry always seemed a displaced moralism. He refused to borrow, from Eliot or anyone else, new ways of organizing a poem: in this he was at several removes from the [Allen Tate] of "Ode to the Confederate Dead." What gave his early pieces the modern look was their use of such honorific abstractions as Time, and Hope, and Responsibility. Mr. Warren has become a better poet, to my mind, in proportion as he has learned to do without these. He is by temperament an observer of nature, a scholar of its morals, and an ironist when he is compelled to put nature side by side with morality. He can therefore be like Hardy, a little hard to take. But his vocabulary is more limited than Hardy's, and coaxes even more patiently, where decorum would lie in not coaxing at all. Mr. Warren sees, however, what few of us have seen. His poems draw their sustenance from a world of buzzards and swamps and forests...
(The entire section is 409 words.)
Victor H. Strandberg
A fundamental coherence unifies Warren's whole body of poetry, as though it constituted a single poem drawn out in a fugal pattern…. Ultimately, in fugal fashion, his three master themes interlock, so that at any point in the poet's career we are likely to see simultaneous traces of all three themes—and in at least one instance, "The Ballad of Billie Potts," they fuse into perfect harmony. But for the most part each theme has in its turn a period of predominance over the other two. (pp. 33-4)
By virtue of their dialectical interaction, Warren's grand themes of passage, the undiscovered self, and mysticism imparted continuous tension and growth. (p. 35)
In Warren's first published volume, Thirty-six Poems (1935), [the] theme of passage from innocence into a fallen state is apparent in a number of poem titles—"Man Coming of Age," "Problems of Knowledge," "So Frost Astounds," "Aged Man Surveys the Past Time," "The Garden"—and it not only permeates all the poems in the collection but also spills over into the subsequent Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) and the new poems in Selected Poems: 1923–1943. As a whole, this latter collection (representing some twenty years of poetry-writing) divides itself fairly evenly between the two emotional poles that are naturally implicit in the lapsarian material: nostalgia and regret concerning paradise remembered; guilt, dread, and despair prevailing...
(The entire section is 6143 words.)
Typically, the voice in Robert Penn Warren's Selected Poems, 1923–75 is situated in a moment, a boundary or threshold, where the meaning of time must be hazarded: "the future is always unpredictable. / But so is the past, therefore / At Wood's edge I stand and, / Over the black horizon, heat lightning / Ripples the black sky" ("Tale of Time," IV). In this threshold moment (and it is usually a narrative one for Warren, not a lyric one as for Eberhart and Ammons), the speaker historicizes himself by extending the moment in time, by creating time. The "Tale of Time," for example, is based upon the expansion of an "interim" of consciousness that the speaker feels at his mother's death: "the time / Between the clod's clunk and / The full realization" (I). In the expanded moment that is the poem the speaker defines his historical relation to the world through the heritage he creates from his mother's life. In expanding or creating time the poet not only attempts to presence the past but to anticipate the future…. In manipulating time, the poet manipulates, creates his world. Warren's speakers are usually able to find a philosophical category, time, in which to order particulars, and this is perhaps his greatest advantage over a poet like Ammons. What the speaker of a Warren poem inevitably learns, like Saul, is that the difference between world and self is ambiguous. Like Audubon, the speaker discovers, "how thin is the membrane between...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
Mark Royden Winchell
In The American Adam R.W.B. Lewis reminds us that during the nineteenth century many serious writers pictured America as a new Garden of Eden and saw the American as a new Adam, "a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history." The experience of the past century, however, has shattered the validity of such a myth. The serious American of today is more likely to see himself as a tainted anti-hero whose potentialities have been dissipated by imperialist expansion, racial discord, economic catastrophe, and a seemingly interminable series of wars.
If anything, our attitude today has swung too far in the direction of despair. The contemporary writer, rather than having to bridle excessive optimism, must seek a limited solution to the waste-land conditions of modern life. In All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren forthrightly confronts such a bleak milieu. (p. 570)
Warren's vision in All the King's Men may well reflect a secularized form of one of the most pervasive motifs in ecclesiastical and literary history—the paradox of the Fortunate Fall. (p. 571)
Lewis finds the experience of a Fortunate Fall to be a key metaphor in early American literature. Those who saw the American as a new Adam, he argues, constituted a "party of hope," while those who viewed the new world as an absolute moral extension of the old were a "party of memory."...
(The entire section is 2262 words.)
Lionel Trilling once wrote of E. M. Forster that he refused to be great—by contrast, presumably, with D. H. Lawrence, who insisted upon greatness. I am saying that those American poets who, under different circumstances, might make a leap toward greatness seem to have decided not to leap. It is not that present circumstances are in themselves desperately unpropitious. Who knows anything, in any case, about the circumstances that favor major work? It is that grandeur, especially of the bardic kind, is out of phase. Poets are more confident that something good may arise from the process of adding one fairly well-shaped brick to another. (pp. 9, 88)
Warren is exemplary in assessing the properties of his experience by appeal to whatever he thinks of as active beyond sense and mind: Sometimes he calls it History, sometimes Nature, sometimes Fate, without claiming to be on intimate terms with any of these gentlemen. It is agreed on all sides that Warren's recent volumes are his best: wise, wonderfully care-laden and yet not so care-laden as to let the spirit sink. His themes are the perennial ones, requiring an idiom of feeling, passion, speculation: Many of them are about the conditions in which a man meets, or fails to meet, his fate, the failure being then his direst fate.
I have implied that Warren's refusal to be great or major or whatever-we-call-it is not definitive; he could still be seized and driven beyond...
(The entire section is 259 words.)
Warren has spoken often of Randall Jarrell's admonition that the true poet stays out in the rain and waits to be struck by the lightning. In poems that range from early iambic monotony to images of virulent, if disorderly power to a late and soaring architecture of the individual heart, Warren has submitted himself to that lightning. His character, his art, is the conduit of the violent and essential energy of the universe.
[Harold] Bloom, rightly, has said that Warren wants to be a hawk of life. As poet he is hawk-like, imperial and imperious, gliding over and holding in thrall everything that is. He rarely relaxes or clowns or indulges in the slighter uses of poetry. He has explored a continuous anatomy of ideas, a spectrum of recurrent images, with the doggedness of a prospector…. Warren has a vision: the unravelling tag ends of the world's body. We have no poet truer to a comprehensive, sustained evocation of the nature of existence; no one who grapples more with the nuances, the variations, the shadings of a core of thought…. In Audubon: A Vision (1969), that poem of few peers, Warren made everything he knew as clear as he could: the poems must define "the human filth, the human hope" and would be inextricable in filth and hope; must regard the human in his true humanity. The language became what it had been in fits and starts, a voice-instrument calibrated to final experience. Warren found what [John Crowe] Ransom had...
(The entire section is 1971 words.)