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 intensely 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, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
[John James] Audubon's art is muscular and avid: his birds and his rats alike inhabit a world of beak and claw and fang, of ripped-open bellies and planted talons. Violence caught in act, at the heart of Audubon's work, is at the heart too of [Audubon: A Vision] where Robert Penn Warren retells with his peculiar narrative Ancient-Mariner talent, a raw incident of craftiness, torture, and death, purportedly witnessed by Audubon.
The incident seems considerably milder as it appears in Audubon's recollections of the prairie; Warren's version has more sex, more murder, and more poetry. Warren's narrative, like the two stories of wretched death in his Incarnations (1968), is horribly memorable in plot, while the language tends very often to efface itself in pure transparency. Warren can make a climax out of five unremarkable words (as Audubon lies transfixed in a cabin, threatened with murder)—"He hears the jug slosh." But there occur, here and there, clotted descriptions on which the plot depends. (pp. 87-8)
Warren's elegy for Audubon succeeds in all but one respect: we believe the life (even so intensified and interpreted), we believe the death, one of the silences of the frontier, but the immortality … is perhaps unearned. Nevertheless, two of Warren's great questions—the nature of love and the meaning of life in time—are incarnate here in his fitting parable of the chosen hunter-artist-hero. Of...
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Robert Penn Warren's Now and Then … is about the possibility of joy…. Warren shows … romantic credulity,… and he writes in a genuinely expansive, passionate style. Look at its prose ease and rapidity oddly qualified by log-piling compounds, alliteration, successive stresses, and an occasional inversion—something rough and serviceable as a horse-blanket yet fancy too—and you wonder how he ever came up with it. It is excitingly massive and moulded and full of momentum. Echoes of Yeats and Auden still persist, but it is wonderfully peculiar, homemade. (pp. 302-03)
Warren usually makes the big words—God, destiny, love—awkwardly climb the shale of near-prose. Perhaps sublimity has not been so homely since Whitman…. Typically the writing is off-balance yet energized…. At first nipped phrasing, congested with repetition, then the characteristic long lines that seem to expand in an effort to take in as much of wonder as possible. How disarming is the lineal emphasis on "lonely," which would hardly be acceptable in any but its potentially awkward and flagrant spot. Such is Warren's ambiguous mammoth grace.
Two faults: he is sometimes truly awkward and sometimes pseudo-profound…. Often he seems bitten by the Enormity of it all. He will have mystery. Yet his willingness to risk folly prepares him for the monstrous and miraculous. Consider the close of "Heart of Autumn."… Warren's topic is Strand's, Emerson's: the American theme, "the soul's identity." Dreams and messages and namelessness and Time's un-Timing and "the grandeur of certain utterances" and the possibility of "joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty": together with Philip Levine and John Ashbery he is our current poet of these—and in a manner more head-on and go-for-broke than theirs. With his large bony gestures he breaks out of the cobwebs of self-reflexiveness…. In fact, as I have said, he is occasionally facile. But very few poets today have made so fine an adjustment between comfort and discomfort of manner or offer so satisfactory a balance between comfort and discomfort of vision. (pp. 303-04)
Calvin Bedient, "Poetry Comfortable and Uncomfortable," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 296-304.∗
[In Now and Then] time is of the essence. One might think of these poems as a series of commentaries on two ideas that run through the book so steadily that they come to have thematic significance…. Time is running out; the world is a beautiful place. The two sections of Now and Then offer different ways of dealing with these related truths: Nostalgic delves into time past; Speculative moves mostly forward, touching on past, present, and an envisioned futuristic otherness. (Shouldn't the book's title be Then and Now?)
The tactic of Nostalgic, not surprisingly, is to dip into memory. The ten poems in this section, which range in tone from the backwoodsy to the lofty, mostly succeed to the degree that Warren manages to trim his rhetorical sails. The poet uses rhetoric to impressive effect (instead of its using him) in "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," a commanding poem that moves memories in an arc through time and space…. The ceremonial tone … is appropriate, for the poem records a series of rituals, not mere snatches of memory. Its generous scale of time and space allows room and confidence for wonderfully sharp glimpses of detail…. [The] poem is deeply moving.
But Warren can run into trouble with these memory poems. His appetite for sublimity damages the first poem in the book, "American Portrait: Old Style." This account of a double reunion—with a childhood friend in a childhood landscape—begins well…. By the time the poem is being written, the splendid Southern past is even more remote. But as the poem proceeds it is vitiated by Warren's determination to extract a lesson from past grandeurs and childhood memories. The language expands to vagueness…. (pp. 203-05)
Warren's habit of building up to sublimity, mottoes, morals, what have you, makes the ends of his poems particularly vulnerable. Surely it's no coincidence that "Red-Tail Hawk" begins with the strange exaltation of the kill and works on down through the sadness and disorder of various kinds of decay. The opposite progression—a poem whose thrust is toward sublimity, a detail that unlocks the door to infinity—becomes painfully predictable in the three last pieces in Nostalgic. In each of these poems ("Mountain Plateau," "Star-Fall," and "Youth Stares at Minoan Sunset"), people and places lose the specificity that presumably made them memorable in the first place. The physical and rhetorical elevations towards which these poems struggle seem to exhaust them…. [The] figures in the poems, the very language, strain for loftiness at the price of humanity and individuality. The "piglike trotters" of the lady in "Old Flame" (another poem in this section) would never climb to such austere heights as these; but after having read Nostalgic many times, I find that those plump legs, not these stars and sunsets, are what I remember.
Speculative, three times the length of Nostalgic, is a prolonged meditation which, no matter how one tries to snip it into bite-sized poems, remains...
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Warren's Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices was published in 1953. A quarter century later, he gives us a new version that is, as he says, "a new work."… Reading Brother to Dragons in this new version, side by side with the 1953 text, is an instructive experience, particularly in regard to the vexed problem of poetic revisionism. (p. 30)
Reading Brother to Dragons in 1953, I was made uneasy, acknowledged the poem's vigor, disliked its ideological tendentiousness, and gloomily admired the Jacobean intensity of its more violent passages. The poem seemed then a good enough extension of the tradition of T. S. Eliot…. Warren's quite explicit argument seemed to be another churchwardenly admonition that original sin was indeed the proper moral burden for our poetry. Thus, poor Jefferson received a massive drubbing, for being an Enlightened rationalist, and the drubber, a tough interlocutor named R.P.W., prodded the author of the Declaration of Independence into saying: "… I once tried to contrive / a form I thought fit to hold the purity of man's hope. / But I did not understand the nature of things." The nature of things was that Jefferson's nephew, wielding a meat-axe, had butchered a 16-year-old black slave, in December 1811, for having broken a pitcher belonging to his deceased mother, Jefferson's sister. In his "Foreword" Warren dismissed with polemical gusto the evident fact that Jefferson never referred to this family debacle:
If the moral shock to Jefferson caused by the discovery of what his own blood was capable of should turn out to be somewhat short of what is here represented, subsequent events in the history of America, of which Jefferson is the spiritual father, might still do the...
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As the title [to Robert Penn Warren's Now and Then] indicates, his priority in this … volume of verse lies with the present. The poems in the first and shorter section, though they fall under the heading of "Nostalgic," are no mere sentimental journey home. With humor and affection, he recounts early observations of nature, discerning as always metaphysical suggestions in the realm of birds, sky, and stars.
Revisiting scenes of childhood, the poet finds messages of lasting import. (p. 100)
Other vignettes recall adolescent turmoil at a tent meeting where "an ex-railroad engineer / Turned revivalist shouted the Threat and the Promise," until the twelve-year-old boy fled and...
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Over the years Warren has, I believe, tended to refine a particularly "classical" vision. That is to say, he has eschewed most hasty views of contemporary culture, views that seem to depend on shibboleths like "dissociation," "dissolution," or "disorder," and has tended instead to see the directions of modern life based not so much on hysterical sociology as upon the unavoidable accidents of the human plot, the ironies of covert circumstances, the unravelings of cosmic drama. Hence, his earlier work insisted upon a dimension that has often enough been called "historical," but which might more accurately be thought of as the documentary-past that envelops the mysterious present. In Warren's work, whether fiction or...
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In 1953 Robert Penn Warren published Brother to Dragons, a narrative poem based on the crimes [of Lilburne Lewis, Thomas Jefferson's nephew]. He organized it as a dialogue of disembodied voices conversing long after the event, in an unspecified place. Instead of making the incidents themselves the substance of his poem, Warren treated those as starting a debate on "the human condition," particularly the extent of men's innate virtue or depravity. To suit his plan, he not only altered some of the facts; he not only added some fictitious characters; but he also planted himself and Thomas Jefferson in the poem, giving these outsiders many long speeches. Warren has now carefully revised and shortened Brother to...
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At its most self-indulgent Robert Penn Warren's sensibility may be mournfully flowery, rhetorically compassionate, windily speculative; but it's a big human thing, and it's good to have it on our side. Warren's arrows fly off in every direction, toward the good and bad, the sublime and turpid, and he thus overshadows [Donald] Justice and even [Anthony] Hecht, poets limited to the boomerang of their own pain. The new sharpened version of Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices outdoes even Hecht in finding "vanity, greed, and blood-lust" in our natures, but it is "R.P.W." who pipes up with the sweetly willed thought that a certain killer's "heart-deep need / To name his evil good is the final evidence /...
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The source of Warren's stunning power is angst, a kind of radiant metaphysical terror, projected outward into the natural world, particularly into its waiting waste expanses: open field, ocean, desert, mountain range, or the constellations as they feed into the eye a misshapen, baffling, and yearning mythology bred on nothingness. He is direct, scathingly honest, and totally serious about what he feels, and in approach is as far as can be imagined from, say, Mallarmé, who urged poets to "give the initiative to words." Warren gives the initiative to the experience, and renders himself wide open to it. He is not someone who "puts a pineapple together," as Wallace Stevens does, constructing its existence...
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Robert Penn Warren has done it again: in the face of advancing years, he has produced another collection of poetry that is at least as good as any of its predecessors and that manifests continued growth and change. His progress is a joy to contemplate and an inspiration to us all….
[In Being Here: Poetry 1977–1980], he is still experimenting with different kinds of structure, playing off thematic arrangements against a "shadowy autobiography," and trying new meters and new kinds of poems. Of all Warren's volumes, this one is the most open and accessible to the reader: not only are the poems given descriptive titles and arranged in sequences so that they provide contexts for each other,...
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