In “Amazing Grace in the Back Country,” the aging Robert Penn Warren looks back with nostalgia and wry amusement at a revivalist camp meeting he attended in rural Kentucky when he was twelve years old. Although he was quite convinced at that age that he was indeed sinful, he “hardened his heart” and refused the “amazing grace” offered by the revivalists. The tone is ironic throughout, and the poem implies that human behavior is not noticeably different after repentance. Nevertheless, this poem is not contemptuous of the yearning for redemption and hope.
The first stanza presents an unflattering analogy between the meager trappings of the traveling evangelists and the half-bankrupt carnivals that pitched their tents in the same spot. The fat lady, the geek, the moth-eaten lion, the boa constrictor that eats calves, and the aging whores demonstrate the quality of entertainment available in the backcountry. Those who lingered with the whores were likely to acquire syphilis as an added price for their fun.
The boy sits with the others listening as “an ex-railroad engineer/ Turned revivalist shouted the Threat and the Promise.” An old woman in worn-out black silk kneels beside the boy and determines to save him. “She wept and she prayed, and I knew I was damned,/ Who was guilty of all short of murder,/ At least in my heart.” He remembers how he once walked down the street after dark “Uttering, ‘Lust—lust—lust,’/ Like an invocation, out loud.”
The boy gazes in mounting alarm at the rising hysteria around him. At last, he bolts from the tent, runs into the forest, and vomits while leaning against a tree. He crouches there “knowing damnation” until the ecstatic congregation, now singing triumphantly of “amazing grace,” straggles back to the village. Each singer “Found bed and lay down,/ And tomorrow would rise and do all the old things to do,/ Until that morning they would not rise, not ever.”
Meanwhile, the boy lies in the forest with his hand in the spring where he rinsed his mouth after being sick and wonders what grace he will ever find. The poem ends with the thoughtful reminder “But that was long years ago. I was twelve years old then.” Warren was in his seventies when he wrote the poem.