The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem uses the natural cadence of speech, avoiding rhyme and consistent meter. Both lines and stanzas vary in length. The last line stands alone, suggesting the pause, pregnant with unspoken memories of the person who looks backward at scenes a lifetime away, yet still vivid in detail. The tone is carefully modulated to fit the emotional content.

Sometimes the diction is jocular, colloquial, and disrespectful, like that used by one who remembers the language of the time and place: “one/ Boa constrictor for two bits seen/ Fed a young calf; plus a brace/ Of whores to whom menopause now/ Was barely a memory.” (One can imagine the country storyteller sharing a laugh with the farmers in the general store.) Yet even here, the colloquial diction quickly fades to the more circumspect wording of the older, wiser man who remembers the tragic possibilities of coarse fun with whores: “A new and guaranteed brand of syphilis handy—yes.”

The tent-meeting scene again zooms in with the immediacy of only yesterday when the boy was confused about how sinful he really was. The reader must smile at the boy’s discovery of “lust” as a newly minted word, somehow equivalent to some secret sin not yet clearly understood. It is appropriate for a poet to appreciate the evocative power of words. After all, in a theological sense, the boy was not wrong in realizing that the intent of the heart is morally significant.

The poem makes an...

(The entire section is 492 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Madden, David, ed. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Szczesiul, Anthony. Racial Politics and Robert Penn Warren’s Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.