The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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 unobtrusive but thematically suggestive use of symbols. It begins with attention to the setting by the woods “where oaks of the old forest-time/ Yet swaggered and hulked over upstarts.” The “old forest-time” is a reminder that these villagers have not yet completely dominated the surrounding wild country, just as they have not successfully indoctrinated the boy.

In stanza 7 through stanza 9, the protagonist is observing the worshipers and listening to them from the viewpoint of the woods. “I stared/ Through interstices of black brush to the muted gold glow/ Of God’s canvas.” The boy stays in the woods until all the voices are silent, and the lights are out in the tent, and the stars “Had changed place in the sky, I yet lay/ By the spring with one hand in the cold black water/ That showed one star in reflection, alone.” The wheeling stars, with their connotations of time and fate, support the implication that the single star reflected in the water may symbolize the protagonist’s fate. Moreover, the boy keeps his hand in the spring where the star appears, suggesting that the spring is a natural symbol of an alternate source of inspiration for the person who has refused “amazing grace.” The twelve-year-old persona is not necessarily sure of that choice or what it portends for the welfare of his soul. The older Warren who tells the story has the wisdom of hindsight, but he does not make a moral judgment in the matter.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

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.

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Themes