The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Penn Warren once said that he had started Audubon: A Vision, about the American naturalist and painter of native birds John James Audubon, in 1946-1947, when he was reading Audubon’s and other subhistories of early nineteenth century America. He was dissatisfied with it then and threw away what he had written. Twenty years later he suddenly remembered one line of his poem and immediately knew what he must do with it. The line he remembered is the only remnant of the original poem: “Was not the lost dauphin,” which begins the first poem in this seven-part meditation on the mystery of identity.

This odd disclaimer derives from a legend which arose after Audubon’s death that he was the lost Dauphin of France, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He was, in fact, the son of a sea captain and his mistress. The obvious contrast between the fantasized origin and his humble beginnings provides the first irony in the question of his identity.

That the poem is called a vision suggests that the insight it provides is only partly derived from the known facts of Audubon’s life. The first stanza ends with the assertion that he (Audubon) was only himself “and his passion—what/ Is man but his passion?” This suggests that the poem will inquire into the nature of Audubon’s obsession with wild nature, which was the wellspring of his art.

The rest of this first poem imagines the painter’s rapt attention to color, form, and the effects of light: how the great white heron looks black against a blood-red sunset, how the overflowing juice of blueberries that drool from a bear’s yawn highlights the surprising whiteness of its teeth, and how the bee’s wings glint like mica in the sunlight.

The second poem, entitled “The Dream He Never Knew the End Of,” is a narrative about Audubon asking for shelter in an isolated forest cabin and then being rescued, at the last moment, from the old...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The diction and the metaphors in this free-verse poem maintain a certain tension that prevents it from lapsing into either the purely sentimental or the purely Gothic treatment of nature. Although sometimes lyrical, as befits Audubon’s passion for the wilderness, metaphors are sometimes startling, even unpleasant. The color of the dawn against which the great heron rises is “redder than meat.” Later in the same stanza, it is the “color of God’s blood spilt.” The heron rises slowly as though “pulled by a string.” The first of these curious metaphors may suggest a conventional attitude toward nature as savage, “red in tooth and claw.” The second seems to introduce a religious element, perhaps redemption (or at least the need for it), while the third gives a peculiarly mechanical impression, as though all were part of some kind of elaborate stage setting.

Audubon, however, with the sensitivity of the painter, both marvels at the stage setting and mentally “corrects” the reality of the creatures he observes. Although the bird looks black against the red sky, Audubon names the genus and species and knows exactly the heron’s true color. The undertone of potential savagery is caught again in the brilliance of a yawning bear’s teeth, even though this particular bear is only eating berries and about to hibernate peacefully for the winter.

In the nightmare sequence, the images and metaphors suggest not the relatively innocent potential for violence in nature but a truly ominous quality, the degeneration possible in humans who know neither the natural curbs of instinct nor the social deterrence of law. Even the smoke rising, or rather sinking, from the chimney is described in disgusting terms: It “ravels,/ White, thin, down the shakes, like sputum.” The words describing the old woman who opens the door are suspiciously like a child’s version of a wicked witch: She is “strong-beaked, the haired mole/ Near the...

(The entire section is 801 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.