The Ballad of Billie Potts by Robert Penn Warren

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Ballad of Billie Potts” is perhaps the most striking of Warren’s early poems. In a little over thirteen pages, it brings together several of the themes that would concern him for a lifetime: the passage from childhood innocence into guilt, the journey that ends with a return to the father or to the place of origin, the undiscovered self, and a certain mysticism that unites each person with humankind and with nature.

Warren prefaced the poem with this note: “When I was a child I heard this story from an old lady who was a relative of mine. The scene, according to her version, was in the section of Western Kentucky known as ’Between the Rivers,’ the region between the Cumberland and the Tennessee.” According to legend, Billie Potts kept an inn on one of the popular frontier routes along which early travelers to the West passed. He communicated regularly with bands of cutthroats, notifying them of the routes his guests were taking into the wilderness. The robbers shared with him any booty that they could acquire from ambushing the travelers.

Billie Potts and his wife have a son whom they both adore. The son, thinking he will prove his worth to his father, attempts to kill and rob a stranger by himself instead of conveying the information to more experienced killers, as he was told to do. He botches the job and returns home in humiliation. His father, in anger, turns him out to make his fortune as best he can.

Years later, the son, having prospered out West, returns in triumph, sporting a heavy beard, a handsome coat, and a bag of gold. He conceals his identity for a while, hoping to tease his parents, but they, thinking he is only another traveler, murder him for his money. The parents learn too late, through an identifying birthmark, that they have killed the only person they ever loved. Warren captures the rhyming, lilting, occasionally uneven rhythm of folk ballad, its colloquial language combined with an occasionally oracular tone.

The comment upon the action, which universalizes the legend, appears in parentheses. Warren uses the second-person voice, as he does in a number of poems, to indicate the conscious self, which does not recognize the unconscious shadow-self. What at first seems a simple device to show what it was like in the nineteenth century West—a guided tour of the past, so to speak—becomes a way of involving the reader, as conscious ego, in a somber psychodrama. The final meditation is almost a benediction, likening the wanderer’s return (not only Billie’s now, but also the reader’s own) to the mysterious natural forces that direct the salmon’s return to the “high pool” of its birth, with its ambiguous implications of both...

(The entire section is 671 words.)