The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” is a short funeral poem in five quatrains. Through a series of restrained images, John Crowe Ransom transfixes the grief of the entire community over the inexplicable death of a young girl. He accomplishes this primarily by refusing to admit to the fact of death. The speaker of the poem, representing the community, merely declares perplexity at the little girl’s sudden inactivity.

The first stanza uses the past tense to refer to the girl’s former busy activity, then leads to contemplation of her current, mystifying “brown study” (an old-fashioned term for rapt daydream). This attitude suggests that her stillness is unnatural, even perverse—as if she were going through one of those childish stages so incomprehensible to the adult world. This fixity contradicts her former habit of action. Yet this is fitting, for the death of children perplexes the standard assumptions of the adult world for the next generation. Faced with that reversal, spectators can only stop and stare, dumbfounded.

The following three stanzas are run together, one leading immediately to the next, to form a unit commemorating the girl’s activities. Ransom uses language that elevates the girl’s games, giving them public status and the remoteness of romance. In this way, Ransom creates the impression that the townspeople watched this outdoor playing and projected into it their hopes for the future. For example, instead...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The two major techniques used by Ransom in “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” are formal diction and understatement, and both work together to reinforce the theme of the poem. Both appear in the title: Instead of “elegy,” “lament,” or even a more emotive term to announce his subject, Ransom simply uses “bells.” This establishes a formal response to an intense emotional situation; it also suggests the futility of any human restitution for this loss. Together, these devices generate the irony that pervades the poem. John Whiteside’s daughter is dead, and all one can do is offer the empty gesture of a solemn funeral.

Both devices are used to weave the body of the poem. The first stanza contrasts the former “lightness in her footfall” with her present “brown study,” which “astonishes us all.” Each of these phrases is either formal or old-fashioned, the language of the older generation left to account for this loss. Again, this generates a fundamental irony: Parents are not supposed to bury their children. The language accentuates this. “Lightness” can suggest emptiness or insubstantiality, reminding readers that those footsteps will never fall again. “Footfall” should refer only to an adult, which this little girl will never become. Further, in life she never would have chosen the rapt, meditative state of brown study. She is in such a state now against her will, and the elders can only stare open-mouthed.


(The entire section is 548 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brooks, Cleanth. “John Crowe Ransom: As I Remember Him.” American Scholar 58, no. 2 (Spring, 1989): 211-233.

Cowan, Louise. The Fugitive Group: A Literary History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Howard, Maureen. “There Are Many Wonderful Owls in Gambier.” Yale Review 77 (Summer, 1988): 521-527.

Malvasi, Mark G. The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Modern American Poetry Web site. “John Crowe Ransom.”

Quinlan, Kieran. John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “The Wary Fugitive: John Crowe Ransom.” Sewanee Review 82 (1974): 583-618.

Young, Thomas Daniel. Gentleman in a Dustcoat: A Biography of John Crowe Ransom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.