The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

John Crowe Ransom’s “Blue Girls,” a four-stanza lyric in iambic meter, explores the traditional theme of the transitory nature of beauty. The final and now-standard version of the poem reflects Ransom’s attempts to perfect his poetry through revision. Although some phrases (“Practise your beauty, blue girls”) appear in both the original and the final versions, only the second line is identical in the two poems: “Under the towers of your seminary.” In fact, the final version of the poem is so significantly different from the original, especially in its shift from a somewhat sentimental to a detached, stoic tone that it is really a different poem and far superior to its predecessor.

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In the first stanza, the speaker (generally assumed to be an elderly man, perhaps even a teacher at the seminary) watches a group of young women walking across the grounds of a private school and in a gently ironic tone mentally admonishes them to listen to their “old and contrary” teachers without believing anything they hear. Stanza 2 continues with another command that the speaker clearly expects the girls to heed even though he apparently never actually voices it. He urges them to concentrate on their appearance and to show no more concern for the future than bluebirds fluttering on the grass or through the air.

In the third stanza the tone becomes more serious and impassioned as the speaker implores the girls to practice their beauty. He also introduces for the first time a reason for his commands: the transitory nature of beauty. His focus then shifts from the girls to himself as he pledges what he will do if the girls obey his wishes. He, as speaker—as poet—will proclaim loudly, write about, and celebrate beauty. In the concluding stanza the speaker offers a specific example of beauty’s frailty by referring to a women he knows and perhaps lives with. Age has rapidly destroyed her beauty, but her loveliness once surpassed that of any of the young women he has been admiring.

Although the speaker is generally assumed to be an elderly male, the poem does not limit itself to that interpretation. The speaker could instead be a female, even the woman with the “terrible tongue.” Such a reading makes the conclusion even more poignant as the lost beauty is experienced personally, not merely observed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

Colors are Ransom’s most frequently used symbols, and “Blue Girls” effectively depicts his tendency to begin with a color used in a descriptive manner and then to imbue it with additional meaning. The first line of the poem suggests that the term “blue girls” originates with their blue skirts, most likely the navy uniforms frequently worn by females at private schools in the first half of the twentieth century, but the color blue rapidly takes on a different hue and attached symbolic values. Connecting the girls with a “seminary,” an old-fashioned word for a private girls’ school, evokes an association with blue blood and suggests upper-class society girls attending a finishing school, girls traditionally expected to be more interested in physical beauty and outward appearance than in sharpening their minds or receiving a classical education.

More important, however, the color blue conveys a sense of youthfulness, carefree innocence, and playfulness, especially when coupled with the metaphor of bluebirds in stanza 2. The description of the bluebirds on the grass and “on the air” further contributes to an atmosphere of spring, youthfulness, and lightheartedness. The use of the word “girls,” rather than “young women,” and the image of “white fillets,” which suggest lace as well as headbands or ribbons, also enhance the sense of youthfulness and innocence. The alliterative verbals “twirling” and “travelling” and the rhythm of the opening lines contribute lightness and lyricism.

The contrasting touch of negativity introduced in the first stanza with the phrase “teachers old and contrary” is momentarily dismissed in stanza 2 with the only completely regular iambic line in the entire poem: “And think no more of what will come to pass.” The word “pass” obviously not only embodies the idea that the girls are to be unconcerned about the future but also reminds the reader that these are schoolgirls unconcerned about passing academic subjects.

Although vocabulary associated with schools (“towers,” “seminary,” “teacher,” “pass”) abounds in the first two stanzas, any interest in academics is overshadowed by the emphasis on the girls’ carefree enjoyment of the present. When the demands of school do come into focus in stanza 3, they do so with an ironic twist. Rather than concentrating on academics, the girls are commanded to “practise” their beauty “before it [not “before they”] fail.” Instead of practicing their language or mathematical skills, they are to “practise” their appearance. The British spelling calls special attention to the word and suggests, along with other vocabulary used by the speaker (“sward,” “seminary,” “fillets,” “establish”), the “bookish” nature of the speaker, perhaps confirming that he is a teacher.

As the focus shifts from the girls to the speaker in stanza 3, the lightly ironic and carefree tone becomes quite shrill with the assertion “I will cry with my loud lips and publish/ Beauty which all our power shall never establish.” The words “cry” and “loud” both emphasize the force of his proclamation, but “cry” also conveys the sense of weeping or mourning.

The lighthearted chattering of the young girls in stanza 2 degenerates to the “terrible tongue” of the elderly woman in stanza 4. Likewise, “Blear eyes [have] fallen from blue” and “perfections tarnished.” The use of the word “fallen” not only indicates the loss of physical beauty but also conveys a sense of corruption, particularly when coupled with “tarnished” and “terrible tongue.” Beauty has been blemished and besmirched; reputation and honor have been destroyed. The imperfect rhymes of lines 13 and 15 (“tongue” and “long”) reinforce this idea.

The shift in the speaker’s voice from stanza 3 to stanza 4 is crucial in understanding his or her attitude. From an assertive “I will cry with my loud lips and publish,” the speaker moves to an unsure “I could tell you a story.” The implication is that the speaker could, but will not, tell the girls the story because he realizes they will not listen and also because he knows the hopelessness of the situation even should they listen. Even if they practice their beauty, time will destroy it. Nothing he can say or do will change that; yet he continues to value beauty despite, or perhaps because of, its transience.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131

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.” http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ransom/life.htm.

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.

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Themes