The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Equilibrists” consists of fourteen quatrains of end-rhymed couplets, with four of the couplets exhibiting slant rhyme. The title states the condition of the man and woman in the poem. Emotional and philosophical acrobats, they balance opposites: passion and intellect, carnal lust and spiritual purity, heaven and hell, life and death.

The first stanza begins in the third person as the man recalls the physical attractions of the woman. He imagines her “long, white arms,” and “milky skin,” conjuring up an image that blocks his external perceptions; he is “alone in the press of people.” The images hint at courtly love: the man journeying apart from his beloved, worshiping an elevated image of femininity.

In the second stanza, the ambiguities of the couple surface. They kissed, and then abruptly she rejected him—also a courtly love convention. Her body responded to his passion, but her intellect was an “officious tower” that would not permit consummation. In the third stanza, he compares her body to “a white field” where “lilies grew, beseeching him to take.” The destructiveness of physical love is indicated; the purity he desires would be destroyed if he should possess her, yet it is her unspoiled beauty that attracts him. The fourth stanza continues his impressions of her physical beauty; in her eyes, he saw her desire for him, while she continued to deny it aloud. Knowing that her words alone could not prevent...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ransom’s liberal use of metaphor contributes to the poem’s mood of courtly love and chivalric intentions. He chooses to compare the woman in the poem to objects that summon up feudal days. Her head is “the officious tower” from which “wordsspiral” as “grey doves.” Her body is a “field ready for love,” a fertility image linked to the agrarian way of life, in which the peasants lived close to the earth while those of the aristocratic class or those involved in intellectual pursuits dwelt above in a “gaunt tower” or castle. The addition of the lilies completes the appeal of a pastoral image: The shepherd calls the shepherdess to lie among the flowers in harmony with nature. Yet the flowers will “bruise and break”; ironic reality intrudes as the woman’s purity, likened to the fleshy but delicate flowers, would be ruined by the encounter. Her words are compared to swords, another evocation of chivalric trappings. They can separate the two lovers as the sword between them kept apart the sleeping lovers Tristram and Isolde.

Having established this scene, the poet switches to a metaphysical comparison in stanza 8. The lovers are called two “painful stars” orbiting each other. They “burned with fierce love” as stars burn with fierce heat. In stanza 13, they are “radiant” with “flames” as well as with “ice”; an icy object can shine quite brightly with reflected sunlight. As they move about each other, there is...

(The entire section is 564 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.