“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 consummation of this desire as long as they were together, she ordered him from her side, never again to approach close enough to endanger her honor.
The sixth stanza illustrates their stalemate. They acknowledge their love, yet will permit the “little wordHonor” to separate them. John Crowe Ransom gives no overt reason why they cannot find an honorable path to love (such as marriage), preferring instead to romanticize the abstraction of honor. Courtly love and the honor of chivalric days are reinforced in the invocation of the Tristram and Isolde legend by the words “between them cold as steel.” The image adds another strand to the tapestry of medieval allusion; it conforms to the conventions of courtly love in that the woman is desirable but unattainable.
Stanzas 7 and 8 switch point of view to an outside narrator who comments upon the balance that the pair has struck. They have “Dreadfullyforsworn each other” yet cannot escape social contact. The “clustered night” filled with other people is their “prison world” where they must constantly, painfully, experience simultaneous deep attraction and self-imposed repulsion. Their situation has not gone unobserved, however, as the narrator goes on (in stanza 9) to comment upon the couple’s situation, then slips into a moralizing speech about the choice they have between heaven and hell.
In stanza 13, the narrator continues to observe the pair, noting that no matter what roles they play, whether pretense of anger or cool civility, their love continues to be a “radiant” force between them. The narrator expects no change in this balance, and, since neither heaven nor hell offers the lovers an alternative, death itself can only continue their present state. The narrator devotes the last stanza to an epitaph for the lovers that grants them this finely wrought balance that they have achieved, lying side by side but untouching in the absolute separation of death.
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,”...
(This entire section contains 564 words.)
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 balance, precision, and control; the narrator, however, cannot help but see their passion burning.
After using the metaphysical star images, Ransom crafts the couple’s epitaph plainly with images of the grave. He employs synecdoche, or the use of a part to represent the whole, with “moulderedlips” and “ashyskull” standing for the dead bodies of the two lovers.
Although most of the couplets are perfectly end rhymed, the poet has used occasional slant rhyme (or near rhyme) to emphasize moments of disappointment in the poem. In stanza 4, the rhyming of “words” and “swords” mirrors the frustration of the man, who receives mixed signals from the woman’s eyes and her words. In stanza 9, “brave” and “have” add awkwardness to the narrator’s turn of speech as he begins his “descant” on morality. Stanza 11 rhymes “marriage is” with “lecheries,” emphasizing the opposition of those states concerning physical love, as well as the disappointment for lovers of a heaven without physical pleasures. The last slant rhyme, in stanza 12 on hell, rhymes “ones” with “bones,” adding unease to the horrible image of the destructive power of physical love.
Juxtaposition is another important element of the poem. In diction, Ransom contrasts a common word such as “mouth” with the latinate and more suggestive “orifice.” In stanza 9, the narrator “cried in anger,” an intense emotional state, then immediately is “devising” and “descanting,” describing controlled, rational ability. The juxtaposition of images runs throughout the poem. The woman is a field of flowers “ready for love,” and she is an “officious tower” ordering him away lest he “bruise and break” her. As the lovers are compared to orbiting stars, they exhibit both “flames” and “ice.” They “dreadfully” forswear each other, yet are “bound each to each.” Especially graphic is the linking of physical pleasure with physical torment in stanza 12. The tension between these opposites necessitates the equilibrists’ delicate balancing, which they have come to exhibit exquisitely in pain and pleasure.
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.