Born April 30, 1888, in Pulaski, Tennessee, John Crowe Ransom was the third child of John James Ransom and Ella Crowe. From his mother, an English teacher, he absorbed an interest in ballads and myth, especially the Cavalier myth. From his father, a Methodist minister and district superintendent, he inherited a love of poetry, eloquence with language, lifelong interest in metaphysical questions, and facility in languages.
Admitted to Vanderbilt University at age fifteen, Ransom chose a course of study emphasizing Latin and Greek classics, philosophy, and history. After his graduation in 1909, Vanderbilt professors nominated him for a Rhodes Scholarship, and in 1910, he entered Oxford University, choosing again to focus on philosophy and the classics. His three years there reinforced his classicism, and discussions with fellow Rhodes Scholars increased his interest in British and American literature.
In 1914, Ransom returned to Vanderbilt as a member of the English faculty, leaving briefly to serve in World War I. Again returning to Vanderbilt, he joined a group of young intellectuals who met weekly to discuss philosophy and poetry. Soon this group began critiquing one another’s poetry, eventually publishing The Fugitive (1922-1925), a journal devoted to poetry, criticism, and poetic theory. The Fugitive was widely read and highly respected in literary circles.
Becoming convinced of a need to defend the agrarian South of small farms and subsistence farming, several Fugitives published a collection of essays titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930). Unfortunate timing of the publication led readers to consider the essays a literal plan to end the Great Depression, rather than a metaphorical statement about art’s central position in human life.
Ransom continued to teach English at Vanderbilt, but his growing literary reputation increased his salary very little. He supplemented his income with summer teaching, especially after his marriage to Robb Reavil in 1920 and the births of their three children. Despite several offers of larger salaries and smaller teaching loads at other universities, Ransom remained in Nashville to care for his aging parents. Finally, Ransom accepted an offer from Kenyon College; a major incentive was the promise to establish a journal reminiscent of The Fugitive but emphasizing both critical theory and poetry. Moving to Gambier, Ohio, in 1937, Ransom began The Kenyon Review.
Until his retirement in 1959, Ransom’s academic responsibilities were teaching, editing The Kenyon Review, and establishing the Kenyon School of English, which he hoped would provide a forum for writers, critics, and students to discuss theories of literary criticism. Although he published no new poems after 1945, he received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1951, and his 1963 edition of Selected Poems received the 1964 National Book Award. After retirement, Ransom continued to lecture and write essays about criticism and poetry. His health gradually deteriorated, and on July 3, 1974, he died at his home on the Kenyon College campus.
Most of Ransom’s poetry was written before the 1930’s. However, his best poetry remains timeless because he employs the greatest of human resources—outstanding intellect, a sympathetic heart, superb classical training, and a personality grounded in the balance of head (intellect) and sensibility (soul, aesthetic imagination)—to lessen the alienation and hopelessness that seem poised to overwhelm humanity. Ransom realizes that, especially in the modern age, poets must provide aesthetic and spiritual guidance for society because poetry best prepares humankind to wrestle with age-old ambiguities of mortality and fate.
Ransom seeks a code to provide meaning for individuals attempting to cope with an apparently meaningless universe. For Ransom, that code seems most accessible through deliberately minor poetry. Though he continued to revise a few early poems, his emphasis turns to the...
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