John Crowe Ransom

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Ransom, John Crowe (Vol. 5)

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Ransom, John Crowe 1888–1974

A Southern American poet, critic, and man of letters, Ransom influenced the literary world as a major proponent of New Criticism and as a member of the "Fugitive Group" of poets (along with Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate) writing in Nashville from 1915 to 1928. His gently ironic poems often contain domestic subjects and explore the dilemma of the romantic and the intellectual. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 49-52.)

Structure is how you get there and texture is what you do with it or how you stay there…. [Ransom examined the structure-texture relationship in many papers.]

Epistemology and ontology are the media through which Ransom experiences the problem of the relation between thought and feeling. Here once again is the solipsist trying to find out how he knows the only thing he can trust in the world he creates—the formal aspects in which it appears; but trying also to find some formal means, through the relation of texture to structure, of discussing the actual burden of knowledge as also a set of formal relations. Ontology is being: being, one supposes, is not a relation at all, nor a form; and what Ransom is really after is what inhabits form and what suffers relations.

If Tate enjoys the power of received philosophy, Ransom enjoys the fascinated power of that mind which is concerned with manufacturing the mode of a philosophy that has not been received. He creates the scaffold of system after system for Tate to see through and beyond. This is why Tate instigates insight and why Ransom instigates practice, instigations which multiply each other's value. (pp. 623-24)

R. P. Blackmur, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1959 by the University of the South), Autumn, 1959.

Ransom's angle of vision is essentially comic. Rueful, wry, ironic, he "endures," and, even more, accepts. The land which he loves has been so long in disorder that the right hierarchy can hardly be hoped for; it must be celebrated by the remnant in little "pockets of culture."… Good manners, courtesy, rituals are all important because man is cut off from the garden and must make his way in a world of desperate difficulties. But there is sentiment and devotion, and the world's body is inexhaustibly interesting. (p. 17-18)

One of Ransom's strongest aesthetic presuppositions … [is] that poetry is born of experience, not of innocence; it is "post-scientific," rather than "pre-scientific," as he later expresses it—not the work of a child or of "that eternal youth that is in some women,"… but of a sensible and masculine adult. For, though poetry honors the feminine—the realm of feeling and value—it is not the expression of the feminine or of the childish. It is not written by sentimentalists or innocents or holy fools, but by those who have struggled with the world…. [It] is this attitude that has governed his own work all along, his poetry as well as his prose.

A second principle controlling his total vision has caused him to be called a "dualist": this is the tenet that in a poem the prose meaning, a logical "structure,"… is made to submit to an apparently unrelated and independent body of sense particulars of both sound and imagery, the "texture" of the poem, in what he sometimes calls a "miracle" of equilibrium. All his other generative ideas—those concerning myth, form, "metaphysical poetry," and the anonymity of the poet—are related to this structure-texture reconciliation, a theme to which he has returned again and again throughout his entire career. His...

(This entire section contains 5406 words.)

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position on this question, however, does not in reality constitute a dualism so much as a dynamism; he is concerned with a total pattern of poetic action, the imaginative process. But however one wishes to categorize his position, what must be seen as underlying all Ransom's critical thought is the conviction that a complete act of knowledge consists, first, of the formation, by abstraction, of some general notion of how things ought to be and then, later, the discovery, in an encounter with the actual world, that things are not after all quite so simple. It is this submission to the reality outside the mind without any relinquishment of the governing idea within the mind that, according to Ransom, has created myth, culture, tradition, manners, and poems. (pp. 19-20)

God Without Thunder (1930) … is a work central to the understanding of Agrarianism, as well as the whole body of Fugitive-Agrarian criticism. It is surprising that the remarkable originality of this book has been so little noted; ideas throughout its pages anticipate Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Eric Voegelin, Susanne Langer, Philip Wheelwright, and other critics treating the topics of myth, symbol, and culture. But though Ransom's understanding of these matters is quite modern, his total vision is based very firmly on early Protestant Orthodoxy (the religious terminology provides the book with its richly wry and ironic tone). God Without Thunder is not about religion, however, despite its open references to it; it is about myth and culture and the way in which human beings transform abstract notions through their love of sensible objects. It is also about a tendency of society to destroy itself through what Ransom chooses to call "science"—actually a death drive that has the appearance of a life force. The fall of man came about, he maintains, from the hybris of attempting to control nature through scientific knowledge, as the myths both of the Garden of Eden and of Prometheus testify. (pp. 23-4)

Ransom was later to turn his attention away from the cultural and religious concerns of God Without Thunder but he was never to desert the principles which they caused him to formulate. Indeed, most of his critical writing during the thirties stemmed directly from his Agrarian commitment. In The World's Body (1938), one of the most important landmarks in modern criticism, Ransom brought together fifteen essays on poetry and the specifically poetic mode of knowledge; but far from being purely exegetical in their concerns, these essays imply an entire universe delineated by his social and cultural thought. At least two of the pieces in The World's Body are classics; both convey so intimate and engaging a sense of the pleasures of poetry that they teach as much by personal witness as by the formulation of principles.

In one of them, "Forms and Citizens,"… Ransom [uses] analogy to justify formal versification in poetry. The poetic imagination is a model of indirection par excellence, he points out; formally restraining itself from immediate possession, its aim is to enhance the value of the object through close and reverent attention.

This enunciation of an epistemology of poetic knowledge is followed by an essay on the nature of poetry: "Poetry: A Note in Ontology" is the locus classicus for Ransom's elaboration upon the dualistic tension inside the poetic act. In this essay he differentiates between Physical poetry, which is about things, and Platonic poetry, which is about ideas. (pp. 26-7)

[For] Ransom, it must be the order which is the differentiating principle of a poem, not the kind of content or the strictly logical sequence of thought. The "worlds" given us by our scientific discourses are "reduced, emasculated, and docile versions" of the world in which we live … (p. 29)

What Ransom has discerned in the world—and found reflected in poetry—is a peculiar harmony, a "miraculous" blending of disparates into an ordered whole. He has declared in one of his most recent essays that he has never departed from the religion learned from his father at the turn of the century. And it is true that, for all his philosophical preoccupations, his view of the world is essentially religious and theistic; he has experienced it in the mode of the Biblical faith. His intellect was formed by the classics and matured by the moderns; Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Bergson, among others, have vied with Plato and Aristotle in his thinking. Like these nineteenth-century philosophers, he is fundamentally anti-rationalistic, with a mistrust of scientific abstraction deriving not so much from their influence as from an inherently poetic mode of thought. Still, for all his anti-abstractionism, Ransom has never been able to relinquish in his poetic theory the emphasis on logical meaning. Poetic knowledge is, for him, not unrelated to life in general. He rebukes Cleanth Brooks for objecting to the paraphrase of a poem and quarrels with Richard Blackmur for treating the ideas in a poetic structure as having no importance in the real world, even though they may be ideas upon which, at the very moment, out in the world of action, crucially important issues of life and death depend. "No faith, no passion of any kind," he tells us [in Poems and Essays], "is originated in a poem; it is brought into the poem by the 'imitating' of life (to use Aristotle's term); it is the fact which is the heart of the fiction." (pp. 32-3)

The poetic universe, then, to Ransom is a small, complex model which sets in motion and reconciles three modes of experience which have become, to civilized man, quite disparate and unrelated: first, rational experience; second, the experience of feeling and desire; third, the grand universals that cannot be stated, but only sounded—in a measured rhythm that calls all the language of the poem to an observance of its punctuation. The poem gives men knowledge that is applicable to the world of affairs; it reminds them of their myths; it teaches them restraint and piety. (pp. 33-4)

Louise Cowan, in her The Southern Critics (copyright 1972 The University of Dallas Press), University of Dallas Press, 1972.

John Crowe Ransom died … fifty-four years after the first issue of the Fugitive appeared. Donald Davidson died in 1968. Robert Penn Warren and I are left of the men who became poet-critics and whose lives were powerfully influenced by J. C. R. I would say, with Yeats, that I am accustomed to his lack of breath, but it will be harder to believe that he no longer occupies space, silent and unknowing as he was in the last few years. Now we may ignore, as we see fit, the destructive revisions which this great elegiac poet inflicted upon many of his finest poems. (p. 545)

Logic was the mode of his thought and sensibility. It limited his criticism to a kind of neoclassicism, but it contained, as "structure," his poetry; and thus the defect of the one became the virtue of the other. I have for years wondered how such an acute intelligence could seriously consider any formula for poetry, and I am still amazed that John Ransom, of all people, could come up with "structure" and "texture" as a critical metaphor. After the elaborate essays in Kantian philosophical aesthetics, the simple structure-texture formula is a sad anticlimax—as sad as the late Yvor Winters's formula. Winters said, over some thirty years, that "the concept motivates the emotion."… May we say that Winters's concept is Ransom's structure, and his emotion, Ransom's texture? All these correspondences are only proximate, but they witness a remarkably similar critical impulse in men of different ages and backgrounds. I have no explanation of the astonishing fact that three Americans but no Europeans in the modern age tried to encapsulate poetry. (pp. 546-47)

John Ransom was not an innovator in the sense that both Pound and Eliot were. He was a shy, subtle innovator in ways that could not be imitated and could not found a school. He wrote in conventional stanzas and meters, but his sensibility owned nothing to any poet, past or present. (Some critics have seen in him Hardy, others Donne. But this means little. Every poet resembles some other poet somewhere; if he didn't he would be an idiot.) Most of the great poems—"The Equilibrists," "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," "Vaunting Oak," "Spectral Lovers," "Winter Remembered," "Necrological," "Captain Carpenter"—all these in Chills and Fever—were written between 1922 and 1924. After 1924 his work lay in another direction: critical and philosophical prose. But he wrote, in the thirties, two of his finest—in my opinion his greatest—poems: "Painted Head" and "Prelude to an Evening." The latter he ruined by rewriting it so that it would have a "happy ending." Nevertheless the original version cannot be destroyed. I infer that "Painted Head" pleased him in his old age: until his literary executor finds a revised version among his papers, we may believe the poem is safe.

In the past ten years I have thought of John's mania (I don't know what else to call it) as the last infirmity of a truly noble mind. Yet one must see his compulsive revisions as a quite consistent activity—as an extension of his reliance on logic as the ultimate standard of judgment. (pp. 549-50)

Among his great essays, possibly written with his logical guard down—or perhaps the subjects bypassed it, are "Poets without Laurels" and "Wanted: An Ontological Critic." The ontological critic would investigate the grades of reality that a poem embodied. What other critic, almost an exact contemporary of John's, had arrived at the same doctrine though in very different terms? What other critic had also studied philosophy with the intention of teaching it or of becoming in some other capacity a professional philosopher? The one guess as to the answer is: T. S. Eliot. (Neither liked the other's criticism. Eliot liked Ransom's poetry better than Ransom liked his. Eliot's opinions I got by word of mouth; Ransom's, by word of mouth and from published essays and reviews.) The doctrine they shared is an ancient one that every age must rediscover. Eliot: whether a work is poetry must be decided by literary criteria; whether it is great poetry, by other than literary criteria. Ransom: the grade of being, or the ontological value, of a poem must be discerned philosophically by critics of sufficient wisdom; whether the work is poetry will depend on its degree of rightness in the structure-texture relation, neither obscuring the other. What both Eliot and Ransom arrive at in the end is that only persons of ripe experience both of literature and of the world can be proper critics of poetry.

Another great essay, "Poets without Laurels," I consider the locus classicus for insight into the relation of the modern poet to industrial-technological society. The poet is no longer a public figure; he is no longer "laureled." He is a private person who writes poems for other poets to read. He writes either pure poetry (Stevens) or obscure poetry (Tate!). All this is commonplace? The simple truth is never commonplace unless it is spoken by a commonplace mind. I risk the guess that Eliot's essays will be read, by that mythical character posterity, for their opinions; Ransom's, for their style, regardless of what they say. For John Ransom wrote the most perspicuous, the most engaging, and the most elegant prose of all the poet-critics of our time.

A few days after his death I came across (for at least the hundredth time) an essay entitled "In Amicitia." He wrote it for my sixtieth birthday. This essay isolates me; for surely I am the only pupil who has ever had such affectionate approbation from his master. For John Crowe Ransom was Virgil to me, his apprentice. It is proper to recall the words of another apprentice: I salute thee, Montovano…. (pp. 550-51)

Allen Tate, "Reflections on the Death of John Crowe Ransom" (1974), in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974, pp. 545-51.

In Ransom's writings there is always discernible a certain unease amid the heady currents of thought and attitude of the modern world, and a sense of his use of modernism as being a kind of strategy for coping with what he cannot avoid. (p. 591)

John Crowe Ransom's poetry and the philosophy that underlies it are built upon a dualism. The poetry illustrates and embodies the conflicting claims of the ideal and the real, the spirit and the flesh. The poems are based on divisions, usually that of heart versus head. What worried Ransom was the intellectual effort to falsify the perilous balance that he considered life to involve, by a too-strenuous assertion of the ideal, in the form of one variety or another of Platonic abstraction. (pp. 598-99)

He seemed to formulate his opinions and his ideas as the result of a rigorous reasoning process, and to use such a process to discipline and subjugate his emotions, so that he held not merely views but systematized intellectual positions, from which he could move by logic to cover his entire experience, and could order that experience with a consistency that was very important to him. (p. 606)

Ransom's philosophical stance was no merely catch-as-catch-can affair, but a highly sophisticated and logically developed position which, depending upon the form it took, might be extended into poetry, politics, society, philosophy, theology, or whatever and still reflect a consistent attitude. The dualistic base upon which Ransom erected his hypotheses and out of which he created his poetry is predicated upon the rival claims of the intellect and the feelings, the reason and the emotions, the idea and the fact. His definition of poetry is of a logical structure and a seeming textural "irrelevance" of language, which work against and upon each other to produce the unique artifact which is the poem, and which thereby, in the transaction between the idea and the image, produce a kind of suspended "miraculous" knowledge of the nature of reality, which is there not for use but for contemplation. Discussing "The Future of Poetry" in the Fugitive for February 1924, he declared that "no art and no religion is possible until we make allowances, until we manage to keep quiet the enfant terrible of logic that plays havoc with the other faculties." This approach involves a kind of Armageddon of its own: the contending forces of structure and texture, head and heart, meet and grapple with each other, and out of the combat comes a report from the battlefield, which is the poem, and which constitutes the peace settlement. It was usually Ransom's habit to portray the forces of the head, which he was apt to term Platonizing, scientific, structural, abstract, predatory, as the aggressor in such a battle. In his brilliant essay of the 1930s "Poetry: A Note in Ontology" he presented the matter this way: "The aesthetic moment appears as a curious moment of suspension; between the Platonism in us, which is militant, always sciencing and devouring, and a starved inhibited aspiration towards innocence which, if it could only be free, would like to respect and know the object as it might of its own accord reveal itself."

Without attempting any kind of psychological inquiry, one is nonetheless impelled to point out that the author of that brilliant definition was a reasoner of the first magnitude, a rigorous conceptual thinker who moved toward his conclusions with relentless logic. With Ransom it was never the flash of intuition, the sudden deduction that produces results, but the patient dialectical development. (pp. 607-08)

The dialectic method Ransom used was not open-ended in its possibilities; he started out from strongly-held moral, social, and ethical premises, and what he always moved toward, with masterful skill and subtlety of discrimination, was the restatement and reaffirmation of those premises in terms of the chosen context of the argument. (p. 609)

Ransom's poetics aims to recapture the claim to knowledge of the world from the scientists and the abstract philosophers by claiming for poetry a more complete, more comprehensive reality, based not merely upon its logical structure but upon the recalcitrant and unique particularities of its texture. The poem, through the imaginative and creative clash of these opposing tendencies, provides the world's body—the "body and solid substance of the world" in which we live, the "fulness of poetry, which is counterpart to the world's fulness." It is no accident that the product of this process is "miraculous"—an entity that cannot be apprehended through its idea structure or its physical imagic texture alone. "Specifically, the miraculism arises," he declared, "when the poet discovers by analogy an identity between objects which is partial, though it should be considerable, and proceeds to an identification which is complete." (pp. 609-10)

Throughout his career the identification of the artist and the moralist, of poetry and religion, was never dropped. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find him proclaiming in the uniqueness of the poem the affirmation of the world's body, the miraculism that actualizes the knowledge of God, and the creation of poetry as a religious act. What he has done, within the much broader and more sophisticated context of his literary and philosophical studies, is to reaffirm the rightness of the religious faith in which he was reared. He has, in effect, reasoned his reliance upon religious belief through poetic theory, in order to "quiet the enfant terrible" of a destructive logic. Not being a young man of the orthodox Methodism of the late nineteenth-century South, but a twentieth-century southerner educated at Vanderbilt and Oxford and unable to accept the kind of literal revealed Protestant theology he chides in his Poems About God, he has had to employ the logic of ontology and aesthetics to arrive at a justification for the religious impulse through poetry. (pp. 610-11)

He is not considered an "autobiographical" poet, and his poetics would appear to leave little room for first-person lyric self-justification. All the same it might be noted how often his poetry describes just such a cycle of early identification, then alienation, then ultimate reaffirmation as we have recognized in his career. (p. 615)

He had a compulsion to make logical sense of himself and his experience. He was powerfully drawn toward logic and reason, and he was also mightily attached to everyday middle-class society and the old religious community.

Unless we understand that Ransom's penchant for logical argumentation, his relentless dialectic, was in part at least a way of organizing and systematizing an intense emotional life, a method of discipline for his strenuous imagination, we will miss an essential truth about this very passionate man and poet. For Ransom, as those of his fellow Fugitives who have written about him all attest, was by no means the friendly avuncular man of reason that his genial manner and his courtly demeanor seemed to indicate; far from it. He did indeed have a formidable analytical mind; he took ideas very seriously, and his thinking was methodical and rigorous…. But there was more to the man than the thought; the same mind that worked out the poetics and the theory wrote the poems. He insisted on poetry as a way of knowing the world, superior in its fulness of apprehension to the partial truths of science and philosophy; and there can be no doubt that he believed that because he perceived it thus for himself. Out of this amiable and unpretentious but ultimately very private and strong-willed man came some of the best poetry of the twentieth century, and also some provocative and creative thinking about poetry and society; and these were the product of passion disciplined by logic and made formally felicitous by strategy. Ransom was no sweet reasoner; that was only his tactical method. He held strong convictions, felt emotions powerfully, and when he took his stand, he meant it. (pp. 617-18)

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "The Wary Fugitive John Crowe Ransom," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974, pp. 583-618.

For the past two decades or more John Crowe Ransom was the dean of American letters. This was as it should be, and the man's continuing fame was among the few pleasant aspects of the postwar literary scene…. Now that Ransom is lodged among the illustrious dead (his work had long since passed into literary history), his reputation as a man of letters will inevitably suffer; but the essential stature is certain and will endure. In the generations to come Ransom the elegiac poet will be read as long as poetry is valued; and he should always be remembered, though not rated so highly, as a teacher, editor, and critic. It will be hard to overestimate this man's contribution to modern letters. The same is true of Yeats, Eliot, and Auden in varying ways but in gaudier, more obvious fashion; in the course of time Ransom will probably occupy the same pantheon: his contribution to literature will ultimately be judged as great as Auden's and within reach of Yeats and Eliot.

It is Ransom the critic who has eluded definition—not Ransom the poet. The failure does not result from his having been neglected as critic: quite the contrary is the case. Criticism by friend and foe alike (especially Yvor Winters) has frequently been levelled at the writer for the inconsistencies and defects in his theory of structure and texture …; but when all is said and done, one must ask what modern critic has presented more comprehensive investigations into poetry. Since Coleridge, who in Great Britain or the United States has written a more searching and convincing formulation of poetry? (pp. 619-20)

Ransom wished to broaden and deepen the philosophical base of criticism so that it would possess an ontology which could fully contend with human behavior as one sees it refracted through the medium of art or instanced in "the contagion of art." With such a strategy any obstacle could be overcome: one could not only properly interpret the most demanding fiction but withstand the assault of unphilosophical critics.

Ransom unquestionably located the Achilles heel of the New Criticism. The philosophical deficiency is of much greater importance than the alleged antihistorical or unhistorical attitude which the new critics are said to evince. (They instead have inveighed against the useless impedimenta of historical scholarship—not against history itself and the relation it bears to the proper study of literature, an entirely different matter.)

This is all to say that John Crowe Ransom was the most philosophical of the new critics, and yet we must remember that he regularly denounced the abstraction that is often associated with philosophical thinking and always demanded concreteness and specificity in poetry. Therefore for him the true richness of a poem was to be found in its local texture of language and metaphor—not in the intended fable and theme, the logical structure or argument (whether the intention exists before or after the fact of the poem). (pp. 621-22)

Ransom argues for the primacy of the concrete element—the image, not the idea; the metaphor (and conceit), not the concept; the myth, not the dogma. But there must be a conjunction of the physical object and the Platonic idea; otherwise one gets the pure poetry of things—imagism—or the abstract poetry of ideas—allegory. In bringing together the natural object and the unattached idea the poet uses the greatest weapon in his arsenal—analogy—and if he brings it to bear properly, he forges metaphysical poetry, thus balancing idea against fact.

In "Poetry: A Note in Ontology" Ransom defines modes; in "The Concrete Universal" he considers the largest philosophical bases upon which the metaphysical mode of poetry may be grounded. Hence he can conclude: "The play between the understanding with its moral Universal on the one hand, and on the other hand Imagination presenting the purposive Concrete of nature, is unpredictable and inexhaustible." This summary statement provides the capstone for Ransom's house of poetry. He built a structure capable of sustaining infinite variety which can support many mansions, and the foundation had been quarried out of Kant, Hegel, and Coleridge. (p. 623)

Ransom is less interested in the poet's choice of material—his imaginative projection so far as a particular kind of experience is concerned—than he is in the writer's actual performance. This critic sees the subconscious mind and the conscious as far less significant than the work itself. For Ransom the poet's intention counts for little: what we need to examine is the document which results from his labors. Therefore Ransom characteristically examined the means of the poem's order: the ways in which the author has controlled the energy of his language which provides the vehicle by which he can at once enclose and reveal experience. The language has got to be submitted to the restraining element of meter and the life-giving dimension of metaphor, and through the mechanical discipline of the one and the miraculous play of the other the poet can per-form his craft and make his poems. (pp. 624-25)

Ideally the poem embodies the essence of human behavior, a microcosm which contains "nearly everything we can possibly desire. It is the best of all possible worlds." Or, put differently, "poetry furnishes the perfect form of experience; and reminds us that it is a dramatic rather than a real experience." (p. 627)

Logic (experience under the aspect of a governing idea or theme), metaphoric language, and meter are therefore the constituent parts of a poem as Ransom saw it. (The interaction of the three elements is much more complicated, subtle, and complex than the apparently simple relation of texture to structure, the equation that was originally proposed and which has been ascribed to Ransom since.) (pp. 627-28)

The most serious possible deficiency in Ransom's theoretical formulations about poetry would seem to involve his neglect of the emotive dimension of the poem…. He seemed to be so chary of a poetry of the feelings which simply expresses the personality of the poet—a poetry that "taints us with subjectivism, sentimentality, and self-indulgence"—that he altogether discounted the importance of emotion and stressed cognition. Hence, for him, the best poetry is metaphysical—a poetry of knowledge; and one remembers that he on several occasions approvingly alluded to Schopenhauer's phrase "knowledge without desire" as being indicative of an attitude appropriate for poetry. (pp. 629-30)

John Ransom was a poet-critic who could write with equal authority about Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot. (p. 636)

[He] was never comfortable with the world he inhabited after 1914, and he took considerable pains to keep it at a suitable distance and in the right perspective. His literary criticism represents part of that taxing effort of the will and the imagination. The poetry is another aspect of the same effort. The criticism undergirds the poetry; the poetry specifies the criticism; but neither art (and the criticism is an art) simply exists to complement the other.

As Robert Penn Warren has said, the criticism for all its concern with philosophical grounding is urbane and witty, charged by passion and delight. "The air is … of a collaborative quest." He continues: "For Ransom, criticism, like poetry itself, is one of the ways of trying to live life with intelligence, logical scrupulosity, and moral rigor, but, withal, with gaiety, feeling, and respect for the human other." It is easy to neglect this dimension of Ransom's prose … in examining his characteristic formulations, his recurring concerns; it is more reprehensible to neglect the style and tone.

John Ransom was, as Allen Tate has observed, a gentleman in a dustcoat whose "civility of demeanor" was both gentle and severe (like Hardy before him). This severity, the toughness of mind behind the smiling face and the apparently diffident manner, has often been misinterpreted. His was a classical severity (Hellenistic, as Arnold would have put it), an unrelenting stance which was ceremonious and courtly but still deeply felt and real—and no less important in the criticism than in the poetry. (p. 637)

John Crowe Ransom came graciously to terms with himself and his world—so must we, his readers, follow the configuration of the career in order to understand the complex man behind the prose and the poetry which are the principal record of that life. This, I am aware, violates a cardinal rule of the New Criticism as it is generally understood (or misunderstood). But how else can one understand the southern new critics? And how else can one realize the fullness of Ransom's call for an ontological criticism? It is this example—his performance as ontological critic—which not only powerfully influenced the southern literary renascence but deeply affected the whole course of contemporary criticism. (p. 638)

George Core, "Mr. Ransom and the House of Poetry," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974, pp. 619-38.


Ransom, John Crowe (Vol. 4)