Ransom, John Crowe 1888–1974
Ransom, an American poet, critic, and man of letters, was a major proponent of New Criticism. Like most southern writers of his period, his principle theme was the decay of southern lifestyles, beliefs, and integrity. The most significant body of his poetry was written between 1915 and 1928 when he was associated with the Fugitive Group. Most of the work in his Selected Poems, for which he won the National Book Award, is from this period. He is also remembered as a member of the agrarian movement, which sought to defend traditional southern values from encroaching northern industrialism. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 49-52.)
John Crowe Ransom has done a strange thing [in rewriting "Conrad in Twilight,"]: he has made an extension and a transformation. Even while the method is maintained. So that time and choice, which can bear the rhyme away, have with this poem borne it back again in a different life….
Years after "Conrad in Twilight," its first life, the poem has taken on a second life whose meaning is based on—and contradicts—the first. "Master's in the Garden Again" speaks for a further stage of life. It is a declaration, and a celebration; it is offered to the reader as a transparency with a key. (p. 187)
The strength of the new poem is very close to the qualities of Hardy, Hardy old and seen by Ransom in "Old Age of an Eagle," an essay which first appeared in the New Republic in 1952. These qualities, established by admiration and a kind of identity declared and built, will be in the poem as it climbs and rouses past its dripping scene. (pp. 187-88)
The poem sets the scene at once; although "Conrad in Twilight" jumped straight into dialogue, now we are given autumn ("Evening comes early"), the exchange (that is, true dialogue), and the man and woman, the lovers in bonds, conjugate. In the old days, the woman leapt right in, nagging:
Conrad, Conrad, aren't you old To sit so late in your mouldy garden?
This time, Conrad is called both "dear man" and "surprise" (well, perhaps he is not called surprise, perhaps it is the warning voice of nagging practicality that is surprised by her own thoughts, but I think Conrad is dear man, and surprised, as he is later thinker and master and champion). He is mood; she is "intrusion." (p. 188)
It is possible to be put off early in this poem by what seems like bumpiness, coyness, dated diction. Ransom himself has warned us of this in other poems by other poets. The music he claims is one he has described in the Hardy essay: he uses the folk line, or dipodic line, with its symmetry and a syncopation in a line whose musical expectation is so strong that the pause which can be produced is in itself strong, too. This is a clear and country music on which Ransom counts, and he has provided it with two chief sounds to carry the range of this wide-ranging poem: the long ā established in exchange and late and carried through to the last sound of the last line, and the long ō that begins with bold and cold and takes us to blow and all the variant o's and ow's sounding out toward the end. (pp. 188-89)
In the first "Conrad" it was a matter of tea and slipper and a blazing log at home. In the old poem, autumn was "teasing" and the poem ended with a described autumn.
Here, in part ii of...
(This entire section contains 1137 words.)
the new poem, we have another couplet setting the scene, which is the action of the man, a still, negative persevering in the face of what seemed to be only a warning of lateness, cold, damp, his own creakiness. But it darkens—
Nor the autumn's blow for an instant swerved
and then the described autumn, as it was the earlier poem,
Autumn days in our section Are the most used-up thing on earth
and then the Biblical "or in the waters under the Earth." Used-up is what the persevering is about, that is what she has been calling him under the names of solicitude, that is what he has been refusing to be, even when it looked as though he could only be by sitting there. The black wet tatters of the year are here. Beyond them
The show is of death. There is no defection.
Now a curious thing happens. We are beyond the old poem, and beyond the old life. There is something that is used-up, and the poet knows what it is. It is the old life itself. And there is something more. What comes next, in the bringing-together of gardens? What have these all turned into? What comes once the show of death has been produced before us? It is produced, in full strength "no defection" and in full music, show being recognizable as a key sound in this poem. (p. 190)
The dialogue is between man and the Power. The Hardy Power, the cruel weather, It with a capital I, and I with a capital all there is to deal with It. The children are gone, fallen, dead by suicide because they are too "menny," anyway lost. And no more the querulous
"O did It lay them low, But we're a poor sinner just going to dinner."
The heart itself is transformed, no longer tell-tale heart but
See the tell-tale art of the champion heart.
Now the incantation takes up speed and action, the sound begins to swing…. Feeling has now been dealt with by assertion…. Ransom has spoken of "the metaphysical Powers arrayed against him"; here they are as one Power. The development of parallel feelings in this poem—no, conjugate feelings—lets me suspect that the wife has her chance for some parallel in the house, although it must come out of her "pity's sake" that works for his health as he sits out his mood for the health of his garden. There is her condemnation to the house, but he has come through; the garden's condemnation in the metaphor, although we know what winter is.
Ransom is not going to allow the metaphor to take over. His "that time of year thou may'st in me behold" is around him, being dealt with. But what happens? what is happening?
A pantomime blow, if it damns him to do, A yell mumming too.
It has already "happened," though, in decision and in sound. And with the choice of the man, the garden has chosen….
But it's gay garden now,
and the acting-out, the singing, the making, which has done it to this garden, grants us a last invocation
Play sweeter than pray, that the darkened be gay.
Here are the bravery, the irony, the honesty, the surprisingly banal moments, the music—and the maudlin, daily, saving life in Ransom's quickened poetry…. And the first poem of this garden, after all this lifetime with its poems, is transformed to the early and late of this second poem, with its darkness and play, its ease of irony as the poet moves along, full (as he said of Hardy) of "fierce folkish humor." (pp. 191-92)
Afterthought: I am still haunted by what happens to the woman in the poem and to the vowels that deepen and deepen into the undersounds of the climax. (p. 192)
Muriel Rukeyser, in New World Writing, edited by Steward Richardson (copyright © 1964 by J. B. Lippincott Company), Lippincott, 1964.
[Here] is a poet of middling ambition and gifts, with a stubborn individuality, a poet who has been a most learned and lifelong critic and theoretician of the art, who knows how to think deeper into poetry than anyone you may name, but also how to write simply, more clearly, dispassionately and genially, with ease and wit, than anyone in the business has managed to do in our critic-besotted "academic" time.
Endurance has been the central problem of the arts in the 20th century, and we all know how it obsessed Hemingway and has come to haunt the aged Pound. Ransom, instead of going on and on like Pound in the face of his own doubts of five decades, has chosen to refine his work, selecting and rewriting and rethinking his poems one by one.
This third selection [in the third revised edition of "Selected Poems"] seems to have brought the process down to the point where he has defined his own essence: what he has finally left in glows like a great cabochon: it is the purest of his poetry. And it is very likely to shine long in the dark confusions of our changing fashions (and readers) in the contemporary world.
This is an extraordinary book, and will be a useful key to many, not only for Ransom's treasury, but into the always-hidden secrets of poetry.
Jascha Kessler, "A Master Poet Analyzes His Work," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1969, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1969, p. 49.
[John Crowe Ransom never deviated] from his love for the graces of a civilization and from his faith in the rituals and sanctions of a tradition. This is not to say that he was a conventional writer or thinker—his sensibility was much too keen, his mind much too fine, for sterile conformism.
His spare output of poems, exquisitely tuned, oblique, ardent but understated, leavened by irony, is the gift of his that we treasure most, because it delights us and because it encourages us to believe in the possibility of perfection. (pp. 251-52)
Stanley Kunitz, in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (© 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975.
The greatest stumbling-block to understanding ["The Equilibrists"] is the moral contradiction that holds Ransom's lovers in their state of equilibrium, the curious duality of their allegiance to both chastity and passion…. The lovers are not caught in a struggle to resist a lesser for a higher good, whether that higher good be the things of the spirit or the pleasures of the flesh. Instead, they perform a delicate balancing act, maintaining a fine equipoise between two equally desirable but mutually exclusive values. What set of ethical attitudes would allow for the serving of such contrary masters?
Most attempts to explain the poem founder on this problem. [Robert] Buffington supposes that the lovers are husband and wife but that one of them has a former mate who is now dead. (pp. 51-2)
Bernard Bergonzi, in another important reading of the poem, acknowledges that both passion and abstinence are affirmed, but he divides the allegiances to each between the lovers and the poet…. In his attempt to explain the poem, Mr. Bergonzi invokes the medieval tradition of amor courtois, that secular rival to orthodox Christian morality which celebrated erotic love at the expense of the conventional ideal of chastity. The "sin" of Ransom's lovers, rather than being fornication or adultery, is a sin against this secular ideal of erotic love: "By not consummating their love, or at least by allowing themselves to become separated, the two lovers had sinned against the religion of love itself, a concept familiar in medieval literature."… Not only does this interpretation destroy the equipoise that is part and parcel of the lovers' moral attitude, passion here taking precedence over chastity, but it also misreads the poet's response to the lovers, which develops … from anger at their strictness to an appreciation of their tortuous but beautiful equilibrium.
I should like to venture an additional explanation of the poem, drawing somewhat differently than Mr. Bergonzi does upon the courtly love tradition. It is true that for Andreas Capellanus the goal of loving was, in C. S. Lewis's phrase, "actual fruition." Elsewhere in the literature of amor courtois, however, we find a deliberate encouragement of sexual restraint even to the point of rejecting consummation as the ultimate goal of courtship altogether because of the effect that such restraint has in sustaining and increasing passion…. It is a short step from the desire to strengthen and prolong passion as a preliminary to actual coition to the pursuit of an intense, unconsummated passion that has become the sole reason for loving.
Denis de Rougemont, who has called this phenomenon "The Love of Love" (to distinguish it from the love of one person for another), traces it through the love lyrics of the Troubadours writing in southern France during the twelfth century. (pp. 52-4)
It is to the Troubadours that we largely owe our view of love in western culture, he maintains, and the tremendous impact of these poets upon our erotic sensibilities can be explained by the fact that they speak to a frightening but inescapable impulse in western man: the secret longing for death. The Love of Love, as de Rougemont sees it, is in fact not a love of Love at all but reveals an unspoken infatuation with death. Provençal love poetry arose simultaneously with the flourishing of a neo-Manichaean heresy known as Catharism and, M. de Rougemont believes, is a symbolic expression of the heresy's basic doctrines. Essentially a Gnostic heresy, Catharism espoused a dualistic philosophy. The soul at birth falls from a transcendent realm of perfection and Light into the dark, woeful existence of life in the body. Physical creation is thoroughly evil, and the hope of escaping its fetters is man's only hope of knowing the good. The Cathars owed the polarized metaphors of darkness and light as well as the preference for death over life to their Manichaean antecedents. As M. de Rougemont puts it, "Every dualistic—let us say, every Manichaean—interpretation of the universe holds the fact of being alive in the body to be the absolute woe, the woe embracing all other woes; and death it holds to be the ultimate good, whereby the sin of birth is redeemed and human souls return into the One of luminous indistinction."… (pp. 54-5)
Provençal love poetry, if M. de Rougemont's thesis is correct, is an occult liturgy for the worship of death. The pains and sorrows of unsatisfied love are welcomed as a kind of mortification of the flesh which serves to purge the lover of earthly attachments…. The idealized lady of the lyrics is a poetic symbol of the Absolute, and the perpetual yearning for her represents the longing of a soul for union with that Absolute that is possible only in death. The exclusive command that she holds over the affections serves to protect the soul from unworthy attachments. And finally, the stasis of the lover in his state of perpetual desire, forever frozen as he is on the near side of active consummation, anticipates the final stillness of death. (p. 55)
The poem promises at its start a love story…. We enter the scene of an action already in progress. The medieval couple (the imagery conclusively establishes the specific setting of their tale) are presently separated by the wanderings of the knight, if he may be called that. But things had not always been as they are now: the man and woman had once been lovers or, to be more precise, near lovers…. But their amorousness had stopped just short of consummation. Whereas her body was ready for love, her mouth, that had before so warmly kissed but then so coldly forbade, had uttered the cold, gray words of denial: "Arise [from the bed of love], / Leave me now, and never let us meet, // Eternal distance now command thy feet."… Hence the present wanderings of the lover-knight.
No sooner has this exposition been unveiled, however, than the direction of the poem takes a sharp turn. Because of the impasse of the lovers, frozen as they are between passion and its denial, the plot comes to a sudden halt. Conflict is the lifeblood of any narrative, but conflict that is in motion, that builds to a climax and issues ultimately in resolution. The equilibrium of Ransom's lovers precludes any progress in the action. We shall never know the victor in this duel of spirit and flesh because the antagonists are too equally matched. The plot germ perishes in this ethical stalemate. What had promised to be a simple love story begins to take on the shape of something entirely different. The focus of the poem now shifts to the attitude of the poet towards the lovers in their plight, and he struggles to comprehend their curious predicament. At this point, it begins to be clear that the principal business of the poem is not to spin a tale at all but rather to let us share with the poet his education in the nature of erotic love. The illumination finally granted him, he puts in lines made "to memorize" their doom…. The lovers offer, as it were, an exercise to be learned, and the epitaph of the final stanza is as much a memory lesson as it is a memorial. Putting aside our narrative expectations is essential if we are not to be sidetracked by questions regarding the actual fate of the lovers. The grave to which the poet relegates them … is not a literal grave. This death to which they come in the poem exists only in the probing fancy of the poet and is not a real event in their personal history. As we shall soon discover, it is the metaphorical death to which the relentless logic of their idea of love impels them.
The attitude of the poet toward the plight of the lovers passes through two phases. His initial attitude, which will ultimately be abandoned, is the attitude of common sense. What business have lovers to speak of honor? No more, to be sure, than the proverbially dishonest thieves!… Chastity may very well be meritorious in a cloister, but on the couch of love it is at best a dubious virtue. The turning point comes in stanza 9. Before this point, he can find nothing good to say about their equilibrium…. But then, his view of the lovers undergoes a sudden reevaluation. His reassessment of their predicament requires a harder, more tough-minded attitude—one only "for those gibbeted and brave": "Man, what should you have? / … Would you ascend to Heaven and bodiless dwell? / Or take your bodies honorless to Hell?"… Both questions are rhetorical, and in each case the unstated answer is "No." The function of the next two stanzas on Heaven and Hell is not to provide speculation about the actual destiny of the lovers, but instead to demonstrate that upsetting the balance between chastity and passion, in whatever direction the equilibrium might be resolved, would be ruinous. The tone of each stanza is heavily ironic. The thin, bodiless existence of the celestial lovers ("Sublimed away") … reveals the moral consequence of choosing chastity over passion and calls to mind the icy spinsters and effete young men who populate Ransom's poems and who, through their flight from eros, deceive themselves into thinking that they have found perfection on earth and have successfully escaped the iniquity of flesh. The agonizing carnality of the damned … discloses the consequence of choosing passion over chastity and the futility of a rapacious carnal appetite that, once satisfied, must repeatedly feed all over again. The final attitude of the poet toward the lovers is embodied in the epitaph he composes for their symbolic tomb, the location of which, significantly, is neither in Heaven nor in Hell. This reassessment by the poet keeps the balance between restraint and desire intact and celebrates the beauty of their fine equilibrium:
Equilibrists lie here; stranger, tread light; Close, but untouching in each other's sight; Mouldered the lips and ashy the tall skull. Let them lie perilous and beautiful….
The insistence that chastity be given its due is clearly faithful to the Manichaean premise of the Provençal love lyrics: life in the flesh is a life of woe. (pp. 56-9)
That the Manichaean love philosophy of Provence does not embrace the alternative of abnegating eros altogether, however, requires some explanation. How can we account for the Troubadours' insistence that at least passion (if not coitus) have its due as well?… The strategy of asceticism is ineffectual because the temptations of the flesh are not alone in binding the soul to its earthly existence. The mastery of the world through knowledge, which Schopenhauer recommends, is a deceptive victory. Knowledge deceives with the illusive hope that man's short spell on earth can be made reasonably noble and good and that eros can be conquered. The false promise of asceticism ignores the truth that earth is a place so thoroughly tainted that the blight reaches even into the courts of reason. The soul in Gnostic thought is not pure Light but Light that has been befouled by its contact with matter. As Ransom puts it in "The Swimmer" (perhaps his most explicitly Manichaean poem), not only "eggs and meat," but even Christians spoil. The perpetually unconsummated passion for the lady of the Provençal lyrics keeps alive that nostalgia for the Transcendent which guarantees our disenchantment with all earthly fulfillments, whether fleshly or spiritual…. For this reason, the "flames" of Ransom's equilibrists are equal in radiance to their "ice," and their dual allegiance to passion and chastity elevates them above the sub-lunar world of the here and now to an experience of transport that can ultimately be consummated only in death. (pp. 60-1)
The equilibrists will have no consolation, whether conjugal or illicit; they prefer instead the perpetual hunger of a perilous longing which is the condition of their joy and which they know (indeed, actually desire) will never be relieved by consummation.
Passion also means passivity. To suffer is to surrender action for inertia, to substitute (in the arena of love) dalliance for the sexual climax…. The Troubadours, it was found, often encouraged the indefinite postponement of the act of love itself. Stopping love in a moment of penultimate blissfulness, their lovers remain, like Keats's forever unravished Grecian bride, in a sublime stillness. Likewise, Ransom's equilibrists twirl in a spinning motion …, whose center contains no motion at all. (pp. 62-3)
Ransom's metaphor for their equilibrium—two polarized stars—recalls the Manichaean doctrine that the least spoiled particles of Light had been transformed into stars. If life in the flesh is a life of woe, we may take comfort in the promise that "A kinder saeculum begins with Death."… Ransom's equilibrists reach their apotheosis only in a vision of their doom. (p. 63)
The statement of Ransom's poetry on the man-woman relationship resurrects the love myth of Provence. We find in "The Equilibrists" the strongest evidence of that resurrection, though auxiliary themes appear, as has been shown, in other of Ransom's poems. The criticism of Ransom's poetry has largely concerned itself with the poet's techniques, especially with his use of irony and tone. There are certain psycho-philosophical attitudes implicit in his verse, however, which the mask of irony is not always successful in concealing and for which we must hold the poet accountable…. [The] Manichaean presuppositions of the verse are unmistakable, and the systematic exposition of them brings into focus a dimension of Ransom's poetry that heretofore has gone unexplored. (pp. 64-5)
W. Potter Woodbery, "The Sword Between Them: Love and Death in Ransom's 'The Equilibrists'," in The Southern Literary Journal (copyright 1977 by The Department of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Spring, 1977, pp. 51-65.
[Ransom's] appreciation of Allen Tate, written in honor of Tate's sixtieth birthday,… leads us into the heart of his own attitude toward experience. For in this essay Ransom offers the reader a detailed examination of the character of his subject, as much as of his literary achievement. He makes us see what he thinks of Tate not only as a poet and novelist but also as a man, and what he thinks of him is defined in principle in the opening sentence: "The poet, the thinker, the whole man—Allen Tate's personality is greatly distinguished in our time." "The whole man": that is essentially how Ransom presents Tate, and all whom he admires. No praise could be warmer from a person for whom the ideal of human completeness remained a source of continual inspiration—such inspiration, in fact, that it would not be too much to say Ransom's entire work depends on a comparison between this ideal and the sense of fragmentation he associated with more recent events.
Ransom's conception of the whole man does not involve any simplification of experience. On the contrary, its complex and specific nature is constantly emphasized. This is the result, largely, of his belief in the dual nature of the human personality, its indebtedness to both the reason and the sensibility. The reason, as Ransom sees it, man employs in his attempts to understand experience, to discover and use the universal patterns latent in the "world's body." The sensibility on the other hand simply enables him to enjoy experience, the fine qualities of particulars, including all those that cannot be absorbed into any pattern formulated by the rational element. So far what Ransom has to say may sound thoroughly commonplace, a hardly individualized version of a generally held idea. What distinguishes his argument, though, is that he manages to relate this conventional distinction to his comparative analysis of agrarian and industrial societies, and to do so in detail. The thesis that nearly all of his writing sets out to prove, in one way or another, is that only in a traditional and rural society—the kind of society that is epitomized for Ransom by the antebellum South—can the human being-achieve the completeness that comes from exercising the sensibility and the reason with equal ease. With the rise of science and industrialism, the thesis continues, these two elements have become dissociated. Science and industry demand control of nature, and in pursuance of this man has had to exploit his reason and deny his sensibility. The image of the whole man, consequently, has been replaced by a concept of personality that emphasises its "appetitive and economic" functions at the expense of everything else.
In the course of his career Ransom has managed to apply the implications of this change to his analysis of several kinds of human activity, including the broad activities of work and leisure. Labor in a traditional society, for example, is described in essay after essay as performing "one of the happy functions of human life." This, so the argument goes, is because agriculture is the major form of employment in that society; and agriculture satisfies not just the reason of man, by supplying him with the requisite "material product," but his sensibility as well…. For like most of the Agrarians, Ransom insists that the cultural forms characteristic of any particular system are integrally related to the forms of its economic life, and so the "right attitude to nature" that rural labor is said to promote is extended into a definition of its artwork as well. The arts in a traditional community satisfy the two sides of human nature just as its agrarian experience does, in the sense that they demonstrate "the power of the material world to receive a rational structure and still maintain its particularity." Belonging essentially to what is called a "classical" mode of imitation, they manage to reflect both the constant and the contingent elements in life; whereas the artistic forms generated by an urban society cannot help but betray a bias in favor of one element or the other.
An inevitable consequence of Ransom's commitment to the idea of a unity of personality is that his discussion of one function of the consciousness tends to fade imperceptibly into a discussion of its other functions, so his essays on aesthetics are often transformed into essays on ethics about halfway through. And this particular tendency is reinforced by Ransom's own insistence that the only satisfactory system of morality—the kind of system, essentially, that is characteristic of a rural environment—is one that appeals to the aesthetic sense as much as the conscience. The beautiful and the good then become inseparable…. [For example, he maintains that] the traditional man commits himself to the principle of courtship so as to train the instincts and so as to enjoy the subtler forms of pleasure it makes available to him—the detached contemplation of the object of desire, for instance, and the carefully discriminated and graded series of excitements that precede the final union. It is an enormously sophisticated interpretation of the scope of emotional experience…. (pp. 56-8)
Ransom is ingenious enough to extend the imputation of crudity to his analysis of the spiritual differences obtaining between agrarian and urban communities, this despite the fact that it was the charge of religious backwardness and crudity, leveled at the time of the Scopes trial, that initially stimulated his interest in his region. Indeed, there is a touch of characteristic bravado in the way Ransom insists that the very fundamentalism for which the South was mocked is a mark of its achievement. His argument is not a difficult one to grasp, although it is possibly more difficult to swallow. It depends on a rather pragmatic approach to religion, which insists that those varieties of belief are good which promote a "working definition of the relation of man to nature." The more thorough the definition is, apparently, the better the religion until one arrives at that variety which manages to hold in equilibrium two diverse interpretations of the human role—one of which depicts nature as "usable and intelligible," the other of which insists that it is "mysterious and contingent." God, according to this form of belief, can be understood, but only partly. He can be obeyed, and yet still remain mysterious and unpredictable. The ideas are, of course, contradictory. Ransom insists, though, that they can be reconciled in experience because they both grow naturally out of the practice of agriculture…. (p. 58)
[The majority of Ransom's poems] describe the dissociations for which a society expressing itself in "a series of isolated perfections" is responsible. There are, for example, the lovers in "Eclogue," the failure of whose relationship is directly ascribed to the fact that they are "one part love / And nine parts bitter thought." Their lack of inner integrity, the suggestion is, has prevented them from enjoying a complete relationship. And there are the lonely protagonists of so many of the poems, like "Miriam Tazewell," whose alienation stems from an inability to relate the complexities of their interior being to the abbreviated definitions of identity available in the world around them. In these and similar cases an alternative system of value—in which wholeness and consequently an integration of the inner and outer worlds does seem possible—is not made explicit, as it is in the essays. But it is nevertheless there, in the idioms of the verse. This is because poetry at its best, according to Ransom, should devote equal stylistic attention to what he calls "structure" and "texture." By "structure," Ransom explains, he means the totality of the poem, the "logical object or universal" that appeals to the reason; and by "texture" is meant "the tissue of irrelevance" and particularity that caters more to the demands of the sensibility. "A beautiful poem," according to these criteria, "is one that proceeds to the completion of a logical structure, but not without attention to the local particularity of its components." Obviously, Ransom would consider it arrogant to claim that he achieves this beauty in his verse, but it is clear enough that he aims for it. Almost from the beginning of his poetic career, he has tried to articulate a form which involves the simultaneous evocation of contradictory responses, catching the complex and yet unified reaction of the complete man to experience. And where the attempt has been successful, as it has been in many of his poems, the result has been a type of discourse that demonstrates its positives in its methods of expression. (pp. 58-9)
["Antique Harvesters"] is perhaps Ransom's most famous piece, and the fame is, I believe, quite justified. For in it he locates the meaning of his regional experience. He indicates, that is to say, the context of inherited belief on which his own work depends, and establishes the imaginative significance of his region for him—as a place where unity of consciousness is still possible and even likely. The South, in the poem, represents both a resource and a myth; and the poem itself consequently belongs at the center of his life's work. The fact that this is so—that "Antique Harvesters" has a centrality that none of Ransom's other poems possesses—is more or less suggested in the opening lines, which have the density and gravity of ideas brooded over for a very long time…. The poem is set on the banks of the Mississippi during the autumn, a season that as in the Keats ode reminds man of his mortality but also allows him to see that mortality as part of a general cycle of growth and decay. It is too a time of pause, offering him an opportunity to consider his harvest, material and spiritual. One thing gained from the land is suggested by the opening description of the old men, and that is endurance, the mildness of those who are as "dry" and "spare" as the earth they love. Another is suggested by the reference to the raven with its "sable" wings—an intimation of death and human limits, the humility acquired in any engagement with the soil. And, as if this were not enough, the third stanza of the poem introduces something else yielded by the land. For, as the old men talk and the descendants of long generations labor in the field, the sense of a usable past and a traditional life style becomes unavoidable. (pp. 60-1)
With the appearance of the hunters, a new feeling of ritual begins to enrich Ransom's portrait. Certainly, the more romantic associations this feeling dictates are tempered by the mundane detail, but the feeling is still present, and powerful enough to be carried over into the subsequent description of the harvesters. For when the poet returns after a while to these laborers in the field, they are addressed as if they were participants in a rite as well. Their activities, as described in the concluding stanza of the poem, seem to be as decorous and significant as the ceremonial of the chase that interrupted them—the only difference being that in this case the activities are directed toward the honoring of "our lady" the earth rather than a simple fox…. The ending is a thoroughly appropriate one, a convincing demonstration of the scope of Ransom's dualism. It affirms the dignity of the antique harvesters, the sense of decorum and heroism with which their commitment to the land is accepted; and yet it does so without rejecting the original recognition of the facts in the case of the farm laborer, or in the case of any man destined to work and then die. Nothing of that firm grasp on the actual demonstrated by the opening of the poem has been lost, but a great deal has been added to it and gained.
This gain is registered among other things in the staple idiom of the verse, which offers a characteristic reflection in word and manner of the contraries of thought on which the argument depends. The very title, "Antique Harvesters," gives a clue to this, referring as it does both to the concepts of tradition and ritual and to a particular event in the farming year. And throughout the following discourse equal weight is given to these two terms of reference: elevated and romantic metaphors, such as the description of the fox as a "lovely ritualist," are drastically qualified by the "dry, grey, spare" setting in which they appear, and the occasional use of an elegant or archaic word is braced by a sustained commitment to the colloquial. The result, as in a couplet like
The horse, the hounds, the lank mares coursing by Straddled with archetypes of chivalry,
is an interplay of contradictory terms so complex that it almost defies analysis. And of course, that it should defy immediate analysis at least is part of Ransom's intention, since what he wishes to do essentially is to express the possible coexistence of these terms rather than their separateness. Agriculture, the premise is, brings the ceremonious and the mundane levels of experience together by transforming ordinary life into significant ritual. Its activities, and the moral and religious practices it encourages, supply the basis for that sense of tradition and even chivalry that surrounds all those who participate in them. This is the donnée of "Antique Harvesters," making it—to the extent that Ransom succeeds—not so much a portrait from life as a minor historical myth, in which the notion of unity of consciousness is proposed and then firmly attached to the Southern and agrarian idea.
This reading of the rural life, which identifies it at once with the decorous stance and the commonplace gesture, helps to resolve what would otherwise be a puzzling ambivalence in Ransom's agrarian argument—the argument we find developed in his essays. When he is arguing along strictly economic lines, he seems to offer an idea of agrarianism which approximates to the one suggested by the mundane or "low" set of terms in "Antique Harvesters." He insists on the importance of subsistence farming, and even proposes government aid in the form of bounties and free land for those willing to be their own producers and consumers, carpenters and builders. But, when other considerations to do with the quality of life are introduced, he tends to present a more aristocratic image, related to the "high" set of terms used in the poem. Emphasis is then placed on the belief that an agricultural society is a traditional one, promoting quite sophisticated codes of expression and behavior…. [The] self-contradiction is more apparent than real. "Antique Harvesters" demonstrates this more decisively than anything else, because it brings together qualities that Ransom discovered in the agrarian experience and elsewhere tended to deal with separately; its basis in hard work, that is, and the ritualized forms of conduct to which it leads, the onerous details of agricultural labor and the sense of ceremony that this labor fosters. As usual with a writer who delighted in turning his opponents' accusations back upon themselves, the argument is a sophisticated and very deliberate one, but no amount of sophistication can disguise one thing—the fact that its roots are in the Southern inheritance. For what Ransom does essentially in his work is to draw on the idea of the good farmer and that of the fine planter and then devise an imaginative alternative composed of elements from both. His version of the complete man represents a resolution of traditional conflicts—an idea of the good life which depends on his region for much of its content, but on him for its coherence. (pp. 61-3)
Richard Gray, in his The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South (copyright © 1977 by Richard Gray), Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.