Robert Penn Warren

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Robert Penn Warren American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4067

Warren’s poetry and fiction often meditate on the twin mysteries of time and identity. Childhood is half remembered and half mythologized as a time of ignorance and innocence, sometimes expressed in terms borrowed from religion. It is a remembered paradise from which one inevitably falls from grace through original sin—that is, some malicious act or an insight into the moral ambiguity of oneself and others.

Original sin, as Warren uses the term, is not traceable to evil inherited from Adam’s initial disobedience, as Christian myth describes it, but is a normal development in the process of growing up. In that sense, guilt is inevitable, and the need for redemption is a psychological state peculiar to the human psyche. There is some element of inheritance in the nature of one’s individual burden of guilt, however, as the time and place of one’s birth help determine the kind of illusion, sin, or temptation one encounters. Like many southern writers of Warren’s generation, his being engrossed later in the history of the South, with its double jeopardy of inherited racial conflicts and defeat in the Civil War, adds a special depth to more personal family and individual problems. In this affinity for regional sorrows and predicaments, he is akin to his contemporary William Faulkner.

In some cases, the problem of identity and its moral implications are dramatized as a quest involving fathers and sons. The protagonist is often a young man in search of his father—that is, the source of his being. He may reject his biological father and choose a surrogate father whom he admires more. The ambitious protagonist of At Heaven’s Gate (1943) despises his lowborn parent and idealizes a successful but unscrupulous business tycoon.

The romantically deluded young man in World Enough and Time kills the surrogate father who has been his friend and benefactor. The protagonist of A Place to Come To (1977, a title suggesting a spiritual home) has both envied and despised his father but, in retirement, becomes reconciled to his childhood roots in the South and befriends the foster father that he had never acknowledged. In All the King’s Men, Jack Burden, whose very name may suggest unresolved guilt, does not even know who his father is. Moreover, Willie Stark in that novel is at least partially responsible for the death of his own son.

In some poems using a very young persona, such as “Court Martial,” the child gains a foreboding insight into the darker side of an idealized older man—in this case, Warren’s beloved grandfather. The episode is both historical and autobiographical, as well as a striking symbolic image of the frightening shadow-self that lurks in the unconscious mind. The moment when the child first glimpses the dark side of a loved person may pave the way for an understanding of his own capacity for evil. That self-recognition is necessary for emotional and moral maturity.

Trained as he was in the classical tradition of Greek, Shakespearean, and Jacobean drama, which he often taught, Warren was very conscious of the tragic sense of life. While human destiny may seem fated or inevitable, it is nevertheless self-chosen and rooted in individual character. One learns through error and suffering. The self-knowledge gained in this process may end in disaster or, in more fortunate circumstances, may result in a reconciliation and renewed love for life. Warren noted how, in his classes at Louisiana State (which was Huey Long’s alma mater) the students’ attention sharpened as he discussed the political background of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Tragedy came alive when Huey Long was assassinated, almost on the steps of the state capitol, in a seeming replay of historical drama.

Warren often used local legends or adapted historical events for literary purposes. He made no claims for literal accuracy. He disclaimed any actual knowledge of Huey Long, for example, but he listened to the endless legends that circulated among the common people who thought they had found a champion at last against the aristocratic, wealthy families who controlled southern politics.

Physical deformity was sometimes used by Warren to suggest or symbolize the human character flaw that afflicts all people. Such flawed characters are not necessarily bad persons; in fact, in some cases, such a visible sign of imperfection seems to help the sufferer to avoid inordinate pride and attain a measure of redemption. In the poem “Original Sin,” the defect is first associated with an old man’s disfiguring wen, later with some foolish monster, and still later rather fondly with an old dog, scratching at the door, or a tired horse put out to pasture. Warren has even used a glass eye, which he himself wore, as indicative of some secret flaw. Sometimes the sign is more obvious, such as the clubfoot of the idealistic young immigrant who comes to America to help free the slaves in the Civil War novel Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961).

In his long career, Warren sought to reconcile some of the most contradictory elements of American intellectual life, particularly the inheritance of eighteenth century optimism about humankind’s essential goodness and social progress with the darker, romantic consciousness of good and evil advanced by such American writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Although Warren may lean heavily on the symbolism and imagery of romanticism, he does so with an irony that recognizes illusion and myth as necessary parts of human consciousness. Warren believed that the self is not synonymous with the ego alone but must include irrational elements of the subconscious, through which the individual is bound to all humanity and to nature.

All the King’s Men

First published: 1946

Type of work: Novel

Jack Burden, former newspaperman and former graduate student of history, gains self-knowledge through his association with a charismatic politician.

All the King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, has sometimes been called the best political novel written in the United States. Nevertheless, its emphasis is on the private psychological roots of action that is played out on a public political stage. The social milieu is authentically drawn, with redneck farmers pitted against entrenched aristocratic families.

Jack Burden is in between the political forces, initially simply a spectator and a reporter from an upper-middle-class background, watching with curiosity and a certain fascination as a man from the farm becomes a self-taught lawyer and moves into politics. Plain-speaking Willie Stark, who hardly looks like a hero, learns to capture an audience of poor dirt farmers and small-town businessmen, in whom he inspires almost fanatical devotion. He is a cunning, hardworking, expedient politician, promising to build roads and bridges in the isolated rural areas and hospitals for the common people.

It is a story of men who do not know themselves. Willie Stark thinks he can use evil means to achieve good ends. Jack Burden tries to avoid guilt by running away from it or simply not seeing it, and he does not recognize his own father and inadvertently kills him. Judge Irwin, representative of the old genteel tradition, literally forgets his original sin. Adam Stanton, the puritan idealist, suddenly casts off all restraints to kill Willie Stark.

Stark attains power partly by understanding and controlling other men. He recruits Jack for his personal staff, partly for his skill in research. Jack’s first task at the outset of their relationship is to “find something” on an old friend of his father, Judge Irwin, who had been like a father to Jack in his younger days. The reason for the investigation is that Judge Irwin has come out for Stark’s opponent in the upcoming election.

Jack pursues this inquiry into Judge Irwin’s background with a curious objectivity, convinced, on one hand, that there can be no hint of wrongdoing in what he calls “the case of the upright judge” and, on the other hand, wondering whether Stark’s assessment of human nature may, after all, be accurate.

Stark’s answer to Jack’s assurances that there could be nothing dishonorable in the background of Judge Irwin is reiterated three times in the novel: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the grave. There is always something.” Burden does, in fact, find “something” in the forgotten past. Not only did the upright judge once accept a bribe, but he was also protected by the equally immaculate Governor Stanton, father of Adam and Anne, Jack’s dearest childhood friends. Anne had been Jack’s first love.

The career of Willie Stark quickly becomes, to Jack, more than an interesting spectator sport, and his employment becomes more than a convenient job serving a dynamic personality. Burden becomes enmeshed in a complex web of relationships and circumstances that involve his own past, as well as the uneasy present and the dubious future. Burden holds on to his knowledge about the judge until Anne herself asks him to convince her brother Adam, now a celebrated surgeon, that he should accept the directorship of the new medical center that Willie wants to build.

Jack understands that the only way to influence Adam in this respect is to change his mind about the moral nature of the world—to break his conviction that good and evil can be kept separate. How better to achieve this than to reveal that the idealized father and the irreproachable judge were themselves guilty of political crimes?

The bitter knowledge of his father’s expedient compromise with honor has the desired effect on the puritanical Adam. He makes an uneasy alliance with Stark (whom he despises) for the sake of doing good. Stark seems to have made his point—good must be made out of evil, because, he says, that is all there is from which to make it. Even Stark, expedient and pragmatic as he is, has a vision of the hospital, which is to be free to anyone who needs medical service, as an unsullied oasis in a grimy world, a monument of his own submerged idealism. This tension between persons who seem unalterably opposed, yet are drawn to a common purpose, is one of Warren’s favorite devices for revealing the moral ambiguity of human motivations.

Burden, still withholding from Stark the information about Irwin, suffers a profound shock when he learns from Stark’s secretary and sometime mistress that Stark has become Anne Stanton’s lover. Burden precipitously drives out West until he is stopped by the Pacific Ocean. There he drops into what he calls the “Great Sleep,” a neurotic reaction which has afflicted him before—once when he walked out on his Ph.D. studies in history and once when he walked out on his wife.

From the Great Sleep, Jack is born again into a bleak but emotionally insulating belief in the “Great Twitch”—an understanding of the world as completely amoral and mechanistic, wherein nobody has any responsibility for what happens. He returns to his job as if nothing had happened. He hardly hesitates at all when Stark wants to use the evidence against Judge Irwin. Burden’s education in hard reality has only begun, however, and the shell of indifference is irrevocably broken with even more unexpected revelations. It is a lesson in tragedy that involves several families, with Jack Burden, Anne Stanton, and Willie Stark’s faithful wife as survivors.

Quite aside from the dramatic elements of political chicanery, adultery, suicide, and murder that make this an exciting story, the novel suggests a more subtle observation about a symbiotic psychological dependency between people. No one is complete and self-sufficient—not even Anne, though the narrator, Jack, early in the book assumes that she is peculiarly integrated and whole. Anne actually shares with Jack an essential passivity that makes them both feed emotionally on the dynamic energy of Willie Stark. The gravitation of the passive personality to the active man also has its political expression, accounting for the success of the demagogue with his constituency, who feel themselves to be socially and politically helpless.

“The Ballad of Billie Potts”

First published: 1943 (collected in The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, 1998)

Type of work: Poem

A rascally innkeeper fails to recognize his own son, who is returning home from the Western frontier, and murders him for his gold.

“The Ballad of Billie Potts” is perhaps the most striking of Warren’s early poems. In a little over thirteen pages, it brings together several of the themes that would concern him for a lifetime: the passage from childhood innocence into guilt, the journey that ends with a return to the father or to the place of origin, the undiscovered self, and a certain mysticism that unites each person with humankind and with nature.

Warren prefaced the poem with this note: “When I was a child I heard this story from an old lady who was a relative of mine. The scene, according to her version, was in the section of Western Kentucky known as ’Between the Rivers,’ the region between the Cumberland and the Tennessee.” According to legend, Billie Potts kept an inn on one of the popular frontier routes along which early travelers to the West passed. He communicated regularly with bands of cutthroats, notifying them of the routes his guests were taking into the wilderness. The robbers shared with him any booty that they could acquire from ambushing the travelers.

Billie Potts and his wife have a son whom they both adore. The son, thinking he will prove his worth to his father, attempts to kill and rob a stranger by himself instead of conveying the information to more experienced killers, as he was told to do. He botches the job and returns home in humiliation. His father, in anger, turns him out to make his fortune as best he can.

Years later, the son, having prospered out West, returns in triumph, sporting a heavy beard, a handsome coat, and a bag of gold. He conceals his identity for a while, hoping to tease his parents, but they, thinking he is only another traveler, murder him for his money. The parents learn too late, through an identifying birthmark, that they have killed the only person they ever loved. Warren captures the rhyming, lilting, occasionally uneven rhythm of folk ballad, its colloquial language combined with an occasionally oracular tone.

The comment upon the action, which universalizes the legend, appears in parentheses. Warren uses the second-person voice, as he does in a number of poems, to indicate the conscious self, which does not recognize the unconscious shadow-self. What at first seems a simple device to show what it was like in the nineteenth century West—a guided tour of the past, so to speak—becomes a way of involving the reader, as conscious ego, in a somber psychodrama. The final meditation is almost a benediction, likening the wanderer’s return (not only Billie’s now, but also the reader’s own) to the mysterious natural forces that direct the salmon’s return to the “high pool” of its birth, with its ambiguous implications of both innocence and death.

The salmon heaves at the fall, and wanderer, youHeave at the great fall of Time, and gorgeous,  gleamIn the powerful arc, and anger and outrage like  dew,In your plunge, fling, and plunge to the  thunderous stream:Back to the silence, back to the pool, backTo the high pool, motionless, and the  unmurmuring dream. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .And the father waits for the son.

Brother to Dragons

First published: 1953

Type of work: Poem

Characters from the past and present, including Thomas Jefferson and Robert Penn Warren, comment upon the brutal murder of a slave.

After a ten-year period of writing prose, during which he found poems impossible to finish, Warren emerged as a poet of peculiar power and originality with the publication in 1953 of Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, a book-length poem unlike any in American literature. The subject was a shocking real-life murder perpetrated by Lilburne Lewis, a nephew of Thomas Jefferson (primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States).

Warren invented a unique mode of presentation for this work. It is neither narrative poem nor play but a discussion by characters long dead (except for one, the poet himself, designated as RPW), who try to understand the grisly event that occurred in the meat house when Lilburne Lewis hacked a teenage slave to pieces with an ax for breaking a pitcher belonging to Lilburne’s late mother, Lucy Jefferson Lewis. The other slaves witnessed this performance. As Warren explains in a brief preface: “We may take them to appear and disappear as their urgencies of argument swell and subside. The place of this meeting is, we may say, ’no place,’ and the time is ’any time.’” Besides the victim, the main characters include Lilburne, the killer; Isham Lewis, who watched his older brother commit the murder; their mother, Lucy; her brother, Thomas Jefferson; Letitia, Lilburne’s wife; Aunt Cat, Lilburne’s Negro mammy; Meriwether Lewis, Lilburne’s cousin, who went West on the Lewis and Clark expedition; and RPW.

The central character, if the poem can be said to have one, is not the hapless victim, who has only one brief speech in the first edition (three in the 1979 revision). It is not even Lilburne, the moral monster, but Thomas Jefferson, inheritor of the eighteenth century optimism about the perfectibility of humankind. The poem examines the hideous event and ponders why it occurred, but it is Jefferson who develops and changes in the poem. There is no evidence that the historical Thomas Jefferson ever discussed or even acknowledged the murder, a fact which suggested to Warren that he could not face the thought of such barbarity in one of his own blood.

Actually, the stance of Jefferson in the poem is initially quite grim and cynical. He has already recognized that he had been overly optimistic in his view of human nature. The moral project of the poem is not to convince Jefferson of the reality of evil, which he affirms from the first, but to convince him that he himself shares that burden of human evil. This humbling of Jefferson is achieved primarily by burdening him with some guilt for the fate of Meriwether Lewis, who had once been his secretary; this part of the poem is not completely convincing. The real Meriwether Lewis committed suicide when he was governor of the Louisiana Territory, but the reader does not know, from the poem itself, what happened or why Jefferson should share any guilt in the matter. Jefferson ultimately achieves some kind of universalized feeling for his fellows that includes even the despised Lilburne.

The discussion and the narrative action of the first hundred pages are gripping, both mentally and emotionally. At the psychological level, Warren suggests that the act of murder was a ritualized attempt to purge Lilburne’s own evil. The slave is Lilburne’s shadow-self, the scapegoat whose elimination will bring order in a chaotic world or in Lilburne’s chaotic psyche. The butcher block, on which the boy lies curled in the fetal position with eyes tightly closed, suggests an altar to some savage god.

The death of Lilburne repeats the psychological ritual, with Lilburne playing victim, the dark shadow of his brother Isham. Lilburne forces Isham into a suicide pact, whereby they will shoot each other at the count of ten over their mother’s grave. He counts to ten very slowly, knowing full well that Isham will panic and shoot first, then try to escape. During this melodramatic scene, there is a great earthquake. This event may seem like a piece of gothic fiction, but, in fact, there was such an earthquake at about that time—one of the biggest ever recorded in that area.

Jefferson observes in the poem that slain monsters and dragons are innocent. All heroes, whether Hercules, David with his sling, or Jack of the beanstalk, are playing “the old charade” in which man dreams that he can destroy the objectified bad and then feel good: “While in the deep/ Hovel of the heart the Thing lies/ That will never unkennel himself to the contemptible steel.”

“To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress”

First published: 1957 (collected in Promises: Poems, 1954-1956, 1957)

Type of work: Poems

His child’s innocent delight in natural beauty helps a father to accept the suffering that life brings.

Warren broke away from his somewhat morose obsession with evil with his sparkling Promises, winner of his first Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The first five poems of Promises are dedicated to Warren’s daughter Rosanna under the general title “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress.” The setting is the imposing ruin overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where Warren and his second wife, Eleanor, lived in Italy—Cesare Borgia’s hunting ground, said Warren, who always knows his history—“those blood-soaked stones.” The first poem of the series, “Sirocca,” speaks of Philip of Spain, “the black-browed, the anguished,/ For whom nothing prospered, though he loved God.” His arms, carved in stone, which once stood over the drawbridge, have long since fallen into the moat, buried in garbage. Yet the blue blooms of rosemary and the gold bloom of thistle flourish there, bringing gay laughter to the golden-haired child.

The poem establishes a contrast of perception, maintained through the five poems, between the innocence and delight of the child’s view of the world and the darker awareness of the father, who knows the evil and suffering enacted here—and which still goes on in the world. Nevertheless, because he participates in and marvels at the child’s innocent joy in nature, the speaker becomes reconciled to the world, believing, or at least praying, that all can be redeemed.

The second and third poems introduce some of the human misery existing in this beautiful setting. The pathetic, defective child next door has cried all night; her disabilities are the result of an unsuccessful attempt at abortion. The “monster s” twelve-year-old sister, who is “beautiful like a saint,” has taught the disabled child to make the Italian sign for ciao. The speaker, galled at the assumption that suffering and tragedy have any such simplistic solution as a catchword for “okay,” is moved to metaphysical rebellion, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski’s Ivan Karamazov, who refused salvation at the price of the suffering of children.

The fourth poem, “The Flower,” is the climax, where the little daughter’s joy in a natural ritual dispels the speaker’s rebellion against the world’s injustice and pain. He is carrying the child up the cliff from the beach, where in the past she has been given a white flower to hold and a blue one for her hair. As it is now fall, the parents are hard put to find a white bloom not sadly browned and drooping, but the child accepts gladly the best one they can find, “as though human need/ Were not for perfection.” The lyrical joy of this hour seems to transfigure time itself. The parents look back and see a single gull hovering on a saffron sunset. They note that the white gull looks black, but it swings effortlessly as it descends, changing from black to white and back, according to its background and the direction of light, suggesting to the poet that at least some aspects of reality are matters of human perception. Context determines meaning.

The final poem in this sequence, “Colder Fire,” is less serene than “The Flower,” with its sense of exaltation. It begins humbly, re-admitting, so to speak, the persistent negative. Though the speaker knows that “the heart should be steadfast,” he is often helpless to command his own moods. The speaker sits in the sun with his child on his lap, watching the white butterflies, soon to die, in their “ritual carouse,” nature’s assurance of an immortality of the flesh; the butterflies reflect the father’s sense of immortality in his child. Warren achieves a remarkable fusion of thought, passion, and concrete imagery in this to form a vision of spiritual transcendence without violating or misrepresenting actual human experience, with its reality of pain and death.

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