Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3219
Robert Penn Warren was blessed twice over. He was a son of and grew up in a region of the country renowned for its love of the land and devotion to earthy folk wisdom and the art of storytelling. There was also a love of language, particularly the fustian spirit...
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- Critical Essays
Robert Penn Warren was blessed twice over. He was a son of and grew up in a region of the country renowned for its love of the land and devotion to earthy folk wisdom and the art of storytelling. There was also a love of language, particularly the fustian spirit of the orator and the preacher, based on a deep, dark respect for the Word, orotund and oracular.
Added to that, however, Warren spent his formative years in a world that was making the transition from the comparative bucolic and optimistic sensibilities of the late nineteenth century to the frenzied, fearful, frenetic pace of the post-World War I 1920’s. Poetry was being called into service by young people everywhere to try to explain what had happened, or at least give it manageable shape. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) set the tone. At Vanderbilt among his fellow Fugitives, Warren was quickly put in touch with the new poetry that was emerging.
It is this combination of effects and influences that made Warren’s poetry and gave it its vision. From the first, he hovered between the old and new—the mannered style, the modern flip; the natural scene, the symbolic backdrop; the open gesture, the hidden motive; Original Sin, the religion of humankind. This peculiar vantage point scored his vision, for it allowed him to know at first hand what his age was surrendering at the same time that it allowed him to question the motives for the surrender and the terms of the victory, the name of the enemy—or, better yet, his face.
Warren can bring the personal into the most profound metaphysical musings without blinking an eye or losing a beat, because finally the source of all vision, at least for Warren, is the darkest of selves at the heart of one’s being, the unknown brother who shares not only one’s bed but also one’s body and makes, or so it seems, one’s decisions. Self-discovery is Warren’s trail, and the reader who follows it discovers that while it begins in coming to grips with the painful processes of caring in an uncaring world, it concludes in accepting caring as a moral obligation rather than merely a state of mind or soul. Like most twentieth century poets, Warren was really trying to reinvigorate the heroic ideal.
The early poem “To a Face in a Crowd” echoes the world-weary angst typical of the period, the 1920’s, by rendering an urban apocalypse in the bleak, stark terms of lonely souls lost in vacant vistas, finding their meager consolations in passing strangers who may—or may not—be spiritual kindred with similar dreams and like despairs. It is night, and adjectives and nouns collide in a litany of pessimism and negativism: “lascivious,” “lust,” “bitter,” “woe,” “dolorous,” “dim,” “shroud.” This vision is mitigated, however, by the markedly poetic tone of the language: “Brother, my brother, whither do you pass?/ Unto what hill at dawn, unto what glen. . . . ?” While there is hope, the speaker seems to be saying that the idyllic interlude is no longer a viable option; instead, “we must meet/ As weary nomads in this desert at last,/ Borne in the lost procession of these feet.”
Among these early poems, “The Return: An Elegy” is by far the most successful effort, for in it, Warren eschewed the derivative and imitative tone, mood, and theme of poems such as “To a Face in the Crowd” and found what time would prove to be the beginnings of his own voice and vision.
The setting is simple, though not at first easily discerned: in a Pullman as the train carries the speaker back home to the hills to attend his mother’s funeral. Sentiment is kept at bay, almost with a vengeance, it might seem: “give me the nickels off your eyes/ . . ./ then I could buy a pack of cigarettes.” Only an occasional, italicized lapse into poeticized feeling—“does my mother wake”—among the details of the rugged mountain-country landscape that the speaker intersperses with his thoughts gives the sense that a profound emotional turmoil is seething beneath the modernist “flip”: “Pines drip without motion/ The hairy boughs no longer shake/ Shaggy mist, crookbacked, ascends.”
As the poem continues, however, the reader is gradually forced to realize that it is the tension between the speaker’s grief and his desire not to sentimentalize his loss that gives the poetry its incredible and peculiarly modern motive power: “the old fox is dead/ what have I said.” Thus, the speaker earns the right to lapse into the unabashed sentiment, at poem’s end, of “this dark and swollen orchid of my sorrow.”
This rare ability to combine the most enduring verbal expressions of human feelings with the most fleeting of contemporary realities and attitudes in a poetry that magically maintains its precarious balance between traditional poetic tone and style and the most ragged-edged and flippant of modern sensibilities continued to give Warren’s work its own shape and direction as he expanded his range in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In “Pursuit,” for example, his vision of the urban landscape has hardly improved, but it is peopled with three-dimensional emblems of a faltering, seeking humanity—“the hunchback on the corner,” “that girl the other guests shun,” “the little old lady in black.” “Original Sin: A Short Story,” meanwhile, places the reader in Omaha and the Harvard Yard and speaks of as cosmopolitan an image as “the abstract Jew,” yet it ends its commentary on humanity’s fated failings with country images of “the backyard and . . . an old horse cold in pasture.”
So much is in keeping, of course, with the social and literary ideals that the original Fugitives formulated when they coalesced into the Agrarian movement. Their notion was that American democracy was not an urban but a rural phenomenon, forged by a link between the people and the land. In this regard, regionalism—the countryman’s sense of place and of a devotion to his people—was not a pernicious thing but involved the very health of the nation, a health that the increasing pressures toward homogeneity of people and culture in sprawling urban centers could not only threaten but perhaps even destroy. Poets such as Warren became spokespersons both for that lost agrarian ideal and for the simple country folk forced by economic necessity into the anonymity of large cities, where they lived at the edge of squalor and struggled to maintain their small-town dignities.
Warren combines all these themes and concerns in “The Ballad of Billie Potts.” As the speaker recounts the story of Big Billie, his wife, and their son, Little Billie, he mixes in long, parenthetical sections in which he seems to be addressing himself rather than the readers, urging himself to return—as if he could—to the lifestyles of those hillbillies “in the section between the rivers,” where they were poor by urban standards but rich in spirit, in faith in themselves, and in the power of familial love. In the lost idyll mode reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage” and “Michael,” the story of Little Billie’s travails and his parents’ despair when circumstances force the boy to leave “his Pappy in Old Kaintuck/ And [head]Warren, Robert Penn West to try his luck” is really a twentieth century throwback’s yearnings for what were simpler and certainly more communal times. For him now, there is only the endless urban tedium, the vacant, lonely sameness, maddeningly monotonous and vaguely threatening: “And the clock ticked all night long in the furnished room/ And would not stop/ And the El-train passed on the quarters with a whish like a terrible broom/ And would not stop.”
Warren never ceased to contrast the earthiness of country values and country life with the mind-forged manacles that constrain the individual within the modern industrial landscape. At the heart of his vision, however, is a sense of the sad wasting of time and of love that mortality forces one constantly to consider. Clearly the problem is not “out there”; it is within us. The increasing urbanization of the United States is not the enemy, then, it is simply the latest battlefield—not the disease, but the symptom. The disease is life, and the ageless enemy is our insatiable need to try to make it make sense, to try to make it hurt less.
For Warren, then, one can hope only to keep oneself spiritually and emotionally—and painfully—alive in a world that tends undeniably toward death and decay. His villains become those who deny that life is hardship, as much as those who visit hardships on others. Behind the indictment, though, there is always the lance of forgiveness, aimed as much at the heart of the speaker who dreads the pain of his feelings as at the iniquities that arouse it.
As the poet himself became a father and middle-aged, children rather than the lonely crowd figured more and more as the best emblems of the tragic core of the human condition, as well as of the human capacity to endure and transcend. The poetry consequently finds its locus more and more in personal experience, the day to day providing sufficient grist for the poet’s thinking and feeling mill.
“The Child Next Door,” from the prizewinning volume Promises, focuses not on the child “who is defective because the mother,” burdened with seven already, “took a pill,” but on an older sister, who is twelve and “beautiful like a saint,” and who takes care of “the monster all day”:
I come, and her joy and triptych beauty and joy stir hate—Is it hate?—in my heart. Fool, doesn’t she know that the processIs not that joyous or simple, to bless, or unbless,The malfeasance of nature or the filth of fate?
Warren’s unstinting, almost embarrassing honesty as he records his feelings and attitudes, an honesty exercised in his poetry from as early as “The Return,” gains him an edge of intimate moral ambiguity in this more mature poetry. The present poem concludes: “I think of your goldness, of joy, how empires grind, stars are hurled,/ I smile stiff, saying ciao, saying ciao, and think: this is the world.” Whether that is the expression of a bitter resignation or a casual dismissal or a measure of joyful acceptance, the speaker will give no clue: “this is the world.” Readers are left to measure the sizes of their own hearts and thereby experience both the pain of observing life too closely and, if they wish, the expiation of letting it go.
By now a cosmopolitan himself, a Yale professor with an Oxford degree and summer home in Vermont, the boy who is father to the man did not forget the Kentucky hill country source of his vision. In reminiscences such as “Country Burying (1919),” the autobiographical rather than symbolical and metaphysical seems to prevail, but there is still a telling tale. The poem is a requiem for all those lost “boy’s afternoon[s]” when life was so present, even there amid tokens of death, and the mind more receptive, but the spirit would be somewhere else: “Why doesn’t that fly stop buzzing—stop buzzing up there!” Apologies to Emily Dickinson aside, those were a boy’s thoughts in 1919: In the poem, they are some measure of the adult’s remorse as he reached mid-century. Now there is not only the pain of the present to endure, but there is the pain of the past, its loss, as well.
Brother to Dragons
This sense of remorse was never absent from Warren’s poetry, but now it is outspoken and unremitting, and it becomes a major motivating factor in the later poetry. Brother to Dragons, a historical novel in verse written in the form of a play that the author calls a poem, is the apex of all Warren’s previous pessimism, displaying little of his often-whimsical capacity to turn heel but not turn coat on caring too much for the human condition. In the largest sense, the poem is a severe indictment of the human animal. With some liberties but no real distortion of the facts, it recounts the tale of Lilburn Clarke, a Kentuckian who in the early nineteenth century brutally murdered a black slave over a trifling offense. Beyond the tragic scope of those facts, there was an even more tragic rub in Warren’s view: Clarke was the nephew of Thomas Jefferson, himself a paradoxical figure who could pen the Declaration of Independence and still be a slaveholder and who believed in the perfectibility of humankind.
Warren, who appears himself as a character in the poem by carrying on a pointed philosophical debate with Jefferson, used the bare bones of the story to call into question the worth, let alone the authenticity, of all human ideals. Still, in the lengthy monologue with which the poem concludes, he insists that despite this sorry record of human endeavor in the name of ideals that are always betrayed, “we must argue the necessity of virtue.”
You, Emperors, and Others
By the time the 1950’s ended, Warren had established a new métier as a social commentator with an equally self-accusatory eye. In You, Emperors, and Others, the public and the private, the man and the child, the father and the son all find expression. “Man in the Street,” with its singsong rhythms and nursery-rhyme, chorus-like echoes, hits the gray flannel suits with their black knit ties and Brooks Brothers shirts not where they live but where they work, where each of them somehow makes accommodations with the vacuities of the corporate world. If it is a vision that virtually lends an air of nostalgic romance to an early poem such as “To a Face in the Crowd,” “Mortmain” harks back to “The Return.” It is the speaker’s father who is dying now, but the irreverent flippancy of the earlier poem is not even there to be turned away from: “All things . . .// Were snatched from me, and I could not move,/ Naked in that black blast of his love.” It is a poem in five parts, and in the last of those, “A Vision: Circa 1880,” he imagines his father as a boy, “in patched britches and that idleness of boyhood/ Which asks nothing and is its own fulfillment.” The poem ends with a turn to pure lyricism, without any reaching out to metaphysical solutions or conceits, merely the wholly verbal bounty of language giving life to dead time in images of a present, natural splendor.
Warren published seven additional volumes of poetry from 1960 to 1980, and the lyrical mode itself intensified into the speculative tone that he apparently could not abandon. Still, as he reminds the reader in the 1968 volume, Incarnations, “You think I am speaking in riddles./ But I am not, for// The world means only itself” (“Riddle in the Garden”). In Audubon, meanwhile, he asks, “What is love,” and reminds the reader that “one name for it is knowledge,” as if attempting to justify his lifelong preoccupation with trying to understand human beings and their place on Earth and in the universe.
As the poet grew older, mortality became even more of an obsessive theme, and the issues of time past and time present, the poet now having a wealth of experience to draw upon, found even more expression in this new admixture of a metaphysical lyricism. In “Paradox,” for example, from the “Can I See Arcturus from Where I Stand?” section of Selected Poems: 1923-1975, stargazer man is brought down to Earth, or at least to a sense of his limits, when he confronts a retelling of Zeno’s paradox of the arrow and its unreachable goal. The natural simplicity and personal quality of the setting—a run on a beach that causes the speaker to recollect an earlier spirited chase—remove from the poem the bane of a de profundis that often intruded into Warren’s most youthful metaphysical flights; the information is presented not as insight but as the sort of everyday truth any feeling, thinking person might draw from experience, should he or she care to. Indeed, the poem is finally a tender love lyric worthy, in its formal rhapsodic effect, of A. E. Housman:
I saw, when your foot fulfilled its stride,How the sand, compressed, burst to silver light,But when I had reached that aureoled spotThere was only another in further stride.
This bringing all vision down to earth is best exemplified in a late poem such as “Last Meeting.” It is another hill-country recollection; the poet, now by all accounts elderly, recalls being back home once and meeting an elderly woman who had known him as a boy. Now she too is dead. “All’s changed. The faces on the street/ Are changed. I’m rarely back. But once/ I tried to find her grave.” He failed, he explains, but promises that he will yet succeed. Still, “It’s nigh half a lifetime I haven’t managed,/ But there must be enough time left for that.” People’s failures are little things, he seems to be saying toward the end of his creative life, and because Warren has done such an incredible job of exploring them in every other permutation throughout his long career, the reader should pay heed to the conclusions he reaches. People’s failures, no matter how great, are little things; it is the burden of remorse they carry for them that is great.
Like Thomas Hart Benton, who painted the great vistas of Western deserts in his later years, Warren turns to the overlooked and the insignificant to find beauty as well as significance that he may have missed. In “Arizona Midnight,” “dimly I do see/ Against that darkness, lifting in blunt agony,/ The single great cactus.” He strains to see the cactus; “it has/ its own necessary beauty.” One must see through the apparent agony into the heart of the thing and seek out the beauty there, rather than pausing too long to reflect only on the tragic surface—which one can see only dimly, in any event.
Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé
It is no wonder, then, that one of Warren’s last completed volumes was Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé. Here he returns to the tragic record that is the past, to betrayal and injustice and the bitter agony of exile despite one’s having “done the right thing.” However, this time, in Joseph’s enduring the arrogance of office and the proud man’s contumely, Warren finds an emblem of triumph despite apparent defeat. Now he can see history not as irony, filled with the tragic remorse that looking back can bring, but as process and “sometimes, under/ The scrutinizing prism of Time,/ Triumphant.” It seems to be the declaration of a total peace, and one cannot help but hear, as Warren surely must have hoped one would, echoing behind those words Chief Joseph’s own: “I will fight no more forever.”
A victory that is won against no odds is a sham. A victory that is won against life’s own bitter truths is poetry. It certainly is Warren’s.