Robert Penn Warren 1905-1989
American poet, novelist, critic, biographer, dramatist, essayist, and short story writer.
A versatile writer, distinguished as a novelist and a critic, Warren is regarded as one of the finest American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. His most well-known work remains his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men (1946). Warren is also remembered as a seminal figure in the development of the influential critical theory known as New Criticism, a system of literary analysis that focuses sharply on the intrinsic qualities of a work, rather than on outside influences and contexts. Nonetheless, Warren viewed himself foremost as a poet, and his contributions to the American poetic tradition are considerable. For his numerous collections of verse and long narrative poems, which treat such predominant themes as man's guilt, the presence of evil and moral corruption, the necessity of self-definition and discovery, and the possibilities of human redemption, Warren earned abundant awards and honors, including two additional Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. In 1986 Warren was named the first official poet laureate of the United States.
Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky. After completing high school, he was granted an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but shortly thereafter suffered an eye injury that left him unable to enter the military. He chose instead to attend Vanderbilt University and began his studies in engineering before switching to English literature within a few weeks. Under the tutelage of John Crowe Ransom, his freshman English instructor, Warren joined the “Fugitives,” a union of teachers and students at Vanderbilt whose meetings consisted of lively discussions of poetry and critical theory and whose writings were published in a periodical of the same name. Ransom and fellow Vanderbilt student Allen Tate encouraged Warren in his first poetic efforts; the literary tastes of both poets proved Warren's strongest early influences. After graduation in 1925 and the fragmentation of the “Fugitive” group, Warren continued his studies at the University of California, Berkeley. There he met Emma Brescia, who would later become his first wife. Disappointed with his studies in California, Warren transferred to Yale University and later attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. His first published work of literature, aside from a handful of short poems and essays which had appeared earlier in periodicals, was a biography, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, published in 1929. After finishing his studies at Oxford in 1930, Warren returned to America, married Brescia, and began teaching at Southwestern Presbyterian College and Vanderbilt. In 1934, he took a position at Louisiana State University and joined forces with professor Cleanth Brooks in founding the Southern Review. Together with Brooks, Warren also edited the influential Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students (1938), a key text of New Criticism. Meanwhile, Warren's continued poetic efforts materialized in the 1935 publication of Thirty-Six Poems, his first collection. By 1944, Warren, now a professor at the University of Minnesota, had completed Selected Poems: 1923-1943, and two novels: Night Rider (1939) and At Heaven's Gate (1943). During the subsequent decade, Warren experienced a total drought in poetic composition. Unable to complete anything in verse, he focused his energies on prose, notably in his most celebrated novel All the King's Men and his critical essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner entitled “A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading,” later collected in his Selected Essays (1958). In 1950, Warren settled in New England after accepting a professorship at Yale. He divorced Brescia in 1951, married the writer Eleanor Clark the following year, and began writing verse again. The result was his long narrative poem Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (1953). From this point onward, Warren's poetic output was vigorous and steady. His next volume Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (1957) earned him a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. For Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 (1978) he was awarded a second Pulitzer for poetry. By the early 1980s, having published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, as well as novels, essays, criticism, and other works, Warren was widely regarded as one of American's preeminent men of letters. In the autumn of 1989, Warren died of bone cancer in Stratton, Vermont.
The earliest phase of Warren's poetic career reflects the impact of the “Fugitive” poets John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, and their own interests and influences. The imagery of “The Garden” is reminiscent of that found in the works of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, while the detached tone of Warren's “To a Face in a Crowd” owes much to T. S. Eliot's modernist masterpiece The Waste Land. Warren's early mode of poetic composition was designated by its formality, and by his use of highly compressed narrative and extensive symbolism, evident in the collection Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942). Eleven Poems features a subject Warren would approach in various ways throughout his career: the tragic consequences and guilt cause by Original Sin, demonstrated in such pieces as “Bearded Oaks,” “Crime,” “Pursuit,” and “Terror.” The theme is interpreted further in the dramatic poem “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” which first appeared in Selected Poems: 1923-1943. A figure of folk legend, Potts hails from a family of Kentucky scoundrels and highway robbers. One day, he leaves home to make his way west, but when he returns ten years later as a wealthy man, his parents murder him before realizing his identity. In “The Ballad of Billie Potts” and the remainder of Selected Poems: 1923-1943, Warren confronts a number of fundamental themes: man's alienation, psychological fragmentation, and the possibility of salvation. The subject of the blank verse narrative Brother to Dragons is a historical one. It depicts the appalling murder of a slave by Lilburn Lewis, nephew of Thomas Jefferson, for breaking a pitcher once treasured by Lewis's dead mother. Warren takes significant liberties with history in order to tell his story. A major figure in Brother to Dragons is the author himself. Bearing Warren's initials, R. P. W. speaks with the historical characters in the work, including a disagreeable Jefferson, who Warren casts as the ideological villain of the piece. With the completion of Brother to Dragons, Warren's poetry begins to take on a more personal note and combines a heightened expressiveness accompanied by his still-abiding interest in history. Inspiration for the lyric verse of Promises: Poems 1954-1956 rests primarily on Warren's experience as a father. Dedicated to his daughter, the poetic sequence “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress” contrasts youthful innocence with the evils of the world. Several of the pieces in You, Emperors, and Others: Poems 1957-1960 (1960) are addressed directly to the reader, while others examine life from the perspective of an ordinary citizen of the Roman Empire. All but one of the Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (1966) are arranged in sequences, a format that Warren made use of extensively in his later writings. One of these poetic cycles, “Homage to Emerson, On Night Flight to New York,” contrasts Emerson's transcendentalist belief in man's divine nature with images of humanity's failures and weaknesses. Scattered with irony and melancholy, the verses of Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968 (1968) meditate on the beauties of the natural world as well as the limitations of the flesh. The collection contains the poem “Masts at Dawn,” which ends with the lines, “We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God”—a summation of one of the most significant themes of Warren's middle career. The narrative source of Audubon: A Vision (1969) derives from the attempted murder of the renowned naturalist John James Audubon, although the work's thematic strains turn to Audubon's delight in the freedom and grace of the birds he painted and admired. Themes of time and knowledge predominate in the collection Or Else: Poem / Poems 1968-1974 (1974). The volume includes the poem “A Problem in Spatial Composition,” which features one of Warren's frequently revisited images, that of a hawk diving into an Edenic sunset. The ten new pieces in Selected Poems: 1923-1975 (1976) Warren entitled “Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand?—Poems 1975.” Such works as “A Way to Love God” and “Loss, of Perhaps Love, in Our World of Contingency” contemplate the possibilities of transcendence amid earthly suffering. A dialectic between nostalgia and speculation informs the verses of Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 (1978). In “Red-Tail Hawk and Funeral Pyre” of this collection, Warren transports himself to his boyhood shooting of a hawk, a violating act emblematic of human guilt and moral corruption. In the poem's ten sections, Warren then begins to explore in earnest a number of the work's primary themes: individual responsibility, self-definition, and self-revelation. Time and memory are central to Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980 (1980), which also reflects on the possibilities of overcoming solitude and isolation, while mortality is the chief subject of Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980 (1981). Turning once again to American history, Warren based his 1983 narrative poem Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce on the Native American leader's resistance to U. S. government efforts to relocate his tribe, and details atrocities perpetrated during the War of 1877. Warren grouped the latest works of his New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985 (1985) under the title “Altitudes and Extensions,” pieces that reflect on the expanses and heights of North America while frequently transporting the reader to Warren's own youth. The volume begins with the poem “Three Darknesses,” in which the narrator learns that, despite the postlapsarian failure of human communication, the world and God speak a language that those willing to listen may understand.
Critics of Warren have frequently commented on his extraordinarily varied contribution to American literature, while noting his strong reliance on a number of poetic themes centered around the Fall from innocence, and its consequent guilt and alienation. Others have analyzed Warren's development as a poet, seeing his growth from the dense formalism of his early works, to the historicism of his ambitious near-epic Brother to Dragons, and finally to the growing personal, conversational tone of his later works. In terms of his poetic composition and versification, James Wright has observed Warren's “violent distortions” of language. Still other reviewers have discussed Warren's broad range of verbal communication, seeing in Warren's verse a powerful fusion of the lyrical and the personal, the irreverent and the sacred. Reviewers have also remarked on Warren's poetic experimentalism, which joins irregular meters and rhythms with highly controlled structural patterns. Frequently, commentators have regarded the unevenness of Warren's poetic diction, citing overblown passages and occasionally awkward words or phrases likely caused by rapid composition or a desire for the grandiose. Respondents to this mode of criticism, however, have attributed Warren's lapses to his exceptional willingness to take risks as a poet, citing the importance of such transitional works as Incarnations and Audubon, which depict his renewed vigor and courage in verse, as well as the modulation of his voice nearer to poetic greatness. In the late 1970s, critic Harold Bloom led the effort to canonize Warren as one of the great poets of the twentieth-century tradition, contending that Warren “ranks with the foremost American poets of the century,” including Robert Frost, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Bloom has also analyzed Warren's frequently recapitulated image of the hawk, viewing it as an emblem of redemption central to his poetic œuvre, and has commented on the strong thread of moralism that defines Warren's poetry and writing in general. Critics have since observed that Warren produced some of his most original and visionary poetry late in life, exemplified by the lyrics of Now and Then, which are numbered among his finest works. After Warren's death, however, his poetic reputation has experienced a small, but noticeable, decline. The publication of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren in 1998 proved a boon for scholarly study, but some reviewers have argued that his relevance to contemporary poetry has steadily waned. Nevertheless, Warren stands as one of the major figures of twentieth-century American poetry, whose works, James Dickey has written, “invest us with the greatest and most exacting of all human powers: that of discovering and defining what we must be, within the thing that we are.”