Robert Penn Warren

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Cleanth Brooks (essay date 1939)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3076

SOURCE: Brooks, Cleanth. “The Modern Poet and the Tradition.” In Modern Poetry and the Tradition, 77-87. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939, 253p.

[In the following excerpt, Brooks praises Warren's skilled manipulation of irony, contrast, and theme in his poetry.]

In Robert Penn Warren's sequence of poems, “Kentucky Mountain Farm,” the reader might expect to find an exploitation of Southern rural life, and there is enough accurate description to validate the poet's localizing of his scene. Consider for instance, the third poem of the sequence, “History among the Rocks.” The poet recounts the various ways of dying in the country of the rocks—freezing, drowning, the bite of the copperhead in the wheat:

By flat limestone, will coil the copperhead,
Fanged as the sunlight, hearing the reaper's feet.

But the items of local color are absorbed in the poem as adjuncts of the larger theme. These ways of dying are all “natural,” and the poet, by making them seem to inhere in the landscape, makes them seem easy, effortless, appropriate. “But,” the poet goes on to say,

                                                  there are other ways, the lean men said:
In these autumn orchards once young men lay dead …
Grey coats, blue coats. Young men on the mountainside
Clambered, fought. Heels muddied the rocky spring.
Their reason is hard to guess, remembering
Blood on their black mustaches in moonlight.

This sort of death—death sought for—cuts in sharply and puzzlingly across the other kinds of death. The poet does not, however, allow his poem to fall into an easy resolution with a comment on the meaninglessness of war in general. The young men's death is “unnatural” but that quality allows of more than one interpretation: it may signify that all war is meaningless, but it may also suggest that their choice was not an easy one and therefore meaningful and heroic for them. The poet himself abjures explicit commentary:

Their reason is hard to guess and a long time past:
The apple falls, falling in the quiet night.

The last figure not only recapitulates the earlier examples of “natural” death, it comes with an ambiguity to accentuate the ironic contrast. Man is not merely natural; his capacity for defying nature is the typically human trait. But the poet does not elaborate on the young men's act, or try to justify it explicitly. Their reason is “hard to guess,” and it happened a long time ago. The poet is willing to let the matter rest in calling attention to the contrast of the apple's effortless fall.

The poem is typical of the general structure of Warren's poems, a structure which may be described as follows: There is a rich and detailed examination of the particular experience with the conclusion, which may be drawn from the experience, coming as a quietly ironical statement or as modest and guarded understatement. It is as though the poet felt that only the minimum of commentary was allowable if he was not to do violence to the integrity of the experience. This general method is frequently used in order to state a theme closely related to that of the poem just discussed: the relation of the rational to the irrational, of the experience as experience to the interpretation or commentary on the experience.

This is the theme, for example, of “Aged Man Surveys the Past Time.” The old man weeps, and perhaps

Grief's smarting condiment may satisfy
His heart to lard the wry and blasphemous theme.

The blasphemous theme is that regret is linked to the stuff of experience—whatever the commentary on experience and whatever the true account of experience may be.

Truth, not truth. The heart, how regular
And sure! How ambidextrous is regret!
Time has no mathematic.

Man's regret is a handle which will fit either tool—either a knowable universe or an unknowable.

By fruitful grove, unfruited now by winter,
The well-adapted and secular catbird
Whimpers its enmity and invitation.
Light fails beyond the barn and blasted oak.

Man is not “secular.” He is cut off from nature, and consequently can take the bird's call as “enmity” or “invitation,” for it is both and neither. Nature is indifferent and goes on with its regular processes. Evening is falling; spring has come, and “godless summer” will follow.

So much for the theme. But the poem “works” in somewhat more intricate fashion. The inflections of tone are managed largely by the rhythm and imagery. For example, the man's grief springs from the fact that he is not “well-adapted,” not “natural” like the bird. But his sorrow—the imagery suggests ironically—is thoroughly “natural”:

And aged eyes, like twilit rain, their effort
Spill gentlier than herb-issue on a hill.

The bird “whimpers” in company with the weeping man; but the “whimper,” one realizes in a moment, is only ironically appropriate to the scene. The bird is not “weeping” with the man, or indeed weeping at all. The word “whimper” merely describes accurately the bird's song.

Ironical shifts of tone are used far more violently in “The Return: an Elegy.” The poem has for its subject the experience of the son returning home at the death of his mother, and in the poem occur elements of memory and of grief, scenes from the landscape flashing through the train window on the homeward journey, memories of childhood, and the various associations—both serious and frivolous—that death and dying have. The discordant elements appear as the casual, irrelevant, and even bawdy associations which flicker through the consciousness when the mind is held in the grip of a deep grief. For example, after such a passage as

The wheels hum hum
The wheels: I come I come
Whirl out of space through time O wheels
Pursue down backward time the ghostly parallels
Pursue past culvert cut fill embankment semaphore
Pursue down gleaming hours that are no more.
The pines, black, snore


turn backward turn backward o time in your flight
and make me a child again just for tonight
good lord he's wet the bed come bring a light
What grief hath the heart distilled?
The heart is unfulfilled
The hoarse pine stilled

The shock of these discordant associations could be justified on the basis of honesty. But one need not rest the case for them with this. Their general function is to accommodate the poem to reality, toughening it against the sentimental. They guarantee the intensity of the positive passages, and particularly, the climax of the poem. The poem ends as follows:

If I could pluck
Out of the dark that whirled
Over the hoarse pine over the rock
Out of the mist that furled
Could I stretch forth like God the hand and gather
For you my mother
If I could pluck
Against the dry essential of tomorrow
To lay upon the breast that gave me suck
Out of the dark the dark and swollen orchid of this sorrow.

The last image, when we reach it, is so heavily charged with the tension that it comes with sharp impact. But in another context the image might easily become soft and spurious. The poem, written in terms of conventional exclusions, would have had to forego intensity in order to avoid sentimentality.

The use of contrasts may be less violent, however, as in the fine “Bearded Oaks,” where the surface of the poem is smooth, and even suave, though the internal structure is a pattern of contrasts and resolutions. The poem has for its subject the contemplation of a moment which, in its ideality, seems to lie out of time altogether and to partake of the nature of eternity. The quality of the experience is built up carefully; the atmosphere is one of almost preternatural relaxation and quiet. But the smoothness of the poem is not devised merely to harmonize with the quiet and perfection of the hour under the oaks. The unity which it represents is achieved by the resolution of complexities, and thus the structure of the poem reflects what the poem is saying:

And violence, forgot now, lent
The present stillness all its power.

In like manner, the tone of effortless intuition—direct and unclouded illumination—is played off against the rather intricate logical relations which it overlays. The effect is much like that which Marvell achieves in many of his poems.

The sharpness of the imagery and its ordination parallel Marvell again. The poet begins by comparing the scene under the oaks to the bed of the sea. And with the second stanza, far from abandoning the image, the poet continues to develop it:

The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air …

The qualities of the experience receive their development in terms of this dominant image. The lovers in their untroubled stillness at the bottom of the sea of time rest, as if made of coral. And, like coral, ages have gone into their making. Now they lie far below the storms of the troubled surface, and

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay
Descended, whispered grain by grain,
Silted down swaying streams, to lay
Foundation for our voicelessness.
All our debate is voiceless here,
As all our rage is rage of stone;

The resolution of the experience and the exit from it is made in terms—not so much of irony as—of understatement.

So little time we live in Time,
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour's term
To practice for Eternity.

The experience is rare and precious, but the emphasis on that fact is made obliquely. The poet does not exult in the sense of revelation which the hour has given, or proclaim that the meaning of life has been revealed to him in the experience. Rather, he makes what amounts to a covert apology for his indulgence in the experience. The hour may be “spared”; and the reason given adds a new development to the thought. The hour seems out of time and like eternity, but since life “in Time” is short, the lovers may well use it “to practice for Eternity.” The development here is especially rich. If the hour under the oaks is associated with “Eternity,” that eternity is also associated with death. If death—in its resemblance to the passive quiet of the hour—is made more acceptable, the process also works the other way; the hour is qualified by being associated with death. The effect is to make the tone of the last stanza seem modest and restrained. The poet has not in his experience of the hour lost his hold on reality.

The “Letter from a Coward to a Hero” will illustrate another delicate handling of tone. The poem begins frankly enough as a letter. The hero's day (any man's day) with its confusion and disappointment, is suggested; and the poet, after reviewing it, says,

I think you deserved better;
Therefore I am writing you this letter.

The letter is personal, and deals with the springs of the hero's courage. The broken shards of the hero's day recall the confused, “plural” experience of childhood:

The scenes of childhood were splendid,
And the light that there attended,
But is rescinded:
The cedar,
The lichened rocks,
The thicket where I saw the fox,
And where I swam, the river.

The plurality of the child's world does not require “heroism.” But the plurality of the world in which the “coward” lives is not attended by a splendid light, nor is it a succession of fairy-tale wonders.

Guns blaze in autumn and
The quail falls and
Empires collide with a bang
That shakes the pictures where they hang …
But a good pointer holds the point
And is not gun-shy;
But I
Am gun-shy.

The violence, the abrupt transitions, are functional. They indicate the reasons for gun-shyness—“the sudden backfire,” which causes the coward to break his point. But the image of the pointer, one notices, is being used to qualify and define the coward's attitude toward the hero. The virtues of the pointer are solid virtues—but they are hardly the virtues of the imagination. The coward cannot propose to claim them, though he admires the good pointer.

The poem does not veer off into a mockery of the hero, however. The poet is sincere in his admiration and even tender.

You have been strong in love and hate. …
Rarely, you've been unmanned;
I have not seen your courage put to pawn.

But disaster won't play according to the rules. There comes another image from the boyhood scene which opens the poem. Even if disaster is outstripped in the race,

… he will cut across the back lot
To lurk and lie in wait.

And then another image, also from the boyhood scene, which goes further to define the poet's attitude:

Admired of children, gathered for their games,
Disaster, like the dandelion, blooms,
And the delicate film is fanned
To seed the shaven lawn.

The ironic shock resides primarily in the comparison of disaster to the familiar, commonplace flower. But the irony goes on to inform the deeper relations: the figure implies that the hero, like a child, is playing with disaster; the quality of disaster, it is suggested, is its ability to propagate itself innocently in the most “shaven lawn.” The coward is really standing in the role of Tiresias; but the tone of the utterance is that of a boyhood friend; and the example is one drawn from a childish game.

The last section of the poem states indirectly the reasons for the speaker's “cowardice,” and, by implication, his criticism of the hero's “heroism.” The criticism takes the form of a question:

At the blind hour of unaimed grief,
Of addition and subtraction,
Of compromise,
Of the smoky lecher, the thief,
Of regretted action,
At the hour to close the eyes,
At the hour when lights go out in the houses …
Then wind rouses
The kildees from their sodden ground:
Their commentary is part of the wind's sound.
What is that other sound,
Surf or distant cannonade?

But the hero at such hours is apparently not troubled by intimations of fear. He is beset by no such questions. And the speaker can finally resolve his mixture of admiration and criticism only by a piece of whimsy.

No doubt, when corridors are dumb
And the bed is made,
It is your custom to recline,
Clutching between the forefinger and thumb
Honor, for death shy valentine.

The note of real admiration is guaranteed by the tone of the banter. The admiration is genuine. But one observes that the whimsical compliment, though compliment, at the same time reduces the hero to a small boy, and, ironically, a shy young boy.

A number of Warren's poems, we have said, concern themselves with explorations of the problem of knowledge: What is the relation of actor to the act—of the thing done to the interpretations which are placed upon it, the “meanings” that it bears. His most ambitious treatment of this occurs in the brilliant “History.” Here the theme is dramatized by the poet's making the speaker of the poem a member of some band of invaders on the point of descending upon the land which they are to conquer. The imagery of the poem suggests that the invaders are the Israelites preparing to take the Promised Land, but they are any invaders, or more largely still, any men entering upon any decisive act.

The speaker recalls the hardships, the dangers, the hunger now past. He sees before him

The delicate landscape unfurled:
A world
Of ripeness blent, and green:
The fruited earth,
Fire on the good hearth,
The fireside scene.

This is the land which they are to seize and possess. But the speaker goes on to survey the future:

In the new land
Our seed shall prosper, and
In those unsifted times
Our sons shall cultivate
Peculiar crimes,
Having not love, nor hate,
Nor memory.

But some, in that distant future, world-weary and “defective of desire,” will ponder on what their ancestors have done, will strive, vainly, to assess the motives of their ancestors' action, and will

In dim pools peer
To see, of some grandsire,
The long and toothéd jawbone greening there.

The situation is peculiarly the modern situation: we are obsessed with a consciousness of the past which drives us back upon history in a search for meanings. The absolutes are gone—are dissolved, indeed, by our consciousness of the past—by our consciousness of a plurality of histories and meanings. For us, the moderns, as for the descendants of the invaders of the poem, time is

… the aimless bitch
—Purblind, field-worn,
Slack dugs by the dry thorn torn—
Forever quartering the ground in which
The blank and fanged
Rough certainty lies hid.

The fall of night stirs him out of his reverie. It is time for the attack. And why are they to attack? He tries to frame an answer, and by the very act of searching for an answer, indicates what he is to say in the lines that follow:

We seek what end?
The slow dynastic ease,
Travail's cease?
Not pleasure, sure:
Alloy of fact?
The act
Alone is pure.

The act is the only absolute, the irreducible item which begets the explanations rather than that which is explained by them.

The poem levels out to an end with another glance at the time of the future:

We shall essay
The rugged ritual, but not of anger.
Let us go down before
Our thews are latched in the myth's languor,
Our hearts with fable grey.

The poem, for all its use of the Israelites, is a modern poem. Its focus lies in the “unsifted times” where men have “not love, nor hate, / Nor memory.” Its integrity rests in the fact that it does not flinch from the modern problem. The Israelites do not become merely decorative figures. All men are Jews—wanderers, rootless, seeking a promised land. America, in especial, is the latest promised land, and the Israelites constitute an especially apt symbol for ourselves.

The poem, thus, deals with the poet's own environment, with America, and, indeed, with the South. The problem raised in terms of the Israelites is a variation of that raised by the young men whose heels “muddied the rocky spring.” In the poem, the items of past and present are unified by an act of the imagination which, if it transcends the region, remains rooted in it and derives its vitality from it.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2035

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

E. S. Forgotson (essay date 1941)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5398

SOURCE: Forgotson, E. S. “The Poetic Method of Robert Penn Warren.” American Prefaces VI (Winter 1941): 130-46.

[In the following essay, Forgotson evaluates Warren's poetic technique, concentrating on the poet's use of symbolism and compression in an extended explication of “Eidolon,” and in partial analyses of “Aubade for Hope” and “The Garden.”]

The body of poetry to be examined in this essay is “modern,” yet its modernity may be viewed, I think, as being more of the second generation than of the first. Though the early part of Warren's career was marked by some precocity—he assisted in editing The Fugitive while he was still an undergraduate at Vanderbilt in 1923—most of the poems appearing in his single published volume (Thirty-Six Poems, 1935) were probably written after 1925; that is to say, in the period from his twentieth to his thirtieth year. Thus, at the time when he was attempting to define his own style and technique, he had the advantage of a reference, not only to any traditional poets for whom he may have felt peculiar sympathy, but also to the experimental poetry of the immediate past, toward which he undoubtedly felt great sympathy: Eliot, Yeats, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Pound, and in particular his associates of the Fugitive group, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Merrill Moore. To name these poets as the general foundation of Warren's modernity is not, of course, to trace in specific fashion the lines of his influences, but it may serve to make clear what is meant by the statement that Warren is, in relation to the course of development of modern poetry “more of the second generation than of the first.”

Warren is categorically and descriptively a modern poet, writing in what is already a recognizable, if variegated, tradition, but we cannot assume that modern poetry is automatically successful merely because it has the typical characteristics of modern poetry. Hence we will do well to form some idea of the exact structure of Warren's poetry. Although one can hardly “prove” that a poem is good in such a way that only the hopelessly recalcitrant or the idiotic will fail to agree, one can at least make clear precisely how a poem which he finds good is constructed, precisely how it operates to produce its effect, and whether it does produce a distinct and nicely calculated effect. After the poem's successfulness has been determined—after we have inquired, that is, whether it accomplishes unerringly and well what it seems to set out to accomplish—we may ask our fellow readers to bestow their affection and admiration upon it; and some may then do so who would not before.

In “The Return: An Elegy,” the first poem of Thirty-Six Poems, and also I believe one of the earliest of the lot chronologically, the speaker is a man who is returning by train from the death and funeral of his mother. No such direct, and in this instance dramatically inappropriate statement is made, but the situation is clear. The poem is spoken at several levels: sometimes, and mainly, the words are cast into a very full-voiced and formal kind of utterance, though sometimes they represent persistent, only half-articulate themes—the death itself, the speaker's underlying guilt:

the old fox is dead
what have I said

And perhaps several other levels of composition might be distinguishable. I cite and describe this poem in order to take out a short passage which may provide us with a basis for epitomizing in concrete form what were the most general directions of Warren's poetry from the beginning:

By dawn, the wind, the blown rain
Will cease their antique concitation.
It is the hour when old ladies cough and wake,
The chair, the table, take their form again
Earth begins the matinal exhalation …

Several observations may be made about these lines. First, it will be noticed that they are powerful and regular in their movement: the poet seems to be attempting serious, major poetry, and there is no sign of a disposition to shirk the responsibilities of eloquence. The “voice” of the poem is full and strong. And the lines have a fairly elaborate rhyme scheme (more elaborate than appears without the lines immediately following). Further, there is an attempt here to incorporate, without impairment of the seriousness of the total meaning and effect, certain images and perceptions which serious poetry—according to conventional theory at least—is not supposed to embody; is not supposed to embody in this particular verbal form, at any rate. We need not say that all poetry, past, future, or even present, must be adjudged the worse for not having lines like this one. But to absorb successfully the materials of this line into a total effect which is quite as seriously meant as the “unflawed” sort is still a considerable feat of poetic synthesis.

Throughout Warren's poetry we shall reencounter in varied specific manifestations the broad characteristics noted in the foregoing example. He is never afraid to exploit his elementary technical means to the fullest—he manipulates metrics, rhymes, and interior sound effects with a control and success which suggest a wide and appreciative study of the good poets of the past. His general refusal to write under less than a full head of steam, so to speak, his evident determination to write a full-sized poetry, also springs, I think, from a conscious basing upon the traditional techniques of English literature, or such of them as he finds himself able to accept. On the other hand, he has clearly had, from the beginning, the attitude that there is nothing shameful about the literary reformations of his own time; that on the contrary it is incumbent upon the poet to make an active effort to winnow the wheat from the chaff, to seek out the contemporary movements which seem to him to have a degree of integrity and fertility, and to ally himself unapologetically with the one toward which, for a variety of reasons, he may feel most sympathetic.

Having set up these preliminary observations, we may now find it profitable to undertake the detailed analysis of an entire poem, for the purpose of gaining further insights into Warren's method of composition. If the analysis is to be comprehensible, I am afraid it is necessary to reproduce the poem whole:


All night, in May, dogs barked in the hollow woods;
Hoarse, from secret huddles of no light,
By moonlit bole, hoarse, the dogs gave tongue.
In May, by moon, no moon, thus: I remember
Of their far clamor the throaty, infatuate timbre.
The boy, all night, lay in the black room,
Tick-straw, all night, harsh to the bare side.
Staring, he heard; the clotted dark swam slow.
Far off, by wind, no wind, unappeasable riot
Provoked, resurgent, the bosom's nocturnal disquiet.
What hungers kept the house? under the rooftree
The boy; the man, clod-heavy, hard hand uncurled;
The old man, eyes wide, spittle on his beard.
In dark was crushed the may-apple: plunging, the rangers
Of dark remotelier belled their unhouselled angers.
Dogs quartered the black woods: blood black on
May-apple at dawn, old beech-husk. And trails are lost
By rock, in ferns lost, by pools unlit.
I heard the hunt. Who saw, in darkness, how fled
The white eidolon from fanged commotion rude?

The special rhythms and sound effects in this poem are not meant merely as a kind of extra added attraction; they are functionally related to the meaning of the poem. The concrete dramatic framework of the poem is as follows: a grown man is recollecting how, in his boyhood, he lay awake on May nights and heard the hounds hunting through the surrounding woods. To some extent, then, the irregular pulsations of rhythm which occur throughout the poem are intended to echo the irregularly recurrent belling and violent activity of the hounds; an obvious instance is the repetition of the word “hoarse” in the third line of the opening stanza. The rhyme scheme of the poem seems to operate toward something of the same effect: the pattern in each stanza, it will be noted, is three un-rhymed lines concluded by a couplet which in three out of four instances has an off rhyme. (The fourth instance is at least an off rhyme for the eye). But the analysis so far has given no indication that the poem has any other subject or meaning than what is communicated at the literal level of its concrete apparatus. Is this a poem about hunting dogs, intended primarily to present a “vivid picture” of them and suitable, perhaps, to be printed beneath the reproduction of some well-known oil painting in a sporting goods magazine? The reply to this question must be a negative one. For the dogs here (and hence also the metrical and rhythmical devices which help to dramatize them) have a much deeper significance. Indeed, a modest but indisputable hint that the reader is expected to look further than the concrete and the narrative has been given in the beginning by the title: why is the poem called “Eidolon”? Let us try to see just what the clues to the real meaning of the poem are, as they appear from first to last, and just how and in what context they are communicated—when this has been done, a reasonably full definition of the poem's total meaning will doubtless emerge, in terms of its structure.

The first stanza deals with the major symbol, the dogs, which are described as they now appear in the speaker's memory. But the dogs are symbolic, not allegorical, and they are therefore given an abundance of attention in their own right, merely as objective creatures. So treated, they will end by making a better symbol, the poet seems to feel—although they will also be less susceptible to the yoke of a neat illustrative equation. The dogs were heard barking in the woods on May nights, on moonlight nights and on nights when the moon was overcast, now from one part of the woods, now from another. And the speaker remembers, as a kind of focal epitome of the hunt, the exact quality, the “throaty, infatuate timbre,” of the hounds' belling. The terms here, although on the surface they do not go beyond simple objective description, already hold implications of what is to be the poem's final meaning.

The second stanza carries us, if we read closely, much further toward a statement of the poem's underlying subject. It begins like the first stanza with a concrete dramatic image, this time of the boy (the recollecting “I”) who lies awake in the darkness of his room and listens to the far-off sound of the dogs. Like the dogs, the boy is a real creature having the full status of his normal objectivity; he represents and has more than literal significance, but he is not pared down to fit that significance, he is a dramatic rather than an allegorical or illustrative figure. The second line, for instance, apparently means that the boy is sleeping naked because it is a warm night in late spring; the tick-straw of the country bedding is therefore “harsh to the bare side.” This detail, though attached to a being through which part of the poem's general meaning is expressed, stands in no direct equative relationship to the meaning. Yet this does not make it a superfluity and a waste. Its presence indicates Warren's attitude as a poet toward the materials of the concrete world, an attitude which makes his poetry credible and exciting simply as an account of objectivity, and which gives his symbols their richness and power.—The boy, then, staring into the darkness, hears the dogs, and their “riot” seems to him “unappeasable,” incapable of receiving a permanent satisfaction. It provokes in him a “disquiet.” Both these words, “riot” and “disquiet,” signify in one sense a breaking of the silence by sound (the former derives from the Latin rugire, to roar, and the latter means of course the contrary of quiet). “Riot” in this context does involve an actual noise, the barking of the dogs, but “disquiet” implies noise only metaphorically, since it has a purely psychological reference. The primary sense of the word “disquiet” is, I think, intended, for the poet wishes to suggest that the “riot” of the dogs and the “disquiet” of the boy's mind are equatable. Both words have, too, their more general secondary sense of “any disturbance of a disordered kind,” a sense which is here the real literal sense of “disquiet” and which is an additional sense of “riot.” The words, then, are the same basic general conception in two different specific applications. Moreover, another word, “resurgent,” works to reinforce the poet's meaning. Its syntactical situation is such that it may be taken as a present participle modifying either of the two words I have just analyzed. As it is placed, “resurgent” may mean either that the noise of the “riot” keeps recurring, or it may mean that the “bosom's nocturnal disquiet” keeps recurring—and hence it can very nicely be taken to mean both.

One can put the whole thing more clearly and briefly, if less exactly and thoroughly, by saying that the poet in these lines wants his reader to identify the noisy, unceasing, tumultuous and fierce ranging of the pack through the dark woods with the disturbance which its tell-tale sound arouses in the listening boy. The opening words of the second stanza sustain and elaborate this point. “What hungers kept the house?” means “What human appetites have sway at this moment over those who lie sleeping in this house?” And the question is a serious one, for in place of an explicit answer the next words and lines give us only a list of the sleeping persons together with a few terse adjectives which describe their physical appearance and their present posture. These adjectives, though they do not answer the posed question, are not without pertinence. The man (presumably the father) is “clod-heavy,” which suggests not only that he is a heavy and solid man but also that he is sleeping heavily after a day's hard work, that he is lying with no more animation or movement than a clod. In sleep his “hard hand” is “uncurled,” that is, his defenses are relaxed, and, also, he has relaxed his efforts toward the fulfillment of his purposes, whatever they may be; he has, so to speak, relaxed his hold on life. The man, then, is one who has striven hard and bitterly, under the pressure of his needs and desires (which need not mean that he is any more or less than a farmer), and who now, momentarily, has ceased his striving in sleep. But the precise definition of those needs and desires is withheld. The third person in the house is the old man, possibly the grandfather, who lies with “eyes wide,” which means first of all that he is wakeful after the manner of old people, but which carries with it also the suggestion that he is entertaining reflections of some kind as he lies unable to sleep. And, in view of the context, we may permit ourselves the assumption that the subject of the old man's wakeful meditations is, in some terms and focussed around any of numerous possible specific references, his own purposes and desires, as they have operated in his life during the past and as they have finally brought about the totality of his present situation. But again we are not given an overt statement of the nature of these motives. I think the technique of the poem here is being used to say that human motives (particularly human appetites, “the passions”) are, by virtue of their complexity and the disguises they are always assuming, surrounded by a certain “darkness” which, however rich and long our experience of them, bars the way in the end to exact, definitive knowledge. (Incidentally, a second look will disclose the fact that the boy, the man, and the old man represent the three main stages of the development of human appetites. In none of these cases will the poet undertake to answer the question he poses; the suggestion is, perhaps, also that the individual cannot even give a real answer with regard to himself, at any stage of life). We shall see that there is a meaningful relationship between “darkness” in this sense and the actual darkness of the house and of the woods outside; it is this relationship which explains the constant repetition throughout the poem of words meaning darkness. Thus, in the first stanza we have “night,” “secret huddles of no light”; in the second, within the first three lines, “night,” “black,” “night” again, and “dark.” And in the third stanza, after the lines which describe the occupants of the house, the poet makes a rapid dramatic shift from one scene to another which serves further to clarify his theme. The fourth and fifth lines of the stanza take us from the interior of the house back to the dogs in the woods outside, and the close juxtaposition of the two scenes is once more a means of conveying their significant identity. The “may-apple” which is crushed by the feet of the rushing dogs is to be taken merely as a detail of the literal physical scene, indicating the violence of the hunt, but the immediately following phrase, “the rangers of dark,” is again an ambiguity through which the poet seeks to enforce upon the symbolism of the dogs a human meaning. That is, “rangers of dark” are at once the dogs and the human appetitive compulsions, which may be said to range about within their own kind of darkness and in pursuit of their own kind of game. But it is not so much this local formulation as the coupling of the two scenes that here further defines and increases the content of the symbol and lends it increasing depth and power. The final line and a half of the stanza (“plunging, the rangers / Of dark remotelier belled their unhouselled angers”) says only that the noise of the hounds is heard moving farther away from the house, but the words, by their movement, sound, and the special quality of their choice and linkage, charge the image with a high pitch of dramatic excitement which reinforces its symbolic impact.

We may now turn to a paraphrase of the last stanza. At dawn, the boy, walking through the woods which the hounds have quartered during the night, would find traces of blood here and there on the ground. The blood is no doubt that of some animal—perhaps a rabbit—which the dogs have succeeded in running down and killing. But it is also true that for every such success, the dogs have lost the trail again and again in many ways all through the woods. And success on one occasion did not satisfy them or stop the hunt: theirs is an “unappeasable riot” which, like human “hungers,” will always recur even though temporarily fulfilled. They have “belled their unhouselled angers” through the woods, not halted either by the darkness or by any natural obstacles, until the trail was somehow lost, whereupon they scented out a new one. In the light of the foregoing discussion, it should be apparent that the poet is again speaking on two levels. The trails are immediately and concretely the devious paths followed by the dogs in pursuing their object, but they also have meaning with respect to the theme of the poem: they are the dark and devious trails taken—and repeatedly lost—by human desires in pursuit of the image of fulfillment. In the last two lines, the “I” of the first stanza reappears. “I heard the hunt” means on the literal level merely what it literally says, but it is also to be taken as metaphor: “I have had experience of the action of human appetites, although my knowledge remains partly only a knowledge of mystery” (this is the meaning of the distantness of the hunt, of the fact that it is experienced only through a single sense, and is something half guessed rather than thoroughly and finally understood). And the concluding question is related to the question asked in the third stanza. An eidolon is, in its dictionary definition, an image or a phantom; the word is the full transliteration of the Greek word from which the English ward “idol” is derived. The eidolon of the poem is first of all the object of the hunting pack (the “fanged commotion rude”: commotion meaning at once an uproar and, in its basic Latin sense, an organized moving together in a common purpose); it is also the image of fulfillment of human desire which flees like a phantom before the pursuer (the natural habitat of a phantom, we may note, is night-time, and it is in the general darkness which surrounds the operation of human desires that the phantom of fulfillment flees). The eidolon is white because whiteness is consonant with its nature as a phantom; it is white too because whiteness implies purity, the purity of the ideal. Its whiteness, which is set in special contrast with the “in darkness” of the line just preceding, is distinct against the color of the background in a literal physical sense (the lighter blur of the fleeing prey which the dogs may glimpse before them in the darkness), and it is distinct against its background as the image of ideal fulfillment sought by human desire may be said to stand out against the figurative darkness enveloping the individual's self-consciousness. The question, then, ends the poem on the note of a reiteration of the mystery which, according to this poet, surrounds the complex striving of human passions and appetites—the mystery being dramatically stated in terms of the symbolism of the poem.

If the foregoing analysis is a fairly accurate account of what an intensive reading of the poem may be expected to yield, it permits us to draw at least one conclusion: “Eidolon” is a very highly organized poem. Its unity, moreover, is not merely the unity which arises from a coherent logical content; it is a much more thorough-going unity, involving as we have seen a meaningful and specialized relationship between medium—rhythms, rhyme scheme, sounds—and theme, in which the former acts to reinforce and dramatize the latter. But not only does the poem contain little or nothing which does not work toward its total meaning and effect; it also communicates a great deal within a relatively small space. This economy is partly the result of the poet's elliptical fashion of statement. Thus the adjectives which are applied to the occupants of the house in the third stanza are made to suggest meanings beyond those of simple physical description. The transition without warning from one scene to another in the same stanza serves a similar purpose; it makes an identity which is important for the poem without explicit intermediary connection such as a regular prose account would give. A plain example, again, is present in the first two lines of the last stanza:

Dogs quartered the black woods: blood black on
May-apple at dawn, old beech-husk …

Here the ellipsis consists in the omission of so much normal connective tissue that it would be difficult to rearrange the words into a proper sentence. The poem offers many examples of economy of statement gained through special elliptical ways of using language—a fact to which the analysis already given should testify.

But the compression of the poem is also the result of Warren's approach to his subject-matter. We have seen that “Eidolon” derives its dramatic excitement from the intensive and serious exploitation of its symbolism. Without that symbolism, the poem might easily degenerate into something quite tame and abstract. But the symbolism is not only the main source of the poem's excitement, it is also the main source of its economy. For once the image of the hunt has been established as a symbol, the poet can communicate the human meaning of the poem almost exclusively in terms of the symbol, depending on the reader to follow the implicit correspondences through an energetic exercise of wit and imagination. And in this poem, as in many others, the words which actually do serve to betray the inner meaning of the symbol are reduced to a minimum, though to a rather exactly calculated minimum to be sure.

If the symbol is to be used as a means of achieving compression in this way, the symbol itself will probably receive a thorough exploration and will be notably sustained throughout the poem; then the poet can, by continual concise references to strategic aspects of the symbol, summon up for the reader meanings which in their ordinary prose formulation would require a much longer saying (again our analysis will bear witness). This is the case with a number of Warren's poems. “Eidolon” is one, and, for another example, we might take a poem called “Aubade for Hope.” As in “Eidolon” the poem begins by presenting an objective image in compressed narrative form:

Dawn: and foot on the cold stair treading or
Thump of wood on the unswept hearth-stone is
Comment on the margin of consciousness,
A dirty thumb-smear by the printed page.

The “gist” of the stanza is: early in the morning someone who is lying awake in bed hears the sound of footsteps on the stair or the thump of firewood on the hearth. These sounds, perhaps because they are very familiar, are heard on the “margin of consciousness,” as a reader sees a meaningless thumb-smear beside the clear and meaningful text on a page. But the second stanza at once contradicts this evaluation of the event:

Thumb-smear: nay other, for the blessed light
Acclaimed thus, as a ducal progress by
The scared cur, wakes them that wallowed in
The unaimed faceless appetite of dream.

The familiar sounds, though they may be insignificant in themselves, imply the arrival of daylight, which brings back the sleepers from the indiscriminate, chaotic, and painfully obscene indulgences of their dreams. Daylight restores order, clarity, and formality to the world:

.. … And now they stir, as east
Beyond the formal gleam of landscape sun
Has struck the senatorial hooded hill.
Light; the groaning stair; the match aflame;
The negro woman's hand, horned grey with cold,
That lit the wood; a child's eyes sullen
In the August street—I name some things that shall,
As voices speaking from a farther room,
Muffled, bespeak us yet for time and hope:
For Hope that like a blockhead grandam ever
Above the ash and spittle croaks and leans.

Thus, after a full account of the symbol as concrete experience, in the last lines of the poem we have a commentary—again reduced to a minimum—which explicitly fixes the meaning of the symbol. But we may feel that the poet is giving us an eccentric and incomprehensible image for hope, unless we realize in quick retrospection that the first four stanzas have already supplied important qualifications of the generalized meaning of the poem. The “blessed light” is like a “ducal progress,” i.e., its coming gives the world qualities of magnificence, ceremoniousness, and meaning for man. Obversely, night is the time when man wallows in “The unaimed faceless appetite of dream”—when clarity and dignity disappear in a chaos of blind and ignoble appetitive striving. But the cycle of alternate light and dark, we presently see, has a more general meaning; it symbolizes the inevitability of all human transitions from a state of personal dignity and nobility to a state of debased and unworthy anarchy. (The responsibility for these moral evaluations is the poet's, of course). And within the symbolic framework of night and day, we have the figure of the old negro woman who comes to light the fire at dawn—the unlikely acclaimed of the new day and the resurrection of the spirit. She toils half-frozen up the groaning stairs to fumble with the wood before the dirty hearth containing the remnants of the fire she built the previous day. Obviously, she is a very hopeless-seeming Hope. Why couldn't the poet have made his Hope a blooming and vivacious young girl, the sort of personification to do clear-cut and simple justice to the conception? But the paradox is deliberate, and the process whereby in the first stanzas the old woman is dramatically bodied forth is also the process by which the poet communicates precisely what conception of hope he has. Hope is a weary old negro woman because, so to speak, she is modified by the years of recurrent disappointment, and by the inevitability of future disappointment. She returns regularly, announcing the return of day, but the cycle will always swing back to night again. The old woman, merely as old woman, has the patient, doddering persistency in her duties of the aged—and these are just the human traits which the poet needs to represent the kind of hope he has in mind.

Although the image is not always so systematically drawn out in its correspondences to its meaning as in the examples cited and a few others of similar structure, Warren's poems take off repeatedly and most characteristically from concrete objects, creatures, scenes, and situations. He is constantly rendering the concrete image with all the richness and immediacy he can muster—but having done so, he refuses to allow the image to rest peacefully in its simple natural state, and always ends by suffusing it with a further and wider meaning. “The Garden” will provide a final illustration; I will quote it in full since its structure fits with particular neatness into the description just given:



How kind, how secret, now the sun
Will bless this garden frost has won,
And touch once more, as once it used,
The furled boughs by cold bemused.
Though summered brilliance had but room
In blossom, now the leaves will bloom
Their time, and take from milder sun
An unreviving benison.
          No marbles whitely gaze among
These paths where gilt the late pear hung:
But branches interlace to frame
The avenue of stately flame
Where yonder, far more bold and pure
Than marble, gleams the sycamore,
Of argent torse and cunning shaft
Propped nobler than the sculptor's craft.
          The hand that crooked upon the spade
Here plucked the peach, and thirst allayed;
Here lovers paused before the kiss,
Instructed of what ripeness is:
Where all who came might stand to try
The grace of this green empery,
Now jay and cardinal debate,
Like twin usurpers, the ruined state.
          But he who sought, not love, but peace
In such rank plot could take no ease:
Now poised between the two alarms
Of summer's lusts and winter's harms,
Only for him these precincts wait
In sacrament that can translate
All things that fed luxurious sense
From appetite to innocence.

The images here, as in “Aubade for Hope” and “Eidolon,” can be referred, if we like, back to the poet's regional origin and experience. An account of the regional derivation of Warren's images lies, however, outside the scope of this paper; it is enough now to note that the regional experience of the poet is always thoroughly absorbed into themes of general import, and is never presented for the sake of the interest attaching to its superficial peculiarities.

This essay has attempted to give some description of the typical method of composition applied by Warren to the materials and themes of his poetry. By means of an extended analysis of a single poem, and partial analyses of others, I have tried to show how the method operates in application to particular subjects, so that the reader might have a fairly unequivocal basis upon which to consider, and no doubt to correct, my own generalizations about the method. If the characteristic technique of the poet under consideration has been to a respectable degree illuminated, the essay has accomplished what it set out to do, and I leave the reader to develop his own evaluative attitude toward the poetry, as ultimately he must do anyhow. If that attitude shall prove to be a favorable one, it will not be far from my own.

Principal Works

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Thirty-Six Poems 1935

Eleven Poems on the Same Theme 1942

Selected Poems: 1923-1943 1944

Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices [revised edition, 1979] 1953

Promises: Poems 1954-1956 1957

You, Emperors, and Others: Poems 1957-1960 1960

Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 1966

Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968 1968

Audubon: A Vision 1969

Or Else: Poem / Poems 1968-1974 1974

Selected Poems: 1923-1975 1976

Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 1978

Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980 1980

Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980 1981

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce 1983

New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985 1985

The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren 1998

John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (biography) 1929

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition [with others] (essays) 1930

Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students [editor; with Cleanth Brooks] (criticism) 1938

Night Rider (novel) 1939

At Heaven's Gate (novel) 1943

Understanding Fiction [editor; with Cleanth Brooks] (criticism) 1943

All the King's Men (novel) 1946

Blackberry Winter (novella) 1946

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (short stories) 1947

Proud Flesh (drama) 1947

World Enough and Time (novel) 1950

Band of Angels (novel) 1955

Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (essay) 1956

Remember the Alamo! (children's literature) 1958

Selected Essays (essays) 1958

The Cave (novel) 1959

The Gods of Mount Olympus (children's literature) 1959

How Texas Won Her Freedom: The Story of Sam Houston and the Battle of San Jacinto (children's literature) 1959

All the King's Men (dramatic adaptation) 1960

The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (essay) 1961

Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (novel) 1961

Flood: A Romance of Our Time (novel) 1964

Who Speaks for the Negro? (essays and interviews) 1965

A Plea in Mitigation: Modern Poetry and the End of an Era (lecture) 1966

Homage to Theodore Dreiser, August 27, 1871-December 28, 1945, on the Centennial of His Birth (criticism) 1971

Meet Me in the Green Glen (novel) 1971

Democracy and Poetry (essay) 1975

A Place to Come To (novel) 1977

Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (essay) 1980

New and Selected Essays (essays) 1989

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence [with Cleanth Brooks] (letters) 1998

John Crowe Ransom (review date 1944)

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SOURCE: Ransom, John Crowe. “The Inklings of ‘Original Sin:’ Selected Poems 1923-43.” In Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren, pp. 32-6. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co, 1981.

[In the following review of Selected Poems: 1923-1943, originally published in 1944, Ransom briefly appraises the poem “Aubade for Hope” and stresses Warren's theme of Original Sin, which the critic defines as “the betrayal of our original nature that we commit in the interest of our rational evolution and progress.”]

Of more than seasonal magnitude is the literary event which gives to the public the whole staple of Robert Penn Warren's poetry. For ten years my head has rung with magnificent phrases out of the five poems which he contributed to a Special Poetic Supplement in The American Review of March, 1934. I felt they must have made a great commotion (as I knew they had not) and established him at once as a ranking poet; they were so distinctive, those poems of twenty lines each, with their peculiar strain of horror, and their clean-cut eloquence and technical accomplishments. But evidently the rating of the poet waits upon the trial of his big book. The five poems are in the present book, and serve very well as its center, though some later ones may define a little better the special object of this poet's tragic sense.

For a text I will try the easiest of the five, “Aubade for Hope.” The speaker (or hero: sometimes he is in the third person) appears to be an adapted and adult man waking, in the company of his bride it would seem, in the Kentucky farmhouse on a winter morning:

Dawn: and foot on the cold stair treading or
Thump of wood on the unswept hearthstone is
Comment on the margin of consciousness,
A dirty thumb-smear by the printed page.
Thumb-smear: nay, other, for the blessed light
Acclaimed thus, as a ducal progress by
The scared cur, wakes them that wallowed in
The unaimed faceless appetite of dream.
All night, the ice sought out the rotten bough:
In sleep they heard. And now they stir, as east
Beyond the formal gleam of landscape sun
Has struck the senatorial hooded hill.
Light: the groaning stair; the match aflame;
The Negro woman's hand, horned gray with cold,
That lit the wood—oh, merciless great eyes
Blank as the sea—I name some things that shall
As voices speaking from a further room,
Muffled, bespeak us yet for time and hope:
For Hope that like a blockhead grandam ever
Above the ash and spittle croaks and leans.

The waking is out of a dream in which the speaker was faced with some nameless evil, and he is glad to be woken; and the dawn to which he wakes is a symbol of hope though sadly short of brilliant in its accessories and triumphant. The waking or rational world does not altogether displace the dark world of the unconscious. The “merciless great eyes” that are addressed in parenthesis bring a difficulty of identification; they are new in the present version, having displaced some less telling original item. But in the light of other poems I should hazard that they belong to an ancestor, or a ghostly mentor, and survive from the dream as a counterpoise to hope, and attend their victim much as the Furies would attend the Greek hero under a curse. We feel they will not be propitiated though the citizen start punctually on his round of moral daylight activities.

But what is his curse? “Aubade for Hope” is of the very type of the Warren poems, whose situations are always fundamentally the same. It is true that the poet is fertile, and I find quite a few titles to suggest his range of variation upon the one tragic theme; as, “Terror,” “Pursuit,” “Crime,” “Letter from a Coward to a Hero,” “History,” “End of Season,” “Ransom,” “Aged Man Surveys Past Time,” “Toward Rationality,” “To a Friend Parting,” “Eidolon,” “Revelation,” “Variation: Ode to Fear,” “Monologue at Midnight,” “Picnic Remembered,” “Man Coming of Age,” and the Marvellian “The Garden.” It is the quality of a noble poetry that it can fixate powerful living images of the human crisis, and be received of us with every sense of the familiar, yet evade us badly if we would define its issue; and that is why poetry, intuitive in its form like religion, involves us in endless disputation when we try to philosophize it. I proceed with peril, but I rely on a conviction that Warren's version of horror is not only consistent, but more elemental and purer than that of other poets. For there was Poe, for example, with whom it was almost vulgarly “literary” and supernatural; and Baudelaire, for whom it recorded his implication with the monstrous and obscene, and his detestation and disgust. The terror they felt was perhaps chiefly for crazy breaches of the common moral code, but ours here is stranger and yet far more universal than that.

The recent poem, “Original Sin: A Short Story,” furnishes us with a philosophical term, or at least a theological one; which we should use provided we remember that the poet has not put all his secrets into one word.

Nodding, its great head rattling like a gourd,
And locks like seaweed strung on the stinking stone,
The nightmare stumbles past, and you have heard
It fumble your door before it whimpers and is gone:
It acts like the old hound that used to snuffle your door and moan.
You thought you had lost it when you left Omaha,
For it seemed connected then with your grandpa, who
Had a wen on his forehead and sat on the verandah
To finger the precious protuberance, as was his habit to do,
Which glinted in sun like rough garnet or the rich old brain bulging through.

But this nightmare, the vague, inept, and not very presentable ancestral ghost, is not to be exorcised. It appears even in Harvard Yard, for the victim's handsome secular progress has led him so far, where the ghost is ill at ease indeed. But you must not think the illusion of the ghost is the form of the speaker's simple nostalgia, for that is painful, too, but goes away:

You were almost kindly then in your first homesickness,
As it tortured its stiff face to speak, but scarcely mewed;
Since then you have outlived all your homesickness,
But have met it in many another distempered latitude:
Oh, nothing is lost, ever lost! at last you understood.

This ghost will not be laid. Yet it is an ineffectual ghost, unlike that portentous apparition of Hamlet the Elder, which knew so much about “theatre,” including how to time and how to make an entrance: our ghost does not interfere with the actions of the living.

But it never came in the quantum glare of sun
To shame you before your friends, and had nothing to do
With your public experience or private reformation:
But it thought no bed too narrow—it stood with lips askew
And shook its great head sadly like the abstract Jew.
Never met you in the lyric arsenical meadows
When children call and your heart goes stone in the bosom:
At the orchard anguish never, nor ovoid horror,
Which is furred like a peach or avid like the delicious plum.
It takes no part in your classic prudence or fondled axiom.

We must return to the title, and take its consequences: Original Sin. And here it may be of some moment that we ourselves have had dire personal inklings of Original Sin, hustled and busybody creatures as we are yet perhaps painfully sensible of our treachery to some earlier and more innocent plan of existence; or, on the other hand, that we know it by theology and literature. The poets and priests who dramatize it in Adam's Fall seem to have known it precisely in the same sense with Warren's protagonist; and historically it has proved too formidable an incubus to rate as an idle “metaphysical” entity, for it can infect the whole series of our human successes with shame and guilt. Briefly, Original Sin is the betrayal of our original nature that we commit in the interest of our rational evolution and progress. Anthropologists may well imagine—if they are imaginative—that the guilt-feeling of Original Sin, though it opposes no specific adaptation or “conditioning” of the pliant human spirit, might yet have some business on the premises as an unassimilated core of resistance and therefore stability; so precarious would seem the unique biological experiment of equipping an animal species with reason instead of the law of its own nature. Original Sin obtains a sort of poetic justification when we consider the peculiar horror to which the strict regimen of medieval monks exposed them; acedia; the paralysis of will. Or, for that matter, the horror which has most shaken the moderns in their accelerating progress: the sense of psychic disintegration, that is, of having a personality which has been casually acquired, and is still subject to alteration, therefore hollow and insincere.

By the present account Original Sin seems to be nearly related to the Origin of Species—of that species at least which is most self-determining of its behavior. It may be tempting to assume, and dogmatic theology at its nadir of unrealism is apt to assume, that the blame falls only on Adam, and we are answerable only in some formalistic sense to Adam's ghost. But here we should take into account the phenomenon of “recapitulation”; for it is understood that individually we re-enact the evolution of species. We do it physiologically, but there is a conscious side to it too. We have a nature, and proceed to “condition” it; and more and more, from age to age, are subjected to the rule of reason, first the public reason which “educates” us, and then, when we have lost our native spirits, our own reason, which draws corollaries to the public reason. If we may venture now upon a critical impertinence, and commit the biographical fallacy, we will refer the nightmare of our poet's verse to the admirable public datum of his life, to see what edification it will bring. As follows. The South Kentucky country of his nativity is distinctive among landscapes, and the sense of it is intimate and constitutive in the consciousness of its inhabitants; and his breed, the population of that country, acknowledges more firmly than another the two bonds of blood and native scene, which individuate it. If then the ancestral ghost really haunts the mature poet, as the poetry professes, it might be said to have this excuse, that the circumstance of his origin is without visible consequence upon his social adaptiveness, which is supple and charming, or upon his capacity for such scholarship and industry as his professional occasions may demand, which is exemplary. The poetic torment of his sensibility is private, and yet here it is, published. But we need not think it something very special. The effect is universal as philosophers use that term: it is the way a fine native sensibility works, in those who have the sensibility and keep it.

Besides the poetry, Warren has a well-known body of fiction, including an important recent novel; the aforesaid nightmare of Original Sin showing in the fiction too. But the poetry, I think, is superior to the fiction, for a curious reason. Warren has fallen in increasingly with the vogue of the “naturalistic” novel; and this means that he likes to take low life, or at any rate life with a mediocre grade of vitality, for his material. His characters are mean, and inarticulate too, though their futilities and defeats furnish him faithfully with documents of the fateful Original Sin. But they do not know what tune they are playing, and the novelist has the embarrassment of having to speak for them. In the recent novel, At Heaven's Gate, he has to contrive a quaint though marvelously realized rural saint, to furnish a significant commentary; and it is not very organically connected with the action of the plot.

I mention this because Warren begins to import the naturalistic method into his verse; as in the Kentucky ballad of “Billie Potts,” the most substantial poem in the present volume. With great skill he expands the primitive ballad form (in this case the loose and vernacular American form) without quite breaking it down, though he goes much farther than Coleridge did in his “Ancient Mariner.” The story is of how Young Billie left Old Billie (and his old mother too) behind in Kentucky, and went West to make his fortune on his own power (and his own reason) with scarcely a backward look. The Pottses, incidentally, are most unsympathetic characters; they are a nest of Kentucky rattlesnakes. But after ten years' success Young Billie has a sort of “conversion,” and returns to the ancestral rooftree; where his parents promptly kill him; for one cannot return. It is true that they do not recognize him, but the accident is at least the symbol of the intention. To interpret all this in terms of his thesis Warren uses long parentheses, filled with his own matter and language, and that is a gloss far more implausible than that which Coleridge wrote upon his margins.

I suggest that this is not the best strategy of composition. And I would add something else, which for me is of paramount importance: I wish we had a way of holding this poet, whose verse is so beautiful when it is at his own height of expression, to a level no lower than this height.

Further Reading

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Watkins, Floyd C. “A Dialogue with Robert Penn Warren on Brother to Dragons.” Southern Review 16, no. 1 (Winter 1980): 1-17.

Discussion centering on Warren's background ideas and method of composition for the narrative poem Brother to Dragons.

———and John T. Hiers, eds. Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950-1978. New York: Random House, 1980, 304p.

Reprints transcripts of eighteen conversations with Warren conducted by various interviewers.


Bromwich, David. Review of Selected Poems: 1923-1975. Hudson Review 30, no. 2 (Summer 1977): 279-92.

Maintains that Warren has steadily become a better poet since the publication of Promises in 1956, acknowledging that he continues to produce both impressive and uneven verse.

Chamberlin, J. E. Review of Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968-1974. Hudson Review 28, no. 1 (Spring 1975): 119-35.

Observes the “wondering” quality of Warren's poetry and his distinct evocation of “the baroque ironies of Time.”

Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981, 239p.

Contains reviews, an interview, and studies of Warren's poetry and prose, including essays on Brother to Dragons and “The Ballad of Billie Potts.”

Cotter, James Finn. Review of Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978. Hudson Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 119.

Comments on themes of time and childhood reflection in Warren's collection Now and Then.

———. Review of Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980. Hudson Review 34, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 284.

Notes Warren's allegorical account of maturation in the verse of Being Here.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin. “The Long and Short of It.” New York Review of Books 27 (February 21, 1980): 27-28.

Argues that the moral vision that informs Warren's Brother to Dragons shares affinities with that of the historical Thomas Jefferson, the poem's ostensible villain. Ehrenpreis also mentions the intense thematic search for meaning in several pieces from Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978.

Flint, F. Cudworth. “Five Poets.” Southern Review 1 (Winter 1936): 650-74.

Comparative look at several poems by Warren, William Carlos Williams, Willard Mass, Allen Tate, and John Peale Bishop.

———. Review of Promises: Poems 1954-1956. Virginia Quarterly Review 34, no. 1 (Winter 1958): 117-26.

Highlights nostalgia and macabre humor in selected poems of Warren's collection Promises.

Kramer, Hilton. Review of Selected Poems: 1923-1975. New York Times Book Review (January 9, 1977): 1, 26.

Laudatory estimate of Warren as a poet.

McNeil, Helen. Review of Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4052 (November 28, 1980): 1363-64.

Calls Being Here Warren's most thematically original work.

Nakadate, Neil, ed. Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981, 328p.

Collection of essays on Warren's poetry and fiction by various contributors. Includes three articles devoted to Brother to Dragons, as well as several studies of Warren's poetic technique and vision.

Rosenthal, M. L. Review of Promises: Poems 1954-1956. The Nation 186, no. 3 (January 18, 1958): 56-57.

Characterizes Warren as an absorbing and adventurous, but minor, poet.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “Robert Penn Warren: Love and Knowledge.” In The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South, pp. 327-62. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Concentrates on Warren's writing of approximately 1930 to 1955 and his relationship to the Fugitive poets (including Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom) and to the southern Agrarian movement.

Satterwhite, Joseph N. “Robert Penn Warren and Emily Dickinson.” Modern Language Notes LXXI (May 1956): 347-49.

Points to Warren's analysis of the Dickinson poem “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes” in Understanding Poetry and its thematic impact on his own literary efforts.

Strandberg, Victor H. A Colder Fire: The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965, 292p.

Offers analyses of Warren's poems from the collections Thirty-Six Poems to You, Emperors, and Others.

Walker, Cheryl. Review of Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968-1975. The Nation 221, no. 7 (September 13, 1975): 215-17.

Describes Warren's poems of Or Else as “primarily backward-looking” and somewhat flawed.

Walker, Marshal. Robert Penn Warren: A Vision Earned. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979, 279p.

Presents an overview of Warren's literary oeuvre, excluding works completed in the last decade of his life. Contains chapters on Warren's early poetry, poetic development, and use of the pastoral.

Watkins, Floyd C. Then & Now: The Personal Past in the Poetry of Robert Penn Warren. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982, 184p.

Full-length study of the autobiographical impulse in Warren's verse.

West, Paul. “Robert Penn Warren.” In Seven American Stylists from Poe to Mailer: An Introduction, edited by George T. Wright, pp. 200-37. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.

Survey of Warren's life and his literary productions in prose and verse.

Additional coverage of Warren's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; American Writers; Beacham’s Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography, Vol. 3; Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 129; Contemporary Authors First Revision, Vols. 13-16; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 10, 47; Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 18, 39, 53, 59; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 48, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980, 1989; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Short Story Criticsim, Vol. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 8; Something about the Author, Vol. 46, 63; 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers; and World Literature Criticism.

F. O. Matthiessen (review date 1944)

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SOURCE: Matthiessen, F. O. Review of Selected Poems: 1923-1943. The Kenyon Review 6, no. 4 (Autumn 1944): 683-96.

[In the following excerpted review, Matthiessen observes the influence of seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell evident in Warren's Selected Poems: 1923-1943, the dense suggestiveness of Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, and the dramatic tension of “The Ballad of Billie Potts.”]

Warren has published two previous books of poems (in 1935 and 1942), but these had a very restricted circulation; and he has generally been placed as a minor figure in the school of Ransom and Tate, and is thus dismissed by [Yvor] Winters. His Selected Poems: 1923-1943, by separating his late work from his earlier, mark where he started and how far he has come. “The Return: An Elegy,” eloquent as is its expression of undisseverable attraction and repulsion of a son for his mother, uses too many of Eliot's contrasts to be quite Warren's own. “Kentucky Mountain Farm” expresses the particular and local concern with history of the Southern agrarian group, and yet Warren's resolution, his renewed emphasis on the will, his declaration that “The act / Alone is pure” already carries his individual accent. The most striking poem in his first book, “The Garden,” shows what it meant to have begun writing poetry in the era when the 17th Century metaphysicals had just been reassimilated for contemporary use. This poem and the somewhat later “Love's Parable” are excellent instances of what Cleanth Brooks has called a structure of inclusion. They use an aristocratic and slightly archaic diction comparable to Ransom's, and they may have learned from him some of their suave irony. But, more essentially, they show how much a poet can still profit from Marvell. They are as different as possible from Cummings. Despite Cummings' distaste for abstraction, his lyrics hardly more than name the wonders of love and beauty, and thus, except for their eccentric syntax, are little thicker in texture than the songs of tin-pan alley. Warren, on the contrary, has devoted his whole attention to crowding his lines with the greatest specific gravity they will bear, so that they will not merely assert the uniqueness of an experience but will convey the actual burden of that experience, both as it has been felt and as it has been thought about. “Love's Parable” is as incapable of paraphrase as “To his Coy Mistress.” It could be reduced in prose to the statement that love is perishable; and yet the poem, as constructed, contains an impressive and absorbing range from sensuous delight to somber reflection.

The title of Warren's second book, Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, emphasizes the persistence of his dominant thoughts. It also hints at the constricting limitations latent in such preoccupation. The theme detaches itself as one with which Tate also has been particularly concerned: a protest against the tendency of our scientific age to reduce knowledge to abstraction, and to rob experience of its religious tension by making sin meaningless. Warren has not stated this theme in as explicitly philosophical terms as Tate. His method, as in “Picnic Remembered,” is to present the apparently smooth surfaces of life in such an improved, amoral age, and then to suggest the violence and terror ever lurking just beneath the enlightened consciousness. He portrays this as a nightmare stumbling past, or as a dim memory of crime, or in quieter, but no less compelling terms, in “End of Season,” by an image which breaks through the effort to live in a holiday timeless present: “But the mail lurks in the box at the house where you live.”

His frontal attack on the theme is carried out most thoroughly in “Terror,” “Pursuit,” and “Original Sin,” poems which are so tightly organized through their successive images and which are permitted such a minimum of generalization that the reader may at first find them very obscure. Warren shares with Tate and with some of the French symbolists a fondness for images of violent disorder, and it sometimes becomes a question whether these images rise inherently from his concept, or whether they are manipulated too cerebrally upon it. His control is most decisive in his demonstration that we are “born to no adequate definition of terror”; for here he makes, both at the beginning and at the close of the poem, a functional repetition of the suggested figure of Macbeth, the conscience-stricken man who sees the ghost of his evil deed, whereas we simply crack nuts and “see an empty chair.” The consequences of our shallow lack of implication in any moral struggle are imaged with telling violence when Warren notes that under such circumstances even war itself is meaningless, since

Blood splashed on the terrorless intellect creates
Corrosive fizzle like the spattered lime,
And its enseamed stew but satiates
Itself, in that lewd and faceless pantomime.

Warren is probably unaware of how often he poses our problem as one of definition: in “Revelation,” “In separateness only does love learn definition”; in “Ransom,” “Our courage needs, perhaps, new definition”; and in “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” in a closer verbal echo than he probably intended, “Our innocence needs, perhaps, new definition.” Such repetition may betray a static tightness, and some critics have found the texture of Warren's poems too uniformly dense. He seems finally to have come to some such conclusion himself, for the most exciting feature of his most recent poems is their breaking away from the intellectualized modes that have often become the mannerism of our generation. In “Variation: Ode to Fear” he makes a far more loosely colloquial satiric statement of his theme. In “Mexico is a Foreign Country: Five Studies in Naturalism” he introduces a hearty and humorous coarseness. And finally, in his “Ballad,” he enters quite a new realm by accomplishing the fusion that Yeats urged between the poetry of the coteries and the poetry of the folk.

Warren's flair for drama was foreshadowed in his early “Pondy Woods”—as well as by many passages in his novels—but here he has given it free rein for the first time in his poetry. He has handled his “Ballad” on two levels. On one level he retells an old folk story of Western Kentucky about an outlaw innkeeper and his son. Little Billie, emulating his father's habit of practising highway robbery on his guests, is caught in an attempted murder, and has to leave for the West. When he comes home ten years later, rich, he is murdered by his parents before they recognize him. The other level consists of the poet's philosophical reflections on the story; and in such weaving back and forth Warren, like Spencer, reveals the almost inevitable influence of Eliot's Quartets. But only occasionally do Warren's meditations on time and the timeless seem borrowed, and for the most part he is speaking out of his own full mind. His verse has also learned something of Eliot's later dangerous freedom in its frequent descents into near prose, and some may find Warren's prosody too crude and casual. Yet it increases his conversational effect.

The dramatic point of the story is the parents' horrified discovery of what they have done; but the reflective passages make their contrast by concentrating on the rôle of the son. We cannot escape going back to where we came from, as the son returns to the father. But Warren's preoccupation, the preoccupation of our generation, can hardly be with the Father of grace. We have scarcely begun to understand even the grounds for salvation. We must first return to the old man, to an awareness of our roots in erring humanity, and our first discovery must be the blinding one of essential evil.

Dudley Fitts (review date 1944)

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SOURCE: Fitts, Dudley. “Of Tragic Stature.” Poetry LXV, no. 11 (November 1944): 94-101.

[In the following review of Selected Poems: 1923-1943, Fitts comments on Marvellian traces in Warren's poetry, and on the near grotesque, tragicomic quality of “The Ballad of Billie Potts.”]

This selection of poems represents the work of twenty years, extending from the time of Robert Penn Warren's association with that brilliant group of Nashville poets who called themselves The Fugitives, down to the publication, last year, of the memorable “Ballad of Billie Potts.” I met this poetry early, thanks to the enthusiasm of another Fugitive, Merrill Moore, when it was still in the five-finger-exercise stage: accomplished verse, owing much to John Crowe Ransom (a debt which the younger Fugitives shared in common), “promising.” I remember that someone—was it William Knickerbocker?—called it “affectionate,” “chaste,” “athletic,” adjectives which he would probably want to qualify today. It was agreeable, certainly; and once in a while it struck a deeper tone premonitory of what was to come—see, for example, the last poem in this collection, “To a Face in a Crowd,” which was printed in The Fugitive in 1925. But in general it was not impressive, or more impressive than the average Fugitive product; only in its sensitive recording of the sights and sounds of the Southern countryside did it stand apart from the rest. Looking back on it today, one is struck most forcibly by the rapidity with which it grew up, the transition from minor to major; for I think it must be confessed that Mr. Warren has outstripped all of his early associates except Ransom and Tate, and that his position is secure and high in the ranks of contemporary American poets.

Apparently the first decisive experience after John Crowe Ransom—and probably it came about through Mr. Ransom—was the Metaphysicals of the seventeenth century. Then Eliot. So far the case history is familiar. But Mr. Warren has been luckier than the innumerable promising versifiers who never progressed beyond that point; for boiling up in his novels, especially At Heaven's Gate, and in such transitional poetry as “Kentucky Mountain Farm” and “The Return,” a strong and intensely individual force has taken control of him, resulting in the fine Eleven Poems on the Same Theme and “The Ballad of Billie Potts.”

Of the seventeenth-century influences, Marvell has been the most powerful. But even in responding to his influences Mr. Warren shows his strength. He does not “write like” Marvell: he becomes Marvell in our time, as Yeats became Swift, as Eliot became Andrewes. It is not a matter of imitation, but of assimilation and restatement. Consider these lines from “Picnic Remembered”:

We stood among the painted trees:
The amber light laved them, and us;
Or light then so untremulous,
So steady, that our substances,
Twin flies, were as in amber tamed
With our perfections still and framed
To mock Time's marvelling after-spies—

(“Marvelling”: is it wrong to read this as a Joycean ambiguity?) Or these, from “Love's Parable”:

No wonder then. For we had found
Love's mystery, then still unspent,
That substance long in grossness bound
Might bud into love's accident,

where the suavity of the versification, the slight haziness of the syntax, and the jargon of scholastic philosophy recall, with an effect almost of parody, “The Definition of Love”:

Therefore the Love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the Conjunction of the Mind,
And Opposition of the Stars.

The use of light, in these Marvell-poems, is extraordinary: the first two lines of the first stanza quoted above; the weird submarine forest of “Bearded Oaks”:

The oaks, how subtle and marine,
Bearded, and all the layered light
Above them swims—

the end of “Picnic Remembered”:

Or is the soul a hawk that, fled
On glimmering wings past vision's path,
Reflects the last gleam to us here
Though sun is sunk and darkness near
—Uncharted Truth's high heliograph?

Again and again light—these particular poems, curiously, have almost no color: the values are light and shade, a kind of photagogic compulsion which finally achieves the force of a mythical symbol. (Marvell's preoccupation with the color green is comparable.) Light and the heat of light are the astronomer-baffling essences of love; light solidifies and holds the lovers encased like brilliant insects in amber.

The perfection of these poems—“Monologue at Midnight,” “Bearded Oaks,” “Picnic Remembered,” “Love's Parable,” “The Garden”—irradiates and injures two groups of poems deriving from the same seventeenth-century sources but moving in opposite directions. The first of these are (to me, at any rate) the enigmas, poems plunging back, as it were, into the metaphysical fog to remain there opaque and impenetrable. Such a poem is “Toward Rationality”; and I must confess that the title irritates me, since the most painful rereading and conference have left me only with the uneasy feeling that big things must be going on here, if I had only the wit to perceive them. There seems to be a contrast between the rightness of irrational nature—symbolized by the apple, the kingfisher, the cedar, the red cows (“Red kine err not”: it sounds like a halfhearted rune)—and the wrongness of rational man. If so, it is a companion piece to “Aged Man Surveys Past Time,” which I find only slightly less murky. In any event, its difficulty seems to me perverse—a mystification; as though the poet, taking a rapid look into his own Understanding Poetry, had set himself to lock up a maximum of meaning in a minimum of space, and then had deliberately thrown away the key. What of “Ransom”? Is it a payment, or is it a tribute to the greatest of the Fugitives? What of “Letter to a Friend”? Or “To a Friend Parting”? I do not know; I take them on trust, since the integrity of their author is beyond question; but I can not admire them, and should not willingly return to them.

The other group of poems is moving away from the metaphysical source in the direction of “The Ballad of Billie Potts.” They are frequently grotesque, harsh. The metric, always superbly controlled, tends more and more to waver, to jerk, expressing the cramped wry process of the thought. Often there is no rhyme; or, when a rhyme pattern has been established, it may be roughly broken (as at the end of “Eidolon,” the last stanza of “Crime”) for the sake of a sharp dissonance, again reflecting the thought. The finest of these poems are those published earlier as Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, and they represent Mr. Warren at his best. Associated with them, however, are pieces in which I find qualities no less disturbing than the opacity of “Toward Rationality.” These qualities might be summed up under the heading of Conscious Cuteness. It mars the otherwise powerfully moving “Original Sin”—I am thinking of the Audenesque description of the monster as coming, “its hand childish, unsure, / Clutching the bribe of chocolate or a toy you used to treasure”; it gets into “Pursuit” disguised as W. S. Gilbert: “Till you feel like one who has come too late, or improperly clothed, to a party”; it permits such writing as this, from “Variation: Ode To Fear”:

When the surgeon whets his scalpel
And regards me like an apple,
And the tumor or the wart
Sings, “The best of friends must part,”
          Timor mortis conturbat me.
When flushed with morning's genial hope
I slit the crisped envelope
And read the message too oft known,
“Your account $3.00 overdrawn,”
          Timor mortis conturbat me.

(It says a great deal for Mr. Warren's skill that even after so embarrassing a beginning as this he is able to save “Variation: Ode To Fear”—though here I suspect myself of being seduced to complacent approval by the justness of his substitution of “conturbet” for “conturbat” in the last line of the poem.) At its worst, which is pretty bad, it produces that distressing ballad about a dog and a banana tree …

Do you remember T. S. Eliot's “Practical Cats”? That was a grim day on both sides of the Atlantic—for nobody more so than for people who, respecting Mr. Eliot, happen also to like cats. There was something faintly obscene about the performance: any child could have told Mr. Eliot that. I feel much like that about Mr. Warren's light verse. If his best were not what it is, one could say “All right: let him have his fun.” But he has written “History” and “Resolution” and the profound and merciful “Letter From a Coward to a Hero.” He has written “Terror” and “Revelation” and “Crime,” as nearly flawless as anything in contemporary poetry. And he has written “The Ballad of Billie Potts.”

I find it hard to be temperate about “Billie Potts,” just as I find it hard to be measured in my praise of the unjustly neglected At Heaven's Gate, which it resembles. For the poem and the novel have much in common. Both grapple with the problem of ancient paternal evil and filial guilt: the sin of Eve, the sacrifice of Abraham, the symbolic murder of Isaac. Both are as gritty and as rich as the black soil which they celebrate. Both roar with a tragic laughter which is light-years away from the giggling of “Variation: Ode To Fear.” Both are acts of universalization.

On the surface, “Billie Potts” is the reversal of the Prodigal Son myth: instead of receiving his father's blessing, the unrecognized Prodigal is murdered for his wealth by the old man. The poem is double; better said, it is composed of two streams—the narrative itself, and a parenthesized commentary—which converge at the end to identify Little Billie with the reader, and hence with all men. (This technic resembles the double-thread method—narrative and Wyndham statement—of At Heaven's Gate.) The narrative section is a marvel of texture. It is funny, as Duckfoot Blake is funny. It is raucous, and pitiful, and dirty, and somehow hieratic. The terror of the old man muttering Tell me his name over the grave of his son is the incantatory ancestral terror of the Mutt-Jute passages in Finnegans Wake; balancing it is the heartbreaking lament of the dreadful old mother who instigated the murder (“Yeah, but you wouldn't done nuthen hadn't been for me,” the old woman said); and they finally combine:

But the old man leans down with the flickering flame
And croaks: “But tell me his name.”
“Oh, he ain't got none, fer he just come riden
From some fer place whar he'd bin biden,
And ain't got a name and never had none,
But Billie, my Billie, he had one,
And hit wuz Billie, hit wuz his name.”
But the old man croaked: “Tell me his name.”
“Oh, he ain't got none, and hit's all the same,
But Billie had one, and he wuz little
And offen his chin I would wipe the spittle
And wiped the drool and kissed him thar
And counted his toes and kissed him whar
The little black mark wuz under his tit,
Shaped lak a clover under his left tit,
With a shape fer luck and I'd kiss hit—”
And the old man blinks in the pine-knot flare
And his mouth comes open like a fish for air,
Then he says right low “I had nigh fergot.”
“Oh, I kissed him on his little luck-spot
And I kissed him and he'd laff as lak as not—”
The old man said: “Git his shirt open.”
The old woman opened the shirt and there was the birthmark under the left tit.
It was shaped for luck.

I do not care to spoil that by comment; but to indicate the tragic stature of the poet I am dealing with, I should like to quote the concluding lines of the poem, where narrative and commentary meet in a perfect resolution:

The hour is late,
The scene familiar even in shadow,
The transaction brief,
And you, wanderer, back,
After the striving and the wind's word,
To kneel
Here in the evening empty of wind and bird,
To kneel in the sacramental silence of evening
At the feet of the old man
Who is evil and ignorant and old,
To kneel
With the little black mark under your heart,
Which is your name,
Which is shaped for luck,
Which is your luck.

Robert Lowell (review date 1953)

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SOURCE: Lowell, Robert. “Prose Genius in Verse.” The Kenyon Review XV, no. 4 (Autumn 1953): 619-25.

[In the following review of Brother to Dragons, Lowell confers stylistically qualified praise on Warren's “brutal, perverse melodrama” in blank verse.]

In spite of its Plutarchan decor, Brother to Dragons is a brutal, perverse melodrama that makes the flesh crawl. On a chopping block in a meat house in West Kentucky, “on the night of December 15, 1811—the night when the New Madrid earthquake first struck the Mississippi Valley—” Lilburn and Isham Lewis, nephews of Thomas Jefferson, in the presence of their Negroes, “butchered a slave named George, whose offense had been to break a pitcher prized by their dead mother, Lucy Lewis.” Coming upon this preface, the reader is warned that he will not find Monticello and Jefferson with his letters from John Adams, his barometers and portable music stands, but Lizzie Borden braining the family portraits with her axe. This incongruity, which dislocates nearly everyone's sense of Jeffersonian possibility, was fully appreciated by Thomas Jefferson himself, who, so far as we know, never permitted his nephews' accomplishment to be mentioned in conversation. Yet the Lewis brothers are as much in the Southern tradition as their Uncle, rather more in the literary tradition which has developed, and so it is workaday that their furies should pursue them with homicidal chivalry, the pomp of Vestal Virgins—and the murk of Warren's four novels. Indeed these monstrous heroes are so extremely literary that their actual lives seem to have been imagined by anti-Romantic Southern moderns, and we are tempted to suppose that only gratuitous caprice caused Warren to blame their bestiality on the Deist idealism of their detached relative, Thomas, the first Democratic president. Portentous in their living characters, when Lilburn and Isham Lewis reach in 1953 their first artistic existence, they draw upon a long line of conventions established by their imaginary counterparts: it is as true inheritors that they speak a mixture of Faulkner's iron courtesies, country dialect, and Booth's sic semper. Like their ancestor Cain, these late-comers were prior to their poetic fulfillment. The disharmony between the brothers' high connections and their low conduct, however, is less astonishing than Warren's ability to make all his characters speak in unfaltering, unstilted blank verse. (I trust it is this Jeffersonian and noble technical feat, and not the lurid prose melodrama, which has three times caused me to read Brother to Dragons from cover to cover without stopping.)

The generals' war between the specialized arts and the specialized sciences is over. We have accepted our traumatically self-conscious and expert modern poetry, just as we have accepted our other perilous technological methods. Eternal providence has warned us that our world lies all before us and nowhere else. Only the fissured atoms which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki can build our New Atlantis. This is what Paul Valéry meant when he wrote with cruel optimism that poetry before Mallarmé was as arithmetic to algebra. Valéry's education was more diversified than ours, and he wrote in a time when men still remembered the old Newtonian universe. We cannot be certain that we even understand the terms of his equation, but as poets and pragmatists we approve. Back in the palmy, imperialist days of Victoria, Napoleon's nephew, and Baudelaire, a kind of literary concordat was reached: the ephemeral was ceded to prose. Since then the new poetry has been so scrupulous and electrical, its authors seem seldom to have regretted this Mary and Martha division of labor. Poetry became all that was not prose. Under this dying-to-the-world discipline the stiffest and most matter of fact items were repoeticized—quotations from John of the Cross, usury, statistics, conversations and newspaper clippings. These amazing new poems could absorb everything—everything, that is, except plot and characters, just those things long poems have usually relied upon. When modern poets have tried to write dramatic and narrative works, neither genius, shrewdness, nor the most defiant good will have prevented most of the attempts from being puffy, paralysed and pretentious. Outside of Browning, what 19th Century story poems do we still read? What poetical drams since Dryden and Milton? Are Eliot's three plays, Auden's Age of Anxiety, Robinson's narratives, or Hardy's Dynasts much better? Yeats's later plays and Frost's monologues are short. Shorter still and more fragmentary are the moments of action and dialogue in The Waste Land and Pound's Cantos. Here stubborn parsimony is life-preserving tact. But Brother to Dragons, though tactless and voluminous, is also alive. That Warren, one of the bosses of the New Criticism, is the author is as though Professor Babbitt had begotten Rousseau or a black Minerva dancing in Congo masks. Warren has written his best book, a big book; he has crossed the Alps and, like Napoleon's shoeless army, entered the fat, populated riverbottom of the novel.

Brother to Dragons is the fourth remarkable long poem to have been published in the last ten or twelve years. The Four Quartets, Paterson, and The Pisan Cantos are originals and probably the masterpieces of their authors. Warren's poem is slighter, lighter and less in earnest. This judgment, however, is ungrateful and misleading. Brother to Dragons is a model and an opportunity. It can be imitated without plagiarism, and one hopes its matter and its method will become common property. In a sense they are already, and anyone who has read Elizabethan drama and Browning will quickly have opinions on what he likes and dislikes in this new work.

There are faults in this work. Warren writes in his preface, “I have tried to make my poem make, in a thematic way, historical sense along with whatever other kind of sense it may be happy enough to make.” And more emphatically, “… a poem dealing with history is no more at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the spirit of his history than it is at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the nature of the human heart.” Obviously the kind of historical sense claimed here is something more serious and subtle than the mere documentary accuracy required for a tableau of Waterloo or a romance set in 1812. The incidents in Brother to Dragons are so ferocious and subnormal they make Macbeth or Racine's Britannicus seem informal interludes in Castiglione's Courtier. Warren's tale is fact, but it is too good melodramatically to be true. To make sense out of such material he uses an arrangement of actors and commentators, a method he perhaps derived from Delmore Schwartz's Coriolanus in which Freud, Aristotle, and I believe Marx, sit and discuss a performance of Shakespeare's play. Warren's spirit of history has a rough time: occasionally it maunders in a void, sometimes it sounds like the spirit of Seneca's rhetoric, again it just enjoys the show. The difficulties are great, yet the commentary often increases one's feelings of pathetic sympathy.

As for the characters, nothing limits the length of their speeches except the not very importunate necessity of eventually completing the story. Warren improves immensely upon that grotesque inspiration which compels Browning to tell the plot of the Ring twelve times and each time in sections longer than Macbeth. Structurally, however, Browning's characters have the queer compositional advantage of knowing they are outrageously called to sustain set-pieces of a given length.

A few small points: Warren's bawdy lines—I sometimes think these are pious gestures, a sort of fraternity initiation, demanded, given, to establish the writer firmly outside the genteel tradition. Secondly, the word “definition” is used some fifty times. This appears to be a neo-Calvinist pun, meaning defined, finite and perhaps definitive and final, or “know thyself for thou art but dust.” Warren used this word in his short poems and fiction and in an obsessive way I'm not quite able to follow. Time and History: the poet addresses these ogres with ritualistic regularity, reminding us a bit of a Roman pro-consul imposing the Greek gods on the provinces, those gods which have already renounced the world in Eliot's Four Quartets.

Some stylistic matters: the hollow bell-sound repetition of

I think of another bluff and another river.
I think of another year and another winter.
I think of snow on the brown leaves, and below
That other bluff, how cold and far was light on that northern river.
I think of how her mouth and mine together
Were cold on the first kiss. Sparsely, snow
Descended among the black trees. We kissed in the cold
Logic of hope and need.

Passages of stage-direction blank verse, not bad in themselves (squeamishness in absorbing prose would have been crippling) but sometimes “sinking,” like a suddenly audible command from the prompter's pit:

From an undifferentiated impulse I leaned
Above the ruin and in my hand picked up
Some two or three pig-nuts, with the husk yet on.
I put them in my pocket. I went down.

And these Thersites screams which modern writing channels on its readers like televised wrestlers:

                                                                                and in that simultaneous outrage
The sunlight screamed, while urine splattered the parched soil.

Brother to Dragons triumphs through its characters, most of all through two women. Lucy and Laetitia Lewis, Lilburn's mother and wife, charm and overwhelm. They are as lovingly and subtly drawn as anything in Browning. Laetitia, the more baffled and pathetic, uses homely frontier expressions, and her speeches beautifully counterpoint those of the intelligent and merciful Lucy. Unlike the heroines in Warren's novels, those schizophrenic creatures more unflattering to womankind than anything in Pope, Lucy Lewis is both wise and good and proves Warren's point that neither quality can flourish without the other. Both women speak simple and straightforward blank verse, which is wonderfully emphasized by the messy rhetorical violence of the other speakers. As for Lilburn and Isham Lewis, Warren takes them as he finds them: ruins. Lilburn, the villain-protagonist, is a lobotomized Coriolanus, or, rather, that hollow, diabolic, Byron-Cain character who is so familiar to us from Warren's novels. He speaks few lines and is seen through the other speakers, because he is almost pure evil and therefore unreal. He sheds a sinister, absorbing glitter, which is probably all he was intended to do. Neither Ahab nor Satan, Lilburn is simply Lilburn—a histrionic void. Isham, Lilburn's younger brother and the subordinate villain, is a cowed imbecile. He is a sturdy, evil, stupified Laetitia. Unlike Lilburn, he is pure Kentucky and has no Virginian memories. (In Brother to Dragons, when the characters pass from Virginia to Kentucky they experience an immense social decline, as if this latter state were a “bad address.” The Kentuckians are Elizabethan rustics, all a bit clownish and amazed to be speaking in meter.) Isham is drawn with amusement and horror, although as a key witness he needs a great deal of help from Warren's superior understanding of his own actions. The minor characters are quickly summarized: Dr. Lewis, the father, is shadowy; Aunt Cat is a mask; Laetitia's brother is a mildly amusing “humor,” the sort of appendage who stands about, scratching his head, and saying, “I'm a simple country fellow.” Meriwether Lewis seems altogether out of place in the work.

Jefferson! An original—mean, pale, sour, spoon-riverish! Hardy's Sinister Spirit. In the end, this Robespierre in a tub is converted by Lucy to a higher idealism, to “definition.” (The Democrats are out of office and so perhaps Warren will not suffer public assault because of this black apotheosis.)

Finally there is R. P. W., the author, who speaks at greater length than any of the other characters and with greater imagination, power and intelligence. He is Pilgrim, Everyman, Chorus and Warren, the real person, who like everyone has his own birthplace, parents, personal memories, taste, etc. It is his problem to face, understand, and even to justify a world which includes moronic violence. As with Hugo at the beginning of Le Fin de Satan, the crucial catastrophic act is not the eating of the apple but the murder of Abel. Warren suggests that the pursuit of knowledge leads to a split in body and spirit, and consequently to “idealism,” and consequently to an inability to face or control the whole of life, and consequently to murder. He is concerned with evil and with the finiteness of man. I'm not sure of Warren's position but it is often close to neo-Humanism and neo-Thomism, and so deliberately close that he frequently suffers from hardness. Yet sometimes you feel he is taking the opposite position and is merely a commonsense, secular observer. The character R. P. W., as we see him in the poem, is himself split between a love for abstractions and an insatiable appetite for sordid detail, as though Allen Tate were rewriting Stavrogin's “Confession.” R. P. W., has his own troubles with “definition.” The two halves embarrass each other: the character is at once unreal and again irresistibly energetic. I quote a passage—for its power rather than as an expression of character:

Well, standing there, I'd felt, I guess, the first
Faint tremor of that natural chill, but then
In some black aperture among the stones
I saw the eyes, their glitter in that dark,
And suddenly the head thrust forth, and the fat, black
Body molten flowed, as though those stones
Bled forth earth's inner darkness to the day,
As though the bung had broke on that intolerable inwardness,
And now divulged, thus focused and compacted,
What haunts beneath earth's primal, soldered sill,
And in its slow and merciless ease, sleepless, lolls
Below that threshold where the prime waters sleep.
Thus it flowed forth, and the scaled belly of abomination
Rustled on stone, rose, rose up
And reared in regal indolence and swag.
I saw it rise, saw the soiled white of the belly bulge,
And in that muscular distention I saw the black side scales
Show their faint flange and tracery of white.
And so it rose and climbed the paralysed light.
On those heaped stones it was taller than I, taller
Than any man, and the swollen head hung
Haloed and high in light; when in that splendid
Nimb the hog-snout parted, and with girlish
Fastidiousness the faint tongue flicked to finick in the sun.

Of course Warren is a remarkable novelist, yet I cannot help feeling that this strange metrical novel is his true medium. It has kept the unique readability of fiction, a charm which is almost always absent from long poems. In this, at least, Brother to Dragons is superior to any of the larger works of Browning. And yet Warren almost is Browning. What this may mean is suggested by an observation by Gide. “Browning and Dostoevsky seem to me to bring the monologue straightway to perfection, in all the diversity and subtlety to which this literary form lends itself. Perhaps I shock the literary sense of some of my audience by coupling these two names, but I can do no other, nor help being struck by the profound resemblance, not merely in form, but in substance.” After reading Brother to Dragons, I feel not only that Warren has written a successful poem but that in this work he most truly seems to approach the power of those writers one has always felt hovering about him, those poetic geniuses in prose, Melville and Faulkner. In Warren's case, it is the prose genius in verse which is so startling.

Babette Deutsch (review date 1953)

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SOURCE: Deutsch, Babette. “Poetry Chronicle.” The Yale Review 43, no. 2 (December 1953): 276-81.

[In the following excerpted review, Deutsch admires Brother to Dragons “as a whole and in its parts.”]

The kernel of Robert Penn Warren's “tale in verse and voices,” as Brother to Dragons is subtitled, is the brutal murder of a Negro slave by Lilburn Lewis, elder son of Thomas Jefferson's only sister. The crime was a matter of public knowledge and record, but was never referred to by the man who prided himself less on his presidency than on having been the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and having fathered the University of Virginia.

Warren tells the story of the murder in living dialogue, and explores not only the motives of the murderer in committing the act but also those of his great kinsman in seeming to ignore it. Blaming him for his silence, Warren accuses Jefferson of having set us on the road to moral ruin by trying to conceal from himself and his countrymen the evil that is inextricable from human deed and desire. The poem thus thrusts at us in harrowing form the problem that is as actual now as it was some fifteen centuries ago to Augustine, defending against Pelagius the doctrine of Original Sin, more familiar to us in the aspect of the id. By whatever name we call it, the problem of the human disposition, of our involvement in the fate of others and so of our guilt, remains the same. It has its bearing on our political and economic institutions as well as on metaphysics, and is sufficiently pressing to make a work on this theme worthy of attention.

Warren's performance is immediately interesting. It should prove durably so, because the discussion is dramatically presented, because the tale is told in masterly verse, and because the voices uttering it are various, distinct, and significant. Throughout, the language is remarkably right, be it the crudest oath or the tenderest lullaby, a description of an encounter with a snake, an aged man's reminiscence of an episode in his boyhood, or a landscape deepened by association with human labor and human feeling. With a skill that only ample quotation could illustrate, the poet shows us the hearts and minds of these men and women: Lilburn Lewis, the murderer; his gentle mother, Lucy Jefferson Lewis; his old black nurse, who is also represented as the mother of the boy he murders; Lilburn's wife and her brother, the younger Lewis boy and their father; their kinsman, the disillusioned pioneer, Meriwether Lewis.

There is one voice, however, that fails to carry conviction as of the essence of the character speaking. It is the voice of Thomas Jefferson, who opens the poem in converse with its author. Later on Jefferson talks with his sister Lucy, and towards the close of the poem with his unhappy cousin, Meriwether Lewis, but his interchange is chiefly with Robert Penn Warren. Their discussion, often sharp and bitter, about the nature of man comes to seem an argument that the poet is holding with himself. Perhaps it is an argument that in these ugly days each of us holds with himself. It is set forth with uncommon force in Warren's poem, which neither blinks at the brutality nor plays down the exquisite tenderness of which men are alike capable. The story is told directly enough, and the symbolism is no more obtrusive than are the wide-ranging literary allusions, which will engage the knowledgeable without puzzling the uninformed reader. One may quarrel with the author for unfairly loading the burden of guilt for our plight upon a man so much wiser in his generation than any figure of such influence in our own time. But one cannot fail to admire the poem as a whole and in its parts, for the balanced design, the power and propriety of the diction, the liveliness of the characterization, the way in which the natural scene is made to form a suitable background for and witness to, sometimes, indeed, almost an analogue of, the human condition. …

F. Cudworth Flint (review date 1954)

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SOURCE: Flint, F. Cudworth. “Search for a Meaning.” The Virginia Quarterly Review XXX, no. 1 (Winter 1954): 143-48.

[In the following review, Flint favorably assesses Warren's narrative poem Brother to Dragons.]

To a bluff in Livingston County in western Kentucky overlooking the Ohio river Dr. Charles Lewis, a planter and physician of Albemarle County, Virginia, early in the nineteenth century moved with his wife, Lucy Jefferson, sister of Thomas Jefferson, his grown sons Lilburn and Isham, and some slaves. Lucy soon died, and Dr. Lewis returned to Virginia, leaving his sons in Kentucky. On the night of December 15, 1811, just before the first of a series of earthquakes struck the Mississippi valley, Lilburn with the not quite whole-hearted assistance of Isham, in the presence of his other slaves, bound his slave George to a meat block and chopped his living body to pieces because the slave had broken a china pitcher much prized by Lilburn's dead mother. The murder becoming known, the brothers were tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hung. A suicide pact resulted in the death only of Lilburn and the escape of Isham, but the latter was credibly reported several years later to have perished in fighting the British at New Orleans. So much for historical fact, stated, with other details, in a prose Foreword to Mr. Warren's poem.

Mr. Warren has been meditating this story as a possible subject for a writer over a period of years. He has told us that he at first thought of developing it in a novel, but came to see that the theme did not expand into a multiplicity of incidents and then draw together at its close, as a novel typically seems to do. He then essayed a play, but found the burden of commentary invited by the subject unsuited to the requirements of the theatre. He has therefore settled for a vehicle upon narrative poetry, written, as is felt to be natural in our century, in verse unrhymed for the most part, and varying around the iambic pentameter norm, though varying more liberally than blank verse would have done in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (It may be remarked in passing, however, that a principle of variation has always been present in all iambic pentameter verse except that which is utterly wooden; for it is usually true that one of the “five” stressed syllables carries perceptibly less weight than do the other four. The shuttling about of this “light-heavy” syllable among the four more heavily loaded ones accounts in part for the sense of variety in flow which good pentameter verse creates.)

Yet to call the poem simply “narrative” is misleading, even as an account of its printed format. For the story does not unfold in chronological order, nor yet through any tricky but nonetheless temporal series of flashbacks. It is developed through a colloquy of voices, talking at a place which is “No place” during a time which is “Any time.” The voices are those of Thomas Jefferson, of Dr. Lewis and his wife Lucy; of Lilburn, Isham, and the former's wife Laetitia; of Laetitia's brother; of Aunt Cat, the Negro Mammy who had nursed Lilburn; of the explorer Meriwether Lewis, cousin to the President and to the Doctor's family; of George, the murdered slave; and of R. P. W., the author himself. Two of the main difficulties created by this unusual mode of presentation Mr. Warren has in my opinion met successfully. He has maintained a tension of expectancy as events move toward us in the poem of which we are already aware as facts. And he has invested the effort of the characters to know themselves and each other with some of the same excitement which oftenest and most readily arises from a recital of the blow struck with tongue or fist.

Obviously, Mr. Warren's choice of a form was dictated by the nature of his undertaking: the search for a meaning. More specifically, what is the nature of man? It is a nature which President Jefferson—who, rather than Lilburn himself, is pretty much the villain of this poem—had held to be rational and of itself inclined to good, once all impediments of outworn custom and insufficient education are removed. How else could Jefferson have wished to be remembered in his epitaph only as author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginian Statute of Religious Freedom, and as founder of the University of Virginia? Yet it was a blood relative of this man who horribly butchered a slave. Biographers tell us that Jefferson could never bring himself to refer to this event. For Mr. Warren, Jefferson was the arch-apostle—in America at least—of a great delusion, to which many of our later major distresses may be traced. In the poem Jefferson is made to recant his optimism in terms appropriate to a man who feels he has been utterly betrayed, though at the finish Jefferson is made, somewhat rhetorically and for reasons not wholly clear to me, to share in the astringent though salutary promise of possible grounds for a faith in man which seems to be the point reached at the close.

The poem, then, is essentially a movement of thought provoked by a detail of history. A few lines collected here and there—not necessarily in the order in which they occur in the poem—can best make evident this movement. It could, of course, be plotted rather differently.

Unlike other creatures, man wishes to know to what end he was created, and will hardly be content with the answer “To no end.” As Laetitia says:

Oh, God, even if You're God, You haven't got
The right to make me not know anything
And make my life all nothing then, and me
Just nothing.

Man suspects, moreover, that the end for which he was created lies somewhere ahead; or as the voice of R. P. W. puts it,

                                                                                                    How can there be
Sensation when there is perfect adjustment? …
The catfish is in the Mississippi and
The Mississippi is in the catfish and
Under the ice both are at one with God.
Would that we were!

Yet we cannot be one with God as catfish are; we must become one with God, if that way lies our end, by struggle and search—that is, by acts. Yet because we—as history and introspection attest—are most ambiguously mixed in nature, every act is in some part a betrayal: R. P. W. says:

In that hell-broth of paradox and internecine
Complex of motive and murderous intensity
We call the soul …
Any act at all, the bad, the good, affords,
Or seems to afford, the dear redemption of simplicity:
The dear redemption in the mere fact of achieved definition,
Be what that may.

Still, even in what seemed to others a supremely shocking act, some testimony to the substantiality of the good appears:

                                                                      … Lilburn's heart-deep need
To name his evil good is the final evidence
For the existence of good.

What hope, then, emerges from the confused anguish of the human spectacle? Lucy Lewis, as loving mother of Lilburn, answers in keeping with her experience:

… the human curse is simply to love and sometimes to love well,
But never enough. It's simple as that.

and later in the poem adds:

For if love's anything, it is the thing
That, once existing, may not be denied,
For it is definition, and denial
Is death, but is
That death in which you may not ever lie down.

And at the poem's end R. P. W., picking up again a key word early introduced into the poem, says:

We have yearned in the heart for some identification
With the glory of the human effort, and have yearned
For an adequate definition of that glory.
To make that definition would be, in itself,
Of the nature of glory …
In so far as man has the simplest vanity of self,
There is no escape from the movement toward fulfillment.
And since all kind but fulfills its own kind,
Fulfillment is only in the degree of recognition
Of the common lot of our kind. And that is the death of vanity
And that is the beginning of virtue.
The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence.
The recognition of necessity is the beginning of freedom.
The recognition of the direction of fulfillment is the death of the self,
And the death of the self is the beginning of selfhood.

These quotations, being drawn only from lines of commentary, may suggest that the style of the poem is more uniformly abstract than it is. (And the last lines quoted may suggest that the influence of T. S. Eliot is more pronounced than it is.) There is considerable difference between the “notes” characteristic of the several voices. The more animal persons recollecting their more animal moments can throw up an utterly earthy word or image. (It is only the idiom of Jefferson that I find less than convincing, simply because I find his recantation of his Jeffersonianism no more than a strategy on Mr. Warren's part for the sake of the philosophical issue worked out in this poem.)

With Brother to Dragons Mr. Warren has in my view added memorably to the group of sagas he has been writing—mostly in prose—about his semi-tropical Iceland, the region between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, from the Ohio in the north to the Gulf. As in the sagas, there are deeds of violence and passion. And more than in the sagas, there is the unfriending night—here, the empty darkness of Kentucky that seemed to invade and fascinate the souls of those who lived there. And hence a doubt: among these glooms, so often and so well conveyed by Mr. Warren, can humanity achieve any glory untinged by the infernal? That is a problem for Mr. Warren both as artist and as thinker.

James Dickey (review date 1958)

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SOURCE: Dickey, James. “In the Presence of Anthologies.” The Sewanee Review LXVI, no. 2 (Spring 1958): 294-314.

[In the following excerpted review, Dickey highlights the intensity of Warren's poetry—despite its occasional unevenness—and its themes of self-definition, self-discovery, and self-determination.]

Opening a book of poems by Robert Penn Warren is like putting out the light of the sun, or like plunging into the labyrinth and feeling the thread break after the first corner is passed. One will never come out in the same Self as that in which one entered. When he is good, and often even when he is bad, you had as soon read Warren as live, a feeling you do not get from any of these others, expert as some of them are. Of all these poets, Warren is the only one to give you the sense of poetry as a thing of final importance to life: as a way or form of life. In his practise it is a tortured, painful, sometimes rhetorical means of exploring man's fate, often nearer to tragic melodrama than to tragedy, but never anything less than fully engaged in its problems, never inconsequential. Like any human poet, Warren has his failings: his are a liking for the overinflated, or “bombast” as Longinus defines it; he indulges frequently in examples of pathetic fallacy so outrageous that they should, certainly, become classic instances of the misuse of this device. Phrases like “the irrelevant anguish of air,” and “the malfeasance of nature or the filth of fate” come only as embarrassments to the reader already entirely committed to Warren's dark and toiling spell. These two figures occur in possibly the best of all his poems: “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress.” One regrets them, but in the end they do not greatly matter.

I cannot interpret for you this collocation
Of memories. You will live your own life, and contrive
The language of your own heart, but let that conversation,
In the last analysis, be always of whatever truth you would live.
For fire flames but in the heart of a colder fire.
All voice is but echo caught from a soundless voice.
Height is not deprivation of valley, nor defect of desire,
But defines, for the fortunate, that joy in which all joys should rejoice.

The massive, slow-moving, and leonine writing of this poem, in both its obvious imperfections and its near-sublimity, is the most succinct and moving presentation Warren has yet made of one of his principal themes: the impossible and obsessive desire of human beings for perfection, and the eternally corrupt and corrupting means of attaining it. His great arena for exploring this subject, in his poems as well as in his novels, is History. Somewhere within History, even as it is reduced to and manifested in the life-time of the individual, abides the fearful and defining Revelation:

… and in that dark no thread,
Airy as breath by Ariadne's fingers forged.
No thread, and beyond some groped-at corner, hulked
In the blind dark, hock-deep in ordure, its beard
And shag foul-scabbed, and when the hoof heaves—
Listen!—the foulness sucks like mire.

Warren leads us through parts of History, through a starkly reinterpreted mythology, and through the static, terror-ridden world of his rural childhood as though at each turn of Time or corridor or path, in each change of light, behind each tree of the Kentucky woods, the Secret—terrible, unforeseen, inevitable—will appear, and either strike us dead, drive us into crime inexplicable to any but ourselves, or yield up in transfiguring and releasing pain our Definition. “Definition,” in Warren's usage, is the result of the search for one's own necessary identity: for the place one has been ordained, by God or chance or self, to occupy in the tragic universe. When the individual discovers or makes “his own truth,” the Truth he “would live,” he has something to live for as well as by; he is then able to face “the awful responsibility of Time.” With Warren we are seeking the identity, the definition, possible only to ourselves, and we are allowed no compromises either with the search or with the discoveries it entails. Warren's verse is so deeply and compellingly linked to man's ageless, age-old drive toward self-discovery, self-determination, that it makes all discussion of line-endings, metrical variants, and the rest of poetry's paraphernalia appear hopelessly beside the point. Though it is good to notice in retrospect that Warren's best poems, like “Man in Moonlight,” give us, too, the formal intensity of art, the sense of the thing done right, one is concerned finally less with this than with the knowledge that these poems 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.

James Wright (review date 1958)

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SOURCE: Wright, James. “The Stiff Smile of Mr. Warren.” In Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil Nakadate, pp. 262-9. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1981.

[In the following review, originally published in 1958, Wright calls Warren “unpredictable” as a poet and focuses on “distortions of language” in his collection Promises: Poems 1954-1956. The critic continues by analyzing “The Child Next Door,” viewing it as “a successful, though disturbing poem.”]

Although it is possible, generally speaking, to discover certain consistently developing themes in Mr. Warren's work—prose and verse alike—it is nevertheless impossible to know just what he will do next. In our own century he is perhaps the only American writer who, having already established his major importance, remains unpredictable. If anyone has noted any similarity between Mr. Warren and, say, Dickens, I should be surprised and delighted. But the two authors share the power—it is a very great power, and perhaps it is the heart of the poetic imagination—of unpredictability. A critic is right in being a little hesitant about such a writer. But how explain the neglect of Mr. Warren's poems when we compare it with the critical concern with his novels? I use the word “neglect” when I speak of the poems, simply because I have a hunch that they contain the best seedings and harvests of his imagination.


A good many reviewers of Promises have been taken aback by the violent distortions of language. But one reviewer is Mr. James Dickey, in the Sewanee Review, who describes and clarifies my own response to the book.

The first point concerns the distortions of language, and the critic felt that most of them were flaws: “Warren has his failings: his are a liking for the over-inflated, or ‘bombast’ as Longinus defines it; he indulges in examples of pathetic fallacy so outrageous that they should, certainly, become classic instances of the misuse of this device. Phrases like ‘the irrelevant anguish of air,’ and ‘the malfeasance of nature or the filth of fate’ come only as embarrassments to the reader already entirely committed to Warren's dark and toiling spell.” I think this is a pretty fair description of the kinds of awkwardness that frequently appear in Promises. However, the really curious and exciting quality of the book is the way in which so many of the poems can almost drag the reader, by the scruff of the neck, into the experience which they are trying to shape and understand.

But this very triumph of imaginative force over awkward language is Mr. Dickey's second point, and the critic states it eloquently: “Warren's verse is so deeply and compellingly linked to man's ageless, age-old drive toward self-discovery, self-determination, that it makes all discussion of line-endings, metrical variants, and the rest of poetry's paraphernalia appear hopelessly beside the point.”

Yet, so very often in this new book, Mr. Warren simply will not allow the reader to consider the rhetorical devices of language “hopelessly beside the point.” That he is capable of a smoothly formal versification in some poems, and of a delicate musical variation in others, he has shown many times in the past. We are not dealing with a raw, genuine, and untrained talent, but with a skilled and highly sophisticated student of traditional prosody. In effect, a major writer at the height of his fame has chosen, not to write his good poems over again, but to break his own rules, to shatter his words and try to recreate them, to fight through and beyond his own craftsmanship in order to revitalize his language at the sources of tenderness and horror. One of the innumerable ironies which hound writers, I suppose, is the fact that the very competence which a man may struggle for years to master can suddenly and treacherously stiffen into a mere armor against experience instead of an instrument for contending with that experience. No wonder so many poets quit while they're still behind. What makes Mr. Warren excitingly important is his refusal to quit even while he's ahead. In Promises, it seems to me, he has deliberately shed the armor of competence—a finely meshed and expensive armor, forged at heaven knows how many bitter intellectual fires—and has gone out to fight with the ungovernable tide. I mean no disrespect—on the contrary—when I say that few of the poems in this book can match several of his previous single poems. Yet I think there is every reason to believe that his willingness to do violence to one stage in the development of his craftsmanship is not the least of the promises which his book contains. I do not wish to argue about any of the poems in Promises which I consider at the moment to be failures, though I shall mention one of them. But I think that a book such as this—a book whose main importance, I believe, is the further evidence it provides for the unceasing and furious growth of a considerable artist—deserves an attention quite as close as that which we conventionally accord to the same author's more frequently accomplished poems of the past.


The distortion of language in the new book is almost always demonstrably deliberate. When it is successful, it appears not as an accidental coarseness, but rather as an extreme exaggeration of a very formal style. The poetic function of the distortion is to mediate between the two distinct moods of tenderness and horror. This strategy—in which formality is driven, as it were, to distraction—does not always succeed. It is dishonest critical damnation, and not critical praise, to tell a gifted imaginative writer that he has already scaled Olympus when, as a matter of frequent fact, he has taken a nose-dive into the ditch. The truest praise, in my opinion, is in the critic's effort to keep his eye on the poet's imaginative strategy, especially if the poet is still alive and still growing. I think that the failure of Mr. Warren's strategy is most glaring when the material which he dares to explore will somehow not allow him to establish one of the two essentially dramatic moods—the tenderness and the horror of which I spoke above. An example of this failure is the poem “School Lesson Based on Word of Tragic Death of Entire Gillum Family.” The horror is stated, and the reality of horror is a lesson which everyone must learn, as the poet implies in the last line. But there is no tenderness against which the horror can be dramatically drawn, and there is no dramatic reason that I can discern for presenting the ice-pick murder of the Gillum family. Now, I am sure the reader will allow me to claim a human concern for the Gillum family, wherever and whoever they were. All I am saying is that they are not here: that is, their death seems to me a capricious horror; and the distorted language, in spite of its magnificent attempt to achieve a folklike barrenness and force, remains a capricious awkwardness.

My speaking of “failure” in a poet of so much stature is of course tempered by my statement of a conviction which constantly grows on me: that a failure like the “School Lesson” is worth more than the ten thousand safe and competent versifyings produced by our current crop of punks in America. I am spared the usual but boring critical courtesy of mentioning names by the fact that we all know who we are. But I am not comparing Mr. Warren's performance in Promises with the performance of us safe boys. I am trying to compare it with his capacities. I want to look somewhat closely at a poem in Promises in which the poet's exploration past facility into violent distortion ends in discovery. I suppose there are five or six fine poems of this sort in the book, but I will settle for a reading of one of them.

The poem is called “The Child Next Door.” I hope that my reader will take time, at this point, to read aloud to himself the entire sequence of poems in Promises entitled “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress.” Furthermore, since there can be no harm in our simply taking the poet at his word (and where else can we begin?) the reader had better read the dedication aloud also.


There are two kinds of violent distortion in “The Child Next Door”—one of rhythm and one of syntax. I invite the reader to discover, if he can, some regularity of scansion in the following representative lines of the poem:

Took a pill, or did something to herself she thought would not hurt. …
Is it hate?—in my heart. Fool, doesn't she know that
                    the process. …
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. …

I find no regularity of metrical stresses. Now, one reviewer has suggested an affinity between Mr. Warren's new verse and the verse of Hopkins. Suppose we were to read the above quoted lines according to Hopkin's system (I quote from one of the famous letters to R. W. Dixon): “It consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong.” (These are, of course, Hopkins's somewhat desperately oversimplifying words to a puzzled admirer.) The system seems promising, but even this way of reading Mr. Warren's lines does not reveal a regular pattern. Playing the above lines by ear, I can hear six strong stresses in the first line, six in the second, seven in the third, and seven in the fourth. Yet I am not sure; and my uncertainty, instead of being an annoyance, is haunting. Moreover, there are eighteen lines in the whole poem, and my feeling is that nearly all of the lines (mainly with the exception of the above) can be read aloud according to a system of five strong stresses. Here, for example, is the first line of the poem: “The child next door is defective because the mother. …” I hesitate slightly over the word “next,” but, with a little straining to get past it, I think I can find clearly strong stresses in “child,” “door,” the middle syllable of “defective,” the second syllable of “because,” and the first syllable of “mother.” And so on. The regularity becomes clear only if the reader is willing to strain his senses a bit—to give his physical response to the rhythm, as it were, a kind of “body-English.” We find the poet like the tennis player keeping his balance and not taking a fall, and feel some kind of relief which is at the same time a fulfillment. I get this kind of physical sensation in reading “The Child Next Door,” a poem in which a skilled performer is always daring to expose his balance to chaos and always regaining the balance. In plain English, the rhythm of this poem may be described as a formality which is deliberately driven to test itself, and which seems imaginatively designed to disturb the reader into auditory exaggerations of his own. Perhaps what is occurring in the rhythm of this poem is a peculiar kind of counterpoint. We have “counterpoint,” said Hopkins to Dixon, when “each line (or nearly so) has two different coexisting scansions.” But these words explain only a part of Mr. Warren's counterpoint. I propose the hypothesis that one can hear in the poem two movements of language: a strong formal regularity, which can be identified with a little struggle, but which is driven so fiercely by the poet that one starts to hear beyond it the approach of an unpredictable and hence discomforting second movement, which can be identified as something chaotic, something very powerful but unorganized. It is the halting, stammering movement of an ordinarily articulate man who has been shocked. The order and the chaos move side by side; and, as the poem proceeds, I get the feeling that each movement becomes a little stronger, and together they help to produce an echoing violence in the syntax.

Some of the later lines do indeed sound something like Hopkins; but that is an accidental and, I think, essentially irrelevant echo. The lines have their own dramatic justification, which I shall try to show in a moment:

Can it bind or loose, that beauty in that kind,
Beauty of benediction? I trust our hope to prevail
That heart-joy in beauty be wisdom before beauty fail.

The syntax in the earlier lines of the poem seems to be recognizably more regular:

The child next door is defective because the mother,
Seven brats already in that purlieu of dirt,
Took a pill.

If the reader grants that the syntax of these earlier lines is fairly normal and regular as compared with the syntax of the passage beginning “Can it bind or loose,” then I think he can identify the two kinds of distortion which I have mentioned: a distortion of rhythm, and a distortion of a syntax. But each distortion, however strong, is accompanied by an equally strong regularity. And in each case the violence of the distortion is identifiable as an exaggeration of the regularity itself.

What a neat stylistic formulation! And how dead, compared with the poem!


Now, to say that the sound of a poem is not identical with its sense is different from saying that the two may not exist in rhetorical harmony with each other. I believe that the exaggerated formality of sound in Mr. Warren's poem is justified by the dramatic occasion of the poem itself. Let us consider the poem's dramatic occasion by limiting ourselves, at least temporarily, to the references which we can find within it, or in the title of the sequence of which it is a part.

First, the speaker is addressing a one-year-old child. He has told us so in the title of the sequence. Moreover, the fact that in this particular poem he is not merely brooding on things in general is made clear to us by his explicitly addressing the child in the next-to-last line: “I think of your goldness. …” In addressing the child he first points out something that exists in the external world; then he describes his own feelings about this thing; and finally he tries to convey the significance of what he sees in relation to the one-year-old child herself. It might be objected, either to the poem or to my reading of it, that a one-year-old child could not conceivably understand either the physical horror of what the speaker points out or the confused and confusing significance which he has to extract from it. She is defended against its horror by her youth. But the speaker is also incapable of grasping what he shows the child. And he has no defense. He is exposed to an almost unspeakably hideous reality which he can neither escape nor deny.

Indeed, what makes reality in nature seem hideous is that it is both alluring and uncontrollable. Once a man is committed to it in love, he is going to be made to suffer. “Children sweeten labours,” said Bacon, “but they make misfortunes more bitter.” The reason is that children tear away, if anything can, a man's final defense against the indifferent cruelty of the natural world into which he has somehow blundered and awakened. The speaker in Mr. Warren's poem speaks to his own appallingly precious child about another child who seems blindly and meaninglessly lamed and halted by something in nature itself for which it is absurd to assign anything so simple as mere blame. I would find it hard to imagine a dramatic situation in which the loving commitments of the speaker are subjected to more severe tensions than this one. And conceiving, as I do, that the speaker is an actor in this drama, and not merely a spectator of it, I would say that his “pathetic fallacy” of attributing “malfeasance” to nature and “filth” to fate is his dramatically justifiable attempt to defend himself against something more horrible than malfeasance and filth—i.e., the indifference of nature and fate alike.

The speaker cannot escape the contemplation of this horror because of the very child whom he addresses. The tenderness with which he regards this child (“I think of your goldness, of joy”) is the very emotion which exposes him to the living and physical evidence of the horror which man and child contemplate together, which neither can understand, but which the man is trapped by his tenderness into acknowledging.

For the horror (embodied in the defective child, the child next door) in its vast and terrible innocence of its own nature actually greets the speaker. He cannot ignore the greeting; for he, too, has a child—not defective, but nevertheless unknowingly exposed to all the possibilities, all the contingencies and promises (of course, Mr. Warren knows very well, and dramatizes in this poem with surpassing power, that not all promises are sentimental assurances of a return to Eden), the utterly mindless and brutal accidents of a fallen world. So every child, in a sense which is fundamental to the loving and moral agony of this poem, is defective—and the speaker himself is such a child. Perhaps the real “child next door” is the reader of the book.

The fallen world is chiefly characterized, in the poet's vision, by a tragic truth: that man's very capacity for tenderness is what exposes him to horrors which cannot be escaped without the assumption of an indifference which, to be sufficiently comforting, would also require the loss of tenderness itself, perhaps even the loss of all feeling—even the loss of hatred. The beautiful sister in the poem is not in agony, and her face is not stiff with anger, or contorted with tenderness. Her face is pure, calm. Her face is, in the most literal sense, unbearable. “She smiles her smile without taint.” Without taint! To give my sense of the dramatic and human appropriateness of the poet's outburst against the maddening and untainted smile, I can only say that, if the speaker in the poem had not damned her for a fool, I would have written a letter to Mr. Warren and damned her on my own hook.

The speaker is trapped in his necessity of choice; and yet he cannot choose. Between the necessity and the incapacity the speaker is driven to a point where the outraged snarl of an animal would have been justified by the dramatic context. But this is where the imaginative courage of Mr. Warren's continuous explorations comes in. Instead of following the music of his lines and the intensity of his drama into chaos, he suddenly rides the pendulum back to formality—but this time the formality of the rhythm includes the formality of the drama, and I think that the strategy is superbly successful. Instead of snarling, the speaker acknowledges the horror's greeting. He faces the horror, and his acknowledgement is a perfect embodiment of what earlier I called a severe and exaggerated formality. Consider the emotions that the speaker must simultaneously bear in his consciousness: frightened and helpless tenderness toward his own child; horror at the idiot; rage at the calm face of the sister. His problem is like the lesson in Frost's poem: “how to be unhappy yet polite.” And the speaker smiles—stiffly: “I smile stiff, saying ciao, saying ciao.” The stiffness of that smile, I think, is what we must attend to. It is the exaggerated formality with which a man faces and acknowledges the concrete and inescapable existence of an utterly innocent (and therefore utterly ruthless) reality which is quite capable not only of crushing him, but also of letting him linger contemplatively over the sound of his own bones breaking. And the exaggerated formality is, in the sound and syntax of the poem, that violence of language which I have described, and which many reviewers of the poems have found discomforting. I admit that the distortions, which swing on the living pendulum of the poet's imagination between the sound and the sense of the poem “The Child Next Door,” are discomforting. All I suggest is that they dramatically illuminate each other, and that they are therefore rhetorically harmonious parts of a single created experience: a successful, though disturbing, poem.

Louis L. Martz (review date 1969)

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SOURCE: Martz, Louis L. “Recent Poetry.” The Yale Review 58, no. 4 (June 1969): 592-605.

[In the following excerpted review, Martz acknowledges Warren's “subtle and firm command of his own idiom,” while surveying the poetic works of Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968.]

It has now been fifteen years since Robert Penn Warren returned to lyric poetry in the writings of his volume Promises: Poems 1954-1956. His new volume, Incarnations, fulfills those promises. Warren has moved now into subtle and firm command of his own idiom, with an effect well-described by his chosen title. These poems incarnate, by movement of spoken words, by images of fruit and sea and city, a sense of spirit flowing through all existence, or as he puts it in one poem, a sense of “the furious energies of nature.” These are sequences with many settings: first, a Mediterranean island off the coast of France; next, the dismal setting of a Southern prison; then, in New York City, the scene of a pedestrian accident near old Penn Station; and lastly, a few poems set in the mysterious “Enclaves” of memory. What is most remarkable about these poems is their quiet deftness in weaving together a universe of sights and sounds within the mind of this sensitive speaker. In the opening sequence, memories of Phoenicians merge with a Nazi helmet found in the “island dump,” while from “the next island,” a rocket rises from “Le centre de recherche d'engins spéciaux,” preparing for another war. Yet still the “mind is intact,” receiving and absorbing these varied images, holding them all together in a tender apprehension, sensing and interpreting the meaning of “the slow fig's purple sloth,” or of an old woman in a bikini on the beach, or of the mistral and the “Masts at Dawn.” In his poem “The Red Mullet,” the presence of the fish is associated with that of the fig, while both together suggest a realization of an inner life in the things of nature, including the depths of the speaker's own mind. I quote this superb poem complete, for it represents the best of Warren's art in this volume, and illustrates the way in which the terror and the attraction of nature's forces may be held within the mind and action of a human figure:

The fig flames inward on the bough, and I,
Deep where the great mullet, red, lounges in
Black shadow of the shoal, have come.          Where no light may
Come, he the great one, like flame, burns, and I
Have met him, eye to eye, the lower jaw horn,
Outthrust, arched down at the corners, merciless as
Genghis, motionless and mogul, and the eye of
The mullet is round, bulging, ringed like a target
In gold, vision is armor, he sees and does not
Forgive.          The mullet has looked me in the eye, and forgiven
Nothing.          At night I fear suffocation, is there
Enough air in the world for us all, therefore I
Swim much, dive deep to develop my lung-case, I am
Familiar with the agony of will in the deep place. Blood
Thickens as oxygen fails.          Oh, mullet, thy flame
Burns in the shadow of the black shoal.

This poem, as I read it, speaks of the mystery and the fear of human understanding: the mind's eagerness to know, along with the shock of knowledge, the grasp of forces that lie, perhaps hostile, beyond the rim of the mind.

In different settings we can find the same deep sympathy at work, with the sick murderer Jake in the pen, crying out,

“Jest keep that morphine moving, Cap,
And me, I'll tough it through,”

or, in a better sequence, we have the gradual inclusion of the demolition of Penn Station, a prowling jet above, a black woman hit “by a 1957 yellow Cadillac,” and the poet himself watching from his taxi. All this is brought together under the image of the woman's scream, a sound that comprehends, within the sharply aroused mind of the onlooker, the “tat-tat-tat” of the “pneumatic hammers” as they wreck an edifice of classic form and beauty, while “the orange-colored helmets of the construction workers bloom brilliant as zinnias”—those very zinnias that the black woman knew back in Georgia as a child when “a lard-can of zinnias bloomed by the little cabin door.” The jet is too high to be heard, and yet the poet can feel its ominous presence:

The jet is so far off there is no sound, not even the sizzle
                                        it makes as it sears the utmost edges of air.
It prowls the edge of distance like the raw edge of experience.

And lastly, in the final section of this book, we have the apparition of human beings that transcend and yet incarnate the earthly in their guise as “Skiers”:

With the color of birds or of angels,
They swoop, sway, descend, and descending,
Cry their bright bird-cries, pure
In the sweet desolation of distance.
They slowly enlarge to our eyes.          Now
On the flat where the whiteness is
Trodden and mud-streaked, not birds now,
Nor angels even, they stand.          They
Are awkward, not yet well adjusted
To this world, new and strange, of Time and
Contingency, who now are only
Human.          They smile.          The human
Face has its own beauty.

This volume has a total integrity of great power, as it moves through the varied images of human experience, attractive and repulsive, and yet in the end concludes with the emphasis upon the incarnate beauty of the human. …

Monroe K. Spears (review date 1970)

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SOURCE: Spears, Monroe K. “The Latest Poetry of Robert Penn Warren.” The Sewanee Review 78, no. 2 (April 1970): 348-57.

[In the following review, Spears notes the heightened personal reference of Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 and explores the themes, imagery, and language of Incarnations.]

When Robert Penn Warren began writing poetry again in 1954, after the ten-year interval in which he wrote none except for the long “play for verse and voices”, Brother to Dragons, there was a very noticeable change. His new verse was far more open in texture and more explicitly personal in reference than the earlier. The change was plainly a response to the same pressures that caused numerous other poets to begin at about the same time to write the kind of poetry that has since been called “open” or “confessional” or “naked”. On the other hand, it is equally plain that the change was the end product of an internal development, an accentuation of tendencies present from the beginning. Even in the Fugitive days, Warren's poetry was marked by a candor and directness of address to the reader in which these recent trends were clearly latent.

The plan of Selected Poems makes this continuity evident: Warren begins the volume with his latest work, and arranges all his poetry in reverse chronological order. The poems written 1954-1966 occupy 216 pages of the volume, as against only 75 pages for those published 1923-1943 (some 15 poems being dropped from those published in the original volumes during this period). Warren could hardly make his sense of the meaning of his own work clearer: the selection gives pride of place to the recent verse and suggests that it overshadows the earlier in quality as in bulk. Loyal admirers of the early verse may feel some initial outrage at this suggestion, but they must grant immediately that the arrangement gives the volume a special contemporary relevance.

The titles of the later volumes indicate their central themes. Promises: Poems 1954-1956 begins with a sequence dedicated to the poet's daughter, born in 1953, and finds its center in the title sequence, dedicated to his son, born in 1955. (Warren's father died in this same year, as a group of poems in the next volume tells us, and the conjunction in time of these two events was highly significant to him.) The title, Promises, suggests both the new hope that the children bring to their father and the commitment to the future that they represent. He sees them in various perspectives of time and place—“Infant Boy at Mid-Century”; “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress”—and through them he relives his own childhood. The title also designates the theme new to Warren's poetry: the promise of joy as a real possibility. This theme is intimately involved with the other one that underlies all the later poetry even when it is not explicit. Put abstractly, this may be called the necessity to accept Time in all its aspects. (The theme is new only in its urgency and elaboration.) To live fully in the present is to accept the world as real and to accept both past and future, for the present takes part of its reality from them. Hence the volume begins with the poet's vision of his dead parents repeating their promises to him, and reaches one of its high points in the ballad about the grandmother who must submit to being eaten by the hogs—this being the most powerful of the images of eating (a natural symbol for acceptance and communion) that abound in the volume. This concern with interdependence is reflected formally in Warren's increasing tendency, beginning with Promises, to conceive of his poems in terms of sequences in which the poems are not autonomous or self-sufficient but depend for part of their meaning on the context of surrounding poems, on their place in the sequence and in the volume.

Warren has always been fond of the second personal pronoun, his “you” being a way of declaring the common ground between reader and poet. This device is used in the title of You, Emperors, and Others: Poems 1957-1960. The first poem begins, “Whoever you are, this poem is clearly about you”; the volume is also about the “Roman citizen, of no historical importance, under the Empire”, whose epitaph is quoted with this first poem, as well as about the Roman emperors who appear in other poems, together with the poet's dying father and an assortment of creatures including cockroaches, mice, and grasshoppers. The newest group—not previously published in book form—in Selected Poems is “Tale of Time: New Poems 1960-1966”. The title sequence deals with the death of the poet's mother almost forty years before; other obsessive images of guilt and fear range from the Kentucky of his childhood to Vermont in fall to recent scenes by the Mediterranean. The visionary note of joy is strong in many of the poems, not dissociated from the evil and confusion, but subsuming them. And not only joy is possible, but in some sense blessedness and redemption.

The latest volume, Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968, marks a change of direction—or perhaps plateau or wave-trough or consolidation would describe it more accurately—in tone and style. The almost obsessive theme of the preceding volumes—the poet's guilty and ambivalent relation to his parents and to the past which they represent—seems pretty well worked through. Hence the book seems less personal. It is also less optimistic, if so preposterous a word can be used in this context. The goal of joy and communion remains possible and real, but no closer; and the volume has, as we shall see, a somber ending. There is a greater detachment, an ironic treatment of themes that might seem grandiose or vulnerable, sometimes a definite touch of self-parody.

The book has two epigraphs, one from the ballad of John Henry—“A Man Ain't Nuthin but a Man”—and the other from the Bible: “Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren.” These make clear what kind of incarnation is in question: not a vertical one like that of Christianity, but a horizontal and purely human one. The flesh, in the second of the two principal sequences, is that of an old convict dying of cancer in a Southern penitentiary and a Negro maid dying in a meaningless traffic accident in New York. The communion celebrated is one of suffering.

The incarnation celebrated and explored in the first sequence, fifteen poems called “Island of Summer”, is relatively personal, in that the poet comes to fuller acceptance of the ties of the flesh—of his parents, his ancestors, and his own past life. Accepting his own fatherhood and his own father, he accepts the human condition, including the mystical relation between fathers and children. As Warren sees it, this relation goes backward as well as forward in time: not only are the children's teeth set on edge because the fathers have eaten grapes, but vice versa. Images of fruit are prominent in this sequence—fruit that is very literal, fleshy, and sensuous, but also on occasion symbolic both of the original forbidden fruit and of the condition of fruitfulness. It is often contained within the larger image of the garden, which similarly fluctuates in the degree and nature of its symbolic meaning. In the last poem of the sequence, the themes associated with both images are recapitulated:

The world is fruitful. In this heat
The plum, black yet bough-bound, bursts, and the gold ooze is,
Of bees, joy, the gold ooze has striven
Outward, it wants again to be of
The goldness of air and—oh—innocent. The grape
Weakens at the juncture of the stem. The world
Is fruitful, and I, too,
In that I am the father
Of my father's father's father. I,
Of my father, have set the teeth on edge. But
By what grape? I have cried out in the night.
From a further garden, from the shade of another tree,
My father's voice, in the moment when the cicada ceases, has called to me.
The voice blesses me for the only
Gift I have given: teeth set on edge. …

Some of the most effective poems deal with the sexual aspect of carnality. For many people now, the only Word is sex, and its incarnation would have to be Aphrodite. “Myth on Mediterranean Beach: Aphrodite as Logos” is a description of a hunchbacked old woman in a bikini who parodies Aphrodite rising from the sea, and as she walks along the beach exposes all the illusions over which Aphrodite presides. In form and rhythm, the verse appears to parody that of Marvell's “The Garden”—a poem that has always haunted Warren's imagination and that lies behind his fine early poem “Bearded Oaks”—in order to puncture the prime illusion of innocence and escape from time. The woman, a “contraption of angles and bulges, an old / Robot with pince-nez and hair dyed gold”, steps into the “first frail lace of foam / That is the threshold of her lost home”, in a dreadful parody of Botticelli. While in the sea she “may not know, somnambulist / In that realm where no Time may subsist”, but eventually re-emerges into the human world of time and pursues her demythologizing way down the beach: “She passes the lovers, one by one, / And passing, draws their dreams away, / And leaves them naked to the day.”

Warren's images of the natural world—and especially of fruit—in this sequence are throughout anti-Marvellian: concerned, that is, not with the contrast between the innocence of animals and plants and the guilt of human beings, but with the community between them, both moral and physical. Thus the fig, in “Where the Slow Fig's Purple Sloth”, takes on its traditional connotations of human sensuality and obesity, “Motionless in that imperial and blunt / Languor of glut …”. “Natural History” describes the relics of human destructiveness (from the Crusades to World War II and the nearby rocket research center preparing for future wars) and the processes of nature on a Mediterranean island; neither nature nor history is merciful except by accident, and the poem dwells on the physical interchange between them. From the bodies of dead soldiers “the root / Of the laurel has profited, the leaf / Of the live oak achieves a new luster, the mouth / Of the mullet is agape. …” (This is, of course, a projection of human qualities into the biological world, corresponding to the reverse kind of projection in Warren's notion of “osmosis” as a form of human communion.) “Riddle in the Garden” is the fullest development of the fruit image. This garden contains no apple but a peach which, falling, “makes full confession, its pudeur / has departed like peach-fuzz wiped off”, and it becomes very fully human and fleshly:

We now know how the hot sweet-
ness of flesh and the juice-dark hug
the rough peach-pit, we know its most
suicidal yearnings, it wants
to suffer extremely, it
Loves God. …

“Where Purples Now the Fig” justifies the flesh as shelter for the bones: “Yes, keep /Them covered, O flesh, O sweet / Integument, O frail, depart not / And leave me thus exposed, like truth.” Encounter with the sun in this poem is counterbalanced by a confrontation in the depths in “The Red Mullet”:

… The mullet has looked me in the eye, and forgiven
Nothing. At night I fear suffocation, is there
Enough air in the world for us all, therefore I
Swim much, dive deep to develop my lung-case, I am
Familiar with the agony of will in the deep place. Blood
Thickens as oxygen fails. Oh, mullet, thy flame
Burns in the shadow of the black shoal.

The flesh of the mullet, like that of the fig (“like flame, purer / Than blood. / It fills / The darkening room with light”), illuminates as human flesh does not. Such encounters and other perhaps mystical experiences are generalized upon in the next poem, “A Place Where Nothing Is”. Because of the horror of dark nothingness, contemplation of the sea (bright collective nothingness) is authorized:

I retract my words, for
the brightness of that nothing-
ness which is the sea is
not nothingness, but is
like the inestimable sea of
Nothingness Plotinus dreamed.

In “Masts at Dawn”, however, the notion of mystic union is presented in a tone verging on parody: “When there is a strong swell, you may, if you surrender to it, experience / A sense, in the act, of mystic unity with that rhythm. Your peace is the sea's will.” But this ominous departure from “in His will is our peace” is tempered by the image of the masts which “go white slow, as light, like dew, from darkness / Condenses on them, on oiled wood, on metal. Dew whitens in darkness.” And the poem concludes, “… We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.” As we have seen, the final poem in the sequence is a recapitulation of all these themes, with stress on the idea of fruitfulness and continuity in time.

The second kind of incarnation with which the volume is concerned differs from the first in two respects: it begins with observation of events having no relation to the poet, and the flesh in question is exclusively human. This kind is explored in the second section of the book, called “Internal Injuries”. The flesh is that of other human beings suffering at present, and the incarnation is effected, the communion achieved, by the poet's sharing in that suffering. In the seven-poem sequence called “Penological Study: Southern Exposure”, the flesh is that of a convict dying of cancer in a Southern penitentiary; and in the eight-poem “Internal Injuries” it is that of a Negro maid killed in a New York traffic accident. Perhaps the best poem in the first sequence is “Night Is Personal”, which begins:

Night is personal. Day is public. Day
Is like a pair of pants you can buy anywhere, and do.
When you are through with day you hang it up like pants on
The back of a chair, and it glows all night in the motel room, but not
Enough to keep you awake. Jake is awake. Oh, Warden,
Keep that morphine moving, for we are all
One flesh, and back in your office, in the dark, the telephone
Is thinking up something to say, it is going to say
It does not love you, for night is each man's legend, and there is no joy
Without some pain. Jake is meditating his joy. He sweats. …

The second sequence has a remarkably effective beginning, capturing the full horror of a traffic accident which abruptly dehumanizes the victim who was deprived and defenseless to start with:

Nigger: as if it were not
Enough to be old, and a woman, to be
Poor, having a sizeable hole (as
I can plainly see, you being flat on the ground) in
The sole of a shoe. …

Toward the end of the sequence the poet finds the whole thing no longer bearable and escape imperative: “I must hurry. I must go somewhere / Where you are not, where you / Will never be. I / Must go somewhere where / Nothing is real, for only / Nothingness is real and is / A sea of light. …” And in the final poem he asks, after seeing the victim's flesh thus exposed and desecrated, “Driver, do you truly, truly, / Know what flesh is, and if it is, as some people say, really sacred?”

The third and final section of the book, “Enclaves”, is much shorter than the two earlier ones. It consists of two sequences of two poems each, called respectively “The True Nature of Time” and “In the Mountains”. These deal with enclaves in time, moments of ecstasy or dream preserved in its hostile territory. The dominant image in the first sequence is that of gold and yellow; like all Warren's recurrent images, it is a development of the most basic natural symbolism: gold for preciousness, joy, for moments preserved against the darkness of time. “The Faring” deals with the ecstatic union of the poet with his beloved after crossing the Channel. The poem celebrates brightness of her hair as he first saw her on the pier, and then yellow roses against a gray stone wall: “That last light / Gilding the track across the gray water westward. / It came leveling in to finger the roses. One / Petal, yellow, fell, slow.” The companion poem deals with the moment of cockcrow, when the cock's cry “like gold blood flung, is scattered”. The poet wonders how he may “know the true nature of Time, if Deep now in darkness that glittering enclave / I dream, hangs? It shines. …” And the poem concludes with a return to the first scene: “Wind / Lifts the brightening of hair.”

The second sequence embodies similar themes in different images, but with equal explicitness. Skiers, seen at a distance in “gold mist”, look like birds or angels, but when they emerge onto “the flat, where the whiteness is / Trodden and mud-streaked, not birds now, / nor angels even, they stand”. They are awkward in the world, now strange to them, “of Time and / Contingency”, but the “human / Face has its own beauty.” As if to guard against any suggestion of facile resolutions, however, the final poem, “Fog”, describes the experience of dissolution of the body and the world in luminous blindness, silence, and nothingness, so that the poet can pray only for the crow's call again: “that much, at least, in this whiteness.” The whiteness suggests first of all the terror of death that Warren has always rendered with great power; in this context, it represents also the particular horror of leaving the body and the flesh—of disincarnation. This enclave out of time, as a foretaste of the ultimate farewell to it, of the “substance of body dissolving”, provides an experience that is anything but ecstatic. The experience is like that of Decoud in Conrad's Nostromo, in the great scene that Warren has interpreted so eloquently in his essay on that novel: a sceptic without faith, Decoud shoots himself after ten days of solitude on an island, confronting the “immense indifference” of the cosmos, and the whiteness of this poem produces a similar disorientation through loss of context in which the mind is as utterly lacking in beliefs to which to attach itself as the body is without physical reference points. Thus the book closes on a moment of cold terror.

In using the word incarnations, Warren must have intended a wry contrast to the meaning of the term in Christian theology. Nothing in this book suggests the doctrine of the Word made Flesh, the divine united with the human; there is only the vision of all human flesh united in communion and accepted by poet and reader. But the ground of acceptance, the basis of communion, lacks any such doctrinal explanation or sanction as was given it by Eliot and Auden, the two poets who have dealt most memorably with Incarnation—especially in the Four Quartets and in For the Time Being—in recent years. Like Eliot, Warren is concerned with the relation of timeless moments to time; and like Auden, he rejoices in the frailties of the flesh that keep man from being even worse than he is. But he does not, like Auden, contrast human guilt and imperfection to the innocence of other forms of life, but rather uses non-human flesh as emblematic of human qualities. His incarnations remain strictly horizontal, with no possibility of the vertical; as to what lies beyond the body, there are only questions. “The body's brags are put / To sleep—all, all. What / Is the locus of the soul? / What, in such absoluteness, can be prayed for? Oh, crow, / Come back, I will hear your voice, / That much, at least, in this whiteness.” We remain in the world of Wallace Stevens with his snow man and blackbird, or of Moby Dick, or most of all of Conrad, whose limited, empirical, and always tentative affirmation is as far as we get.

As I suggested early in this review, there is a certain large resemblance between Warren's later poetry and the open or naked or confessional poetry of which Robert Lowell is chief luminary and exemplar. There are, however, two important differences that the present volumes make clear. In the first place, Warren's poetry is never really confessional: there is no self-exposure, no revelation of disintegration or breakdown into madness, or of marital battles and separations, or of any other exceptional misfortune. Hence there is in Warren's attitude no touch of the poète maudit, suffering exceptionally for us all, as there is sometimes in Snodgrass or Sylvia Plath or Lowell. Instead, Warren offers himself rather as Auden does in his later verse, as a representative man, accepting himself as part of accepting the flesh of common humanity: “A man ain't nuthin but a man.” Secondly, Warren never goes as far as Lowell, for example, has gone in his latest volume, Notebook 1967-1968, toward the abandonment of form. Warren seems, indeed, to be moving now in the opposite direction: Incarnations might be said to signal a kind of backlash movement against excessive openness, for it shows an intense interest in form and a reflorescence of such safeguards against sentimentality and sensationalism (the pitfalls of openness) as detachment, irony, self-parody, and allusion. Many of the poems employ regular meter and rime; there is much use of repetition and refrain and of various approximations to ballad effects. Some of them use long, intricate sentences with different kinds of rhetorical suspension; others display extreme variations in tempo from poem to poem or within the same poem. These multifarious formal elements, together with the linking up and interplay of themes and images within each sequence, as we have observed, counterbalance the plainness and simplicity of most of the language—though parody, allusion, and irony are more frequently present in the diction than would appear on the surface.

These two volumes—the selection of poems from Warren's whole long career, pruned and revised carefully, and arranged so as to give primary emphasis to the later work; and the new book which, while continuing in the same general direction, differs in so many respects from its predecessors—make evident the magnitude of Warren's achievement as a poet. His limitations are hard for me to specify; I find his attitudes and themes—moral, psychological, and religious—so congenial that it is difficult for me to regard the poetry with proper detachment. Sometimes the themes are perhaps a little too explicit, not very fully dramatized; and there is a danger in the fact that they are basically few, though combined and varied in many ways. But Warren's later poetry seems to me to embody most of the special virtues of “open” poetry—accessibility, immediate emotional involvement, wide appeal—and to resist the temptations to formlessness and to moral exhibitionism, self-absorption, and sentimentality that are the chief liabilities of that school. The new long poem about Audubon from which excerpts have been appearing in the magazines seems to indicate a return to the historical mode of Brother to Dragons, though not to its form; it is far less personal than Incarnations, and strikingly different from it in most respects. Happily, then, Warren continues to grow and to change with undiminished vigor; the two volumes with which I have been concerned provide ample evidence of his stature without suggesting that it is time for any summing up.

Stephen Yenser (review date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2319

SOURCE: Yenser, Stephen. “Timepiece.” Poetry 128, no. 6 (September 1976): 349-54.

[In the following review, Yenser considers the enigmatic language, gritty tone, and thematic sweep of Warren's collection Or Else.]

Sometimes it is the way the tone changes and sometimes the way the syntax explicates itself and often the way the figures follow—but throughout his recent book Robert Penn Warren keeps the reader just off balance. The conclusion of the first poem, “The Nature of a Mirror” (which might have been subtitled And Vice Versa, it so neatly compacts the now proverbial dictum into a tautology), will exemplify a part of what I mean:

                                                                                                                                                      the sun,
Beyond the western ridge of black-burnt pine stubs like
A snaggery of rotten shark teeth, sinks
Lower, larger, more blank, and redder than
A mother's rage, as though
F. D. R. had never run for office even, or the first vagina
Had not had the texture of dream. Time
Is the mirror into which you stare.

Surely at a first reading of these lines most of us will find ourselves blinking, and perhaps thinking of those chain poems that go the rounds, as Warren slips from graphic image through what looks like surrealism to didactic abstraction. Yet it all happens as effortlessly as the light changes, so that one finds the incongruities growing superficial. In fact, the passage may fascinate primarily because it exposes a radically unified complex—unified, that is, at some level deep enough to make even the term vagina dentata seem relevant. But useless. If the passage needed glossing, perhaps the shortest way would be by means of another that comes from enigmatic depths. At hand is Cavafy's marginal comment on Ruskin: “When we say ‘Time’ we mean ourselves. Most abstractions are simply pseudonyms. It is superfluous to say ‘Time is scytheless and toothless.’ We know it. We are time”.

A more manageable example of the unexpectedness one comes to expect in a Warren poem concludes “There's a Grandfather's Clock in the Hall:”

But, in any case, watch the clock closely. Hold your breath and wait.
Nothing happens, nothing happens, then suddenly, quick as a wink, and
                                                                                          slick as a mink's prick, Time
                                                                                                                        thrusts through the time
                                                                                                                                                      of no-Time.

While it might be true, as a character in Middlemarch argues, that all speech is slang and poets' speech the strongest slang of all, it is certainly true, Warren continually reminds us, that much strong slang is poetic in the first place. But of course the real strength of this passage lies not in its quotation of the poetry of the vulgate but rather in the audacity of its couplings, first of the two clichés (with their slyly nictitating internal rhymes) and second of this brace of clichés with the abstract notion. Less effective conjunctions of modes help to structure “Vision Under the October Mountain: A Love Poem” where overripe, Hopkinsesque images give way to a dryasdust, professorial language, and “Interjection #2: Caveat,” which begins in philosophical savvy and ends in mystical delight.

In “News Photo,” a poem about a Southerner who has killed a minister “Reported to Be Working Up the Niggers”, Warren modulates his point of view continually and with a marvelous delicacy. The protagonist gets one long unmediated speech (a tour de force as irritatingly comic in its malicious prejudice as anything in Faulkner), and throughout the rest of the poem we move from an ironic detachment into the killer's confused self-righteousness and back again by passages as uncanny as those in Escher. The poem ends with a section in which Warren first imagines the acquitted killer fantasizing a congratulatory appearance by Robert E. Lee and then converts this benevolent revenant into the skeleton in the closet of the South, before whose sardonic laugh “every pine needle / on that side of every pine tree” across half the state “shrivels up as though hit by a blowtorch” while “the white paint on / the State House—it pops up and blisters”:

                    he's laughing, he
shakes all over with laughing, he
rattles like a crap game on a tin roof, he
is laughing fit to kill, or would be
if he weren't dead already. But
there are tears in his eyes, or
at least would be, if
he had any.
Any eyes, I mean.

That wry, even anti-sentimental tone is characteristic, as are the liking for the frisson and the line break that fragments the syntactical unit. Such recurrent factors notwithstanding, this sequence of poems, like many in it, is protean. “Natural History,” a small parable of the unbearable strangeness of pure understanding and love, is so different, not only from the other poems touched on above but from most poems, that it embarrasses the terms one would praise it in. If it were a sculpture, it would be made of some radiant otherworldly metal, seamless, obeying conventions clearly strict but obscure. Quoting in part would be unconscionable. Then there is the perversely entitled “I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision,” the first seven sections of which read weirdly like a scenario of a silent underground film, the camera never panning but instead closing first on one object and then another in the house, as it turns out, of the poet's youth. Everything is where it would have been, say, sixty years ago—but most of it, including the poet's parents, has been decaying for sixty years. A long build culminates in the eighth part when the speaker (the eldest of three children) discovers three red chairs:

They're empty, they're empty, but me—oh, I'm here!
And that thought is not words, but a roar like wind, or
The roar of the night-freight beating the rails of the trestle,
And you under the trestle, and the roar
Is nothing but darkness alive. Suddenly,

That odd and moving poem is followed by “Interjection #3; I Know a Place Where All Is Real,” a tame, hedging allegory that might have been written by—why, almost anyone, the gist of a part of it notwithstanding: “Access is not easy, the way / rough, and visibility extremely poor, especially / among the mountains”. “Ballad of Mister Dutcher and the Last Lynching in Gupton,” on the other hand, is a narrative that almost anyone would like to have written—or at least would like to have the skill to have written. Whatever made Warren think that he could adapt its idiomatic gait to a syllabic line is a mystery, but the result—the line breaks punctuating the narrative with the deliberateness of the shifting of a chaw or the stroke of the whittling knife—is a small triumph.

Warren also includes the fine “Homage to Theodore Dreiser,” several love poems drawn from two earlier works, a poem about Flaubert, and many others just as apparently diverse—and yet, we are told in a curiously phrased prefatory note à la Lowell, “This book is conceived as a single long poem composed of a number of shorter poems as sections or chapters”. Indeed, what must be considered the central poems are numbered I through XXIV, while interspersed among them are “interjections”, numbered 1 through 8. The latter term cannot but suggest the tentativeness of whatever unity exists here, but by the same token it is clear that one is meant to discern a main current. Well, one does, and its source is “The compulsion to try to convert what now is was / Back into what was is”. Those lines come from “Rattlesnake Country,” which in spite of distracting echoes of Faulkner is one of the most powerful poems here. It consists of memories of time spent on a desert ranch in the company, among others, of a half Indian hand called Laughing Boy, whose early morning duty and pleasure it is to keep the ranch house lawn free of the rattlers that sleep there each night. Laughing Boy executes his charge with ingenuity, first dousing a snake with gasoline and then snapping a match alight:

                                                                                The flame,
If timing is good, should, just as he makes his rock-hole,
Hit him.
The flame makes a sudden, soft, gaspy sound at
The hole-mouth, then dances there. The flame
Is spectral in sunlight, but flickers blue at its raw edge.
Once I get one myself. I see, actually, the stub-buttoned tail
Whip through pale flame down into earth-darkness.
“The son-of-a-bitch,” I am yelling, “did you see me, I got him!”
I have gotten that stub-tailed son-of-a-bitch.

Magnificently told, this incident brings together an initiation into the temporal world (for what else can that youthful crime on that “One little patch of cool lawn” in that “long-lost summer” suggest?) and the transcendence of it. In the next section, Warren will say “What was is is now was” and then ask “But / Is was but a word for wisdom, its price?” That was is at least that, and a fortiori that was is, are propositions underwritten by the synthesis, as it were, of the two verbs in the noun's first syllable. But the snake has ogygian associations with time as well as with wisdom, and here the snake seems to be destroyed. In other words, the raconteur's sense of “timing” is only one reason that this passage is in the present tense; another is that in it was becomes is. The flaming rattler embodies that conversion, just as its disappearance down the hole (a fine touch) insists on what we might call the immortality of time.

Implicit in many of these poems, the world of “no-Time” figures explicitly in “Small White House,” “Sunset Walk in Thaw-Time in Vermont,” and “There's a Grandfather's Clock in the Hall.” The latter opens with a miniature Whitmanesque catalogue of meticulously jumbled events:

There's a grandfather's clock in the hall, watch it closely. The
                                        minute hand stands still, then it jumps, and
                                                  in between jumps there is no-Time,
And you are a child again watching the reflection of early
                                        morning sunlight on the ceiling above your bed,
Or perhaps you are fifteen feet under water and holding your breath as
you struggle with a rock-snagged anchor, or holding
                    your breath just long enough for one more long,
                              slow thrust to make the orgasm really
                                                            intolerable. …

That “no-Time” is not simply an ironic term is guaranteed by the nature of the catenated incidents, which are as remarkable for their metaphorical relationships among themselves as for their relationship to the movement of the minute hand. Here Warren has hit upon the perfect device for establishing simultaneously the discreteness and continuity of events in the world and for representing in a linear, schematic fashion the weave of temporal and eternal that has its inevitably flawed analogue in the texture of this volume.

There are more burls than necessary in the fabric. Neither “Flaubert in Egypt,” which incidentally owes a lot to Francis Steegmuller's book of the same title, nor “Interjection #4: Bad Year,” “Bad War: a New Year's Card,” “1969,” nor “Little Boy and Lost Shoe” contributes much to this “single long poem”. But for the most part these poems do seed and ramify one another, so that although much of “the evidence / Is lost” (IV), we have a sense, as from mosaic bits still in place, of a whole, which is at once “the original dream which / I am now trying to discover the logic of” (V) and the book that Warren might have written had he already discovered that logic. For example: the fire into which the poet stared (III) recalls the owl's eyes that “Burn gold” in the same poem and, while the owl's eyes reflect the gold eyes of the cat that kills the chipmunk (XVIII), both images remind us that “Time / Is the mirror into which you stare” (I), as well as that Warren repeatedly equates the “eye” and the “I”. The “clock somewhere … trying to make up its mind to strike forever o'clock” (IX) becomes the rattler that might strike (X), while the burning snake takes the form of both the “glory” that flares up “from the filth of the world's floor” (the passage in “Interjection #7” imitates God's Grandeur) and of Dreiser (“Full of screaming his soul is, and a stench like live flesh that scorches”—XI), and Dreiser himself (who “cannot theorize past / The knowledge that / Others suffer, too, at last”) mirrors the poet, who understands even the unhappiness of the man who has killed the minister. That man is related to the poet, not necessarily because the latter has killed (it was after all only a rattler, and the possible connections—between Laughing Boy's killing of the snakes and his later killing of a man, between the “white man's whiskey” that facilitates the homicide and the Indian's gasoline—need not be stressed), but simply because, rather like the Lowell of History, having looked so long into the mirror of time, he has begun to find humanity's features in his own: “The sky has murder in the eye, and I / Have murder in the heart, for I / Am only human. / We look at each other, the sky and I” (I—in the following poem, characteristically, Warren mocks his preceding conclusions).

In the mirroring sky appear numerous birds of prey: the owl that seizes the field mouse (III), the kestrel (IV), the eagle (XVIII), the hawk (XXIV). And while it is easy enough to see how the tracks of the mouse in the snow become the words of the poet on the page of his life (III), it is also necessary to understand that, in a world “In which all things are continuous” (V), the owl and man are somehow related. Or Else. The various relationships among the parts of Warren's world are not always clearly formulated, and for that we can be thankful, since we can rest assured that he will continue to be engaged in “the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness / May be converted into the future tense / Of joy” (V).

J. D. McClatchy (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2828

SOURCE: McClatchy, J. D. “Rare Prosperities.” Poetry 131, no. 3 (December 1977): 169-75.

[In the following review of Selected Poems: 1923-1975, McClatchy surveys Warren's poetic career and lauds his poetry of the 1970s.]

Robert Penn Warren last made selection of his poetry just over a decade ago. Thirteen small poems have been further trimmed from that previous collection; the three books he has written since then, plus ten additional poems, have been added. Such a gathering would be valuable in any case, as a comprehensive survey of Warren's character and achievement as a poet. Certainly it is his poetry on which rests his claim to greatness, though a decade ago few would have predicted that with real confidence. After all, so much else about this artist was distracting. During the half-century of his career, his contributions to nearly every aspect of the literary art have been recognized, but his novels now seem more sturdy than significant, and his essays more feisty than definitive. But the poetry he has produced in the past ten years has altered our sense of his career and its consequence, so that this Selected Poems is not merely a useful book but a truly important one. Given Warren's odd habit of arranging his work in reverse chronological order, his new work allows us to see his earlier verse as both an anticipation and an echo, the effect of which is to throw his recent poetry into an even higher relief and so to dramatize a remarkable event in the literature of our time by suddenly revealing to us a poet of unexpected and extraordinary power. Instances are rare of poets discovering such absolute strength so late in life, but a phrase from John Ashbery's Three Poems almost describes the phenomenon: “The great careers are like that: a slow burst that narrows to a final release.” That is not exactly the right term for Warren, since his grand late release is not a narrowing but an expansion—of language into a heightened virtuosity and intensity, and of theme into his special version of the visionary mode. Still, one is eager to say, the great careers are like that. In fact, Warren's most recent and distinctive advocate, Harold Bloom, is now arguing in print that alone among living writers Warren deserves to be counted with the best American poets of our century. The risks of both hyperbole and prophecy are well known, and I am less interested here in ranking Warren than in responding to the obvious excellence of his work.

There are three conspicuous phases to Warren's poetic career, and I often ask myself why I cannot read the first of those phases—the poems written before 1954—with much excitement or pleasure. Clearly “Bearded Oaks” or “Picnic Remembered” have long ago earned a place on the short-list of permanent poems. But I suspect that is less because they are worthy in themselves than because they are good poems of a certain kind. The kind of poem, that is, written by the group of Fugitives who were Warren's first peers and in whose company his work has since been discussed, compared, equated. John Crowe Ransom's wry (and overrated) elegies, and Allen Tate's severe odes and indictments are the products of true neo-classical sensibilities. But the rough-hewn narratives and abstracted metaphysics of Warren's work from this period seem awkwardly restrained by the stiffness of their dry formalism and uncertain diction, as if to check the indulgence of his essentially American-Romantic imagination. The effect is like a bust carved in burl oak. Like so many other poets of that era, he was under the spell of Eliot, though less the lure of Eliot's techniques (which were superior) than of his tastes and attitudes. And so, in doctrine disguised as paradox, Warren lamented over “the inherited defect”, and brooded on unredeemed human nature, on the violence and despair of a time “born to no adequate definition of terror.” I am left unconvinced by such poses.

Once he abandoned cultural mythologies and confronted history more immediately, his verse strengthens measurably, and the volumes from Promises (1957) through Incarnations (1968) give ample evidence of that. There are four long central poems that anchor this second period of his career, two celebrations and two elegies: “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, In a Ruined Fortress,” for his daughter; “Promises,” for his son; “Mortmain,” for his father; and “Tale of Time,” for his mother. Each of these moving familial poems is a part of Warren's effort during this time to explore “how cause flows backward from effect”—effects of either gain or loss, birth or death. His emphasis shifts now from guilt to grace; and even as grace, the reverse of guilt which gives form to experience, gives freedom, so too Warren's verse grows more supple and expressive, favoring sprawling forms whose dimensions and dynamics were determined by the life they record. It was during this period, too, that several characteristics of his work emerged more distinctly—among them his juxtaposition or conflation of the narrative and the meditational, modes that most nearly parallel his instincts and notions. As a Southerner raised in a tradition of tale-telling and as a gifted novelist, narratives seem a natural choice for Warren's poems, but behind the method is his deeper conviction that experience transpires in time and that an historical imagination is a prerequisite for an authentic poetry. This idea extends even to Warren's obsession with book-titles that include the dates of composition, and with arranging his poems into sequences that stress dramatic interplay and cumulative force. And on the other hand, there is his penchant for discursive meditation, always inflected by his personal accent. As if experience and history were not finally self-sufficient, Warren often epitomizes them into conceptual dialectics. “To have truth”, he says in one poem, “Something must be believed, / And repetition and congruence, / To say the least, are necessary.” Truth, then, lies somewhere between the instance and eternity, the fact and the form. Poem by poem, Warren explores both sides of that border.

Incarnations was a transitional book, and an uneven one; indeed, all along Warren seems to have had trouble recognizing his own most successful work—a question of taste, not talent. But I remember being astonished by several poems when that volume first appeared. They are still superb: “Natural History,” “Myth on Mediterranean Beach: Aphrodite as Logos,” “Masts at Dawn.” The poet here begins to unfold the world's parable with the bold intellectual and sensuous command that has marked his poetry since that time. What might seem a surrender—“The world means only itself”, concludes “Riddle in the Garden”—is actually his more complex project to find beauty in “the fume-track of necessity.” “Masts at Dawn” offers the injunction another way: “We must try // To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.” This necessity is urged in tones increasingly sharp, spare, eccentric, and often oracular. All of the work in this current phase of his career is spoken by this new voice. What before has struck the ear as stiff now sounds nearly scriptural. (In fact, I suspect that the Old Testament cadences are the strongest influence on Warren's new line.) The verse is now often free, the voice more formal. Some readers might consider it fustian or old-fashioned, but they would miss the strange, at times unsettling impact his use of inversion and stark enjambments produces. And there is always a marvelous lyrical counterpointing, such as this interlude from Audubon:

October: and the bear,
Daft in the honey-light, yawns.
The bear's tongue, pink as a baby's, out-crisps to the curled tip,
It bleeds the black blood of the blueberry.
The teeth are more importantly white
Than has ever been imagined.
The bear feels his own fat
Sweeten, like a drowse, deep to the bone.
Bemused, above the fume of ruined blueberries,
The last bee hums.
The wings, like mica, glint
In the sunlight.
He leans on his gun. Thinks
How thin is the membrane between himself and the world.

The quiet moment is one of the many superimposed images that make up Audubon and its cumulative definition of man, identified now with his passion, now with his fate. It is easy to see why the figure of Audubon—in his own words, “the Man Naked from his hand and yet free from acquired Sorrow”—must have been compelling to Warren, for he is at once artist and adventurer, always on the edge of things, wilderness or legend. The details Warren evokes from Audubon's history center on how “the world declares itself” to such a man, and portray how truth cannot be spoken or even embodied but “can only be enacted, and that in dream.” What cannot be understood can be known. “What is love? / One name for it is knowledge.” Poised between engagement and comprehension, between violence and awe, Audubon is Warren's most eloquent characterization, and his story has been shaped into one of the best long poems ever written by an American. One of the manifest advantages of this Selected Poems is that it makes Audubon easily available again.

Such a poem might have capped the career of any poet less unusual than Warren. Instead, he has gone on to extend and amplify his mastery in the collection titled Or Else (1974) and in the poems new to this volume. At first glance, Or Else seems a sort of anthology of Warren's tried and true: the down-home ballad, the political prayer, homages to dead writers, the rural narratives and metaphysical lyrics. He returns to all the familiar forms, but with a new emphasis and artistry. Throughout, he is driven by the “compulsion to try to convert what now is was / Back into what is.” The book's blunt title, which implies both ultimatum and alternatives, is echoed in the staccato delivery of these overlapping attempts to sift lost evidence—his father's death, himself as a boy, a remembered chair or saw—for some sense of the continuity of a life's experiences. It is the noble Wordsworthian ambition to recapture redemptive spots of time: to wake, as Warren says, from “that darkness of sleep which / Is the past, and is / The self,” with a question: “Have I learned how to live?” Warren often sounds such a moral note, but it can be deceptive since his concern is more existential—the necessarily defeated effort to restore the logic of the original dream, to resolve the innocence since fulfilled in “the realm of contingency.”

Since “Time / Is the mirror into which you stare,” the discovery of its history is always a self-definition—mirrored in a few controlling images: “Man lives by images. They / Lean at us from the world's wall, and Time's.” Like the conjuring process of staring, there are certain images that are obsessive for Warren, that recur continually in his work and are at once its source and surface. The poem “Rattlesnake Country,” for instance, ends among the dark roots of his “Indecipherable passion and compulsion”:

                                                                                                              I remember
The need to enter the night-lake and swim out toward
The distant moonset. Remember
The blue-tattered flick of white flame at the rock-hole
In the instant before I lifted up
My eyes to the high sky that shivered in its hot whiteness.
And sometimes—usually at dawn—I remember the cry on the mountain.
All I can do is to offer my testimony.

That mountain cry is sometimes a bird hung high in the sky, or a star, as in “Birth of Love,” one of the very best poems Warren has ever written. On another of these night-swims, a man watches a woman climb ashore ahead of him to dry herself off with what light remains. It is a moment “nonsequential and absolute”, a spot between times,

                    … and in his heart he cries out that, if only
He had such strength, he would put his hand forth
And maintain it over her to guard, in all
Her out-goings and in-comings, from whatever
Inclemency of sky or slur of the world's weather
Might ever be. In his heart
He cries out. Above
Height of the spruce-night and heave of the far mountain, he sees
The first star pulse into being. It gleams there.
I do not know what promise it makes to him.

An example of how obsessive these images are for the poet is the fact that this poem flashes back to a scene from a book now over thirty years old, All The King's Men. Jack Burden is remembering a storm-struck picnic with Anne and Adam Stanton when the three of them were teenagers. Jack and Anne are swimming under a dark sky: a gull crosses high over them. He watches her floating profile sharpened against “the far-off black trees.”

That was a picnic I never forgot.

I suppose that that day I first saw Anne and Adam as separate, individual people, whose ways of acting were special, mysterious, and important. And perhaps, too, that day I first saw myself as a person. But that is not what I am talking about. What happened was this: I got an image in my head that never got out. We see a great many things and can remember a great many things, but that is different. We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind which become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters.

The image I got in my head that day was the image of her face lying in the water, very smooth, with the eyes closed, under the dark greenish-purple sky, with the white gull passing over.

That is a crucial gloss on the method and meaning of Warren's poetry. The brightening image which he has been unveiling for as long as his career is the deliberate mystery of identity, of the legends that alone define and sustain identity. His primary scene's most impressive aspect is the bird above—which in his poetry can be a hawk or star or sun, the symbol of power with which Warren has identified his ambitions from the very beginning, in a high Romantic gesture. One of the new poems here, the glorious “Evening Hawk,” is its fullest testament:

                                                                      His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.
The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.
Look! look! he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.
                                                            Long now,
The last thrush is still, the last bat
Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.
If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
The earth grind on its axis, or history
Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.

The rather anti-climactic mention of history at the end of this poem is meant to inhibit Warren's total giving of himself over to his ecstatic vision. But that is a measure of this poet's wisdom: to be able to encounter the sublime directly, and yet to temper his visionary impulse with a self-consciousness that includes both conscience and an eye for the incongruent detail. That hawk is, of course, the transcendental poet, but also a terrible divine presence, not unlike the “God” of Warren's late poetry who is an indifferent, unknowable, immanent principle of reality both feared and desired. Among the new poems, I would single out “A Way to Love God,” “Loss, of Perhaps Love, in Our World of Contingency,” and “Brotherhood in Pain” as especially powerful wrestlings with these themes of his “perfected pain of conscience.”

In his Democracy in America, de Tocqueville predicted that the poetry of the future here would have as its subject not the senses but the inner soul and destinies of mankind, “man himself, taken aloof from his age and his country, and standing in the presence of Nature and of God, with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities, and inconceivable wretchedness.” I can think of no better description of Robert Penn Warren. Among his contemporaries he is our most truly American poet, working in a large-scale imaginative tradition that continues to be vital source for poetry.

Dave Smith (review date 1979)

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SOURCE: Smith, Dave. “He Prayeth Best Who Loveth Best.” The American Poetry Review 8, no. 1 (January 1979): 4-8.

[In the following review, Smith centers on the moral vision of Warren's Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 and of his earlier poetic collections.]


Robert Penn Warren is seventy-three. He has published his eleventh volume of poetry, this thirty-second book, and he has never written better. His first book, a biography of John Brown, appeared when he was twenty-four, in the year Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury and Hemingway A Farewell To Arms. With others he is known as the architect of New Criticism; his textbook, Understanding Poetry is one of the first stones in the foundation of contemporary American poetry. There is no genre in which his fierce and craggy and formidably human talent has not manifested itself. There are no awards in American letters which he has not won.

Why is it, then, that every recent review of Warren's poetry [he has published three collections in this decade] tells us how unrecognized as poet he is? Why are we all constrained to note he is recognized as novelist? I suspect the reasons have little to do with poetry and much to do with the business of America. The fact is that no living poet more deserves or receives the respect and admiration given to Mr. Warren. The publication of his books is, simply, an event.

Robert Frost is said to have remarked there can be only one person in the tower at a given time. There is, of course, a poverty of spirit in that. But if there is any truth in the remark, if the space is sufficient only for one, right now the occupant is Warren. James Dickey wrote of Warren that opening one of his books is “like putting out the light of the sun.” It is also like entering the unbearable light of the sun—Warren affects one both ways—for in his poems darkness and light are everpresent, dialectical, and scorching.

Warren is, if anyone among us is, a poet's poet. We each feel we have discovered him, hence the natter about his anonymity. He is not and never has been glamorously valued. He has been, involuntarily, the object of literary mischief and downright maliciousness. Yet rarely has he been a strikable target, being so restless he outpaces adversary and admirer alike. For Warren, a life in the art has meant a continuous and private wrestling not with the seraphim of literary politics but with the angels of existence.

We can only conjecture the magnitude of Warren's shadow over generations of our poets and this may be an irrelevant consideration in any case; yet we may suggest that he is ancestral to writers such as Dickey and James Wright (the evidence is in The Kenyon Review, 1959, for those who care to check), Fred Chappell and Stanley Plumly, Bin Ramke and David St. John—three generations. Auden told us that one of the measurements of poetic greatness lies in the poet's literary progeny. The critic Harold Bloom has been scouting this territory.

And it is Harold Bloom who has recently attempted to cannonize Warren in an article in The New Leader (January 31, 1977). Bloom, kingmaking, tells us Warren alone stands now with Eliot, Crane, Frost, and Stevens. But it is difficult to characterize Warren this way or any way, to speak to the incredible blossoming that has come in his late years. Warren has spoken often of Randall Jarrell's admonition that the true poet stays out in the rain and waits to be struck by the lightning. In poems that range from early iambic monotony to images of virulent, if disorderly power to a late and soaring architecture of the individual heart, Warren has submitted himself to that lightning. His character, his art, is the conduit of the violent and essential energy of the universe.

Bloom, rightly, has said that Warren wants to be a hawk of life. As poet he is hawk-like, imperial and imperious, gliding over and holding in thrall everything that is. He rarely relaxes or clowns or indulges in the slighter uses of poetry. He has explored a continuous anatomy of ideas, a spectrum of recurrent images, with the doggedness of a prospector. Calvin Bedient said in a recent Parnassus that Warren was without a “vision,” but nothing could be less true if we are not limited by the term to a seamless polemic. Warren has a vision: the unravelling tag ends of the world's body. We have no poet truer to a comprehensive, sustained evocation of the nature of existence; no one who grapples more with the nuances, the variations, the shadings of a core of thought. Warren's nearly obsessive pursuit begins in these lines from Brother To Dragons (1953):

But we must argue the necessity of virtue:
In so far as man has the simplest vanity of self,
There is no escape from the movement toward fulfillment,
And since all kind but fulfills its own kind,
Fulfillment is only in degree of recognition
Of the common lot of our kind. And that is the death of vanity,
And that is the beginning of virtue.
The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence.
The recognition of necessity is the beginning of freedom.
The recognition of the direction of fulfillment is the death of the self.
And the death of the self is the beginning of selfhood.
All else is surrogate of hope and destitution of spirit.

In Audubon: A Vision (1969), that poem of few peers, Warren made everything he knew as clear as he could: the poems must define “the human filth, the human hope” and would be inextricable in filth and hope; must regard the human in his true humanity. The language became what it had been in fits and starts, a voice-instrument calibrated to final experience. Warren found what Ransom had called for, a poetry of the right head, heart, and foot. Warren created a poetry which expressed and formed sacramental force as it flowed through events of Love and Knowledge. Man, Warren says, must understand love is knowledge if he is to understand his fate and, moreover, to accept his fate. Audubon, the killer of birds and beauty, the creator of beauty and a possible joy, is Warren's deep analogue. For Warren, the end of poetry must always be to “make it possible to look with joy upon the irremediable things.” To do this is to see the world as the hawk does, unforgivingly, that bird whose name means both taker and accepter; it requires opposable and dialectic vision, a union with the world and a dramatization of that union which tests its philosophical and ethical character: for only in full and mature union can one be human, abstractor, formulater, participant, cause and effect. As Warren says, “literature is knowledge by enactment, imaginative enactment.” Put another way, “Man lives by images. They / Lean at us from the world's wall, and Time's.” The definition of reality: that has been Warren's vision and his mission. It begins with explorative meditations on the self, Time, History, Love, Knowledge, Family, Community, Religion, and Art; it ends with the self and that glorious, though anguishing, initial love of the immanent world.

If Warren's vision began with Brother To Dragons, his breakthrough came in Promises (1957), of which he has said, “Seeing a little gold-headed girl on that bloody spot of history [an Italian island-fortress which was both site and subject of the poems] was an event!” The image of beauty counterposed against the symbol of history's continuous and random grinding out of beauty suggests a medallion of Warren's art. It is at once the doubleness of reality, darkness and light, and though the mind must try to know multifoilate meaning, must rage for reconciliation, reconciliation fails; art witnesses and holds in tension the antinomies. All of Warren's poems are events rendered in a holding fabric of image, narrative, and meditative gloss; all attempt to do one thing:

… what you are concerned with is a sense of contact with reality. And it's maybe a pinpoint touch or a whole palm of a hand laid, or something; but the important thing is the shock of this contact: a lot of current can come through a small wire.

Fugitives Return

Touch, the laying on of the hand. What Warren has called a single, vital image. Contact. Always the figure of connection, the poem of reconnection, the failure of that ability to receive the energy, disruption, and the possibility of rejoining. For Warren, such poems function, the “poem does involve a potential action, it modifies our being in some way.” That is, the poem is not a simple picture, but a picture with extended or exploded events ordered to demonstrate a right relationship, with moral and ethical resonances.


Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978, more physically objective than previous books, is a deeply moral vision, a continuation of Warren's long consideration of the “moral history of man.” The book contains, looming like a granite cliff, one of the great poems of our language: “Red-Tail Hawk and Funeral Pyre of Youth.” It stands with Audubon as emblematic of his full effort. Warren told Peter Stitt in a recent interview (Sewanee Review, Sept. 1977) that the poem was sparked by Harold Bloom's review-remarks on his recurrent hawk imagery and its relation to an Emersonian vision of transcendence. Warren has long rejected Emerson's easy dismissal of evil, depravity, and moral irresponsibility. But the antecedent of “Red-Tail Hawk …” is less Bloom and Emerson than Coleridge and “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” Indeed, Warren's poem is a mini-Mariner in plot, vision, and construction. In his essay on Coleridge's poem, “A Poem of Pure Imagination,” Warren writes:

The fable, in broadest and simplest terms, is a story of crime and punishment and repentance and reconciliation. … The Mariner shoots the bird; suffers various pains, the greatest of which is loneliness and spiritual anguish; upon recognizing the beauty of the foul sea snakes, experiences a gush of love for them and is able to pray; is returned miraculously to his home port, where he discovers the joy of human communion in God, and utters the moral ‘He prayeth best who loveth best’. …

Warren also says, “we are confronting the mystery of the corruption of the will, the mystery which is the beginning of the ‘moral history of man.’” The issue in both poems is: why does a man commit gratuitous violence? Why does he not see the interconnection of everything—a blindness that means his violence is self-wounding? Warren argued that man commits Original Sin, sin original with each man—not inherited, because he is driven by corrupted will and lacks knowledge (love) to prevent it. He must do harm, must suffer, must heal himself, thence the world's violated body. Coleridge's Mariner passes from innocence to experience, a passage culminating in a wedding and the ability to pray, the life-purchased testimony to the existence of joy in an unjoyous world.

Warren's “Red-Tail Hawk …,” divided into ten sections, dramatizes the motiveless boyhood shooting of a hawk. It travels back and forth in time and memory around the event and comes to its own prayer and marriage. The poem reveals what it will celebrate in section one: “That all is only / All, and part of all.” The poem begins by describing a boy climbing a hill, rifle in hand, toward “the center of / that convex perfection …,” and immediately sets up the basic imagistic contrast of the boy's blindness and the hawk's vision: “Gold eyes, unforgiving, for they, like God, see all.” The event of the poem comes in section 2:

There was no decision in the act,
There was no choice in the act—the act impossible but
Possible. I screamed, not knowing
From what emotion, as at that insane range
I pressed the cool, snubbed
Trigger. Saw
The Circle

To refuse choice or its exercise is to be morally corrupt; the hawk only kills to eat. Nature, the circle, perfection, innocence: these are violated. But the act is also a birth, or might be. Thus, the boy, “the bloody / Body already to my bare flesh embraced, cuddled / Like babe to heart,” has the chance of a life, a knowing. He takes the body home and stuffs it, saying “Oh, yes / I knew my business.” The Audubon-analogue: killer and creator. The poet rationally knows. His business is to freeze life, to make dynamic models of life in art. Yet there is something he doesn't know and Warren is compelled to write, in hindsight:

It was molded as though for that moment to take to the air—though,
In God's truth, the chunk of poor wingless red meat,
The model from which all was molded, lay now
Forever earthbound. …

The murder of hawk and the murder of gull are parables of man's Fall.

Warren tells us now that he kept the stuffed bird atop bookshelves to “guard / Blake and Lycidas, Augustine, Hardy and Hamlet / Baudelaire and Rimbaud” and tells us its “yellow eyes, / unsleeping, stared as I slept.” Among tragic poets of joy, nature, unforgiving, keeps its own watch. But the poet, still blind, turns away and his personal history, in retrospect, seems filled with the “meaningless motion of life” as well as with a sense of imminent vengeance. He asks, “Could Nature forgive, like God?” But he postpones answering, and in section 7 rediscovers the stuffed bird among “the relevant items” of his life, items he burns in a gesture of clearing toward final sight. Like the Mariner, he kills the bird a second time, “so made a pyre / For the hawk …”:


Flame flared Feathers first, and I flinched, then stood
As the steel wire warped red to defend
The shape designed godly for air. But
It fell with the mass, and I
Did not wait.
What left
To do but walk in the dark, and no stars?

The moral awakening is still not come to full term. In dream, then, the bird continues to reappear as it had in that first instant of its immanence. The hunter is doomed to repeat the old violation, to live in history, but the repetition of the act provides continuing opportunity to know the meaning of action, choice, and responsibility. He says:

                                                                                          —and you come
And always the rifle swings up, though with
The weightlessness now of dream,
The old.30-30 that knows
How to bind us in air-blood and earth-blood together
In our commensurate fate,
Whose name is a name beyond joy.

In the final section, Warren prays for this recurrence “To bring me the truth in blood-marriage of earth and air— / And all be as it was / In that paradox of unjoyful joyousness. …” That is, the Coleridgian One Flesh, the matrix of Being, will be restored because understood, because man learns to accept himself, his fate, the necessary condition for the gaining of joy, having now reexperienced the event and the moral history of all that event portends.

But two key questions, Nature's forgiveness and what one might do besides walk in the dark, remain unanswered. In fact, Nature cannot forgive; the hawk stares, unforgiving, itself. If the hawk had human will, it could forgive, but then it would fall into violation and abrogate what it is. The hawk is the symbolic embodiment of sacramental energy. What one must do in the dark is to both know the hawk and be hawk-like. The poem, thus, evolves from event to revelation to vision; moral history enacted, the imagination as alembic; the poem reveals itself as prayer for definition and responsibility, which is to say, failure: to act and to know the meaning as well as the cost of action. The poem is the story of human consciousness. It is dramatically and aesthetically and ethically true to experiential as well as emotional life. It is a grand, unfolded, unified, and felt experience.


Warren's Now and Then is divided into two sections, “Nostalgic” with ten poems and “Speculative” with twenty-six, these subtitles paralleling the temporal now and then in reverse. Typically, Warren takes a position, tests it emotionally and philosophically, then does the same test from an obverse position.

If “Red-Tail Hawk …” is the set-piece of both “Nostalgic” and the book, the initial poem, “American Portrait: Old Style,” also looms grandly. It returns to home-ground and innocence, its event a visit with a boyhood friend who had won glory as an athlete and had been an early companion in invented stories. The visit occasions meditation on Warren's oldest subjects: Time, Self, Mutability, Love, and particularly Imagination:

What imagination is—it is only
The lie we must learn to live by, if ever
We mean to live at all

Through imagination, Warren says, we may learn the world's name—that essence of reality (usually figured in the touch of a hand, the stare into a face, various images of flow and dark/light). He warns us again that “of all things the worst, the not knowing / One thing from the other”—is to stand not in innocence but in willed ignorance, in corruption not struggled against. For without the struggle there is no way to know “what makes a man do what he does—.” Only in attempting to recreate himself can a man know reality. In “Amazing Grace in the Back Country” Warren flees from revivalists and winds up “By the spring with one hand in the cold black water,” which is exactly the figure he employed in “The Ballad of Billy Potts” where the boy-murderer comes to revelation, and again in Brother To Dragons where he spoke of the “perfect adjustment” of the catfish which “is in the Mississippi and / The Mississippi is in the Catfish and / Under the ice both are at one with God.” This is the state of intuited connection to and immersion in sacramental energy and epiphany, often sexual, always accompanied by the sensation of being dissolved and silent in the world's flow. In “Star-Fall” Warren writes:

For what communication
Is needed if each alone
Is sunk and absorbed into
The mass and matrix of Being that defines
Identity of all?

That communication beyond speech, atavistic and premoral, is the oldest dream in Warren's poetry. But speech, art, is precisely necessary because we remain unconnected to the matrix. Art has been Warren's way back. Having spent more than fifty years to vivify and make whole this reality of interconnection, he has earned the right to rest and say: “I love the world even in my anger, / And love is a hard thing to outgrow.” We expect the confirming, consolidating poems of “Nostalgic” at the end of a man's career, in his seventh decade, even should they sometimes recover old ground, even with glibness of glory.

But when we move into the poems of “Speculation” we discover once again that Warren has gone ahead of us. He surprises us with a darkly insistent mood in poems rooted in dying seasons, sunsets, autumn, gray light. As “Departure” says, “Time is up.” Others before me have written that Warren was likely done, but no book shimmers so with the recognition of impendent death which is “a truth we must all face.” The collection radiates a Tempest tone while it hovers toward the few answers which might reveal at last “The possibility of joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty.” Has Warren, then, turned sour? No. But he has invoked the conceptions, the ideas, the imageries of his career only to question them again. In “Code Book Lost” he suggests he has failed the tenuous meaning he had worked for; the world isn't revealing anything. It is as if Warren has forced himself to start over entirely. He has, in fact, begun to speculate not simply on what death will be like, hence what value in any values, positions, hypotheses, but on what life is as husk. “From what dream to what dream do we / Awake …,” he asks. And in “Unless”:

All will be in vain unless—unless what? Unless
You realize that what you think is Truth is only
A husk for something else. Which might,
Shall we say, be called energy, as good a word as any. …

All bodies of the world's body are husks, vehicles, containers, for that current which may pass through even small wires. Energy is life. Warren is recalling the totemic and hieratic images that fifty years have served toward defining the condition of joy: hawk, owl, beasts, lovers, landscapes of crag and sublimity. But he remembers another immediate truth: “So many things they say are true / but you / Can't always be sure you feel them. …” Have the images become a push-button reality? Are they only the furniture of the poems? For Warren, inevitably, the only things true are what survive the cauterizations of literal experience, its reflection and dissection.

And death, always Warren's main character, is nearer than ever. The figure of the hand's touch assumes a new context. Now it is the physician who stares into the patient's face “and you wish / He'd take his goddamn hand off your shoulder.” In this poem, “Waiting,” everything that has mattered seems stripped away. The woman a man has loved all his life says “she cannot / Remember when last she loved you, and had lived the lie only / For the children's sake.” Is this what one comes to, is this reality? Is this the ease which comes to a man's seventh decade? You must wait to know. Warren, like everyone, must “pick the last alibi off, like a scab, and / Admire the inwardness. …” As he says in Democracy & Poetry (1975), it is ever the poet's task to face the deep and dark inwardness of man's nature—to endeavor to be so much of the matrix that there will be no need to flinch before the hawk of reality.

Warren, indeed, demands more vigorously than ever to know the nature of a man's purpose in “The Mission.” Here he creates an urdream of horses, long dead, in static and grace-manifesting pose, who seem to promise some answer but give only themselves, their beauty. How could they, like himself, be in the world and then not? Waking, he thinks of a hibernating bear who will come alive like the world itself, and thinks of the snow-blinded world that keeps the bear, the icy stream of reality that continually flows:

                                                  It has a mission too, but
In that blackness, has forgotten what I, too,
Have forgotten the nature of my own mission.

What terror now not to know what had been certain reality, to have to conjecture “perhaps” and to relive the old contingencies, the old hope of continuity—and what courage to make this choice! In “When the Tooth Cracks—Zing!” all Warren can do is to try to make new definition by the remaining evidence, pain:

                                                                      But even
The pain is something—is, you might say,
For lack of a better word,

With “Sister Water” Warren evokes even the venerable “Original Sin: A Short Story,” and an old man rattles the night-door as had the premoral monster who first announced the poet's idea that “nothing is ever lost,” not even the will-corrupted and nightmare self. But in this new poem we cannot be sure time exists, much less continuity: “But is there a now or then?” Surely time is not of the matrix but of the human—or is it? Without definition, what human gesture is any good? Warren says, “You cannot pray. But / You can wash your face in cold water.” How ironic and caustic. The story of these poems says you must do both to have a chance for reality through either act.

“Speculation” is a tragic and necessary movement which insists again that Warren, like Socrates, will not live the unexamined life but will ask, as he asked in Audubon, “what / Is man but his passion?” He had answered this ambiguously lineated question in a subsequent poem, saying, “Passion / Is all. Even / The sleaziest.” The poems of “Speculation” reinforce this contention, but not without the stress test of experience. Of them, none is more blisteringly beautiful than the ouraboros-like “Identity And Argument For Prayer” and the book-ending “Heart of Autumn.” The former functions like a summa:

                                                            And whatever
Vision or anguish
Swelled in the heart to be uttered was
By wind crammed in the throat back, and all
I recall is the shadowy thought that
Man's mind, his heart, live only by piecemeal, like mice
On cheese crumbs—the cheese itself, of course,
Being locked in the tin.
In God's pantry.

Laurence Lieberman (review date 1981)

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SOURCE: Lieberman, Laurence. “The Glacier's Offspring: A Reading of Robert Penn Warren's New Poetry.” The American Poetry Review 10, no. 2 (March 1981): 6-8.

[In the following review of Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980, Lieberman analyzes Warren's poem “Globe of Gneiss,” commenting on its experimental prosody and thematic grandeur.]

At seventy-five, Robert Penn Warren has lost none of his lifelong zest for strenuous nature hikes. In his new book of poems, Being Here, Warren's many excursions through woods, up hillside, across beach and rocky shoreline, run a gamut from sheer relish in the physical exertion—with lapses of muscle to explore a wealth of sensory perceptions—to profound meditations on the nature of Time and “Pure Being.” By a succession of happy accidents, Warren's cross-country rambles lead him to encounters with living or non-living beings that amazingly mirror a profile of the author himself. His incandescent moments of recognition of each of his secret kin in nature submerges him in trance (“I stopped … I stood … I stared,” “I gazed”); the noise and bustle of nature are frozen, momentarily (“no leaf may stir, nor a single blade twitch,” “no bird ever calls”); and his spirit soars into a dimension of pure silence and motionlessness, a haven outside time. He binds himself, steadfastly, to each of his accidental twins, and lingers in this condition of “Platonic Drowse”:

          I stare at the cloud, white, motionless. I cling
To our single existence, timeless, twinned.

Each of these twinnings (with the “lonely … unmoving cloud”; an aged warbler with “beak, unmoving as death”; a drowned monkey, “wild-eyed” and “huddled by volcanic stone”; and a large boulder of gneiss perched on a cliff-ledge) begins as a grateful identification with the other familial being, or entity. Then, Warren enshrines the brief portraits in a reader's memory, lavishing his most tellingly precise description on the unique facets of each identity portrayed:

Where are the warblers? Why, yes, there's one,
Rain-colored like gunmetal now, rain-slick like old oil.
It is motionless in the old stoicism of Nature.
Yes, under a useless maple leaf,
The tail with a fringe of drops, like old Tiffany crystal,
And one drop, motionless, hung at beak-tip.
I see that beak, unmoving as death. …

Never do we sense that the other entity has been deprived of its own pristine native character, nor that Warren, with a cold eye of premeditation, has manipulated the living plasm or stone into literary images and symbols. But while the other being is cherished for its own novel particularity of traits, it undergoes slow transmutation into its role in the poem as emblem of a crucial phase in the journey of Warren's aspiring self in its many crossings-over of the “knife-edge frontier” into “Timelessness.” To outwit Death, the cheat, he would side-step Time.

Each episode in Warren's sequential cycle of Nature poems may be viewed, allegorically, as a milestone of existential discovery in the Spirit's quest for truth about the nature of Time, Fate, God, Death and Being. As in Yeats's “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” the emblematic character of Warren's nature portrayals emerges as an accidental by-product, or “afterthought,” following the spontaneous meeting between persona and alter ego in the unfolding of each poem's drama. Works that begin with raw physicality and joie de vivre end in parable and vision. The strainless ease with which Warren negotiates the gulf from naturalistic incident to complex allegory in the best poems marks out this author's matchless genius among contemporaries.


The one new poem which I take to be most starkly prototypic of the strategy outlined above is “Globe of Gneiss.” The poem's opening and closing lines are questions, the first capping the longest stanza, the last the shortest, a single-line stanza:

(1) “How heavy is it? Fifteen tons? Thirty? More?”
(2) “How much will I remember tonight?”

These two questions highlight the thematic antipodes, and to trace the many artful shifts in the poem's center of gravity from rock to human, from Gneiss to Warren, is to take the measure of the distance traversed between story and parable in many of the best new poems.

In rhythm and meter, the poem begins with a swift-paced conversational thrust:

How heavy is it? Fifteen tons? Thirty? More?—
The great globe of gneiss, poised, it would seem, by
A hair's weight, there on the granite ledge. Stop!
Don't go near! Or only on tiptoe. Don't,
For God's sake, be the fool I once was, who
Went up and pushed. Pushed with all strength,
Expecting the great globe to go
Hurtling like God's wrath to crush
Spruces and pines down the cliff, at least
Three hundred yards down to the black lake the last
Glacier to live in Vermont had left to await
Its monstrous plunge.

The measure is a near approach to metrical regularity until, midway in the first stanza, the line wavers to trimeter, then [back] to pentameter, and finally settles on a two-stress end line (“its monstrous plunge”), a pedestal of sorts, left to bulwark the weight and heft of the somewhat top-heavy verse unit.

This stanza is the only one in “Globe of Gneiss” which, in its reluctance to pull out all the stops and take the headlong plunge into non-measured verse, illustrates “meter-clash,” an intriguing variant of prosody brilliantly defined by Peter Viereck in his recent essay tracing the development of a tendency with roots in the poetry of Shakespeare's plays and proliferating in the work of a handful of today's master prosodists, who work within and against traditional metrics by playing off a few out-of-measure lines against the many in a passage which does scan, regularly. The offbeat lines seem to lean toward the regular stress-count, then break way in one or more metrical feet, beguiling the ear of readers conditioned to fit near-regular lines comfortably into the prevailing pattern. Sparks fly, while readers try, unsuccessfully, to juggle the miscreant lines into fixed moulds which they adamantly resist. For Viereck, I suppose, Shakespeare was having his little private joke of warring against the stolid iambic pentameter, while audiences kept hearing the accustomed fives. The modern poets, however, take some relish in challenging sophisticated readers, and hope to be found out by the more committed devotees. Not incidentally, Warren led Viereck's list as supreme experimenter among today's prosodists. Much in this book could be taken to enhance credibility for Viereck's theory.

But for me, this poem—and other surpassingly crafted works in this assemblage—stands at the “knife-edge frontier” between traditional meter and free verse. A dominant passion shared by a great line of American prosodists ranging from technicians so diverse as William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost—at opposite ends of the continuum from open to closed forms—is the rage to design a meter and line configuration that is modelled after the timbre of the speaking voice, and which appropriates the very accents and aural nuance of colloquial idiom into the measure. How lucky for readers, today, that the central craftsman in verse of our language brings to the aforesaid obsession the practical handicraft of fifty years of expertise in the art of the novel—a master of imaginative prose now diverting a far greater share of his chief energies than in the past from fiction to verse.

Acknowledging my debt to Viereck, then: he has presented as cogent and persuasive an explication as I have read of the special jarring and jangling effects in sound, and scissoring of rhythm (“meter-clash”), that Warren achieves in a number of his best recent poems in couplets, as well as in the first stanza of “Globe of Gneiss,” by first teasing a reader's ear with the expectation of regular tetrameters or pentameters, give-or-take some metrical roughening around the edges in the shape of a poetic half-foot left dangling at the end of a line, now and again; while the exceptional line abruptly diminished or inflated by a whole foot may be felt to reestablish the metrical norm by leaning away from a rhythm it inheringly supports, as by a rule like syncopation in music—the shifts, to one side or the other of the norm, always suggesting the regular beat contained in the voiced beat, but momentarily evaded or submerged.

After many rereadings of the whole poem, I feel it becomes evident that Warren did not set out to employ conventional meter in the first stanza, then abandoning the convention for free verse, when meter no longer suited his purpose, in subsequent stanzas. Only a shoddy inattentive technician would switch from meter to free verse, at whim; rather, the shifting mean of the free verse alters by a consistent rationale, which derives from the changing contours of the poem's images and thematic substance. Perhaps the regular accentual line-measure in much of the first stanza can be taken to articulate the unexpected fixity and immobility of the globe. Yet even in those opening lines, the pattern of stresses in the line is offset by the nervous fragmentation of the spiel, the persona blurting a chain of warnings to himself (“Stop! / Don't go near! Or only on tiptoe. Don't, / For God's sake, be the fool I once was …”). But the speaker, ignoring his own insight and better judgment, can't resist the temptation to try to push the globe off the ledge “with all strength.” His confusion of motives—intuition at odds with physical impulse—may be mirrored by a line rhythm and syntax that appear to be pulling in opposite directions, the regular line length intoning the claims of conservative reason, while the broken syntax of the colloquial voice graphs the pulse of lawless Dionysiac energy.

In the middle of line 6, roughly halfway through the stanza, the meter implodes, the two balanced halves of the line falling into the line center where the repeated word “pushed” supplants the rhythm propelled by the “don't” repeated at the extremities of line 4. The whole stanza seems to collapse on itself at shortened lines 7-8, since the heavy caesura in the middle of line 6 brakes to a halt the swift momentum unleashed by line 4. When the rhythm regains tempo in lines 9-12, the regular pentameters have faded out, displaced by a waveryness of line-scale that prevails for the rest of the poem, a viable instrument which, in its exquisitely-wrought fluctuations, is a true sensitive barometer for shifts in mood, voice, pacing, event: in sum, the poem's craft exhibits the versatility and wide range of expressiveness that is the hallmark of all free verse of a superior order.

Lines 9-11 expand, while the speaker's fantasy—of playing God and tumbling the globe down the cliffside—unfolds. But fantasy, which has outpaced action, is swiftly deflated: the rhythmic speed-up stalls, the line ebbing, again, as one stanza quits and the next commences:

… Its monstrous plunge.
I pushed. It was like trying
To push a mountain …

The rhythm now doubly retarded by “pushed” and “push” starting the two slow lines, the repeated physical word ironically smothers the overtones lingering from the purely mental “crush” and “plunge.” Stanza 2 comprises two distinct rhythms: the rhythm of the spluttery short sentences that begin and end the stanza, both articulating impulsive physical acts of the persona (“I pushed,” “I leaped back in terror”); the rhythm of the single long sentence in the middle, which remarkably uncoils, clause by clause, as the persona's deeper mind envisions stages of the globe's history:

I pushed. It was like trying
To push a mountain. It
Had lived through so much, the incessant
Shove, like a shoulder, of north wind nightlong,
The ice-pry and lever beneath, the infinitesimal
Decay of ledge. Suddenly,
I leaped back in terror.

The abortive fantasy of stanza 1 is displaced by the searching mind's-eye of visionary intelligence. This sentence assembles a chain of phrases which suggest a supersensory penetration and plumbing of the rock's secret life (“incessant / shove,” “ice-pry and lever beneath,” “infinitesimal / decay”): more and more, as the poem proceeds, the rock is perceived to be an organic Being, which has survived a myriad succession of life-stages and has attained an advanced wisdom, coupled with its astounding longevity in years—by human standards.

The quality of language, the texture of line-breaks, and the resilience of sentence syntax moulded around the lines combine forces to suggest the deep intuitive centers of a mind's cognition, slowly permeating the innermost laminae and foliations of this metamorphic rock. The efflorescence of the poet's style, here and in the next longer stanza, strikes the reader's eye and ear as a wonderfully apt investiture—or garb—for the intricate mental processes rendered lucid by the poem's crystalline art.

The discovery of the globe's hidden life came upon the persona accidentally, in a moment of frustration as he recoiled—helpless—from the physical exertion of pushing. The manifestation of Being, presence, identity in the rock was occasioned by “terror,” triggered as much by the unaccustomed flood of cosmic awareness as by the primitive fear of retaliation—the rock, by a will of its own, might push back, toppling, and crush the pusher:

                              … Suddenly,
I leaped back in terror.

But it is the flash of cosmic terror, and its lingering afterglow, that lures Warren the pilgrim-wayfarer to return to this magical site, a devotee revisiting a holy place, periodically, in later life. In the second half of the poem, some time has passed—perhaps days, perhaps half a lifetime. The distance he has travelled in the interim is not temporal, in any case, but has occurred outside time. The pilgrim's change of heart is mirrored in the altered pace of stanza 3, coupled with a serene passivity of mood. Hot blood has indeed cooled, and the slowdown of metabolism enables the speaker to identify with a master of sluggish tempo, the lichen:

So some days I now go again to see
Lichen creep slow up that
Round massiveness …

No longer “the fool I once was,” he comes now to see, not to shove, and to slowly develop phlegmatic second sight:

                                                                                It creeps
Like Time, and I sit and wonder how long
Since that gneiss, deep in earth,
In a mountain's womb, under
Unspeakable pressure, in total
Darkness, in unmeasurable
Heat, had been converted
From simple granite, striped now with something
Like glass, harder
Than steel, and I wonder
How long ago, and how, the glacier had found it,
How long and how it had trundled
The great chunk to globe-shape.

The long sentence that comprises the bulk of stanza 3, one of the most exquisitely modulated passages in all of Warren's free verse, projects the enigma of geologic time as a series of profoundly imaged stages in the conversion of granite into gneiss—a crystallized form of metamorphic rock. The sentence is a coiled spiral, which binds the many interwoven “in”-phrases. The whole stanza moves like a high-powered drill, Warren a geologist boring down into the rock and deciphering—layer by layer—each phase of its terrestrial evolution from samples of shattered stone extracted at graduated depths.

In stanza 2, the speaker was struck by the globe's time-scale, radically different from his own. “It / Had lived through so much,” he pondered, but confining his thoughts to the globe's life-span on the ledge. Now, allured to the globe's previous subterranean existence, he meditates upon the nature of “Time,” focussing the slow trance of his vision upon conjured images of the globe's genesis in the “mountain's womb,” fathered by the “last / Glacier to live in Vermont,” which—in Warren's ecstatic transport of vision—

                                                            … trundled
The great chunk to globe-shape,
Then poised it on ledge-edge, in balanced perfection.

What an achievement, the creation and dexterous balancing of the globe! We don't think to question that both glacier and boulder were/are alive. The glacier was the last survivor of its species in Vermont, the gneiss its offspring and heir, as if glacier and mountain mated to produce the gneiss-child. Warren's vision of the glacier as artist-progenitor is astonishing in its power to illuminate the enigmas of science, such that we come to feel the creation of the gneiss ball was no less a miracle than the creation, say, of a seventy-five-year-old poet's life, which implicit analogy prepares us for the sudden revelation of the final stanzas:

Sun sets. It is a long way
Down, the way darkening. I
Think how long my afternoon
Had seemed. How long
Will the night be?
But how short that time for the great globe
To remember so much!
How much will I remember tonight?

The tone, abruptly, shifts, as the discourse tilts to a slant of personal intimacy. The circuit of images—tracing the genesis of the gneiss from birth to maturity—is complete; and by the most effortless refocusing of the angle of vision, the speaker turns his fluoroscopy—refined and perfected by training its x-ray sights on the inner layers of the gneiss—back on his lone figure starting its twilight descent down the cliff-side. The plainness of the poem's final lines and delicate simplicity of syntax belies their freight of accumulated meaning and resonance. As in all true parable, or allegory, meaning has been stored and nurtured, covertly, in images or parts of the story, and a harvest of wisdom now breaks with the force of a hidden swell suddenly tossing up a foamy surf on the shore of the poem's finale. The author, sapiently, trusts the spare plain strokes of the last lines to carry the charge that sweeps, by sheer inescapable force of analogy, from gneiss to man.


Only once before, in modern American poetry, have we witnessed a similar glacial purity and primitiveness in the brief parables of Stephen Crane, but Crane's elegant miniatures—sweeping out into the same precincts of great impersonal Being—could not have foreseen Warren's unprecedented genius for re-routing the vision back to the strictly mortal passions of his own uniquely vivacious personality.

In “Globe of Gneiss,” the aggressive human ego of the opening stanzas, stymied, mellows into a saintlike human who can commune with stone on its own terms, as St. Francis conversed with birds. Unable to budge the globe with brute muscle, he befriends the rock, encounters it with the slow, full steadfast power of his spiritual intellect. He discovers—by exerting the tenacious grasp of his old man's eagle mind—the beauty and glory of the gneiss's history. Tracing the rock's evolution, he travels backwards in geologic time, epoch by epoch, from the gneiss's present perch (“poised on ledge-edge”), downwards to its embryonic nurturing in the “mountain's womb.” He envisions these prior moments in time with preternatural clarity and incisiveness of detail. A reader, drawn resistlessly into this compelling hallucination back in time and down into the mountain's interior, senses deeply—as he voyages with the poet—the masterful poise of Warren's doubleness of vision: for without sacrificing a vestige of naturalistic detail in portraying the rock, Warren simultaneously finds his own identity mirrored in the gneiss. The gneiss is, by subtle ghostly strokes, transformed into an emblem for Warren's own aging corpus, his weathered physiognomy, his great staying power and vision of himself as one of that precious handful of robust and hardy survivors of his own many-tiered, much-layered succession of human eras.

William H. Pritchard (review date 1981)

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SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Weighing the Verse.” Poetry 138, no. 2 (May 1981): 107-16.

[In the following excerpted review, Pritchard describes the verses of Being Here as “poetry of emotions … high-pitched and poignant.”]

In his introduction to the recent New Oxford Book of English Light Verse, Kingsley Amis refers at one point to the opposite of such verse and instead of opting for the demeaning “heavy” (Who would want to be known as a writer of heavy verse?) chooses the adjective “high.” Whatever one calls it, a prime contemporary example of unlight verse is the work of Robert Penn Warren. As was the case with respect to his last volume (Now and Then, 1978) nobody goes on about Mr. Warren for very long without reaching for the word “powerful.” Harold Bloom, who has been touting Warren's later poetry as America's central contemporary instance of the High Romantic Sublime (Bloom touts the Sublime generally) finds it “deeply moving.” But what is there to be said about an ordinary reader's experience of this powerful, sublime, deeply moving voice, varying little from poem to poem, speaking always as if propelled by some elemental force which throws up memories and scenes from the past and is never at a loss for words to describe them?

Since it is an excellent idea to be on the alert whenever one is placed in the neighborhood of something deeply moving (especially if it's the Sublime) we may remark first on the extreme ease with which Warren summons up the language in poem after poem. Wyndham Lewis once accused Faulkner of possessing a “whippoorwill tank” to which he had frequent recourse when his prose threatened to flag. Mr. Warren owns something like a Time and History tank. The book's three epigraphs all refer to Time, and the tank is repaired to on numerous occasions in the poems themselves:

So dressed now, I wandered the sands, drifting on
Toward lights, now new, of the city afar, and pondered
The vague name of Time,
That trickles like sand through fingers,
And is life
Time crouched, like a great cat, motionless
Time stops, like it's no Time.
Who needs the undertaker's sick lie
Flung thus in the teeth of Time …
All history resounds with such
Utterance—and stench of meat burned
Dark humus of history or our
Own fate, which blindly blooms, like a flower.
While out of Time, Timelessness brims
Like oil in black water …

There are many more, and a similarly large selection could be made of his employment of “Truth.” I do not mean to be perverse in saying that when I come to these patches in Warren's writing—

Time died in my heart.
So I stood on that knife-edge frontier
Of Timelessness,

—I am not at all deeply moved, but depressed rather at the mechanical cranking-out (or bucket gone to the well once more) of an old tune. It's not so much High as it is Heavy verse.

Surely the co-author of Understanding Poetry knows more about prosody than I, and there may be richly interesting prosodic feats in these poems I'm not hearing. What I do hear is a voice that has decided to rear back and let go as if, having attained the age of seventy-five, Mr. Warren feels he's earned the right to behave as he likes. He is certainly no searcher for the mot juste; the ease with which “like a” this or that comes to his pen suggests something other than Flaubertian fastidiousness. I think rather that his appeal—and many of these poems are indeed appealing—stems from the universality of the situation: an old man looks back, encourages his childhood to cry out to him, asks unanswerable questions about why (the favorite first word in these poems), and then wrestles with the big, impossible questions which have none, or only one, answer. His is not a poetry of ideas, although concepts are always popping up; it is the poetry of emotions rather, high-pitched and poignant. The self these poems speak to is one which given a chance will eagerly indulge in thoughts that lie too deep for tears. A single and compelling instance will have to suffice, from “Boyhood in Tobacco Country,” where the man dreams back to his young self, walking a dusky lane in the country. The poem concludes:

I move in its timelessness. From the deep and premature midnight
Of woodland, I hear the first whip-o-will's
Precious grief, and my young heart,
As darkling I stand, yearns for a grief
To be worthy of that sound. Ah, fool! Meanwhile,
Arrogant, eastward, lifts the slow dawn of the harvest moon.
Enormous, smoky, smoldering, it stirs.
First visibly, then paling in retardation, it begins
The long climb zenithward to preside
There whitely on what the year has wrought.
What have the years wrought? I walk the house.
Oh, grief! Oh, joy! Tonight
The same season's moon holds sky-height.
The dark roof hides the sky.

It is a voice once more out of the cradle, endlessly rocking and—for stretches in this new volume I'll admit it—powerfully. …

Charles Bohner (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Bohner, Charles. “The Texture of the World.” In Robert Penn Warren, pp. 28-45. Revised Edition. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In the following essay, Bohner summarizes thematic and stylistic developments in Warren's poetry of 1923 to 1944.]

In the spring of 1943 Robert Penn Warren published in the Kenyon Review an essay entitled “Pure and Impure Poetry” which has since taken its place among the major texts of modern criticism. Warren himself evidently believed the essay constituted an important personal statement, for he subsequently placed it first in his Selected Essays (1958). Since the essay appeared while he was preparing his Selected Poems, 1923-1943 for the press, he was perhaps prompted to speculate on the nature of poetry by looking back on two decades of his own practice of the art.


“Poetry,” Warren begins, “wants to be pure but poems do not.” The poet writing the pure poem is, like the laboratory scientist, working under carefully controlled conditions to extract the emotion pure and undefiled. The pure poem is the distillate, the emotion purged of the dross of ambiguity. Warren insists, however, that the poem must have its being not in the aseptic laboratory but in the world. Consequently, the poem must, like life itself, partake of impurities: “cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, clichés, sterile technical terms, headwork, and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism—all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.” If, for example, the pure poet (Warren's examples are Shelley and Tennyson) treats of love, he is likely to represent it as ethereal and beautiful and pure. Love is for him a “soft” subject, and he will insist on its “softness.” But, Warren argues, it is just this insistence which leads to the downfall of the pure poet. Love may be bawdy and sensual and comic. If the poem does not contain some awareness of this paradoxical nature of love, some ironic counterstatement, the poem is vulnerable to parody and ridicule. The result may be an “embarrassing” poem or a “naked” poem. Warren's ideal poet “is like the jujitsu expert; he wins by utilizing the resistance of his opponent—the materials of the poem. In other words, a poem, to be good, must earn itself.”

In terms of his own definition, Warren's poetry is decidedly impure. From his first verses, written while still an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, he has readily introduced into his poetry all of the elements so troubling to the pure poet. Warren employs, for example, a remarkable variety of metrical forms, often in startling combinations. Sudden contrasts between elegance and earthiness abound in his verse—the coupling of a Latinic adjective and an Anglo-Saxon noun and the mixing of esoteric diction with slang. The folk speech of his native Kentucky and Tennessee is a Warren hallmark, his ear for dialect going beyond mere quirks of vocabulary or oddities of syntax. In its system of tensions, his poetry harks back to the elaborately fashioned and intellectually rigorous verse of the decidedly impure Metaphysicals. The result is a poetry of tartness and astringency which lays him open to the charge that has been made against his former teacher and fellow Fugitive, John Crowe Ransom, a deficiency in verbal music.

Warren was undoubtedly influenced by Ransom, as was an entire generation of Southern poets. Ransom's students include Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell. “Perhaps,” Robert Lowell said, “their being with Ransom was an irrelevant accident. And yet, I think the teacher may have made the difference.”1 In “Pure and Impure Poetry” Warren pays high tribute to Ransom by including at the center of the essay an admiring explication of the metrical brilliance and ironic wit of “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter.” Ransom, on his part, called Warren “one of the really superlative poets of our time.”2

During the two years he was associated with the Fugitives, Warren published more than a score of poems in their magazine. “Crusade,” his first poem to be accepted for publication, appeared in the number for June 1923, and in February 1924 his name was added to the masthead of the magazine. While his poems do not appear to disadvantage beside the work others were contributing, Warren's verses are not remarkably superior to those of many talented young people whose interest in literature stimulates them to write poetry. Generally traditional in form, these early poems are characterized by a fascination with the macabre and the monstrous. Warren's imagination seems to have been haunted by images of putrefaction and disease. Death is everywhere, generally at its most hideous—“naked corpses,” “skulls glaring white,” “flies on bloated bodies,” in a world of “leprous” mists, “shriveling” ferns, and “obscene” wheat. The tone is melodramatic, a turgid and overwrought straining for effect. Only when Warren turns to material he knows intimately, notably in the lyric elegy “Alf Burt, Tenant Farmer,” do we catch glimpses of real promise.

During the spring of 1924, Warren, then nineteen years old, sank into a depression and apparently tried to take his own life. Allen Tate wrote to Donald Davidson: “Don't deceive yourself that he did it because he was ‘convinced he would never be a poet.’ It shows, finally,—that statement—his fundamental courage. He rejected the meaner way, that of telling the truth about his anguish. Red is no simpleton; it isn't a mere despair of youth, a maudlin self-pity working itself into the hysteria of suicide. It is simply that he has been beaten down so consistently and brutally, that his emotional needs have met frustration so completely, that he was driven into a blind alley.”3

Warren recovered his health and graduated from Vanderbilt in 1925. He spent the summer revising and polishing his early poems for publication. He told Allen Tate that he had about thirty-eight in his portfolio, but that he had “few illusions about them.” And he wrote to Andrew Lytle in August 1925, “I think that my philosophy of poetry is right, at least for me, who am a relativist and who consequently would not erect it into a criterion. I feel that it is right, but I also know that my method demands discipline; it is far too romantic in essence with too much sarcasm. I have never achieved a real irony which is the true alloy.”4


Ultimately he determined against publication, and another decade was to pass before he brought out in 1935 his first volume of verse under the title Thirty-Six Poems. In preparing the volume for the press, Warren winnowed out much of his early work. The only poem that survives from undergraduate days is “To a Face in a Crowd,” which had appeared in the Fugitive (June 1925) and was later included in Fugitives: An Anthology of Verse (1928). The poem, clearly the best of his earlier work, is representative of it in tone and theme. The form is traditional four-line, iambic pentameter stanzas; the mood is Eliotic. As the title suggests, the poem is a plea for communion with a stranger whose “face is blown, an apparition, past.” The setting is a place of “bitter waters” where “among the rocks the faint lascivious grass / Fingers in lust the arrogant bones of men.” The speaker feels that he has seen the face before, perhaps in a dream. He can address the stranger as “my brother,” for together they share a dark and violent history which they have no choice but to confront. The speaker knows, too, that such tenuous communion as is possible between them must be based on a recognition of their common past.

                                                                      … we must meet
As weary nomads in this desert at last,
Borne in the lost procession of these feet.

The rest of Thirty-Six Poems shows great strides beyond such early work. In his essay on Robert Frost, Warren has defined the poet as “the man who is greatly concerned with the flux of things, with the texture of the world, with, even, the dark ‘natural’ places of man's soul.”5 So it is with Warren's own poems. His work confronts the elemental facts of human experience, and yet, as might be expected, it is deeply rooted in his native region. “The Last Metaphor” and “Croesus in Autumn,” for example, offer frequent glimpses of Kentucky landscape, vivid with precisely observed and sharply focused images. This deeply felt sense of place never descends into mere local color but is the wellspring of the poetry's vitality. The predominant mood is autumnal: falling leaves, the sound of wind in barren boughs, “the scent of the year's declension.” The poetry is suffused with a sense of natural forces at work—the cycle of the seasons, the generations of men, the flow of time.

A case in point is the series of lyrics written between 1927 and 1932 and grouped under the title “Kentucky Mountain Farm.” In the opening “Rebuke of the Rocks,” the rocks address the “little stubborn people of the hill,” instructing them that the “little flesh and fevered bone / May keep the sweet sterility of stone.” But even the rocks are at the mercy of massive natural processes, for

                                                                                the frost has torn
Away their ridgéd fundaments at last,
So that the fractured atoms now are borne
Down shifting waters to the tall, profound
Shadow of the absolute deeps. …

In “History Among the Rocks” the speaker wonders about the young soldiers, “grey coats, blue coats,” slaughtered on the very mountainside where the farm now stands. He reflects on the ways a man may die: freezing in winter snow, drowning in a spring flood, poisoning by a copperhead while harvesting summer wheat. The violence inherent in each way of dying is muted by the poet's treatment. Freezing to death is but “a cold and crystalline dream”; the drowned man is “hushed in the end” as the waters “gently bend.” Considered against the cycle of the year, such deaths are but the course of nature, the inevitable risks of life. By contrast, “Young men on the mountainside / Clambered, fought. Heels muddied the rocky spring.” The men sought death in “these autumn orchards.” They fought furiously, died violently, and their deaths seem somehow to violate the natural order. The speaker is puzzled by their motives:

Their reason is hard to guess, remembering
Blood on their black mustaches in moonlight.
Their reason is hard to guess and a long time past:
The apple falls, falling in the quiet night.

The ending is a characteristic Warren signature. The final image is cryptic, at most an oblique suggestion of the meaning of the experience described in the poem. Compared to the men killed by natural calamities, the soldiers have consciously chosen to court death. Perhaps it is the exercise of this choice that lends dignity and meaning to their lives. The poet does not say; he merely points to the fall of the apple, an image suggesting the vast natural forces at work in the universe against which the soldiers' decision must be measured.

Among these early poems we find the first tentative exploration of themes and techniques which Warren returns to and develops in his later poetry and fiction. “Letter of a Mother” and “The Return: An Elegy” are preliminary sketches for one of the most familiar narrative patterns of Warren's later work. Each dramatizes, by a cycle of flight and return, the mingled feelings of love, responsibility, and guilt between a mother and her son. The son, driven by a dimly felt need for self-realization, flees the family homestead only to be haunted by a nagging sense of filial obligation.

In “The Return,” the best of Warren's early work, we hear the first confident sounding of his characteristic poetic voice. The elegy develops by a series of violent shifts in tone. The speaker is hurrying westward to the bedside of his dying mother. In the darkness the pines whip past the Pullman window, stimulating in the son's mind a chain of grotesque and irreverent associations. The glimpses of Southern landscape, swept by rain squalls and low-hanging mists, merge with childhood memories, speculations on the pioneers who first made the journey westward, and sudden and uncontrollable spasms of guilt (“the old bitch is dead / what have I said!”). The speaker imagines, or remembers, a dead fox lying amidst ferns and blossoms, and his imagination clothes the scene in the formal trappings of a funeral (“the gracious catafalque and pall”). His mind irrationally metamorphoses the memory of the fox into the memory of his mother (“the old fox is dead / what have I said”). Images rise in the mind, combine and recombine, in a disconnected series of soaring leaps and tangents. Scraps of verse are blended with memories after the manner of Eliot's Waste Land:

turn backward turn backward in your flight
and make me a child again just for tonight
good lord he's wet the bed come bring a light

The kaleidoscopic images blur and eddy in the speaker's mind and build to the memorable conclusion:

If I could pluck
Out of the dark that whirled
Over the hoarse pine over the rock
Out of the mist that furled
Could I stretch forth like God the hand and gather
For you my mother
If I could pluck
Against the dry essential of tomorrow
To lay upon the breast that gave me suck
Out of the dark the dark and swollen orchid of this sorrow.

These lines recapitulate the dominant imagery of the poem and rise to the intensity of the final metaphor which precisely defines the son's sense of loss.

“The Return” is almost a parable of a special kind of southern experience in the twentieth century. The narrator has fled the region of his birth, yet has felt the past sucking him down like quicksand. He is hard put to define the ambivalence of his attitude toward the South. In part, his is the plight of the deracinated intellectual; in part, the plight of the man attempting to come to terms with his personal past.

Warren's continuing concern with the theme of the past in the present gives special significance to his poem “History.” His use of a flexible but firmly controlled rhyme scheme and of jagged, broken rhythms gives the poem a taut, sinewy power. At nightfall the narrator, an invader of a foreign land, stands at the head of a pass in a mountain defile looking down upon a verdant and fertile plain. On the verge of triumph, he recalls the advance through a bleak and barren wasteland. The army was confused and exhausted, but morale remained high. The intensity of the struggle, the concentration on the “prophesied” goal had given life meaning and direction. Now, poised at the moment of victory, the narrator pauses to speculate on his place in history and on the sons who will come after him:

Our sons shall cultivate
Peculiar crimes,
Having not love, nor hate
Nor memory.
Though some,
Of all most weary,
Most defective of desire,
Shall grope toward time's cold womb;
In dim pools peer
To see, of some grandsire,
The long and toothéd jawbone greening there.

The dilemma described is that of a generation of men paralyzed by their spiritual vacuity. For their ancestors, time offered an opportunity for action. For themselves, time is

                                                            the aimless bitch …
Forever quartering the ground in which
The blank and fanged
Rough certainty lies hid.

The invader, ruminating on the search for meaning which will occupy his progeny, suddenly asks himself what is the motive of his own quest:

We seek what end?
The slow dynastic ease,
Travail's cease?
Not pleasure, sure:
Alloy of fact?
The act
Alone is pure.

Submerged in the life of action, he finds the act self-justifying and self-fulfilling.

The diction and imagery of “History” carry overtones of the Israelites girding themselves to conquer the Promised Land, but the poem is distinctly contemporary in mood. The Israelite descending into the Promised Land is an allegory of the modern condition and a commentary on the American Dream. The emigrant to the New World, redeemed in action, has been replaced by the alienated modern who ransacks the past for direction and is baffled by the multiplicity of its meanings.

Closely related to “History” in their contemporaneity are two poems, companion pieces, published by Warren in the Southern Review (July 1935) and included in Thirty-Six Poems. Both mirror the unrest of the Depression years and both are grimly prophetic. The first of these, “Ransom,” points to the perilous uncertainty of the times: “What wars and lecheries and the old zeal / Yet unfulfilled, unrarefied, unlaced.” The poem goes on to state a problem: “Our courage needs, perhaps, new definition”; the second poem, “Letter from a Coward to a Hero,” offers one solution.

The “letter” opens with a fragmented account of the hero's day, a trivial mixture of blemished triumphs and minor disappointments that make up even the days of heroes. The writer catalogues the events and adds simply: “I think you deserved better; / Therefore I am writing you this letter.” The self-confessed coward muses on the childhood he shared with the hero, scraps of memory which “are hard to reconstruct,” probing for the sources of the hero's strength. The writer is aware that the time is out of joint and that he is inadequate to its demands:

Guns blaze in autumn and
The quail falls and
Empires collide with a bang
That shakes the pictures where they hang
And democracy shows signs of dry rot …
But a good hunter holds the point
And is not gun-shy;
But I
Am gun-shy.

The attitude of the coward toward the hero is touched with ambiguity. Though kingdoms totter and the skies fall, the hero, like the obedient hunting dog, holds the point. The comparison is calculated to flatter only the most complacent of heroes. Such courage is a virtue, but not an unalloyed one; for it is an unthinking courage, rather like a conditioned reflex.

The writer, moreover, is troubled by thoughts of the future. He hears “Drums beating for / The big war.” He asks nervously, “Does the airman scream in the flaming trajectory?” He knows that the future will call for men of heroic mold, but he is concerned about the hero's qualifications. The writer continues with a stanza that defines more exactly his attitude toward his hero:

You have been strong in love and hate.
Disaster owns less speed than you have got,
But he will cut across the back lot
To lurk and lie in wait.
Admired of children, gathered for their games,
Disaster, like the dandelion, blooms,
And the delicate film is fanned
To seed the shaven lawn.

The relationship delineated is infinitely more subtle than the polarized terms coward and hero suggest. The hero, the speaker tells us, is swift and, in the race with Disaster, possesses superior speed but inferior cunning. Disaster is wily and may outwit even the strongest of heroes. Disaster's seeds are sown as casually and abundantly as those of wild flowers and may take root in the most carefully cultivated places. Like a child playing with matches, the hero plays with Disaster, oblivious to the possible consequences of his actions. The writer of the letter frankly admires the hero's courage, but his admiration is tempered by the quality of that courage. It is too innocent, too abstract. Thus, in “Letter From a Coward to a Hero” we have the first extended poetic statement of a compelling theme which Warren first explored in his biography of John Brown: the man untroubled by self-knowledge who brings disaster by his single-minded devotion to an abstract value.

A similar problem is treated in a more traditional form in one of Warren's most appealing lyrics, “The Garden,” a variation on a theme by Andrew Marvell. Marvell in his great poem describes a verdant garden at the height of summer, but Warren describes a garden in early autumn when the first frost has dimmed its “summered brilliance.” Now, with summer's blossoms gone, the leaves blaze with “stately flame” and the trees echo with the song of jay and cardinal. The speaker, pondering on the garden's earlier state when it was a “rank plot” of lush ripeness, imagines two lovers pausing in an arbor before they kiss, “instructed of what ripeness is.” Perhaps these lovers are Adam and Eve, for as in Marvell's poem, the garden here carries suggestions of the Garden of Eden. It is an “imperial” yet natural garden (“No marbles whitely gaze among / These paths”). The sun is a “benison” and the narrator feels that “these precincts wait / In sacrament.”

Marvell's garden is paradisiacal; in it man may recapture something of the innocence and spiritual wholeness he enjoyed before the Fall. Warren's garden, on the other hand, is the “ruined state” after the Fall; in it man can find not innocence but knowledge. Thus the Fall (punning on the season) is, paradoxically, a fortunate one, for from the knowledge gained of the grossness of human excess and of the power of nature for evil, man may forge a new sacramental innocence on which to be stayed. The significance for Warren of the theme of “The Garden”—that only by knowledge does man achieve his identity—may be surmised by the fact that two decades after writing the poem he restated (in a speech in 1954 at Columbia University) the theme using the same imagery: “Man can return to his lost unity, and if that return is fitful and precarious, if the foliage and flower of the innocent garden are now somewhat browned by a late season, all is the more precious for the fact, for what is now achieved has been achieved by a growth of moral awareness.”


Having explored the theme of the loss of innocence and the hope of redemption through knowledge in “The Garden,” Warren turned to a more extended treatment of it in Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, one of “The Poet of the Month” series brought out by New Directions in 1942. This slender pamphlet is the product of a mind steeped in the tradition of English poetry. In “Bearded Oaks” Warren handles the lyric quatrain with a sensitive feeling for the traditional form yet with considerable originality of execution. The dense texture of “Love's Parable,” with its staccato rhythms and faintly archaic diction, blends wit and imagination after the manner of the Metaphysicals. The dialectic of “Question and Answer” is worked out in a taut but expressive free verse. The rigorous discipline of the individual poems extends to the organization of the work as a whole. Fugal in structure, it is developed and enriched by each new variation on the central theme. Eleven Poems is further integrated by recurring imagery—sun and sea, light and dark, stone and bone—which gives an inner logic to poems widely disparate in formal structure.

The theme of the eleven poems is stated metaphorically in the lyric that opens the volume, “Monologue at Midnight.” In it innocence is equated with love, and knowledge with disillusion. The speaker wishes to define himself in relation to another whom he loved and with whom he shared “joy and innocence” and “simplicity.” Their love was as fresh as the green of the cathedral pines that sheltered it and as natural as the progress of the seasons against which it unfolded. These memories of innocence are contaminated by the intrusion of vague overtones of guilt. Images, insubstantial and incongruous, flash into the mind of the narrator: the lovers' shadows guiltily pursuing them, an echo carried by the night wind, the sudden spurt of a match which fitfully and faintly promises a moment of illumination. The narrator can find neither substance nor definition (“And which am I and which are you?”) and concludes with a muted plea for spiritual wholeness and integration of self: “Our mathematic yet has use / For the integers of blessedness.” His isolation and sense of loss are acute, and he is only groping toward the formulation of the insight which Warren voices in “Revelation” and which, in turn, becomes one of the controlling themes of his later poetry and fiction: “In separateness only does love learn definition.”

By contrast, “Bearded Oaks,” the poem that follows, describes a moment of fulfillment, a moment poised precariously beyond the claims of time with its inevitable involvements and contamination. Two lovers recline in a grove of oaks. To the narrator the scene appears submerged in water with light filtering down through layers of liquid darkness. All motion is slowed by the denser medium, and, in this retardation of movement, the speaker feels time itself suspended. The lovers themselves are “twin atolls.” In the depths only faint whispers reach them of worldly processes, emphasizing the intense stillness of the present moment and its withdrawal from time's action of “passion and slaughter, ruth, decay. …” The apparent serenity of the scene prompts the narrator to sound a positive note: “If hope is hopeless, then fearless fear / And history is thus undone.” Yet even this guarded and tentative assertion is rendered ironic by the illusory nature of the setting.

The submarine imagery of the scene—its suspension, as it were, in both water and time—is evoked by the languid quality of the verse with its heavily marked caesuras, its stately progression of sonorous open vowels, and its inversions which force a marked slowing of pace:

The oaks, how subtle and marine,
Bearded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night.
So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the langorous tread of light:
The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.

The elegance of “Bearded Oaks” is sustained in “Picnic Remembered” and “Love's Parable.” Although structurally and metrically more formal than the other pieces in Eleven Poems, both lyrics extend and develop the thematic material and the imagery. In “Picnic Remembered,” as in “Bearded Oaks,” the lovers are suspended outside of time like “twin flies, … in amber tamed.” The day appears “innocent” to the lovers “buoyed” like swimmers who “resign them to the flow / And pause of their unstained flood.” But the sunlight which “laved” them is deceptive, for their innocence is ignorance: “we did not know / How darkness darker staired below.” Similarly, in “Love's Parable” the lover rejoices in a “garden state of innocence” only to have all spoiled by the “inward sore of self.”

Reading sequentially through Eleven Poems, it is not until we come to “Original Sin: A Short Story” that we reach an example of an idiom that Warren has made unmistakably his own. The apparent colloquial ease is achieved by piling up circumstantial details after the manner of a gifted, if rather garrulous, raconteur. The images are often macabre (“seaweed strung on the stinking stone”) and the humor sardonic or cynical (“grandpa's will paid the ticket”). Abstractions (“the quantum glare of the sun”) are set off against folk speech (“riding the rods”). The five-stress, iambic line is shaped and ordered by a traditional rhyme scheme, but the pattern is varied by the frequent spondees and anapests and by the use of slant rhymes.

Warren has given us a clue to the poem's intended meaning: “The story is about the personal past and the past behind the personal past, I suppose, and the problem that contemplating this past makes for us in our world of mobility and disorientation.”6 The protagonist is in flight, in part from his own past, in part from some aspect of himself connected with that past which he cannot bring himself to face. It may be, as the poem's title suggests, man's innate depravity. Restlessly searching for “a new innocence … to be stayed by,” the protagonist cannot elude the old guilt which reappears remorselessly in a variety of guises—a nightmare, an old hound, the clock steeple in Harvard Yard. These isolated but vivid images from youth are loosed from the depths of memory and float upward into consciousness to define an apparently forgotten experience. For example:

                                                                                          … your grandpa, who
Had a wen on his forehead and sat on the veranda
To finger the precious protuberance, as was his habit to do,
Which glinted in sun like rough garnet or the rich old brain bulging through.

The speaker has more than once felt the elation of escaping from the protean and dreaded visitant; but, just at the moment his defenses are down, it reappears. At the end, the speaker becomes accommodated to a sort of self-irony. He is apparently reconciled to the now familiar experience and even finds a gloomy kind of satisfaction in the assurance that “it” will continue to haunt him.

The protagonist in “Crime,” unlike the central figure in “Original Sin,” has escaped the past, but insanity is the price he has had to pay for his release. The burden of guilt has become intolerable: “He cannot seem to remember … he is too tired to ask … He cannot say. …” The poem is an excursion into the psychology of insanity: the horrors of a diseased imagination where a tree is a “sibilant tumor,” where “walls confer in the silent house,” and where “eyes of pictures protrude, like a snail's, each on its prong.” Yet “Crime” does not violate the thematic integrity of the volume as a whole. The killer has buried a body under the leaves, but he has forgotten the act and the victim. We are told to “envy the mad killer” because he too searches for happiness and “peace in God's eye”; his burden of guilt, unlike ours, is expiated in violence and madness. For the sane, even in an insane society, the burden remains; for “memory drips, a pipe in the cellar dark.”

In “Pursuit” Warren confronts directly the issue of the disruption of the modern sensibility. He has defined the problem in the course of a discussion of the poetry of John Crowe Ransom:

The disruption of sensibility … has two aspects: man is a creature little lower than the angels and, at the same time, of the brute creation; again, there is a conflict between the scientific vision of quantity and that vision concerned with quality. The issue in itself is as old as man, but in the past a reconciliation has generally been possible in terms provided by a more stable way of life and a more ordered structure of ideas. The issue receives its contemporary poignancy by reason of the absence of these two things. … The issue is the source of Ransom's irony. The poet cannot solve his problem by an act of will, but he can attempt to work out some sort of equilibrium that may permit him, even though at odds with himself, to continue the practice of his art without violating his own honesty.7

Warren's own treatment of the issue in “Pursuit” is also ironic. The pursuit is more an escape into sensation and a flight from the satiety of self. The stanzas proceed by a kind of dialectic, a series of contrasts at once grotesque and romantic. The pervasive tone of illness is encountered at once in the opening reference to a hunchback who harbors his own secrets and, like a victorious general, stares silently at “you” with “imperious innocence.” The “you” of the poem is in part the generalized reader, but it is also one voice of a schizoid modern self, a rather petulant and censorious superego.

The second stanza of “Pursuit” speaks in the imperative mood: “Go to the clinic. Wait in the outer room.” As in the contrast of hunchback and general, the sick modern is compared to the barbarian conqueror of imperial Rome who gapes uneasily at the undaunted sacrificial fathers. But compared to the richness of the allusion, the modern man is incapable of an adequate or appropriate emotional response to his own plight and feels merely “like one who has come too late, or improperly clothed, to a party.” A similar contrast develops in the third stanza. A doctor, baffled by the patient whose symptoms he cannot interpret, prescribes a trip to Florida where the frivolous search for diversion of the hypochondriac contrasts strikingly with the heroic quest of Ponce de Leon.

The modern disjunction of feeling and intellect is distilled in the conceit which opens the fifth stanza: “In Florida consider the flamingo, / Its color passion but its neck a question.” And finally, as in “Original Sin,” the problem revolves around the difficulty of contemplating the past: “Solution, perhaps, is public, despair personal, / But history held to your breath clouds like a mirror.”

“Terror,” the poem that concludes Eleven Poems, is quite similar to “Pursuit.” Warren has given us an account of the circumstances of its composition. While spending the winter of 1939-40 in Rome on a Guggenheim grant, Warren's attention was caught by a news item in the Rome daily Il Messaggero announcing that United States volunteers serving in the Finnish forces then fighting Russia would not lose their citizenship. The same morning he came upon the report of the death of the chicken heart which Alexis Carrel had kept alive in his laboratory and which the sensational press had exploited in stories promising earthly immortality.

The business about the chicken heart [Warren wrote] seemed to summarize a view current in our time—that science (as popularly conceived) will solve the problem of evil by reducing it merely to a matter of “adjustment” in the physical, social, economic, and political spheres. That same day I recalled a remark made in some book by John Strachey that after science had brought “adjustment” to society it would then solve the problem of evil by bringing man a mortal immortality, by abolishing disease and death. It struck me as somewhat strange that Strachey should equate physical death and evil on a point-to-point basis, and should thereby imply that good and physical survival are identical. As for the report about the volunteers, I was struck by the thought that the same impulse which had made them go to fight Franco had made them go to fight Russia, their recent ally in Spain. That impulse officially manifested itself as a political idea, a solution for the problem of meaning in life in terms of “adjustment,” but, for the purposes of the poem at least, I take a large component of that impulse to be the passionate emptiness and tidal lust of the modern man who, because he cannot find long-range meaning, seeks meaning in mere violence, the violence being what he wants and needs without reference ultimately to the political or other justification he may appeal to. So the two reports set us a paradox: the yearning for mere survival as meaning, and the appetite for death as meaning.8

The poem addresses “you,” the modern man, who has been “born to no adequate definition of terror.” His plight is that, blind alike to his limitations and responsibilities, he seeks restlessly to allay a gnawing, spiritual hunger. Yet nothing satisfies, neither the pleasure of the coldly passionate intellect nor the lust for physical sensation.

Since Warren was living in Rome during the composition of the poem, he was following at close quarters the efforts of Hitler and Mussolini to carve up Europe. Hence the allusions of “Terror” have a topicality not generally found in Eleven Poems:

You know, by radio, how hotly the world repeats,
When the brute crowd roars or the blunt boot-heels resound
In the Piazza or the Wilhelmplatz. …

Warren has commented on the political content of the poem: “Nazism, Fascism, embody … the glorification of violence and death, the offer of salvation through practical success, adjustment, etc., the ‘rational’ state. But the boot-heels beating the stones in the Piazza or Wilhelmplatz set up echoes of the same impulses and desires across the Atlantic—all part of the same world, the same modernity.”9


Two years after the appearance of Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, in the winter of 1944, Warren brought out his Selected Poems, 1923-1943. This collection is made up substantially of the poems which had already appeared in Thirty-Six Poems and in Eleven Poems on the Same Theme. There is, however, one important addition, “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” a long and ambitious work which Warren placed first in the new edition.

For the student of Warren's work, “The Ballad of Billie Potts” is of absorbing interest, notwithstanding the fact that as a work of art it is gravely flawed. In its composition Warren set himself a problem of great difficulty—dramatizing the meaning of the past for the present. Warren's continuing efforts to solve this problem to his own satisfaction have prompted his finest work.

The subject of the ballad is drawn from the folk history of Warren's home country—a story, he tells us in the headnote, he heard as a child from an elderly relative. The facts of the tale are simple. In the early nineteenth century, Billie Potts keeps a frontier inn in the section of western Kentucky between the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. He offers hospitality to travelers and then points them down the trail where his accomplice lies in ambush, waiting to rob and murder them. Billie Potts's son, Little Billie, sent to apprise one of his father's accomplices of the approach of an affluent traveler, attempts to kill the man himself only to be beaten to the draw and wounded. Little Billie then quarrels with his parents, journeys to the West, and after ten years returns, wealthy and complacent, to the homestead. Withholding his identity from his parents in order to “tease ‘em and fun ‘em,” Little Billie is brutally murdered by his father who mistakes him for a rich stranger.

The narrative is related in vigorous ballad style, swiftly paced and coarsely comic. But Warren has heavily freighted this fable of the frontier with symbolism and commentary. Interspersed throughout the narrative are parenthetical sections, measured and deliberate, developing the larger implications of the story. This story is spoken by a man of the twentieth century who is watching the characters work out their destinies in frontier Kentucky and assessing the meaning of their lives for his own:

The answer is in the back of the book but the page is gone.
And grandma told you to tell the truth but she is dead.
And heedless, their hairy faces fixed
Beyond your call and question now, they move
Under the infatuate weight of their wisdom. …

The effect is that of juxtaposing past and present, of generalizing the particular facts into an archetypal pattern of the discovery of guilt, the attempt at flight, and the necessity of return: “The long compulsion and the circuit hope / Back.” Within the context of the American experience, the pattern is that of the westering pioneer still haunted by the tie to the heartland:

For Time is always the new place,
And no-place.
For Time is always the new name and the new face,
And no-name and no-face.
For Time is motion
For Time is innocence
For Time is West.

There is, however, no more an escape from the past than there is an escape from the self, for the two are indivisible. Like Billie Potts, the modern man must retrace the path that he has followed, even though in seeking the source of his life he may, ironically, find death. He must understand that, in Santayana's famous phrase, the man who cannot remember the past is doomed to repeat it. Man must measure his actions and his dreams against those of all the men who have preceded him:

And you, wanderer, back,
For the beginning is death and the end may be life,
For the beginning was definition and the end may be definition,
For our innocence needs, perhaps, new definition. …

“A good poem,” Warren has said, “is a massive, deep, and vital thing.”10 “The Ballad of Billie Potts” is such a poem, but, despite the inventiveness of its language and the sustained propulsion of its narrative, it does not come off. The mixing of manners, the folk ballad set off against the sophisticated commentary, works to the disadvantage of both by heightening the incongruity. The passages of commentary seem contrived, pretentious in their insistence on wringing profundities from what is, basically, little more than an anecdote, massive in its ironies. By contrast, the ballad seems arch and folksy.

“The Ballad of Billie Potts” does, however, point the direction toward Warren's developing interests. The opening out of the poem, the concern with narrative, suggests that Warren's gift for invention was restive under the limitations of verse and was seeking an outlet in the more ample forms of fiction. Toward the end of the 1930s he returned to the material of his first published fiction, “Prime Leaf,” and, with the publication of Night Rider in 1939, his career as a novelist was launched.


  1. Robert Lowell, “John Ransom's Conversation,” Sewanee Review 56 (Summer 1948): 388.

  2. John Crowe Ransom, “The Teaching of Poetry,” Kenyon Review 1 (Winter 1939): 82.

  3. Marshall Walker, Robert Penn Warren: A Vision Earned, p. 54.

  4. Ibid., p. 58.

  5. “The Themes of Robert Frost,” Selected Essays, p. 125.

  6. “Robert Penn Warren Reads from His Own Works,” Yale Series of Recorded Poets, Carillon Records, New Haven, Connecticut.

  7. “A Note on Three Southern Poets,” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 40 (May 1932): 110.

  8. Modern Poetry: American and British, eds. Kimon Friar and John Malcolm Brinnin (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951), pp. 542-43.

  9. Ibid.

  10. “The Themes of Robert Frost,” p. 120.

Monroe K. Spears (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Spears, Monroe K. “Robert Penn Warren: A Hardy American.” The Sewanee Review 91, no. 4 (Fall 1983): 655-64.

[In the following essay, Spears remarks on Warren's poetry and critical accounts of Warren's work published in the early 1980s.]

An American Hardy? Not exactly. Though we have not had such a prolonged late flowering of a poet since Thomas Hardy's (which lasted until his eighty-eighth year), and though Warren's poetry resembles Hardy's in many ways—perhaps most in the religious attitude of yearning unbelief coupled with grim irony and the metrical virtuosity based on stretching traditional forms—Warren is obviously not merely an American version of Hardy. He is unique, original, and, for me at least, a far more profound, moving, and satisfying poet than Hardy. At the risk of being thought a precious paronomasiac, I have therefore shifted the word order in my title so as to stress Warren's hardiness and hardihood. He is strong and durable, a tough-minded survivor who never shirks a full look at the worst. And he is supremely American, immersed as he is in American history and feeling a personal responsibility for older American literature (reviving Melville's and Whittier's poetry, Dreiser's novels) and for the state of the Republic (a concern shown not only in his poetry but in his prose studies of the Civil War, of segregation, and of Jefferson Davis). That Warren's character embodies many of the qualities that we like to think peculiarly American is a statement that is nebulous but not, I think, meaningless: great energy and vigor, a willingness to take risks, a kind of omnicompetence that impels him to turn his hand to everything from biography and history to children's books, as well as criticism, plays, novels, and poems of all varieties; a deep understanding of and sympathy for the ordinary or, as he used to be called, “common” man. Generalizing even more recklessly, I might suggest that in the largest terms the essential theme of all his work is one which, while universal, is specially applicable to Americans and to our national foreign policy: the dangers of innocence, self-righteousness, moral isolation that allow us to believe that only we have escaped from history.

Rumor Verified, Warren's third collection since the Selected Poems of 1975, is not quite up to its predecessor, Being Here; yet this does not mean any decline, but merely the ebb and flow inevitable in the productions of so large and prodigal a talent. (His latest volume, Chief Joseph, is not the mixture as before but a new and quite different kind of poem.) As far as I can see, Rumor Verified lacks the clarity of theme and organization that helped to make Being Here so effective. The title poem makes the theme explicit enough—the verified rumor is “That you are simply a man, with a man's dead reckoning, nothing more”—and the sequences are given such titles as “Paradox of Time,” “If This Is the Way It Is,” “But Also,” and “Fear and Trembling.” A more dramatic and effective principle of organization is constituted by the ghostly figure of Thomas Hardy, which seems to me to hover in the background of many of these poems. Warren does not imitate or reply to Hardy directly, but he does deal with Hardyan themes in his own way; and he seems deliberately to evoke Hardy so that the reader will be conscious of the parallels and differences. An obvious example is “Convergences” (published in the Sewanee Review for summer 1981), in which the meter as well as the title recalls Hardy's “Convergence of the Twain”; but instead of Hardy's grim but impersonal irony of the Spinner of the Years humbling man's pride, Warren has the more disquieting image of the personal future as rails converging into a dark tunnel to embody the memory of human evil in the tramp who robbed him and of his own responsive hatred. The image of “God's palsied hand shaking / The dice-cup? Ah, blessèd accident!” can hardly fail to recall “Hap” and other Hardy poems, and “Immanence” Hardy's “Immanent Will,” and “Afterward” Hardy's beautiful poem of the same name—though Warren offers even less consolation than Hardy for mortality. But Warren is in general much less bleak and grim than Hardy, much less defensive. He is a purer agnostic because he is unsure that God doesn't exist and that Fate always is hostile or indifferent. He often sounds like someone who has escaped the Hardyan trap; he doesn't understand how or why, but he believes in the existence of joy and love because he has experienced them; and therefore he has hope. He has far more humor than Hardy, and he is capable of fear and trembling, which is foreign to Hardy's grim stoicism. He is more compassionate, a yearner after more than a denouncer of the absent God. He has his own belief in a kind of secular Eucharist, in which the parents and the dead past must be eaten and digested; and we too must be ready to be eaten. (An alternative metaphor, more prominent in the prose than in the poetry, is that of “osmosis of being,” a membranal interpenetration of being between self and others and man and nature.) The dionysiac or surreal aspect of Warren—as in the mystical Eucharist just mentioned, or the visions of the dead grandmother eaten perpetually by the hogs, or the ghost of the dead father dancing, or the experiences of pure joy, of feeling that “everything that lives is blest”—suggests Yeats; but it is a striking fact that one does not feel the presence of Yeats in Warren's later poetry.

I fear that I have been tempted into too many generalizations, and so I will conclude with a few more words about Rumor Verified. Though it is full of images of sleeplessness and nightmare, of the terror of meaninglessness in life and death, it is a hopeful volume. The epigraph, fittingly, is the passage from Dante about emerging from Hell to see the stars again. The first poem, “Chthonian Revelation: A Myth,” describes a sexual communion in the nave of a hidden sea-cave, a hermetic revelation which is wordless; and as the lovers are swimming home, each drop of water falling from a fingertip is “a perfect universe defined / By its single, minuscule, radiant, enshrinèd star.” So the transient waterdrop and the eternal star are equated in the mystery of time. The quest for meaning is often equated with the writing of poetry, as in the beginning of “Minneapolis Story”:

Whatever pops into your head, and whitely
Breaks surface on the dark stream that is you,
May do to make a poem—for every accident
Yearns to be more than itself, yearns,
In the way you dumbly do, to participate
In the world's blind, groping rage toward meaning. …

Again, “The Corner of the Eye” images the poem as alternatively a small fugitive animal or a Jamesian “Beast in the Jungle”:

The poem is just beyond the corner of the eye.
You cannot see it—not yet—but sense the faint gleam,
Or stir. It may be like a poor little shivering fieldmouse,
One tiny paw lifted from snow while, far off, the owl
Utters. Or like breakers, far off, almost as soundless as dream.
Or the rhythmic rasp of your father's last breath. …
It has stalked you all day, or years, breath rarely heard, fangs dripping.
And now, any moment, great hindquarters may hunch, ready—
Or is it merely a poem, after all?

The final poem, “Fear and Trembling,” in a section called “Coda,” seems again to identify poetry and the discovery of meaning: only at the death of ambition “does the deep / Energy crack crust, spurt forth, and leap / From grottoes, dark—and from the caverned enchainment?” But the volume is full of splendid and varied poems that I wish I had space to comment on. “Redwing Blackbirds” is an American equivalent of Yeats's “Wild Swans at Coole,” and “If” (“If this is the way it is, we must live through it”)—surely consciously?—of Kipling's dreadful inspirational poem.

Warren's latest poem (published last summer in the Georgia Review and now in a considerably revised version) is a new departure in several ways. Whereas Brother to Dragons is a “play for verse and voices” and Audubon “a vision” (described by Warren in an interview as a series of snapshots or fragments), Chief Joseph is simply called “a poem,” and is Warren's closest approach to a traditional narrative poem. Most of it is spoken by Chief Joseph himself, after a brief introduction; Warren does not enter in his own person until the last section, when he describes his visit to the burial site. In a collage technique Warren intersperses prose excerpts throughout the poem; these are extracted from contemporary and later documents of many kinds, from records and reports to letters, biographies, and newspapers. Since the prose constitutes a running commentary on and counterpoint to the old chief's words in the poem, the technique is very effective.

Chief Joseph is an American epic. In many ways it is the third point on a line of development that begins with Brother to Dragons, and in which Audubon is the middle work. In Brother to Dragons the action is in every sense tragic: the ghost of Jefferson and the persona R. P. W. recognize their own complicity in evil and are changed by the reenactment. Audubon is, in contrast, not dramatic: the Audubon of the poem is made far more serene than the historical Audubon ever was (as James Justus notes), a hero-saint, a mythic rather than a tragic protagonist. Chief Joseph is faultless—the only Warren protagonist who is wholly good. (The only things he can find to reproach himself with are pride in his position and possible minor errors of judgment.) Hence there is no psychological conflict in the poem and no irony. Joseph is not passive: he fights; but since the fight is hopeless, his main function is to suffer. His only alienation is physical: deprived of his homeland, he remains true to the eyes of the fathers who watch from darkness.

The aesthetic problem is how to avoid making this situation overly simple and sentimental: when the Indians are all good and most of the whites bad, and the good suffer wholly undeserved evil, the result is likely to be pathos. This result is avoided in two ways. The first is the characterization of Joseph. Throughout his long speeches he exhibits no trace of self-pity or vindictiveness: he is the noble Indian of legend realized in life. The second is the characterization of the whites, who range from noble spirits like Jefferson through many soldiers and statesmen of mixed character to real villains like Sherman. Who was responsible for the final betrayal? “General Sherman, it was, and the name he bore, / That of the greatest Indian chief— / Tecumseh. William Tecumseh Sherman, of course.” The whites even offered bounties for Indian scalps: “One hundred dollars per buck, fifty / Per woman, only twenty-five for a child's.” In the “predictably obscene” procession to dedicate Grant's tomb

Joseph, whose people had never taken
A scalp, rode beside Buffalo Bill—
Who had once sent his wife a yet-warm scalp,
He himself had sliced from the pate
Of a red man who'd missed him. Joseph rode
Beside Buffalo Bill, who broke clay pigeons—
One-two-three-four-five—just like that.
Joseph rode by the clown, the magician who could transform
For howling patriots, or royalty,
The blood of history into red ketchup,
A favorite American condiment.

In the final section Warren describes his own visit to the battlefield, his vision of Joseph

While he, eyes fixed on what strange stars, knew
That eyes were fixed on him, eyes of
Those fathers that incessantly, with
The accuracy of that old Winchester, rifled
Through all, through darkness, distance, Time,
To know if he had proved a man. …

Reflecting that “There is only / Process, which is one name for history. Often / Pitiful. But, sometimes, under / The scrutinizing prism of Time, / Triumphant,” he imagines a future stranger, in a similar moment of decision while the mob rushes onward, who will “into / His own heart look while he asks / From what undefinable distance, years, and direction, / Eyes of fathers are suddenly fixed on him. To know.”

Turning now to the studies of Warren, let us begin with Then & Now by Floyd C. Watkins. This is a hard book to classify. The subtitle, “The Personal Past in the Poetry of Robert Penn Warren,” is not much help, except that it indicates certain limits. Though Watkins disclaims any biographical intention, the book is more biographical than anything else; even the exhaustive analyses of poems are biographical in emphasis. The thesis is that Warren creates in his poetry an imaginary town, a “created village of the mind and art,” like Faulkner's Jefferson, Wolfe's Altamont, Anderson's Winesburg, or Robinson's Tilbury Town; and with the poet's help Watkins proceeds to explore the relation between the poetic town and the “reality” of Guthrie and Cerulean Springs, Kentucky, as represented in historical documents and in the memories of Warren's surviving contemporaries. There are various assumptions here that one might question, from the rationale of these limits—why exclude the novels?—to the notion that Warren has been much concerned with creating an imaginary town. But rather than quibble about such matters, let us rejoice that the study did produce some valuable results. With his customary generosity Warren cooperated very fully with Watkins, not only providing material and suggestions but discussing each chapter in detail and making elaborate suggestions for revision. The resulting book is perhaps most like an expanded interview, though for the most part Warren's words are absorbed into Watkins's commentary rather than given verbatim. Warren has said that he doesn't intend to write an autobiography and doesn't want a biography written; but on the other hand he has been more generous than any other poet known to me (except James Dickey in his Self-Interviews) in giving interviews that supply just about everything that a reader might find helpful. Watkins has published not only one of these interviews, but (with John T. Hiers) a collection of them, Robert Penn Warren Talking (1980). So this book grows naturally out of that kind of activity. Whether it adds much to the understanding of Warren's poetry is debatable; but, literary appreciation being always impure and not completely divorceable from curiosity, many of Warren's readers will be glad to have this book.

The second chapter, “The Penns, the Warrens, and the Boy,” is much the best part of the book. It contains the fullest account I have seen of Warren's family background and boyhood, with new material on such matters as Warren's accidental blinding in one eye. This injury was obviously of enormous importance psychologically, aside from its practical effect in disqualifying him for Annapolis; but Warren—a man who successfully protects his privacy—has refused to talk about it until recently. He told Watkins: “I felt sort of alienated rather than emasculated, but alienated. … Alienation and separation from other people, and I felt a kind of shame—shame is not the word—but disqualification for life, as if I had lost a leg, say, or an arm or something. … It made you feel unattractive, and it made you also express your anger quite a lot.” He worried about losing the other eye, and no doubt this was all related to his attempt at suicide. (He discusses these matters also in his latest interview, in the summer 1982 Georgia Review.)

Little of what Watkins reveals is surprising, though he gratifies curiosity and provides interesting details. The Guthrie that Warren remembers is not the town other people remember; nor does it always correspond to what facts are now discoverable. Being precocious and gifted, Warren as a boy was not popular: he was regarded with a good deal of envy and malice. Guthrie is now totally unaware of its most famous citizen.

Neil Nakadate's collection of essays, Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives, is the first general collection about Warren since John Longley's of 1965. It is a useful and engaging selection, and illustrates the high level of most criticism of Warren. (That Warren is well treated by critics is not merely good luck. He has always avoided literary politics, and has spoken well of fellow writers or remained silent; even his commercial success has provoked remarkably little envy. Furthermore his work offers many fruitful challenges to critics.) Unfortunately Nakadate's book is done in photo-offset and is cheap-looking though not cheap.

The other collection of essays, James A. Grimshaw's on Brother to Dragons, is a handsome book and a good complement to Nakadate's, since all these pieces deal with the same work. (There is little duplication: only three essays appear in both volumes.) Grimshaw's collection has two important sources of interest. First, Brother to Dragons occupies a unique place in Warren's career. He wrote it after a ten-year dry spell when he was unable to finish poems, and it was his writing of this work in 1953, his including his father and his own persona as R. P. W., that heralded and made possible his entire later poetic career that began with Promises (1956). Second, he published a dramatic version of Brother to Dragons in 1976 and a drastically revised version of the original “play for verse and voices” in 1979. In the meantime a historical study had appeared—Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy by Boynton Merrill, Jr. (1976)—that demonstrated the lack of correspondence to historical fact in many details of the first version, and questioned the whole matter of its relation to history. Brother to Dragons is thus Warren's most controversial work, both with regard to the comparative merits of the two versions and with regard to the matter of historicity. Most critics, whatever positions they have taken on these controversies, have also thought it (or one version of it) to be among Warren's finest works: many would rank it with All the King's Men as one of his two supreme achievements.

Grimshaw's volume, then, has every attraction to appeal to a very wide audience, since it deals on a high level with controversial matters of the widest range and the greatest importance. The first section consists of essays about the 1953 version, ranging from Frederick P. W. McDowell's 1955 essay “Psychology and Theme” (the only essay to be reprinted in all three collections, Longley's, Nakadate's, and Grimshaw's—and well worth it) to Dennis Dooley's study of the “Persona R. P. W.” and Richard G. Law's on “The Fact of Violence vs the Possibility of Love.” Space does not permit even the listing of all these, but they are uniformly good. The second section consists of reviews, the first five of the 1953 edition and the remaining two of the 1979. Jarrell and Lowell (who curiously seems to be trying to imitate Jarrell's style) are marvelous on the earlier version; Harold Bloom, a late convert to Warren's poetry on the basis of Incarnations and Audubon, doesn't really like either version (too anti-Jefferson and -Emerson) but finds the new one improved. Irvin Ehrenpreis doesn't like either version and does a rousing academic hatchet-job which is, at least, a comprehensive statement of everything that can be said against them. The third section is a group of interpretations of the 1979 edition. The late Hugh Holman faults Warren for not making it clearer that he is not a practitioner of historical fiction, for Brother does not, as the Merrill book shows, correspond even to the “general outline” of the facts, as Warren claims it does. But Holman performs this service for the poet, and does it well. Brother, he points out, began with folk tales and garbled legends; and Warren's change of the victim's name from the historical George to John “is a quiet but emphatic declaration to Clio, in the guise of Boynton Merrill, of ‘non serviam.’” Warren, Holman makes very clear, “embraces a purpose and a method older by far than that of historical fiction as it was practiced by Sir Walter Scott”; while historical fiction is realistic, seeking to displace myth with fact, myth exists “when what is unique about periods is dissolved away, when time becomes meaningless and space replaces time as the dominant ingredient in fiction.” When Warren locates Brother in “no place” and at “no time,” he is indicating that he is concerned with myth rather than history, or rather with the permanent meaning of history. His Jefferson, with his faith in human goodness and perfectibility shattered by the depravity of his nephews, is totally unhistorical; Warren is obviously not trying to describe a historical Jefferson but to criticize the view of man which Jefferson is generally considered to embody. Holman suggests that Brother might be aptly subtitled “Original Sin on the Dark and Bloody Ground”; and he remarks that this use of history is very old, going back to Shakespeare and Homer. (I hope Warren reads this essay; the only times I have heard him complain about critics have been when they have labeled him a “historical” novelist in the wrong sense.) Richard N. Chrisman makes a better case against the revision than did Ehrenpreis. He argues that, though Warren insists that the new version is not a play, it was in fact strongly influenced by the dramatic version published in 1976, and that these changes, while improving the poem as drama, disrupt its former coherence as poem. But Warren's “fundamental poetic task in Brother to Dragons of framing a ‘new definition of joy’ in the light of new definitions of humanity has nevertheless survived the editing.” There are several other fine essays, among which must be mentioned Richard G. Law's analysis of the figure of R. P. W.'s father as polar opposite to Lilburn. Finally there is an appendix containing the historical documents in the case: Merrill's account of the murder, a genealogical chart of the Jefferson family, and Warren's foreword to the dramatic version of 1976. The whole book resembles a glorified version of the casebooks that used to be popular for use as texts; but it would take celestial freshmen, or infernal and professional critics only, to make proper use of this one. The controversy is fascinating and most instructive.

Charles H. Bohner's Robert Penn Warren is a revision of a volume that first appeared in 1964. Bohner's is much superior to most volumes in the Twayne series. He writes with clarity, concision, and vigor, and he gets the facts straight and complete. For an account of Warren's background and early life, and for a brief survey of his whole career, this book is a good one to start with. Bohner thinks A Place to Come To Warren's best novel since All the King's Men; Or Else his best volume of poetry since Promises. He doesn't like the new version of Brother to Dragons as well as the original, but makes sensible comments on the questions of historicity and dramatic quality. This is an intelligent and useful book.

I have saved the best of all these books on Warren until last. James H. Justus's The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren is the best single volume covering all of Warren's work yet to appear. Justus makes full use of earlier critics—his preface begins disarmingly: “I would like to think that my views of Robert Penn Warren are fully original, but of course they are not”—but writes freshly, intelligently, and imaginatively. His book is continuously interesting: there is hardly a dull paragraph in it. It is so good, in fact, that it inspires even this weary reviewer at the end of this long review with the impulse to discuss various points at length, not to disagree but to refine and develop. I will confine myself to nothing a few of these points. First, I wish he had been able to think of a better word than Achievement, which Matthiessen preempted for Eliot. Second, to say that Warren's career “compares favorably with that of … Edmund Wilson and Allen Tate” seems both vague and invidious (it is repeated on the dustjacket): Warren is long past the stage when he needs to be bolstered by such comparisons. Third, I wish he had given more time to the poetry as compared to the novels. Fourth, I wish he did not insist on fitting Warren into an Emerson-Hawthorne dialectic so frequently, though he is certainly right in stressing Warren's continuity with earlier American literature.

These quibbles are nothing compared to the qualities that deserve unquestioning praise. First, readability: Justus grinds no axes, is unfailingly intelligent and perceptive. He is good on the question of historicity in the novels, on Warren's “border” quality, on Warren's scholarship and his deep respect for learning and for history. Though he avoids generalization, Justus is capable of such fine statements as this: “All of Warren's fiction, as well as much of his other work, seems intended, as it were, to counter Thomas Jefferson's extravagant vision of America as a people ‘not chosen to fulfill history but a people freed from history.’” When he encounters the unquestionably great works—All the King's Men, Brother to Dragons, Being Here—he never fails to rise to meet the occasion. Justus is, in short, a fine critic, perceptive, learned, passionately involved with his subject yet still judicious, and capable of writing like an angel.

Victor Strandberg (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Strandberg, Victor. “Image and Persona in Warren's ‘Early’ Poetry.” Mississippi Quarterly 37, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 135-48.

[In the following essay, Strandberg studies the relationship between Warren's early poetic themes—“the fall from innocence, the search for the lost self, and the redeeming pantheistic insight”—and his use of natural imagery.]

In looking at Warren's early poetry, including his manuscripts on deposit at Yale, one could easily become distracted by a (Harold) Bloomesque anxiety-of-influence perspective. T. S. Eliot's style, imagery, and structuring methods leave tell-tale traces throughout “Kentucky Mountain Farm” and “The Return: An Elegy,” for example, and Hart Crane's influence (possibly via Allen Tate) is implicit in a thirty-eight-line poem by Warren, never published, entitled “Farewell of Faustus to Helen.” And Warren's mentor John Crowe Ransom is of course a presence behind many poems of that formative period, making himself felt in the rhyming quatrain form, in the elegiac irony of tone, and in the mixture of professorial learnedness and regional folklore that both Warren and Ransom favored.

Yet, interesting as these influences are, I find the opposite perspective much more interesting: it is the gradual emergence of Warren's original poetic vision and virtuosity that gives his early poetry its ultimate value. From this point of view, a notable feature of the early poems is the precursive appearance of poetic concerns and materials that have subsequently crystallized into the structural center of Warren's total poetic canon. Warren's true destiny and distinction as a poet came out of the interplay of persona and imagery that was to continue, through various phases of modulation, over a period ranging up to six decades, as though to illustrate Warren's classic description of the psychology of the image in All the King's Men:

What happened was this: I got an image in my head that never got out. … We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind which become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, … and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters.1

It was in the light of this sort of thinking that Warren more recently commented in an interview that a man has all the images he will ever need by age twenty. From the manuscripts on deposit at the Beinecke Library at Yale, two especially engaging examples of this principle may be rendered. In 1957, Warren's prize-winning volume called Promises included two companion poems entitled “Tonight the Woods Are Darkened” and “The Hazel Leaf.” The subtitle of this book, Poems 1954-1956, gives no indication of how far back the taproots of these poems go, but the manuscripts at Yale show that Warren was toying with this material at least thirty years earlier, in an unpublished poem called “Nocturne”:

Tonight the woods are darkened,
We have forgot our pain,
The pain of hearts that hearkened
To an abysmal strain
Creeping up from lost stars
To sear our solitude
And brand these bitter scars
We wear about our wood.
O yes—these paths are haunted,
For we are each a ghost,
A ghost whose wraith is taunted
By memories it lost
And may not find again.
Before lies year on year,
Ruining swales of unreaped grain,
While from those fields we hear
In the wintry cawing raven
Black echoes of our pain.
For the hazel leaf once fallen
Grows never green again.

That ghost of a past self in stanza 3 was to recur, greatly enlarged upon, in “Tonight the Woods Are Darkened” in Promises; and the “wintry cawing raven” making “Black echoes of our pain” would re-emerge after fifty years in “Mountain Plateau” (in Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978): “At the center of acres of snow-whiteness,” it “Uttered / Its cry … across the immense distance / Of the landscape of my heart.”

Another engaging example of this principle of the recurring motif may be found in the most recent of Warren's Selected Poems volumes, which begins with a collection called Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand? Poems 1975. One would not guess from that date that the terminal entry in this collection—which I consider his finest single poem since Audubon: A Vision in 1969—had its genesis a full half-century earlier, in an unpublished poem of the 1920s, which (being a sonnet) I can briefly recite as follows. (There is no title)

In late afternoon, he stops in the road's red dust,
Or the red mud, stalled there, cart's tongue, wheel's rim
(Iron or wood ruined by the rot or rust)
Broken at last; then passing, we see him
Bend, and the mule droop, and over his head
Bright leaves, if autumn, fly, or summer, the sun
Beats, winter, the rain; he stands in the red
Dust, red mud, his motion the same, the one
Motion always, which we know but cannot name
—Sudden like the flung headlight glare in dark
That seasonless gesture to mind comes, the same
Motion that stuns the eternal, empty air:
          One of the poor with a cart of junk to use
          For purposes which we cannot peruse.

In the later poem, “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart Encountered Late at Night When Driving Home from Party in the Back Country,” the poet cites with embarrassment the only two lines he can recall from the earlier version:

                                                                                                    [I] remember
Now only the couplet of what
Had aimed to be—Jesus Christ—a sonnet:
                    One of those who gather junk and wire to use
                    For purposes that we cannot peruse.
As I said, Jesus Christ.

(pp. 15-16)

(Regrettably, he had remembered only the worst two lines of an otherwise quite competent poem.) Clearly, he had not known where the original poem was going, having only the initial image before the veils were drawn away, but it is interesting to note that when this early sonnet is put together with another very early poem, “To a Face in a Crowd” (which terminates his three Selected Poems volumes), the result is a long stride toward the finished perfection of “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart.”2 The nameless alter ego of “To a Face in a Crowd”—which begins, “Brother, my brother, whither do you pass?”—turns out to be that same stranger in the mule-cart, as “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart” indicates in its closing apostrophe:

And so I say:
Brother, Rebuker, my Philosopher past all
Casuistry, will you be with me when
I arrive and leave my own cart of junk … ?

Recurring images like these are of real interest in their own right, but their deepest importance lies in their subservience to the poet's gradually evolving vision of life, which in the end must sustain whatever coherence and significance the total poetic oeuvre may claim. By tracing this modulation of certain recurring themes and images from volume to volume, we may better grasp both the individual poems and the poet's total vision. Warren himself had revealed a strong sense of this development into new phases of creativity when he prefaced several early volumes with the remark that he had subdivided the volume in question into “Early” and “Late” segments because there was “a fundamental difference in both theme and method” that distinguished those segments. What I propose to do here is to highlight the interplay of novelty and continuity that gave each of those early volumes its own integrity while at the same time pointing ahead to subsequent work, so that we can—in hindsight—discern the seeds of each later volume hidden away somewhere in its predecessor, waiting to be nourished into new fruition. Having already studied some random instances of this process—in the hazel leaf and the stranger on a cart—let us now undertake a more systematic analysis.

In his “Early” period, which terminated in Selected Poems, 1923-1943, Robert Penn Warren compiled seven volumes of poetry, three of which were published and four unpublished. His first collection, Pondy Woods and Other Poems, was accepted for publication by Payson & Clarke Ltd. in 1929—when Warren was twenty-four—but never came into print because the firm went bankrupt in the great Crash of that year. Perhaps appropriate to that historic catastrophe, Warren laid the groundwork for his life's work as a poet in the poetry of the Fall that pervades these pages, a theme that would continue to preoccupy roughly half his poetic handiwork over the next fifty-plus years. Scattered among the Eliotic echoes in this first volume—the cruelty of April and a death by water in “Kentucky Mountain Farm,” for example—are the regional materials that would characterize his later work (e.g. “Alf Burt: Tenant Farmer,” “August Revival: Crosby Junction”) together with embryonic versions of his most crucial themes of the future, their final importance unrealized at this time even by their creator.

Among these motifs I would point up four in particular. First, the lapsarian theme of passage into a world ruined by time and loss expresses itself largely through the autumnal imagery of poems like “So Frost Astounds,” “Croesus in Autumn,” and “The Last Metaphor.” Second, the internal effect of the Fall—a universal sense of guilt and a craving for forgiveness—appears in “Night Windows for Two,” an unpublished entry in the Pondy Woods collection. Here San Francisco's fog is likened to the breathing of a prayer that the speaker vainly longs to utter:

Think you, hungry is the city in the fog
Where now the darkened piles resume
Their framed and frozen prayer
Articulate and shafted in the stone
Against the void and absolute air.
If so the frantic breath could be forgiven
And the deep blood subdued before it is gone
In a savage paternoster to the stone,
Then might we all be shriven.

(Some fifteen years later, “The Mango on the Mango Tree” would state a close approximation of these sentiments.) Third, the irruption of cosmic consciousness that was to answer the wanderer's quest for meaning in “Billie Potts” also appears in the Pondy Woods collection, specifically defining Warren's God at the end of “At the Hour of the Breaking of the Rocks.” Warren's pantheistic “osmosis of being” (as an essay of his called it in 1955) traces back this far.3 And fourth, the eventual reunification of the psyche is also imaged in this first volume. In “The Return,” a falling leaf meeting its perfect image on the water's surface depicts the fallen self rejoining its lost anima.

Perhaps to indicate that this reunion of the psyche cannot now be realized, Warren omitted “The Return” from his collection of the following year (1930), Kentucky Mountain Farm and Other Poems. (Apart from deleting the last five sections of “Kentucky Mountain Farm,” the only difference between this volume and its predecessor was the deletion of a minor poem, “Letter of a Mother.”) But in his subsequent collection, Cold Colloquy in 1933, Warren not only restored the missing sections to “Kentucky Mountain Farm,” but also added a new section to this poem, “Watershed,” where he recast his concept of the lost anima in the form of a “sunset hawk” whose “gold eyes scan” the immense landscape with a breadth of vision appropriate to the “osmosis of being” concept. Although other images of the lost anima appear in the Cold Colloquy collection—the doe fleeing the hounds in “Eidolon,” and the “frail reproachful alter ego” in “Man Coming of Age”—this aviary representation of the ideal self harkening back toward Eden was to prove Warren's favorite. (The “sunset hawk” resumes this role in poems like “Picnic Remembered,” “A Problem in Spatial Composition,” and “Evening Hawk”—to cite poems from the 1930s to the 1970s.)

Elsewhere, the Cold Colloquy collection amplifies the lapsarian theme in clusters of poems about the encroachment of time and death (“Calendar,” “Aged Man Surveys the Past Time,” “Pacific Gazer”), about alienation from others (“Cold Colloquy,” “For a Self-Possessed Friend,” “Late Subterfuge”), and about the cultural/political chaos of the times (“History,” “Ransom”). Autumnal imagery prevails more strongly than ever in this volume, yet its most prominent new poem, “The Garden: On prospect of a fine day in early autumn,” introduces the redemptive motif of seeking a “sacrament that can translate / All things … From appetite [the fallen state] to innocence.” This search for renewed innocence was to become a crucial subject, reaching the proportions of psychodrama, in the poetry of the next decade.

In 1935, two years after Cold Colloquy and Other Poems was compiled, Warren finally got a book of poems actually published, under the unassuming title of Thirty-Six Poems. Most of the thirty-six were in the first three collections we have looked at, but several of the new entries mark an interesting mid-point between convention and novelty. “Letter from a Coward to a Hero” juxtaposes a Wordsworthian sense of the lost paradise (“The scenes of childhood were splendid, / And the light that there attended, / But is rescinded”) against Warren's own increasingly distinctive portrayal of the self-mocking, angst-ridden adult (“For sleep try love or veronal”). “Question and Answer” brings the Eliotic quest for meaning (“What has availed / Or failed? / Or will avail?”) to a Warren-esque dead end: “For all— / Each frescoed figure leaning from the world's wall … / Demand in truth the true / Answer of you.” And “The Return: An Elegy,” a stream-of-consciousness poem in the style of Eliot's “Prufrock,” portrays more compellingly than ever the theme of the fallen soul's divided psyche, here evident in the son's subliminal response to his mother's death: “the old bitch is dead / what have I said!” This inherent guilt, played off against the need for innocence, was to provoke the identity crisis that makes up the central subject of Warren's next published volume, Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942).

In 1938-39, Warren compiled the last of his unpublished collections, Problem of Knowledge, whose lapsarian title is borne out by the inclusion in this volume of five poems that bring the theme of the Fall to its culmination. These five are “Bearded Oaks,” a poem that intensely imagines the state of being dead; “Monologue at Midnight,” a lament over the impossibility of communication; “Revelation,” an expression of filial guilt towards an estranged mother; “Love's Parable,” a metaphysical conceit describing a broken-love relationship (and possibly an allegory about God and man); and “Picnic Remembered,” the most Edenic of these lapsarian poems. (In his novel about Jack Burden's Great Fall, the picnic-remembered motif figures strongly in Chapters Three and Seven.)

During the interim between compiling Problem of Knowledge in 1938-39 and Eleven Poems on the Same Theme in 1942, Warren invented the most original and significant innovation in all his “Early” poetry, the persona of “you.” For readers not deeply familiar with Warren's total body of poetry, this motif requires a word of explanation. As we have seen, the lapsarian theme pervading Warren's earlier poetry postulates a sense of ruin not only concerning the outer world but also concerning the inner psyche's bifurcation between an anima figure fleeing back toward paradise (sunset hawk, vanished doe, lost child-self) and a fallen persona that is left behind to cope as best it can with its dread, guilt, and vacancy. In this new poetry of the late 1930s and 1940s, this lost alter ego of prelapsarian innocence becomes supplanted by a fearsome new identity, the “undiscovered self” of Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) and “The Ballad of Billie Potts” (1943), as well as Warren's major fiction of the 1940s. Later, in Brother to Dragons (1953), in “Ballad of a Sweet Dream of Peace” (the major poem in Promises, 1957), and in the “Garland for You” and “Emperor” poems in You, Emperors, and Others (1960), this motif was to hold central importance. Like the Freudian id or Jungian shadow, this figure of innate evil ironically rises up with hatchet in hand—like Big Billie Potts or Lilburn Lewis—to answer the fallen persona's yearning for its lost anima. Naturally enough, the appalled conscious ego—“you”—tries to deny any consanguinity with its polluted Jungian shadow.

In “End of Season,” the first of the “you” poems, this effort of “you” to rid itself of Warren's version of “Original Sin” produces imagery of flight and ablution (“For waters wash our guilt and dance in the sun”). The flight reflex is futile, of course, but it recurs in the other “you” poems, such as “Pursuit” and “Original Sin: A Short Story,” to be replaced by the motif of homicide when escape proves impossible. Thus the shadow self is slain and buried in “Crime” (only to be resurrected), while in “Terror,” the last of the Eleven Poems, and in “Butterflies Over the Map” (in the subsequent “Mexico Is a Foreign Country” sequence), “you” convert this desire to eliminate the world's evil into murderous political fanaticism. The child-killing episode in “Butterflies Over the Map” reminds us that the “you” figure traces back to an actual child-killer, the fanatical John Brown of Warren's 1929 biography.

In the last and greatest of Warren's “Early” poems, “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” this ongoing psychodrama finds its resolution in an irruption of cosmic consciousness that imparts to the hitherto fallen creation a final unity and meaning. In kneeling to the father “who is evil and ignorant and old” and thereby acknowledging his congenital guilt and mortality, the son ends the search for “innocence” that had precipitated the conflict between “you” and the shadow within the psyche. “You” are now able to recover genuine innocence not through sanctimony and separation but through merging with the gathering creatures, thereby becoming “brother to pinion and the pious fin that cleave / Their innocence of air and the disinfectant flood.” Set within “the sacramental silence of evening”—an “evening empty of wind or bird”—this scene further implies a reconciliation with mortality, and in that sense a recovery from the Fall, at the end of the son's quest.

During the twenty years of his “Early” period, then, Robert Penn Warren achieved an original style and a coherent system of ideas which would form the basis of his subsequent career in poetry. In terms of theme, the most important development in these two decades of verse may be described as the reconstitution of a fractured personality. This development occurs on two levels: on the unconscious level through the reconciliation between “you” and the Jungian shadow, and on the conscious level through a gradual accumulation of therapeutic imperatives like those in the following excerpts: Our courage needs, “perhaps, new definition” (“Ransom”); “… you must think / On the true nature of Hope, whose eye is round and does not wink” (“End of Season”); “He would think … how once he had learned / Something important about love, and about love's grace” (“Revelation”); “Happiness: what the heart wants. … and wants only the peace in God's eye” (“Crime”); “There must be a new innocence for us to be stayed by” (“Original Sin: A Short Story”); “… you lean to the image which is yourself … / To drink not of the stream but of your deep identity” (“The Ballad of Billie Potts”).

Collectively, these imperatives—courage, hope, love, happiness, innocence, identity—define a dialectical process by which this poetry aims to surmount its Waste Land mood and lapsarian consciousness and thereby permit some healing of the psyche. The personality that emerges from this process became in turn the chief legacy of Warren's early poetry to the later volumes. First appearing as “R. P. W.” the conciliator in Brother to Dragons, Warren's poetic persona continued to impart to all the later volumes a technical continuity and psychological center not achievable in Warren's total body of fiction. (Warren himself has described this presence of his persona as the “one important difference” between his fiction and poetry: “The novels are much more objective for me. The poems have a much deeper and more immediate personal reference.”4)

These concepts, however, are poetically meaningless when thus uprooted from their contexts. It is the play of imagery that breathes life into the system of ideas governing Warren's poetic canon. As my concluding illustration of this principle, I propose to show how three crucial themes—the fall from innocence, the search for the lost self, and the redeeming pantheistic insight—relate to three specific images used over a sixty-year span: a leaf and a flower and a bird. Our first instance of leaf imagery is the fern in a graceful little poem (untitled and unpublished) whose style betrays its very early vintage:

As, delicate within the stone,
Pick-steel divulges to the view
The printed frond that once had grown
Greener—but perfect now as new:
So had disaster's bluntless stroke
Cracked the heart-stone and there revealed
Within the stone the stone that spoke
Of ferned shade and summer's field.

This ossified memento of the lost Eden is shortly supplanted by a more commonplace use of leaf imagery subserving the lapsarian theme. The “dead leaf” hiding under the garden waters becomes “The obscure image of the season's wreck” in “Garden Waters,” and the dying leaves of “Croesus in Autumn” provoke philosophical thought even in Croesus—“Though this grey guy be no Aurelius”—now that “green is blown and every gold gone sallow.”

With the unfolding of his lost anima psychology, Warren's leaf imagery assumes crucial new dimensions of meaning that would carry across a half-century and more of poetry-writing. We have already noted that as early as “The Return”—the terminal segment of “Kentucky Mountain Farm”—Warren had used leaf imagery to portray the ideal of psychic reintegration:

Up from the whiter bough, the bluer sky,
That glimmered in the water's depth below,
A richer leaf rose to the other there.
They touched; with the gentle clarity of dream,
Bosom to bosom, burned on the quiet stream.

Because this ideal is unachievable at this point (“So, backward heart, you have no voice to call / Your image back …”), fallen leaves become a recurring symbol of the place where the lost child-self or its state of innocence lies hidden or buried. The earliest such usage occurs in “Cold Colloquy,” where the mother's estrangement from her son leaves her, in the end, “pondering, as one who grieves, / Or seeks a thing long lost among the fallen leaves.” A decade later in “Crime,” one of the “you” poems, the image recurs to describe the victim of the mad killer who “cannot seem / To remember what it was he buried under the leaves”; and soon after, in “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” the leaves reappear in connection with Little Billie's attempt to retrieve the lost self who knelt to the spring as a child:

But perhaps what you lost was lost in the pool long ago
When childlike you lost it and then in your innocence rose to go
After kneeling, as now, with your thirst beneath the leaves:
And years it lies here and dreams in the depth and grieves,
More faithful than mother or father in the light or dark of the leaves.

As against this use of leaf imagery, Warren uses flower imagery to portray the retrieval of the lost self or the re-entry to paradise. As depicted in “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” this renewal of innocence requires a merging with rather than an escape from the natural world; the resulting “osmosis of being” (to quote his essay “Knowledge and the Image of Man”) merges “the ugly with the beautiful, the slayer with the slain” in “such a sublimation that the world which once provoked … fear and disgust may now be totally loved.” “Natural History,” a poem in the Or Else collection of 1974, envisions the final phase of the osmosis of being in its picture of a ghostly old couple, Edenic in their nakedness, being absorbed into nature—he into the rain, and she into the flowers: “Her breath is sweet as bruised violets, and her smile sways like daffodils reflected in a brook.” And “Loss, of Perhaps Love, in Our World of Contingency,” in the “Arcturus” poems of 1975, includes both leaves and flowers in its retelling of the lapsarian trauma. The Loss of Love in the title refers to the love of the world or of one's life that was lost with the fall into the world of contingency. The poem opens with an appeal to “Think hard. Try to remember / When you last had it”—it being the love of the world—but the lapsarian moment is hard to pinpoint. Whether moving backward in time from the present, in which the fallen condition is epitomized in a shuffling old bum, or moving forward in time from the prelapsarian past (“The earliest thing you remember, the dapple / Of sunlight on the bathroom floor while your mother / Bathed you”), the moment of loss seems irrecoverable. The flower bespeaking the lost Eden is doubly buried here, under leaves and snow, but yet it waits for the return of the exile: “Violets, / Buried now under dead leaves (later snowdrifts), dream / How each, with a new-born, dew-bright eye, will see / You again pass, cleaving the blue air.”

Our final study in imagery involves a bird that denotes either the loss or the return of the anima, depending on which direction it is flying. In my own favorite passage in Warren's poetry, the goose flies north as part of the gathering of creatures who emanate a collective identity at the end of “Billie Potts.” Here the fallen soul (“you”) partakes of their redemptive intuitions of meaning:

(The bee knows, and the eel's cold ganglia burn,
And the sad head lifting to the long return,
Through brumal deeps, in the great unsolsticed coil,
Carries its knowledge, navigator without star,
And under the stars, pure in its clamorous toil,
The goose hoots north where the starlit marshes are. …
The salmon heaves at the fall, and, wanderer, you
Heave at the great fall of Time. …)

Some thirty-five years later, in “Heart of Autumn” (the final poem of Now and Then in 1978), the geese flying south represent the anima in flight from (literally) the fall, leaving behind a fall-bound husk of self who yearns to join them:

                              —and I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,
With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance—
Toward sunset, at a great height.

Our final specimen of this recurring image shows the bird heading north again, bringing grace to Warren's persona in the final segment of Audubon (1969). Because the direction of flight carries the poem's whole meaning, it is thrice repeated within the nine lines of the poem:

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.

With this illustration of the relationship between Warren's imagery and his system of ideas, I shall conclude this discussion. Many other examples could be brought forward, obviously enough, but enough has been said to verify the importance of Warren's “Early” verse as the seedbed—and flowerbed, as his talent matured—of his more widely known later poetry. The innate coherence that links his early and later volumes suggests T. S. Eliot's remark that in order to know any of Shakespeare's work, one has to know all of it. Warren's later poetry can be fully understood only in the light of what went before it as much as a half century earlier.


  1. All the King's Men (Bantam Books: New York, 1951), pp. 118-119.

  2. I have stated my rationale for this judgment of “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart” in “Taproots of a Poem: The Long Foreground of ‘Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart’” (Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Gray, in the Twentieth Century Views series published by Spectrum Books/Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980, pp. 143-155).

  3. “Knowledge and the Image of Man,” Sewanee Review, 63 (Winter 1955), 182-192.

  4. Ruth Fisher, “A Conversation with Robert Penn Warren,” Four Quarters, 21, no. 4 (May 1972), p. 10.

James H. Justus (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3865

SOURCE: Justus, James H. “Warren's Later Poetry: Unverified Rumors of Wisdom.” Mississippi Quarterly 37, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 161-72.

[In the following essay, Justus details the searching and questioning quality of Warren's nostalgic poems in Being Here, Now and Then, and Rumor Verified.]

Our customary expectation when we read the work of an older poet is that it will be declarative—in effect a summing up, a smoothing out, a papering over, if you will, of the characteristic concerns that have compulsively and ambivalently engaged him for so many years. What is wanted, in the genial conspiracy of poet and reader, is a rounded-off final vision, affirmative if possible, that will justify the long labor of a high and passionate calling. What we expect, in short, is wisdom literature. This is the phenomenon of Wordsworth and, in our own more difficult century when such attempts go mostly begging, Auden. But it is not the phenomenon of Robert Penn Warren.

It is of course a fair matter for dispute to declare a year or a title as the aesthetic onset of the autumnal phase of any poet, but in terms of the descriptive, the chronological, no one can deny that the poems from the mid-1970s onward belong firmly to Warren's autumnal phase. However we eventually regard Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983), that quietly understated epic, and “New Dawn” (1983), the prefatory poem for John Hersey's commemorative edition of Hiroshima, both of these quasi-public poems incorporate the poet's historical re-imagination in the service of a national conscience. In the other volumes we trace a more internal struggle of a private conscience: in Now and Then (1978), Being Here (1980), and Rumor Verified (1981) the governing mood is not declarative but interrogative. Many of these poems continue Warren's restless search for definition and certitude, a journey that began in Nashville in the 1920s. They are piecemeal explorations, intellectual and emotional, of raw experience, shifting perceptions of that experience, and inconclusive ruminations about it. They constitute not a wisdom literature but a body of literature detailing the difficulties of achieving wisdom. In these sequences of exploration Warren isolates both the then and the now, moments of crucial but curiously incompleted moments out of the past and moments of present anxiety and puzzlement in which the old poet tries to make sense of his own identity in a larger framework, one in which the mystery of being itself is ambitiously plumbed.

The structure of Now and Then provides a clue to not only the kind and quality of Warren's backward-glancing poems but also their dialectic function in terms of the poet's other poems that are urgently, aggressively now. Its first section (“Nostalgia”), delineating the moral and emotional claims of the past, is balanced in its second section (“Speculative”) against the intellectual quandaries of the present. In the first group the poet remembers people and events extending from his Kentucky boyhood to his earlier years in Italy as an adult; in the second he weaves meditations out of a given abstract query that nags a sleepless poet or around a minutely observed natural phenomenon. In a sense, however, these categories are arbitrary, since the poems in both sections reflect Warren's fascination with the kind of discourse usually considered inimical to the lyric mood: outright philosophical speculation and debate. As in the earlier Or Else (1974), the texture in many of these later poems is studded with the language of logic—premises, conclusions, proofs, arguments, principles. And anterior to this specific disposition is Warren's general attraction to the grand abstractions—Time, Self, Truth, Reality, the Word. His most characteristic poems of the late 1970s are those struck off in the speculative mood. Finding confirmation for the self in “nature's flow and perfection” is a struggle whose outcome is never certain, yet the poet grapples with the immanent meanings of the cries of crows and whip-o-wills, the winging glints of eagles and scavenger birds, the nearly imperceptible cliffside sloughing of talus and stone, as if in these indifferent processes he might discover, if not an adequate definition of self, some analogy that might provide a clue to it. If this kind of speculative mood is most nakedly explicit in the now poems, it also pervades, lightly but insistently, the then poems; and because the nostalgic poems invariably turn on a moment from the poet's past—memorable because haunting or traumatic—their resummoning assumes a more dramatic shape than the more categorically speculative poems. Although these significant moments from the past may involve those same indifferent processes of nature that so color the poet's struggle with the present, their burden is always carried by person and act.

It is natural to think of nostalgia generally as a condition of old age, and of Warren's poems of nostalgia specifically as the products of the poet as old man. Given the strong nostalgic note in several of the poems of even the first Selected Poems (1944), it is not surprising to find that in this poet nostalgia is also a condition of temperament. Nostalgia is a subversive aesthetic emotion because of its substitutionary bias: as we isolate the single memorable moment from the past, we also strip it of its messiness—its ambiguous or even contradictory contexts—the better to hold it up for imaginative reappreciation, and in so doing enfold the moment in a reconstituted context, a kind of web of disparate associations, woven over many years, from which most recalcitrances have been purified. What makes nostalgia potentially sentimental is not that the particular moment is unworthy of reappreciation but that we are tempted to clothe it, plucked from its circumstantial immediacy, with different and simpler circumstances, turning it into a bogus thing. On this score, Warren's scrutiny of the past (as in Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back) is as keen-eyed as his often corruscating assessment of the present (as in Democracy and Poetry).

There is a certain sense in which for Warren the past generally is heroic—a kind of “rebuke,” as he once expressed it, to those of us living in a diminished present whose ambitions, integrity, perseverance, and sheer gutsiness seem paltry by comparison.1 This is one of the functions of the Father, that obsessively recurring figure in all of Warren's works in all genres. But even the Father, when the figure is literal or when it rises to the level of theme and metaphor, never quite emerges from the writer's sensibility as mere homage. Embedded in the poet's summoning of the Father are a disquiet at his power to shape and control, a nervous irritability at his very longevity, either as biological or moral paradigm, even, occasionally, a testiness that the Son's hegemony is compromised by the spectral power of the Father. And this ambivalence is consistent with Warren's general disinclination to find satisfaction in the settled definitions of Time, Self, Truth, Reality, the Word. Warren's poetry of the then as well as the now is an Inquiry Into rather than a Disquisition Upon. Warren's various writings on the Civil War, for example, share a common characteristic—a rage to humanize the actors in history, to free them from the confining categories designed for them from 1865 on not only by the Manichean impulse but also by other less sinister and unideological urges to reduce and compartmentalize simply in order to make sense of the complex affairs of complex men. So his treatment of Lincoln. So John Brown. So Jefferson Davis. And the same bent can be seen in Warren's efforts to understand other kinds of remarkable men both before and after that grand conflict: Thomas Jefferson (to the distress of iconophiliac historians), John James Audubon, John Greenleaf Whittier, Theodore Dreiser, Chief Joseph, even Colonel Tibbets of the Enola Gay.

Although it is significant that Warren acknowledges the fact that Being Here can be read as “shadowy autobiography,” the initiating situations of a number of poems in all the recent volumes draw substantially upon memorable moments from his past. But he does not return to these persons, events, anecdotes, even obsessive perceptions in order to enjoy them yet again or to gain solace from their memory. Many of them are plainly troubling, and all of them pique the poet's moral and intellectual curiosity. The motive behind Warrenesque nostalgia is precisely that described in another connection by a psychologist, on a general felt need “to tidy up life's hodgepodge, sort out the irritating jumble of ideas and passions and forces that go to make up a person's existence, so that we can make a judgment, not only in the Calvinist fashion, but out of a less ambitious, more humdrum desire simply to feel we have got our bearings.”2 That need we see most clearly in philosophers, theologians, and moralists of various stripes, whose authority Warren is often said to be hankering after when he presumably would better be occupied writing social fiction or lyric poetry of a more purified strain. Warren's nostalgia rarely simplifies itself into sentimentality; its manifestation is a prickly restlessness, a compulsive urge (to use one of his favorite images) to pick the scab. In ordinary nostalgia, urgencies have become blunted, and the act of memory is not a reinvigoration of the original moment but the residue of a lazy sensibility no longer willing or able to sustain the generative energy of the original moment. For Warren imaginative return is itself a kinetic act proceeding from a belief—or at least a hope—that to re-see, re-play, re-construct, will be to understand.

Such returns bring no comfort but seem to sear the sensibility without purging it in the refining fires of meaning. To reimagine, or to recall with precision of detail, is to validate the continuing psychic power of the special moment, but what most notably engages the speakers in these poems is not the accuracy of the remembered moment but its meaning. To redraw the original contours of event is not to fix it as soporific referent, not to tease the speakers out of thought, but to release the vast, tangled possibilities of significance. The best of these poems have as their actual subject the imagination's anarchic energy: naming its sources, its manifestations, its iconographic images that haunt and threaten the complacent daylight sensibility—“Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” “Millpond Lost,” “Convergences,” “Recollection in Upper Ontario, From Long Before.” These poems possess an energy with its own suppressive elisions, feints, and assaults on the otherwise decorous will.3

Although the speaker of “Amazing Grace in the Back Country” remembers a twelve-year-old's lust occasioned ironically by the tent-revivalist entreaties of the faithful, the moment generates no pleasure in the memory, not even for the adolescent bravado that dared transpose sexual and religious intensity; it lingers, purged perhaps of guilt but not of an astonishment that such transpositions, such linkages, may be relevant beyond adolescence. In “Boy Wandering in Simms' Valley” the speaker remembers a local tale of how the unappeased grief of a dirt-poor farmer at the loss of his long-invalided wife leads to his suicide, but the larger implicit story of domestic fidelity lies hidden until as a boy he stumbles years later upon the abandoned house and finds its message in a single unlikely artifact: an enameled bedpan on a shelf above the bed. Warren's return to the special moment is not in any ordinary sense, then, a re-appreciation; and because its terms are obsessive, often starkly confrontational, the triggering moment becomes yet another occasion for the mature speaker to ask the same kinds of questions so familiar in Warren's poetry of the now:

—“Me—who am I?”

—“Is this all? What is all?”

—“What have the years wrought?”

—“Why do I still wake up and not know?”

—“What was the world I had lived in?”

—“… why, all the years, and places, and nights, have I / Wandered and not known the question I carried? / And carry?”

—“Do you / Know your own name?”

—“How much will I remember tonight?”

—“What, / Long ago, did the world try to say?”

—“… can you devise / An adequate definition of self, whatever you are?”

—“… how many names has Truth?”

—“Is there a sign Truth gives that we recognize?”

Many of these questions remain of course unanswered, and the most definitive resolutions end as tentative musings. But even without resolution, these are the commanding concerns that Warren returns to again and again, constituting the late phase of a continuing drama of the seeking self. As he remarks in his prose “Afterthought” to Being Here, the meaning of poems, as in life, is “often more fruitfully found in the question asked than in any answer given.”

Even in “Marble,” a recent poem,4 Warren offers yet another perspective on a subject that has recurred with some frequency since the 1950s—the death of the parents. In this return to the death of the mother, the mature speaker tries to sort out the reverberations of the trauma that prevent any final accounting. The dominating mood is the numbness of repetition: then has not happened singly—indeed, “now it truly / Happens. Only now.” The registering sensibility of the small boy who calls out, “Oh, I'm all alone” and “I'm by myself,” is vividly recapitulated fifty years later; emotional deprivation centering on the deathbed scene is reinvoked in a language of rigidity: the “grind” of smile and socket, the fixed eyes, the heart still as stone, the marble gravity of the father, the nurse as storewindow dummy, the moon that has not moved in the fifty years since the event.5 The revivification of event through compulsive memory has its own hard-edged significance—perhaps the validation of human consciousness itself—but the half-century quest for the meaning of event ends without the clarity of definition that the vividness of event seemed to promise: “I do not know … / Why my grief has not been understood, or why / It has not understood its own being.” In this experience as process, the only wisdom is the discovery of maturity that the small boy's cry of aloneness is grief only in the sense of articulated selfishness: not “my mother is dead” but “I'm by myself.” If there is wisdom in that discovery it is provisional and oblique: “It takes a long time” for early grief to learn “Its many names: like / Selfishness and precious guilt.

One of the functions of Warrenesque nostalgia is to establish checkpoints through which homo viator has passed in his long progress, discrete pauses in the ongoing flux that contain, potentially at least, scraps of insight, clues, keys, empowering but tantalizing fragments of a puzzle that seems forever to resist completion. A family picnic out of a long-ago October, a descent into a stalactite-ribbed cave, an autumn walk beyond the slashed stubs of tobacco fields and the blue smoke from the curing barns, the death of a coal-scrounger's wife on the L&N tracks, the eruption of violence and need in grizzled strangers upon the peaceful complacencies of boyhood: some of these remembered moments are capable of generating nothing more profound than simple wonder at the difference between the then and the now, or even more disturbing, the sameness of the two. In such poems as “American Portrait” and “Old Flame,” for example, the recording sensibility fixes on some few details from the ordinary event (a remarkably accurate pitching arm, braided locks and sausage legs) as if their circumstantial weight might clarify the hiatus between the then and the now, that it might provide such continuities that would help to answer those questions so compulsively asked in the later poetry.

More complex poems use the recollection of the special moment not as occasion for simple wonder but as generative exercises for more explicit meditation on the meaning of the moment that so insistently intrudes itself on the poet's consciousness. “Blessèd Accident” is a non-nostalgic, speculative poem in which the speaker attempts “to distinguish between logic / And accident” among those points in his life that seem most effecting and affecting; the nagging fear that blocks the temptation toward self-congratulation is the old naturalistic one that says no identity is as real as its context: “Are you, after storm, some fragment / Of wreckage stranded on a lost beach … ?” This autumnal anxiety also shows up in a beautifully rendered nostalgic poem, “What Voice at Moth-Hour.” At twilight the mother's voice, with its monitory urgency, coincides with and becomes nearly indistinguishable from the sounds of nature—a murmurous stream, bullbat, whip-o-will—and the mother's voice calling “It's late! Come home” becomes in the consciousness of the boy (then) the message of nature itself; as it is strenuously summoned up by the mature poet (now) the recalled moment takes its place among many similar situations that depict the persistent pull of the human being into a greater but featureless whole in which “each alone / Is sunk and absorbed into / The mass and matrix of Being that defines / Identity of all. …”

“What Voice at Moth-Hour” is one of Warren's nostalgic poems, but the burden of its willed reconstruction by the speaker in the now is a familiar signature, that strain of naturalistic pantheism that has persisted in his work since the 1940s. For Warren, the sometimes sinister, sometimes seductive, pull of great nature characteristically occurs temporally in the blankness of night or at the peripheries of day—dusk and dawn—and spatially in locales bereft of the customary density of community—a craggy seashore, the western plains, snow-clogged mountain plateaus. The situations may involve the chthonian privacies of an Italian sea-cave (“Mediterranean Basin”) or the limestone darkness of a Kentucky cave (“Speleology”), a lonely cliff at night over the Mediterranean far below (“Star-Fall”) or a Kentucky hilltop cemetery at twilight overlooking faint domestic lights of a village below (“Evening Hour”), but they invariably serve to deemphasize the human and to accentuate great nature that both threatens and invites. As long as the human consciousness resists the premature merging of self with the non-self, speculations about identity can continue.

In the meantime, because Warren's speakers are alert to signs that might offer clues to nature's intent, many of the later poems attempt to deal with the mysterious language of the non-self. The “darkling susurration” of the world is to be “Deciphered”; in erratic arcs the bat and bullbat scribble “their lethal script on a golden sky”; the rain taps out its message in “code,” and sleet “coding on pane” arouses a sad wonder at the incomplete deciphering: “The whole world pours at us. But the code book, somehow, is lost.” Even in such incompletion Warren's speakers struggle with signs, to make them yield up whatever secrets they may hold for human relevance. In his semantics of signs, the poet attempts to establish his own kind of deictic proofs: a sunset, a shed snakeskin, a discarded newspaper scudding over the stones of the Piazza Navona, dogwood berries against a premature snowfall, the gut-grabbing cry of blackbirds, a dead pine torched by summer lightning. Clearly portentous, such signs are rarely capable of translation into human grammar or human sense: what, in the nimbus of their contexts, they portend remains elusive and fleeting—the initiating perplexity that gives rise, over and over again, to the familiar Warrenesque questions. To “try to understand / The possibility of joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty” is to try to understand, even though the code book is lost, the self and the mysteries of its place in the world of the nonself.

What Warren achieves in these poems is not the factitious authority based on the rational imagination, what Coleridge defined as “that reconciling and mediatory power”; Warren's authority rests in the trembling, troubling submission to the unrational imagination, which, though it may ultimately possess mediatory power, mostly operates as symbols that are frustratingly unsystematic, which appears as fragments, nodules of a significance still to be determined, and with psychic excitement that can suggest feeling without defining it. Autumnal courage turns out to be a determination to continue, however pointless it may progressively seem to be, a “Mission” that Warren associates with the ongoing quest for meaning. The final poem of Now and Then recognizes the poet's unfinished quest. Like the water-fowl in Bryant's famous poem of romantic comfort, the wild geese in Warren's “Heart of Autumn” fulfill their being by following the “path of pathlessness” on their southward course; but unlike Bryant's romantic analogy—that He who guides the bird will surely lead our own steps “aright”—Warren's vision of geese remains literal, without the comfort of metaphorical application: “I have known time and distance, but not why I am here.” The moment ends as a modified triumph only because the poet discards the potentiality of metaphor and asserts the naturalistic reality of equation—man and bird alike, “Path of logic, path of folly, all / The same”—but in that acceptance man imaginatively becomes bird:

                                                  I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs
With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage. …

This is not wisdom poetry. There is hardly a trace of those firm truths (or the complacency that often accompanies them) that the experienced intelligence can pass along to those for whom experience is still process; Warren's speakers are themselves engaged in experience that is still process.

If the temptations toward obliteration are subtly and passively natural, suggested by streams murmuring in code, the deliquescence of thawing snow, and the gray fluctuations of all line and definition by slow rain, the modest counters to such temptations are assertively human: the smile and touch of one who lies by your side (“not alone— / But alone”); the stories of old men; the secret invocations of young men with arms outstretched to the elements; a mother turned suddenly girlish, uttering half-laughing, half-crying shrieks as she plays with a new grandchild; the wild, laughing words sprung from the vision of a child with whom you sit on the floor; even the unassuming, accepting doom of anonymous men who outside your door walk the world in “solid stride.”

With the same tonic spirit, Warren in his autumnal poetry plumbs the possibilities for wisdom in both the now and the then. If consciousness means memory, it is memory in the sense not of smug reconstructions but of tentative meditations. In sacrificing bogus wisdom, that tempting self-indulgent claim of the old poet, Warren must settle for restless self-inquiry; and in so doing he casts himself in the role of those other, mostly anonymous men who, without benefit of certitude, still walk the world in solid stride.


  1. Rob Roy Purdy, ed., Fugitives' Reunion: Conversations at Vanderbilt, May 3-5, 1956 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1959), p. 210.

  2. Robert Coles, “Irony in the Mind's Life.” Virginia Quarterly Review, 49 (Autumn 1973), 548. Coles's subject is Middlemarch.

  3. All poems discussed in this essay, unless otherwise noted, appear in Now and Then (1978), Being Here (1980), and Rumor Verified (1981), all published by Random House.

  4. “Marble,” The New Yorker, October 24, 1983, p. 46.

  5. Warren's use of the imagery of rigidity is similar to Emily Dickinson's in “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes,” a poem highly admired in the original Understanding Poetry (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), pp. 468-471.

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1336

SOURCE: Watkins, Floyd C. “A National Poet.” Mississippi Quarterly 37, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 173-78.

[In the following essay, Watkins summarizes Warren's poetry on American subjects and emphasizes Warren's depiction of the human capacity for evil in Brother to Dragons.]

In a period of about four decades Robert Penn Warren has written poems about America and its history which are unmatched by the work of any other poet in quality and scope. He has created events, periods, and personages with a range from 1776 to 1976. Even in the unity of themes and methods, there is a considerable diversity of subjects and people who derive from the typical, the folk, and the historical. Many characters are based on actual Americans. Public history of one sort or another provides approximately a dozen central narratives. Persons in the daily news, some members of Warren's family, and boyhood friends in Kentucky assume significant roles and provide a background of figures with something close to anonymity but also representative national importance.

In major works Warren recreates Thomas Jefferson (here more a philosopher than a President), Jean Jacques Audubon (whom Warren sees as frontier adventurer as well as artist), and Chief Joseph (an Indian statesman betrayed by whites as well as the course of historical events). Poems depict peculiarly American events, folk characters (the Potts family, a family of brigands who become pathetic when the father unknowingly murders his own son), founding fathers in the Old South, Civil War soldiers—North and South, tried and acquitted radical segregationists, men of letters (Emerson and Dreiser), and in general distinctive American personages—some despicable, some heroic, all human.

There are only three true epics in the Western World, Allen Tate has remarked, the earliest ones by Homer—the Iliad and the Odyssey—and the Aeneid. But many works are based on the culture and history (or pre-history) of a people much as Homer's are. Almost every ancient folk had some kind of long narrative in their heritage: the accounts of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh may be one folk narrative or collected stories of the adventures of one hero; the Old English Beowulf, the Spanish Cid, and the German Nibelungenlied are diverse folk stories which are similar to epics depending on the degree of formalism in the use of the term. Several Americans have attempted to write works which resemble epics in some sense: Joel Barlow, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Stephen Vincent Benét—to name just a few. Generally, however, the more the critic or reader insists on using the term epic, the less useful it becomes as a tool in understanding a poem. In these times it is best, I think, to use the term national or ethnic and then to meditate on whether such labels are loose-fitting and awkward—or appropriate.

Robert Penn Warren's poems about America do not follow generally any models for national poems. Possibly every nation or cultural group with a history or a tradition needs to create its own forms for its own distinct character. Possibly the diversity of American characters is so great that no national poem can be written about the conglomerate mass. If any poem may be regarded as traditionally American with heroes and characters not dependent significantly on the ego of the poet (as is the case with Whitman), that poem may be Warren's Brother to Dragons, centered on the great President Thomas Jefferson and also expanded to such a scope that it covers substantial parts of American history and perhaps many of the meanings of being American.

Even the one poem Brother to Dragons, however, is not Warren's greatest poetic national accomplishment. In separate works and in parts of longer works he has written a body of poems which represent more of America and the life and meaning of America than any single one of his poems does. Warren's works derive from an almost unsurpassed sense of history, especially American history and character. That same understanding of history, tradition, event, time and development in the nation pervades his fiction as well as his poetry. In the poems Warren has created an American town and a family chronicle (see my Then and Now, 1982). Strangely, with brilliant intuition and discipline in regard to subject and with the intense concentration of a man of letters on each particular work, Warren says that he has not been especially aware of his creation of a family chronicle, a town, and a national history. Until the separate poems are collected as they appear in this listing, it has not been generally recognized that he has created works which are so closely related nationally. The Selected Poems 1923-1975 and the more recent volumes contain a national saga somewhat like the world William Faulkner had created but not fully recognized until Malcolm Cowley published The Portable Faulkner.

The unity of themes in Warren's poetry is almost as striking as the diversity of characters, subjects, and events. Warren has a singleness of view which paradoxically is both revealed and obscured by his wide range. It is a distinctive view of American history; it is so true that its validity cannot be denied and so personal to Warren that no American can agree with it without some degree of reservation. In its simplest terms, Warren's philosophical and national creed is a belief in evil, the great strength of evil in the individual and the nation, and the necessity for the individual who would be heroic to rise with great effort and nobility to do what he can in his time and place to control the forces of evil.

The theme of these national poems appears again and again. One of the best statements of it is in the religious tract of the Scholarly Attorney in All the King's Men. That character argues that God himself created evil so that man can have the opportunity of heroically triumphing over it—with the help of God's power and glory. The theme is present conspicuously in a work which may be even greater than All the King's Men—in the portrait of Thomas Jefferson and the nation in Brother to Dragons. From the idealism of the Enlightenment—the belief in progress and the goodness of man at the time of the founding of the Republic—spring the fallacies of excessive belief in goodness and the marvels of education in later America. The deity who had built the world and then retired from it to let it proceed on its own course to eternal and beneficent progress (according to the deists) comes back intimately to the earth in the transcendentalists so that such poets as Emerson and Whitman could believe not only that God is in everyone, but also that everyone is god. Or God, Many Americans have carried this belief in unqualified benevolence into their hopes for final cures in psychiatry, into their beliefs that no man is responsible for his crimes (something else or someone else made the individual do it), into the practice of reforming those who break the law instead of punishing them, into the hopes that charity or government or some kind of security can bring the necessities and perhaps most of the luxuries to all—if only we can pass the right laws and change the nature of the world enough.

Some statesmen and some of the great writers of America (Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, for example) share Warren's belief in the depravities of man. Perhaps more important, they believe in the individual's capabilities of doing some small things which result in changes for the good and improvements in particular events and instances. Things may change, get better and sometimes worse. There may be even good ages and bad times. But whatever the circumstances, the character of humankind (the struggles and failures and successes) remains just about the same. The beauties and the art of Warren's individual poems are that collectively they represent the history and wonder of America and its people and their greatness and their failures.

Philip Balla (review date 1984)

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SOURCE: Balla, Philip. “‘A Dance on the High Wire over an Abyss’.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 12, no. 1 (Fall-Winter 1984): 267-80.

[In the following review, Balla suggests that Warren's collection Rumor Verified is unfocused and overly “genteel,” but describes the dramatic poem Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce as possibly Warren's finest.]

Poets can't really take credit for too many of their own observations. They pick them up, somewhat the way the rest of us pedestrians pick up things on the bottom of our shoes. Robert Penn Warren in a 1957 Paris Review interview described poetry as “a dance on the high wire over an abyss.” A lovely image, but the dean of American poets probably just picked it up somewhere. The inspiration may have had some respectably genteel source because, as any of his numerous author's credits will testify, Robert Penn Warren by his prizes, awards, and honors very much belongs to America's literary establishment. His publisher lists all these accruing accomplishments from new book to new book, but in spite of all this Warren is still very much a country boy. He could just as easily have corralled his definition of poetry in some good redneck bar where, in the sauce a little, he found himself obliged to describe a bit of what he did to his flannel-shirted, whiskered, whiskeyed companions.

This particular country boy was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905, a time and place where dirt-farming, mules, and deep segregation conspired to alert Warren to the graphic images, contradictions, and layers of hurts of the surrounding continent. But his own local origins matter because Warren made them matter—going to Vanderbilt University in nearby Nashville, Tennessee, where the presence of The Fugitives allowed him to remain deliberately self-conscious of his southern origins, as his first published writings testify. Headed by the poet John Crowe Ransom, these self-styled Fugitives adopted as their mission in the 1920s to rid southern writing of the suffocating claptrap of wisteria, mint juleps, and over-refined sentiment which had been a tradition in the South at least since the earliest popularity and imitations of the Walter Scott novels a hundred years before. It was a tradition still going strong at the time of Ransom and his group, and the national success of Gone with the Wind in the 1930s indicates that the aesthetics of saccharine chivalry continued to prevail, but The Fugitives won some recognition. In Tennessee they published their own little magazine (The Fugitive), and some of them got published nationally elsewhere as well, so from New York Edmund Wilson could notice them and single out three for praise: Ransom, Warren, and Allen Tate. By 1929 this trio felt sufficiently established as writers to become social critics. They became Agrarians. And in 1930 Tate, Ransom, Warren, and nine others—Twelve Southerners—collectively published a manifesto collection of essays with the rebellious title of I'll Take My Stand.

This polemic against the industrial age proved later to be an embarrassment for most of its authors. Robert Penn Warren's contribution to the volume was an essay called “The Briar Patch.” Here Warren, at the age of 25, defended racial segregation in the South as a system humanly preferable to wage slavery in the wicked North. It was the old “Our niggers are happier than your niggers” refrain, one which Warren recanted by the time of Little Rock a generation later and that 1957 Paris Review interview with James Baldwin asking the questions.

Though Warren's “The Briar Patch” deserved repudiation on political grounds (Plato warned about trusting poets to set policy), as an essay it revealed one of the characteristic themes of his work, visible for the next half-century: a half-formulated sense of the dancing and the abyss, that web of complications, human sordidness, and entrapments—that “dirt” by which a young reporter got his education in All the King's Men, that web of genealogies Faulkner found a syntax to follow, that diseased membrane of life which impelled James Agee to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Warren is intimate with this abyss in its historical, factual, regional setting. I'll Take My Stand failed because it was a polemic; it set up a thesis and then went and found language to justify it—which is exactly opposite to the way good poetry works. Warren's best poems have always arisen out of words he has known in their grittiness: “Billie Potts,” “Homage to Dreiser,” “Rattlesnake Country,” “Founding Fathers, Nineteenth-Century Style, Southeast U.S.A.,” “Flaubert in Egypt,” “The Last Laugh,” and most of Audubon and Brother to Dragons. After I'll Take My Stand Warren may have become—as his immediate predecessor, Sam Clemens, did—a bona fide Easterner; but, also like Twain, Warren has thrived upon his regional roots. “There is a kind of extraordinary romance about American history,” he put it in that 1957 interview, adding, “I have a romantic kind of interest in the objects of American history: saddles, shoes, figures of speech, rifles, and so on. They're worth a lot. Helps you focus.”

Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980 is a book that would be improved by sharper focusing. True, in this, his next-to-most recent book, there is a consistent presence; the rumor he's verifying is death—that old abyss. But here Warren cozies up to it: death domesticated, old friend, who perhaps occasions shudders, though “You pull yourself together,” says the poet. “A drink helps. After all, it's the sort of thing that may happen to anybody. And does.”

Rumor Verified is Warren's most pale, or paleface, or genteel book. Daniel Halpern might have written it, or any number of those East Coast or writing-school poets whose roots are primarily literary, secondhand, removed from the land and nasty place, nasty circumstance. Rumor Verified is a clean book, gentle, almost pretty. In “Dead Horse in Field,” one poem typical of the others, flowers grow out from around the bones of a horse whose stinking flesh has long before been eaten away in the field where it lay to die. But that's all Warren has to say about death here: flowers. That means renewal, as any poet-in-residence can tell you. And if there's ebb, then there's flow; if yin, then yang. In another Warren poem, “What was the Thought,” he hears a little mouse at night. Next morning pussy cat deposits the mouse on poet's bed, “skull crushed, partly eviscerated.” So much for mouse. So much for the message that death pervades all, even in the dress of banal inevitabilities. Life is precious, fragile, and the poet hears it beating at night often throughout Rumor Verified, identified elsewhere in this collection by such figures as the dog at the foot of his bed, “Its tail now and then thumping the floor.”

Or life is puny. In “If,” the poet compares puniness to vastness and asks, being at the seashore this time, what can a drop of water on a stone “Tell us of the blind depth of groan out yonder?” The abyss beckons, tempts the poet's thoughts, and continues to yawn (no pun intended) throughout this book. In “Nameless Thing” the poet is awakened again in the night and goes out stalking his own fear with a poker in his hand. Vastness and nameless terror are everpresent. The poet can't touch them, surely not with a poker, though sometimes he touches sympathetically upon the plight of fellow creatures captured in their own (and therefore our own) mortality. In “English Cocker: Old and Blind” Warren evokes sympathy for the family dog who can barely survive the little of life left for him. As the dog attempts to negotiate the stairs down to waiting master, the poet commiserates with him, up there, “Suspended above the abyss at edge of the stair.”

Most of the poems in Rumor Verified are similarly tame. In “Redwing Blackbird” there's a little drama, however, in the contrast between the scarlet epaulets of a bird and the completely vaster grayness through which this bird momentarily flashes. It's debatable, perhaps, whether this flash of red, this flight (the dance) punctuates the more-pervading grayness (the abyss) or is overwhelmed and swallowed up by it. In the statement of these dilemmas, poetry verges on philosophy. In “Vermont Ballad: Change of Seasons” there's similar drama, similar contrast between flashing red and grayness all around, only here the images work more like poetry, less like philosophical examples. This may be the best poem in the book. Here the red is blood, portending suicide. Grayness dominates; but these latter images shift from a viscous grayness of the mind to a more somber grayness of rain beating against a window. If there's any dancing quality to “Vermont Ballad: Change of Seasons” it's a dance of endurance, like the one Warren narrated in an earlier poem from his 1976-1978 collection Now and Then, “A Confederate Veteran Tries to Explain the Event.” Here a little boy asks why, why, why did a certain person kill himself. With a repetition as good as Faulkner's in Absalom, Absalom, when Quentin Compson denied and denied and denied that he hates the South, Warren describes the old veteran, the grandfather, as if, before the vastness of the cosmos and the unreasonableness of life, only “a voice” could respond to such a question about suicide:

“For some folks the world gets too much,” it said.
In that dark, the tongue moved. “For some folks,” it said.

In “Vermont Ballad: Change of Seasons” endurance reaffirms itself. At the end Warren notes someone out walking on the road in dark night and cold rain:

“No sportsman—no!
Just a man in his doom
In rain or snow you pass, and he says
‘Kinda rough tonight!’”

Rumor Verified may be an acknowledgment of the abyss, even touching at times, but it's a far cry from the raunchy, bawdy, sex- and passion-filled lines Warren has written on Dreiser, Flaubert, Twain, the Jefferson nephews, and Audubon. Maybe it's all right for a good old boy to be nice and genteel sometimes, to show he, too, can write in a nice, East Coast, academic, paleface, writing-school minimalist style. That's one way to win prizes. But there's no defense for such rhetoric as runs too often through Rumor Verified: “Joy of its being,” “In timeless light the world swims,” “the paradox of time,” “The Self flows away,” “that blind yearning lifeward,” “the agony of time,” “the light of her inner being,” “the darkling drag of the nameless depth below,” “the tales and contortions of time,” “straining … to offer its inwardness,” and “what is the past but delusion?”

Southerners are notorious, infamous, for over-writing, over-publishing. It's probably from growing up in a place where preachers set precedents by all the frothing, phrase-jumbling, and Bible-pumping they've done in both canebrake and calico settings. Robert Penn Warren could easily have not published two-thirds of his stuff over his career and had a more distinguished career for it—a shortened list of author's credits notwithstanding. Some things, some books—some rumors—one oughtn't to verify. Warren did choose to publish this volume, however. While its chief fault may not be garrulousness, its chief interest may be as evidence for what happens when a poet who believes in the clarifying value of history departs for a while from his history and from his place.

After the Twelve Southerners had stood up in 1930 to crow on behalf of their region, they had a lot of explaining to do. Warren, Ransom, Tate, Stark Young, and Andrew Lytle must have gotten tired of explaining all the time there in the early 1930s just how their writing in any genre related to and exemplified that regional stand they had taken. In the 1930s social perspectives on works of art, social and polemical uses for art, were almost obligatory. These particular Southerners soon demurred, recanting their stand. Ironically, they became instrumental in devising an aesthetic by which art should have no relationship to any history, politics, economics, or psychology. This was the New Criticism—happy time for nearly forty years of academic palefaces who could ignore connections to the social world and concentrate instead on the pure joy, integrity, and technique of the text at hand. Warren played his part in this, too, writing with René Wellek one of the seminal texts of the New Criticism, Understanding Poetry.

They published this Bible of New Criticism in 1938, and revised it several times since, so there, simply enough, are the grounds to see justification for a man who loves history as much as Warren to deviate so far into paleface never-never land as he did with Rumor Verified. Only it's not so simple—this Robert Penn Warren is a contradictory man—and just as he moved beyond his youthful enthusiasms for segregation, so did he in another interview published in 1965 leave behind his association with the New Criticism. He'd decided that the New Criticism mattered only to “aging conservative professors, scared of losing prestige, or young instructors afraid of not getting promoted.” This fear, this cowardice was for others. It was “they,” said Warren, who “all have a communal nightmare called the New Criticism.”

Someone else later on will have to straighten out these contradictions in the life of Robert Penn Warren. For himself Warren acknowledges the contrary impulses in American life and letters. Some writers, he said in that famous Paris Review interview, just get “bogged down in history.” The whole South, he said, got bogged down that way “—in time—and the North got bogged down in nonhistory—non-time.”

“That split,” he went on saying, was “the tragic fact of American life.”

To lack a sense of time means, specifically, that in a writer, Hemingway, for instance, there are “no parents, grandchildren, or children.” In Hemingway, concluded Warren, there was “no time.” The writer Edward Dahlberg complained about the same point, too, in Hemingway and in most other American writers. Take Fitzgerald, Dahlberg said, for instance:

What is most appalling in an F. Scott Fitzgerald book is that it is a peopleless fiction: Fitzgerald writes about spectral, muscled suits; dresses, hats, and sleeves. … Everybody in a Fitzgerald book is denatured, without parents or family.

Leslie Fiedler complained similarly in Love and Death in the American Novel: too many American heroes were just men who shirked family ties—and especially shirked ties to women. Calling this “icy nihilism,” “anti-life,” and “the dread of human touch and being involved with people,” Dahlberg disregarded the possible significance of the people in William Carlos Williams' Paterson and counted the number of times Williams used the word “rock” in that poem. Even for a work giving the geological history of a river, concluded Dahlberg, eighty-seven times using the word “rock” was too much:

One cannot feed too long on the bogs of Thoreau or on the ravished gravel and grubby river Paterson. … who wants to read these American anchorites on bleak ravines and desolate scrub-pines just to be more inhuman than one already is by nature?

It's curious that though Warren and other New Criticism apologists shirked the social world in their aesthetic, they were the ones who kept a high sense of belonging to symmetry, hierarchy, and subordination—Old World qualitities all—in their approach to literature. It was their opposite camp in the twentieth century which chafed at being overwhelmed by layers of old devices; it was the modernists Pound and Williams, followed by the Black Mountain and San Francisco poets (redskins) who wanted to throw away outmoded hierarchies of rhyme, classical form, and such. So it is no coincidence that the same writers who had a content generally free of generational entanglements—little sense of history and its thickets—also had prose and verse styles, forms, generally free of syntactical entanglements. So William Carlos Williams could write Paterson and inspire two generations of poets to follow to write similarly freed of Old World form. So Hemingway could write his prose, usually about men being men, toughing it out, and inspire prose writers also to treat syntax as so many simple manly spurts. Those writers with a highly pitched sense of belonging to history and to time, generational, sexual time (Warren and Lowell in verse, Agee and Faulkner in prose) stayed with those more complicated forms whose subordinations, parallels, and syntactical series echoed their captivities, enchainments, and byzantine-southern (or New England) inter-relationships emerging through time and line.

If Rumor Verified in its pale innocence deviates from Warren's usual robust self, his next and most recent book may be the finest poem of his career, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

Here Warren returns to familiar ground: the saddles, rifles, horses, and other things from the American frontier that he'd said allowed his vision best to work. Here is the story of America's last great Indian uprising, a case of classic and obvious wrong being done to one of the most cultivated, peaceable, and rightfully proud peoples on the continent. Basically, in order to protect the greed of whites (James Watts' ancestors) the Federal Government orders its cavalry to remove the Nez Perce tribe from its ancestral lands in Washington State. The time is 1877—one year after Custer's defeat out on the Plains even more legitimized, in the popular mind, the use of force against all Indians. General O. O. Howard—Old One Arm—leads the cavalry against Chief Joseph and his tribe when, refusing the reservation life destined for them, they move out, seeking to join Sitting Bull fifteen hundred miles to the east. Howard knows Joseph has been wronged—Warren quotes a letter from Old One Arm to his superiors saying clearly the treatment of the Indians is a “great mistake.” But he's a soldier and he does a soldier's job. Chief Joseph, for all his tribe's peacefulness since the days they befriended Lewis and Clark, turns out to be a better soldier himself than any whites expected. (Sherman afterwards called him one of the best in all military history). Against odds of ten to one Joseph fights a retreat action, protecting his women and children, his old and sick, as he moves his tribe. And so does Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce move.

All the relationships emerge from the drama that ensues. First and most clearly there is the respect Joseph and his people feel for their land and for the graves of the fathers on this land. These ancestors live in the consciousness of their descendants who measure self-respect, integrity, and decency by traditional, coherent standards and memories. Even in white culture there is precedent—in the language—for having and respecting such an ethic. The English word for truth, for instance, derives from the Anglo-Saxon for tree, “treow,” indicating how originally and deeply a sense of roots, branches, and continuities mattered to English-speaking people. By the nineteenth century whites had apparently forgotten such lessons of the language; in Joseph's time the white man's ethics are inferior to the Indians'. Gold, for instance, is inert, and when the Indians compare it to things that live, pulse, and are real, they cannot understand the white lust for this substance that can never have progeny, memory, or seed. Warren's own sentiments are clear. In the end, when the battles are over, and the technical winners and losers have all passed away with only their story or poetry left, Warren refers to the technical winners—the “Frontiersmen, land-grabbers, gold-panners”—as all “skull-grinned in darkness.”

A more soft-handed ilk now swayed the West. They founded
Dynasties, universities, libraries, shuffled
Stocks, and occasionally milked
The Treasury of the United States,
Not to mention each other. They slick-fucked a land.

Robert Penn Warren has contempt for the slick-fuckers of American history. He describes how the Nez Perce saw these instruments of the white greed that was out to subdue them:

All the blue coats, the buttons of gold, the black
Coats buttoned up tight
Over bellies that bulged—
White and sweaty, you knew, under that cloth—
And softer than dough …

The bluecoats in Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce fight as American soldiers all too often have fought in our history: by virtue of sheer mass. Robert E. Lee knew that intelligence and guttiness frequently prevailed in union blue, but he concluded finally, at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, that his own gray-coated men had been beaten by “overwhelming numbers and resources.” Paradoxically, their sophisticated equipment hampered the U.S. Cavalry in their battles with the Nez Perce, according to Warren's picture of the troopers:

… like children …
With all their fool tangle of cables and ferries,
… all that aimless tackle and gear.

They fought but with dramatic difference between the sides. If the white armies were reduced in their military potency by their Persian-like mass, Warren is like Herodotus who scorned and pitied such weight when other qualities measured for far more. And like the old Greek, and with similarly austere style as in The Histories, Warren shows how the chief victims of power are those who wield it, how their biggest loss is their own integrity and decency. When the troopers can catch up with the Indians, Warren describes it from the Indian vantage:

Near dawn they struck us, new horse-soldiers. Shot
Into tepees. Women, children, old died.
Some mothers might stand in the river's cold coil
And hold up the infant and weep, and cry mercy.
What heart beneath blue coat has fruited in mercy?
When the slug plugged her bosom, unfooting her
To the current's swirl and last darkness, what last
Did she hear? It was laughter.

If the intensity of his deadpan, non-poetic tone isn't enough, Warren adds to it with quotes from newspaper headlines of the time which show the banality by which whites accepted their own atrocities: paying for fresh Indian scalps, for instance, as if from males, mothers, or children they were only so many fox or varmint hides. His matter-of-fact tone, his severe style, magnifies the horrors unquestioned then. And by contrast he quotes General Sherman who, speaking of the Nez Perce after all the action is over, says simply enough:

The Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise; they abstained from scalping; let captive women go free; and did not commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families … they fought with almost scientific skill.

When the war is over—it was Chief Joseph who said “I will fight no more forever,” and Warren quotes all his surrender words verbatim—when it's all over it's not over. Joseph becomes emissary for his people, going to Washington, among other things—and going to New York, too. In New York he rides in the procession dedicating Grant's tomb. Irony of irony he rides “beside Buffalo Bill—

Who had once sent his wife a yet-warm scalp,
He himself had sliced from the pate
Of a red man who'd missed him.

Here Warren adds the line about Buffalo Bill that he was the one “who broke clay pigeons—One-two-three-four-five—just like that.”

This last reference to the famous Indian fighter works nicely within Warren's narrative—because it's not a line of Warren's. It's from e. e. cummings, and by not acknowledging it as someone else's, by treating it as Americana, folklore in the public domain—a reference anyone should know and accept without thinking—Warren adds another dimension to his own poem: the dimension of our own popularized innocence in regard to peoples this innocence let us and lets us go on stupidly brutalizing.

The e. e. cummings reference is, however, a literary technique as well, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce abounds with techniques that work. For one, it's a multi-faceted story, with Warren relying on quotations from official documents, newspapers of the time, and historic memorabilia interspersed throughout—much like Dos Passos' U.S.A. There are Homeric (or Whitmanesque) litanies of names, enabling Warren to pay more literary obeisance and to name, touch on, the richnesses of mountains, ranges, rivers, and things he loves. There are references to cavalry going two by two and four by four: not factual description alone but again acknowledgement of the power and presence of form—as in the Frost poem, “The Woodpile,” where the wood is stacked “four by four by eight.” There are the seasons swirling about these men's lives and deaths: sense of processional. And sometimes there is obvious poetic language, Warren not able to help himself as he enjoys the sound in his mouth of

Flanges, shelves, rim-rocks, ledges, sage clumps.

And animals. They are always present. (Edward Dahlberg wouldn't have to worry about counting rocks in this hymn to life.) The poet's drama takes place in a world of nature, where an Indian's attentiveness is described as a “wolf's ear pricks forward,” where bait is set, where men catch lead balls humming into them like a hornet's song.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce is, in short, told so straightforwardly as a moving story that its devices seem unnoticeable. It doesn't rhyme. Lines don't measure against each other in evened feet and meter. It's a poem, nevertheless, one whose structure, strength of form, and momentum all largely proceed from the relationships of these males who are initial adversaries of each other.

First is the cavalry general, the old Civil War veteran whom Warren introduces with the spartan brevity of a colon: Howard.

Old One-Arm, dogged, devout, knowing
Himself snared in God's cleft stick of justice,
Stirs in the saddle. His heart is military.
Is inflamed with love of glory and
Vanity wounded. He is the butt
of every newspaper. Like foxfire,
At night in his dream, his quarry flickers, sardonic,
Before him.

With all that gadgetry American militarists dote on, Howard pursues Joseph. He is joined by colonels Miles and Sturgis who, with cavalry units from other directions, all try to cut off Joseph and his band of Nez Perce, to trap them in pincer movements. Miles—initially—seems simply to be “a glory-chaser, like Custer,” and Sturgis' blood, it is clear, still boils at the loss of his cavalry son who died with Custer the summer before at the Little Big Horn.

While the three officers and their units pursue Joseph for their various soldierly and personal reasons, Joseph keeps his eyes on them and his eyes, moreover, on his own fathers. He has a firm sense of the web of time, nature, and generations to which he belongs. Often in Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce he looks to the stars, to the fathers of his people who are there. He knows that they are looking back at him. He knows

That eyes were fixed on him, eyes of
Those fathers that incessantly, with
The accuracy of that old Winchester, rifled
Through all, through darkness, distance, Time,
To know if he had proved himself a man, and being
A man, would make all those
Who now slept know
Their own manhood.

This reciprocity is infectious—the basic truths of life, like trees, like language, bearing seed, bearing reaching branches, bearing fruit. For while all the men here are clearly involved with war, and the white officers compete with each other, they are also involved in a more ennobling dance. It is because of Joseph's moral superiority, his human decencies and capacity to love, that others grow.

Miles especially. He's the glory-hound initially. His development is the most stirring aspect of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Warren shows this masterfully. By his own character Joseph teaches Miles how there is no price worth paying for the brigadier's star Miles has been coveting. Miles learns other qualities—modesty of proportion, respect for different-others, and the dignities of human loyalties—till by the end of the book the ambitious adversary is the one great friend among whites that Joseph has.

Others learn, too, or in relation to Joseph are enabled to see and to reveal in themselves the qualities Joseph and his people embodied—like the white man who eventually was settled on Joseph's own land after the removal of the Nez Perce. Joseph years later visited and saw, touched to tears, that this common farmer had respected the grave of Joseph's father on that land, had left it sacred and would not plow there, piling up stones to mark and preserve it instead. Joseph acknowledges “the purity of that poor man's heart.”

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce is a sacred book—as sacred as any American could write—ultimately about friendship and the longer-pervading dignity of relationships that redeem, ennoble, and outlast time. Although there are no women characters developed in it, no sexuality, and only one sexual metaphor having to do with a cavalry thrust, the work dances nonetheless.

In a typical John Ford movie, particularly his westerns, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and Fort Apache, the whole cast dances. Even John Wayne dances sometimes. Ford, the visionary of Monument Valley, had Willa Cather's love of detail in him, but he also had a sense of ceremony, life as a dance, people made larger by their relationships to each other in a community over time. So it's natural for his whole cast literally to dance, from a Grand March indoors to troopers jangling off two by two to the tune of “Gray Owen”—the tune by which Custer's men died. And so similarly does Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce dance.

There is loss in this book: loss of a people, loss of their land, and loss of life. Sometimes these losses occur as if the cosmos didn't really care. As men fight and die Warren describes their blood on the snow:

Snow red, then redder,
And reddening more, as snow falls
From the unperturbed gray purity of sky.

These lines recall those earlier Warren poems pitting throbbing, brief reds against neutral grays: the dance and the abyss. They recall, moreover, lines from earlier Warren work like “Grackles, Goodbye” (from his collection Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980), which teach that “in the name of Death” “We learn the true name of love.” They recall still earlier lines, like those of a decade earlier when Warren wrote, in “Fall Comes to Back Country, Vt.,” that

… in the act
of rendering irreparably the human fabric
Death affirms the fact of that fabric.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce itself demonstrates that, loss and losses notwithstanding, fabrics continue: our lives become moral fictions by grace of the language threading them through. So if Rumor Verified merely pirouettes a bit over vague void, Chief Joseph more truly measures up to Warren's own lovely definition of poetry.

Calvin Bedient (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7335

SOURCE: Bedient, Calvin. “His Grand Last Phase.” In In the Heart's Last Kingdom: Robert Penn Warren's Major Poetry, pp. 1-21. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Bedient speaks of Warren's transition to poetic greatness with the publication of Audubon: A Vision.]

Nothing in Robert Penn Warren's long career as a man of letters has so distinguished it as has the final act, which opened in the late sixties, when he himself had entered his sixties (he was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905). His greatness as a writer began with his determination to concentrate on poetry as the extreme resource of language-knowledge, language-being—began with Audubon: A Vision (1969), forty-six years after he started publishing poems as a student prodigy at Vanderbilt, under the tutelage of (among others) John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. What seized him then was a heroic effort to present himself as a man whose passion for the adventure of living is his sole, his imposing identity and glory. (One might say he had finally recognized, without shrinking from, his passion for passion.) Just as he had with Audubon, he created a type out of himself, acting out a demand for knowledge of himself and the world, performing a hunger for consummate meaning and distinction (a nobility and glory based on reverence for distinctions and exemplifying the quality), while recognizing, while heaving against, everything dark and heavy in the truth. At moments he has seemed merely stagy (an image of his own heroic image of man), but volume by volume no one could doubt the strength of his appetite for glory and truth, with beauty trailing after as “the fume-track of necessity.”

Audubon rose above his previous volumes like a curiously abrupt, grand escarpment, a repudiation of the scrub country of uncertain poetic purpose. Two proud differences announced themselves: an assured voice (at last his own, and major) and a personal and passionate knowledge of values. Warren may have been writing about a nineteenth-century Frenchman who became the very type of the “natural,” wood-wholesome American, and he may have shown an equally unfashionable longing for majestic beauty and glory, but he invented a convincing contemporary manner (and structure), and there was no dismissing his grand sensibility: like the Rockies, it was there.

Casting off the regal diction with which he had earlier tried to warm himself, he began to blaze inwardly with a direct and passionate pursuit of the real. What he lived for was what he could not live without, and his words, at their best, seemed resonant with actual life. The joy he was after—namely, “knowledge based on the empathic imagination”—may have been jettisoned by “the world of science, technology, big organization—and of course the business culture”; but he would have it, singlehandedly he would replant it in America, if passion could do it, if anyone could do it. Both retreating and advancing to nature, like some latter-day Thoreau, Ishmael, or Whitman, he sought to reconcile, in Rilke's words, “the Individual and the All”—sought “the moment of exaltation, the artistically important Moment, … in which the two scales of the balance counterpoise one another.”

Warren had always manifested, if at first murkily, a tragic hunger for “Truth,” one that made him formidable, set him apart. That passion grew until it could scarcely be slaked. With Audubon it became clarified, beautiful, essential. If this Sisyphus of certain questions—What is Truth? What joy? Where lies glory?—even now only rolls them near to the summit of perfect understanding before they crash down again, still his evocations of the labor can seem blessed as well as sinewy; the effort itself is happiness and appears touched by a rare and difficult light. Warren is that very unusual thing, a poet of tragic joy—indeed the first such among American poets.

“Truth” is everything inescapable in any given life, a life potentially perceivable as a unity, a fate. In particular, truth is the bruising hardness we and the world bring to one another, but this is not the whole truth; for ultimately truth—or such is the devout hope—is the same as glory: the apprehension that fate is, or can be, spectacular, a noble splendor. Truth is redeemed in glory, or glory is the lenity of truth, evidence that our existence that our existence is justifiable, that we can turn back cosmic “contumely.”

For a writer, glory has, as well, a special meaning—that of making oneself worthy of regard through acts of creation. And primarily, of course, worthy of human regard. But not solely of that: in sacral creativity something more vast and indefinite—say, the heavens—seems to deserve, if not expect, a human effort at a self-exalting. “To write something that will be worthy of that rising moon, that pale light. To be ‘simple’ enough, as one would be simple before God”—so Katherine Mansfield put it in her Journal. Writing, Kafka said, is a form of prayer, and all Warren's questing poetry (not all his poetry has been questing) is prayer: his way of attempting to scour himself into truth and charity, become self-lightened, raised up.

If tragedy is (as the young Georg Lukács said) “a revelation of God before the face of God,” then prayerful creation, creative prayer, gravitates toward the tragic. Beginning as one certain of the “unuprootable ferocity of self,” Warren must have known as well as anyone the terror of Ibsen's question, “But can he who has been seen by God continue to live?” Yet, American in this, or perhaps simply human, he has held out for the possibility of an earthly human redemption. He has not explained the violent contradiction; he has only borne it. “Truth's glare-glory”—nowadays who but Warren would wrestle this difficult, awkward concept onto the page, offering it as a frightening promise to those who, though without any understanding of God, would yet be blessed?

This poet whose mature love of the physical world is second to none, whose art is almost religiously intent on mimesis, who seldom doubts the truth-grasping capabilities of words, makes you feel that, if he only could, he would take on himself all desire, devour all experience, all action, all beauty, all magnificence. And not only out of love, but because to incorporate all would be to survive all, be magnified beyond all dying. So he would convert fate into power, truth into the everlasting name of glory (glory for him not being quite “that bright tragic thing” it was for Emily Dickinson):

Question: What can you do with stars, or glory?
                                        I'll tell you, I'll tell you—thereof
                                        Eat. Swallow. Absorb. Let bone
                                        Be sustained thereof, let gristle
                                        Toughen, flesh be more preciously
                                        Gratified, muscle yearn in
                                        Its strength. Let brain glow
                                        In its own midnight of darkness,
                                        Under its own inverted, bowl-shaped
                                        Sky, skull-sky, let the heart
                                                                                What other need now
                                        Is possible to you but that
                                        Of seeing life as glory?

Not the least prodigious aspect of his passion is its almost ghoulish feeding on the passions of others. Passion always wants more of itself, wants itself seconded everywhere. Maybe no poet since Dickinson has looked on others with such “narrow, probing eyes,” but whereas she weighed their grief, he almost grieves “To know what postulate of joy men have tried / To live by, in sunlight and moonlight, until they died.” The reverse side of his Audubon-like self-sufficiency (a caricaturist might show him swinging off alone toward the craggiest wilderness with a rifle-sized pen on his shoulder) is this emotional cannibalism, this headlong and primal inquisitiveness (especially naked in his poems about his son). When he says, “You / Must eat the dead … bone, blood, flesh, gristle, even / Such hair as can be forced … Immortality is not impossible, / Even joy,” he deliberately makes an ogre of himself, would make one of you.

To poets the vexing question always, and all the more so in a scoffing age, is how to reconcile truth and glory in the line. Truth wants to sink, glory to rise. The one dulls, the other dazzles. What must be created is a credible, self-qualifying mixture, a self-validating continuity. Until Audubon, Warren's taste was for the overglorious, the highfalutin. “We may endeavor definition,” “the bosom's nocturnal disquiet,” “the fanged commotion rude,” “an unreviving benison”—Warren could make you want to reach for Whitman, or any writer of rude invigorating slang (for the truth, of course, can quicken as well as drag one down). The unsettling, occasional swings into bitter or rub-it-in forthrightness only betrayed his justified anxiety about his style and added commotion rude (the title “Go it, Granny—Go it, Hog!” was the nadir).

Warren was schooled in, and virtually parodied, the precious rhetoric that an injured but high sensibility applies to itself as a balm. Youth in particular is drawn to this mode, once it tastes the idea of mortality (without yet suffering any of its poison). Dreamily piecing together a quilt of terms and rhythms from Marvell, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Auden, Ransom and others, the young, and later not so young, Warren pulled it up over his jutting country-boy knees, presenting himself as an invalid of virtue, a casualty of the collapse of the sublime. He had yet to see that a certain rawboned vigor (both of attitude and word) was to be his salvation. His gathering “rage of joy” was, in any case, scarcely credible in the staled gestures of yesterday; only yesterday is ever credible in them. What we want from new poets is a voice exact to the time. Today, Thursday, the sun rises and somehow the right things remain to be said; the sun rises and the net of language dries on the dock …

After a long partial failure, Warren learned to speak from the unmistakable authority of his own native testings of words. Probably what he found hardest to leave behind was Eliot's alienly impersonal, alienly fastidious, all but ritual model. He was inclined to defer to Eliot's cutting condemnation of man; but his own disposition was more expansive and generous, and Eliot's example chafed. “At the hour when the ways are darkened”—this sort of mincing elegance sat uncomfortably and paled beside the lyric grandeur of “The salmon heaves at the fall, and, wanderer, you / Heave at the great fall of Time, and gorgeous, gleam / In the powerful arc.” Warren's sweat-soured novels displayed with seamy convincingness a moral acuity that his verse, when posturingly superior, took too much for granted and, when sublime, displaced with wonder. Because he was really much happier than Eliot ever was to be a “creature of this world” (he could even speak of “the deep delight” and “nobility” of the flesh), his true manner had to be earthier than his mentor's—more prosaic, more eager. It was in Audubon that, suddenly, and as if by grace of identifying with his buckskinned subject, he developed a straight-out voice, with a grand yet honest range of tones.

Others have singled out Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968 as marking the significant change, several finding the book, for reasons insufficiently specified, “transitional”;1 still others look even further back, James R. Justus (for instance) naming Promises: Poems 1954-1956 “his greatest single volume of poems.” What I would argue is this: in all the earlier volumes, without exception, the calibration of the style is repeatedly off, now too golden throated, now too gritty. A line, even a whole stanza, might dazzle, or simply serve, but in any given poem something (and often a great deal) will be amiss. The manner rarely sits well with the subjects because it is too much a manner, with too much aspiration or too much ego. The correspondence of the term to its import isn't “absolute,” to echo Pater, or even decent: it is usually a little condescending. Both the pretentiousness and the bitter high spirits confess and complain that there is really not enough sublimity to go around.

Looking back at the warm reviews of Promises (especially those of Leonard Casper, James Wright, and James Dickey), one wants to cry out: “Wait! Audubon and Or Else and “Can I See Arcturus from Where I Stand?” will be much more deserving of exactly the same praise.” I think, for example, of Dickey's claim that “Warren's best poems … give us … the sense of the thing done right.” And yet Dickey's description of the “obvious imperfections and near sublimity” of “the massive, slow-moving, and leonine writing” of “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress” makes one reflect that to write in a “leonine” fashion about a little girl, even one situated in a ruined fortress, even one's dearly beloved own, is to wrap a lion's skin around a toddler: the sense of propriety is out of whack. “Near sublimity” is here so shaky a proposition that “obvious imperfections” are the inevitable price. The poet's throat seems ready to burst with the burden of history, the benediction of beauty, the ache of all hearts, the filth of fate, and so on. Alliteration, assonance, and full rhyme embroider an already purple robe. (None of Warren's mature successes, by the way, is in rhyme; for this poet, rhyme is an invitation to oversing.) Of course, I am not doing “justice” to the poem; when I read James Wright on it I think, “How wonderfully he gives himself over to Warren's purposes.” My point is that it is all splendid and too much:

But at your laughter let the molecular dance of the stone-dark glimmer like joy in the stone's dream,
And in that moment of possibility, let gobbo, gobbo's wife, and us, and all, take hands and sing: redeem, redeem!

The sensitive and critical point in Warren's poetry was and still is tone, and the chief fault has been a tendency to hysteria: the wish to escape from the limitations of what is being said, to oversay it. What we want is an intelligent, honest relation to the material; Warren's posturing puffs or curdles it, and his impulse to instruct, to inflict judgment, chokes it up. Because of the strained sublimities and the sour discursiveness, I miss what Heidegger called the purity with which the great poet “submits what he says to an ever more painstaking listening,” an openness and a readiness “for the unforeseen.”2

Take one more example of this failure, “Masts at Dawn,” perhaps the best managed, most resounding poem in Incarnations. Attractive as this poem is (it contains one of the most ringing and quotable of Warren's frequent “modal” pronouncements: “We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God”), it is mostly nervous; it is “talk.” Thus, after the first line, “Past second cock-crow yacht masts in the harbor go slowly white,” little failures begin to mount: the tendentiousness, for instance, of “the stars show a certain fatigue,” or the spell-destroying didacticism of “They withdraw into a new distance, have discovered our unworthiness,” or the merely decorative owl “in the dark eucalyptus, dire and melodious,” or the after-Eliot pulling-up of “Long since the moon sank and the English / Finished fornicating in their ketches.” And so on, till one is grateful, despite and in part because of the rude, vigorous inversion, for “Red died the sun, but at dark wind rose easterly, white sea nagged the black harbor headland.” (But “Poundian,” one may think.) The sea, the poet will later say, “doubts its own mission,” but so does the poet, whose writing hand is shaky. Even here, in this poem of gorgeous description and mood, he is a little anxious to project both a moral and a philosophical authority. He all but looms over his subject, as if to keep from being intimidated by it (“You must learn to accept the kiss of fate”).3

But suddenly, in Audubon, you hear, in Dave Smith's fine phrase, “the human need to prevail by witness,” indeed by “celebration.” The language, as Smith adds, becomes “what it had been in fits and starts, a voice-instrument calibrated to final experience.”4 The tone lets itself go out to adventure like the seeding cottonwood. His pride relenting, his heart submitting, Warren here writes lines that are experience-honoring, experience-blessed. Your eye has but to alight on

Dawn: his heart shook in the tension of the world.
Dawn: and what is your passion?

to feel the thrill of a direct and deep vitality. The colons themselves seem aquiver, marks of confrontation and expectation, two fingers taking a pulse.

Warren has a romantic and heroic idea of Audubon that exalts and chastens his own way of seeing and writing. Even as he all but alters Audubon out of recognition (sweetening and deepening him, and tightening him like a bow), so he is simplified and tautened in turn, in a reciprocal refashioning. Something of frontier sturdiness, of frontier plainness, independence, curiosity, and a love of living on the edge, comes into his poetry to stay. “He embodies one of the deepest American traits, the courage to plunge into the unknown … seeking the new”—these words, a mere ironic tink in Warren's novel The Cave (1959), resound when his recent poems are made the clapper. With Audubon he became heroic and large-scaled without straining, without wondering how he dared. Simply, he set out to repioneer the sort of “love knowledge” he associated with Audubon and the wilderness, its pristine invitations, its diverse creatures and intimate interiors. Philosophically, too, he has put on seven-league boots; has “starward … stared / To the unnamed void where Space and God / Flinch to come.”

Warren began to confront the great undomestic things—time, nature, truth, fate, glory, the “all”—in a way that made his earlier relation to them seem like viewing a distant river; now he was in the river. His words entered experience, or appeared to, fully and tragically and happily, impatient of defenses and eager for unambiguous truth (however rashly eager). No longer anxious to exude authority, Warren gained it at once, held it by the good faith of his relation to, his demands on, experience. His voice became as flecked as a forest floor with inimitable personal lights, his idiosyncrasies almost as marked as before, but more fragrant, more assuredly his, tried now and true, knowing their purpose. There was nothing dressy in the manner now, nothing wild, temperamental, and skittish; it was broken in, like a good mount, and fit for travel.

If before Audubon Warren seemed incapable of writing a masterpiece, he has since to write anything to equal it. Indeed, he has continued to publish some jarringly bad poems, if with a different badness than before, an aping of his worst fears about the draining of life into memory, banal or nightmarish Truth, and the like. Portentousness and pretentiousness still abound. But he has written several superb poems as well, poems that anyone ought to revere, and numerous poems with a tone so passionately and gravely serious, a manner so plunging and plangent, that the poetry is like the rumor of a still unseen waterfall: poetry whose strength feels elemental, makes you attend, whatever its chance limitations.

In part what became established with Audubon was a deeper and firmer respect for realistic circumstance, event as the print of fate.5 “I would … start with the world,” Warren said in an interview: this, rather than descend to it with a rescuing gospel, or any stoop of tender idealism. To the question “What has been denied me?” the “question is the only answer,” and the world itself is the question. That the world provides not only the black-toothed horizon for heroism, the space and the time in which the thaw-stream can heave “In the deep certainty of its joy, like / Doom,” but sudden joys of connection as well, is justification enough. Warren's gulls, hawks, eagles, and buzzards rise and take to themselves the offered light.

As he had in “Masts at Dawn,” so Warren would again and again consecrate perception in a sense of mortal finality. His poetry bears the spikes of the here and now, of fate, in its hands and feet. To the tragic mind, circumstance is sanctified merely by taking place, as if under necessity. How blasphemous its absence would be. The premise that limitation, or pain, is the basis of happiness is “the appalling logic of joy.” The wound of “Time's irremediable joy” has become Warren's most lyric subject. The circumstantial and forgetful imagination of time itself is his harsh, irreplaceable muse.6

Warren's sensibility flames at moments to a bluey ethereality (“Platonic”), then subsides, grows red or golden, moted, storied. Usually it is the opposite of bleached, static, beached, Platonic. This poet lives, “Man lives,” by images that “Lean at us from the world's wall, and Time's.” For him, nothing redeems life so much as a heroic appreciation of it. Earlier he had noted (I quote from Brother to Dragons) how we need to

                                                                                lift our eyes up
To whatever liberating perspective,
Icy and pure, the wild heart may horizonward command,
… the glimmering night scene under
The incalculable starlight serves
As an image of lethal purity—
Infatuate glitter of a land of Platonic ice.

But better to be an infatuate (so the later, tragic Warren implies) of the sun-touched earth itself: “Tell me a story … The name of the story will be Time.”

If the earlier Warren thought this too (he thought many things, contrariwise), he lacked muscled conviction; his celebrations trembled in his throat. Even where incident is vivid, as in “The Ballad of Billie Potts” and “Dark Night of the Soul,” its nakedness is dressed in rhymed commentary, and a potent summation seems to be the real concern. By and large, action and scene were pretexts for hanging language, sentiment, reflection, and homiletics. Past incidents represented not the unforeseen, but the seen again; they were still unexhausted only as packets of old seed are, seed that will never be planted. An unusually beautiful and intriguing example is this stanza from “What Was the Promise that Smiled from the Maples at Evening”:

What was the promise when, after the last light had died,
Children gravely, down walks, in spring dark, under maples, drew
Trains of shoe boxes, empty, with windows, with candles inside,
Going chuck-chuck, and blowing for crossings, lonely, oo-oo?
But on impulse you fled, and they called, called across the dark lawn,
Long calling your name, who now lay in the darkness to hide,
While the sad little trains glimmer on under maples, and on.

This is as sealed off as it is well turned. A set piece, it is like a slide slotted into a viewer. Nothing could be more different from Warren's later, heroic mode and still be narrative. This curious episode of childhood delicately radiates disturbing suggestions, not least of the imagination's perverse abandonments of its own creations (and in the early volumes Warren's own imagination was precisely that restive); solipsism, pride, furtiveness, anarchy, and sadness characterize the gravely dreaming child. Even so, the stanza is like a wingbacked armchair; it invites only a contemplative repose. Abandoned by the next stanza as the shoebox train is by the impulsive child, it remains an isolated, melancholy little happening. Nothing ever came of it, unless it was the poet's early poetry.

In the later work, story is less an occasion for swelling language with mood, mood with music and design, than a joy of experience (“This is happening. / This is happiness”) or a puzzle that may perhaps still be resolved, if only questioned hard enough, attacked with an unknotting bravery or anguish. The verse is now all passional engagement, even as it urges it: “Continue to walk in the world.”7 There are quick, fluid interchanges between objects and sensations, actions and thoughts. Life is viewed not as a melancholy entrapment, but as a call for the ancient arete (“virtue”; “courage”; a natural yet spectacular ability, in W. R. Johnson's words, “to fulfill one's special function, to exercise one's gifts and thereby become and be oneself”).8 Warren had been raised on stories—those told, for instance, by his grandfather of legend-provoking name, Gabriel Telemachus Penn, a cavalry captain and hangman of bushwhackers; he had caught fatal tales of courage, defeat, and glory out of the Southern auricular air. Now he began to breathe living story; he himself was the story, and fate was the even now and yet to be, more momentous than sealed.

The empowering incident need be nothing more than a narrative bloodspot—a moment fraught with temporal dynamics, instinct with a potential for discovery, even transfiguration. For example, on the one hand not much happens in “Heart of Autumn” and on the other what takes place is astonishing, a Dionysian metamorphosis. A beginning: the speaker looks with longing at wild geese flying. A middle: he reflects on the long pathlessness of human life. An end: he assumes a sublime destiny at last, his new miraculous powerful body lifting off toward sunset. It ought not to work, but so skillful is the transition, so matter of fact the transformation, so perfect and terrible a flowering of the desire for destiny, that it seems real beyond hallucination. It just is. The actual sorrow and the imaginable joy of being alive, alive to die, are sharply evoked. Nothing more could be wanted. Nor does the poem wait until the close to become an action; something is already happening at the start, where the wind escapes an article: “Wind finds the northwest gap, fall comes.”9

As intimated earlier, once Warren concentrated on the “tang of actuality,” once his poetry bore the stings of empirical narrative, his language grew sparer and swifter and harder. “Story” kept him from heaping on sickly grandiloquence, and it incited an enactive, line-tormented syntax. The union of the freer yet firmer manner with the drama of incident and “anguished” lineation made possible a signature of struggle, bravery, passion, and quest, and added up to the poem as a “vital image.” In his best work the ready prose of life and his own strenuous passion, limiting circumstance and lyrical feeling, mingle in a live reaction. Each poem is unique with an individual, profound experience, and each is held up to our inspection like some unnameable river creature luminously trapped in a jar. When Warren knew what his earlier random loosened line had been seeking, knew how to tighten it with his metrical training, knew what his line-breaks like cracked kindling were for, he knew what he was for: he became a true poet.

It was long before Warren could step simply, humbly, if at the same time ambitiously out of his Fugitive cloud of glorious rhetoric. We find Leonard Casper, in a review of Promises, already warming to an “abandonment of anonymity,” but until Audubon the man behind the poet remained hidden in a sort of verbal high-shine. His medium was so self-conscious it sealed everything off as “verse.” The speaker of the poems was more a verbal organism, more an ephebe of the sublime, that what Monroe K. Spears was later to call him (in The Sewanee Review, Spring 1970)—a “representative man.” Now more “representative” than anonymous, though more heroic “image of man” than representative, Warren had first to learn to approach himself with “curiosity and communicativeness,” in Michael Hofmann's words,10 before he could even begin to edge toward and benefit from the new frankness in postwar poetry. Perhaps he had also to like himself a little more, to forgive himself still more his “failures” and “folly.” (His unhappy first marriage, his first wife's mental illness, may have helped impel him to an Eliotic obliqueness.)

Perhaps he had also to be persuaded that the novel would never satisfy his tragic passion for inwardness and ultimacy. Fine schooling though his fiction was for the eventual narrative tempering of his poems, solid performances that they are (in one sense all too solid), they yet delayed his creative fulfillment; they proved a hairshirt to his poetic sensibility. As the poetry is about the hunger for happiness, so the fiction is about moral failure and a grim redemption, the tone a settled drizzle of self-disapproval.11 “The awful responsibility of Time,” a little more virtue … the message dies of joylessness, inanition. Nor is there any genius of conception or attack. A Faulkner pitches us toward his “subject” with a tricky imaginative arm and the meaning, at least the poetry, is the alarmed getting-there; a Eudora Welty, a Flannery O'Connor, a James Agee transports us hardly less bewitchingly. But on much the same country road Warren offers mostly a prosaic, foot-on-the-bumper presentation. Despite occasional virtuoso passages of description (in All The King's Men particularly), there is no thrill of passage.12

The aim of the film director in Warren's novel Flood (1964) is “to give the impression of the mysterious inwardness of life, not the obvious plottiness”; but though the fiction of other writers may have realized this goal (in The New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1980, Warren notes in Welty the “something” that “on occasion seems to take the place of plot, a flow of feeling”), Warren's own novels, save for the Lawrentian sexual romance Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), seem too disgruntled to attempt it. An inwardness of which event and circumstance, character and speech, form the living organs eluded him—became the missing all. Fiction in his hands remained a relative thing, he wanted the lyrical and the absolute. He wanted himself: “There's a lot of things you don't notice in town,” Lucille Christian remarks in Warren's first novel, Night Rider (1939), “… yourself, for instance. … when I was in St. Louis … I did things, and I never knew why.” It was this not knowing that seemed to drive Warren out of the city of the novel into the country of poetry,13 which he entered as a postlapsarian Adam who, though he had eaten of the apple, sought, all the same, an earthly peace.

Whereas Warren's novels pass the hat of joy among unlikely crowds, his poetry is sometimes the spruce-fragrant promise of what Rousseau and Wordsworth called the sentiment of being (if in Warren usually an invalidated promise). In the poems, the real begins where the last concrete walk gives out and the smart-weed crawls in the cracks (“The Mad Druggist”). Soul-stillness increases with each step away from the human clot, the human swarm. Tramps (the one in the story “Blackberry Winter” and those in the poems “Dark Night of the Soul” and “Convergences”)—ornery, lone-wolf tramps—know best. To move “past contumely of stars or insolent indifference of the dark air,” to achieve that distance from the human, would be “awfulness of joy.” Or so bitterness prompts. Better yet, because still worlded, would be to breathe “with the rhythm of the stars.” Nature at least is grand and open, not clenched upon the hollow of itself like a man making his way among men. So it was that Warren, solitary on vertiginous cliffs of verse, began to assume postures of tragic expostulation and prayer.

His costly impulse to write fiction nearly exhausted, his self-esteem improving, and the internal history of modern poetry working to pry him loose from verse habits that were bad for him (frigid impersonality, judgmental writing, smart irony, royal phrasing, rhyme), Warren was at last ready to take up his own life, or something like it, with the inwardness that (as he noted in The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1953) “is the central fact of poetry.” Inwardness meant “the heart,” to him an unembarrassing, essential phrase. It meant becoming transparent to the beautiful hieroglyphs surrounding and entangling us at each moment (just to watch a leaf fall, suggested the film director, ought to be enough). It meant a constant delicate and strenuous appraisal of the adequacy of existence for “total reverence.”

Selected Poems: 1923-1975 (since followed by Now and Then, Being Here, Rumor Verified, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce) forms an implicit story of a writer's growth into existential humility, bravery, awe. How remarkable it is that a poet already much lauded at sixty should nonetheless have set out to become an even stronger and truer poet, almost as if he thought he had still to write a single worthy line. Soon he would be seventy. His passion for greatness grew. Yes, seventy! His courage doubled. Then he was seventy and the first masterpieces had come.

Beginning with Audubon, Warren put to his talent hard new demands of the sort that alone makes greatness possible. And how much, once it was written, his poetry appeared needed. For who else could match his capacity for loving the world and enduring the brunt of experience, his virile awareness of limits and his “rage” (a favorite and even overworked word) to know them in joy? He might almost have perceived a tremendous gap in American poetry and set out to fill it, so happily did his work meet our deficiencies. Robert Lowell was then the reigning American poet, our exemplary nihilist, a focus even so for our hero worship, the nihilist as hero. Then John Ashbery ambled along with his ironically smiling indifferent grace. Dizzying possibility: Was this the new Poet? No sooner had many begun to think so (for to most, Warren's witching transformation was still in the shadows) than James Merrill sprang on us his trilogy, huge section by section, as if opening to a jaded public the doors of a laboratory still smoking and blinking with magnesium glare after an extravagant experiment. But greatly as one admired these poets, something was yet missing. Of poetry Lowell made a revelation of nonbeing, Merrill of higher realms, Ashbery of the mystery still possible to language; but where was the poetry of earthly existence itself? Who mirrored with passion the world's body? Where was the poet as weighty as these others but their coarse and necessary complement, the poet writing with brains, bones, heart, sex and courting in the American landscape original moments of being? Philip Levine, then Louise Glück, then Carolyn Forché would prove as pained and passionate, Ashbery at once as prosaic and extravagant, A. R. Ammons as lucidly grand and impersonal; but none has rivaled Warren's broad normality and balance, his nerve for both necessity and largeness.

So Warren is, if not the Poet,14 a poet of whom we have need. He has been candid about the terror in his heart, but jubilation has coursed in his limbs. He takes us back to Yeats and Synge and “all that heightens the emotions by contrast, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy.” With his great question concerning the adequacy of existence for the total reverence of the heart, he has made determined casts into memory, the slipstream of the now, dream, the heart, Truth, to find whatever joy, fate, blessedness, or nightmare awaits him. His fears have been great, but his capacity for admitting and confronting them has been quickening, and his yearning has never abated. Here is a poet who has found the right relation (right for him and in general seemingly right) between struggle and submission, glory and truth, nobility and self-knowledge, joy and pain, quest and common sense, art and experience: a relation of strong and poignant accord. There are other ways to be a writer of rank, but for Warren perhaps only the one. His hardihood before the truth, his moral and aesthetic respect for realistic narrative, his happy discovery of Audubon, his hunger for beauty and glory—all combined to propose greatness; and as he became older he had more reason than ever to honor his love of existence and more need to make his art its salvation. The way was opened. He continues along it.


  1. Harold Bloom, reviewing Selected Poems: 1923-1975 in The New Republic (November 20, 1976, p. 30), declares that “Warren's greatness has been palpable at least since his three previous books, Incarnations, Audubon and Or Else.” And J. D. McClatchy, reviewing the same volume in Poetry 131 (December 1977): 169-175, and dubbing Audubon “one of the best long poems ever written by an American,” honors Incarnations as “transitional,” finding in it “the bold intellectual and sensuous command that has marked his poetry since that time.”

  2. Quoted by Christopher Middleton in “Ideas about Voice in Poetry,” PN Review 9, no. 6 (1983): 15-18. In speaking of “the prattle of everyday speech” that often spills over into poetry, of “expressions linguistic but voiceless,” Middleton names part of what is objectionable in Warren's early volumes.

  3. The habit of too hastily taking charge may be traced back to Warren's poetic schooling. In his overgenerous but (characteristically) highly intelligent review of Warren's Thirty-Six Poems (Poetry 48 [April 1936]:37-41), Morton Zabel praised Warren for “growing beyond … the formidable influences” that supervised “his studious youthful efforts.” “To belong to the Fugitives was one of the best fortunes that could befall, in America at that moment, any young poet interested in craft and its uses. But schools of style offer as much risk as benefit; a premature forcing of the intellectual manner, while essentially more profitable than the flaccid impressionism encouraged among most beginners, can breed as deluding and pretentious an ambition in a poet as the visionary arrogance or lyric softness which it aims to correct.” Zabel goes on to convict Warren of refracting pathos through “elaborate precosity”; of the “strenuous effort” to make phrases “encompass more than their context allows”; of “forcing a poetic theme with too many stimulants”—in short, of a fussily intellectual manner, “elaborate subterfuges and disguises.”

  4. “He Prayeth Best Who Loveth Best,” American Poetry Review 8 (January/February 1979): 4-7. Smith further remarks, I think with perfect rightness, that “we have no poet truer to a comprehensive, sustained evocation of the nature of existence.”

  5. The prominence and importance of narrative in Warren's recent poetry have been stressed by a number of critics, including the present writer (“Greatness and Robert Penn Warren,” Sewanee Review 89 [Summer 1981]: 332-346). Cleanth Brooks addresses the matter in “Episode and Anecdote in the Poetry of Robert Penn Warren” (Yale Review 70 [Summer 1981]: 551-567); James R. Justus stresses it in The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981). Back in 1969, George Core, in his essay “In the Heart's Ambiguity: Robert Penn Warren as Poet” (Mississippi Quarterly 22 [Fall 1969]: 313-326), aptly applied to Warren's own poetry the following words from Warren's essay “Melville's Poems”: “The lyric mood, or unmoored emotion, or abstraction, was not for him; his feelings responded to, and his imagination took fire from the collisions and tensions of experience as life offered specific, realistic images of them.” In fact, as the date even of Core's piece begins to suggest, Warren has long been praised for his “realistic” textures. In “Robert Penn Warren: The Drama of the Past,” a review of Selected Poems: 1923-1966 (New Republic, November 26, 1966, pp. 16-18) John Wain was already finding that “Mr. Warren's gift, in poetry, is mainly autobiographical and descriptive … his craft shows to best advantage when he is bringing a scene before our eyes with sure, deft touches of detail. And the scenes he paints best of all are from memory”—words, however, a good deal truer of Warren's subsequent poems. Still earlier, M. L. Rosenthal, in “Robert Penn Warren's Poetry” (South Atlantic Quarterly 62 [Autumn 1963]: 499-507), concluded that “a dramatic or narrative structure is almost always necessary to enable Mr. Warren to realize his poem … It is in the concrete evocation of scene and atmosphere that Mr. Warren excels.”

  6. M. M. Bakhtin notes in “Epic and Novel” (The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981], p. 7): “In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks the renovation of all other genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness.” In poetry the result—as in The Waste Land and many of Warren's poems—is “a novelized poem.” Speaking of his own work, Warren says: “There's been some kind of cross-fertilization. And more and more since I quit writing stories. Even in poems as old as those in Promises, the germ is mostly anecdotal.” See Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950-1978, ed. Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 16.

  7. Warren might have been writing of himself when he said of David Bottoms that “he is temperamentally a realist. In his vision the actual world is not transformed but illuminated, and in his language the tang of actuality whets his compelling rhythms. Of few can this be said.” Press release, Academy of American Poets, April 20, 1979.

  8. W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 57.

  9. By contrast, the celebrated early anthology piece “Bearded Oaks” may contain “adumbrative narrative,” as James R. Justus says, but, as he adds, here “meditation replaces action”: “The oaks, how subtle and marine, / Bearded, and all the layered light / Above them swims (in Selected Poems: 1923-1943, rpt. in Selected Poems: 1923-1975 [New York: Random House, 1975], p. 308). This is lovely stasis and promises more of the same. Nothing dynamic disturbs the time. The language is free to be music, pattern, ritual.

    Comparing this poem with the recent “Trying to Tell You Something,” Stanley Plumly, in his review “Warren Selected,” noted the “obvious and important difference of the abstracted passion of the one poem and the passionate inquiry of the other … ‘Bearded Oaks’ ruminates its philosophical position, while ‘Trying to Tell You Something’ directly dramatizes its position.” See Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Gray (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 133.

  10. In PN Review 9, no. 6 (1983): 57-59, Hofmann speaks of Warren as approaching himself thus in Rumor Verified and adds that he is nonetheless “as far removed from self-pity as it is possible to be.”

    Hofmann associates Warren with Berryman and Lowell admiringly: “When Berryman published His Toy, His Dream, His Rest on his fifty-fourth birthday, Lowell wrote to him, ‘What I like is your ease in getting out everything—I mean everything in your experience, thought, personality etc. mills thru the poetry. I think age helps; but most poets are dwindled by age. Like you I want to go out walking.’ Robert Penn Warren, older by a decade than Berryman and Lowell, is still getting out everything, is still walking.”

    Exceptions like Hofmann apart, it would still seem true that “Robert Penn Warren's reputation … has never really penetrated to England,” though it was an applauding Englishman, John Wain, who said it.

  11. Some of Warren's protagonists are mean-proud, smarting, and ungenerous, and strangle the poet in him. As early as 1944 (Saturday Review, May 20, 5 pp. 10-11), John Crowe Ransom complained of this, concluding, “I wish we had a way of holding this poet, whose verse is so beautiful when it is at his own height of expression, to a level no lower than this height.”

  12. The novels are, of course, distinguished in their several ways and degrees. But in a strict reckoning they fail of greatness. F. R. Leavis stated the proper criteria justly if clumsily: “The major novelists [are those] who count … in the sense that they not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but they are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life” (The Great Tradition [Garden City: Doubleday, 1954], p. 10).

  13. Significantly, Meet Me in the Green Glen, his first novel after Audubon, is set in an isolated rural home, till city forces send the hero to the deathchair, the heroine to an asylum.

  14. Yet Stanley Plumly said of Warren (in his review “Warren Selected”) that, despite “terrifically bad lines,” he has become, “in the sum, poem by selected poem,” “our great poet” (Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Gray [Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1980], p. 133). And Harold Bloom, also in a review of Selected Poems: 1923-1975, remarked: “Our nation, necessarily slow to recognize its own sublimities, again has a living poet comparable in power to Stevens or to Frost” (New Republic, November 20, 1976, p. 30).

Harold Bloom (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “Sunset Hawk: Warren’s Poetry and Tradition.” In A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Robert Penn Warren, edited by Walter B. Edgar, pp. 59-79. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Bloom probes Warren's place within, and development of, the American poetic tradition.]

The beginning is like a god which as long as it dwells among men saves all things.

—Plato, Laws 775

Where can an authentic poet begin again, when clearly the past has ceased to throw its illumination upon the future? Robert Penn Warren's poetry spans nearly sixty years, from “Pondy Woods” to his long poem upon Chief Joseph, against whom the United States fought its last serious Indian war. No final perspective is possible upon a strong poet whose own wars are far from over. I have been reading Warren's poetry for thirty years, since I first came to Yale, but only in the second half of that period have I read him with the deep absorption that his poetry demands and rewards. Before the publication of Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968, I would have based my judgment of Warren's aesthetic eminence primarily upon his most ambitious novels, All the King's Men and World Enough and Time. The poetry seemed distinguished, yet overshadowed by Eliot, and perhaps of less intrinsic interest than the best poems of Ransom and Tate. But from Incarnations on, without a break, Warren consciously has taken on his full power over language and the world of the senses. In his varied achievement, his poetry now asserts the highest claims upon us.

Incarnations is an extraordinary book, and so it may be arbitrary to single out just one poem, but I still remember the shock with which I first read its strongest poem, “The Leaf.” Few moments in the varied history of the American Sublime match Warren's sudden capture of that mode:

Near the nesting place of the hawk, among
Snag-rock, high on the cliff, I have seen
The clutter of annual bones of hare, vole, bird, white
As chalk from sun and season, frail
As the dry grass stem. On that
High place of stone I have lain down, the sun
Beat, the small exacerbation
Of dry bones was what my back, shirtless and bare, knew. I saw
The hawk shudder in the high sky, he shudders
To hold position in the blazing wind, in relation to
The firmament, he shudders and the world is a metaphor, his eye
Sees, white, the flicker of hare-scut, the movement of vole.

It may be gratuitous, but I am tempted to find, just here, a textual point of crossing, the place Warren's poetry turned about, on his quest for an ultimate strength. Certainly his stance, style, and thematics are different, in and after this passage through to the Sublime. “This is the place,” Warren had written earlier in the poem, adding: “To this spot I bring my grief.” His grief, as we might expect from so experiential and dramatic a writer, doubtless presented itself to him as temporal guilt. But poetry is a mediated mode of expression, in which poems are mediated primarily by other poems. I will read Warren's guilt in “The Leaf” as a literary anxiety, appropriate to a poem's inescapable dilemma, which is that it must treat literal anguish as being figurative, in order to find appropriate figuration that would justify yet another poem. Warren actually may have lain down on that high place of stone, but the actuality matters only as another order or degree of trope. “The Leaf” is a crisis poem of a very traditional kind, and in that kind the crisis concerns the fate of poetic voice, in a very precise sense of voice. The sense is American, though the tradition of the crisis poem is biblical in its origins, and British in its major developments. Like his poetic father, Eliot, Warren rehearses the crisis poem's origins, but more even than Eliot, Warren develops an acutely American sense of poetic voice. “The Leaf” occupies a place in Warren's canon analogous to the place of Ash Wednesday in Eliot's work, but with an American difference necessarily more emphasized in Warren.

Rather than qualify that “necessarily” I would emphasize its double aspect: historical and personal. Both the historical necessity and the personal modification are agonistic. The agon, whether with tradition or with Eliot as tradition's contemporary representative, is ambivalent in Warren, but a loving struggle is not less a struggle. When Warren writes “my tongue / Was like a dry leaf in my mouth,” he is writing Eliot's language, and so the tongue still is not quite his own. Incarnations has two epigraphs, the first being the opening of Nehemiah 5:5, when the people say to Nehemiah: “Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren.” Warren omits the remainder of the verse, which concludes: “for other men have our lands and our vineyards.” The context is the rebuilding of Jerusalem, after the return from exile in Babylon. Incarnations' other epigraph is the heroic defiance of John Henry in his ballad: “A man ain't nuthin but a man”—which of course is less an expression of limitation than an assertion of individuality against overwhelming force. The epigraphs point to the secret plot of Incarnations, culminating in “The Leaf.” Let us call the plot “deferred originality,” and with that calling return to everything problematic in the poem. Here is its extraordinary first section:

Here the fig lets down the leaf, the leaf
Of the fig five fingers has, the fingers
Are broad, spatulate, stupid,
Ill-formed, and innocent—but of a hand, and the hand,
To hide me from the blaze of the wide world, drops,
Shamefast, down. I am
What is to be concealed. I lurk
In the shadow of the fig. Stop.
Go no further. This is the place.
To this spot I bring my grief.
Human grief is the obscenity to be hidden by the leaf.

Warren portrays himself as Adam just after the Fall, with partial reference to earlier lyrics about the fig in the first sequence of Incarnations, a sequence concluding in “The Leaf.” Whether by intuition or by acquired knowledge, Warren seems to have a sense of the ancient Jewish tradition that identified the forbidden fruit with the fig rather than the grape or apple of paradise (etrog). Only the fig tree therefore granted Adam permission to take of its leaves when he sought to cover himself. Warren concentrates upon a single leaf, more an emblem or trope of voice than of sexuality. In the second lyric of the “Island of Summer” sequence that closes with the crucial poem called “The Leaf,” Warren introduces the trope as a version of death:

                                                                                                    … a single
Leaf the rest screens, but through it, light
Burns, and for the fig's bliss
The sun dies …

The image of the leaf resumes in the sardonic poem bearing the long and splendid title: “Paul Valéry Stood on the Cliff and Confronted the Furious Energies of Nature.” Whether Warren triumphs over the formidable seer of the marine cemetery is perhaps questionable, but we are left with a vivid critique of a transcendental consciousness:

He sways high against the blue sky,
                    While in the bright intricacies
                    Of wind, his mind, like a leaf,
                    Turns. In the sun, it glitters.

Warren would say that this is a disincarnation, and to it he opposes a further lyric in his sequence:

Where purples now the fig, flame in
          Its inmost flesh, a leaf hangs
          Down, and on it, gull-droppings, white
          As chalk, show, for the sun has
Burned all white, for the sun, it would
          Burn our bones to chalk—yes, keep
          Them covered, oh flesh, oh sweet
          Integument, oh frail, depart not
And leave me thus exposed, like Truth.

Fig, flame, flesh, leaf, and sun are drawn together here into the dark intricacy that is an incarnation, the truth that is the body of death. With this as prelude, we are ready to return to “The Leaf” as Warren's great poem of the threshold, of a crossing over into his own image of voice. To see how drastic a swerve into originality is made here from the start, we have to recall something of the fiction of the leaves in Western poetry. I've written about this extensively, in A Map of Misreading and the more recent The Breaking of the Vessels, and don't wish to repeat here the long train of transumptions that holds together the history of this conceptual image from Homer and the Bible through Virgil, Dante, Spenser, and Milton on to Shelley, Whitman, and Wallace Stevens. Warren's fiction of the leaf is a baroque figuration, in a very different tradition. Unlike the transumptive line, Warren does not seek an ellipsis of further figuration. Most simply, Stevens does; Stevens wants the readers of “The Rock” or “The Course of a Particular” to believe that the fiction of the leaves attains a completion in those poems. This is the Romantic and Emersonian credence that Warren refuses, in favor of a more Eliotic vision of tradition and the individual talent. Hence Warren's moral vocabulary of shame and guilt, or should we call it rather his moral refusal to acknowledge that poetry refuses the distinction between shame culture and guilt culture? To refuse that distinction is to attempt an individual closure to tradition; to accept it, as Warren does, is to affirm that one's role is to extend tradition, to hold it open for a community of others. Warren's fundamental postulates, however tempered by skepticism, are biblical and Classical, but his rhetoric and his poetic dilemmas are High Romantic. He thus repeats the fundamental conflicts of his precursor Eliot, whose actual rhetorical art stemmed from Whitman and Tennyson, and not from more baroque sensibilities. Warren's dilemmas in some ways are both simpler and harsher than Eliot's. A shamanistic intensity, a sense of the abruptness of poetic force more suitable to Yeats or Hart Crane than to Eliot, somehow has to be reconciled with a cultural sense that demands rational restraints and the personal acceptance of historical guilt.

The handlike leaf of the fig has fingers that are “broad, spatulate, stupid, / Ill-formed, and innocent,” which is pretty well Warren's judgment upon the Adamic condition, a judgment not exactly Emersonian. On what basis are we to accept Warren's peculiarly harsh line: “Human grief is the obscenity to be hidden by the leaf,” unless the grief indeed is merely the poet's, any poet's, anxious resentment as poet in regard to the almost organic sadness of poetic origins? I am not under the illusion that Warren would accept this reading, but I set aside here my personal reverence for the man and my critical worship of the poet in order to enter again that area of grief that no strong poet will acknowledge as a poet. As I keep discovering, this is not enchanted ground upon which I am driven, doubtless obsessively, to trespass. But I would cite here a touch of external evidence of the most persuasive because most developmental kind. In the decade 1943-1953, when he wrote his most accomplished novels, All the King's Men and World Enough and Time, Warren's poetry simply stopped. So fecund an imagination does not cease from poetry only because its energies are caught up by the novel. As with Stevens' silence between 1924 and 1934, we have a very problematic gap in a major poetic career, and later in this essay I intend to return to Warren's poetic silence.

In my circular way I have come back to the Sublime second section of “The Leaf,” and to the shock of my personal conversion to Warren when I first read the poem in 1969. Ransom and Tate were poets of enormous talent, but not exactly visionaries who favored shamanistic symbolic acts in their work, despite Tate's troubled relation to the primal exuberance of Hart Crane's poetry. Any close reader of Warren's poetry in 1969 would have known that the flight of hawks meant a great deal to him, but even that was hardly adequate preparation for the hawk's shudder in “The Leaf.” In Warren's earliest book, Thirty-Six Poems (1935), there is a remarkable sequence, “Kentucky Mountain Farm,” which I continue to hope he will reprint entire in his next Selected Poems. Section VI, “Watershed,” not now available in print, has a memorable and crucially prophetic image: “The sunset hawk now rides / The tall light up the climbing deep of air.” While men sleep, the hawk flies on in the night, scanning a landscape of disappearances with “gold eyes” that make all shrivelings reappear. This sunset hawk, first a vision in boyhood, keeps returning in Warren's poems. In the still relatively early “To a Friend Parting,” the inadequacy of “the said, the unsaid” is juxtaposed to seeing “The hawk tower, his wings the light take,” an emblem of certainty in pride and honor. Perhaps it was the absence of such emblems in his confrontation of reality that stopped Warren's poetry in the decade 1943-1953.

Whatever the cause of his silence in verse, it seems significant that Promises: Poems 1954-1956 opens with an address to the poet's infant daughter that culminates in a return of the hawk image. Viewing the isolated spot to which he has brought his daughter, Warren celebrates “the hawk-hung delight / Of distance unspoiled and bright space spilled.” In “Tale of Time: Poems 1960-1966,” he explicitly compares “hawk shadow” with “that fugitive thought which I can find no word for,” or what we might call the poetry that would begin anew when he wrote Incarnations. I quote again the central vision from the second section of “The Leaf,” but extending the quotation now to the entire section:

We have undergone ourselves, therefore
What more is to be done for Truth's sake? I
Have watched the deployment of ants, I
Have conferred with the flaming mullet in a deep place.
Near the nesting place of the hawk, among
Snag-rock, high on the cliff, I have seen
The clutter of annual bones, of hare, vole, bird, white
As chalk from sun and season, frail
As the dry grass stem. On that
High place of stone I have lain down, the sun
Beat, the small exacerbation
Of dry bones was what my back, shirtless and bare, knew. I saw
The hawk shudder in the high sky, he shudders
To hold position in the blazing wind, in relation to
The firmament, he shudders and the world is a metaphor, his eye
Sees, white, the flicker of hare-scut, the movement of vole.
Distance is nothing, there is no solution, I
Have opened my mouth to the wind of the world like wine, I wanted
To taste what the world is, wind dried up
The live saliva of my tongue, my tongue
Was like a dry leaf in my mouth.
Destiny is what you experience, that
Is its name and definition, and is your name, for
The wide world lets down the hand in shame:
Here is the human shadow, there, of the wide world, the flame.

The poet offers himself here not to the hawks but to the hawk's shudder and the hawk's vision, and so to what shudder and vision incarnate, a stance or holding of position. That stance casts out shame even as it accepts guilt. That Warren practices a private ritual is palpable, even though we could only guess at the ritual until he wrote and published the extraordinary long autobiographical “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth” that is the glory of Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978. Although the later poem is finer even than “The Leaf,” it is not as pivotal, because it focuses on the young Warren alone, and not on the agon with forebears. What “The Leaf” discovers, with a clarity not often matched in our poetry, is the necessity of mediation despite the poet's longing for an unmediated relation between his mouth and the wind of the world. Both these terms, as Warren well knows, are Shelley's, a poet not much to Warren's taste, and so his treatment of the terms submits them to the stylistic cosmos of Eliot: “wind dried up / The live saliva of my tongue, my tongue / Was like a dry leaf in my mouth.” We recognize that this is the Waste Land, and not an Italy waiting for the Revolution. But the revelation that comes is not much more Eliotic than it is Shelleyan:

The world is fruitful. In this heat
The plum, black yet bough-bound, bursts, and the gold ooze is,
Of bees, joy, the gold ooze has striven
Outward, it wants again to be of
The goldness of air and—blessedly—innocent. The grape
Weakens at the juncture of the stem. The world
Is fruitful, and I, too,
In that I am the father
Of my father's father's father. I,
Of my father, have set the teeth on edge. But
By what grape? I have cried out in the night.
From a further garden, from the shade of another tree,
My father's voice, in the moment when the cicada
                              ceases, has called to me.

“The moment when the cicada / ceases” deliberately alludes to Eliot's “not the cicada” in “What the Thunder Said”; but the prophetic trope, in its reversal, overcomes the rhetoric of The Waste Land. There is a curious ambiguity as to whose is the father's voice that calls out this ambivalent blessing:

The voice blesses me for the only
Gift I have given: teeth set on edge.
In the momentary silence of the cicada,
I can hear the appalling speed,
In space beyond stars, of
Light. It is
A sound like wind.

It is Warren's gift, by the reversal of the influence process, that has set Eliot's teeth on edge. Which is to say, it is Warren's rhetorical strength to have converted the Eliotic trope of orthodoxy, the light, into the appalling speed that sounds the wind of time, for time is Warren's trope, the center of his poetics. The hawk shudders to hold position in the blazing wind of time, and so transforms the world into a temporal metaphor. Warren's merger of identity with the hawk's shudder affirms the pride of his own stance and theme, the unforgiving shudder of poetic time. I want to hold on to Warren's vision of the hawk in order to trace something of the development of his poetry from Incarnations on to this moment. If my procedure is arbitrary, I defend it by the persistence of this vision, or something near to it, throughout his work.

Warren's best volume, Or Else—Poem/Poems 1968-1974, ends with an extraordinary poem bearing the curious title, “A Problem in Spatial Composition.” The first section composes the space, a sunset through a high window, an eternity that is always beyond, a Sublime from which we are detached, as is traditional. But this is Warren setting us up for his original power in the second section and the closure in a single line of his third:

While out of the green, up-shining ramshackle of leaf, set
In the lower right foreground, the stub
Of a great tree, gaunt-blasted and black, thrusts.
                                                                                                                                                      A single
Arm jags upward, higher goes, and in that perspective, higher
Than even the dream-blue of distance that is
          The mountain.
Stabs, black, at the infinite saffron of sky.
All is ready.
                                                                      The hawk,
Entering the composition at the upper left frame
Of the window, glides,
In the pellucid ease of thought and at
His breathless angle,
          Breaks speed.
                                                  Hangs with a slight lift and hover.
                                                                                                                        Makes contact.
The hawk perches on the topmost, indicative tip of
The bough's sharp black and skinny jag skyward.
The hawk, in an eyeblink, is gone.

This a different kind of hawk's vision, and shall we not call it a deliberate and triumphant figuration for the poet's new style? “The hawk, / … glides, / In the pellucid ease of thought and at / His breathless angle, / Down.” As the hawk breaks speed and hovers, he “makes contact,” giving us a trope that stands, part for whole, for the tense power of Warren's mature art: “The hawk perches on the topmost, indicative tip of / The bough's sharp black and skinny jag skyward.” The emphasis is upon the immanent thrust of the natural object, rather than its transcendent possibilities. Another emphasis, as characteristic of Warren, is the temporal swiftness of this fiction of duration, or poem—gone in an eyeblink.

In 1975, Warren wrote a group of poems to form the first section of his Selected Poems: 1923-1975. The second of these poems, “Evening Hawk,” is surely one of his dozen or so lyric masterpieces, a culmination of forty years of his art:

From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak's black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes.
                                                                                His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.
The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.
Look! look! he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.
                                                                                Long now,
The last thrush is still, the last bat
Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.
If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
The earth grind on its axis, or history
Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.

The hawk's motion is that of a scythe reaping time, but Warren has learned more than his distance from the hawk's state of being. I know no single line in him grander than the beautifully oxymoronic “The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.” What is being harvested is our fault, and yet that mistake appears as golden grain. When the poet sublimely cries “Look! look!” to us, I do not hear a Yeatsian exultation, but rather an acceptance of a vision that will forgive us nothing, and yet does not rejoice in that stance. Emerson, Warren once snapped in a now notorious poem, “had forgiven God everything,” which is true enough, since Emerson sensibly had forgiven himself everything, and God was identical with what was oldest in Emerson himself. Warren goes on forgiving God, and himself, nothing, and implies this is the only way to love God or the self. One does not imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson invoking the flight of a hawk as an image of the truth, but the poets of his tradition—notably Whitman, Stevens, and Hart Crane—have their own way of coming to terms with such an image. But, to Emersonians, the hawk is firmly part of Nature, of the Not-Me. Warren's trespasses upon a near-identity with the hawk clearly are no part of that American tradition.

Warren is not interested in similitudes when he achieves a Sublime vision, but rather in identifying with some aspect of the truth, however severely he indicates his own distance from the truth. I am not much interested in rehearsing Warren's polemic against Emerson because I voted for Emerson a long time ago, and my love for Warren's poetry is therefore against the grain. As I wrote once, I read Warren's poetry with a shudder that is simultaneously spiritual revulsion and total aesthetic satisfaction, a shudder that only Yeats also evokes for me in this century.

Much in what is problematic in Warren's hawk poems was clarified permanently by “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth” in Now and Then, the poem in which Warren himself seems to have arrived at a full awareness of his creative obsession. Yet the poem, perhaps at the price of so full a knowing, is in many ways at variance with Warren's other hawk visions. Beginning with the boy hunter's confrontation of the hawk's gaze (“Gold eyes, unforgiving, for they, like God, see all”), Warren moves rapidly past the miraculous shot to center upon his clay-burlap stuffed hawk, mounted in his room on a bookshelf of the poets and of Augustine, set over them as an emblem of the boy's own ambitions. Vividly as this is portrayed, it is less memorable than Warren's later return to the emblem, and his placing of the hawk upon a pyre:

Flame flared. Feathers first, and I flinched, then stood
As the steel wire warped red to defend
The shape designed godly for air. But
It fell with the mass, and I
Did not wait.
What left
To do but walk in the dark, and no stars?

What is not consumed is the ecstasy of confrontation, the memory of the encounter shared with the hawk:

Some dreams come true, some no.
But I've waked in the night to see
High in the late and uncurdled silver of summer
The pale vortex appear once again—and you come
And always the rifle swings up, though with
The weightlessness now of dream,
The old.30-30 that knows
How to bind us in air-blood and earth-blood together
In our commensurate fate,
Whose name is a name beyond joy.

The vortex is what matters, and part of the point is surely that the stuffed hawk was merely text, while the vortex was the truth, the fate beyond joy but also beyond language. Warren's insistence upon truth puts the value of any fiction, including the poem he is writing, perhaps too severely into question. It is hardly possible not to be moved by the final section of “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” and yet the reader needs an answer to the query as to just what flared up on that sacrificial pyre:

And I pray that in some last dream or delusion,
While hospital wheels creak beneath
And the nurse's soles make their squeak-squeak like mice,
I'll again see the first small silvery swirl
Spin outward and downward from sky-height
To bring me the truth in blood-marriage of earth and air—
And all will be as it was
In that paradox of unjoyful joyousness,
Till the dazzling moment when I, a last time, must flinch
From the regally feathered gasoline flare
Of youth's poor, angry, slapdash, and ignorant pyre.

The hawk spins outward and downward not to bring the truth as blood-marriage between boy and bird, but in that sacrament of slaughter. The killing is not the truth, but only an angry and youthful way to the truth. What can the truth be except solipsistic transport, the high and breaking light of the Sublime? If Warren were Stevens, he might have written, “Am I that imagine this hawk less satisfied?”, but being Warren, he would deny that he had imagined the hawk. Warren longs to be what Stevens once termed “a hawk of life.” Stevens said he wanted his poems “To meet that hawk's eye and to flinch / Not at the eye but at the joy of it.” Such an ambition stops at similitudes, and shies away from identification. But Warren is about halfway between the shrewd Stevens and the fanatical Yeats, whose hawklike hero, Cuchulain, could confront death by crying out, “I make the truth.” Like Whitman, Stevens chooses a fiction that knows itself to be a fiction. Warren, in his prose “Afterthought” to Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980, somberly ends by remarking that “our lives are our own supreme fiction.” There is an implicit thrust here against Stevens, who would not have agreed. Yet Warren is a dramatic lyrist, whose boys and hawks are not fictive. Stevens, infinitely nuanced, would not have deigned to write a dramatic lyric. In Stevens, “the truth” sagely reduces to “the the,” but Warren wants and needs the truth, and will risk placing all his own poems and stories upon the pyre if that will spur the truth to appear.

The risk is extended all through recent Warren, with necessarily mixed results. We are given a poetic art that dares constantly the root meaning of hamartia: to shoot wide of the mark. From the Sublime lyric, this very late Warren has passed to the tragic mode, which fails sometimes very badly in Being Here, and then suddenly gives us perfection, as in “Eagle Descending”:

Beyond the last flamed escarpment of mountain cloud
The eagle rides air currents, switch and swell,
With spiral upward now, steady as God's will.
Beyond black peak and flaming cloud, he yet
Stares at the sun—invisible to us,
Who downward sink. Beyond new ranges, shark-
Toothed, saw-toothed, he stares at the plains afar
By ghostly shadows eastward combed, and crossed
By a stream, steel-bright, that seems to have lost its way.
No silly pride of Icarus his! All peril past,
He westward gazes, and down, where the sun will brush
The farthermost bulge of earth. How soon? How soon
Will the tangent of his sight now intersect
The latitudinal curvature where the sun
Soon crucial contact makes, to leave him in twilight,
Alone in glory? The twilight fades. One wing
Dips, slow. He leans.—And with that slightest shift,
Spiral on spiral, mile on mile, uncoils
The wind to sing with joy of truth fulfilled.

This is parenthetically subtitled “To a dead friend,” identified by Warren as Allen Tate, and is an elegy worthy of its subject, with eagle replacing the personal emblem of the hawk. Hovering throughout, there is a sense of the precursor poem, the first section of Eliot's Ash-Wednesday, a poem equally influential upon Tate and Warren. The despairing voice that opens Ash-Wednesday has abandoned the agonistic intensities of poetic tradition: “Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope / I no longer strive to strive towards such things.” Warren says of his eagle that it too has given up the poetic quest if that quest is only a Sublime battle against human limitations: “No silly pride of Icarus his!” This eagle's pride is rather in persistence of sight; he goes on staring at the sun, at the plains of Hades, at the westward sweep outwards and downwards of human speculation. And this gaze is instrumental, for unless it intersects the sunlight there will not be a final vision “in twilight, / Alone in glory.” That Sublime will survive the fading of twilight, the survival being manifest in the slow dip of wing with which the descending eagle makes its last exercise of will. Echoing the clinamen of Lucretius, Warren celebrates “that slightest shift” which is poetic and human freedom. Tradition becomes the spiral on spiral, mile on mile, uncoiling of a singing wind whose message is the fulfilled truth of the eagle's dying will. This does seem to me a Lucretian rather than a Christian elegy, but so vexed is the issue of Warren's unforgiving emphasis upon identity of truth and poetry that I express my own judgment here with considerable qualms.

Warren in his current phase, exemplified by Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980 and by Chief Joseph, still under revision, is in the midst of undergoing yet another stylistic change, comparable in scope to the one that ensued in Incarnations and Audubon: A Vision. Clearly he is not one of the poets who unfold, like Stevens, but one of those who develop, like Yeats. But the alteration in idiom shows no signs of modifying his obsession with the identity of poetic truth and the fierce but entropic freedom emblematic in the image of the hawk. I quote from Chief Joseph with a gingerly feeling, so revisionary is Warren, but there is a striking and relevant passage spoken by the chief as he leads his people's flight from their oppressors:

Past lava, past schist, past desert and sand—
A strange land we wandered to eastern horizons
Where blueness of mountains swam in their blue—
In blue beyond name. The hawk hung high.
Gleamed white. A sign. It gleamed like a word in the sky.
Cleanse hearts and pray. Pray to know what the Sky-Chief
Would now lean to tell. To the pure heart, Truth speaks.

By now, then, a high-hanging hawk is for Warren not just a sign, but the inevitable sign of the truth. Nothing is more dangerous for a belated poetry (and as Americans we can have no other) than to establish a proper sign for the truth. I want to put Warren's poetry to the test by showing how much that danger both mutilates and enhances his achievement. As a final exemplary text, I give the final poem of Now and Then, “Heart of Autumn,” primarily because I love it best of all Warren's poems:

Wind finds the northwest gap, fall comes.
Today, under gray cloud-scud and over gray
Wind-flicker of forest, in perfect formation, wild geese
Head for a land of warm water, the boom, the lead pellet.
Some crumple in air, fall. Some stagger, recover control,
Then take the last glide for a far glint of water. None
Knows what has happened. Now, today, watching
How tirelessly V upon V arrows the season's logic,
Do I know my own story? At least, they know
When the hour comes for the great wing-beat. Sky-strider,
Star-rider—they rise, and the imperial utterance,
Which cries out for distance, quivers in the wheeling sky.
That much they know, and in their nature know
The path of pathlessness, with all the joy
Of destiny fulfilling its own name.
I have known time and distance, but not why I am here.
Path of logic, path of folly, all
The same—and I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,
With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance—
Toward sunset, at a great height.

This seems to me the essential Warren poem, as much his own invention as “The Course of a Particular” is Stevens' or “Repose of Rivers” is Hart Crane's. Eliot, prime precursor, is so repressed here that one might think more readily of Melville or Hardy—both Shelleyans—as closer to Warren's mode, though certainly not to his stance or vision. But how much have that stance and vision changed from the poetry of the young Warren? I quote pretty much at random from Warren's earliest verse, and what I hear is the purest Eliot:

What grief has the mind distilled?
The heart is unfulfilled
The hoarse pine stilled
I cannot pluck
Out of this land of pine and rock
Of red bud their season not yet gone
If I could pluck
(In drouth the lizard will blink on the hot limestone)
At the blind hour of unaimed grief,
Of addition and subtraction,
Of compromise,
Of the smoky lecher, the thief,
Of regretted action,
At the hour to close the eyes,
At the hour when lights go out in the houses—
Then wind rouses
The kildees from their sodden ground.
Their commentary is part of the wind's sound.
What is that other sound,
Surf or distant cannonade?

Both passages would fit well enough in “Gerontion” or The Waste Land, but that was Warren more than a half-century ago. In an older way of critical speaking, you might say that he had weathered Eliot's influence, while extending both Eliot's tradition and Eliot's sense of the tradition, the sense we associate with Cleanth Brooks, as with Warren. But I tend to a different kind of critical speaking, one which would emphasize Warren's passage into poetic strength as an agonistic process that the Eliot-Warren-Brooks tradition tends to deprecate, or even to deny. Does a poem like “Heart of Autumn” show Warren in a benign relation to tradition, and does Warren's desire to embody the truth find a place within Eliot's sense of the tradition?

Whitman began the final section of Song of Myself by juxtaposing himself to the spotted hawk, who swoops by and accuses the poet, complaining “of my gab and my loitering.” For the Emersonian Whitman, identification took place not with the hawk, but between one's own empirical and ontological selves. In late Warren, the ontological self is identified with, and as, the flight of wild birds, and “the imperial utterance,” crying out for distance, is beyond the human. The “high beat” transforms Warren himself, and he crosses the threshold of a wordless Sublime, as his heart identifies with the heart of autumn. Whatever such an identification is, its vitalism has broken the canons both of Whitman's American Romantic tradition and of Eliot's countertradition of neo-orthodoxy. Warren chooses an identification not available to poets like Whitman, Stevens, and Hart Crane, who know their estrangement from the universe of sense. But his choice of identification also brings to an end Eliot's firm separation between poetry and shamanism. For the tradition of Emerson, Warren feels a range of reaction that varies from genial contempt to puzzled respect. For Eliot's poetry, Warren has the agonistic and ambivalent love that always marks the family romance. A poem like “Heart of Autumn” possesses an extraordinary ethos, one that mixes memory and desire, where the memory is of a tradition that clearly could distinguish the path of logic from the path of folly, and the desire is to know the shamanistic path of pathlessness, since the traditional paths have proved to be all the same.

Warren, on this reading, is a sunset hawk at the end of a tradition. His usurpation of the Sublime has about it the aura of a solitary grandeur. “I thirst to know the power and nature of Time …” is the Augustinian epigraph of Being Here, to which Warren adds: “Time is the dimension in which God strives to define His own being.” The epigraph is truer to Warren than the addition is, because the trope of a hawk's shuddering immanence is not wholely appropriate for the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Jesus. Such a trope, whether in Hopkins or Warren, Yeats or Hart Crane, shows rather the poet's agonistic striving, not so much for the foremost place, but for the blessing of a time without boundaries. In Audubon, Warren found the inevitable trope for that time: “They fly / In air that glitters like fluent crystal / And is hard as perfectly transparent iron, they cleave it / With no effort.” Such a trope is not an Eliotic baroque extension of tradition, but marks rather an ellipsis of further figuration. Warren stands, his face lifted now skyward, toward sunset, at a great height.

Harold Bloom (review date 1985)

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SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “The Flight of the Hawk.” The New York Review of Books 32, no. 9 (May 30, 1985): 40-42.

[In the following review, Bloom surveys Warren's life and literary career, concentrating on later developments in his poetry as reflected in New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985.]


Robert Penn Warren, born April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, Kentucky, is at the age of eighty our most eminent man of letters. His position is the more remarkable for the extraordinary persistence with which he has made himself into a superb poet. A reader thinks of the handful of poets who wrote great poetry late in life: Browning, Hardy, Yeats, Stevens, Warren. Indeed, “Myth of Mountain Sunrise,” the final poem among the new work in this fifth Warren Selected Poems, will remind some readers of Browning's marvelous “Prologue” to Asolando, written when the poet was seventy-seven. Thinking back fifty years to the first time he saw Asolo, a village near Venice, Browning burns through the sense of loss to a final transcendence:

How many a year, my Asolo,
          Since—one step just from sea to land—
I found you, loved yet feared you so—
          For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed! No—

“God is it who transcends,” Browning ends by asserting. Warren, older even than Browning was, also ruggedly remains a poet of immanence, of something indwelling and pervasive, though not necessarily sustaining, that can be sensed in, for example, a mountain sunrise:

The curdling agony of interred dark
          strives dayward, in stone
                                                                                                    strives though
No light here enters, has ever entered
In ageless age of primal flame. But
          look! All mountains want slow-
ly to bulge outward extremely. The
          leaf, whetted on light, will cut
Air like butter. Leaf cries: “I feel my
          deepest filament in dark rejoice.
I know the density of basalt has a

Two primal flames, Browning's and Warren's, but at the close of “Myth of Mountain Sunrise” we read not “God is it who transcends” but “The sun blazes over the peak. That will be the old tale told.” The epigraph to the new section of this Selected Poems is from Warren's favorite theologian, St. Augustine: “Will ye not now after that life is descended down to you, will not you ascend up to it and live?” One remembers another epigraph Warren took from the Confessions, for the book of poems Being Here (1980): “I thirst to know the power and nature of time.” At eighty Warren now writes out of that knowledge, and his recent poems show him ascending up to living in the present, in the presence of time's cumulative power. Perhaps no single new poem here quite matches the extraordinary group of visions and meditations in his previous work that includes “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” “Heart of Autumn,” “Evening Hawk,” “Birth of Love,” “The Leaf,” “Mortmain,” “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress,” and so many more. But the combined strength of the eighty-five pages of new poems that Warren aptly calls “Altitudes and Extensions” is remarkable, and extends the altitudes at which perhaps our last poet to attempt the ultimate questions of life and death continues to live and work.


Warren's first book was John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929). I have just read it, for the first time, and discovered, without surprise, that it made me very unhappy. The book purports to be history, but is Southern fiction, on a Confederate theme—along the lines of Allen Tate's ideology of Confederate nobility, and portrays Brown as a murderous nihilist, fit hero for the equally repellent Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed I find it difficult to decide, after suffering the book, whether the young Warren loathed Brown or Emerson more. Evidently both Brown and his intellectual supporter seemed to represent for Warren an emptiness making ruthless and passionate attempts to prove itself fullness. But John Brown, if read as a first work of fiction, does presage the Warren of Night Rider (1939), his first published novel, which I have just reread with great pleasure.

Night Rider is an exciting and remorseless narrative, wholly characteristic of what were to be Warren's prime virtues as a novelist: good storytelling and intensely dramatic unfolding of the moral character of his doom-eager men and women. Mr. Munn, upon whom Night Rider centers, is as splendidly unsympathetic as the true Warren heroes continued to be: Jerry Calhoun and Slim Sarrett in At Heaven's Gate (1943), Jack Burden and Willie Stark in All the King's Men (1946), Jeremiah Beaumont and Cassius Fort in World Enough and Time (1950). When Warren's central personages turned more amiable, starting with poor Amantha Starr in Band of Angels (1955), the books alas were much less interesting. This unfortunate phenomenon culminated in Warren's last novel (so far), A Place to Come To (1977), which Warren himself ranks with All the King's Men and World Enough and Time. I wish I could agree, but rereading A Place to Come To confirms an earlier impression that Warren likes his hero, Jed Tewksbury, rather too much. Without some real moral distaste to goad him, Warren tends to lose his narrative drive. I find myself wishing that Tewksbury had in him a touch of what might be called Original John Brown.

Warren's true precursor, as a novelist, is not Faulkner but Conrad, the dominant influence upon so many American novelists of Warren's generation. In one of his best critical essays, written in 1951 on Conrad's Nostromo, Warren gave an unwitting clue to why all his own best work, as a novelist, already was over:

There is another discrepancy, or apparent discrepancy, that we must confront in any serious consideration of Conrad—that between his professions of skepticism and his professions of faith. …

Cold unconcern, an “attitude of perfect indifference” is, as he says in the letter to Galsworthy, “the part of creative power.” But this is the same Conrad who speaks of Fidelity and the human communion, and who makes Kurtz cry out in the last horror and Heyst come to his vision of meaning in life. And this is the same Conrad who makes Marlow of “Heart of Darkness” say that what redeems is the “idea only”. …

It is not some, but all, men who must serve the “idea.” The lowest and the most vile creature must, in some way, idealize his existence in order to exist, and must find sanctions outside himself. …

Warren calls this a reading of Conrad's dual temperament, skepticism struggling with a last-ditch idealism, and remarks, much in T. S. Eliot's spirit:

We must sometimes force ourselves to remember that the act of creation is not simply a projection of temperament, but a criticism and a purging of temperament.

This New Critical shibboleth becomes wholly Eliotic if we substitute the word “personality” for the word “temperament.” As an analysis of the moral drama in Conrad's best novels, and in Nostromo in particular, this is valuable, but Warren is not Conrad, and like his poetic and critical precursor, Eliot, Warren creates by projecting temperament, not by purging it. There is no “cold unconcern,” no “attitude of perfect indifference,” no escape from personality in Eliot, and even more nakedly Warren's novels and poems continually reveal his passions, prejudices, convictions. Conrad is majestically enigmatic, beyond ideology; Warren, like Eliot, is an ideologue, and his temperament is far more ferocious than Eliot's.

What Warren rightly praises in Conrad is not to be found in Warren's own novels, with the single exception of All the King's Men, which does balance skepticism against belief just adroitly enough to ward off Warren's moralism. World Enough and Time, Warren's last stand as a major novelist, is an exuberant work marred finally by the author's singular fury at his own creatures. As a person who forgives himself nothing, Warren abandons Conradian skepticism and proceeds to forgive his hero and heroine nothing. Rereading World Enough and Time, I wince repeatedly at what the novelist inflicts upon Jeremiah Beaumont and Rachel Jordan. Warren, rather like the Gnostics' parody of Jehovah, punishes his Adam and Eve by denying them honorable or romantic deaths. Their joint suicide drug turns into an emetic, and every kind of degradation subsequently is heaped upon them. Warren, who can be a superb ironist in his novels as well as in his poetry, nevertheless so loves the world that he will forgive it nothing; and a poet can make more of such a position than a novelist.


Warren's poetry began in the modernist revival of the metaphysical poets, as a kind of blend of Eliot's The Waste Land with the gentler ironies of Warren's teacher at Vanderbilt, John Crowe Ransom. This phase of the poetry took Warren up to 1943, and then came to an impasse and, for a decade, an absolute stop. At Heaven's Gate, All the King's Men, and World Enough and Time belong to that decade of poetic silence, and perhaps the major sequence of his fiction usurped Warren's greater gift. But he was certainly unhappy in the later stages of his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1950, and it cannot be accidental that his poetry fully resumed in the late summer of 1954, two years after his marriage to the writer Eleanor Clark.

The book-length poem, Brother to Dragons (1953, revised version 1979), formally began Warren's return to verse, and is undoubtedly a work of considerable dramatic power. I confess to admiring it only reluctantly and dubiously, ever since 1953, because its ideological ferocity is unsurpassed even elsewhere in Warren. This ferocity is manifested by its implicit assertion that Thomas Jefferson is somehow affected by the barbaric act of his nephews in butchering a black slave. Much improved in revision, it remains unnerving, particularly if the reader, like myself, longs to follow Emerson in forgiving himself, if not everything, then at least as much as possible. But Warren—unlike Emerson—does not wish us to cast out remorse. Like his then master, Eliot, though in a more secular way, Warren was by no means reluctant to remind us that we are original sin. Brother to Dragons is rendered no weaker by its extraordinary tendentiousness, but it is not necessarily persuasive, if you happen not to share its moral convictions.

Warren's shorter poems, his lyrics and meditations, evolved impressively through three subsequent volumes: Promises (1957), You, Emperors and Others (1960), and a Selected Poems (1966), where the new work was grouped as “Tale of Time.” I recall purchasing these volumes, reading them with grudging respect, and concluding that Warren was turning into a poet rather like Melville (whom he was to edit in a Selected Poems of Herman Melville, in 1971) or the younger Hardy. Warren's poems of 1934 through 1966 seemed interestingly ungainly in form, highly individual in genre and rhetoric, and not fundamentally a departure from Eliot's high modernist mode. A poetry of moral belief, with some of the same preoccupations as the Four Quartets, I would have judged it, rather dismissively, and not of overwhelming concern if a reader was devoted to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Such a reader would also have preferred contemporary volumes like Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel (1965) and John Ashbery's Rivers and Mountains (1966), which were in the poetic tradition of Crane and Stevens, of visionary skepticism rather than Eliot's poetry of belief in the “truth,” whether moral or religious. I could not foresee the astonishing breakthrough that Warren, already past the age of sixty, was about to accomplish with Incarnations (1968) and Audubon: A Vision (1969).

Other critics of Warren's poetry see more continuity in its development than I do. But in 1968 I was a belated convert, transported against my will by reading Incarnations, and able at least to offer the testimony of a very reluctant believer in his poetic strength, a strength maintained by Warren throughout these nearly two decades since he began to write the poems of Incarnations in 1966.


Incarnations opens with a closely connected sequence of fifteen poems called “Island of Summer,” which is the volume's glory. Unfortunately, Warren has included only five of these in his new Selected Poems, but they are the best of a strong group, and I will discuss only those five here, since Warren subtly has created a new sequence or a condensed “Island of Summer.” Like the original work, the sequence is a drama of poetic incarnation, or the death and rebirth of Warren as a poet. In what is now the opening meditation, “Where the Slow Fig's Purple Sloth,” Warren associates the fig with fallen human consciousness and so with an awareness of mortality:

                              When you
Split the fig, you will see
Lifting from the coarse and purple seed, its
Flesh like flame, purer
Than blood.
                              It fills
The darkening room with light.

This hard, riddling style is now characteristic and has very little in common with the evocations of Eliot in his earlier verse. “Riddle in the Garden” even more oddly associates fruits, peach and plum, with negative human yearnings, suicidal and painful; with a horror of inwardness. A violent confrontation, “The Red Mullet,” juxtaposes the swimming poet and the great fish, eye to eye, in a scene where “vision is armor, he sees and does not / Forgive.” In a subsequent vision of “Masts at Dawn,” the optical effect of how: “The masts go white slow, as light, like dew, from darkness / Condensed on them” leads to what in some other poet might be a moment of illumination, but here becomes a rather desperate self-admonition, less ironic than it sounds: “We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.” This reversed Augustinianism is a prelude to a burst of Warren's poetic powers in the most ambitious poem he had yet written, “The Leaf.”

When he was fifteen, Warren was blinded in one eye by a sharp stone playfully thrown by a younger brother, who did not see that Warren was lying down on the other side of a hedge. Only after graduating from Vanderbilt did Warren get around to having the ruined eye removed and replaced by a glass eye. Until then, the young poet suffered the constant fear of sympathetic blindness in his good eye. There may be some complex relation between that past fear and Warren's remarkable and most prevalent metaphor of redemption, which is to associate poetic vision both with a hawk's vision and with a sunset hawk's flight. This metaphor has appeared with increasing frequency in Warren's poetry for more than half a century, and even invades the novels. So, in A Place to Come To, Jed Tewksbury endures the same vision as he loses consciousness, after being stabbed:

I remember thinking how beautiful, how redemptive, all seemed. It was as though I loved him. I thought how beautifully he had moved, like Ephraim, like a hawk in sunset flight. I thought how all the world was justified in that moment.

“The Leaf” centers upon an image of redemption, that of a hawk's flight, with the difference from earlier poems of Warren being in the nature of the redemption. Opening with the fig again, seen as an emblem of human mortality and guilt, and of “the flaming mullet” as an encounter in the depths, the poem proceeds to an episode of shamanistic force:

Near the nesting place of the hawk, among
Snag-rock, high on the cliff, I have seen
The clutter of annual bones, of hare, vole, bird, white
As chalk from sun and season, frail
As the dry grass stem. On that
High place of stone I have lain down, the sun
Beat, the small exacerbation
Of dry bones was what my back, shirtless and bare, knew. I saw
The hawk shudder in the high sky, he shudders
To hold position in the blazing wind, in relation to
The firmament, he shudders and the world is a metaphor, his eye
Sees, white, the flicker of hare-scut, the movement of vole.
Distance is nothing, there is no solution, I
Have opened my mouth to the wind of the world like wine, I wanted
To taste what the world is, wind dried up
The live saliva of my tongue, my tongue
Was like a dry leaf in my mouth.

Nothing in Warren's earlier poetry matches this in dramatic intensity, or in the accents of inevitability, as the poetic character is reincarnated in him by his sacrificial self-offering “near the nesting place of the hawk.” Much of the guilt and sorrow in Warren's earlier life come together here, with beautiful implicitness: the fear of blindness, the decade of poetic silence, the failure of the first marriage, and most mysteriously, a personal guilt at having become a poet. The mystery is partly clarified in the poem's next movement:

The world is fruitful, In this heat
The plum, black yet bough-bound, bursts, and the gold ooze is,
Of bees, joy, the gold ooze has striven
Outward, it wants again to be of
The goldness of air and—blessedly—innocent. The grape
Weakens at the juncture of the stem. The world
Is fruitful, and I, too,
In that I am the father
Of my father's father's father. I,
Of my father, have set the teeth on edge. But
By what grape? I have cried out in the night.
From a further garden, from the shade of another tree,
My father's voice, in the moment when the cicada ceases, has called to me.

Warren's father died in 1955, at the age of eighty-six. Robert Franklin Warren, who wanted above everything else to be a poet, became a banker instead, solely to support not only his own children, but also a family of young children bequeathed to him by his own father, who had married again and then died. Reflecting upon all this, Warren has said: “It's as if I've stolen my father's life,” somberly adding: “If he had had the opportunity I did, with his intelligence and energy, he'd have done a lot better than I did.” This is probably part of the sorrow heard in: “I, / Of my father, have set the teeth on edge.” From Warren's own account, one might think it the larger part of the sorrow, but imaginatively the heavier burden may have been his poetic inheritance, the influence of Eliot, which Warren here almost involuntarily disavows and overcomes. Eliot's “not the cicada” from The Waste Land becomes here the moment when Eliot's presence in Warren's voice ceases, to be replaced by the poetic voice that Robert Franklin Warren had to abandon. The return of the father's voice becomes the blessing of Warren's new style, the gift given by Warren in his father's name. Warren reverses the biblical trope from Jeremiah 31:29-30,

In those days it shall no longer be said, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes / and the children's teeth are set on edge”; for a man shall die for his own wrongdoing; the man who eats sour grapes shall have his own teeth set on edge. …

and thus ironically celebrates the harshness of his new style:

The voice blesses me for the only
Gift I have given: teeth set on edge.
In the momentary silence of the cicada,
I can hear the appalling speed,
In space beyond stars, of
Light. It is
A sound like wind.

From this poem on, Warren rarely falters, whether in Audubon: A Vision or in the half-dozen books of shorter poems (or new sections in selected volumes) that have followed. The achievement throughout these books necessarily is mixed, but there are several score of poems that manifest all the marks of permanence.


I want to look at just one of these poems, because it raises again, for me and for others, the ancient problem of poetry and belief. The poem is “A Way to Love God” from “Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand?,” the section of new poems in the Selected Poems that preceded the book under review. I quote only the poem's final vision, which is no grislier than the ones preceding it:

But I had forgotten to mention an upland
Of wind-tortured stone white in darkness, and tall, but when
No wind, mist gathers, and once on the Sarré at midnight,
I watched the sheep huddling. Their eyes
Stared into nothingness. In that mist-diffused light their eyes
Were stupid and round like the eyes of fat fish in muddy water,
Or of a scholar who has lost faith in his calling.
Their jaws did not move. Shreds
Of dry grass, gray in gray mist-light, hung
From the side of a jaw, unmoving.
You would think that nothing would ever again happen.
That may be a way to love God.

By loving God, Warren appears to mean loving what he calls “the truth,” which is that all human beings are dreadfully involved in sin. This is an ancient and Augustinian polemic in all his work, poetry and prose, and does not pretend to settle what “truth” is, but rather asserts a necessarily personal conviction. Warren, despite the critical efforts of his more pious exegetes, is a skeptic and not a believer, but he is a Bible-soaked skeptic. His way of loving God is to forgive himself nothing, and to forgive God nothing.

The aesthetic consequences of this position, in the poetry written since 1966, seem to me wholly admirable, while the spiritual grimness involved remains a formidable challenge for many readers, myself among them. Missing from this new Selected Poems is a notorious sequence, “Homage to Emerson, On Night Flight to New York,” to be found in the “Tale of Time” section of Selected Poems: 1923-1975. I don't regret its deletion, but it has considerable value in clarifying Warren's lifelong distaste for Emerson. Here is its first part, “His Smile”:

Over Peoria we lost the sun:
The earth, by snow like sputum smeared, slides
Westward. Those fields in the last light gleam. Emerson—
The essays, on my lap, lie. A finger
Of light, in our pressurized gloom, strikes down,
Like God, to poke the page, the page glows. There is
No sin. Not even error. Night,
On the glass at my right shoulder, hisses
Like sand from a sand-blast, but
The hiss is a sound that only a dog's
Ear could catch, or the human heart. My heart
Is as abstract as an empty
Coca-Cola bottle. It whistles with speed.
It whines in that ammoniac blast caused by
The passages of stars, for
At 38,000 feet Emerson
Is dead right. His smile
Was sweet as he walked in the greenwood.
He walked lightly, his toes out, his body
Swaying in the dappled shade, and
His smile never withered a violet. He
Did not even know the violet's name, not having
Been introduced, but he bowed, smiling,
For he had forgiven God everything, even the violet.
When I was a boy I had a wart on the right forefinger.

The final line is redundant, since the entire poem vigorously thrashes Emerson for his supposedly deficient sense of fact. Accusing Emerson of an abstract heart is not original with Warren, but I wince properly at the effective anti-transcendentalism of: “At 38,000 feet Emerson / Is dead right.” At ground level, I believe Emerson to be dead right also. “His Smile” is a good polemic, and should be admired as such.

The vexed issue of poetry and belief arises rather when I reread a poem like “A Way to Love God,” which is an impressive nightmare from my perspective, but a truth from Warren's. A secularized conviction of sin, guilt, and error is an obsessive strand in Warren's work, and for him it helps to create a position that is more than rhetorical. However, the effect is only to increase the rich strangeness of his poetic strength, which is wholly different from that of the best living poets of my own generation: Ashbery, Merrill, Ammons, and others, and from their precursor, Stevens.

Ideological ferocity never abandons Warren, but he passionately dramatizes it, and he has developed an idiom for it that is now entirely his own. He would appear to be, as I have intimated elsewhere, a sunset hawk at the end of a great tradition. Because of our increasing skepticism, I doubt that we will ever again have a poet who can authentically take this heroic a stance. He has earned, many times over, his series of self-identifications with the flight of the hawk, or an aspect of the truth. The second new poem in this Selected Poems, “Mortal Limit,” is a sonnet celebrating again his great image of the hawk:

I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the last purity of snow-snags.
There—west—were the Tetons. Snowpeaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constellations. Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?
Or, having tasted that atmosphere's thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore
The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?

So long as he abides, there will be someone capable of asking that grand and unanswerable question: “Beyond what range will gold eyes see / New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?”

Peter Stitt (review date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2043

SOURCE: Stitt, Peter. “Tradition and the Innovative Godzilla.” The Georgia Review 39 (Fall 1985): 635-48.

[In the following excerpted review, Stitt responds to Harold Bloom's assessment of Warren and his New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985. Stitt goes on to call Warren “the most important American poet of the second half of the twentieth century,” while lamenting the exclusions from his latest poetic collection.]

Robert Penn Warren's New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985, especially when considered along with Harold Bloom's review of it in The New York Review of Books, raises a couple of important issues. The one of these that concerns the book specifically as a selection of a lifetime's work I will reserve until the end of my discussion. For now I would like to consider a fundamental issue about Warren's thinking and, in the process, air my disagreement with Professor Bloom, who insists upon divorcing Warren from the great tradition of American transcendentalism. In his review, Bloom discusses Warren as a moralist “who forgives himself nothing,” an ironist who “nevertheless so loves the world that he will forgive it nothing,” and “like Eliot, … an idealogue” whose “temperament is far more ferocious than Eliot's.” These three aspects of Warren's work are so closely related as to be one; in Bloom's eyes, Warren is a fierce moralist committed to a vision of abiding original sin.

In support of his view, Bloom discusses the poem “A Way to Love God,” from the sequence Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand? The series of nihilistic visions of earthly life presented by the poem concludes with a portrait of a herd of sheep that stands “unmoving” in the night, “stupid,” like “a scholar who has lost faith in his calling.” At the very end of the poem, dry grass is seen hanging “From the side of a jaw. … You would think that nothing would ever happen again. // That may be a way to love God.” Warren the ironist is bitterly in command here, implicitly condemning a god who would allow not just evil to exist (as we see in so many other poems) but empty faithlessness, Kierkegaardian despair.

What seems obvious from such a poem—and many others like it—is the poet's intense preoccupation with the idea of God. This, however, is not what Bloom sees here:

By loving God, Warren appears to mean loving what he calls “the truth,” which is that all human beings are dreadfully involved in sin. This is an ancient and Augustinian polemic in all his work, poetry and prose, and does not pretend to settle what “truth” is, but rather asserts a necessarily personal conviction. Warren, despite the critical efforts of his more pious exegetes, is a skeptic and not a believer, but he is a Bible-soaked skeptic. His way of loving God is to forgive himself nothing, and to forgive God nothing.

Two of the words in this passage are problematical. I find it difficult to think of Warren as a “skeptic,” one who dryly doubts the existence of God. That he questions God, is exasperated with Him, even refuses to forgive Him—so much is clear. But underlying all of these attitudes is an implicit acceptance of the root notion, God. Further, when Warren uses the word God he does not mean what Bloom suggests—that “all human beings are dreadfully involved in sin.” The best definition of Warren's usage that I have seen is that made by Samuel Lloyd in his study “Robert Penn Warren: In the Midst of the World”: “‘God’ is a word for the sense of awe and holiness the speaker feels in his experience of the world.”

With regard to his religious thinking, Warren has said:

I haven't got any gospel. That is, I feel an immanence of meaning in things, but I have no meaning to put there that is interesting or beautiful. I think I put it as close as I could in a poem called “Masts at Dawn”—“We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.” I am a man of religious temperament in the modern world who hasn't got any religion.1

The reason Warren seems so evasive in this answer is because of the essentially scientific approach he takes with regard to the question of belief. Rather than concoct or accept a preformulated theology, a set of beliefs existing prior to his empirical knowledge of the world, Warren seeks within the world the evidence which would validate the immanence of meaning that he feels.

Bloom's own disagreement with Warren is represented in his review by their different reactions to Emerson. Bloom speaks of “Warren's lifelong distaste for Emerson”; the poet “thrashes Emerson for his supposedly deficient sense of fact.” Indeed he does. Emerson essentially denied the existence of evil in the world, and Warren has found this hard to swallow. In the interview quoted from earlier, Warren speaks of Emerson as having the “modern disease—self-righteousness, the idea of natural virtue. I think he just has a basic idiocy in him, the old Emersonian disease.” Bloom does not agree with Warren's condemnation; he speaks of a “reader” who “like myself, longs to follow Emerson in forgiving himself, if not everything, then at least as much as possible.”

Because of Bloom's preoccupation with the question of morality, he is curiously blind to another aspect of Emerson's thinking, one that is far more important to Warren's poetry. Emerson believed in the underlying goodness of the physical universe because he saw it not as composed of inert matter but as a manifestation of the Oversoul. Matter thus is sacred, in Emerson's eyes. Of course he did not stop there but charged ahead into the Platonic view that matter does not even exist as matter; it is an illusion; spirit is all. Warren has also questioned Emerson's transcendentalism: “I'm not a transcendentalist. I find that kind of talk just doesn't make sense to me—well, in some ways. I'll put it this way: I hope we can find meanings in nature. …” Putting this statement together with one quoted earlier (“I am a man of religious temperament in the modern world who hasn't got any religion”), it would be easy to conclude that if Emerson had not gone Platonic—that is, had he stopped with the notion that something spiritual inhabits the material universe—then Warren would have found his thinking a whole lot easier to accept.

Warren's poems are absolutely saturated with the notion of an immanent meaning that hovers within the real, just beyond man's grasp. The problem is that, in a secular and fallen world, man lacks the means to perceive such a truth. Often—as in “Muted Music,” one of the new poems in this volume—Warren expresses this idea in terms of sound and hearing; his speaker's dream is:

To hear at last, at last, what you have strained for
All the long years, and sometimes at dream-verge thought
You heard—the song the moth sings, the babble
Of falling snowflakes (in a language
No school has taught you), the scream
Of the reddening bud of the oak tree
As the bud bursts into the world's brightness.

Warren explains passages like this one in his poem “Code Book Lost,” from Now & Then: “Yes, message on message, like wind on water, in light or in dark, / The whole world pours at us. But the code book, somehow, is lost.”

Better than twenty-five percent of Warren's New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985, his fourth selected volume, is devoted to work written since 1980, when Being Here was published. In terms of philosophy—indeed, in terms generally of content—the newest poems do not differ significantly from those in earlier collections. If there is a stylistic change it is that the newer poems are generally somewhat more literal, somewhat less figurative, than the older ones. Note, for example, this philosophic passage—“Since my idiot childhood the world has been / Trying to tell me something. There is something / Hidden in the dark”—which exhibits a directness not often present earlier.

Elsewhere, however, Warren's customary power is triumphantly present. The second of the “Three Darknesses,” for example, is a masterpiece of detail and timing:

Up Black Snake River, at anchor in
That black tropical water, we see
The cormorant rise—cranky, graceless,
Ungeared, unhinged, one of God's more cynical
Improvisations, black against carmine of sunset. He
Beats seaward. The river gleams blackly west, and thus
The jungle divides on a milk-pale path of sky toward the sea.
Nothing human is visible. Each of us lies looking
Seaward. Ice melts in our glasses. We seem ashamed
Of conversation. Asia is far away. The radio is not on.
The grave of my father is far away. Our host
Rises silently, is gone. Later we see him,
White helmet in netting mystically swathed,
As he paddles a white skiff into the tangled
Darkness of a lagoon. There moss hangs. Later,
Dark now, we see the occasional stab of his powerful
Light back in the darkness of trunks rising
From the side lagoon, the darkness of moss suspended.
We think of the sound a snake makes
As it slides off a bough—the slop, the slight swish,
The blackness of water. You
Wonder what your host thinks about
When he cuts the light and drifts on the lagoon of midnight.
Though it is far from midnight. Upon his return,
He will, you know,
Lie on the deck-teak with no word. Your hostess
Had gone into the cabin. You hear
The pop of a wine cork. She comes back. The wine
Is breathing in darkness.

Comparing Warren's great novels to those of Conrad, Bloom comments: “Conrad is majestically enigmatic, beyond ideology.” He goes on to suggest that Warren's poems, because they are so ideological, are un-Conradian. It would be impossible to imagine, however, a more Conradian poem than this one. The speaker's mysterious host, wearing that mystic helmet, is Kurtz reborn, observed by a puzzled Marlowe. Even the wine is enigmatic and sinister.

As he did in his previous selected volumes, Warren here has placed his newest poems first and worked backwards to those of 1923. The reader thus finds his appetite whetted by many wonderful and characteristic new works—for example, “Three Darknesses,” “Mortal Limit,” “Immortality Over the Dakotas,” “Hope,” “Old Photograph of the Future,” “The Place,” and “Question at Cliff-Thrust”—and looks forward eagerly to rereading poems he has loved for years. Which raises the second of the two issues I mentioned earlier. So that many new poems could be accommodated in this selected volume, many older poems were left out. For example, the magnificent sequence Or Else has been cut from its original twenty-four sections plus eight “Interjections” down to twelve sections and no interjections. Of those included, the “Homage to Theodore Dreiser” has been cut from three parts to one. Among the omitted poems are “Time as Hypnosis” and “A Problem in Spatial Composition,” neither of which would I leave out of a fifty-page pamphlet containing the best American poems of the century. And Being Here, a fifty-poem sequence that many consider Warren's best and most tightly structured, is represented here only by ten scattered poems.

In short, the book comes nowhere near representing Robert Penn Warren at his best, and I think it could have a seriously negative effect upon his reputation. A “selected poems” tends to set the canon; because the selection has been made by the author himself, most readers will assume that the very best work has been included. If this is not the case, new readers will not be seduced by the selected volume into reading further. Robert Penn Warren is the most important American poet of the second half of the twentieth century, and one of the five most important of the entire century. It is nothing less than shocking that the magnificent output of his entire lifetime should be represented by this volume. What is needed now is not another new and selected poems; what is needed is a Collected Poems containing all of the best work in its entirety.


  1. From an interview with Peter Stitt in The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 258.

Dave Smith (review date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098

SOURCE: Smith, Dave. Review of New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985. Poetry 147, no. 1 (October 1985): 46-48.

[In the following review of Warren's New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985, Smith focuses on the new poems in this collection, collectively called “Altitudes and Extensions,” which he says “oscillate between prosy speculation and lyrical exultation.”]

Robert Penn Warren's fourth selected poems, New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985, appears exactly a decade after the third selected, a period in which many have ceased to think of him as novelist, critic, or Southern man of letters. Now he is widely admired for the poetry of his last twenty years. These poems attract as tales of yearning for and searches after what he has called “the human scheme of values,” perhaps especially because life has often seemed pointless. He has labored to make felt the large, daily, always inscrutable forces of Time, Place, Community, Self, Family, Death, and History, believing the individual might know and express the grand design. A speculator, then, his outlook has been consistently grim, his opinion of man suspicious, and his course unequivocally ethical. But he has rarely become a poetic preacher. He distrusts one-answer systems, whether religion, politics, or aesthetics. His effort has been to portray the responsible man. In Audubon: A Vision, his finest poem, he dramatizes such a man and then becomes the bearer of that man's voice as both yearn for virtue. Watching the naturalistic flight of geese, Warren pleads “Tell me a story of deep delight.” Perhaps he has not heard that story of meaning, but he has heard many and learned patience. Watching geese fly again in “Heart of Autumn,” he writes:

Path of logic, path of folly, all
The same—and I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,
With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance—
Toward sunset, at a great height.

So much of the subject, attitude, and even expression is standard operating equipment for contemporary poets that we forget Warren is among the originators of our dominant style. He wrote his first poems while Thomas Hardy lived. Warren's personal narratives of ordinary experience raised to an archetypal or mythical shape are ancestral, though broken, ballads that connect the Anglo-Saxon tradition to the contemporary shift into confessional experience. Robert Penn Warren's New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985 is more than his greatest hits; it is the cry for a life of consciousness, and that is twentieth-century poetry.

Warren has no doubt about how to present his sixty-two years of poetry. Half of his book is given to poems of the last decade, and he has ruthlessly winnowed there, keeping only 41 of 126 poems from four widely praised collections: Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978, Being There: Poetry 1977-1980, Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980, and Can I See Arcturus from Where I Stand?: Poems 1975. To make room for this new poet in a book actually three pages shorter than its predecessor, he has cut many old favorites, for example “Homage to Emerson,” most of “Mortmain,” and the bulk of Incarnations. If his decisions seem, arguably, the right ones, we can conclude he has given up on the idea of sequencing poems into a single unit. Now we see what he has always been at his best, what Stanley Plumly called a prose lyricist.

The forty-nine new poems collected as “Altitudes and Extensions: 1980-1984” oscillate between prosy speculation and lyrical exultation. At eighty, Warren is acutely aware of Death as subject and threshold. The obsessive metaphor of these poems, mountain climbing, takes him to edges of extinction and danger where his old brooding historical consciousness seems replaced by a turn toward western landscapes and the animal life that has not been domesticated. When he narrates the climb to freedom and discovers what he calls “that divine osmosis” of all life, as in “Caribou” and “The First Time” he is unsentimentally and splendidly Wordsworthian. In the face of death he manages passion and serenity, so that in “Last Walk of Season” he says, “Our wish is to think of nothing but happiness. Of only / The world's great emptiness. How bright, / Rain-washed, the pebbles shine!” Yet if exultation is a joy he has long sought, long anticipated, he is too much the Puritan to have it without cost.

The cost, in fact, is mind, intelligence, speech—the knowing that resists even simple praise of natural beauty. When he describes himself poised for a dive into the sea in “Question at Cliff-Thrust,” it is Audubon's choice—how to live—he faces:

But there is the beckoning downwardness
That you must fight before you turn, and in the turn
Begin the long climb toward lighter green, and light,
Until you lie in lassitude and strengthlessness
On the green bulge of ocean under the sight
Of one gull that screams from east to west and is
Demanding what?

That debunking gull is the signature of Robert Penn Warren as much as any of his assertions of unity. The gull says what Warren says in “Little Girl Wakes Early”—that “you've learned that when loneliness takes you / There's nobody ever to explain to—though you try again and again.” This insinuant conviction of dis-unity, the gull-squawk of anarchic separation, has always underlain Warren's portraits of the good life. He believes life isn't fair, virtue isn't easily had, goodness rare but possible. His task has been to prove God wouldn't let “A man's honest sweat just go for nothing.” There is a deep sadness in Warren's best poems that seems now to arise from not only the impending loss of a world in which the struggle has meant so much to man's dignity but also from the loss of memory. The wonderful paradox at the heart of “Altitudes and Extensions” is that the more the remembered world falls away from Warren, the more he climbs into the world of elements, creatures, things. He offers no easy answers to human problems, in spite of having collected some of his most rhetorically bullying poems. The poems of “Altitudes and Extensions” are sometimes ponderous, repetitive, even unsteady, but many are the cries of an Eagle of poetry. And many are the American poets glad for the Robert Penn Warren who writes:

Yes, stretch forth your arms like wings, and from your high stance,
Hawk-eyed, ride forth upon the emptiness of air, survey
Each regal contortion
And tortuous imagination of rock, wind, water, and know
Your own the power creating all.

Robert Penn Warren with Peter Stitt (interview date 1985)

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SOURCE: Stitt, Peter. “Interview with Robert Penn Warren.” In The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets, pp. 241-58. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1977, Warren discusses his formative influences, his association with the Fugitive group, the means and development of his poetic composition, and the nature of his perception of the world as a poet.]

[Stitt:] You entered Vanderbilt at an early age, which leads me to think that you grew up in a home where the life of the mind was fully lived. Is that so?

[Warren:] Well, both my father and my maternal grandfather had books everywhere. I've got a lot of my father's books right over there. I recently reread Cooper for the first time since I was a boy, using my father's copies. And each book had the date he finished reading it—1890, 1891, and so on. I spent my boyhood summers with my grandfather on a tobacco farm—he was an old man then. His children used to say, “Poppa,” as they called him, “is an inveterate reader”—I thought they meant Confederate—“and he is a visionary.” He read poetry and quoted it by the yard. He was wonderful, an idol. His place was very remote and he allowed nobody on it except our family—he was totally cut off from the rest of the world. For one thing, it just didn't interest him. I mean, he read books all the time—Egyptian history or Confederate history or American history or Napoleonic campaigns, and poetry.

But there was nobody to talk to—there were very few people in the community who had any interests like his. Often I wouldn't see another boy for the biggest part of the summer. My grandfather and I were sole companions, except for dinner with my rollicking young aunt—and her husband, when she later married. So I got the benefit of his conversation. I spent hours a day with him, and I found him fascinating. He was against slavery but a good Confederate. He said, “In the end, you go with your people.” He was a captain of cavalry under Forrest for several years and fought in many battles. He loved to relive the war with me—under his direction I'd lay it all out on the ground using stones and empty rifle or shotgun shells. That's not the way children should be raised, but it was my way.

Was it the literary activity at Vanderbilt that drew you there?

What I actually wanted to be was a naval officer. I finished high school at the age of fifteen—no great intellectual accomplishment where I went—and later got the appointment to Annapolis. Those were all political appointments in those days, and R. Y. Thomas, our congressman and a friend of my father's, got me the appointment. But then I had an accident. I was struck in the eye by a stone and couldn't pass the physical. So I chose Vanderbilt. I started out to be a chemical engineer, but they taught chemistry primarily by rote—there was no theorizing, no sense of what it was about.

At the same time, I had John Crowe Ransom as a freshman English teacher. He made no effort to court the students, but I found him fascinating—as did many others. He taught ordinary freshman expository writing, but he had other things to say along the way, and he would shine. At the end of the first term he said, “I think you don't belong in here. I think I will have you go to my advanced class.” There was only one writing course beyond Freshman English at Vanderbilt. A few people in their sophomore year would study forms of versification, poetry writing, essay writing, things like that, with Ransom, and this is what I did the second half of my freshman year. Ransom was the first poet I had ever seen, a real live poet in pants and vest. I read his first book of poems and discovered that he was making poetry out of a world I knew—it came home to me. Ransom was a Greek scholar by training. He had never taken an English course in his life except Freshman English, which was required at Vanderbilt, where he had gone. And at least once he remarked in a tony way, “I don't see any reason to take a course in a literature where the language is native to you.” He laughed at himself for being an English teacher. He said, “I find myself completely superfluous.”

Was there much literary activity among the students at that time?

Well, it was a strange situation, and I really can't understand it even today. There was just a tremendous interest in poetry among students. There were two undergraduate writing clubs, junior and senior, where people would read poems and essays to each other. And there was an informal poetry club—with some overlaps from the other groups—which met about once a week. We'd read each other's poems and booze a little—white corn—talk poetry. All kinds of people wrote poems then—I remember an all-southern football center, a man who later became chairman of the Department of Romance Languages at Wisconsin, and another who later became the only Phi Beta Kappa private in the Marine Corps.

It is hard to believe now, but this is literally true—when an issue of the Dial came out, people would line up to get the first one. Freshmen were buying the New Republic or the Nation, to get the new poem by Yeats or the new poem by Hart Crane. This didn't last for very long, but it did last up to the thirties, when I was teaching there and people like Randall Jarrell were in as freshmen. And all this was going on outside of the curriculum. That's why I think graduate programs in creative writing are stupid. Sometimes I've been peripherally involved in them, but if people want to write they will write. If the community is right, it is nice if they can show their stuff to their elders, that's natural. But what we see now is just an attempt to formalize what since the beginning of time has been natural. It is only recently that giving courses and grades and all that crap has crept into it. In my time it was generally self-propelled among the students.

How did you become a member of the Fugitive group?

The Fugitive group was started before the First World War when some young professors, including Ransom and Donald Davidson, and some bookish, intelligent young businessmen got together to discuss literature and philosophy. But it turned toward poetry after the war. The moving force was a strange Jew named Mttron Hirsch, an adventurer of no education whatever, except that he had read something of everything. He had been, I was told, the heavyweight boxing champion of the Pacific Fleet and was a great friend of Gertrude Stein in her early days. He had also been a model for some of the painters of Paris—he was an enormously handsome man, very big, perfectly formed in his way, and he became the center, almost the idol in an odd way, of the group. He was in his early or middle forties then, and had or claimed to have a back injury. So he would lie flat on his back on a couch and be waited on by his kin. I think he made a good thing of it. He was the wise man of the tribe, and he liked to be able to talk with some learned friends, so he accumulated people around him. I guess that was the source of it originally.

I believe Allen Tate and Ridley Wills were the first undergraduates to be admitted to the group. They were six or seven years older than I. Tate had been ill and had come back to college, which is why he and I overlapped. He couldn't pass, or wouldn't pass, freshman math and freshman chemistry, both of which were required. He had all A's in everything else, things like Greek and Latin, but he wouldn't do the others—it bored him too much. So he was around. Then in my junior year, I guess it was, Ridley Wills and Allen Tate invited me to fugitive meetings. Greatest thrill I'd had in my life. By then it was mostly a poetry club—we read each other's poems and argued poetry. Everybody was an equal in that room—no one pulled his long gray beard. And it was a good time to be there—Ransom was writing his best poems then, and Tate was just finding himself. I myself was seventeen, and I said, “This is what I'm going to do.” I had no interest in fiction, though, not until later.

John Crowe Ransom must have been a very remarkable man and a strong presence in the group.

Well, he was an influence on everybody. For me then he was the oldest—also at the height of his powers and with a wizardly understanding of poetry. He was a center of this without ever trying to be—we just automatically looked to him, you see. He was very learned and a student all his life. And not only that, he was also a great player of games—a crack golfer and he played tennis, poker, and bridge, sometimes played bridge or poker for the whole weekend. People who didn't know him well sometimes think he was an unfeeling man, but that just isn't so at all. I recently had a letter from my goddaughter, who is Ransom's granddaughter. She said, “He is so often portrayed as being cold and self-absorbed that I wanted to write and tell you at least one thing that happened in my presence. When you were ill”—this was in 1972, I had hepatitis and they thought it was cancer—“Pappy either went or sent someone to the post office three times a day to see if there was any news, and he telephoned all over the country.” He was a man of great warmth—I wrote an essay in celebration of his eighty-eighth birthday, and the letter he wrote me in return is incredible. He ended: “I find myself at last brushing away a furtive tear.” He raised vegetables and flowers, and every morning he would decorate the whole house with fresh flowers. And he loved to cook breakfast—better breakfasts than I've had all the rest of my life. He always served them to his wife while she was still in bed. It was a habit, he said, that he'd fallen into during her first pregnancy, and he liked it.

Why do you suppose Ransom stopped writing poetry when he did?

Well, I can tell you exactly what he said to me before he stopped writing. We were sitting by the fireside one night back in the thirties, when he was at the height of his powers. And he suddenly said, out of silence, “You know, I think I will quit writing poetry.” Now he was at his very peak, and I said, “You're crazy.” He said, “No, I know what I'm doing.” And he did understand himself so well—he had the most systematic mind I ever knew. In everything he did, he was intellectual and introspective—he knew his own mind. But this is one time when he did not know what he was doing. “Now Robert,” he went on to say—he was a great friend and admirer of Robert Frost—“Robert has fallen to self-imitation, and his poetry has lost its cutting edge. I know I could write a better poem tomorrow than I've ever written in my life; I know how to write my poems. But just writing a better poem is not what I want to do. I want to have the joy of writing the poem of discovery.” He said, “If I get a new insight, a new way in, if I grow into something different, I will start again, but I don't want to be the same old John Crowe Ransom. I want always to be the amateur, the poet who writes because he needs to and loves it, and not because it is his profession. I hate the professional poet.” That's the way he explained it to me. So I said, “Well, you're crazy,” and I still think he was crazy. Randall Jarrell had a different idea, and I think he was right. He said that being a poet is like standing out in the rain, waiting for lightning to hit you. If it hits you once—that is, if you write one really fine poem—you are good; if it hits you six times, you're great. Ransom wouldn't stay out in the rain.

Do you think he was wise to go back late in life and revise his poems as he did?

I think frequently he did harm to the poems. He wanted to be back in touch with it, but he had lost the touch. The last time I went to see him was at the time of his eighty-fifth birthday. I went out there to give a reading and to see him. He was totally himself, not showing any sign of age. After we came back from the reading, we sat down and had a drink, and he said, “I've given myself a birthday present. I've written a new poem.” It was a new kind of poem, you see—published in the Sewanee Review. He went back into the rain at the age of eighty-five. And that was that.

I want to talk a bit about how you compose your poems. What gets you started on a poem—is it an idea, an image, a rhythm, or something else?

It can be a lot of things. More and more for me the germ of a poem is an event in the natural world. And there is a mood, a feeling—that helps. For about ten years, from 1944 to 1954, I was unable to finish a poem—I'd start one, and get just so far, and then it would die on me. I have stacks of unfinished poems. I was writing then—other things, Brother to Dragons and some short stories. Many times the germ of a short story could also be the germ of a poem, and I was wasting mine on short stories. I've only written three that I even like. And so I quit writing short stories.

Then I got married again, and my wife had a child, then a second, and we went to a place in Italy, a sort of island with a ruined fortress. It is a very striking place—there is a rocky peninsula with the sea on three sides, and a sixteenth-century fortress on the top. There was a matching fortress across the bay. We had a wonderful time there for several summers, and I began writing poetry again, in that spot. I had a whole different attitude toward life, my outlook was changed. The poems in Promises were all written there. Somehow all of this—the place, the objects there, the children, the other people, my new outlook—made possible a new grasp on the roots of poetry for me. There were memories and natural events—the poems wander back and forth from my boyhood to my children. Seeing a little gold-headed girl on that bloody spot of history is an event. With the bay beyond, the sea beyond that, the white butterflies, that's all a natural event. It could be made into a short story, but you would have to cook up a lot of stuff around it. All you have to cook up in the poem is to be honest with your feelings and your observation somehow.

This was a new way of starting poems for me—I had been writing two kinds of poems earlier—one kind tended to start from a verbal and abstract point, and the other kind was a sort of balladry, based on an element of narrative. “Billie Potts” was the last poem I wrote before the drought set in. It was a bridge piece, my jumping-off place when I started again, ten years later.

Now my method is more mixed. Some poems can start with a mood. Say there is a stream under your window, and you are aware of the sound all night as you sleep; or you notice the moonlight on the water, or hear an owl call. Things like this can start a mood that will carry over into the daylight. These objects may not appear in the poem, but the mood gets you going.

One poem, “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” which I think is one of my best, was set off by a review of my work. Harold Bloom of Yale is kind enough to like my poetry, and he wrote a review for the New Leader in which he talks about the place that hawks occupy in my poetry. When I read it, I realized that it is all true. You don't know your own poetry—working on it so closely, you see it differently. And so I thought about the fact that I had killed a hawk, a red-tail, in my woodland boyhood. I brought him down with what was a record shot for me. I was then a practicing taxidermist, among other things, and I stuffed the hawk and carried him with me for many years—I used to keep him over my bookshelf. This is the key to the poem, a factual event, a memory. It can be like that, but I never know how the next poem will start—I don't want to fall into a formula.

You have said, in reference to both fiction and poetry: “For me the common denominator is always an ethical issue.” This is clearer, I think, in fiction than in poetry.

Yes, for me at least, it is much more obvious in fiction. But the relation between the abstract and the concrete is different in more recent poems. The germ of a poem for me now tends unconsciously to be something I might call a “moralized anecdote.” I don't mean that the poem will preach a sermon, but I don't want to be coy about what constitutes the germinal start. I would like to show the problem of the abstract and the concrete in the construction of the poem itself. I don't mean that the “moralization” is a “start”—it is the last thing that happens, and then by suggestion.

Brother to Dragons is, in some ways, your most abstract or intellectual poem—the balance between the abstract and the concrete seems somewhat different from that in other poems. Were you intentionally putting ideas first there?

For me, the process of writing, sometimes quite a long process, is to grope for the meaning of the thing, an exploration for the meaning rather than an execution of meanings already arrived at. There are plenty of people who work the other way around, but for me the poem has to start with something concrete and not with an abstract idea. I started Brother to Dragons with the tale, the story, which I had first heard from an old great-aunt in a localized and garbled form. Then I read a pioneer version and thought about it in various ways. Whatever idea I had was vague and general, the idea that there are two light-bringers—Meriwether Lewis and his cousin, Lilburne. They think they are bringing the light of civilization into the dark of the wilderness, but they discover that they were carrying darkness all along—the darkness that is in the human heart. They are carrying darkness to darkness. That's where it started, my thinking when I started writing. Now, I have learned a lot since then—there might be some Coleridge in it, and something of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which I have known from boyhood. All this has occurred to me much later, many years later. Perhaps it was there at the start, but it was not consciously in my mind at the time.

Brother to Dragons presents at least a partial portrait of human evil. The action takes place in a virtual wilderness and within a context that is notable in other ways. One of the epigraphs, for example, portrays Kentucky as “the dark and bloody ground.” There is also the notion of the annus mirabilis—1811, when the action of the poem takes place—the year in which nature seemed to turn backwards, perhaps becoming evil itself. Are these things presented in any sense as an explanation of or justification for the human deed?

Well, they occurred and it ties in, but there is no place where it is hammered home. To the Indians, Kentucky was an evil spot—they hunted there and fought there, but they would not live there. And there are times of disaster in the world's history. I think of the great disaster which destroyed the Mediterranean world at the time of Crete, and of what is probably behind the Atlantis myth. There are times of tremendous disaster in the world. Plagues, the black death, God knows what else. And this really occurred, the annus mirabilis, and it was called that back then. The Mississippi River flowed uphill for three days, knocking down settlements, destroying towns, making new lakes. There was an earthquake that did much damage to Louisville and many other places; the squirrels all dove into the river, killing themselves; horses turned carnivorous—nature was unhinged. But it isn't a moral thing—nature has no awareness of itself, it is neither good nor evil because good is something that somebody chooses. Behind the great disasters in nature there are causes that are wholly natural. So it is a question of the disorder of the human heart—you see, they all could occur.

What is nature? That's the question that is involved here. Is nature naturally good? Is man naturally good? Or does man have to earn his goodness bit by bit?—civilize himself and humanize himself, a long-term process. So the question of nature as good, nature as subject to bursts of inexplicable evil and destruction, is simply a metaphor for the human condition. And in this case the metaphor isn't made up. It is nice when history gives you a metaphor—you don't have to make one up. It has a degree of authority no made-up metaphor ever had. Just like the snake I saw as I climbed the bluff to the Lewis house. That snake is true—a great big snake, big as I ever saw, rose out of the rock and looked me right in the eye. Sometimes you have a lot of luck. I never would have thought of putting that snake there.

If nature is morally neutral in your view, then what about man? Do you subscribe to the doctrine of original sin, as many critics claim you do?

I would not want to be too rigid about this. A man has to learn to be good—he is not born “good” as a baby. St. Augustine was right about that. So in this sense I would say yes, there is original sin—man has to learn virtue; otherwise his sin is original. Certainly there is such a thing as evil. It exists in the world and we live with it every day; just look around you. I don't oppose the theological view, but I must say I am not interested in proving the theological point. It doesn't need proving. What I am interested in is the drama of the theological point—put it that way.

“The drama of the theological point”—that phrase must come from the side of you that is the storyteller—not the philosopher, but the man who loves to tell a powerful tale.

I know a million stories, everybody knows a million stories—you've seen them, you've heard them, and you know all about them. But how many do you write? Well, every once in a while, one of them catches on to you, gets in your hair or gets in your pants, and you have a hard time getting rid of it. That is the one that has some special meaning for you—it creates a disturbance or an upset somewhere inside. And it is that upset that gives you the poem or the novel or the germ of one—especially if you are uncomfortable because you don't quite understand all that it means. I play a novel ten years, fifteen years sometimes—one more then twenty. The germ of The Cave was the entrapment of Floyd Collins in Kentucky in 1925, when I was a junior or senior in college. I didn't even bother to go up there—I was too busy with Shakespeare and John Donne and Baudelaire. I couldn't become a southerner until after I got away from the South.

All the King's Men is another book that was years in the writing. It changed its form, from poem, to play, to novel, but it still isn't quite right. The one thing I regret about the book is that I have no real scene that catches the moment that would explain what Stark gives to Ann that she needs. What emptiness does she feel? That scene never occurs. I faced the question at the time, but I flunked it. I just couldn't see a way to do it. Now I see a perfectly good way. Jack would wonder about it; he would wonder and wonder, and then he would suddenly visualize the possible scene. He would do this in his room in Long Beach, California. We would take that as the answer. Then he would come home. But I just wasn't up to it at the time—I was still learning. I know more about writing novels now than I knew about writing novels then.

Earlier you explained that you don't start a poem with a theme in mind, that the theme emerges from your groping into your materials. Is something like this also true of your use of images, symbols? Do you, when writing, consciously and intentionally attach meanings to your images—to the birds, for example, or to the mullet in Incarnations?

Many things that I haven't noticed have been called to my attention by critics. I have gone past such obvious things as the motion of a bird in the sky, the relation of the bird and the man in things like Audubon, and the hawk—my fascination with hawks, which Bloom pointed out. I never had noticed this pattern of birds in the poems, though I notice it in my life all the time—that freedom and wonder in the sky, you know, it's something I have to look at. I look at gulls by the hour, hawks, buzzards, anything. But I never noticed about their place in the poems until it was called to my attention in print. You feel earthbound and your aspirations thwarted, while birds have that freedom and totality of being. I don't want to try to interpret it, but that's there.

Another question like this, but a little more personal, concerns the eye, the place of the eye in my work. Well, I'm blind in one eye. I had an injury when I was fifteen, and the eye gradually lost sight until it was completely blind. I spent several years thinking I was going to be totally blind. You see, sympathetic blindness can set in, where the uninjured eye can also go blind. Nobody knows why. So finally they had to remove the injured eye, and that seemed to solve it. But I had been living in horror of this for years, since I was in college. So the “eye” in the poems is very important, but I didn't even know that it was until some critic called attention to it. And this would be true of a great many things. I happen to remember those two things, but there are other things too, I just can't remember them offhand, where critics have caught hold of something significant which I had just walked past, and probably had some very good reason to walk past, something deep in the poems. I blocked it somehow, the business of the eye. But I can't see any reason for blocking this watching the birds. I spent a lot of time as a boy with glasses, identifying birds. I just liked the woods—I was out in the woods a lot.

Do you write your poems in longhand or at the typewriter?

Practically in my head. I do a lot of them when I am exercising. I find that regular exercise, any kind of simple, repeated motion, is like hypnosis—it frees your mind. So when I am walking or swimming, I try to let my mind go blank, so I can catch the poems on the wing, before they can get away. Then when I have a start and am organized, I will sit down with pencil and paper, but never—or rarely—at the typewriter. I once had a bad shoulder injury and must swim or exercise very heavily every morning in order to keep it functioning freely. And this I find is very conducive to writing my poetry.

Do you revise your poems heavily?

Very heavily. I read them and read them, and do draft after draft. And I retain the drafts—often if I am stuck I will go back to an earlier version to refresh myself—I may have been on the right track and taken a wrong turn. Sometimes, after ten or more years, I go back to old fragments and suddenly see what I was after.

Have you ever had an experience some poets speak of, where a poem just comes to you in a burst, as though by inspiration, and all you had to do was write down the words?

The best parts of a poem always come in bursts or in a flash. This has been said by many people—Frost said in a letter, “My best poems are always my easiest.” My notion is this, that the poet is a hunter on the track of an unknown beast and has only one shot in his gun. You don't know what the beast is, but when you see him, you've got to shoot him, and it has got to be instantaneous. Writing a poem is like stalking the beast for the single shot. Then, you can labor on the pruning, and you can work at your technique, but you cannot labor the poem into being.

As you've reprinted your collections, you have often left poems out, sometimes many of them. Why is this?

Sometimes I think they are bad, and sometimes other people think they are bad. For instance, when I was preparing my Selected Poems of 1966, I consulted with Allen Tate, William Meredith, and Cleanth Brooks. If two of them were strongly negative about a poem, I would take it out, unless I had my own strong reasons for leaving it in. And my editor for thirty years, Albert Erskine, is an honest man and an honest critic, who doesn't mind hurting your feelings for your own good; he is a man of extraordinary intelligence and judgment.

Do you feel that your two creative activities, fiction and poetry, are complementary to one another?

I feel this—they have the same germ; they are very different in the way they manifest themselves, but they spring from the same source. I always put the poem first—if a poem falls across a novel, I will take the poem first. I will stop the novel and go whoring after the poem, as I have done several times. I mentioned earlier how writing short stories kept me away from poetry. Well, All the King's Men is a novel, but it started out as poetry, a verse play. The original idea was implicit in a single word, the name Talus, my first name for Willie Stark and also the name of the groom in Book V of The Fairy Queen. I was thinking that people like Hitler or Huey Long are machines, executing the will of Justice. Now reducing it to one word is highly poetic, but it is purely private. As for the verse play, some years later, looking back on it for revision, I saw that, as a play, it left out the action and the complications needed to show that power, the man of power, flows into a vacuum—a vacuum in society, government, or individuals. So my man Talus became Stark in a novel—a man whose power fulfilled the weaknesses of others. Stark's gunman, for example, his bodyguard and chauffeur, is a stutterer. When Stark is dead, this man pays him his ultimate tribute: “He t-t-t-talked so g-g-g-good.” Stark fulfilled this man's desire to speak.

Now many of my poems have an implicit story or narrative line—I don't feel these generic divisions so sharply as some people do. At a certain stage your feeling moves in the direction of a certain form. Way down there early, your feeling determines what it is going to be. But it can be wrong on a first try.

Some critics feel that poetry has displaced fiction as your most important concern in recent years. Do you think that is true?

I don't know—I still try to roll with the punch and write what needs to be written on a given day. But I started as a poet and I will probably end as a poet. If I had to choose between my novels and my Selected Poems, I would keep the Selected Poems as representing me more fully, my vision and my self. I think poems are more you. Another thing about fiction. When you undertake a novel, you are selling three years in hock, and time, I should certainly say, makes a difference. And, although you can't tell about your financial future, I would have to say I don't need to write a novel right now. Ultimately, I guess I just feel that I like writing poems.

How did you come to write your beautiful poem on Audubon?

There is a little story about that. I never research a book, except if I get in a pinch on some detail, then I will look that up. But when I was thinking about writing World Enough and Time, I began to soak myself in Americana of the early nineteenth century, histories of Kentucky and Tennessee, that sort of thing. Well, Audubon appears in that history, so I went ahead and looked at his Journals and so forth. I got interested in the man and his life, and began, way back in the forties, as I said, to write a poem about Audubon. But it was a trap—I was trying to write the wrong kind of poem, I had the wrong style for it. I was thinking of it as a narrative poem, but that wasn't right for me. I did write quite a bit, but it wouldn't come together, so I set it aside and forgot about it.

Then in the sixties I was writing a history of American literature with Dick Lewis and Cleanth Brooks, and I did the basic section on Audubon to offer for their comment and criticism. We all read everything, then one person would write up a given section and the others would rewrite the first draft to their hearts' desire—a continuing process. So I got back into Audubon. Then one day, when I was helping my wife make a bed, there suddenly popped into my mind a line that had been in the first version of Audubon that I had abandoned, and this became the first line of the new version—“Was not the lost Dauphin, though handsome was only.” I never went and hunted the rest of it up, so I only had that one line to go on. I knew then that that was all I needed. I suddenly saw how to do it. I did it in fragments—snapshots of Audubon. I began to see him as a certain kind of man, a man who has finally learned to accept his fate. The poem is about man and his fate—all along Audubon resisted his fate and thought it was evil—a man is supposed to support his family and so forth. But now he accepts his fate. Late in his life he said, “I dream of nothing but birds.” Audubon was the greatest slayer of birds that ever lived—he destroyed beauty in order to whet his understanding and thereby create beauty. Love is knowledge. And then in the end the poem is about Audubon and me.

I wrote that poem mostly at night, between sleeping and waking, or early in the morning, or shouting it out loud in the Land Rover going to Yale two days a week, scribbling all the way. Then when I got a draft, I sent it to I. A. Richards. He didn't answer right away, but two weeks later I saw him at a cocktail party in Boston, and he said, “Let's go talk.” He said he liked the poem, but there was one thing wrong with it—it needed some more lyricism or lyrical sections, to give a kind of relief. I thought about that for a while, and decided he was right. So some of the lyrics, like the one on the bear, were composed after I talked with him and then inserted.

Do you have a sense of change, of evolution, as you go from book to book of poems?

Well, I would rather answer it this way—I have a horror of self-imitation. I don't want to repeat myself. I want and need (Who doesn't?) a basic continuity. But—if I didn't feel that I was onto something a little bit new, a little bit different from what I had been doing, I think I would stop. Poetry comes to me in phases, fits of a few weeks or a few months, perhaps a half-year, and then there is a break. I know pretty thoroughly when I have finished a phase—every book is based on a curve, and I know when the curve is closing in and the book of poems is over—or even a general phase of poetry. For years now I've worked that way. It is purely intuitive. When I finished the book Promises, I was completely through with poems like that. Now the next book—You, Emperors, and Others, has no real center. I was groping for a center—there may be some good poems there but no center. But after that I feel that each book is somehow a long poem. Each has one center, a feeling, and I know when that center feeling is over. Then in the next book I will discover some new body of feeling, implying experience. And that's true I think of all the books.

Now the latest book, for instance—Being Here—is quite different from the last one. Basically, it is a kind of autobiography. It didn't start out that way, but when I was well into it and began to set the true chronology of the poems, I discovered that it is a kind of shadowy autobiography. Not straight autobiography—it shouldn't be taken as a source of information. But that book is closed, and the one I'm in now is very different. I've written about forty poems since that book was sent to press, and I'll probably keep about thirty. I'm also writing a longish poem, which is going to be a book by itself—it'll be about thirty or forty pages—on Chief Joseph. I've always had in my mind a book like that, so I thought I'd go ahead and find the time this summer.

This notion of change from book to book—do you see that as a stylistic thing as well?

I think that you could find similarities in the style from early to late poems of mine, but I don't make a study of this—it's a problem, but I don't take it as my problem. For me, it's a question of working along and doing the best you can. You must try to approach each poem as a new problem, and try not to fall into the trap of thinking you have found the perfect answer, a formula for how to write a poem. This becomes more acute the older you get, and when you are seventy-five, it becomes very acute. The tendency is to imitate yourself, to repeat something that seemed to work. What I do is, if I get into a poem and find the form is going sour for me, I just throw it into a folder of old poems. Now and then I read the old stuff over and find something there which can be said and seen afresh—it could be a phrase, a line, a group of ten lines. I've done that for years.

Could you apply the idea of your essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” to your poetry?

I would say that I write an impure poetry. Sometimes the lines are almost prosaic, a limited breakoff of a lyrical process. Some poems contain prosaic lines alternating with lyrical passages, and this deliberately produces a poetic tension. I could take for example my three poems on Dreiser—well, they're really one poem. I'm a great admirer of the fiction of Dreiser—I've read him over and over again. So I wrote these three poems. One is in terza rima—a few high-flown poetic bits, but looking like a prose lyric, and ending with this line: “May I present Mr. Dreiser? He will write a great novel, someday.” That line has a different flow entirely. The second poem is in yet another style—open and free. Then the third is three tight stanzas, short lines. So they are all about Dreiser, but in very different styles—three different ways of going at him. Almost all of the composing of those poems was done in the bathtub. I was in Vermont in the winter, and would go on long hikes, getting very cold. I would warm up with long baths, so that is where the poem was written, in the bathtub.

You have some reputation as a critic and editor, though in more recent years you seem to have turned away almost completely from this type of writing.

Those are ways of being in contact with things that interest me—I never wanted to make a career of it, although I did enjoy the work. I could spend my life very happily studying Coleridge, studying Dreiser, and so forth. I just like something else better. I have more need for something else. Writing criticism is a little bit like teaching. I like to talk about books I have read, and I always liked the association with the students. I think that only in the university can you find a certain kind of humanistic temperament to deal with—I don't mean that everybody who teaches has it, but some people are quite wonderful. They know something disinterestedly, and know how to apply it, and it is a privilege to associate with them. But I couldn't have stood teaching beyond a certain point—I got sick of hearing myself, for one thing. And I have ceased to have any interest in writing criticism, even though there is a new edition of my Selected Essays in preparation. I have sworn that I will never write another line of criticism of any kind. I will write some fictional prose, I want to write a couple of more novels that are in my head, but I really enjoy writing poetry more now.

How do you feel about the common designation of you as a New Critic?

I think it's a label of convenience—a great big tent trying to cover a vast and varied menagerie. Yvor Winters is a New Critic, and I'm a New Critic, but we couldn't be more different. He believed that a firm pentameter line indicates moral strength; I think it indicates a firm pentameter line. Winters I admire, but I think he committed suicide as a poet by theorizing himself out of poetry. Cleanth Brooks is another New Critic—a devout and studious Christian, a theologian, and a historical literary scholar. He was trained at Oxford as an eighteenth-century specialist, and with his tutor, Nichols-Smith, he edited twenty-five volumes of eighteenth-century letters. Well, history and theology are supposed to have nothing to do with New Criticism. Richards is another New Critic, but he and Cleanth have both nothing and everything in common.

Ransom wrote an ontological criticism, and I am a pragmatic critic—I'm just trying to make sense of what is in hand, not trying to prove a theory. All my criticism is basically drawn from social conversation or from teaching—trying to deal with a text with a friend or a small group of students. I do believe in exegesis—poetry has to be gone into, has to be studied. I don't mean just grammatically; there's also the question of the nature of metaphors involved in poetry. And you have to pay attention to the historical context. But you can't be responsible for everybody's foolishness—your own's enough. There's more bullshit with regard to the subject of New Criticism than any other you could name, except transubstantiation.

You have lived through a whole tragic generation of American poets, people like Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell—poets suffering from alcoholism, neurosis, and so on. Do you have any explanation for that whole phenomenon?

I think you can very easily cook up romantic explanations, as some of them did, and blame it on the age. It is true that there was a time when poets had a firmer place in society, performed a clearer function. But I don't think any competent psychiatrist would say the age killed these poets—I think they would find some other explanations, closer to home. I wouldn't undertake to do a psychoanalysis of these cases. I don't know enough about them, for one thing, though it is clear that there were difficulties in their lives. Berryman was an alcoholic, Crane was an alcoholic and a homosexual, very unhappy—losing all his friends.

And Randall's life was a life of tension and torment. I was very fond of Randall, I often had him to the house when he was a freshman or a sophomore, and we became good friends for life. He was very depressed the last time I saw him. But then in the last letter I had from him, just before his death, he said, “I feel very happy now. I will teach again, I have new things to say and new poems to write. I feel better and more like myself than I have for years.” But he was having a mess of trouble too. I think poets and artists in general tend to be a little more precarious of balance in certain ways than other people. But many of them are very tough customers and know how to take their punishment; and many of them are people of great energy.

Since the fifties, your own poetry has been mostly optimistic and affirmative, emphasizing the glory of the world and its promises. And yet you also have poems on ugliness, death, racial violence, and so on. How do these poems fit into your general vision?

Well, that's all part of the picture, just the other side of it. You have people like Dreiser, who are humanly monsters but who make great things. There is Flaubert, whose main reward in going to Egypt was to get syphilis, and yet he had his inspiration for Madame Bovary, and he thanks God to be alive, appreciating the curve of the wave on the river. It is the complication of life—nothing more complicated than that.

Harold Bloom has written of certain similarities between your thinking and Emerson's. You are also the author of a poem called “Homage to Emerson.” Are you an Emersonian thinker?

Bloom has kidded me about this. We are good friends, and I admire his work greatly. Some of it leaves me far behind, but I am ready to take the fault for that. But I just don't see Emersonianism. Emerson evolved a style which allowed him to say great-sounding things, but I really think he suffers from a modern disease—self-righteousness, the idea of natural virtue. I think he just has a basic idiocy in him, the old Emersonian disease. Then there is Emerson's Platonism—I'm just not a Platonist. He would say, “We have to carry the wood into the house as though it were real.” Well, wood is real—I've cut and carried too much not to know.

What about the transcendental side of Emerson, as opposed to his more social or political commentary?

I'm not a transcendentalist. I find that kind of talk just doesn't make any sense to me—well, in some ways. I'll put it this way: I hope we can find meanings in nature, in the viewing of nature, and I am a lover of nature. I've spent a lot of time alone in the woods just watching. I've long since stopped my systematic looking at things, being scientific about it. Now it's just watching streams or something. And I think there is a rapport of man in nature, but the rapport is man regarding nature as metaphor, nature as image in emotional response. I put nothing mystic in that. Nature presents an image of meaning, it carries all of our force in itself—a hawk on the wing or a tree on the cliff. The meaning is there, but not as a god-sent message. The object is there as what it is, but its imagery can carry this vague, certainly unintended, metaphorical sense. I wouldn't go any further than that.

There is in Emerson a tremendous sense of man's potential for joy, and this seems to be an idea that you also have.

I do think man has a potential for joy. Some are lucky and some are not, and I've been lucky—knock on wood right quick. We all have troubles and difficulties in life, but I am fortunate in having a happy marriage, children to be proud of, and an occupation that can support me and that I love. Of course we don't know what tomorrow may bring, but I feel I've been extremely lucky in parents, in family life, in friends, in so many ways. I feel a very fortunate man. It is just plain joy to look at the sky or a leaf sometimes. This abiding world.

And this sense of joy is, for you, not a mystical thing, not related to any notion of an afterlife, but based on your feeling about the life we live on this actual earth of ours.

Well, I am a creature of this world—but I am also a yearner, I suppose. I would call this temperament rather than theology—I haven't got any gospel. That is, I feel an immanence of meaning in things, but I have no meaning to put there that is interesting or beautiful. I think I put it as close as I could in a poem called “Masts at Dawn”—“We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.” I am a man of religious temperament in the modern world who hasn't got any religion. Dante almost got me at one stage, but then I suddenly realized, My God, Dante's a good Protestant! If you don't believe me, read about Manfredi in the Purgatorio. Where have I gone?! I would prefer to reverse the whole ordinary thing—I would rather start with the world for my theology.

Victor Strandberg (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5839

SOURCE: Strandberg, Victor. “Poet of Youth: Robert Penn Warren at Eighty.” In Time's Glory: Original Essays on Robert Penn Warren, edited by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., pp. 91-106. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Strandberg traces enduring themes and images from Warren's poetic career illustrated in the “Altitudes and Extensions” pieces of his New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985.]

The publication of “Altitudes and Extensions” on Robert Penn Warren's eightieth birthday—April 24, 1985—invites the “Poet of Youth” designation on three grounds.1 First, as though to prove his contention that a man has all the images he will ever need by age twenty, Warren continues to write extensively about his boyhood throughout the poetry of his septuagenarian years. Second, he continues in this latest volume to explore and develop the themes he first adumbrated fifty to sixty years ago, as though these last poems were designed to fulfill the prophecy implicit in his definition of the image in All the King's Men:

We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind which become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing. …


And third, when in this fifteenth published volume of his poetry Warren approaches that last veil, the specific image-patterns that dominate “Altitudes and Extensions” obtain their brightness of meaning from an extraordinary impulse toward rejuvenation.

To take up these issues in turn, we may note that the poetry of boyhood comprises about one quarter of the forty-eight poems in this volume, fastening particularly upon intensely vivid first experiences. The awakening to female beauty in “True Love,” for example—“… There is nothing like / Beauty. It stops your heart” (42)2—prefigures Warren's theme of epiphanies, whereas the first discovery of loneliness in “Little Girl Wakes Early” (66) calls up a host of poems about alienation. Another salient poem of youth is “Doubleness in Time” (27-29), where grief slides over to “Precious Guilt” (29) as Warren describes the death of mother with an immediacy equal to that of “Revelation” (304-05) and “The Return: An Elegy” (311-14), his earliest and most fervent expressions of filial guilt and sorrow. In “Rumor at Twilight” (18), with his own death a not too distant prospect (“something / Like the enemy fleet below the horizon, in / Its radio blackout, unobserved”), the fireflies glow “like the phosphorescent / Moments of memory” for the insomniac whose head “Dents the dark pillow, eyes wide, ceilingward” while thinking of the lost mother: “Can you really reconstruct your mother's smile?” And doubtless the earliest conceivable memory for a Poet of Youth must be the one (in “The Whole Question” [54]) which takes the mother/child motif back to its infantile beginning: “… a strange, sweet taste and bulbed softness while / Two orbs of tender light leaned there above.”

But the poems of youth go back even further than this. Though dedicated to Warren's granddaughter, “Altitudes and Extensions” harks back “A hundred and sixty-odd years ago” to his grandfather's prenatal life, focusing upon the spontaneous connections of that fetal condition:

“a young woman carried it
In her belly, and smiled. It was
Not lonely there. It did not see
Her smile, but knew itself part of the world
It lived in. Do you remember a place like that?”


Now, in “Re-interment: Recollection of a Grandfather” (49-50), Gabriel Penn (the grandfather) is “lonely / But not alone, locked in my [the poet's] head” (49), where the ancestral “Nails dig at the skullseam. / … stronger and sharper each year”:

I strain to hear him speak, but words come too low
From that distance inside my skull,
And there's nothing to do but feel my heart full
Of what was true more than three-score years ago.


Lost somewhere among those vanished voices and faces is the innermost identity of the octogenarian poet, who is a Poet of Youth most of all because of his unrelenting pursuit of that primal ego which is recoverable only through the medium of the remembered image, or poetry. Most often the recovery of his lost self occurs through an epiphany of the world's beauty, as in “Far West Once” (16-17), where a starlit stream suffices to link the now and the then: “Able yet, as long ago, / Despite scum of wastage and scab of years, / To touch again the heart, as though at a dawn / Of dew-bright Edenic promise.” But the world's beauty, and its evocation of the lost self, can also inflict pain, as when (in “Rumor at Twilight”) moonlight recalls the speaker's summons to be an artist in his youth—“A boy who, drunk with the perfume of elder blossoms / And the massiveness of moonrise … cried out, / In a rage of joy” (18). Now that boy's hunger “to seize, and squeeze, significance from, / What life is” finds a cynical reply in the adult's poem-ending gesture: “You fling down / The cigarette butt. Set heel on it. It is time to go in.”

In “Old Photograph of the Future,” the lost self is palpably visible in a seventy-five year old picture of the poet as an infant, but here too the impact of the past is one of reproach to the present self of the observer: “that child, years later, stands there / … and he in guilt grieves / Over nameless promises unkept, in undefinable despair” (55). Perhaps the best summary poem of this lapsarian theme is “Covered Bridge,” whose title is a metaphor for the dark passage separating the un-self—“the boy, sleepless, who lay / In a moonless night of summer, but with star-glow / Gemming the dewy miles, and acres” (47)—from the insomniac adult whose bridge-crossing has meant a loss of identity: “… you cannot understand / What pike, highway, or path has led you from land to land, / From year to year, to lie in what strange room, / Where to prove identity you now lift up / Your own hand—scarcely visible in that gloom” (47-48).

Although nothing is more familiar to Warren's reading audience than this theme of lost identity, it becomes re-invigorated in this volume of poems with freshly imagined materials and new intensities of feeling. At the same time, Warren's sixty years as poet have established continuities which impose an overarching coherence linking this last volume to his earliest one, Thirty-Six Poems (1935), and its (unpublished) predecessors going back to Pondy Woods and Other Poems.3 The lost anima, in particular—that ideal self of boyhood that found its Edenic home in nature—correlates these latest poems with Warren's earliest ones. In “Mortal Limit” (6) the hawk that rides “updraft in the sunset over Wyoming,” its “gold eyes” seeing “New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light,” traces its genesis in this fashion to a very early poem, “Watershed” (in “Kentucky Mountain Farm”), where “The sunset hawk now rides / The tall light up the climbing deep of air” (317), its “gold eyes” scanning the darkening landscape of the mountains below. Likewise the host of wild creatures moving through time toward their mortal “home” at the end of “The Ballad of Billie Potts” (287-300)—“The bee knows, and the eel's cold ganglia burn / And the sad head lifting to the long return, / Through brumal deeps …”—have their parallels early on in “Altitudes and Extensions”: in “Caribou” (8-9), where the animals “move through the world and breathe destiny” (8); in “The First Time” (10-11), where a bull elk stands with “Great head lifted in philosophic / Arrogance against / God's own sky” (11); and in “Minnesota Recollection” (12-14), where an old farmer evinces these creatures' natural dignity when he meets his death by freezing: “His [frozen] face was calm. / It had, you might say, an innocent expression” (14).

As against these anima figures of innocent expression, Warren's lifelong theme of guilt or a fall from innocence also finds strong embodiment in these latest pages. At times the guilt is singular and personal, as in “The Distance Between: Picnic of Old Friends” (41), where a clandestine sexual encounter ends in shame and loneliness, but elsewhere Warren expands the theme of the Fall to a national, historic scale—an enterprise that traces back through Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983), the re-written Brother to Dragons (1979), and the books about the Civil War. In this new instance, a long poem ironically called “New Dawn” (32-40), national innocence is shattered with the blast over Hiroshima. Written with a journalistic fidelity to fact, “New Dawn” exhibits a peculiarly American psychology of innocence in the crew's willful absorption in the mechanics of their job, with only Tibbets the pilot betraying some signs of misgiving: a “taste like lead” (clearly psychological in origin, not physical) when the bomb explodes; and later, after the awards and the feasting, a sense of alienation (“Some … before sleep, consider / One thought: I am alone” [40]).

Among these new poems, Warren's most elaborate treatment of the lapsarian theme must be the first poem in the book, “Three Darknesses” (3-6). Set in “the zoo of Rome,” Part I of this poem uses the site where Warren began writing his masterwork on The Fall, All the King's Men, in 1939-1940. The poem's central figure, a bear that keeps pounding at an iron door in a cage, recalls the metaphor of an undiscovered self that Warren applied to Willie Stark in that novel: “… and the feet would keep on trampling, back and forth like the feet of a heavy animal prowling … in a locked-up room, or a cage, hunting for the place to get out. … And listening to it, you wouldn't be so sure for a minute the bar or board would hold” (All the King's Men 75). The second darkness, in Part II of “Three Darknesses,” also evokes The Fall in its snake imagery (“Up Black Snake River, … / a snake / … / … slides off a bough” [3-4]) and in its theme of social isolation: “Nothing human is visible. Each of us lies looking / Seaward. … We seem ashamed / Of conversation” (3-4). (This poem also harks back to the poems of the 1930's such as “Monologue at Midnight” and “Picnic Remembered.”) And the final darkness, in Part III, is a patient's thought of death while lying in a hospital: “A dress rehearsal, / You tell yourself, for / The real thing. Later” (4).

Within this framework of familiar themes, Warren formulates, in “Three Darknesses,” some new answers to the old dilemmas. Most notably, after claiming in Part I that “Since my idiot childhood the world has been / Trying to tell me something,” he proceeds past the failure of human communication in Part II to indicate, in Part III, the language in which the world speaks. It is, of course, a language beyond words and names; the world's message must inhere, as in the passage cited earlier from All the King's Men, in the image itself. Here at the outset of “Altitudes and Extensions” the image in question is laughably minimal, appearing in a cliched art form (“an old-fashioned western movie”) on a television screen in the sickroom, but it recurs larger and closer throughout this collection as though to profile that “brightness of meaning” mentioned earlier:

          Action fades into distance, but
You are sure that virtue will triumph. Far beyond
All the world, the mountains lift. The snow peaks
Float into moonlight. They float
In that unnamable altitude of white light. God
Loves the world. For what it is.


By designing his opening poem in this way—having the Three Darknesses end in a small patch of light on a television screen—Warren anticipates the “old tale told” motif which is the concluding phrase in “Altitudes and Extensions.” It is true that his own “old tale told” in these poems will not be quite like the old-fashioned western, but his poems and the television movie do share one common purpose, which was best defined, I think, by William Faulkner in his Foreword to The Faulkner Reader: “To uplift man's heart; the same for all of us: for the ones who are trying to be artists, the ones who are writing simple entertainment, the ones who write to shock, and the ones who are simply escaping themselves. … He [the artist] would lift up man's heart … because in that way he can say No to death” (x-xi). Warren's most overt instance of saying No to death occurs in his epigraph to “Altitudes and Extensions,” quoted from St. Augustine: “Will ye not now after that life is descended down to you, will not you ascend up to it and live?” But in addition to this epigraph these poems present collectively an imagistic expression of this theme by gradually amplifying the key images in the television picture: light, mountains, the unnameable (or unwordable), God's love.

Always a poet of dialectical impulse, Warren arranges the poems between the beginning and the end of this collection in a loosely contrapuntal pattern. The sunset hawk in “Mortal Limit” (6), for example, which “will accept the mortal limit” much like Wallace Stevens's pigeons at the end of “Sunday Morning,” is played off against the airplane in the next poem, “Immortality over the Dakotas” (7), where the passenger rides securely distant from the doomed farmer looking up in the night. The theme of mortality is most intimately treated in Section II, where a pet (“Old Dog Dead”), a parent (“Doubleness in Time”), old friends (“After the Dinner Party”), and the poet himself (“Snowfall”) are either dead or prospectively so; but even here a contrapuntal thread of affirmation emerges strongly. “Hope,” for example, moves from “the orchidaceous light of evening” to “the promise / Of moonrise” and its “white forgiveness,” pausing in the middle to savor the redemption offered by the world's beauty: “While cinders in the west die, the world / Has its last blooming. Let your soul / Be still” (22). And “Why You Climbed Up” portrays the mountains as an agency of quasi-mystical immersion in the world's beauty, from its minimal embodiment (“you will see / The tiny glint of the warbler's eye, see / The beak, half-open, in still heat gasp” [23]) to the panoramic—“on this high ridge, seeing / The sun blaze down on the next and higher horizon.” The reward for climbing to this perspective is the mystic's summum bonum, cancellation of the ego, “As though to forget and leave / All things, great and small, you call / The past, all things, great and small, you call / The Self”; but, of course, the lapse back to individual identity recurs with the descent from the mountain—“… stumbling, down. / Then all begins again. And you are you.” Concluding Section II, “Snowfall” moves toward a remarkably serene reconciliation with mortality. The poem first gathers a lifetime of good memories like the harvest suggested by Lear's “Ripeness is all” (“What year will you know the fruit that is yourself?” [30]), and then portrays the snow coming over this landscape of memory as a final fulfillment—“and you / Stand in the darkness of whiteness / Which is the perfection of Being” (31).

The capital letter in “perfection of Being” relates this poem to the motif of God's love back in “Three Darknesses.” (Earlier poems like “A Way to Love God” in the “Arcturus” collection and “Interjection #6” in Or Else also sanctified death in this way.) To say No to death by seeing it as “the perfection of Being” may raise suspicions of sophistry, but analogues spring to mind from impeccable sources—Whitman's accolade to death in Section 49 of Song of Myself, for example: “O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers and promotions.” Warren's own pantheistic sensibility traces back to his earliest work as a poet. In Poem II of “Kentucky Mountain Farm”—a poem of the 1920's—a pantheistic deity receives its own worn-out phenomena returning down the stream of time:

… the fractured atoms now are borne
Down shifting waters to the tall, profound
Shadow of the absolute deeps,
Wherein the spirit moves and never sleeps
That held the foot among the rocks, that bound
The tired hand upon the stubborn plow,
Knotted the flesh unto the hungry bone,
The redbud to the charred and broken bough,
And strong the bitter tendons of the stone.


The primary difference between this early poetry and that of the 1980's is of tone rather than concept. Words like “fractured,” “tired,” “hungry,” “broken,” and “bitter,” indicative of the influence of The Waste Land in the 1920's, give way to a tone of acceptance and celebration in the late volumes. Here in “Altitudes and Extensions,” “Last Walk of Season” (44) presents a notable instance of that celebratory spirit. Placed near the middle of this collection, it evokes the crucial motifs from the television scene—light, mountains, the unnamable love of the world for what it is—but they now assume an imminent magnitude as opposed to the small-screen image of their original appearance. As its title implies, “Last Walk of Season” is a poem of farewell, perhaps permanent, to the world's beauty: “For the last time … we climb / In the westward hour, up the mountain trail / To see the last light.” In that last light, with “No cloud in the washed evening,” a Wordsworthian immersion in nature gradually ensues as the eye again moves from the minimal (“How bright, / Rainwashed, the pebbles shine!”) to an overview of a mountain lake: “Beyond it, the sun, / Ghostly, dips, flame-huddled in mist. We undertake / Not to exist, except as part of that one / Existence.” At this level of intensity, the theme of the unnamable comes into play, bespeaking experience too immediate for language: “Can it be that the world is but the great word / That speaks to meaning of our joy?” And at the end the shared experience of the world's beauty counteracts the second of the Three Darknesses, solipsistic isolation. The double use of “contact” here underscores the communion experience typical of Warren's “Osmosis of Being” concept4: “Scarcely in consciousness, a hand finds, on stone, a hand. / They are in contact. Past lake, over mountain, last light / Probes for contact with the soft-shadowed land.”

Directly in the middle of this collection—Section V of the nine sections—are the poems of boyhood reminiscence mentioned earlier, recalling grandfather, a kindly uncle, an elderly friend of the family, and the poet himself in his Eden period. Immediately thereafter, beginning Section VI, “Muted Music” reduces the faculty of memory to something as fragile as a fly's noise in a barn: “Does the past now cruise your empty skull like / That blundering buzz at barn-height … ?” (53) But in the end this “muted music” of the past evokes that language beyond words by which the world says something—“the song the moth sings, the babble / Of falling snowflakes (in a language / No school has taught you), the scream / Of the reddening bud of the oak tree / As the bud bursts into the world's brightness.” The remaining poems of Section VI—the longest section of “Altitudes and Extensions”—also center upon problems of language and communication. “The Whole Question” portrays the child's growth into language-speaking as a regression from the reality known to the infant: “You knew more words, but they were words only,” so now “you must try to rethink what is real. Perhaps / It is only a matter of language that traps you. You / May yet find a new one in which experience overlaps / Words.”

Regarding the “matter of language that traps you,” one concept in particular proves most elusive and essential: the search for identity, or self, that brings the solitary seeker beyond the boundary of words and deeply into nature. In “Why Boy Came to Lonely Place,” the problem is stated: “You say the name they gave you. That's all you are” (56); in “Platonic Lassitude,” immersion in nature frames a solution (“So, lulled, you loll in the lap of Time's wave, and the great crest, / … will never descend”), until the crow's call (often a voice of reality in Warren's verse) harshly ends the séance; in “The Place,” the self comes closer yet to absorption by nature (“lying on stone, / Among fern fronds, and waiting / For the shadow to find you” [61]); and in “If Snakes Were Blue” (65), the perfect day (with “clouds like pink lilypads floating”) suffices to call back the lost anima with “the kind of promise / We give ourselves in childhood when first dawn / Makes curtains go gold. …” Here—tellingly—this recall of the lost anima is connected with the crucial motifs (mentioned earlier from the television screen): “True, few fulfillments—but look! In the distance lift peaks / Of glittering white above the wrath-torn land.”

Here in Section VI the immersion in nature is further amplified by a dialectical characterization of the seasons, which are both literal and a figure for the swift passage of a lifetime. In “Seasons,” a poem in two parts, the movement from spring to fall evokes the rueful irony featured in Warren's poetry of fifty years ago. Part I, “Downwardness” (58), juxtaposes the “lust for downwardness” in the snow-melt against a tentative “sacred cycle”: “But time will change, clouds again draw up buckets, / … And in earth-darkness moisture will climb the lattices of clay.” Part II, “Interlude of Summer” (59), employs the recurring mountain image in a memorable vignette of time's velocity:

Evening by evening, the climactic melodrama of
Day flares from behind the blackening silhouette
Of the mountain for the last and majestic pyre of
What of today you can remember, or forget.

Along the way, Warren's favorite flower (symbolizing his Eden period) suffers its own “fall” into a degenerate state: “The woodland violet that was your love is replaced by the roadside aster.” And as the lapse accelerates—“The faces of the children are now hardening toward definition,” “And gullet has sucked juice from the / … tooth-gored pear,” “An old friend dies this summer”—the autumn season provokes a strategy of evasion: “But your own health is good. Conversation / Turns to New England foliage, which has begun beautifully. … / After all, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy.” Yet conversely, “First Moment of Autumn Recognized” (62) celebrates the season, without irony, as pure epiphany:

… From brightest blue
Spills glitter of afternoon, more champagne than ever
Summer. Bubble and sparkle burst in
Tang, taste, tangle, tingle, delicious
On tongue of spirit, joyful in eye-beam.

This is the sort of beauty that can bring the anima self back from its long exile, “your being perfected / At last, in the instant itself which is unbreathing.”

Section VII consists of four more poems about moments of communion without language—through the artistry of music in “Youthful Picnic Long Ago: Sad Ballad on Box” (69-70); through loving touch in “History During Nocturnal Snowfall” (71); through the train's wail in “Whistle of the 3 A.M.” (72); and through a shared journey in “Last Night Train” (73-74). Moreover, these poems accentuate the nameless as well as the wordless, suggesting the kind of communion that evokes the anima condition. Whereas names distinguish and separate, namelessness fosters the “Osmosis of Being” process that Warren described in his essay on “Knowledge and the Image of Man.” For the sleepers in “History During Nocturnal Snowfall” and “Last Night Train” (involving bedmates and strangers on a train, respectively), the “each alone” status of conscious thought is transcended by “the unconscious wallow of flesh-heap” to which the speaker relates himself in this latter poem. And perhaps the loss of names in “Youthful Picnic Long Ago,” including that of the singer (“her name, it flees the fastest!”), finally enhances the “One Life we all live” motif that connects these poems with those of the “Billie Potts” period in the 1940's.

As the pursuit of the lost anima intensifies in Section VIII, the television images observed as tiny and distant in “Three Darknesses” assume imminent proximity. Light and mountains now fill the eye at both the literal and metaphorical level of comprehension. Metaphorically, the light of artistic imagination prevails in “Milton: A Sonnet” (75), restoring to the blind poet something like the anima's joyful presence: “a present in which the blessèd heart / May leap like a gleaming fish from water into / Sunlight. …” A similar light of creativity combines with mountain imagery in “Wind and Gibbon,” which portrays the great historian's art as a refuge from the night-wind—itself a metaphor of history as chaos: “The wind / Is like a dream of History. Blows where it listeth” (77). Gibbon, of course, elicits design and order from History—“History is not truth. Truth is in the telling” (77). Through the night the “hot lava” of Gibbon's “incandescent irony” lights up the reader's mental landscape like the sun's “single / Beam, sky-arrowing,” that “strikes / The mountain to dazzlement” (78) next morning.

The motif of namelessness—correlating with the anima level of identity—continues its prevalence in this penultimate section of “Altitudes and Extensions.” “Whatever You Now Are” (76) asks whether the sleeper who dreams is not a truer self than the conscious ego: “But dawn breaks soon, and that self will have fled away. / Will a more strange one yet inhabit the precinct of day?” And “Sunset” (84)—the penultimate poem in this collection—imposes its ominous setting (“a dire hour”) upon the search for “your naked self—never / Before seen, nor known.” “Who knows his own name at the last,” Warren asks, having vainly “asked stars the name of my soul.” Had Warren ended his new collection here, instead of going on to one more poem, the final image behind all those veils may have turned out to be “flaming apocalypse” that consumes identity and all else in this memorable fusion of visual effect and sound-texture:

Clouds clamber, turgid, the mountain, peakward
And pine-pierced, toward the
Vulgar and flaming apocalypse of day,
In which our errors are consumed
Like fire in a lint-house—

In the end, the “divine osmosis” threading through these last poems answers the need for identity. In “Delusion?—No!” (79) this merging of self in a collective Being occurs when the mountain-top perspective releases a familiar anima sensibility: “Yes, stretch forth your arms like wings, and from your high stance, / Hawk-eyed, ride forth upon the emptiness of air. …” In “Question at Cliff-Thrust” (80-81) this absorption into the world's being occurs in an undersea setting—“one great green … depth that steadily / Absorbs your being in its intensity.” (In this case it is the bird above the surface that expresses the disconsolation of the separate ego—“once gull that screams … and is / Demanding what?”) And in “It Is Not Dead” (82-83) the osmosis of being reaches beyond the animate world (where it stopped at the end of “Billie Pots”) to embrace equally the inorganic. Like the soul or anima in the animate creation, the rock in the brook “has tried / To find its true nature” since its emergence out of “nameless heat under / Nameless pressure” in the earth's core. Claiming “brotherhood” with this piece of inert matter, and “Brooding on our common destinies,” Warren exhibits a pantheism—or at least a vitalism—that recalls Spinoza's dictum that matter thinks. Or, closer to Warren's American heritage, one thinks of Thoreau's vitalistic vision in the “Spring” section of Walden: “There is nothing inorganic. … The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history … but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit,—not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic” (210-211). In Warren's own verse, this strand of vitalism may be traced back through poems like “Interjection #2: Caveat” in Or Else (1974), where a fragment of rock “screams / in an ecstasy of / being” (12), all the way to “Kentucky Mountain Farm,” where Poem I comprises the “Rebuke of the Rocks” against sexual generation.

Warren's concluding poem, “Myth of Mountain Sunrise” (85), whose eighteen lines are distinctive enough to compose all of Section IX—is a remarkable performance as a culminating expression of Warren's themes and images. The mountain, so tiny and distant in “Three Darknesses,” now envelops the observer, immersing him in stone: “No light here enters, has ever entered but / In ageless age of primal flame.” Within its “curdling agony of interred dark,” however, the mountain's interior thrusts toward daylight—it “strives dayward, in stone strives”—in obedience to the deepest design of nature: “But look! All mountains want slow- / ly to bulge outward extremely.” Of course the mountain is animate; more than that, it is personified and humanized as Warren follows its course from night's dream (“Prodigious, prodigal, crags steel-ringing / To dream-hoofs nightlong”) to dawn's waking: “The mountain dimly wakes, stretches itself on windlessness. Feels its deepest chasm, waking, yawn.” Further, in its own wordless language, the stone speaks—“Words stone-incised in language unknowable, but somehow singing”—as a leaf-tongue verifies by answering the testimony of the stone: “Leaf cries: ‘I feel my deepest filament in dark rejoice. / I know that the density of basalt has a voice.’”

The closing six-line stanza of “Myth of Mountain Sunrise” provides a glorious climax of this poem, of this collection, and of Warren's purpose as a poet of youth/rejuvenation. Here the fusion of light and Eros constitutes Warren's wholly original “myth” of sunrise (as he confirmed in a phone conversation with me), yet it bears analogies to both the Semitic “Let there be light” and the Hellenistic Zeus coupling with earthlings. Probably the latter analogy is the more striking for the manly vigor with which the sun's ray grasps by the haunch the birch which stands in the brook, ready to be taken (“head back-flung, eyes closed in first beam”):

How soon will the spiderweb, dew-dappled, gleam
In Pompeian glory! Think of a girl-shape, birch-white sapling rising now
From ankle-deep brook-stones, head back-flung, eyes closed in first beam,
While hair—long, water-roped, past curve, coign, sway that no geometries know—
Spreads end-thin, to define fruit-swell of haunches, tingle of hand-hold.
The sun blazes over the peak. That will be the old tale told.

For “brightness of meaning”—to recall Warren's statement about image in All the King's Men—it is difficult to imagine anything more striking than this behind the final veil. What makes it all the more striking is direct contradiction between this closure and those of all Warren's previous volumes of poetry. Up until this volume of his eightieth year, every published collection has ended in an image of full darkness or declining light. To highlight the contrast, it is worth cataloguing those first fourteen closures. In the concluding poem of Warren's first volume, Thirty-Six Poems (1935), the father's gravestone “Ascends the night and propagates the dark”; Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) moves from “Monologue at Midnight” to “Terror”; at the end of “The Ballad of Billie Potts” (1943), Little Billie and “you, wanderer” “kneel in the sacramental silence of evening”—“an evening empty of wind or bird”—in acceptance of mortality; Brother to Dragons (1953 and 1979) ends with Warrens's meditation “In the last light of December's, and the day's, declension”; Promises (1957) ends, in “The Necessity for Belief,” with a sunset and moonrise (“The sun is red, and the sky does not scream”); You, Emperors, and Others (1960) ends with a set of quatrain poems called “Short Thoughts for Long Nights”; “Tale of Time” (1966) ends, in “Finisterre,” with a sunset over San Francisco (“And the last of day, it would seem, goes under”); Incarnations (1968) ends with “Fog” (“the luminous blindness”); Audubon (1969) ends with “Tell Me A Story,” set “By a dirt road, in first dark”); Or Else (1974) ends with “A Problem in Spatial Composition,” which is a verbal painting of sunset (“Sun now down, flame, above blue, dies upward forever in / Saffron”); “Can I See Arcturus from Where I Stand?” (1975) ends in the late-night setting of “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart” (“by a bare field, a shack unlit? / Entering into that darkness to fumble / My way to a place to lie down”; Now and Then (1978) ends with the poet longing to join the wild geese flying southward “Toward sunset, at a great height”; Being Here (1980) ends with “Passers-By on Snowy Night”; Rumor Verified (1981) ends with the failing light of “Fear and Trembling” (“The sun now angles downward, and southward”); and even Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce ends with the narrator telling his friend, “It's getting night, and a hell of a way / To go.”

Theologically, that lusty sun grasping for the world's beauty justifies in the end the pale abstraction in “Three Darknesses,” that God loves the world for what it is. We may further postulate that it does something similar for the Spirit of the Deeps, seen wearily receiving the refuse of Time in “Kentucky Mountain Farm.” But it is mainly a tribute to the poet's own spirit that in his eightieth year he would so exercise his rejuvenating imagination. A full two decades (and more) ago, George P. Garrett, Jr., compared Warren's “steady growth and blooming” as a poet entering his sixties to “that last astounding harvest of W. B. Yeats” (as well as Picasso and Stravinsky). At that time, Warren had not written half his present poetic oeuvre. What can be said now had perhaps best be said by Warren himself. In a poem in You, Emperors, and Others (1960) titled “In the Turpitude of Time: N. D.,” Warren wrote: “In the heart's last kingdom only the old are young” (31). Thinking of that paramour sun with his birch lover, we can believe it.


  1. Altitudes and Extensions (1980-1984) is the first section of poems in New and Selected Poems (Random 1985) and is viewed by Warren as a new “book” of poems similar to Can I See Arcturus from Where I Stand?—Poems 1975 (Selected Poems, 1923-1975) and Tale of Time: New Poems, 1960-1966 (Selected Poems: New & Old, 1923-1966). [Editor's note.]

  2. Poems cited are from New and Selected Poems unless otherwise noted.

  3. Warren's unpublished works are listed, with dates, in Robert Penn Warren: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1922-1979, by James A. Grimshaw, Jr. (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1981).

  4. See Warren's essay, first presented as a speech to the American Philological Society, entitled “Knowledge and the Image of Man.” It later appeared in Sewanee Review 63 (1955): 182-92.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “Foreword.” The Faulkner Reader: Selections from the Works of William Faulkner. New York: Random, 1954.

Garrett, George Palmer, Jr. “The Recent Poetry of Robert Penn Warren.” Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. John L. Longley, Jr. New York: New York UP, 1965. 223-36.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience”. Ed. Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton, 1960.

Warren, Robert Penn. All the King's Men. Modern Library Edition. New York: Random, 1953.

———. Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, A New Version. New York: Random, 1979.

———. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. New York: Random, 1983.

———. “Knowledge and the Image of Man.” Sewanee Review 63 (1955): 182-92.

———. New and Selected Poems, 1923-1985. New York: Random, 1985.

———. Or Else-Poem / Poems 1968-1974. New York: Random, 1974.

———. Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966. New York: Random, 1966.

———. Selected Poems, 1923-1975. New York: Random, 1975.

———. You, Emperor, and Others: Poems 1957-1960. New York: Random, 1960.

Andrew Zawacki (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Zawacki, Andrew. “Retro Values, Radical Voice.” The Times Literary Supplement 350, no. 5011 (April 16, 1999): 30.

[In the following review of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, Zawacki briefly encapsulates Warren's poetic accomplishments and his literary status at the end of the twentieth century.]

The problem of knowledge has defined the major poetries of the past century. While contemporary thought is witnessing so many catch-phrase exhaustions—the end of history, of ideology, of the aesthetic—Robert Penn Warren (1905-89) invigorated six decades with his investigations into the origins of knowledge and its erratic trajectory towards or away from a realization in truth. “What is love?” he asked in Audubon: A Vision (1969): “One name for it is knowledge.” Jean Jacques Audubon was Warren's most compelling avatar because of the legendary Dauphin's preoccupation with both self-knowledge and a scientific understanding of the world. Warren imagined Audubon cataloguing birds with precision even as he “did not know / What he was. Thought: ‘I do not know my own name’.” Warren continually explored this inability to name the self, its source and ultimate dissolution, articulating epistemological predicaments as early as “Problem of Knowledge” from Thirty-Six Poems (1935):

What years, what hours, has spider contemplation spun
Her film to snare the muscled fact?
What hours unbuild the done undone,
Or apprehend the actor in the act?
Loving, with Orphic smile, we yearn
Down the deep backward our feet, we think, have trod:
Or sombrely, under the solstice turn,
We sow where once our mattock cracked the clod.
The rodent tooth has etched the bone,
Beech bole is blackened by the fire:
Was it a sandal smote the troughèd stone?
We rest, lapped in the arrogant chastity of our desire.

The compressed formalism of Warren's early work, with its emphasis on rhyme and thematic enjambment (“fact”, “act”, “cracked”), reflected not only an aesthetic conservatism converging on New Criticism, but also a resistant social position. The Fugitive Movement to which he belonged, and which included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and other poet-critics, apologized for a Southern agrarian culture they hoped to preserve from industrial capitalism. Yet Warren became enamoured of modernist poetry, despite the city at its centre, and while his roots in Guthrie, Kentucky, remained strong, he flowered into cosmopolitanism. A Rhodes Scholarship enabled him to travel, to England and on to Paris to visit Pound, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and in “Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand?” (1975), the elder statesman admitted that although his imagery had been largely drawn from nature, “how acutely I remember the romantic shock which I encountered, even before I knew the great cities, of the urban poetry of modernity, from Baudelaire to T. S. Eliot”.

Warren's dialogue between the country mouse and city mouse engendered distinctions between mice and men. The title character of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé (1982) provided an opportunity to condemn injustices suffered by a Native American Indian tribe at the hands of an expansionist US government, though the poem is equally remarkable for its extended analysis of the individual's struggle with valour and vanity, courage and self-renunciation: “Straight standing, he thrusts out his rifle, / Muzzle-grounded, to [General] Howard. It is / The gesture, straight-flung, of one who casts the world away.” Having fought out of need, Joseph surrendered out of a greater necessity and died over reservation graves, but not before wanting “to know if he / Had proved a man, and being / A man, would make all those / Who now there slept know / Their own manhood.” Warren earnestly inquired into integrity in the verse novel Brother to Dragons (1953, revised 1979) about President Jefferson's notorious silence regarding the murder of a slave by his nephews. While Warren had a peculiar habit of cumbersome and Latinate moralizing—“to the pure heart, Truth speaks”—Harold Bloom's statement in the foreword to this Collected Poems that Warren was “probably the most severe secular moralist that I have ever known” is crucial to understanding the poet's eccentricities.

According to John Burt's introduction to the extensive notes (170 pages' worth), Warren had begun assembling a Collected Poems before his death. Rather than compile the most current versions of Warren's work, however, as Warren had done in the 1985 Selected Poems, Burt has wisely opted to reconstruct the original volumes, preferring the poet's unfolding development to retrospective summary. Warren was a tireless reviser: poems in journals were often extensively rewritten for collections, Chief Joseph went through eleven drafts prior to the typescript, and Being Here (1980) was emended at every stage. Burt's meticulous notes collate all the poems' myriad versions, forming a practically separate book of fascinating minutiae about a poet at once painstaking and inadvertent. Burt has made consistent the enumeration of the labyrinthine sections and subsections of Warren's longer poems, as well as addressing the poet's most surprising inattention:

The “line bends” are often marked on the typescript, and they are frequently not in the place where Warren bent the line when he was typing it. In most of these cases my assumption is that Warren did not think in detail about how to break the line on the printed page until he went over the typescript with [editor Albert] Erskine. … The typesetters pretty much ignored how the lines were bent in Incarnations, and neither Warren nor Erskine seems to have noticed.

This seems a specious claim to make about any poet, let alone one whose beginnings vigilantly insisted on formal rigour, yet it illuminates Warren's eventual transformation to a more lyrical and discursive mode. For all their philosophical and historical probing, his later poems could be sloppy. He exercised greatest control over Brother to Dragons, which, while regrettably absent here, is promised by Burt as a parallel volume.

The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren appears precisely when Warren is no longer being read seriously, at least not by younger poets. A distrust of narrative may be unfairly relegating him to the sidelines, since he is sometimes stereotyped as a narrative poet on the strength of “The Ballad of Billie Potts” and his book-length verse tales. He has been short-sightedly pigeonholed as a regional Southern writer by some, and others look no further than his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men (1948), although he also won two Pulitzers for poetry. His poems are often considered masculinist—a criticism not necessarily unfounded—and however convincingly he reformed his views on race, he used the word “nigger” frequently (though the problems of prejudice in Warren have not generated nearly the same heat as racism in Frost). Possibly his poems gesturing toward metaphysical unity are misconstrued as irrelevant when the primary strain of American poetry is morphing out of post-Language Poetry and postmodern fragmentation (though that has not penalized Stevens), and the New Critical tenets central to Warren's poetics have been vigorously displaced by criticism more sympathetic to experimentation. There is already an air of the period piece about Warren's oeuvre, but his mastery of the poetic sequence and of the long poem still recommends him. The cultural moment also permits a view of his “lettered” example not as retro but radical; he was a fine literary critic (having co-authored with Cleanth Brooks the still-circulating Understanding Poetry, 1938), cultural commentator (see especially Who Speaks for the Negro?, 1965), editor (he founded Southern Review in 1935), novelist, short-story writer, playwright and, as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, spokesman. While Warren's Collected Poems is too monolithic to negotiate conveniently, his persistent questioning of whether “the baroque ironies of Time” are informed by “logic” or “accident” solicits a return to the poems he offered as provisional answers:

Let the leaf, gold, of birch,
Of beech, forever hang, not vegetable matter mortal, but
In no whatsoever breath of
Air. No—embedded in
Perfection of crystal, purer
Than air. You, embedded too in
Crystal, stand, your being perfected
At last, in the instant itself which is unbreathing.
Can you feel breath brush your damp
Lips? How can you know?

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Robert Penn Warren Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 1)