Robert Penn Warren Warren, Robert Penn - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Cleanth Brooks (essay date 1939)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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E. S. Forgotson (essay date 1941)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Crowe Ransom (review date 1944)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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F. O. Matthiessen (review date 1944)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Dudley Fitts (review date 1944)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Robert Lowell (review date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Babette Deutsch (review date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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F. Cudworth Flint (review date 1954)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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James Dickey (review date 1958)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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James Wright (review date 1958)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Louis L. Martz (review date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Monroe K. Spears (review date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Yenser (review date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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:


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J. D. McClatchy (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Dave Smith (review date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Laurence Lieberman (review date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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William H. Pritchard (review date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Charles Bohner (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Monroe K. Spears (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Victor Strandberg (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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James H. Justus (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1336 words.)

Philip Balla (review date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Calvin Bedient (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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Harold Bloom (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Harold Bloom (review date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 4229 words.)

Peter Stitt (review date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2043 words.)

Dave Smith (review date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1098 words.)

Robert Penn Warren with Peter Stitt (interview date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8729 words.)

Victor Strandberg (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5839 words.)

Andrew Zawacki (review date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 854 words.)