Robert Penn Warren

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Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 6)

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Warren, Robert Penn 1905–

The youngest of the "Fugitive Group" of Southern American poets, Warren was one of the original New Critics and a founding editor of The Southern Review. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his novel All the King's Men and another in 1958 for poetry. Distinguished in every genre, Warren is one of America's most important and influential literary figures. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

One theme penetrates all Warren's works—his poetry, his fiction, his criticism: the conflict, for man, between World and Idea. The world is that set of tough, incontrovertible conditions that man encounters in his brute experience of actuality; the Idea is the dream, the moral and spiritual vision of how things ought to be. Warren rebukes the idealist and the rationalist for their wilful ignorance of the contingencies of life, which can be given significance only by an act of imagination. Indeed in his creative works he builds "models" of imagination impinging on action, much in the manner of a physicist making visible the structures of experience which lie beneath observables. In his fiction and less obviously in his criticism, America has been the testing ground for the warring elements of world and idea. Warren's concern for the Negro is part of this struggle to bring observed experience into some moral coherence, to "save" the dream by confronting the worst violation of it. It is apparent that, despite his deep concern for form in literature, Warren is basically a social and political critic, not at all a formalist in the sense of one who sees art as constructing an ideal order apart from other human significance. (p. 64)

Louise Cowan, in her The Southern Critics (copyright 1972 The University of Dallas Press), University of Dallas Press, 1972.

Jack Burden provides much of the fascination of [All the King's Men], but he is also its weakest link, since the presentation of each incident through his eyes put us too much at the mercy of his defective vision. The obvious influence on All The King's Men is For Whom The Bell Tolls, which bears both on the subject and the style. It would be unjust to regard Jack Burden's manner as merely derivative of Hemingway; it owes a lot to the circumstantial connections—of employment, temperament and education—which link Burden with Hemingway's heroes. Penn Warren has taken the trouble to return to the social base. But he cannot always control the effect, with the result that there are times when Burden sounds like Robert Jordan, and other moments when he sounds like Philip Marlowe. This is not because Penn Warren has also been reading Chandler, but because they are both using some of the same postulates in the creation of their characters. The difficulty is exacerbated by the ending of the novel. The death of Stark is described with great effectiveness, but it leaves Burden still on stage, and with a great many unresolved problems.

I suspect the unsatisfactoriness of the conclusion encouraged reviewers to label the book fascist. Not only did Penn Warren attempt a sympathetic portrayal of a man ideologically repugnant to many liberals; worse, he implied that some problems were irremediable, stemming from fundamental defects in human nature, and that such problems might afflict a democracy no less severely than other political structures. Even this might have proved palatable, had it not been for the shift of emphasis in the ending. It is at this final but vital juncture that the attempt to interweave two narratives breaks down. The convention of the...

(This entire section contains 4276 words.)

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big narrative novel demands a resolution, and here there are two narratives to resolve. Mr Penn Warren, whose major literary distinction is as a poet, has up to this point managed to write a novel that, one or two brilliant flashes of natural description aside, is determinedly not a 'poet's novel.' But in concluding he introduces a lyrical and private mode, and the suggestion is that this signifies in a way that the Stark saga does not. There is, once again, an unpalatable truth in this, but Penn Warren does not establish his terms strongly enough for this to impinge properly. The consequence is that the conclusion seems a sentimental palliative to the tough world that has been described. It is a pity, since even a good piece is damaged if the final chords are false.

Richard Luckett, "Richard Luckett on a Novelist of Fact," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 26, 1974, p. 106.

Robert Penn Warren's book, Or Else, travels inward into "the dark pit of self," examining his thoughts about death, the nature of time, his dreams, his relation to his father and indeed to the universe. The poems are rich and allusive, even when conversational in tone…. A fascination with death runs through these poems, sometimes terrifying as in the dream poem where he sees the corpses of his parents sitting in their old chairs; always tentative in his insistent probing for the meaning that death brings to existence…. Warren circles around the mystery of life and death with his unanswerable questions. This circular feeling gives Or Else a unity of tone; it could be considered one long poem, as Warren suggests. Even the already well-known set pieces, "Flaubert in Egypt" and "Homage to Theodore Dreiser," deal with the same concerns…. Or Else is filled with moving poetry; "Reading Late At Night, Thermometer Falling," a poem about Warren's father, is a great triumph. (pp. 29-30)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.

[The] gigantic shadow of … Huey Long still hovers over the character of Robert Penn Warren's hero, Willie Stark, as if it really mattered—as if, indeed, it really matters whether Shakespeare's historiography, for example, was accurate in his portrayal of tragic heroes…. All the King's Men is a political novel, of course. But it is so only as Oedipus and Shakespeare's tragedies are political plays. Out of the concerns of their time, they rise to depict not a local society, but the entire society of men.

So with the story of Willie Stark. Warren's concept of the tragic hero is typically American, particularly southern, like Faulkner's, yet universal as well. Willie rises out of a community of ignorant, hopeless, superstitious, red-neck hicks of the Louisiana countryside, and in true American mythic fashion, he clambers upward from a peeling, clapboard farmhouse to a gaudy governor's mansion. Cavalierly he takes from the rich and gives (most) to the poor, but forgets not the strategically placed politician either. Willie Stark is the man for this season in the evolution of his southern society, but it is wrong to say that a different set of social conditions would have precluded the coming of this hero. Society represents not a moment of time in social history, as far as Warren is concerned, but … a "spiritual condition—the decline of tradition, the loss of an integrating force."

Warren is as aware as Faulkner of the history mystique of the South. His recognition of the power of history is reflected in the novel's narrator, Jack Burden, a self-styled student of history who becomes Willie's hatchet man and disciple. In the scheme of the novel, Warren is as interested in the moral evolution of Jack Burden as in the tragedy of Willie Stark…. Burden serves as the dramatic foil of the hero and as the Greeklike chorus casting the immediate action onto the stage of totality of time and space.

History immobilizes Jack Burden and challenges Willie Stark…. To Jack Burden, God is but a haughty malevolent super-insect waiting for the first step awry and then pouncing to poisonously punish and destroy. Jack sees time as an intricate pattern of unwitting connections, with responsibility resting upon a Deity that cannot be called to answer.

For Willie Stark, however, God and time are synonyms for opportunity. He speaks like a Calvinist, acts like a realist, and dreams like a romanticist. (pp. 78-80)

Willie Stark is no mean power grubber. He is a victim of another southern disease that goes along with history—romanticism. A persistent romantic notion of perfectability impels him. We always are given the feeling that there is sincerity in his good works and that there is more idealism in his makeup than he lets on….

[He] has a sense of destiny. He looks upon himself as a savior of his people, chosen for the job of rescuing them from the moneylenders in the temple, as it were. And relentlessly he goes about fulfilling this destiny. It is significant, I think, that he tolerates the ignorant and the merely stupid, admires the pure, but has contempt for the malingerer and cheat. (p. 81)

Willie fulfills Warren's notion of the complete man: "I suppose that the ultimate unity of knowledge is in the image of himself that man creates through knowledge, the image of his destiny, the mask he stares at. This would mean that manipulative knowledge, as well as knowledge of vision, calculation as well as conception—to take Shelley's distinction—works toward the creation of that image." The complete man, it would seem, is … assassinated by the very idealism in which he believes. (p. 82)

Willie—unique among the novel's dramatis personae—suffered himself to fight and scramble to become a man of idea and died in the process. This aloneness touches off yet another bond of relationship with a past tragic hero, Job…. It is only Willie who insists, and maintains, and succeeds in calling God down out of heaven. The only thing that could stop Willie is what we call ironic circumstances, the accident that paralyzes his son, but really is the web of God's fate utilizing the strength of its prisoner to destroy him.

Though we wish he were otherwise constituted, we pity Willie Stark. We pity the waste of his life and the thought of what might have been that he himself utters at his death. We cannot bring ourselves to discern justice in his death, as punishment for his sins. Rather, we perceive his magnitude of character that demanded so great a display of circumstance to effect equilibrium. Therein lies a terror greater than that of a mindless mechanistic universe. As Ellis Burden, Jack's putative father, a religious fanatic with frightening insights, says: "The creation of evil is therefore the index of God's glory and His power. That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man's glory and power. But by God's help and in His wisdom"…. Touched with evil and endowed with virtuous tyranny, Willie Stark fulfilled God's tragic will. (pp. 82-3)

Dan Vogel, "The Mask of Oedipus Tyrannos," in his The Three Masks of American Tragedy (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 13-102.

It is strange, and admirable, that so prolific a writer as Mr. Warren should have so laconic a power. He distrusts "glitter"—it is a word which glitters throughout his pages, menacing, superstitious and metallic. ("Glimmering" is its serene counterpart, as in the lovely poem about swimming and nakedness and towels, "Birth of Love.") It is no less strange and admirable that so prolific a writer should have so secure a sense of what T. S. Eliot called "the relations of literature—not to 'life,' as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life." So this sequence of poems [Or Else] can accommodate both Dreiser and Flaubert, and can then relate their authentic imaginings to those of authentic memory….

And the sequence can moreover accommodate the hideously authentic brutalities of actions which speak louder than words. (See "Ballad of Mister Dutcher and the Last Lynching in Gupton," which has a verbal briskness which appallingly parallels that of the noose-knotting, "quick as a wink" in creating its "neat cylinder of rope.") Best of all, it can honor a true reader, not a true writer, in a superb tribute to the poet's father, remembered [in] "Reading Late at Night, Thermometer Falling." There are in the world very few good poems about fathers, and here now is a very good one. The poem can remember the father's own efforts at verse and can remember them without sentimentality: "Later, I found the poems. Not good." Enough said. Which would be an alternative to Mr. Warren's clipped stoical title, "Or Else."

"The True Nature of Time," the truth of reverie and of old age: these are an old man's poems (Mr. Warren is 70 this year), and they have something of the blend of exasperation and calm which characterized the poems of Tennyson's old age. The horses on fire in the blazing barn, in the Dreiser poem, call up those in Tennyson's "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," and Mr. Warren's "Remarks of Soul to Body" would offer a rich comparison with another poem which Tennyson wrote at the end of his life, "By an Evolutionist." (pp. 6-7)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1975.

In all our societies, the hold the dead have over the living is the subject of literature; in the American South, or in the mind of that South, which made the discovery for America that when you live without the past you do not live in the present but in some imaginary (and unpromising) future—in the South, the hold the dead have over the living is the subjection of literature. Death is perceived, of course, as a standstill, life as a falling away from such perfection. The tension generated between that immobility and that erratic descent is the famous tension of poetry, its irony, even its disease: one tends to turn to stone, or to water. One petrifies, or one liquefies. Though he has his lithic moments, they occur early on in Robert Penn Warren's abundant oeuvre—back in the poems of "Kentucky Mountain Farm":

      Instruct the heart, lean men, of a rocky place
      That even the little flesh and fevered bone
      May keep the sweet sterility of stone.

And from almost as long a way back, the impulse is against the stone, and toward the water, against what stands and toward what runs. This poet is of course a novelist, a teller, and the poems which constitute such a continuing part of his production are just that: they continue, they persist against their own concretion, their own calculus. "This book is conceived as a single long poem composed of a number of shorter poems as sections or chapters," Warren carefully tells us at the beginning of Or Else, and the very alternative of such a title ominously suggests what bothers him into poetry: on the one hand, we exist only by getting on with it, only by continuity; yet on the other hand, "only in discontinuity do we know that we exist." And surely poetry is the knowledge of our existence! Yet just as surely poetry is more than death, more than discontinuity, more than one damned thing next to another: poetry is one damned thing after another, it is what happens next as well as what has happened once and for all. The tug of these polarities, the tactic of concessions now to this extremity, now to that one, are the matter of all Robert Penn Warren's various manners—are why he has so many. With Promises (1954–56) came a great renewal, and for the past twenty years the poems have been "brought in" in a steady stream, eagerly receiving signals from the deciduous world: the golden sycamore, the white dogwood, emblems of an acknowledged mortality, a complicity with death accepted by life, the narrated detail and the abstract knowledge made one. (pp. 37-8)

The drama of a life's work resumes … in both senses of that verb—continues and is summed up—in these new poems which are so much anti-verse because they seek to be universe, poems of autobiography and devotion, despairing illuminations of a man who turns from the rock, from the crystal, from the death, and at the end of the very poem addressed to John Crowe Ransom adjures himself and his old friend and all of us with that half-century of his "power":

        I advise you to detach your gaze from
        that fragment of rock. Not all witnesses
        of the phenomenon survive unchanged

        the moment when, at last, the object screams

        in an ecstasy of


So may the revelations of a man be cast, the energies of metonymy, continuity, prose opposing the energies of metaphor, ecstasy, verse (or at least separation), the water running out of the rock, the narrative escaping mere (mere!) being. Survive unchanged—who would want to?—the terms are contradictions, survival requires just that change which can withstand the scream of the object in its ecstasy. I said earlier that the impulse is against the stone, and toward the water; it is reassuring to notice that at the front of his poem/poems Robert Penn Warren has taken, from Psalms 78, this line as an epigraph: "He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink out of the great depths." Not only reassuring to my assessed phenomenology of the poet, but reassuring that there is more poetry to come. (pp. 40-1)

Richard Howard, "Dreadful Alternatives: A Note on Robert Penn Warren," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1975, by the University of Georgia), Spring, 1975, pp. 37-41.

Robert Penn Warren's poetry has never attempted elegance, and never really required it: his interests have always been of another order. But it has only been within the last decade that his voice has ordered those interests with an expressive power equal to their urgency. The roughhewn narratives and abstracted metaphysics of his earlier work seem restrained by the stiffness of their dry formalism, as if to check the indulgence of his essentially Romantic imagination. With Incarnations, however, he began unfolding the world's parable with a bold intellectual and sensual freedom that was then extended to reveal the truth that cannot be spoken but only enacted, in Audubon: A Vision, quite simply one of the best long poems ever written by an American. If the convergence of Warren's narrative, descriptive, and philosophical insights in Audubon focused finally on the question of how to tell time, then his new book, Or Else, questions what time tells us. It was conceived, the poet notes, as "a single long poem composed of a number of shorter poems as sections or chapters," and almost a third of this grouping has appeared before, stalled as single poems until their place in this larger meditation was fixed. (p. 427)

A poem from Or Else, "Time as Hypnosis," recalls a day from Warren's childhood when he had "wandered in the glittering metaphor/For which I could find no referent," and this crucial image is a source of meaning that remains inaccessible, maternal, even Edenic, its promise provoking a poetry that has continually evoked rather than explicated the wonder it wants. Or Else is Warren's most intimate and daring challenge to that understanding of himself, and it is bravely met with the impatient, sharp strokes of an artist whose life and craft have been so long learning. At the age of seventy, Warren writes with an accustomed authority but also with an astonishing vigor and directness. There is no sense of risk, only of rightness, in a poem like "I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision," which juxtaposes his memory's fading daguerreotypes of a Kentucky Christmas with the neon necessities of his present perspective. Proust says that when we have understood, we hear in retrospect. That is the way Warren listens to his experience throughout this book, and he speaks to allow us to overhear that retrospect, that understanding. He has faced down the actualities of his identity, wrestled with their difficulties, and not abandoned their images for so long that now they have blessed him. (pp. 429-30)

J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1975.

Who but Robert Penn Warren would entitle a collection Or Else? It sounds so uninviting. And in fact it takes some time for the reader to enter into these poems: they seem at first a rather forbidding mixture of "timeless" metaphysics and personal nostalgia, an old man's poems. The detailed and assured, though sometimes startling, imagery and the winding, meditative rhythms most often in evidence in Warren's latest work are in sharp contrast to the jittery rhythms and fragmented images—the reaching out for a style—that are characteristic of much recent poetry. Not that wit, boldness, and even a certain nervous energy are missing but that Warren's poetic quest for identity has reached a stage where he is freer to disregard whatever is not of central interest to him and to mull over with increased concentration whatever is.

His philosophic themes are time and transcendence, nature and the self. How is it that immersed in the element of time as we are, we can experience certain moments outside of time that make all life but a dream? (p. liv)

Out of emotion recollected sometimes in tranquillity but more often not Warren is trying to make life and his poetry cohere into unity. (p. lv)

For most of us the family provides the strongest principle of continuity in our lives. So it is not surprising in a book devoted to the images man lives by that so many (and some of the best) poems rise out of family memories. "Reading Late at Night, Thermometer Falling," one of the most moving poems in the book, recalls the poet's father as scholar, truthseeker, and above all man of valor…. The evocation of time as some great preternatural beast with "magisterial gaze" is very fine…. I remark in passing that the rhetoric of this poem, with its long suspended sentences, its use of "who" to catch up a continuation, and its splicing of time streams, is reminiscent of Faulkner.

These are poems "of the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice." But unlike Stevens, Warren thrusts his "bare" persona into the poems. We see the poet showing himself in the act of recovering a passion and making poetry out of the tension between past and present selves. Fact, however difficult to be sure of, is important to him, for reality starts in accurate perception, whether of nature or human nature. Time is the necessary element in which love comes to birth and dies, however much love may deny time's domination. (pp. lvi-vii)

In this volume Warren continues the themes and explorations of Incarnations and Audubon with no slackening of creative energy and an even greater pressure to arrive at ultimate things. (p. lvii)

John Rees Moore, "Redeeming Time," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Spring, 1975, pp. liv-vii.

Robert Penn Warren has created for himself a unique poetic persona, made up of the philosopher, raconteur, scholar, Southern gentleman and man of the people. So in [Or Else: Poem/Poems, 1968–1974] we have ballads about rednecks interspersed with philosophical interjections with titles like "Solipsism and Theology." The poet is careful to refit these masks as styles change.

But this collection is primarily backward-looking. The poet asks, have I learned how to live?—while demonstrating quite convincingly that he has indeed made his peace with life. In fact, he can spot the universal reinforcing moment when the grandfather clock pauses and before the second hand jumps to its next position: then, "slick as a mink's prick, Time/thrusts through the time/or no-Time."…

Warren's style is that of a man as loose-lipped and canny as an old horse, one eye on the distant mountain passes and the other on the corral. His lines are baggy, with real dirt in the creases, but somehow too comfortable, too tailored by time and sitting, to cause much commotion.

F. O. Matthiesson wrote in 1952 that Robert Penn Warren "has devoted his attention to crowding his lines with the greatest specific gravity they will bear." Nevertheless, these lines have the flexibility of a man who has over many years found his true voice. It is unfortunate that by the time a poet has found his "true voice," idiosyncratic and full of continuity as our own inner speech, there are relatively few who are still eager to listen. It was the process of locating that voice that was interesting.

Warren has managed to slip into his private dialect expressions of Whitman, Hopkins, Ransom and Berryman. Why is his voice somehow less insistent, less marked, than theirs?…

His evocations of Southern violence are finally expressions of the Zeitgeist, reminding us of Easy Rider and Macon County Line. But really Warren is not a man of the 1970s. For one thing, he is still hanging on to his patriarchal myths. In "Birth of Love," we find the courtly gentleman, with his delicate taste for voyeurism, watching naked Venus. His desire to dominate is only partly concealed under his reverence. (p. 215)

For all his failings, however, Warren is a defensible poet as Or Else is a defensible book. It can, for instance, be read as a rhapsody on time: "that howling orthodoxy of/darkness that, like speed-hurled rain on/glass, streams past us." That I cannot find much pleasure in such reading must mean that I am the fury sent to curse the venerable poet in his declining years. (pp. 215-16)

Cheryl Walker, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), September 13, 1975.


Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 4)


Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 8)