Robert Penn Warren

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Warren, Robert Penn 1905–

Warren is an American novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, essayist, critic, editor, and scholar. With major contributions in all these genres, Warren is considered one of the most distinguished men of letters in America today. He has consistently been in the intellectual vanguard of American scholarship: he was a member of the Fugitive poets and cofounder of the group's publication, The Fugitive; founding editor of The Southern Review; and one of the original and most influential of the New Critics. Warren's love of history, as well as the Fugitive conception of art as a vital force and means of expressing ideas and human experience, inform all of his work. Reflected in his writing are his strong moral values and persistent search for truth. He was twice recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, for fiction in 1947 and for poetry in 1958. He has also served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Dennis M. Dooley

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Through the three [long, personal digressions in Brother to Dragons], Warren gives us the spiritual history of RPW, a spiritual history which parallels in many respects the spiritual history of Jefferson, the central concern of the poem, and which justifies the superior wisdom of RPW the commentator. (p. 19)

His cousin's butchering of [a slave was] a traumatic experience for Jefferson. Prior to this event, Jefferson saw man as standing between beast and God and aspiring to the divine. Evil was merely the blot of centuries of oppression, which could be erased within the context of the American Eden. In this context, man's basic nobility, goodness and innocence would assert themselves and man would fulfill his God-like potential. The slaying of George is such a traumatic experience for Jefferson that he reverses his philosophic position and denies that man is capable of any good. This is the Jefferson we encounter at the opening of the poem. (p. 20)

The three digressions in Brother to Dragons … can be seen to mark the three stages of spiritual growth of the persona RPW. In the first digression [like Jefferson], he is disillusioned, bitter and alienated. In his ascent of Rocky Hill, the second digression, RPW receives the truths necessary for spiritual growth from the images of his father, the mountain and the snake. The third digression marks the assimilation of these truths, which assimilation permits RPW to be reconciled to his father and to enter "the world of action and liability." The events within the digressions are all experientially prior to the "Any Time" reality of the central action of the poem and thus vindicate the mature spiritual wisdom which RPW displays in confronting Jefferson.

RPW's spiritual progress parallels the spiritual progress of Jefferson. (p. 29)

[The] digressions serve two other functions. First, the RPW episode functions as the traditional Warren device of the story within the story…. [The] RPW episode in Brother to Dragons provides a miniature working out of the ethical ideal of the main narrative action. Here the episode works more as a frame than a contained exemplum. After Jefferson has been introduced, RPW gives us his first digression. The second digression follows almost immediately while the third digression takes the final seventeen pages of the poem. Given the second digression, the third follows logically and organically. In the vast gap between the second and third digressions, Jefferson's confrontation and assimilation of spiritual reality takes place. Thus, the main action of the poem, Jefferson's conversion, is framed by RPW's conversion. This frame works in a second way. Warren says in his Introduction...

(This entire section contains 519 words.)

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that the main issue with whichBrother to Dragons is concerned is a "human constant." By having Jefferson's spiritual progress also acted out by RPW, the issue of the poem ceases to be simply an issue of the Nineteenth Century. By enclosing the past within the frame of the present, Warren is able to transcend mere past and present and to create his poetic "Any Time." (pp. 29-30)

Dennis M. Dooley, "The Persona RPW in Warren's 'Brother to Dragons'," in The Mississippi Quarterly (copyright 1972 Mississippi State University), Winter, 1971–72, pp. 19-30.

David B. Olson

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The internal level of action—the Jack Burden story with its moral-intellectual probings—which has surrounded the Willie Stark story is not concluded until the final twelve pages of [All the King's Men]. Here we find out what Jack has learned from all his efforts to piece things together. But these final pages are the conclusion of Jack Burden's story, and there is a feeling of anti-climax, not only because Willie is dead and settled but because the conclusion is the wrap-up on a character we have cared very little for from the start.

Yet the final twelve pages are also the conclusion, the all-important finishing touches, of the whole novel. It seems to me that if All the King's Men is a really good novel this ending must somehow contribute to the novel's success…. [Despite] some apparent weaknesses, the conclusion of the novel not only is successful but, in terms of Jack Burden's intellectual and psychological probings, is the consistent and the "right" ending for the novel. (p. 166)

[The] whole effect of the conclusion is one which suggests Warren's apparent confusion about what to do with the internal level of action in the novel. Both Jack's retreat to the past and his hope for the future suggest Warren really knew of no satisfactory way to resolve the course which Jack has followed throughout the novel. All of these present serious and threatening shortcomings for the novel's conclusion. But we can, I think, see the conclusion as not so unsatisfactory if we consider that in terms of the Jack Burden story the ending is quite consistent with the direction in which Jack's intellectual rationalizing and his incapacity for action have led him throughout the novel.

Early in the novel Willie Stark asks Jack what he thinks ought to be done about the embezzler, Byram White, and Jack caustically replies, "Thinking is not my line."… We know, however, that thinking is Jack's line, for at least half of the novel's action centers around Jack's intense intellectual probings. Much of the thickness and detail of the novel's texture, in fact, is the result of Jack's intense efforts to set down everything, to penetrate all actions, to delineate each shade of cause and effect, and to define and re-define every thought and feeling. While All the King's Men is spectacularly a novel of action, it is also very much a philosophical novel. And Jack is, despite his own disclaimer, the center of the novel's intellectual drama. Unlike Warren's other novels, All the King's Men quite effectively isolates and at the same time intertwines the dramatic and the philosophical impulses of the story. Jack's moral-intellectual inquiries ripple off of and around the events of Willie Stark's unequivocal course of action.

While this impulse of intense intellectual probing is present in Warren's other novels, in none of them does it spiral downward as deeply and acutely as in All the King's Men. In Night Rider and World Enough and Time, for example, both Percy Munn and Jeremiah Beaumont indulge in a good deal of self-scrutiny as they strive to define themselves through committing a purely unequivocal act…. But the introspection which Percy Munn and Jeremiah Beaumont exercise is not the kind of razor-sharp penetration that Jack Burden levels at himself and at the world. In their attempts at figuring out what makes them tick, neither Munn nor Beaumont perseveres in his probings the way Jack Burden does. Finding no intellectual answer to their problems, they capitulate to direct physical action. We might say that Jack Burden has more intellectual staying power. Warren can penetrate deeper with Jack because in All the King's Men the impulse of action is separated from the impulse of intellectual searching and defining. Unlike Night Rider and World Enough and Time, the novel contains, as Jack tells us, his story and Willie's story. With these two opposing drives isolated, Warren can focus more precisely and work more intensely on each. In At Heaven's Gate Warren attempts a similar process of separating out and isolating, but he has difficulty in controlling and unifying the separated strands of the novel. Perhaps there are simply too many detailed case-histories in the novel. (pp. 167-68)

While in abstract terms Jack proposes a belief in the "web theory" of history, he cannot commit himself to a total acceptance of it in the real, the personal world…. [He] obscures the parallel between Judge Irwin and Cass Mastern, for it will make too obvious a distasteful personal reality. Jack's escape mechanism is not really his Great Sleep or his Great Twitch theory. It is his power for intellectually qualifying and redefining, for creating alternatives. But unlike Percy Munn and Jeremiah Beaumont, Jack gets to the truth of things; he discovers the knowledge for which he strives so intensely. The only step remaining for him is to put the knowledge together and to admit that it is unequivocally true. Yet this would leave him no out…. [There] is a perilous balance between Jack's having the truth and his accepting it…. [His] rational probing in itself is what allows him to avoid the fall into irrational and compulsive action that destroys both [Munn and Beaumont]. Jack's intellectual staying power works in two ways: it goes deeper and it helps him pull back before self-scrutiny becomes self-destruction. (pp. 169-70)

The whole tone of Jack's thought in the novel has two contrasting levels which are present simultaneously. He is the cocky smart-aleck who overtly rationalizes through specious intellectual gymnastics, asserting, for example, that "thinking is not my line" or falling back on his complex definition of the Great Twitch. Or relying on his concept of Idealism:

What you don't know don't hurt you, for it…. If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn't real anyway….

But Jack does not assume this fraternity-boy tone simply to be funny, just as he is not really "kidding" when he almost tells Sugar-Boy who killed Willie. Jack assumes the style of an intellectual wise-acre because it fulfills the serious function of tempering the threatening knowledge which he gains. Being the smart-aleck fulfills the same need that the mental gymnastics do in his overtly serious commentaries at the end of the book. Whether cocky or honestly serious, both impulses of his thought stem from the same need: rationalization…. And whether cocky or serious, Jack's intellectual style is one primarily oriented towards preserving some kind of mental health. Thus when Warren has Jack pull back in the final pages of the novel, it is consistent with the kind of rationalizing mental hygiene which has typified Jack's probings all through the novel. Jack … remains a character who underneath it all is interested in adjusting before the breaking point. If we see this impulse of rationalization as central to the style of Jack's self-scrutiny, then it seems to me that his ambiguous regression at the conclusion is the consistent way out for him.

But though we recognize that Jack rationalizes in order to endure, we still cannot ignore the impulse in him that is attracted to action as a means of resolving rather than sidestepping problems. In fact, the two opposite drives in him—his tendency to intellectually qualify problems out of existence vis-a-vis his attraction to clear, "hot" action—generate the internal tension in Jack which, despite his annoying traits, ultimately involves us in his story. In spite of the mask of indifference which emanates from his continual "but if's," we are very much aware of his attraction to Willie's assertive personality. (pp. 170-71)

To follow Jack's metaphor, Willie is the surgeon … who cuts sharply into Jack's passivity to give him vicariously the feeling of assertion. Anyone who is capable of committing the pure, "hot" action eventually gains Jack's admiration…. [Any] satisfaction Jack gets from action is achieved vicariously. Again, in spite of his disclaimer, thinking is his line. (pp. 171-72)

The ending of the novel concludes the internal action, the Jack Burden story, for Willie's story is over and settled. And from our look at the two impulses in Jack—his intellectual probing, with its qualifying, and his need for action, with its frustrating incapacity for action—we find that the pattern which dominates both impulses is one characterized by deep penetration and movement up to the verge of unequivocal consummation, and then a quick pulling back before consummation. There is in Jack's confrontation with himself and with the external world a rhythm: intense movement forward and inward, and a sudden retreat from the brink, repeating itself over and over.

This rhythm simply hits its final measure in the conclusion. After thinking about his two fathers and their relative strong and weak points, Jack tells us that he simply "quit trying to decide." And he later says something else which illuminates a good deal about the rhythm of his life and also about the way his story ends. "When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day."… Though ending a novel "on account of darkness" might seem less than effective, I cannot see that the Jack Burden story could end any other way. As we have seen, it is "in the nature" of Jack to pull back from any apex that would unequivocally conclude his story. (pp. 175-76)

David B. Olson, "Jack Burden and the Ending of 'All the King's Men'," in The Mississippi Quarterly (copyright 1973 Mississippi State University), Spring, 1973, pp. 165-76.

Peter Stitt

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On the basis of his recent work, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Warren is the best that we now have, the dean of living American poets, occupying the place left vacant at Robert Frost's death. If this ranking is accurate, it is not generally recognized….

It may be that Warren's versatility has had a detrimental effect on his reputation as a poet. Perhaps we assume that a truly fine poet must give his all to poetry, or that a writer can show true excellence in only one genre…. Another factor in the case, however, has to be the kind of poetry Warren writes, which must seem unfashionable to superficial readers. Poetry is a response to the world in which we live; since before the turn of the century, most poets have been convinced that the modern world is a terrifying, inhuman, and increasingly inhumane place in which to live. (p. 262)

Our poetry has been dominated for many years by despairing and negative voices, voices which have searched in vain for positive support in this world…. Warren's voice is markedly different, part of another tradition altogether. Throughout his career, he has been able to find at least the promise of something positive. Like Frost and Roethke, he has found it in nature; like his fellow Fugitive poets, he has found it in the past and in his native South; and like most poets throughout time, he has found it in an indigenous religious sense allied to nature, the land, and to the potentialities of man. Which is not, I hope, to suggest that Warren is a naïve yea-sayer. The sense he has of the final joyfulness of life exists with a full knowledge of life's many mysteries, including its tragedies.

At the center of Warren's poetry, holding everything together, are two closely related conceptions—of man, and of the self. Warren is careful to place man within nature, as an integral part of it. And yet there is a crucial difference, too, between man and the rest of the natural world. (pp. 262-63)

It is man's mind, his intellect and his imagination, that is celebrated in Warren's poetry, for it is man's mind that allows him to be "the form-making animal par excellence. By making forms he understands the world, grasps the world, imposes himself upon the world."

Also at the heart of Warren's recent poetry is the concept of a well-rounded self. In defining his concept in Democracy and Poetry, Warren laid special emphasis upon two elements—an awareness of time and a sense of moral responsibility: "continuity—the self as a development in time, with a past and a future; and responsibility—the self as a moral identity, recognizing itself as capable of action worthy of praise or blame." In his best poems, Warren ranges freely over time, accumulating memories, experiences, thoughts, which coalesce about a single personality, a single self. In Incarnations and Or Else, the self is that of the poet himself; in Audubon it is primarily the ornithologist but, through him, again the poet as well.

In Incarnations, as in Or Else, Warren has chosen to address himself to the largest questions facing man; questions concerning the nature of the world, the nature of man himself, and the meaning of time and eternity. Viewed from this perspective, Incarnations can be seen as a somewhat irresolute trial run for the later volume. I don't mean to deprecate the book, just to suggest that it does not contain the fullest flowering of Warren's wisdom. Incarnations is divided into three sections. Each of the first two sections revolves around its own major theme, while the final section tries (and I think fails) to supply an answer to the questions posed earlier.

The inspiring spirits behind the book are Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom Warren once wrote a long poem, and John Henry, from whose folk ballad Warren has drawn one of his epigraphs. The title of the book suggests the major idea which Warren has adapted from Emerson—that the physical world which surrounds us and of which we are a part has at its heart a spiritual essence. The epigraph from the folk song ("John Henry said to the Captain, 'A man ain't nuthin but a man'"), suggests three things. First, it reminds us of man's humility—he is a natural creature subject to death. Second, and growing out of this, is a sense of the brotherhood of men, an idea which is reinforced by the other of the book's two epigraphs: "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren" (Nehemiah, 5:5). Third, we should remember that the folk song as a whole asserts the strength of man's will, his intelligence coupled with his determination. The themes of mortality and brotherhood are handled most deeply in Section II of the book. Of the two poems appearing there, one tells of the painful cancer death of a man in a southern prison, and the other tells of the humiliation suffered by a black woman in New York—after being slightly struck by a car, she lies on the pavement and pees in her pants while screaming at the top of her lungs. (pp. 263-64)

Although predominantly a philosophical poet, Warren does not write abstract poems; his thoughts are generally presented in terms of suggestive images drawn from the world of physical reality. Section I of Incarnations—a long sequence of poems titled "Island of Summer"—has a Mediterranean setting. The sequence celebrates the natural world and invests it with a spiritual dimension all its own. This spirituality is discovered at the heart of things, as beneath the surface of a plum, a peach, or a fig…. The effect of such thoughtful actions is always the same—penetrating to the soul of the physical world brings meaning to life. It is an action repeated many times in the sequence.

Involved in this action is a search, for certainty, for religious meaning in a seemingly chaotic world…. Over and over in the sequence Warren asserts that we must accept the world for what it is and for what it brings us; despite his will and his imagination, man cannot control the direction of his life…. (pp. 264-65)

All of this wisdom, of course, is concerned with time, the way man conducts himself on earth, rather than with eternity and the realm of death. Warren is careful to caution us in one poem that "The world means only itself." And yet he is deeply interested in the subject of eternity as well, though the knowledge here is much less certain. Eternity in Warren's work is generally associated with brightness, whiteness, the sun, the sky, the sea, snow—even at times with the cold light of the moon. We are cautioned in the sequence's first poem: "Do not / Look too long at the sea, for / That brightness will rinse out your eyeballs." The promise here is one of annihilation, not resurrection—a spiritual destiny is not to be achieved through an intense preoccupation with eternity: "for the sun has / Burned all white, for the sun, it would / Burn our bones to chalk." In that direction lies only the certainty of death. (p. 265)

And yet Robert Penn Warren is the poet of "Promises" and would not leave the answer to his question at such a point of terrifying emptiness. Though a concentration upon eternity leads only to a dead end, Warren suggests elsewhere in the sequence that a concentration upon the world itself may lead to fulfillment: "We must try // To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God." The promise implicit in this statement is given its fullest treatment in the remarkable poem which occupies precisely the center of the sequence: "Myth on Mediterranean Beach: Aphrodite as Logos." The figure of Aphrodite here is an "old hunchback in bikini," "an old / Robot with pince-nez and hair dyed gold," whose "breasts hang down like saddle bags" and whose "belly sags" to balance her hump. This incredible figure walks along the edge of the beach, like a line of print across a page. The text, whether she realizes it or not, is religious, for "glory attends her as she goes"—she illustrates nothing less than "The miracle of the human fact." The promise implicit in her existence is suggested in the word which Warren attaches to her in his title—"Logos," the creative Word of God. Her progress has a destined end: "For she treads the track the blessèd know // To a shore far lonelier than this / Where waits her apotheosis." She is the oldest person on Warren's beach, and the most remarkable; all eyes are drawn to her as she progresses. She is an emblem, a pathmaker, and seems to embody Warren's ultimate hope: "The terror is, all promises are kept. // Even happiness."

The terror arises from the moment of passage, death, to be enacted on "a shore far lonelier than this." And despite these positive assurances, given in the form of promises, we must remember that the sequence as a whole ends on … less than promising lines…. At the end of the book a similarly uncertain note is also struck. The final poem, called "Fog," is part of a short sequence titled "In the Mountains." The landscape here is suggestively white—the speaker is surrounded by a white fog that has risen from the white snow at his feet. The poem (and the book) ends with lines that are almost an anguished cry…. In a moment redolent with suggestions of eternity and of death, the speaker does not salute God but cries out for the physical, the real, the utterly down to earth. If there is a promise of salvation, of resurrection, in this book, it obviously can come only through this world of ours: "We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God."

Audubon differs from the other two works under consideration here in that it is much less a philosophical discussion and much more a pure celebration—of man, of nature. It also differs in form in that it is a single long poem rather than a long sequence of closely related, but still individual, poems…. Warren has chosen a few details and a few words from the writings of Audubon in an attempt to get at the essence of this mysterious man. And though Warren hints, through his choice of epigraphs, that he has failed to capture that essence, it seems to me that he has succeeded triumphantly. (pp. 266-67)

By placing his hero in the wilderness and on the frontier, Warren is allying himself with a venerable tradition in American literature, thereby adding to the reverberations called up by his poem. Audubon, however, is no Natty Bumppo—he is a consummate artist capable of transforming his environment into something magical.

Warren's poem, like Audubon's paintings, is transcendentally beautiful—and yet the world that each of them has recorded is often violent and ugly. (pp. 267-68)

The violence in Audubon goes further than that between men. There is also the predatory violence of nature, as exemplified by the hawk, the jay, "the tushed boar," and Audubon's own violence, seemingly against the natural world he loved. We must not forget how he acquired specimens of the birds he painted: "He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun. / Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low, / But not in grief." It is perhaps ironic that Audubon should have been able to produce works of such beauty out of a world of such base violence. And yet, in this poem at least, such seems to be the nature of the world and the nature of art. The transforming agent is the human imagination, and it is this faculty which Warren chiefly celebrates in the poem. Immediately following the lines just quoted, where Audubon slays the birds, Warren writes: "He put them where they are, and there we see them: / In our imagination." (pp. 268-69)

Perhaps the most admirable thing about Audubon is that, by virtue of Warren's artistry, the poem itself achieves the wonders for which Audubon is praised. We find here a recreation and celebration of nature which, far from glossing over its violence and ugliness, transforms it as if by magic into beauty….

At his best, Warren allows his meanings to speak through the world he describes rather than attempting to enunciate them directly…. The only adverse criticism I have to make on Warren's verse concerns his occasional violation of this excellent standard. Warren is sometimes too clever and too direct with his philosophical materials, as when he breaks into his concrete re-creation of the world to deliver a capsule of abstract speculation. (p. 270)

Such passages are, however, extremely rare, and do not seriously impair what I most admire about this poem—its loving re-creation, in all its multiplicity, of the texture and detail of the world's body…. [The poem's virtues include] a return to the usable past for a subject and a hero, an economy and density of expression, an exploitation of all the resources of the language to produce poetry of striking quality. Audubon is easily the finest long poem written by an American in almost twenty years, and as good as we are likely to get for at least another twenty. (p. 271)

Warren has been writing such poem sequences as [Or Else—Poem/Poems 1968–1974] since the middle fifties and is the acknowledged master of the form. Other poets have tried their hands at it … but none with the supple assurance of intention which Warren brings to his performances. Essentially, the form is an amalgamation of a book of individual lyrics and a single, coherent long poem. It may well be that the poem sequence has replaced the epic in the modern age. The epic depends upon a coherent world view for its basis; because our age lacks such a world view, we should expect its epic form to be somewhat disjointed as well. Whatever we call the form, however, it seems clear that Or Else is an ambitious attempt to enclose and explain a world and a life—the poet's own.

While the individual poems here may be viewed as discrete units, they obviously have a much greater meaning and impact when viewed in context. Warren seems to recognize this principle as relevant to the world at large; in one poem he begins by saying: "Necessarily, we must think of the world as continuous." The thought is carried on later:

          … if it were not so, you wouldn't know           you are in the world, or even that the           world exists at all—                         but only, oh, only,           in discontinuity, do we           know that we exist.

Discrete and individual events, recorded in single poems, prove the separate existence of the individual and reverberate with a sort of local meaning. Only when placed in a larger context, however, do these units show their larger meaning.

Or Else is composed of such events, memories, scenes, even visions, drawn from the mind and life of the author. He puts them on the page in an attempt to understand their significance. The perspective which Warren adopts is that of an aged man nearing the end of his life. His mind is filled with questions about time and eternity as he tries to face the fact of his own future death. (pp. 271-72)

The sequence as a whole is an attempt either to fuse the two worlds governed by time and eternity—the concrete realm of earth and the abstract realm of sky and beyond—or to see how one of these realms could, at a certain point, melt into the other—obviously the concrete into the abstract, as at death. In order to understand this process—if there is one—Warren has accumulated a wide variety of discontinuous elements and placed them side by side in a search for continuity. He explains his method at the end of one of the longer poems here:

    All items listed above belong in the world     In which all things are continuous,     And are parts of the original dream which     I am now trying to discover the logic of. This     Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness     May be converted into the future tense     Of joy.

The direction the passage takes, of course, is by now quite familiar to us—in each of these books Warren tries to move through pain to a promise of joy.

The importance of the past in this sequence is at least twofold. First, there are elements drawn from Warren's own experience, each one of which, though existing only within time, bears somehow on the question of eternity. Second, there are memories which are directly concerned with eternity, as seen in other people's lives and deaths. (p. 272)

Most of the poems in the sequence can be treated almost as allegories, so suggestive are the stories they relate and the images they contain. In "Time as Hypnosis," one of the most striking poems here, Warren writes of a snowfall that occurred when he was a boy of twelve in Kentucky. The snow creates an unreal, almost symbolic landscape. The boy walks out in the morning and sees many things, including [a] scene of beauty and death…. The scene is carefully staged to make the strongest possible impact on both the boy and the reader; violence strikes through the gentle face of natural beauty.

This passage is followed by a suggestive description of the landscape in which the boy is wandering:

    There was a great field that tilted     Its whiteness up to the line where the slant, blue knife-edge of sky     Cut it off. I stood     In the middle of that space. I looked back, saw     My own tracks march at me. Mercilessly,     They came at me and did not stop. Ahead,     Was the blankness of white. Up it rose. Then the sky.

Again the patterning is carefully controlled; surrounded by whiteness, the boy is trapped symbolically by the mystery of time—with a glimpse of eternity showing from his journey's end. Presented in the landscape is the mystery which the sequence as a whole sets out to investigate; at this point Warren can suggest no answer: "All day, I had wandered in the glittering metaphor / For which I could find no referent."

The solution, if there exactly is one, is gradually revealed through images which coalesce into a pattern as the sequence develops. These images are significant both spatially and in terms of color or tone; eternity is bright and above or far, time is dark and below or close. Often an image of time will be set against an image of eternity…. Elsewhere, an image of eternity will appear juxtaposed upon or growing out of an image of time…. (pp. 273-74)

Warren is most interested in finding his answer in nature and in presenting it through naturalistic images. This is not to say that he doesn't hint at it elsewhere. The concrete and the abstract are, for example, clearly united at the end of an amusing poem called "Remarks of Soul to Body": "But let us note, too, how glory, like gasoline spilled / On the cement in a garage, may flare, of a sudden, up // In a blinding blaze, from the filth of the world's floor." The most typical way for Warren to present such wisdom is through nature; he has, therefore, established several image patterns, all of which culminate in the final poem in the sequence. (p. 274)

The last poem in the sequence, titled "A Problem in Spatial Composition," is another carefully designed piece in which the images, either alone or in combination, are suggestive of a final promise. The poet looks westward through a high window, across a forest toward the setting sun. The time is late—late in the day, late in the year, late in the life. Although eternity is present in the bright distance of the sky,… there is a suggestion of its mergence with earth in Warren's description of the mountains: "Beyond the distance of forest, hangs that which is blue: / Which is, in knowledge, a tall scarp of stone, gray, but now is, / In the truth of perception, stacked like a mass of blue cumulus." (p. 275)

[The] central and only player [in] the scene [is] a hawk…. The third part of the poem consists of a single line: "The hawk, in an eyeblink, is gone." The hawk's instantaneous disappearance from the scene is akin to man's disappearance from life at death. When he resumes his flight, the bird returns to the eternal realm of sky, having rested for but a moment on the time-bound earth. The hawk in this poem is analogous to the spirit of man, as birds so often are in English and American poetry generally. Through his choice and development of images, Warren has managed to suggest a solution to the problem which pervades the poem sequence. He does not tell us how man is able to transcend the physical realm at his death, but he does strongly suggest that it can be done. And this is as much of a promise as is needed: "For what blessing may a man hope for but / An immortality in / The loving vigilance of death?" This is the ultimate "definition of joy" which dominates so much of Warren's poetry, from "Promises" onward…. (pp. 275-76)

Or Else is a brilliant achievement; because it is Robert Penn Warren's finest poem sequence, it is the best such work to be found in contemporary American poetry. Warren's poems are a resounding testament to man, to nature, and to poetry itself. His devotion is to man as a natural creature, seen in conjunction with his environment and his God. Man is celebrated not for his solipsistic ego but for those qualities which unite him to the creative power of the universe—his intellect and his imagination. It is this very celebration that separates Warren from most of his contemporaries…. Among contemporary poets, it has been Robert Penn Warren's task to rediscover how the void at man's heart may be filled. Though revolutionary for our age, Warren's answer places him at the heart of the great tradition in English and American poetry. Moreover, Warren has enclosed his wisdom in poems of consummate artistic skill. Beginning years ago with the traditional forms, Warren has evolved a style both relaxed and dense, as beautiful as it is individual. We must celebrate this man for what his long devotion to the sacred art of poetry has unquestionably made him—the greatest living American poet. (p. 276)

Peter Stitt, "Robert Penn Warren, the Poet," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1976, by Peter Stitt), Vol. XII, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 261-76.

Calvin Bedient

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With [Selected Poems 1923–1975] and his … novel A Place to Come to Robert Penn Warren continues to run both poetry and fiction toward the ring of Truth (often his ostensible, even ostentatious, subject). The race in unequal. His fiction is lame and always has been. And for a long time the poetry too was but fair-to-middling down the stretch. But as if more and more goaded by the cheers of death, it has gained speed, mass, power, grandeur. (p. 71)

The novels are dispiriting in every way—personally, morally, aesthetically. They are given over to a somewhat thin, raspy consciousness. The self-loathing of the male narrators glances up against things gracelessly. Something rotten in the South … some compensating "fine woman" worship. Throughout, the novels display what fiction can hardly tolerate, social awkwardness. They lack urbanity: the dialogue is a solopsist's rough copy, the tone is one long discomfort … the reader feels rather bound in. Then the arraignment of human failure before the "awful responsibility of Time" sits in the middle and palls. A little more virtue … the message dies of inanition. A regenerative vision must be radical after all, or it won't fire. Nor, finally, is there any poetry of approach or conception. A Faulkner pitches you toward his "subject" over and over with a tricky imaginative arm and the meaning, the poetry, is the alarmed getting-there. A Welty, even a Flannery O'Connor, transports. But on much the same country road Warren parks his battered Dodge and gossips a long piece about the mostly sordid ways of Man. There is no passage, only a foot-on-the-bumper presentation.

By contrast, the poetry at its best exhilarates. It is at once more sensuous and more philosophical, more impersonal and … more "gripping." Vulgar insecurity is here bouldered out by a massive yet intimate contemplation. And, no longer brook-busy, guilt deepens and broadens into elegy. Beauty and ugliness, pain and delight—in their all-but-unimaginable mingling they form almost a Southern province of sensibility: Faulkner, Agee, O'Connor, Welty being like Warren remote descendants of late Shakespeare, with something of his ripened astonishment of mind.

The poetry is about the saving and destroying beauty of contingency, as the fiction is about its moral stains. That "beauty" is the consecrating perception of mortal finality. What happened yesterday, what is happening now, may be either "accident" or "fate"—the equivocation tingles through the poems—but it must be cherished regardless; there is nothing else. In a translation of mind it appears at once grievous and beautiful, not intrinsically changed or forgiven and not changeable either yet no longer inadequate, indeed suddenly adequate beyond saying, having been consummated by the sorrowing intuition of the blasphemy its absence would be. This is "the appalling logic of joy."

Recurring in his work as a talisman, an existential absolute, and an insignia of his poetic authority, is the image of a soaring bird—gull, hawk, eagle—that takes the last light imperially or else as one receives a gift (the ambiguity is crucial): a measure of the limited yet thrilling venture of freedom within necessity, the realm thumbnailed in A Place to Come to as "gravity, time, and contingency." There, in the extreme reach of necessity, is the extreme reach of joy; there in truth is beauty. This is romanticism with the spikes of contingency in its feet and hands. Warren's is the opposite of a beached, platonic sensibility. He lives, "Man lives," by "images" that "Lean at us from the world's wall, and Time's."… For Warren, life, Time, the World, are the only things worthy of the polemical name of reality. And if their mix is painful it is magnificent.

Warren begins where every romantic begins, with the question, "what has been denied me?" and the conviction, "There is never an answer."… This search for what eludes "fulfillment-that-is-not-fulfillment," this pending credulity of delight, is of course the mark of the romantic temper. As an American romantic Warren is peculiar, all the same, in his mature tolerance of limitation. He is our Keats, rather tough and raw-boned and fumbling as our Keats would be.

He has company, it is true, among his contemporaries; he typifies the current and further pulling-back of our romanticism. With Warren, Philip Levine, Louise Glück, John Ashbery—romantics all—a snail-like caution prevails, a waiting upon opportunity. Even A. R. Ammons humbles himself to the prosaic. Our romanticism is trying, within reason, to be honest. The watchword is, "Fall Back and Hold." Of all these poets Levine is the most like Warren, the two sharing a hunger for joy that prowls even through their most furious work. Yet none rivals Warren's combined nerve for limitation and largeness. Glück and Levine may be as pained and passionate, Ashbery at once as prosaic and extravagant, Ammons as lucidly impersonal, but none has Warren's broad normality and balance.

He is a poet of whom we have need. We want to know today the limits of an undeluded imagination. We want to know whether we are as unworthy of joy as we seem (and do not seem). We want to know how fully, if at all, a contemporary human being may sing of experience. What light we have moves in Warren now in a bold-to-harsh concentrated beam. (pp. 71-4)

Warren is valuable only as he is tentative—tentative till the hook catches, if it does, and then let him … tug in an access of belief. Unpreparedness is of his essence; he is a poet of surprise. A poet, moreover, of enfeebled self-judgment. He has failed to be ruthless toward himself, and his weaknesses loom oppressively in the reflected brilliance of his accomplishments. (p. 74)

Warren postures not only knowingness but a knowledge of the unknowable, that other intellectual chic. "Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true," he will write, missing paradox and hitting absurdity. Hungry for the food of the deep, he forces the clam. He sometimes insists on making us feel our ignorance—which can be a needlessly abasing emotion—while failing to examine how much he himself knows. (p. 75)

Just as from a researcher into truth we want the difficulty of truth, so from a researcher into joy we want joy, not fantasias of joy. To say that "In that bush, with wolf-fang white, delight/Humps now for someone: You" is to make rather a chimera of delight. And confronted by "Seize the nettle of innocence in both your hands … and every / Ulcer in love's lazaret may, like a dawn-stung gem, sing-or even burst into whoops of, perhaps, holiness," we may prefer to stay corruptly sober…. So Warren sometimes tries too hard—indeed wants us all to try hard…. Something in Warren longs to lean against the sun, but such coyness does not suit him. His true sublimity is more temperate, a manliness touched to pain by the indifferent world of beauty.

Nor do we want from our heroic poet echoes of other poets, particularly grandiloquent echoes. The crisis of contemporary poetry is a crisis of pitch and can only be resolved in the moment, individually. Yet even advanced squawkers like Ted Hughes and advanced squeakers like Philip Larkin begin in their youth at the Renaissance, trying to outpurple or outhoney Shakespeare or Milton—as Warren himself did for instance in "Who saw, in darkness, how fled / The white eidolon from the fanged commotion rude?" Only youthful innocence can hide from intelligent poets the fact that the Romantics permanently injured eloquence (which was exalted in the Renaissance as a protest against necessity) by reducing it to a supporting role…. (pp. 75-6)

[For] four decades Warren wore distractingly, putting on and off haphazardly, the masks of Eliot, Hopkins, Auden, Yeats, Stevens, Pound…. (p. 76)

Warren has even today a barely exploited capacity for manipulating language…. Yet lately he has been taking the opposite path from Hopkins, a more privileged poet of joy, in favoring a certain downrightness. His mount is powerful but gentled and it travels. Though not one of those American poets who rather gullibly seek to surprise wonder from the ordinariness of language, he keeps his manner unencumbered. It has range and flexibility and a sufficient lack of self-awareness, as well as sensual positivity. There is never too much of it. He has tried to let a circumstantial ecstasy rise from his poems with a large-scaled directness.

It was not always so. Even apart from impersonating others, he postured in language as well as attitude. Syntax especially was for him a last refuge of Renaissance nobility. He fancied dignified dislocations, rearrangements of expectable order that, like a king's whim, demonstrated authority…. Occasionally too he delayed a monosyllabic verb till the end of the sentence, where it would fall with a base-note weight. Probably Eliot's fascinating "Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, / Bitten by flies, fought" prompted the practice, and indeed it has resonance, but obtrudes. Then gradually Warren came to see what he was after…. A narrative, not a ritualized, line was what he needed. Directness and not gentility. His syntax surrendered its self-gatherings, as of garments lifted from the floor of the earth at the start of a dance. (pp. 76-7)

His style is now the opposite of, say, the willful Faulknerian rhetoric, so unregenerate, so fierce against nakedness. Where in retrospect the old, frequently rhymed stanzas seem safety belted, the new often walk out with their subjects, good for the distance. They are the space of an experience. In this they are abetted by his meliorated line, which, stripped of self-reflexive rhyme and meter, is forgetful, too, of any approximate length. Yet he favors the long line, having in fact gravitated toward a listing amptitude from the first. Like the very short line, which he also uses, the long lacks the self-sufficient air that the pentameter and even the tetrameter so readily possess. It runs forward, as it were, into experience.

Not that Warren is one of those sons of Whitman (like James Dickey) who are not so much writers as vatic sensibilities set loose in a field of words. His work is finished but, without diminishment, lacks gloss. (pp. 77-8)

Warren's humility of style and spirit is thus not what Yeats anticipated for us all in horror, a mirror-like passivity, but a way of assimilating himself to whatever adventures the world proposes. His aesthetic humility is at the same time an existential exploit—one might say quest. He lets himself go like the seeding cottonwood. Of course he thereby leaves himself open to confusion and incompletion too. "Rattlesnake Country" for instance is almost eloquent with the pain of inconclusiveness, of mixed evidence as to the blessing of life. Finally in fact the poem rather lets us down, as the remembered experience itself has let the poet down, though not without first raising us up, as it had raised him, and leaving us changed, as it has changed him: "And sometimes—usually at dawn—I remember the cry on the mountain."

It should be clear that Warren's humbleness partly entails and is partly entailed by a certain boldness, a lurking expectation of magnificence. The point at which his humbleness becomes indistinguishable from magnificence—of style, of spirit—is in fact the norm of his best poems. (pp. 78-9)

Warren's style has not really become meaner for having become plainer, and as for his spirit, it is bolder than ever, able to hold a level gaze with the horizon. Dense as their sensibility may be, the early poems take on only a little life at a time. The sublime crisis of the cruel unfinishedness of experience, with its joyful and surprising yield and alchemy of acceptance (of the kind grudging in Yeats, generous in the Melville of Moby Dick), has grazed but not pierced them. This crisis is the new greatness in Warren's spirit to which his broad, responsive manner lends a bonding force. More than ever, to be sure, he writes a poetry of question of which the only adequate answer would be the gorgeous totality of time. (p. 80)

The "wound" of "Time's irremediable joy" has become his obsessive subject—justified in this, that it subsumes and consumes all others. Still, the success of his poems waits on the right wild mix. In this he differs from Philip Levine, who, having found the same omnivorous subject, sounds it continuously as one terrible chord…. The need is like a saintly wound and rather sets him apart. Now Warren is considerably stauncher. He must be moved to sublimity out of his normal self-possession. The circumstantial imagination of time itself is his muse. (p. 81)

Warren has become more largely accepting without ceasing to be a modernist poet of assault—on recalcitrant reality, complacent reader, tired poetic convention. In fact, he has developed an aesthetics of the appalling—learning for instance to make the pronoun "You" less accusatory than absorptive, like a sudden draft into a vacuum. More and more he leads us on with dark and suspenseful intentions…. Warren piques the lyrical sublime with the grotesque, exposing a warp in "magnificence." He instances the modernist sensibility for the disturbed—a sensibility essentially primitive, interceding as it does against the threatening unknown by going half way to meet it. Still, his increasing fearfulness does not so much qualify as further define his peculiar sense of joy. After all, it was in a relatively early poem that he warned that the logic of joy is appalling.

Selected Poems thus comes to us as an implicit story of growth into existential humility, courage, awe. It is a story with its own degree of magnificence. (pp. 81-2)

This collection with its triumphant last third will doubtless avalanche a recognition of Warren's importance…. Of course we could wish that he were a more nearly faultless poet than even now he sometimes is. But with his ability to sustain a long poem in low whooshing partridge flight, his scale and openness of passion, his comprehensive sensibility, his many other virtues, he is almost certain to be placed in the pantheon of our poetry, where something of his raw air of the newcomer and latecomer, of the lanky, countrified talent, will no doubt dissipate in a compliant and universal acceptance. (pp. 82-3)

Calvin Bedient, "The Appalling Logic of Joy," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 71-83.

Helen Vendler

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Robert Penn Warren's poems [in Selected Poems: 1923–1975] are perhaps … best described as those of a man of letters, novelist and critic as well as poet. His collections tend to follow poetic styles rather than to invent them, but within those inherited styles he can work consummately well…. Even [in early poems such as "Pursuit"] Warren had his storyteller's eye, his easy rhythm, and his feel for the horrible and the hopeful. The earlier poems are, like the later ones, alternately folksy and philosophical, swinging like ballads or tautly analytic, embodying a strange cohabitation, it might seem, of Whitman and Marvell, "Who saw, in darkness, how fled / The white eidolon" crossed with "Ages to our construction went, / Dim architecture, hour by hour." Among these influences there appeared, early on, Warren's own individual slant:

       Because he had spoken harshly to his mother,        The day became astonishingly bright.

The rest of that young poem doesn't live up to its beginning, but the second line has the true surprise of an interior state clarified in language. Warren's essential self, early and late, appears not in the skillfully rhymed or fastidiously analytical poems, but rather in his long rambles and his short lyrical songs. (pp. 81-2)

The short lyric "Blow, West Wind," on the other hand, remains unmarred and unselfconscious. For its fine simplicity, one would want to put it in school texts, except that the young are not old enough to understand its brief symbols and its cheated bleakness…. On the whole, though, Warren's best work lies in the poems much too long to quote. The recent elegy for himself and his parents—"I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas"—has the gripping realism of vision as Warren sees, in a dream, his father sitting in his usual Morris chair, but dead; and then his seated mother, dead too; and the cold hearth; and a long-dead Christmas tree; and three presents under the tree; and three chairs…. This kind of descriptiveness, like the song-rhythm of "Blow, West Wind," is a permanent resource of lyric. Warren continues, in these Selected Poems, some of the most firmly-based and solacing practices of poetry. (pp. 83-4)

Helen Vendler, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1977.


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