Robert Penn Warren Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David B. Olson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Calvin Bedient

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.