Robert Penn Warren Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Warren, Robert Penn 1905–

Warren is an American novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and editor. His work is strongly regional in character, often drawing its inspiration from the land, the people, and the history of the South. The intense metaphysical nature of his poetry and the experimental style of his fiction have brought him critical acclaim. While he often incorporates elements of the past into his work and frequently bases his themes on specific historical events, Warren successfully transcends the local to comment in universal terms on the human condition. Warren has also achieved considerable status as a critic, and is generally regarded as a major exponent of the New Criticism. He has received Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry, and has won the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Richard Law

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Warren associated the acceptance of scientific determinism as a philosophy with the rise of totalitarianism—partly, one supposes, because that philosophy appears to be merely an expansion of the idea of cause and effect into a universal principle as applicable to human affairs as to the motion of billiard balls. Such a view seems scientific and therefore carries with it the implicit authority of science…. If, in an historical context, determinism tended to bolster non-ethical forms of authoritarianism, on the level of the individual life, Warren felt, with [John Crowe Ransom] and Allen Tate, that such a view of the world took man dangerously near the abyss. Warren's strategy in exploring that issue in Night Rider is to take a single catastrophic action (such as is imaged in the first scene in the novel) and to examine it in as many of its facets and implications as possible. The underlying question throughout is whether naturalism, as a frame of reference, is adequate to the "data" thus discovered: Does it encompass and account for all that we see? (pp. 43-4)

The issue of determinism is raised at several levels in the novel, most obviously in the political elements of the plot. Warren sets the action in a time of acute crisis analogous to the period in which he wrote, and the urgent and practical questions raised there translate very readily into more modern terms: is it possible to resist "outside" forces which threaten to plunge one's community into catastrophe? And if the community fights for certain idealistic values it holds dear, is it possible to preserve those values successfully on the battlefield? (p. 44)

[The bearing of] political events on the issue of naturalism seems clear: the antagonists seem unable to match the consequences of their actions with their intentions; they cannot control or predict the results of what they do, and they cannot act in the cause of "good" without committing "evil." There appear to be two worlds of experience which intersect only imperfectly in the action. The one, the external world, is deterministic, or largely so, and the other is subjective and internal. Human "will" in the latter does not translate simply or easily into action in the other. There is, in fact, as Warren has noted elsewhere, an "irony of success," something "inherent in the necessities of successful action which … [carries] with it the moral degradation of the idea."

At the political level, in fact, the evidence of the plot seems to point toward naturalism. Taken at face value, Munn's private fortunes also seem to confirm and illustrate the operation of deterministic forces. Initially, Munn's aims are partly idealistic. He shares with most of the other farmers in the association an ideal of economic justice. But as he is drawn deeper into the conflict, those ideals are among the first casualties of the war. Indeed, under the impact of what he feels forced to do, his very sense of identity becomes a casualty of the war. Munn's disintegration in turn calls into question the traditional, simplistic notion of will, for that conception presupposes a holistic entity or agent capable of volition. Warren's depiction of Munn's decline is a careful testing of our popular and largely unexamined mythology of self, especially as it relates to the larger issues of will and determinism. The calculated ironies between what Munn intends to do and what he achieves are illustrative of the problem. Munn becomes preoccupied with discovering or defining his own "real" nature, "a more than intermittent self." But in his search for self-identification, he kills a former client whom he had saved from hanging, rapes his own wife, helps lead a raid on tobacco warehouses, and betrays his best friend by committing adultery with his daughter. At the end, in an ironic inversion of "poetic justice," Munn is sought for a murder he did not commit, is betrayed because of an imagined offense he had not given, and—immediately after his first redeeming act—is ambushed and shot by soldiers sent to restore order to the community.

Like all the other events in his career, Munn's death is ambiguous, its actual nature an impenetrable mystery. It is impossible to determine whether it is a suicide "willed" by Munn himself or is rather the inevitable conclusion of a chain of events outside himself. (pp. 45-6)

The ambiguity of Munn's death-scene merely focuses the larger ambiguities which pervade the novel. If the outer world is a meaningless flux of forces as impersonal and amoral as the law of gravity, what of the human antagonists? There is the fact of their consciousness (the importance of which is continually emphasized through Warren's control of narrative perspective). But are the human actors in the drama nevertheless helpless atoms hurled this way and that in spite of their awareness? Warren raises several possibilities, ironically posing them for us in the consciousness of his baffled protagonist. (p. 46)

[Character and fate] are as symmetrically aligned in the novel as in Greek tragedy, and Warren seems to imply by that alignment yet another, and contrary, line of causation adequate to explain the action. What happens to most of the characters in the novel represents what they are at the deepest level. Their actions are a progressive and involuntary revelation of their inner natures, and death comes as a final epiphany of character. (p. 47)

Warren's intention in his...

(The entire section is 2247 words.)

David Bromwich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Warren's poetry has made itself felt, for some five decades, as a moral presence and a moral pressure of an unusual kind, and he is read by people who are genuinely interested in poetry. Since Promises (1956) the poems have grown steadily more impressive. He is not among the great originals of American poetry, yet, in their power to astonish, his poems resemble Melville's: there is the same tested and life-weary appeal to experience, with the sense of a fierce self-command maintained against all odds.

The modernism in Mr. Warren's poetry always seemed a displaced moralism. He refused to borrow, from Eliot or anyone else, new ways of organizing a poem: in this he was at several removes from the [Allen Tate] of "Ode to the Confederate Dead." What gave his early pieces the modern look was their use of such honorific abstractions as Time, and Hope, and Responsibility. Mr. Warren has become a better poet, to my mind, in proportion as he has learned to do without these. He is by temperament an observer of nature, a scholar of its morals, and an ironist when he is compelled to put nature side by side with morality. He can therefore be like Hardy, a little hard to take. But his vocabulary is more limited than Hardy's, and coaxes even more patiently, where decorum would lie in not coaxing at all. Mr. Warren sees, however, what few of us have seen. His poems draw their sustenance from a world of buzzards and swamps and forests...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Victor H. Strandberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A fundamental coherence unifies Warren's whole body of poetry, as though it constituted a single poem drawn out in a fugal pattern…. Ultimately, in fugal fashion, his three master themes interlock, so that at any point in the poet's career we are likely to see simultaneous traces of all three themes—and in at least one instance, "The Ballad of Billie Potts," they fuse into perfect harmony. But for the most part each theme has in its turn a period of predominance over the other two. (pp. 33-4)

By virtue of their dialectical interaction, Warren's grand themes of passage, the undiscovered self, and mysticism imparted continuous tension and growth. (p. 35)

In Warren's first...

(The entire section is 6143 words.)

Richard Jackson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Typically, the voice in Robert Penn Warren's Selected Poems, 1923–75 is situated in a moment, a boundary or threshold, where the meaning of time must be hazarded: "the future is always unpredictable. / But so is the past, therefore / At Wood's edge I stand and, / Over the black horizon, heat lightning / Ripples the black sky" ("Tale of Time," IV). In this threshold moment (and it is usually a narrative one for Warren, not a lyric one as for Eberhart and Ammons), the speaker historicizes himself by extending the moment in time, by creating time. The "Tale of Time," for example, is based upon the expansion of an "interim" of consciousness that the speaker feels at his mother's death: "the time / Between the...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Mark Royden Winchell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The American Adam R.W.B. Lewis reminds us that during the nineteenth century many serious writers pictured America as a new Garden of Eden and saw the American as a new Adam, "a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history." The experience of the past century, however, has shattered the validity of such a myth. The serious American of today is more likely to see himself as a tainted anti-hero whose potentialities have been dissipated by imperialist expansion, racial discord, economic catastrophe, and a seemingly interminable series of wars.

If anything, our attitude today has swung too far in the direction of despair. The contemporary writer,...

(The entire section is 2262 words.)

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lionel Trilling once wrote of E. M. Forster that he refused to be great—by contrast, presumably, with D. H. Lawrence, who insisted upon greatness. I am saying that those American poets who, under different circumstances, might make a leap toward greatness seem to have decided not to leap. It is not that present circumstances are in themselves desperately unpropitious. Who knows anything, in any case, about the circumstances that favor major work? It is that grandeur, especially of the bardic kind, is out of phase. Poets are more confident that something good may arise from the process of adding one fairly well-shaped brick to another. (pp. 9, 88)

Warren is exemplary in assessing the properties of...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

Dave Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Warren has spoken often of Randall Jarrell's admonition that the true poet stays out in the rain and waits to be struck by the lightning. In poems that range from early iambic monotony to images of virulent, if disorderly power to a late and soaring architecture of the individual heart, Warren has submitted himself to that lightning. His character, his art, is the conduit of the violent and essential energy of the universe.

[Harold] Bloom, rightly, has said that Warren wants to be a hawk of life. As poet he is hawk-like, imperial and imperious, gliding over and holding in thrall everything that is. He rarely relaxes or clowns or indulges in the slighter uses of poetry. He has explored a continuous...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)