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.)
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...
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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 first novel … is to pose these issues rather than resolve them. The most that one may properly claim is that, in spite of the artist's careful objectivity, there is some pressure exerted upon this "dialectical configuration" of "truths" to cohere in Truth. And the Truth which is being asserted is a definition of freedom of the will which transcends rather than denies the logic of naturalism.
Such a notion of truth, however, is so relative that it becomes nearly synonymous with "myth," as Warren has consistently used the word, and presages his later large affinities with the philosophy of William James. A myth is simply a version of reality, a construct by which the confusing welter of experience is reduced to order and significance. Warren, like James, seems to posit a "pluralistic" universe where no construct, however complex, is ever adequate to contain all of experience. (p. 51)
In Night Rider, the issue of naturalism obviously flows into the problem of defining the self, of discovering some entity capable of willing or of being acted upon by mechanistic forces. Controversy over the novel has centered from the first on Warren's characterization of Munn, but usually on other grounds. Most critics have judged Munn inadequate as a center of consciousness for the novel. It seems clear, however, that the obvious and severe limitations of Munn's awareness, rather than being the result of a defect in Warren's skill, are the point of the novel…. The characterization of Perse Munn is a brilliant device which involves the reader in a direct perception of that incongruity between intention and act, intellect and feeling, self and world, which so bewilders Munn. The reader's close-up view of Munn's disintegration is further calculated to dispell any predisposition toward a simplistic determinism or facile assignment of causes or motives in his decline, and should dissuade most readers from the view that the world is unitary and knowable.
Munn is indisputably an enigma, but he is an enigma to himself as well as to the reader, so the sources of his puzzlement are thematically significant. The narrative voice is limited, except in three or four instances, to a perspective approximately identical with Munn's, and those limitations seem expressly intended to convey the boundaries of Munn's vision. Munn, for instance, does not see very far into his own motives, and in nearly every case where he engages in baffled introspection, the narrative forces the reader to confront the same invisible barriers which encompass the protagonist. Through such means, the gradual crumbling of Munn's sense of identity is perceived directly by the reader, who is allowed, as it were, to participate in the very process of his disintegration.
In the first few scenes of Night Rider, Munn is established as a seemingly trustworthy center of consciousness and a ready object for the reader's sympathy. Warren then proceeds to undermine that too readily granted confidence until, by the end of the novel, the reader is largely alienated from what Munn has become. Precisely as alienated, in fact, as Munn is from himself. It is interesting to note that from the perspectives of most of the other characters in the novel … Munn seems an admirable, self-assured man. During the crisis in his community, he is selected as a leader almost as a matter of course. And it must be said in his behalf that he acts his part credibly.
The point is, however, that Munn's public behavior is a part which he acts, an unconscious role which both his community and he take for granted. Munn is the very figure of the Southern gentleman…. Outwardly, Munn represents his culture's version of the decent, enlightened gentleman.
Perse Munn is not the kind of man to engage frequently in deep soul-searching or introspection, but that, too, is part of his self-image as Southern gentleman. Munn's unexamined assumptions about his social identity unconsciously modify his every gesture and attitude…. Both the imperturbable reserve of [the] narrative voice and the consistent use of the appellation "Mr." before masculine proper names are echoes of Munn's own habits of address, and they suggest further how far he is imprisoned in a superficial public identity. Because he has no language—and no concepts, apparently—adequate to his inner life, Munn seems intolerably passive and emotionless. It is not that Munn lacks passions, but that he lacks a way to acknowledge and deal with them. (pp. 52, 54-6)
Why Munn's image of himself and his traditional role fail to provide him with a comprehensive mode of feeling and with values for dealing effectively with the world is left for the reader to infer. While he seems to embody important agrarian virtues and is the product of an agrarian culture, Munn is not immune to nihilistic doubt; he succumbs … to the forces of cultural change and upheaval. His social role and myth of himself become, under stress, a suffocating mask which distorts his vision and disguises him from himself. (p. 57)
The frequent need which Munn feels to discover the exact equivalent in language for some event in his experience is analogous to Warren's notion of the artist's task of rendering the world. To discover a language adequate to convey one's experience is to discover the meaning of that experience and to reduce it to coherence. But Munn finds in the constant disparity between word and event that same mysterious gap between conception and act which confronts him elsewhere. The "definition" of things on a page, he finds, is inevitably different from the things themselves…. And that difference produces in him a despairing lack of conviction in any construct or definition of reality. (pp. 57-8)
As Munn becomes detached from his own emotions, the language of the narrative becomes progressively detached and impersonal. There are provoking silences at crucial occasions in which both the reader and Munn are puzzled at Munn's inability to feel anything. (p. 59)
[By the end], whatever threads of continuity had existed among the confused and disparate elements of his being are irreparably snapped; the "seed of the future" has died in him, and he is numb to both the past and the future, able to exist imaginatively only in the present moment…. Toward the end Munn is startled by the unrecognizable face that stares at him from the mirror.
Munn's difficulty in sustaining his conviction of his own identity seems to imply the ultimate inadequacy of all such "myths," whether of self or of the world. The novel is thus not merely a depiction of the quest for "self-knowledge" that it is usually taken to be, but a depiction of the illusory and partial nature of all knowledge. The novel examines systematically the consequences of a loss of conviction in one's unconscious sense of self and all the unspoken, unexamined assumptions about the world which proceed from it. Toward the end, Munn cannot maintain the simplest connection among things in his mind: "the past …, which once seemed to have its meanings and its patterns, began to fall apart, act by act, incident by incident, thought by thought, each item into brutish separateness."… (pp. 59-60)
Munn's chief motive throughout the novel is the relatively modest hope of understanding what his life is about; it is the mainspring even of his atrocities. In this, and in his "restless appetite for definition," Munn is most typically human, most like ourselves, and like our conventional heroes. But everything Munn tries to grasp eludes him; for all his pain and effort, knowledge is not ultimately his. The naturalistic view of events at which he arrives late in the book clearly contributes to his problems rather than provides a solution…. To take the straight look at Nothing, at the abyss undisguised by our myths of order, is fatal. There is thus, finally, a pragmatic inadequacy in naturalism; it offers Munn nothing he can use, nothing he can live by. (pp. 60-1)
Richard Law, "Warren's 'Night Rider' and the Issue of Naturalism: The 'Nightmare' of Our Age," in The Southern Literary Journal (copyright 1976 by the Department of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Spring, 1976, pp. 41-61.
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 almost unscarred; of iron loyalties and sudden betrayals; of the aimless talk of old men, interrupted by a rifle shot, and followed by silence. It is a world in which everything may depend on a rattlesnake heard scuttling for its hole, or a hawk seen obliquely among the shadows. (pp. 288-89)
The single lasting reservation one feels about this poet is that he cannot resist the big effect. There are times when it needs to be resisted, and a good poet ought to know those times: a phrase like "the delirious illusion of language" does not belong at the end of a genuine poem. Nevertheless, Mr. Warren has earned the name of poet several times over: a poet, after all, is a man who does what no one else, no other poet even, could do. (p. 289)
David Bromwich, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1977 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXX, No. 2, Summer, 1977.
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 published volume, Thirty-six Poems (1935), [the] theme of passage from innocence into a fallen state is apparent in a number of poem titles—"Man Coming of Age," "Problems of Knowledge," "So Frost Astounds," "Aged Man Surveys the Past Time," "The Garden"—and it not only permeates all the poems in the collection but also spills over into the subsequent Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) and the new poems in Selected Poems: 1923–1943. As a whole, this latter collection (representing some twenty years of poetry-writing) divides itself fairly evenly between the two emotional poles that are naturally implicit in the lapsarian material: nostalgia and regret concerning paradise remembered; guilt, dread, and despair prevailing after the Fall. Often the two emotional states occur in the same poem, locked in dialectical conflict; but sometimes a whole poem is given over to one perspective or the other. (pp. 46-7)
[Considered as a whole], Warren's early poems constitute a rendering of the lapsarian experience and a weeding out of false responses to it. Following this weeding out process, the rudimentary elements of Warren's own response begin to appear in fragmentary passages. This response centers upon the poet's decision to accept his passage into the fallen world and to search for a sacrament, preferably in greater knowledge, whereby that world might compensate for its loss of meaning. As even Satan proclaimed while prostrate in Hell, all is still not lost so long as the unconquerable will endures. While hardly ready to emulate Milton's heroic rebel, Warren's persona does insist upon that small measure of existential freedom that even a fallen world cannot extinguish, and in that freedom some few embers of hope and courage may yet be nourished. (p. 62)
Of all the volumes of poetry Warren has published to date, You, Emperors, and Others remains the least satisfactorily understood and appreciated. Called "seventy-nine pages of poems largely about nothing in the world" by one critic, and "an exercise in metrical high jinks,… an artistic vacation" by another, the volume is best understood, I think, in the light of Warren's earlier poetry, particularly with reference to our three grand themes…. [The] poems of passage in You, Emperors, and Others properly begin with "Mortmain," the sequence on the death of the poet's father, an experience harrowing enough to set Time's reel moving backwards to both the poet's and his father's prelapsarian boyhood. (pp. 73-4)
Far removed from this family setting, the next victim of passage into the world's stew in You, Emperors, and Others is Achilles in "Fatal Interview: Penthesilea and Achilles," where Warren continues his longstanding practice of reinterpreting myth and history to suit his private system. [It is written] in the Homeric grand style, with admirably graphic details and vivid metaphors…. (p. 76)
In the final three sections of You, Emperors, and Others we find Warren's psychology of passage somewhat departmentalized according to life's major phases. "Autumnal Equinox on Mediterranean Beach" is an older man's mood poem, wherein gusty blasts of autumn wind are welcomed as a correlative of the speaker's disillusion with summer's phony paradise…. [The mood turns sourer] at the poem's conclusion, which observes that in this fallen world neither nature nor its God cares who suffers or who benefits in the turn of its seasons. The poem's cacophonous noises seem to objectify the speaker's black mood…. In form, content, theme, and setting, this poem sufficiently resembles Shelley's famous "Ode to the West Wind" to suggest possible parody: oh, wind, if autumn comes, can winter be far behind? (pp. 81-2)
During the six years between You, Emperors, and Others and the publication of Tale of Time: New Poems, 1960–66, several changes in the materials of the poet's art occur: a shift in geography with Vermont replacing Italy as a favored setting; and interest in biblical characters supplanting Achilles and the Roman emperors of classical antiquity; and the development of his children's minds providing a foil to his own melancholy meditations. In other respects, however, Tale of Time fastens upon the recurrently familiar, most importantly in the poems of passage situation. Of the six major poem sequences [in] the collection, five treat the Fall from a more innocent view of life as the predominant issue; the two poems that lie outside the sequence format also treat the theme of bitter knowledge. (One of these, "Shoes in the Rain Jungle," is an early protest poem that sees the Vietnam war as evidence of an ominous national innocence; and the other, "Fall Comes in Back-Country Vermont," exploits symbolically the poet's favorite seasonal setting.) (pp. 84-5)
[In Can I See Arcturus from Where I Stand? Poems 1975] we find the themes of his earlier volumes extended, modified, or otherwise "made new" through strikingly novel achievements in imagery, tone, and form. Concerning the theme of passage, the main event of these poems is a return to his motif of the bifurcated self—the unified prelapsarian psyche having been split, after the trauma of passage, between the fallen self in a ruined world and an alter ego or anima disappearing toward a higher realm of being. It was some forty years ago, in Thirty-six Poems (1935) and the first few of the Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, when Warren last addressed this subject so intensively. In these recent poems he extends the motif to what one must suppose is an ultimate level of intensity. There is also increasing use of the pronoun "you" to refer to the fallen self. (This "you" is sharply distinguished from the "you" of Warren's middle period, the 1940s and 1950s, when it referred to an idealized self-image.) (pp. 109-10)
[Through] what we have called Warren's poetry of passage, the configuration of his thought has assumed a pattern similar to that of poets like Wordsworth and Dylan Thomas in their regret over the loss of a prelapsarian self and in their poetic attempts to eulogize the lost self. Warren departs sharply from such companion spirits, however, in his next stage of development, wherein the psyche in its fallen state is at last compelled to cope with its new and terrible sense of reality. This new sense of reality, reaching both outward into the immensity of time and space and inward toward an innate depravity that Warren calls "Original Sin," typically imposes upon the Warren personae identities that they find unacceptable and seek to evade at all costs. Yet it is this mode of identity alone that can remedy the effects of passage on the Warren persona by reconciling the warring parts of the psyche and making possible redemptive mystic perceptions. Extending through Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942), "The Ballad of Billie Potts" (1943), and Brother to Dragons (1953), this psychological metamorphosis occupies the crucial center of Warren's poetic career, producing major changes in form and carrying his theme into that zone of the psyche which C. G. Jung denoted as "The Undiscovered Self." (p. 121)
As we proceed toward the center of Warren's poetic vision, we find that [the] vanishing of the prelapsarian self is prologue to a grander obsession in Warren's total canon—namely, the effort to find or construct some sense of identity that may fill what "The Ballad of Billie Potts" calls "the old shell of self," left behind in the fallen world like the cicada's cast-off casing, "thin, ghostly, translucent, light as air." This effort may never reach a satisfactory conclusion, for the experience of the Fall renders such genuine innocence and total wholeness of self irrecoverable. But the craving to recreate that original felicity is one of mankind's deepest obsessions, in Warren's judgment—it motivates the Happy Valley episode in At Heaven's Gate and Jack Burden's Great Sleep, Going West, and Back-to-the-Foetus psychology in All the King's Men, to mention two rather grotesque fictional examples.
Since the 1940s, when Warren's poetry first began to manifest such characteristics of short fiction as plot and character, this psychological dilemma has evoked narrative and dramatic elements to add to his already well-developed lyric mode of earlier decades. It is particularly through dramatic characterization—monologues, debates, parts of the self in conflict, dialectical confrontations—that Warren has developed his identity-psychology. At the same time he has relied on extended narratives or sequence-arrangements to effect dramatic development in a large number of shorter poems, several medium length ones ("The Ballad of Billie Potts" and Audubon), and one book-length masterpiece, Brother to Dragons. Among the diverse characters depicted—biblical, classical, legendary, or historical; and those drawn from personal reminiscence or imagination—the two types most important to Warren's identity-psychology are what we may call the Clean and the Dirty.
These two types, whose dialectical opposition provided much of the structure in All the King's Men, carry their warfare to the deepest psychological levels in Warren's poetry. Warren's Clean people—those who refuse passage into a polluted and compromised adult environment—range from mild and harmless eremites, victims perhaps of the fundamentalist Protestantism of the poet's native region, to murderous psychopaths like the prophet Elijah in A Tale of Time who "screams" in ecstasy at the spectacle of the Dirty people (the prophets of Baal) being butchered. As a poet of reality, Warren naturally tends to side with the Dirty people, partly because their apprehension of the world correlates more largely with the actual state of things, but most importantly because those who accept passage into the world's stew are empowered thereby to proceed to the subsequent stages of spiritual development represented in this discussion by the phrases "The Undiscovered Self" and "Mysticism."
If the poems of passage constitute, collectively, Warren's "Songs of Experience," we might call his small but fine group of poems on the Clean people his "Songs of Innocence"—with the concept of innocence, as we might expect in Warren's work, heavily drenched in irony. For in the "One Life" perspective there is no such thing as innocence, but only the delusion of one's separateness from the filth of the world or, even worse, the delusion that one must rise up and cleanse the fallen world of its putrid corruption. Warren's career as a prose writer began with his portrait of one such world-cleanser, the redoubtable John Brown, whose truth is lyrically still marching on but whose little known cleansing operations before Harper's Ferry included the deliberate slaughter of several whole families in the Kansas-Nebraska territory. Following the John Brown model, the Clean figure rising up in the holy purity of his ideal to rid the world of its putrefaction has been one of Warren's most recurrent fictional types…. Both the world-cleansers and those who merely retire from the world's stew into their private righteousness are making a cardinal error that precludes their glimpsing the one life or osmosis of being vision that is Warren's final answer to the quest for identity. After all, anyone might love the world after it has been purified and trasformed by the New Creation of religious prophecy or by its modern secular counterpart of political millennialism. But in Warren's opinion such love fails the first requirement of a realistic religious imagination, which is to love the world and its denizens just as they are, brimming with pain, injustice, and corruption.
Both of Warren's Clean types make their appearance at about the beginning of the middle phase of his poetic career in Eleven Poems on the Same Theme and the Mexico Is a Foreign Country sequence (in Selected Poems: 1923–1943); and both types have continued to figure in all of the subsequent volumes…. [In portraying the world-cleansers] what Warren objects to is the tendency of every ideology to interpret the world symbolically. When applied to human affairs this tendency has proved exceptionally catastrophic in our age, leading to terrorism, genocide, and military slaughter of unimaginable proportions. (pp. 122-24)
A willingness to shed other people's blood for the sake of an idea marks off these world-cleansers from Warren's other Clean people, whom he treats with a gentler irony that sometimes dissolves into empathy. (p. 126)
Warren's preference for the Dirty is not purely ironic or perverse. Like Hawthorne, Warren feels that in a fallen world some merit attaches even to sin, vice, and guilt. Whereas righteousness separates, guilt unifies the human community. To feel guilty towards someone is to have a genuine, if unhappy, relationship with the injured party; and to commit sin is to share a humiliation—an erosion of the ideal self-image—that exempts very few. Unbeknownst to the Clean in their aloofness, a sense of complicity is finally the true cement of the human bond, ultimately binding all creatures into Warren's "mystic Osmosis of Being." (p. 128)
So we come to the central subject of Warren's poetry and the most dramatic and original thing in it, to which the poems of passage form but an elaborate prelude. Culminating the motif of the Clean and the Dirty, Warren's long and crucial series of you poems forms the arena wherein guilt and innocence stage their epic battle for possession of the psyche—bringing us squarely into [Jungian territory]…. Beginning with Eleven Poems on the Same Theme and "The Ballad of Billie Potts" (1942, 1943), and continuing through Brother to Dragons (you being Thomas Jefferson), Promises (especially "Ballad of a Sweet Dream of Peace"), and You, Emperors, and Others (notably the "Garland for You" sequence), the you poems have been Warren's most obscure and for that reason least appreciated body of verse. But they are certainly his most distinctive and probably his most important poetic works.
In Warren's poems of passage, the trauma of passage typically involves recognition of the fallen world "out there," after a knowledge of naturalistic reality has cast the childself out of his original worldly paradise and forced him irremediably into the realm of time and death and losses. But unlike such other poets of passage as Wordsworth, Housman, and Dylan Thomas, Warren proceeds beyond the self-consoling stance that normally obtains at this point … to deal with a trauma even greater than that of naturalistic loss and oblivion—namely, the humiliating sense of inward pollution that we might call the psyche's fall from the Clean to the Dirty. Beginning as a peripheral subject in Thirty-six Poems, this motif swelled to central importance in Warren's second volume, Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, and continued to dominate the poetry of the 1940s and 1950s. (pp. 130-31)
[Eleven Poems on the Same Theme] presents a psychological drama that defines the issues and equips us for understanding Warren's whole body of subsequent poetry. Its antagonists are the conscious against the unconscious self; its setting moves from the fallen naturalistic world of the poems of passage through the interior darkness in the house of the psyche (attic to cellar); and the issue at stake is the possible redemption of man, "the groping God-ward, though blind," through the uniting of self, of all selves, in the attainment of identity.
Above all, the development toward a Jamesian "Conversion" through the ministrations of a Jungian undiscovered self gives Eleven Poems a crucial place in the Warren canon, for its metaphor of a repressed shadow self that was slain and buried in the dank cellar of the house of the psyche (only to rise again) became a protean master metaphor in the later poems…. Although its central drama awaits resolution in Warren's later verse, Eleven Poems on the Same Theme may be considered a masterful achievement in its own right: original in its conception, significant in its import, and striking in its presentation. The emergence of a major new vision and voice in American poetry dates from this work.
In "The Ballad of Billie Potts" Warren's three ground themes of passage, the undiscovered self, and mysticism fuse for the first time into his single paramount theme of identity. (pp. 148-49)
[The] basic structure of "Billie Potts" follows the principle, common since Whitman's time, of patterning a poem after a musical composition…. Warren's "Ballad" unfolds in a fugue-like arrangement, its three ground themes interweaving throughout the poem until they converge to form a most extraordinary terminal crescendo. The theme of passage, to begin, renders both setting and characters in such a way as to underscore appropriate mythical allusions. Although Warren sets his story in the frontier country of America, he evokes the image of a very ancient time through his setting "in the land between the rivers." Mesopotamia, which translated means "the land between the rivers," has long been regarded in Semitic myth, including the Garden of Eden story, as the birthplace of mankind. So Warren subtly implies as early as line 2 of this poem the origin and outcome of the myth he is recreating in the context of New World innocence and its Fall. The importance of this phrase ("the land between the rivers") is indicated by the fact that it becomes the recurrent refrain throughout the ballad, and it ties in with the water imagery that later emerges to predominant significance in the poem.
The characters also suggest Edenic analogies. In the first stanza Warren depicts Big Billie Potts as an American Adam—already fallen but not yet aware of the literal death his sin will entail for his posterity…. The resemblance between Big Billie's wife and Eve is seen [clearly]…. And Little Billie, if lacking Edenic dimensions, is at least a prime candidate for Warren's psychology of passage because of his rather vulnerable adolescent innocence…. (pp. 149-50)
[In the "Ballad"] the psychology of passage leads to Warren's second ground theme, the undiscovered self. Not the sought after innocence but a terrible knowledge has ended the quest for identity. Not the child-self but the Old Man has answered, in Mephistophelean perversity, the heart's deep summons, its yearning to complete its own definition. Allegorically, then, for Billie as for his Edenic prototypes, passage into the fallen world brings death and the Jungian shadow and subjects the seeker of identity mainly to knowledge of identity's limitations: naturalistic annihilation and inward depravity, twin gifts of the father, "the patrimony of your crime." With the hatchet's fall the theme of passage culminates; having fused sin and death in one sublime stroke, it can go no farther. The narrative part of the "Ballad" therefore unravels to its denouement quickly, with the conniving parents finding to their grief and horror just who was this stranger they have killed for his money.
With the narrative ballad finished and Little Billie dead, Warren is free to move his true subject and his true main character to center stage—namely, the you of the poem's parenthetical passages. For it is not Billie Potts, but you that he has been talking about all along, you being as always the Clean part of one's identity that William James called the ideal self and Freud called the superego. In fact, one of the subtlest and finest things in the poem is the shifting identity of you. Like Billie, you began the poem as a Clean fellow with primal innocence safely intact, as befits the conscious ego that is unaware of its connection to the Jungian shadow. To further bait the trap, Warren's narrator initially aligns his identity with you, both personae being mere innocent observers who scrutinize the scene of this crime of time past from the safely sanitized shelter of time present…. (p. 153)
[In] the seventh parenthetical passage, Little Billie vanishes from the text and leaves you fully to assume his quest and his identity, and so to carry them into the eighth and final parenthetical passage which concludes the poem. This passage—surely both one of the finest things Warren has written and one of the landmarks of modern poetry—resolves the theme of identity by dovetailing the undiscovered self with a pantheistic mysticism. So far as the undiscovered self is concerned, you now at last head back to the father figure whose fallen condition … represents the missing element of your identity: "And the father waits for the son." Bowing in humility to that loathsome figure and acknowledging consanguinity with him, you will thereby complete your knowledge of who you are. In Eleven Poems and later in Brother to Dragons, the theme of the undiscovered self is likewise resolved only when the Jamesian ideal self or Freudian superego submits in this fashion to acknowledge its id or animus or shadow. But it is doubtful whether Warren ever again captured that moment of fearsome though necessary psychic integration with such perfect clarity, economy, and power as he did at the end of "Billie Potts":
And you, wanderer, back, After the striving and the wind's word, To kneel Here in the evening empty of wind or bird, To kneel in the sacramental silence of evening At the feet of the old man Who is evil and ignorant and old….
This passage thus serves as the culmination for Warren's theme of the undiscovered self and also provides a convenient bridge to the poem's third ground theme of mysticism through religious diction and imagery. The devoutness of tone and setting ("in the sacramental silence of evening"), the hushed imminence of eternity ("evening empty of wind or bird"), the son's humble posture of genuflexion, the archetypal connotations of the father and son motif—echoes and allusions like these strike deeply into the Western religious consciousness. Above all in the tableau of Son bowing his head to the hatchet in the silence of evening we have overtones of Christ in Gethsemane. (pp. 156-57)
In "Billie Potts" [a wish for cosmic unity is] turned into reality, as Warren's earliest and perhaps most powerful version of his "osmosis of being" vision blooms suddenly vast as Dante's celestial rose. This irruption of what James and Freud called "cosmic consciousness" provides the poem's final resolution for Warren's ground theme of identity, a resolution that endures as the "One Flesh" idea—akin to Coleridge's "One Life" theme in The Ancient Mariner—throughout Warren's subsequent poetry. What binds the "One Life" into unity is precisely the intuition that, as Warren has said elsewhere, all life lifts towards its own definition. Ultimate identity comes from participation in that great quest shared alike by all creation….
For its power of imagery, its remarkable richness of sound texture, and its profundity of theme, these closing stanzas of "Billie Potts" must rank as Warren's very finest achievement in verse. (p. 160)
"Billie Potts" is probably Warren's best poem, and almost certainly his most important. Its brilliant imagery, its wide-ranging command of sound texture, and its novel synthesis of Warren's three master themes—passage, the undiscovered self, and mysticism—render the "Ballad" analogous to Tintern Abbey as the crucial poem in its author's maturation as a poet. From this point on Warren would be a "finished" artist, capable of very substantial technical innovations in later decades, but having essentially completed his formation of a fully developed point of view. Perhaps it was this sense of poetic self-completion that lay behind the ten year lapse between the "Ballad" and Warren's next publication in verse, Brother to Dragons. (p. 163)
[The] matter of communication between the conscious self and the unconscious is the crucial issue in Brother to Dragons, as it is in much of Warren's earlier verse. Here also, and with particular reference to Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, the initial overtures are made by the deeper self, the serpent-self which the conscious mind tries so hard to repudiate. In contrast to the aloof and prideful surface self, the deeper self appears not so monstrous after all. Instead, it comes forward in shy, sad humility, begging and giving forgiveness simultaneously, asking only to be reunited with its brother self, the conscious identity. (p. 180)
Warren's central themes and preoccupations have remained largely consistent. Questions of man's place in the total scheme of time and nature, of his relationship to the other beings with whom he shares existence, and of his guilt and complicity in the evils that surround him—those questions, in short, that make up the problem of the search for identity—recur from Warren's earliest work to his latest. Because the search for identity becomes, necessarily, an attempt to define reality, and because reality presents itself to us ambiguously—in men's heroism and depravity, in nature's beauty and horror—Warren's work most often assumes a dialectical configuration: the Clean versus the Dirty, the One versus the Many, Solipsism versus Synthesis of Being, Time versus no-Time, Consciousness versus Dream and Intuition. Given this dualistic perception of things, Warren's poetry must try to reconcile opposites…. (p. 191)
[His essay "Knowledge and the Image of Man"] advances two propositions: first, that the end or purpose of man's existence is knowledge, particularly self-knowledge; and second, that this knowledge—of one's ultimate identity, as it turns out—comes through a vision or experience of interrelationships that Warren calls "the osmosis of being": "[Man is] in the world with continual and intimate interpenetration, an inevitable osmosis of being, which in the end does not deny, but affirms, his identity."
In all his writings Warren's most negative characters are those who reject the osmosis of being, while his spiritual guides are those who accept it…. An awakening to this truth typically provides the structure for Warren's fiction and poetry alike. Osmosis of being affords the central vision of Audubon: A Vision; requires Jack Burden in All the King's Men to accept responsibility for history; causes Thomas Jefferson in Brother to Dragons to acknowledge complicity in murder; leads a long series of Warren characters in all his novels towards acceptance of a father figure, however shabby or tainted; and draws forth the theme of a reconciliation between conscious and unconscious zones of the psyche in Warren's poetry about the undiscovered self. And ultimately osmosis of being imparts whatever meaning the self may have within eternity, absorbing the self into the totality of time and nature with the consoling promise, often repeated in Warren's work, that "nothing is ever lost."
Hence, Warren's osmosis has moral, metaphysical, and psychological ramifications; it is his contribution to modern religious thought, having an ethical and a mystical dimension. Looking back over Warren's career, moreover, we may find that osmosis was there all the time,… implicit in the early works and explicit later on. (pp. 191-92)
Since he enunciated in Promises his central concept that "Time is a dream and we're all one Flesh, at last," Warren's subsequent volumes of poetry have been deeply affected by it. This concept has given coherence and direction to his work; it constitutes the "figure in the carpet" that Henry James talked about, "the primal plan" that "stretches from book to book." In Tale of Time (1966) and Incarnations (1968), Warren pursues the meanings of time and flesh somewhat separately, or at least with the stronger emphasis each title implies, although ultimately these meanings are inseparable. In these books, and in those that come before and after (You, Emperors, and Others; Audubon: A Vision; and Or Else), Warren's basic premise has been that the meaning of one's flesh is best perceived in the incarnation of other beings. Of paramount importance in this study is the recurrence in book after book of flesh which is dying or knows itself doomed to extinction. For the moment of extinction is when the dream of Time is about to end and the one Flesh concept is to become manifest. In Promises the snake propped high on a pitchfork tine and the men being hanged project this image, which the later books underscore increasingly. Some of the most moving poems in You, Emperors, and Others fall into this category. (p. 205)
[For] Warren, in Nature's grand eucharist, nothing is innocent and all are cannibals…. The meaning of one's flesh, therefore, can be understood, if at all, only in the light of an osmotic relationship that binds everything into unity and complicity together. (p. 209)
[For Warren himself], as for his various personae, a life as a conscious being is a tool to be used up in the service of the larger being that goes on eternally. But if the price of osmosis is high, meaning death for the conscious ego, its rewards are also high, meaning a kind of immortality through the ministrations of that shadow self so often shunned and loathed and locked out of the house of the psyche. For the shadow self, as made known in dream or animal intuition, is perfectly at ease in that infinitude of time and space which smites the conscious mind with the anxiety that man and his earth are bubbles in a cosmic ocean. The indestructibility of this deeper self was implied in its survival through Eleven Poems, despite murder and burial in the house of the psyche's cellar, and this immortality seems even clearer in Brother to Dragons, with particular reference to the serpent and catfish metaphors. In having "the face of the last torturer," the catfish is clearly associated with the "original sin" aspect of Warren's thought, but it also has redemptive possibilities not given to the conscious ego. Using ice to denote the separation between the world of light and time and consciousness above, and the timeless, totally dark world of unconsciousness below, Warren enviously describes the catfish as having "perfect adjustment" (or we might say osmosis) with its environment and thereby being "at one with God."
In its oneness with the total darkness under ice, the catfish need not fear, as the conscious ego must, the awesome infinitude of time and cosmos above the ice…. (pp. 214-15)
"Perfect adjustment," being "at one with God," and knowing at last who you are—such are the final rewards of Warren's osmosis, though its final price is the death of the conscious ego. "And the death of the self is the beginning of selfhood," R.P.W. had stated in Brother to Dragons. But the collective selfhood under the aegis of one flesh appears clearly superior to the separate ego, not only because of its gift of immortality but also because of its access to redeeming knowledge. (p. 216)
[This is] the apex of Warren's mysticism: given the inability of even the most brilliant scientists, philosophers, and religious thinkers to encompass this most mysterious dimension of reality, Warren has permitted his intuitive powers to work freely in their stead, evolving thereby his conception of time as a dream.
The motif of the dream—a perception of reality arising from the unconscious, as the word dream implies—has probably been Warren's most important new theme in poetry since Brother to Dragons. Promises is full of this motif, relating its highest promise—"All Time is a dream and we're all one Flesh, at last"—to the whole of Nature. (pp. 217-18)
[In Or Else] the counterpoint between Warren's naturalistic poetry of passage and his mysticism gives the book's title its meaning. The mysticism, as always in Warren, implies fusion with this world rather than escape from it. (p. 224)
[The] longest and most ambitious entry in Or Else, is called "I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision." The dream-vision of the title expands through the poem's dozen sections into one of Warren's grandest osmotic conceptions, rendering the oneness of time and flesh on a scale that binds together the living with the dead, family members with total strangers, densely compacted city-scape with vastly vacant countryside, summer heat and winter snow, past and present converging upon "the future tense / Of joy." (p. 225)
By implying a love of the world, joy is the surest mark of grace for the Warren persona; it is his sign of a religious redemption—redemption not in the sense of immortality, but in the sense that the world has come to seem permanently meaningful. This feeling of joy is the point at which Warren's two forms of mysticism converge—his osmosis of being and his epiphanies. And, repeatedly, joy affords the "moment of possibility" wherein the fallen persona may recapture his lost anima and dwell again, like the prelapsarian child-self, at least temporarily in paradise.
The turn to the animal kingdom or even to inanimate nature for osmotic wisdom appears to be culminating in Warren's latest poetry, which abounds with voices of nature striving to give utterance. As though reversing Freud's thesis about the inorganic hiding out within the organic, Warren in his "Arcturus" poems shows mountains, trees, and even the severed head of Mary, Queen of Scots, trying to say something. What they say, on one side, is that they share the human agony of limitations; and, on the other, that the human may share their perfect fullness of being. (p. 226)
Complementing his osmosis of being, [his] "unity with nature" that resembles "the unity of the lover with the beloved" is best seen in Warren's epiphanies, which carry his own love of the world to its ultimate expression. "We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God," the speaker commented in "Masts at Dawn" (Incarnations). By providing "Joy," "Delight," and insight into "The True Nature of Time"—to quote Warren's designations—Warren's epiphanies convey a power that enables men, even after their trauma of passage into a fallen world, to "love the world" and so to love God, the world's otherwise unknowable sustainer. (p. 235)
Like his osmosis of being, Warren's epiphanies seem to have come into play only after his "conversion" experience made them possible, and they have become a predominant note only in his recent volumes—flooding in as the undiscovered self theme was tailing off in the late 1950s. The early poems contain almost nothing of the epiphany experience…. [The] function of the epiphany as a final source of meaning in Promises constituted something new in Warren's poetry, an incursion of Pateresque thought set off in counterpoint against the long travail to wrest meaning from history in Warren's earlier writing. Jack Burden's venture into "history and the awful responsibility of Time" at the end of All the King's Men now yields to the ecstatic intensity of the moment…. (p. 236)
In the Rosanna sequence [of Promises] "The Flower" marks the major turning point in Warren's epiphanies. Through the earlier three poems the girl, in her prelapsarian state, had enjoyed a continuous paradisical condition, while the speaker slumped into postlapsarian despair…. In "The Flower," however, the absorption of the speaker into the girl's perspective permits not only a remembrance but a partial possession of paradise, and a way of transcending time's ruins after the Fall…. The essence of the epiphany is an intuition of Time's oneness that corresponds to the "One Flesh" doctrine developing elsewhere in Warren's poetry…. (p. 237)
If, over the half-century span of Warren's verse, there is one quality that most unmistakably lifts him to the first rank of American poets, then that quality would have to be the remarkable power, clarity, and originality of his imagery, flowing copiously into every part of his poetic canon from the first part of his career to the last. By imagery we refer to that verbal construct which, beginning with simple pictorial power, may ascend to metaphorical, symbolic, and even mythic significance as it implies larger dimensions of meaning…. [The] cumulative power of Warren's imagery in his eleven volumes is incalculable. (p. 273)
[As] prophet Warren has spoken movingly and meaningfully about some central issues of our time. But it is as art that his poetry must hope to survive…. How much of his poetry will ascend into the immortality of "poetry as art" remains to be seen. But his themes are likely to remain significant; and through a career that reaches back over a half century, encompassing schools of pre-Modern, Modern, and post-Modern aesthetics, he has displayed both growth and consistency in technical resources. With respect to the ageless elements of poetic technique—command of metaphor, control of tone and diction, powers of organization, mastery of sound effects, and the like—each phase of Warren's career has evinced a "morality of style" that is true to the classic standard. (p. 274)
Both as "prophecy" and as "art" the poetic canon of Robert Penn Warren evinces such significance, versatility, and excellence as to rank him among the finest and most fertile talents of his age. (p. 275)
Victor H. Strandberg, in his The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren (copyright © 1977 by The University Press of Kentucky), University Press of Kentucky, 1977.
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 clod's clunk and / The full realization" (I). In the expanded moment that is the poem the speaker defines his historical relation to the world through the heritage he creates from his mother's life. In expanding or creating time the poet not only attempts to presence the past but to anticipate the future…. In manipulating time, the poet manipulates, creates his world. Warren's speakers are usually able to find a philosophical category, time, in which to order particulars, and this is perhaps his greatest advantage over a poet like Ammons. What the speaker of a Warren poem inevitably learns, like Saul, is that the difference between world and self is ambiguous. Like Audubon, the speaker discovers, "how thin is the membrane between himself and the world."
At the knife's edge, the poet anticipates a world he is in the process of creating through language: "Out of the silence, the saying. Into / The silence, the said. Thus / Silence, in timelessness, gives forth / Time." The process of language itself becomes history, and thus becomes the essence of the historical self: we are, says Heidegger, a "conversation," a progressive dialogue between subject and object, presence and absence. And yet language itself is simply one arbitrary system among systems for clarifying what we hope is "real." In moving from the isolated to the historical self, from interim to all of time, the principal tool is a language notorious for its ability to deceive. This problem is examined in several of the new poems in a section entitled "Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand?" For example, in "Brotherhood in Pain" Warren exhorts the reader to focus "on any chance object" until it can be seen "in the obscene moment of birth." At this point, the object, the world really, so anthropomorphized by man's meditation on it, ironically turns to pity us who can "exist only in the delirious illusion of language." Our language fails us when we forget its essential temporality, when we forget it marks absence, not presence. When language fails us we become like the bodiless head of Mary of Scots rolling from our linguistic scaffolds: "The lips, / They were trying to say something very important" ("A Way To Love God.")
Warren, who may well turn out to be one of the two or three strongest poets of our age, finds a provisional solution in an idiom that is at once conversational and lyric, contemporary and historic, profane and sacred. It is a language in which he can slip easily from necessary precept to casual observation, cosmic vision to particular sighting. I quote from the end of the strongest of the new poems, "Evening Hawk." Under the hawk's eye, the speaker says, the day dissolves, "the world, unforgiven, swings / Into shadow." What we see from this point, as we replace the hawk's vision with our own, is half created and half perceived, half physical and half spiritual…. Warren's world is one that blends Plato's star and leaking pipes, the geology and history of the earth and the darkness of the cellar. It is a world whose reality, like the language of the bat that is written on air, is tentative, provisional. (pp. 549-51)
Richard Jackson, in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1978), Fall, 1978.
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, rather than having to bridle excessive optimism, must seek a limited solution to the waste-land conditions of modern life. In All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren forthrightly confronts such a bleak milieu. (p. 570)
Warren's vision in All the King's Men may well reflect a secularized form of one of the most pervasive motifs in ecclesiastical and literary history—the paradox of the Fortunate Fall. (p. 571)
Lewis finds the experience of a Fortunate Fall to be a key metaphor in early American literature. Those who saw the American as a new Adam, he argues, constituted a "party of hope," while those who viewed the new world as an absolute moral extension of the old were a "party of memory." Mediating between these two simplistic extremes was an infinitely more complex vision which affirmed both the reality of the Fall and the possibility of redemption. For, in the view of those whom Lewis calls the "Party of Irony," spiritual rebirth can occur only after one has discarded the illusion of innocence and has accepted the full burden of a fallen humanity. Indeed, Lewis contends that "as a metaphor in the area of human psychology, the notion of the fortunate fall has an immense potential. It points to the necessary transforming shocks and sufferings, the experiments and errors—in short, the experience—through which maturity and identity may be arrived at." And he concludes: "This was just the perception needed in a generation that projected as one of its major ideals the image of man as a fair unfallen Adam."…
Ironically enough, the felix culpa concept may also be a welcome corrective in an age whose paradigm figure is a totally fallen wastelander. (For even though the Fortunate Fall is most evident in such nineteenth-century works as Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, latter-day writers like Henry James and William Faulkner are also concerned with the fall from innocence and its psychological and moral consequences….)… In All the King's Men [Warren] takes us to the underworld and back. Yet, his novel closes on a note of transcendent hopefulness. For in the midst of betrayal, suffering and death, there is still the movement of Grace. (p. 572)
To see Jack Burden's spiritual odyssey in terms of the Fortunate Fall is not to gainsay the consensus interpretation of Warren's novel. It is rather to restate that interpretation in a rich and allusive vocabulary. Warren does not impose an artificially happy resolution upon the contradictions in his characters' lives. Instead, he seems to view such contradictions as inherent to man's fallen condition. As such they can be resolved only if the effects of the Fall can be transcended. How this transcendence is achieved in the life of Jack Burden and fails fully to be achieved in the lives of Adam Stanton and Willie Stark is what All the King's Men is all about.
Adam, Willie, and Jack define a wide spectrum of human behavior and attitudes. In one significant respect, however, all three are similar. Each at significant points in his life must confront unexpected evil. And it is in such confrontations that each man, in effect, falls from innocence and begins to determine his own character and fate. Although the respective destinies of Adam and Willie are significant in their own right, they also function as foils to the more complete psychological evolution of Warren's moral norm—Jack Burden. (p. 573)
Surely Adam Stanton is the character in Warren's novel who fails most completely to make the [spiritual voyage that ends in rebirth]. As the author's name-typing would suggest, Stanton exists in a sort of psychic Eden. Although he may realize intellectually that evil exists in the world, he feels that that world must be different from the one he inhabits. He is an aristocrat and a Southern gentleman, unable to comprehend the corruption and vulgarity of a Willie Stark. Cut off from the creative ambiguity of human experience, Adam sees everything in scientific abstraction.
Dr. Stanton's inability to countenance any qualification of his world view leads to his eventual downfall. (p. 574)
If unfallen innocence involves an ignorance of good and evil, then it is a particularly wilful form of such innocence that incapacitates Adam Stanton. When confronted with the existential knowledge of good and evil, he falls and dies unredeemed.
If Adam Stanton is too innocent to live effectively in a fallen world, one suspects that Willie Stark is flawed by too much cynicism. When the Boss tells Jack to dig up some dirt on Judge Irwin and Jack suggests that this might not be possible, Willie replies: "'Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something'."… We must remember, however, that Willie has not always been of this opinion. At the outset of his political career, Stark is the naive and idealistic "Cousin Willie," a public servant who wants to enlighten the populace and to govern honestly. It is only after such an approach fails that Willie decides to operate as a ruthless pragmatist. (pp. 574-75)
[Stark's] pragmatism is ultimately self-defeating. To understand evil does not mean that one must embrace it. And to seek to accomplish good through evil is to usurp the awful power of God without possessing His infinite wisdom….
If Adam dies with little spiritual awareness and if Willie's enlightenment comes too late to be of any practical benefit to him, Jack's is a different story. He moves from innocence to experience, from flight to recognition, and finally to rebirth. The realization which Jack achieves at the end of the novel can only be understood in terms of the experience which leads up to it. As Jack himself observes: "all knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood."… (p. 576)
Although he is in the thick of political action at the beginning of the novel, Jack performs his duties with the cool detachment of a hired hand. He cares little about the consequences of his deeds. Retreating from a knowledge of himself and of his past, Jack ignores the moral and spiritual dimensions of life and discounts any external reality with a glib Berkleyean idealism. Indeed, he describes himself as "a clammy, sad little foetus."… This foetal metaphor, coming early in the novel, suggests certain themes which are to recur. Jack tries for a long time to live like the sad, clammy little foetus, not knowing and not wanting to know: with knowledge comes the fall from innocence, and Jack wants to remain unfallen. He does not want to acknowledge his own sinfulness. But the end of man is to know (perhaps it is man's end in a double sense); and Jack's story is about his painful coming to knowledge.
Several times during his life Jack's lack of direction and his desire to remain inert reach pathological extremes…. During these periods [of the "Great Sleep"] he sleeps in excess of twelve hours a day, does nothing of consequence while he is awake, and returns longingly to the anonymity of sleep. Here, his characteristic lassitude has simply achieved an extreme manifestation.
If Jack sees himself as a foetus and if we can interpret the Great Sleep as an attempt to return to the womb, then we must look to his past to understand why Jack is so frightened of experience. Indeed, according to Louis D. Rubin [see CLC, Vol. 1], Jack's decision to work for Willie is "an attempt to deny the sense of futility, of aimlessness, of unreality that he had felt … as a child." Certainly, Jack's love-hate relationship with his mother and his lack of a strong father figure would account for certain psychological distress. One suspects, however, that the failure of his love affair with Anne Stanton has been the most profound influence on the picture of the world that Jack carries around in his head.
Viewed in this light, Jack's refusal to consummate his seduction of Anne Stanton is a significant evidence of his psychological malaise. Here, Jack refuses to violate a fixed ideal of innocence. (pp. 577-78)
[Jack] begins to be jarred out of his protective shell, though, when he learns of Anne Stanton's affair with Willie Stark. Fearing that he may somehow have driven Anne into Willie's arms, and disabused of his belief in her purity, Jack finds the actuality of evil impinging on his previously closed little universe. In reaction to this discovery, he flees to the West. (p. 580)
Structurally, it is significant that Warren gives us a chapter of flashbacks between Jack's flight and his decision to return home. Here, Jack's earlier relationship with Anne Stanton is painfully remembered. Here also, Jack concludes that in delivering to Anne the evidence of her father's crime, he has thereby delivered her to Willie Stark. Significantly, it is the belief that he has prompted his sister's affair with Stark that ultimately destroys Adam Stanton…. Thus, in returning home from the West, Jack achieves a greater level of maturity than Adam ever will. Yet that maturity is undercut by some glib rationalization: "There is no reason why you should not go back and face the fact which you have fled from," Jack tells us, "for any place to which you may flee will now be like the place from which you have fled … for things are always as they are."…
Adam and Eve flee from God in an attempt to avoid the consequences of their sin. When God confronts them with their disobedience, they seek to absolve themselves of blame—Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. Similarily, Jack Burden tries to discount his own complicity in evil by suggesting that reality is simply a mechanistic twitch. He calls it the "Great Twitch." No longer able to believe in Anne's unqualified innocence, he denies that guilt and innocence have any objective meaning. For him the Great Twitch is just another womb of not knowing. (p. 582)
It takes a series of traumatic events, however, for Jack's recognition and discovery to manifest themselves in a reversal of intention and action.
One of the most significant catalysts to Jack's rebirth is the death of Judge Irwin. Following instructions from Willie, Jack has tried to blackmail the judge into political subservience. Instead of succumbing to the blackmail, Irwin kills himself. Jack is then awakened by his mother's scream. She has just learned of the judge's death and is on the verge of hysteria. At this point she reveals that Judge Irwin was Jack's real father. Jack has suddenly and traumatically found and lost his true father. By learning the identity of his father, Jack is violently yoked to the past. And when he kills the father he has found, he is an Adamic innocent no more….
Judge Irwin's death has made it impossible for Jack to discount his own moral culpability. By unwittingly bringing about the death of his father, Jack has brushed life's spider web, a distant vibration of which is his own rebirth. (Indeed, some readers hear Mrs. Burden's scream as a metaphorical cry of labor.) (p. 583)
From Judge Irwin's death on, the novel moves through several smaller crises to its climax in the assassination of Willie Stark. And in the final chapter Jack Burden reflects on what he has learned and on the sort of person he has become. Throughout, it is clear that events are changing the picture of the world that Jack carries around in his head. He is no longer a wet, clammy little foetus, warm in his not knowing. No longer is he an idealist, interpreting things solely in reference to his own perceptions; nor is he even part of a great mechanistic twitch.
The mature Jack Burden indicates that he had once believed in the Great Twitch "because it meant that he could not be called guilty of anything, not even of having squandered happiness or of having killed his father or of having delivered his two friends into each other's hands and death."… Jack Burden's suffering has changed his picture of the world into one in which men are free moral agents. Accepting this freedom and the responsibility it entails, he is able to forgive, love, and marry Anne Stanton. (p. 584)
Although Jack and Anne are not fortified by the vision which the Archangel Michael vouchsafed to Adam, Warren still seems to find the very possibility of happiness and hope to be grounded in certain eternal verities. And if his statement of these verities is neither as specific nor as orthodox as some might like, the novel's Christian allusions—particularly to the paradox of the Fortunate Fall—at least remind us that the modern Slough of Despond can claim none but the willing victim. (p. 585)
Mark Royden Winchell, "O Happy Sin! 'Felix Culpa' in 'All the King's Men'," in The Mississippi Quarterly (copyright 1978 Mississippi State University), Fall, 1978, pp. 570-85.
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 his experience by appeal to whatever he thinks of as active beyond sense and mind: Sometimes he calls it History, sometimes Nature, sometimes Fate, without claiming to be on intimate terms with any of these gentlemen. It is agreed on all sides that Warren's recent volumes are his best: wise, wonderfully care-laden and yet not so care-laden as to let the spirit sink. His themes are the perennial ones, requiring an idiom of feeling, passion, speculation: Many of them are about the conditions in which a man meets, or fails to meet, his fate, the failure being then his direst fate.
I have implied that Warren's refusal to be great or major or whatever-we-call-it is not definitive; he could still be seized and driven beyond himself. (p. 88)
Denis Donoghue, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted), December 3, 1978.
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 anatomy of ideas, a spectrum of recurrent images, with the doggedness of a prospector…. Warren has a vision: the unravelling tag ends of the world's body. We have no poet truer to a comprehensive, sustained evocation of the nature of existence; no one who grapples more with the nuances, the variations, the shadings of a core of thought…. In Audubon: A Vision (1969), that poem of few peers, Warren made everything he knew as clear as he could: the poems must define "the human filth, the human hope" and would be inextricable in filth and hope; must regard the human in his true humanity. The language became what it had been in fits and starts, a voice-instrument calibrated to final experience. Warren found what [John Crowe] Ransom had called for, a poetry of the right head, heart, and foot. Warren created a poetry which expressed and formed sacramental force as it flowed through events of Love and Knowledge. Man, Warren says, must understand love is knowledge if he is to understand his fate and, moreover, to accept his fate. Audubon, the killer of birds and beauty, the creator of beauty and a possible joy, is Warren's deep analogue. (pp. 4-5)
If Warren's vision began with Brother To Dragons, his breakthrough came in Promises (1957), of which he has said, "Seeing a little gold-headed girl on that bloody spot of history [an Italian island-fortress which was both site and subject of the poems] was an event!" The image of beauty counterposed against the symbol of history's continuous and random grinding out of beauty suggests a medallion of Warren's art. It is at once the doubleness of reality, darkness and light, and though the mind must try to know multifoilate meaning, must rage for reconciliation, reconciliation fails; art witnesses and holds in tension the antinomies. All of Warren's poems are events rendered in a holding fabric of image, narrative, and meditative gloss; all attempt to do one thing:
… what you are concerned with is a sense of contact with reality. And it's maybe a pinpoint touch or a whole palm of a hand laid, or something; but the important things is the shock of this contact: a lot of current can come through a small wire.
Touch, the laying on of the hand. What Warren has called a single, vital image. Contact. Always the figure of connection, the poem of reconnection, the failure of that ability to receive the energy, disruption, and the possibility of rejoining. For Warren, such poems function, the "poem does involve a potential action, it modifies our being in some way." That is, the poem is not a simple picture, but a picture with extended or exploded events ordered to demonstrate a right relationship, with moral and ethical resonances.
Now and Then: Poems 1976–1978, more physically objective than previous books, is a deeply moral vision, a continuation of Warren's long consideration of the "moral history of man." The book contains, looming like a granite cliff, one of the great poems of our language: "Red-Tail Hawk and Funeral Pyre of Youth." It stands with Audubon as emblematic of his full effort…. [It] is a mini-Mariner in plot, vision, and construction. (pp. 5-6)
[Two key questions posed by "Red-Tail Hawk …"], Nature's forgiveness and what one might do besides walk in the dark, remain unanswered…. [The poem] evolves from event to revelation to vision; moral history enacted, the imagination as alembic; the poem reveals itself as prayer for definition and responsibility, which is to say, failure: to act and to know the meaning as well as the cost of action. The poem is the story of human consciousness. It is dramatically and aesthetically and ethically true to experiential as well as emotional life. It is a grand, unfolded, unified, and felt experience.
Warren's Now and Then is divided into two sections, "Nostalgic" with ten poems and "Speculative" with twenty-six, these subtitles paralleling the temporal now and then in reverse. Typically, Warren takes a position, tests it emotionally and philosophically, then does the same test from an obverse position.
If "Red-Tail Hawk …" is the setpiece of both "Nostalgic" and the book, the initial poem, "American Portrait: Old Style," also looms grandly. It returns to home-ground and innocence, its event a visit with a boyhood friend who had won glory as an athlete and had been an early companion in invented stories. The visit occasions meditation on Warren's oldest subjects: Time, Self, Mutability, Love, and particularly Imagination…. In "Star-Fall" Warren writes:
For what communication Is needed if each alone Is sunk and absorbed into The mass and matrix of Being that defines Identity of all?
That communication beyond speech, atavistic and premoral, is the oldest dream in Warren's poetry. But speech, art, is precisely necessary because we remain unconnected to the matrix. Art has been Warren's way back. Having spent more than fifty years to vivify and make whole this reality of interconnection, he has earned the right to rest and say: "I love the world even in my anger, / And love is a hard thing to outgrow." We expect the confirming, consolidating poems of "Nostalgic" at the end of a man's career, in his seventh decade, even should they sometimes recover old ground, even with glibness of glory.
But when we move into the poems of "Speculation" we discover once again that Warren has gone ahead of us. He surprises us with a darkly insistent mood in poems rooted in dying seasons, sunsets, autumn, gray light…. The collection radiates a Tempest tone while it hovers toward the few answers which might reveal at last "The possibility of joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty." Has Warren, then, turned sour? No. But he has invoked the conceptions, and ideas, the imageries of his career only to question them again. In "Code Book Lost" he suggests he has failed the tenuous meaning he had worked for; the world isn't revealing anything. It is as if Warren has forced himself to start over entirely. He has, in fact, begun to speculate not simply on what death will be like, hence what value in any values, positions, hypotheses, but on what life is as husk…. All bodies of the world's body are husks, vehicles, containers, for that current which may pass through even small wires. Energy is life. Warren is recalling the totemic and hieratic images that fifty years have served toward defining the condition of joy: hawk, owl, beasts, lovers, landscapes of crag and sublimity. But he remembers another immediate truth: "So many things they say are true / but you / Can't always be sure you feel them…." Have the images become a push-button reality? Are they only the furniture of the poems? For Warren, inevitably, the only things true are what survive the cauterizations of literal experience, its reflection and dissection.
And death, always Warren's main character, is nearer than ever. The figure of the hand's touch assumes a new context. Now it is the physician who stares into the patient's face "and you wish / He'd take his god-damn hand off your shoulder." In this poem, "Waiting," everything that has mattered seems stripped away. The woman a man has loved all his life says "she cannot / Remember when last she loved you, and had lived the lie only / For the children's sake." Is this what one comes to, is this reality? Is this the ease which comes to a man's seventh decade? You must wait to know. Warren, like everyone, must "pick the last alibi off, like a scab, and / Admire the inwardness…." As he says in Democracy & Poetry (1975), it is ever the poet's task to face the deep and dark inwardness of man's nature—to endeavor to be so much of the matrix that there will be no need to flinch before the hawk of reality. (pp. 6-7)
With "Sister Water" Warren evokes even the venerable "Original Sin: A Short Story," and an old man rattles the night-door as had the premoral monster who first announced the poet's idea that "nothing is ever lost," not even the will-corrupted and nightmare self. But in this new poem we cannot be sure time exists, much less continuity: "But is there a now or then?" Surely time is not of the matrix but of the human—or is it? Without definition, what human gesture is any good? Warren says, "You cannot pray. But / You can wash you face in cold water." How ironic and caustic. The story of these poems says you must do both to have a chance for reality through either act.
"Speculation" is a tragic and necessary movement which insists again that Warren, like Socrates, will not live the unexamined life but will ask, as he asked in Audubon, "what / Is man but his passion?" He had answered this ambiguously lineated question in a subsequent poem, saying, "Passion / Is all. Even / The sleaziest." The poems of "Speculation" reinforce this contention, but not without the stress test of experience. Of them, none is more blisteringly beautiful than the ouraboros-like "Identity And Argument For Prayer" and the book-ending "Heart of Autumn."… Warren still asks, in "Heat Wave Breaks," "For what should we pray to our God in the rumble and flare? / That the world stab anew in the lightning-stricken air?" The answer now is what Elizabeth Bishop calls "that peculiar / affirmative"—yes! For even if the promise of reality will be only the scalding of flesh and the not-knowing, passion is all. In this self-interrogation, Warren rejects an earlier Tempest tone and, like Lear, calls on the crack of winds. (pp. 7-8)
In perhaps his finest short lyric, "Tell Me A Story," the conclusion to Audubon, Warren became Audubon himself, went back to his boyhood and the dark flow before experience where he had heard "The great geese hoot northward."
I could not see them, there being no moon And the stars sparse. I heard them. I did not know what was happening in my heart.
He prayed; the event of the poem became prayer: "Tell me a story of deep delight." That story is man's moral history that yields the full curve of specific individual experience which is not abstract but is archetypal. Warren asked to start with the world and to know how to live in its reality, to know the world's name and his own, to know love which would prove "all is only / All, and part of all." It is not, therefore, surprising that even in this ferociously eschatological re-examination of everything, Warren would return to those geese, to his lyrical yearning to know what was moving in the blind dark and to be of it. No one describes what he has been as poet better than he does when he says, "The palm of my hand was as / Wide as the world and the / Blaze of distance." With Warren, the love of the world is not cant, but reality itself. (p. 8)
Dave Smith, "He Prayeth Best Who Loveth Best," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1979 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Dave Smith), January/February, 1979, pp. 4-8.