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Warren, Robert Penn 1905–

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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 intensely 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, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Helen Vendler

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[John James] Audubon's art is muscular and avid: his birds and his rats alike inhabit a world of beak and claw and fang, of ripped-open bellies and planted talons. Violence caught in act, at the heart of Audubon's work, is at the heart too of [Audubon: A Vision] where Robert Penn Warren retells with his peculiar narrative Ancient-Mariner talent, a raw incident of craftiness, torture, and death, purportedly witnessed by Audubon.

The incident seems considerably milder as it appears in Audubon's recollections of the prairie; Warren's version has more sex, more murder, and more poetry. Warren's narrative, like the two stories of wretched death in his Incarnations (1968), is horribly memorable in plot, while the language tends very often to efface itself in pure transparency. Warren can make a climax out of five unremarkable words (as Audubon lies transfixed in a cabin, threatened with murder)—"He hears the jug slosh." But there occur, here and there, clotted descriptions on which the plot depends. (pp. 87-8)

Warren's elegy for Audubon succeeds in all but one respect: we believe the life (even so intensified and interpreted), we believe the death, one of the silences of the frontier, but the immortality … is perhaps unearned. Nevertheless, two of Warren's great questions—the nature of love and the meaning of life in time—are incarnate here in his fitting parable of the chosen hunter-artist-hero. Of love: "One name for it is knowledge." Of life: time is the necessary condition for the living-out of Audubon's "story of deep delight." (pp. 88-9)

[The] inside of America is Robert Penn Warren's territory, and these striking vignettes of a man questionlessly happy in his environment and his birds map out for us a possible happiness, incorporating the gory and the ethereal at once.

Like some previous sequences in Warren's Collected Poems (1966) and later work, these poems tell us that one spurt of feeling is inadequate to any detailed subject, and yet that a single long poem, in its composure, is false to the discontinuous feelings that an event, or a person, or a vision can provoke. So Warren gives us these linked poems, so many tangential observations around the self-contained sphere of the actual and its complex of man, event, and scene. (p. 89)

Helen Vendler, "Robert Penn Warren" (originally published in The New York Times Book Review, January 11, 1970), in her Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (copyright © 1980 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the author and publishers), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 87-90.

Calvin Bedient

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Robert Penn Warren's Now and Then … is about the possibility of joy…. Warren shows … romantic credulity,… and he writes in a genuinely expansive, passionate style. Look at its prose ease and rapidity oddly qualified by log-piling compounds, alliteration, successive stresses, and an occasional inversion—something rough and serviceable as a horse-blanket yet fancy too—and you wonder how he ever came up with it. It is excitingly massive and moulded and full of momentum. Echoes of Yeats and Auden still persist, but it is wonderfully peculiar, homemade. (pp. 302-03)

Warren usually makes the big words—God, destiny, love—awkwardly climb the shale of near-prose. Perhaps sublimity has not been so homely since Whitman…. Typically the writing is off-balance yet energized…. At first nipped phrasing, congested with repetition, then the characteristic long lines that seem to expand in an effort to take in as much of wonder as possible. How disarming is the lineal emphasis on "lonely," which would hardly be acceptable in any but its potentially awkward and flagrant spot. Such is Warren's ambiguous mammoth grace.

Two faults: he is sometimes truly awkward and sometimes pseudo-profound…. Often he seems bitten by the Enormity of it all. He will have mystery. Yet his willingness to risk folly prepares him for the monstrous and miraculous. Consider the close of "Heart of Autumn."… Warren's topic is Strand's, Emerson's: the American theme, "the soul's identity." Dreams and messages and namelessness and Time's un-Timing and "the grandeur of certain utterances" and the possibility of "joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty": together with Philip Levine and John Ashbery he is our current poet of these—and in a manner more head-on and go-for-broke than theirs. With his large bony gestures he breaks out of the cobwebs of self-reflexiveness…. In fact, as I have said, he is occasionally facile. But very few poets today have made so fine an adjustment between comfort and discomfort of manner or offer so satisfactory a balance between comfort and discomfort of vision. (pp. 303-04)

Calvin Bedient, "Poetry Comfortable and Uncomfortable," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 296-304.∗

Rachel Hadas

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[In Now and Then] time is of the essence. One might think of these poems as a series of commentaries on two ideas that run through the book so steadily that they come to have thematic significance…. Time is running out; the world is a beautiful place. The two sections of Now and Then offer different ways of dealing with these related truths: Nostalgic delves into time past; Speculative moves mostly forward, touching on past, present, and an envisioned futuristic otherness. (Shouldn't the book's title be Then and Now?)

The tactic of Nostalgic, not surprisingly, is to dip into memory. The ten poems in this section, which range in tone from the backwoodsy to the lofty, mostly succeed to the degree that Warren manages to trim his rhetorical sails. The poet uses rhetoric to impressive effect (instead of its using him) in "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," a commanding poem that moves memories in an arc through time and space…. The ceremonial tone … is appropriate, for the poem records a series of rituals, not mere snatches of memory. Its generous scale of time and space allows room and confidence for wonderfully sharp glimpses of detail…. [The] poem is deeply moving.

But Warren can run into trouble with these memory poems. His appetite for sublimity damages the first poem in the book, "American Portrait: Old Style." This account of a double reunion—with a childhood friend in a childhood landscape—begins well…. By the time the poem is being written, the splendid Southern past is even more remote. But as the poem proceeds it is vitiated by Warren's determination to extract a lesson from past grandeurs and childhood memories. The language expands to vagueness…. (pp. 203-05)

Warren's habit of building up to sublimity, mottoes, morals, what have you, makes the ends of his poems particularly vulnerable. Surely it's no coincidence that "Red-Tail Hawk" begins with the strange exaltation of the kill and works on down through the sadness and disorder of various kinds of decay. The opposite progression—a poem whose thrust is toward sublimity, a detail that unlocks the door to infinity—becomes painfully predictable in the three last pieces in Nostalgic. In each of these poems ("Mountain Plateau," "Star-Fall," and "Youth Stares at Minoan Sunset"), people and places lose the specificity that presumably made them memorable in the first place. The physical and rhetorical elevations towards which these poems struggle seem to exhaust them…. [The] figures in the poems, the very language, strain for loftiness at the price of humanity and individuality. The "piglike trotters" of the lady in "Old Flame" (another poem in this section) would never climb to such austere heights as these; but after having read Nostalgic many times, I find that those plump legs, not these stars and sunsets, are what I remember.

Speculative, three times the length of Nostalgic, is a prolonged meditation which, no matter how one tries to snip it into bite-sized poems, remains pretty much a homogeneous mass. Certain words recur in poem after poem, virtually capitalizing themselves after a while: Love, Truth, Dream, Time. These abstractions are the modest subject of the poet's speculations.

Many of the poems take place at midnight or dawn … and almost all of them have a dreamy tendency to float away from the specific event. (pp. 205-07)

But to speak of [the works] as separate, autonomous poems isn't to describe them accurately. Reading Speculative, the impression soon becomes overwhelming that the destination of each of these poems (or of this one long poem) is set from the start. We have to get to some important insight about Time, Truth, History, or Love, or we might as well not have started out at all. It follows that although (as in Nostalgic) the beginnings of the poems usually display more ingenuity and variety than the endings, it hardly seems to matter where the speculations start from…. Since the poems seem programmed to spiral speculatively out of the regions of the mundane, dramatic and narrative excitement is completely lacking. What's left is language.

In contrast to the long, exclamatory measures of a poem like "Red-Tail Hawk," many of these speculations are couched in a spare idiom, often in slender couplets. Spaciousness is systematically abandoned here, and so is the backwoods pungency of some of the pieces in Nostalgic.

The poems in Speculative approach the themes of Now and Then—the flow of time, the beauty and mystery of life—differently from those in Nostalgic, so it seems reasonable for Warren to use a different kind of language for these poems…. What Warren has (apparently willingly) scrapped in much of Now and Then is no less than his gift for language.

You have to go fairly far back in Warren's work to measure the extent of the loss. "Pondy Woods" (from Selected Poems 1923–1943) is a delectable example of Warren's natural way with words…. So much in the language [works] exactly right. The leisurely rhythm keeps pace with the hovering buzzards; the muffled assonances that end the first two couplets seem to hover too. As always when a poem is firing on all its cylinders, sound and sense are inextricably close; together they manage to wed humor and menace, beauty and filth. As have many English-speaking poets, Warren avails himself here of the musicality inherent in the disparate sources of the English language…. The linguistic drama is especially energetic when pairs of words from opposite camps curtsey to one another in rhyme: woods, altitudes. And try reading the lines aloud suppressing the consonants: you get vowel tones ranging from the prolonged clarities of blue and gold to the short, muffled grunts (sinking deeper into the swamp) of mud, muck, and gum.

In place of this gumbo-juicy world of slurpy sounds and memorable images and lazy humor, Speculative offers us several kinds of landscape, none of them luxuriant. All, indeed, have a disembodied air that suggests earth is to be transcended, not savored. (pp. 207-10)

Non-worlds, dream-worlds. Speculative avoids touching earth … by writing about unearthliness. It also makes lavish use of the second person in its gestures toward universality. Thirteen of the twenty-seven poems in this section are wholly or partly addressed to an unspecified "you."… (p. 210)

In all this exchange of gold for bronze, there's nothing as simple as a lack of talent. Part of the problem seems to be an inordinate ambition for grandeur; part is what feels to me like haste. If Warren were in less of a hurry to chronicle each dawn dream, birdsong, and memory as it occurred, a process of distillation just might be allowed to take place. Mostly, though, it's a matter of the poet's judgment of his own work. (p. 211)

Surely much of the trouble with Now and Then results from the poet's inability or unwillingness to recognize and settle for the nature of his particular genius. What that "genius" is, after all, is not negligible. Warren has an imagination of generous proportions. It embraces history, human drama, perhaps above all the beauty of the natural world; it is capable at times of both beauty of form and splendor of color,… or of something like music and meaning, in our lamer critical idiom. But Warren cannot do everything well. He is not an original thinker or a visionary poet; in his handling of condensed lyric, as well as of abstraction, he can be embarrassingly inept. Speculative is glaring proof that he is unaware of these limitations. (p. 212)

Rachel Hadas, "Bronze for Gold: Robert Penn Warren's Bad Bargain," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1979, pp. 203-13.

Harold Bloom

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Warren's Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices was published in 1953. A quarter century later, he gives us a new version that is, as he says, "a new work."… Reading Brother to Dragons in this new version, side by side with the 1953 text, is an instructive experience, particularly in regard to the vexed problem of poetic revisionism. (p. 30)

Reading Brother to Dragons in 1953, I was made uneasy, acknowledged the poem's vigor, disliked its ideological tendentiousness, and gloomily admired the Jacobean intensity of its more violent passages. The poem seemed then a good enough extension of the tradition of T. S. Eliot…. Warren's quite explicit argument seemed to be another churchwardenly admonition that original sin was indeed the proper moral burden for our poetry. Thus, poor Jefferson received a massive drubbing, for being an Enlightened rationalist, and the drubber, a tough interlocutor named R.P.W., prodded the author of the Declaration of Independence into saying: "… I once tried to contrive / a form I thought fit to hold the purity of man's hope. / But I did not understand the nature of things." The nature of things was that Jefferson's nephew, wielding a meat-axe, had butchered a 16-year-old black slave, in December 1811, for having broken a pitcher belonging to his deceased mother, Jefferson's sister. In his "Foreword" Warren dismissed with polemical gusto the evident fact that Jefferson never referred to this family debacle:

If the moral shock to Jefferson caused by the discovery of what his own blood was capable of should turn out to be somewhat short of what is here represented, subsequent events in the history of America, of which Jefferson is the spiritual father, might still do the job.                                       (pp. 30-1)

A reader more Jeffersonian and Emersonian than Warren was could be forgiven for muttering, back in 1953, that if there was something nasty in the meat-house, there was something pretty nasty in the "Foreword" also. But I too am a quarter century older now, the age indeed that Warren was when he first published the poem. I am not any happier with the implicit theology and overt morality of Brother to Dragons than I was, but subsequent events have done the job all right, to the degree that I am not tempted to mutter my protest anymore. Warren does seem to me the best poet we have now, and the enormous improvement in the poem's rhetorical force is evident upon almost every page. I am never going to love this poem, but I certainly respect it now, and a poem that can overcome one's spiritual distaste probably has its particular value for other readers in my generation besides myself.

The difference in the tale comes in both verse and voices, especially in the voice of R.P.W., which has an authority and resonance that little in the 1953 text prophesied. (pp. 30-1)

In the central poem of Incarnations, "The Leaf," Warren had celebrated being blessed by a new voice "for the only / Gift I have given: teeth set on edge." This grim Biblical trope epitomizes the ethos and the style of Warren in his major phase, and is realized in the new Brother to Dragons. Our teeth are set on edge by the harsh power of this verse.

Warren, in his revised "Foreword," asserts that the dramatic effects of his poem have been sharpened, which is true, particularly in the exchanges between Jefferson and R.P.W., where the poet no longer maintains a rhetorical advantage over the president. That Warren is still dreadfully unjust to Jefferson could go unsaid….

Warren might argue that his sense of Jefferson's greatness is dialectically demonstrated throughout the poem, in much the same way as there is a projection of Emerson's adversary power in the ironic sequence "Homage to Emerson, on Night Flight to New York," which preceded the Incarnations volume. Still uneasy with his ideological ferocity, I content myself here with expressing admiration for the revisionary skill and intellectual persistence he has shown in this new Brother to Dragons. There is a greater Warren, the poet of "Evening Hawk," "Sunset Walk in Thaw-Time in Vermont," "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," and scores of other visions of an authentic American sublime, including Audubon…. That greater Warren compels homage, and has transcended his polemics against Jefferson and Emerson. (p. 31)

Harold Bloom, "Books and the Arts: 'Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, Nos. 9 & 10, September 1 & 8, 1979, pp. 30-1.

Joseph Parisi

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As the title [to Robert Penn Warren's Now and Then] indicates, his priority in this … volume of verse lies with the present. The poems in the first and shorter section, though they fall under the heading of "Nostalgic," are no mere sentimental journey home. With humor and affection, he recounts early observations of nature, discerning as always metaphysical suggestions in the realm of birds, sky, and stars.

Revisiting scenes of childhood, the poet finds messages of lasting import. (p. 100)

Other vignettes recall adolescent turmoil at a tent meeting where "an ex-railroad engineer / Turned revivalist shouted the Threat and the Promise," until the twelve-year-old boy fled and found his own "Amazing Grace in the Back Country" watching one star reflected in a stream; the shock of running into a now unlovely "Old Flame"; the poignancy of the "Orphanage Boy" who had to shoot his dog. These are touching autobiographical poems. Touchy, too, but sharp details, tight narrative, and subtle use of natural symbols prevent sentiment from slipping into sentimentality, particularly in the most impressive poem of the first group, "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," wherein the man says farewell to the things of the child and hopes at the last to rediscover the early "paradox of unjoyful joyousness."

Joy, or at least "the possibility of joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty," runs as the leitmotiv through most of the book, especially in the later "Speculative" poems. Unfashionable enough to speak directly in "public statements," the poet more often chooses to address the life and death questions from odd angles and through homely images…. [Repeatedly] he returns to Nature to find meaning. (pp. 100-01)

Several times the answer to [Warren's questions] lead to God, if only by way of further questions…. [If] old-time plain-speaking embarrasses the modern sensibility, Warren offers an existential variation: "Now now is all, and you you. / / At least, for a minute. / / This may be taken as an argument for prayer." But things change inexorably, of course; even the "old I is not I any more." Existence is "Rather Like a Dream," and the poet is reminded of Wordsworth as a boy reaching out "To touch a stone or tree to confirm / His own identity." Reading signs in nature, Warren does likewise. Confronting Death only returns him to life, renewed…. (pp. 101-02)

Joseph Parisi, "Homing In," in Shenandoah (copyright 1979 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Vol. 30, No. 4, 1979, pp. 99-107.∗

Radcliffe Squires

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Over the years Warren has, I believe, tended to refine a particularly "classical" vision. That is to say, he has eschewed most hasty views of contemporary culture, views that seem to depend on shibboleths like "dissociation," "dissolution," or "disorder," and has tended instead to see the directions of modern life based not so much on hysterical sociology as upon the unavoidable accidents of the human plot, the ironies of covert circumstances, the unravelings of cosmic drama. Hence, his earlier work insisted upon a dimension that has often enough been called "historical," but which might more accurately be thought of as the documentary-past that envelops the mysterious present. In Warren's work, whether fiction or poetry, we understand the reasons for a phenomenon much better than the phenomenon itself…. (pp. 136-37)

The poems in Warren's latest collection, Now and Then, while not exempt from Warren's preoccupation with obscure fatalities, nevertheless seem to stand less in a relationship of dependency upon these fatalities and more in their private space, very beautiful and very clear. They are limited on purpose in the way that only a grand master knows how to effect. It may be, however, that at times the poems seem to look around for support, to sue at the end for approbation, for acknowledgment of their lyrical wisdom. Or so it seems in such poems as "Amazing Grace in the Back Country" whose last line loiters all too obviously: "But that was long years ago. I was twelve years old then."… Or in the assertion, reminiscent of some of Randall Jarrell's farewells, at the end of "Unless": "This is happiness." Do these insistent endings emerge from an uncertainty whether personal nostalgia can assume the directive force of the great impersonal past? Maybe, and if so, they lead us toward a vision wherein the past is obscured by the prominent mysteries of momentary consciousness.

And so, hurrah, in Now and Then we do have a new departure, at least if I correctly read his poem "The Mission."… I hope "The Mission" will make its way into the ultimate Warren canon. I hope the same for "Little Black Heart of the Telephone" which with eerie indiscretion contemplates a telephone's ringing and ringing in a dusty, long deserted room. I do not think I have to worry about the permanence of his poem "Heart of the Backlog," which surely is one of Robert Penn Warren's best poems. Too full of the pulse and nerve of life to be vain about what it is wearing, the poem is marvelously relaxed within the taut balance of its counterweights. (pp. 137-38)

Radcliffe Squires, "R. P. Warren's New Departure," in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1980), Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 136-39.

Irvin Ehrenpreis

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In 1953 Robert Penn Warren published Brother to Dragons, a narrative poem based on the crimes [of Lilburne Lewis, Thomas Jefferson's nephew]. He organized it as a dialogue of disembodied voices conversing long after the event, in an unspecified place. Instead of making the incidents themselves the substance of his poem, Warren treated those as starting a debate on "the human condition," particularly the extent of men's innate virtue or depravity. To suit his plan, he not only altered some of the facts; he not only added some fictitious characters; but he also planted himself and Thomas Jefferson in the poem, giving these outsiders many long speeches. Warren has now carefully revised and shortened Brother to Dragons for a new publication, altering many details, reassigning speeches, breaking up long lines, and giving the verse a dryer texture.

In Warren's telling, although the sickening episodes emerge gradually from the give and take of the speakers, the element of suspense seems weak; and a reader unfamiliar with the story would not gather it easily from the poet's presentation. Warren diversifies the main line of his narrative with other ingredients….

In the choral commentary of the poet's dialogues with Jefferson, Warren suggests that we are all responsible for the mischief done by any one of us; the victim of evil, however weak and vulnerable he may be, participates in the beastly motivations which lead to his destruction, and so does the righteous denouncer of the crime. Jefferson himself, we are told, shared the potentiality for evil which his nephew realized in action. Unfortunately, this doctrine transpires in such a way as to darken Jefferson's character and to brighten Warren's. It is hard for one not to feel that the author takes advantage of his place as inventor of the fiction when he assigns to Jefferson a less perceptive morality than that of the poet who confronts him.

One may ask as well whether a plain historical account, even in my few words, is not more absorbing than Warren's self-indulgent, highly reflexive work…. Warren composed the poem in flexible, varied free verse, often approximating blank verse. Is the poetic element attractive enough to carry us over the difficulties of Warren's theme?

If we do listen to the verse, we find that the poet's style is more lyrical, descriptive, or reflective than narrative, dramatic, or discursive. When he remembers a landscape or evokes passionate love, Warren's poetic energies seem more deeply engaged than when he rehearses a story or produces moral arguments. His speakers often sound alike, or they talk out of character. They are given to clichés of language or sentiment. Consequently, the ingredients which ought most to please us receive inadequate support from Warren's style….

If the narrative and the verse are open to censure, the scheme of debate becomes peculiarly important; for it could supply the challenge which an audience seeks from a poem of this length. If the disagreement set forth between the poet and Jefferson—the quarrel over the meaning of the Lewis brothers' crime—were handled forcefully, if the reader found himself drawn into the substance of the controversy (regardless of the data which provoked it and regardless of the poet's limitations of style), Brother to Dragons might deserve the attention it invites.

But when an author supports his moral doctrine by a mixture of fact, speculation, and invention, it cannot seem sturdy…. I suspect that the power of Warren's poem when it first appeared sprang from the precipitate decline of American moral optimism, a decline which followed the full disclosure of the German nation's bestiality, made known in the years after 1945. Since that period, the conduct of other nations, including our own, has not reversed the decline. On this issue, history has overtaken poetry.

Warren dwells on the betrayal of the vision of men like Jefferson by the sins of the republic they conceived…. Warren lists the disgraces: the destruction of the Indians, the institution of slavery, and so forth; and he declares that all of us—high and low, Southern aristocrat and humble slave—are, like the rest of the world, caught in history. (p. 27)

Unfortunately, every aspect of Warren's analysis is now over-familiar. The failure of our national character is a favorite theme of the American literary imagination…. Moreover, the appeal to fact, which the poem urges upon us, works against the drift of Warren's argument. Whoever examines the scholarly accounts of Jefferson, the Lewis brothers, or Meriwether Lewis will undermine Warren's case. (pp. 27-8)

I have to wonder whether the enterprise of such a poem as Brother to Dragons does not represent one more desire to equip the United States with a verse epic….

[Warren's] last collection, Now and Then, has at least half a dozen good poems. In them the poet looks at himself from the remoteness of old age eyeing death; and he searches for the meaning of experiences embodied in his identity. The strength of remembered emotions, the montage of past and present, the crescendos and diminuendos of sensation provide satisfactions that almost make up for the carelessness of the language. One wishes that Warren's flights were less effortful and that his earthiness were less commonplace, just as one wishes that his metrics were more purposeful. There is also the lushness which troubles one in Brother to Dragons; but it is undercut here by the critical perspective of memory.

Although the attitude, in these poems, is highly serious, the intensity of the poet's self-consciousness and the sense one has of extremes in time being pressed quickly together infuse irony into the tone. The themes include earthly and spiritual aspiration, the desire for glory; they include the transformation of the self through faith, the need to make a self that will not merely vanish—the possibility of resurrection…. [The egoism] is redeemed by typology, and the poet becomes Everyman….

The poems comment on and reply to one another. They cohere naturally and give the reader a beautiful impression of a brave ancient gathering the resources of intellect and spirit against the challenge of finality. (p. 28)

Irvin Ehrenpreis, "The Long and Short of It," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, February 21, 1980, pp. 27-8.

Calvin Bedient

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At its most self-indulgent Robert Penn Warren's sensibility may be mournfully flowery, rhetorically compassionate, windily speculative; but it's a big human thing, and it's good to have it on our side. Warren's arrows fly off in every direction, toward the good and bad, the sublime and turpid, and he thus overshadows [Donald] Justice and even [Anthony] Hecht, poets limited to the boomerang of their own pain. The new sharpened version of Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices outdoes even Hecht in finding "vanity, greed, and blood-lust" in our natures, but it is "R.P.W." who pipes up with the sweetly willed thought that a certain killer's "heart-deep need / To name his evil good is the final evidence / For the existence of good." (p. 477)

Reading Brother to Dragons is a startling experience in complexity: the bear's claws drip both honey and blood.

First published in 1953, this hybrid of the tale and the verse play hasn't dated, and it will probably survive as a lumbering near-masterpiece of human self-reckoning, very southern in kind. It is perhaps too horrid-sublime, withal, to be our great Confession. Warren is the most Yeatsian of our poets…. The romantic faith in passion, the buoyancy and grief of it, unites the two poets across every difference of manner and matter. It links Warren also with two other American poets with recent books, Dave Smith and Philip Levine, who share his raised note of mixed mourning and yearning. (pp. 477-78)

Calvin Bedient, "New Confessions: 'Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices'," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 477-78.

James Dickey

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The source of Warren's stunning power is angst, a kind of radiant metaphysical terror, projected outward into the natural world, particularly into its waiting waste expanses: open field, ocean, desert, mountain range, or the constellations as they feed into the eye a misshapen, baffling, and yearning mythology bred on nothingness. He is direct, scathingly honest, and totally serious about what he feels, and in approach is as far as can be imagined from, say, Mallarmé, who urged poets to "give the initiative to words." Warren gives the initiative to the experience, and renders himself wide open to it. He is not someone who "puts a pineapple together," as Wallace Stevens does, constructing its existence by multiple perceptions, by possibility and caprice rather than by felt necessity; he is not interested in the "ephemeras of the tangent," but in the unanswered sound of his heart, under the awesome winter presence of the hunter Orion.

He plunges as though compulsively into the largest of subjects: those that seem to cry out for capitalization and afflatus and, more often than not in the work of many poets, achieve only the former. To state things in this fashion may make it seem almost necessary to charge Warren with being rhetorical in some kind of wrong way, and indeed in his ongoing intensity he does not escape some of the implications of the charge. Balzac said to a friend bent on Art that the truth is emphatically not in the nuance, but what matters in a piece of writing is that it "possess a force that carries everything before it." This Warren certainly has. He is a poet of enormous courage, with a highly individual intelligence; he is fully aware of the Longinian pit that yawns for those who strive for Sublimity and fail to attain it. Precariously in balance, he walks straight out over the sink-hole of Bombast; his native element is risk, and his chief attribute, daring.

The odd tone—utterly Warren's—is compounded of southern dialect, Elizabethanisms overstaying into country speech ("set foot") and always present in rural areas where mountains have gathered and preserved them, and a sometimes rather quaintly old-fangled scholastic vocabulary….

Warren is very tough, with the farmer's hard, work-cramped hand everywhere over the field of the page, and he is also very mystical, particularly when he turns toward the great, contemplative expanses….

Warren is a speaker who "alone has returned": a voice out of primitive starkness, with his only defenses—and these only occasionally usable—a gallows wit, scatological irony. He is above all a man who looks, and refuses to look away. (p. 56)

The Warren of [Being Here: Poetry 1977–80] is starry-blooded, a night-walker, a night-watcher, a searcher lying motionless. And perhaps this is the best Warren of all, remembering other nights, darknesses, a cave from his childhood, in his "Speleology":

          Years later, past dreams I have lain
          In darkness and heard the depth of interminable song.
          And hand laid to heart, have once again thought: This is me.
          And thought. Who am I? And hand on heart, wondered
          What it would be like to be, in the end, part of all.
 
          And in the darkness have even asked: Is this all? What is all?

It is his ability to state psychic dilemmas of this kind, and in this way—the grim, exalting light of self-education shining through the thick, correct, and sanctioned Other books onto the actual world—in a home-crafted idiom as sinewy as it is unforeseeable, that makes Warren the passionate and memorable artist that he is, and the greatest of our "impure" poets. If Wallace Stevens—to take Warren's most notable and obvious opposite—is "pure," Warren is impure; if Stevens changes reality by changing the angle of his eye, Warren fixes himself into it in wonder, horror, loathing, joy, but above all with unflinching involvement; if Stevens plays with it, tames it, and "understands" it, Warren encounters it nakedly, and without pretense, dallying, or skillful frivolity….

[Warren] wounds deeply, and he connects deeply; he strikes in at blood-level and gut-level, with all the force and authority of time, darkness, and distance themselves, and of the Nothingness beyond nothingness, which may even be God: Pascal's "infinite spaces" laid—or laid open—on the farmer's page. (p. 57)

James Dickey, "Robert Penn Warren's Courage," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 12, August, 1980, pp. 56-7.

Monroe K. Spears

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

Robert Penn Warren has done it again: in the face of advancing years, he has produced another collection of poetry that is at least as good as any of its predecessors and that manifests continued growth and change. His progress is a joy to contemplate and an inspiration to us all….

[In Being Here: Poetry 1977–1980], he is still experimenting with different kinds of structure, playing off thematic arrangements against a "shadowy autobiography," and trying new meters and new kinds of poems. Of all Warren's volumes, this one is the most open and accessible to the reader: not only are the poems given descriptive titles and arranged in sequences so that they provide contexts for each other, both thematic and autobiographical, but even the dedication and the epigraphs are functional, and there is an "Afterthought" as further guide. The epigraphs indicate the central theme of the volume—the nature and meaning of Time—and the dedication, to Warren's maternal grandfather Gabriel Penn evokes the memory and situation that lies behind many poems.

          "OLD MAN: You get old and you can't
         do anybody any good any more.
          "BOY: You do me some good, Grandpa.
         You tell me things."…

Though this tableau characterizes the volume accurately, since most of the poems deal with boyhood memories interpreted in age, Warren rarely speaks as a self-consciously old man…. Instead, he stresses the essential humanity that is common to youth and age, boy and grandfather. His attitude is realistic, unsentimental, hard-bitten, without self-pity or easy consolations. He preaches no doctrine; but he affirms, on the basis of his own experience, that joy and love are possible; and he yearns for significance. Lack of meaning, blankness, whiteness—most often imaged as snow—is the ultimate horror in the poems; and it is a possibility never dismissed. Thematically, each of the five sequences expresses a tension between this vision of despair and the search for meaning; poems like "Empty White Blotch on Map of Universe: A Possible View" and "Ballad of Your Puzzlement" are, in Warren's unpretentious metaphor, like backboards against which the other poems in their sequences are bounced. (p. 3)

In general, the images in this volume are sharper and more powerful than ever. There is a particularly vivid one of the future as suction…. Another poem images it as tornado …, and another speaks of the "suction of years yet to come."

Perhaps the most powerful repeated image and situation, however, is that of night walking, whether "Snowshoeing Back to Camp in Gloaming" or "Why Have I Wandered the Asphalt of Midnight?" with its vision of the stars in the inhuman vastness of space. The last poem, "Passers-By on Snowy Night," is perhaps the most beautiful version. A daringly regular poem for these times, it is a kind of envoy to the reader, making its limited affirmation of human good will in the indifferent universe of snow and "mocking moonlight."… (pp. 3, 14)

The "owl's benediction," though a lovely musical phrase, is in Warren's poems not soothing or reassuring, but ominous: the owl asks his question "to make your conscience ask if it's you who—who-who—/ Did whatever it was"; it is the owl's "mystic question that follows his glut." The effect is somewhat like that Frost produces in poems like "Stopping by Woods" or "Acquainted with the Night," of a beautiful, rather bland surface masking depths of bleakness within. But in Warren the emphasis is on the good will, the common humanity despite all limitations and barriers. (p. 14)

Monroe K. Spears, "An Aged Eagle Spreads His Wings," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), August 31, 1980, pp. 3, 14.

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