Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2134

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John Crowe Ransom, poet, teacher, and literary critic, became known as the father of the New Criticism. The primary formative influences upon his attitudes and thought appear to have been his Southern background and his education at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar studying classics of philosophy and literature. His career spanned sixty years, first at Vanderbilt University, where he had been an undergraduate, and later at Kenyon College, where he edited the Kenyon Review. Thomas Daniel Young and John Hindle have selected twenty-four pieces, including addresses, articles, and chapters from books, to represent Ransom’s critical thought; they have also added portions of a letter as an appendix and have provided an introduction. Presented chronologically and ranging over a period of thirty-five years, the selections reveal Ransom’s development as a critic and thinker and illuminate the changes in his opinions. Among the subjects treated in the collection are social criticism, theory of criticism, analyses of particular poems or passages, and evaluations of individual poets.

In reading through Ransom’s work, one is struck by a mental cast resembling that of two important predecessors in both poetry and literary criticism, John Dryden and Matthew Arnold, whom he sometimes echoes. Like them, he thinks largely in polarities or dichotomies, expressed in opposing terms which are encountered in abundance: art-science, classic-Romantic, poetry-prose, texture-structure, intension-extension, tenor-vehicle, ego-id. Even some of his essay titles—“Forms and Citizens,” “Honey and Gall,” “New Poets and Old Muses”—reflect his penchant for dichotomies. Closely allied to this inclination is a generous use of analogies: the poem to the human body, to music, or to architecture. A critic who uses this approach to analysis sharply delineates his basic terms, creating powerful and clear differences between them, and he is able to organize ideas and value judgments around a simple framework, but a major weakness arises when the writer is tempted to oversimplify one of the juxtaposed terms, as Ransom does, for example, with science, which he defines as “the mind devoting itself exclusively to the attainment of a practical purpose.” A further weakness may be a degree of instability in the structures, leading those who think in dichotomies to change their views, as Ransom did about his social and literary criticism and, more frequently, his evaluations of other poets.

A second prominent feature of his thought is the pervasive influence of philosophy from many sources. At Oxford, where he studied under F. H. Bradley, Ransom was steeped in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his followers, especially Arthur Schopenhauer and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Their influence is apparent in his quest for philosophical bases for aesthetic judgments. Ransom accepts as basic the Kantian distinction between the interior moral life and the external world of objects, of those things-in-themselves which cannot be fully understood, and like the philosopher, Ransom frequently chooses to create his own terms, although they are not so esoteric as those found in philosophical treatises. In these and in numerous other ways, the reader is reminded that the aesthetic ideas of Ransom emerge from and are weighed against a philosophical background.

Although the selections include little of Ransom’s social and economic criticism, the portion that is there reveals something significant about his thought—his inclination to abandon previously held views. He belonged to a group centered in Nashville, Tennessee, known as the Southern Agrarians, who flourished in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They held the view that man lived the best life in harmony with nature in a rural agrarian setting that provided economic self-sufficiency and promoted the extension of aesthetic values to work as well as leisure. Their ideas are outlined in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), the opening chapter of which, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” was Ransom’s contribution. In “The Aesthetic of Regionalism,” included by Young and Hindle among their selections, Ransom applies similar values and insights to the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, praising their culture for its economic success despite a harsh environment and for its aesthetics in the form of rituals. He believed that aesthetic sense emerges naturally in a society once the people have established a harmonious relationship with their surroundings. It is worth noting that Ransom developed his economic and social ideas in a book-length manuscript entitled “Land!,” a work he destroyed when it failed to find a publisher, but perhaps by then he had changed his views. In the essay “Art and the Human Economy,” he refers to his previously held views as agrarian nostalgia, and he expresses an attitude far different from his earlier one on industrialization: “Without consenting to a division of labor, and hence modern society, we should have not only no effective science, invention, and scholarship, but nothing to speak of in art.” Writing of a plan by the Allies to turn Germany into an agrarian nation following World War II, he concludes that what he had formerly considered a desirable goal for all would constitute a heavy punishment for the German people.

To turn to the literary criticism, by far the greatest concern of Ransom, it might be useful to show his areas of agreement with the major trends in the New Criticism and then to suggest how he differs from other critics of that school. When one thinks of the criticism of Ransom and his intellectual allies—Yvor Winters, R. P. Blackmur, I. A. Richards, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—one thinks of emphasis upon the poem as a thing-in-itself, a unique artifact, what Ransom calls “the living integrity of the poem,” to be understood and appreciated on its own terms. A fitting approach toward understanding the poem consists of a close reading of the text, with a view toward explicating obscure passages, exploring the symbolic and connotative meanings, and describing the effects of the meter. Because many of the New Critics were practicing poets, they were often well prepared to undertake analysis of this kind. With this emphasis Ransom appears to be in agreement. He gives clear analytic readings of passages from William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, John Milton, and William Wordsworth, among others, and systematically attempts to clarify their meanings.

A second general area of agreement occurs with the New Critics’ generally negative attitudes toward other kinds of literary analysis. In his essay “Criticism, Inc.” Ransom attempts to define the proper role of criticism so as to exclude historical scholarship, the ethical emphasis of the New Humanism, synopsis, paraphrase, emotional response, and studies of language. Instead, he believes, the critic should attempt to clarify those qualities that make poetry different from prose, to explain “what it [poetry] is trying to represent that cannot be represented by prose.” His emphasis upon the individual poem suggests that to him the poem itself contains the elements necessary to reveal the meanings. Among other critical movements of his time, Ransom finds none that provides much useful theory to the critic. In “The Literary Criticism of Aristotle,” he specifically rejects the Chicago School for its reliance upon the Poetics, for in Ransom’s view Aristotle placed too much emphasis on logical form and predetermined, though unclear, effects upon the audience. He suggests that the critic’s task of understanding the text will not be lightened by reliance upon critical theorists of the past or schools of the present.

While Ransom was in agreement with two major emphases of the New Criticism, he differed from its general tenets through emphases of his own, and these may represent the area of his unique achievement. First, his work reflects, to an unusual degree, an emphasis upon theory. In numerous essays, Ransom calls for the development of a theory of criticism adequate to the tasks that confront a critic; particularly notable is the magnificent essay “Wanted: An Ontological Critic.” If “ontology” to Ransom does not mean quite what it means in philosophy—the science of being—it means something very close, probably the science of the poem’s being, an approach adequate for clarification of the poem’s manifold meanings. Ransom suggests that a critic regard the poem as a conflict between meaning and meter and give the closest attention to indeterminate meaning, that part which takes shape “under metrical compulsion.” In other contexts, he emphasizes irony, tropes, schemes, and imagery as appropriate concerns of the critic, yet one is left with the impression that he never perfected a critical theory to his own satisfaction.

In part, this uncertainty was a consequence of Ransom’s emphasis upon polarities, inherent in his early definition of a poem as “a logical structure having a local texture.” By “logical structure,” he comprehends the meanings of the poem that can be expressed in prose, captured in a paraphrase. By “texture,” he appears to mean ornamentation—such elements as diction, meter, figures of speech, schemes of repetition, and imagery. These elements give a poem its integrity and aesthetic uniqueness, and thus they are the critic’s major concern. Initially, Ransom paid greater attention to meter than to the other elements, but later he analyzed such elements as ironic understatement and imagery.

The view of the poem as a thing-in-itself held for Ransom a dimension that other New Critics hardly acknowledged, for included in his category of texture are images, words representing physical objects. New physical objects, as Kant observed, can never be fully understood; one gets only a partial understanding of them at best. By naming them in the poem, the poet creates a dimension that neither he nor his readers can fully comprehend, try as they may. To the ambiguity inherent in an image, the readers add further complexities by bringing their individual associations with the term. Ransom explains, “We think we can lay hold of image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it.” Further, he believes the poet to be consciously aware of the ambiguity surrounding imagery. Thus, even in an epistemological sense, a poem retains something of a mystery, and no critical system capable of exhausting its meanings has yet been devised. Even if a critic manages to account for all of the aesthetic choices that form the poem’s structure, meter, and tone, the images will remain elusive.

Having developed the structure-texture dichotomy to some length, Ransom later abandoned it as inadequate, for the dichotomy may conceal or muddle more than it illuminates. It is never clear what belongs in a paraphrase (structure) and what belongs to the poem’s texture. Images and symbols, for example, clearly may be included in a paraphrase; are they then no longer a part of the texture? Ransom’s dichotomy does not adequately distinguish prose from poetry, but it creates an even greater problem where the New Criticism is concerned, for it invites one to view the poem as a loosely connected bipolar structure made up of the rational and the aesthetic. In the view of the New Critics, a poem represents a unified whole, an organic creation, and a major purpose of the critic is to show the poem incorporating diverse elements into a unified whole. Ransom was not inclined to approach analysis in this way, and more often than not his analysis seems intended to test theoretical concepts. Ransom’s later position comes nearer to that of his colleagues, a view of poetry highly influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: that a poem is an organism, a unified product incorporating intellectual language, affective language, and rhythmic language. Thus, Ransom’s divisions for criticism became three—the intellectual, the imaginative, and the metric.

Ransom, like many other thinkers of a philosophical bent, found it easier to discover the limitations of other theories than to develop a coherent theory of his own. Some of his most subtle thinking was occasioned by critical analysis of positions held by other New Critics; in a long and complex essay in opposition to W. K. Wimsatt, for example, Ransom shows why Hegel’s concept of the concrete universal does not work well when applied to poetry. Nevertheless, Ransom’s own critical system was not developed beyond generalizations and a few stimulating insights. For years he worked to lay the foundations for a theory of criticism, but, as with his earlier work on social and economic thought, he destroyed his book manuscript when he could not bring his ideas to satisfactory fruition.

If he could not solve the problems involved in understanding a work of art, Ransom at least helped to define them and shed some light upon their complexity. For this, as well as for his insightful evaluations of other poets and for a style that conveys dignity and grace, he holds a secure and respected place among the critics of his time.