John Crowe Ransom, recognized as poet, social critic, and literary critic, has in this book published forty of his best poems. The slender volume has been culled principally from two earlier volumes, CHILLS AND FEVER (1924) and TWO GENTLEMEN IN BONDS (1927), with the last five poems having appeared previously only in periodicals. No poems have been included from his earliest volume, POEMS ABOUT GOD (1919). The arrangement is chronological.
Though neither a prolific nor a popular poet, Ransom, through his variety, freshness, and elegance, has won a distinguished place in American poetry. In the few poems of this volume there is ample evidence of distinction in his sensitive lyricism, his adept narratives and character portraits, and his skillful use of wit and irony.
Ransom the scholar is apparent in nearly all of the poems. The polysyllabic vocabulary and occasional use of archaisms such as “thole,” the remote allusions, and the use of ellipses and slant rhyme are characteristic of a poet writing for mature readers, unwilling to condescend to popular taste. At times the stumbling blocks seem unwarranted, like playful, mocking jokes on the reader, and the charge of obscurity, particularly in some of the later poems, is justified. However, in the majority of the poems the obstacles are not insurmountable and the reader’s effort is well rewarded.
Conclusions are never explicitly stated by Ransom; morals are never obvious. He states his theory of modern poetry and the moral, so well exemplified in his own poetry, in the essay “Poets Without Laurels”:Pure or obscure, the modern poet manages not to slip into the old-fashioned moral-beautiful compound . . . he may take the subject nearest his own humanity, a subject perhaps of terrifying import; but in treating it will stop short of all moral or theoretical conclusions, and confuse his detail to the point where it leaves no positive implications.
Ransom’s is a poetry of understatement, in which irony is an important means of showing the implications of a situation, implications which may vary with interpretation. In “Here Lies a Lady,” for example, the surface situation is made to seem ludicrous, with the picture of husband, aunt, infant of three, and medicos hovering over the lady who burned, then froze, and finally died, “After six little spaces of chill, and six of burning.” But the irony is forceful, for this is a “lady of beauty and high degree,” like the “sweet ladies” whom the poet addresses in the last stanza, and her life appears pitifully ignominious at the end. Though her fingers fly and her eyes are confident, she makes nothing out of the maze of old lace scraps about her. Even her death lacks dignity, despite the “flowers and lace and mourning.” It is the old theme of the transience of beauty, but here presented freshly, more forceful because it is under cover.
The same theme appears in several of the other poems, most notably in the sonnet, “Piazza Piece,” in which Death, an old gentleman in a dustcoat, comes to claim the beautiful lady, and in “Blue Girls,” a carpe diem piece which combines the same gentle mocking and underlying seriousness found in “Here Lies a Lady.”
The theme of death is not always interwoven with that of transient beauty. Two of the poems, for example, deal with the death of children. “Dead Boy” does not spare satire in contrasting the glorified feeling for the dead boy with the realities of his character in life, “A pig with a pasty face, so I had said,” but the hurt is apparent, too, and even the poet recognizes in the now dead lad the nobility of his forebears. More pathetic is “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.” Here the contrast is between the very active life of the little girl as she played in the orchard and chased the lazy geese (“Who cried in goose, ’Alas’”) to the pond, and the complete stillness of her body in death. The emotion is perfectly controlled—yet evident—as the poet states...
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