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John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony

[clock] 32-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 1935

The poetry of John Crowe Ransom is peculiarly systematic. It refers regularly to a center which is precise and has been objectively formulated by the poet himself, although not in relation to his poetry. Items of his poetic performance which appear the most innocent and peripheral are usually, on inspection, to be interpreted in relation to that basic idea of his work. The poetry must stand or fall in, and of, itself; but meanwhile, if it is to be fully understood, if its theme is to be stated, if certain effects of the poetry itself are to be appreciated, it must be read in terms of that center to which it refers.

The problem at the center of Ransom’s work is specially modern—at least we are accustomed to think it so—but it implies some history. For more than a century men have speculated about the possible effect of science on the poetic impulse, Wordsworth, living at the time when science was beginning to afflict the poet’s consciousness, regarded the whole matter with a certain complacency. Let the objects of science become familiar enough, and they would become the objects of poetry. Wordsworth could be complacent at the moment because he assumed that the poet would regard those objects in precisely the same way he had regarded, for century on century, the horse or the tree. He did not consider what would be the case if the poet, or the reader of poetry, or anyone for that matter, habitually regarded the erstwhile tree in the same way the scientist looks at it. Other poet-critics of the period, even Shelley at times, were less optimistic, and Wordsworth himself suffered twinges of suspicion, as when he wrote the incredible twaddle about one who would peep and botanize upon his mother’s grave.

In 1904 Paul Elmer More, in an essay on Tolstoy which was, in fact, devoted to a study of the “age-old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” with a polite hankering after the kalokagathia of Greece, could casually remark on the “new antinomy of literature and science,” or say that “the most notable conflict today is undoubtedly between the imagination and the analytic spirit of science.” One result of that conflict, the private effect on the poet in the act of exercising his craft, is indicated, almost a quarter of a century later, by I. A. Richards when he writes: “A poet today whose integrity is equal to that of the greater poets of the past is inevitably plagued by the problem of thought and feeling as poets have never been plagued before.”

Poets of the past, that is, poets living up to the middle of the seventeenth century, possessed, according to T. S. Eliot’s theory in the now well-known essay on the Metaphysical Poets, “a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.” But a dissociation of sensibility set in; later poets “thought and felt by fits, unbalanced.” By way of cure for the resulting situation he suggests a certain poetic regimen: “The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning”; he must have the faculty of “transmuting ideas into sensations, of transforming an observation into a state of mind.” Eliot’s diagnosis attributes the disease to literary influence: Milton and Dryden performed special poetic functions so well that collateral deficiencies passed unobserved. But he does not describe the result as a mere narrowing of the sphere of poetic activity. It was a “dissociation of sensibility” causing the poets to think and feel by fits, a dissociation ultimately to be equated with the issue raised in Romantic criticism.

It may be objected at this point that science of itself need foster no such dissociation. Certainly the official view of science in the matter, when science has deigned to consider the matter at all, admits to no such responsibility. J. B. S. Haldane says that poetry, if the poets only knew more science, would interpret to the average man “that beauty in his own life”—which, I suppose, is what Tennyson set out to do in terms of his science, with a degree of success now obvious. But some poets have not been properly grateful for the sop thrown them; for instance, Robert Graves once retorted to Haldane with some heat that it is hard to see exactly what—poetically speaking—all this interpretation would mean. The point at issue for present purposes, however, is not that science need foster the dissociation. The issue is that English poetry experienced a profound change which seems to be coincident with the rise of modern science, and that some generations of poets have feared the danger that the abstract, quantitative world known to science would, as Santayana puts it, “dry up the ancient fountains of poetry by its habitual presence in thought.”

Science, perhaps, need not foster this dissociation of sensibility, which, if permitted to proceed unchecked, might end in drying up the ancient fountains. It is on the premiss that the situation is, after all, remediable that Eliot, for instance, has put the question. For the poet, by way of cure, he once proposed a private discipline; but since that time he has advocated a public discipline. He has announced himself as a royalist in politics and an Anglo-Catholic in religion; and it is instructive that the disrepute of the dogmas of royalism and conservative religion attended the rise of science. The problem is, finally, social. In paraphrase of Whitman it might be said: to have poetry of the complete sensibility one must have an audience whose sensibility is unimpaired.

On the assumption that the matter is remediable, but not remediable in a purely private discipline on the part of the poet, Ransom has written his criticism. A very small proportion of this criticism is purely literary. The imperfect mythopoeic faculty exhibited in English poetry of the past two and a half centuries is merely an aspect of a progressive attenuation and poverty of the myth-making faculty in general. “For, after all,” Ransom says in the prefatory letter of “God Without Thunder,” “look and see how roundly the world has of late been disabused of the most and best of its myths . . . and as a consequence been stricken with an unheard-of poverty of mind and unhappiness of life.” Although the principle is capable of extension, it is of religious myth that he speaks. “What a sorry reputation the true priest, the devout keeper of the myths, enjoys now in this Western world, and particularly in this most Western world of America! It has occurred to me therefore that I might undertake to explain to it, as if in simple untechnical monosyllables, the function of myths in human civilization. This seems to me an important thing to do; and going with it is the task of explaining why one myth may be better than another.”

Now what is meant precisely by myth? Ransom has not, at any point, given a vest-pocket definition, but the meaning appears clear and not specially devised. A myth is a fiction, a construct, which expresses a truth and affirms a value. It is not an illustration of doctrine. It differs from allegory in that its components, not to be equated with anything else, function in their own right. It is the dynamic truth, the dynamic value. The philosophy of a given myth may be defined, but the definition is no more the myth itself than the statement of the theme of a poem is the poem: in each instance the value becomes static, it may be discussed but not felt, the conviction of experience is forfeited. (The position of the Platonic myth in relation to the particular topic of discussion is beautifully in point.) In other words, myth represents a primary exercise of sensibility in which thought and feeling are one: it is a total communication.

The myth-maker, Ransom says, sets up his God in response to two motives: an extensive and an intensive. God means, in response to the former, a universe of “a magnitude exceeding its own natural history”; in response to the latter, of “a richness of being that exceeds formulation.” The myth, then, defines the myth-maker’s world, his position in it, his destiny, and his appropriate attitude. What is the content of our modern mythology, and wherein is it wanting?

The Semitic God of the Old Testament was mysterious, and he was the author of evil as well as good. That is, the old God was not reasonable; He was the God of contingency, of the unpredictable. But Satan, in the Garden myth, was the Demigod, the “Prometheus, the Spirit of Secular Science, who would like to set up falsely as the God, the Ruler of the Universe.” He would give of the tree of knowledge, he would have man take comfort in a purely reasonable order. Christ the Word was likewise a Demigod who gave man, sick with uncertainty, the hope of reason, but a Demigod who refused to set up as God. Man, however, has forced the more modest Demigod, Christ, into the rôle of usurper; the new religion, thoroughly in harmony with the practical ideal of the Western world, is the worship of the Logos, that is, the God of Reason and Science, the Great Scientist. For instance, I have heard, in Memphis, Tennessee, in the Sunday morning service of a Church once concerned with the awful mysteries of atonement and election, a sermon on the four modern “saints,” those men who now walk hand in hand with God: i.e., Mr. Pupin, Mr. Millikan, Mr. Ford, and Mr. Rockefeller.

Properly speaking, it seems that there has been no quarrel between science and religion; rather, there has been a quarrel between the older, more conservative faiths, with their elements of irrationality and contingency, and the new religion preached by the apostolic scientist, whether from pulpit or laboratory. The scientists have, finally, offered myths, constructs which are not demonstrable. They have been shy of personalities in their myths, especially in the more professional ones, but such terms as Evolution, Vitalism, Principle, Impersonal Intelligence, look like “poorly disguised versions of personality.” Now science has perpetual need in its professional business of these myths; but even in this professional business the myths must be generally recognized as such. The layman who has put his faith in these myths must realize in this respect their limit as knowledge. He should also realize that, although the basic myth of the God of Reason and the professional scientific myths may testify to the presence of the mythopoeic faculty, they testify to it in a peculiarly attenuated, incomplete, and unsatisfying form. The myth of rationality, with all the little myths comprehended under it, does not take care of the contingencies of his being and adventures.

The myth of rationality is deficient, because science “drives too hard after its objective, and pays no attention to the setting.” It provides a form of knowledge concerned, not with the concrete, but with the abstract; not with quality, but with quantity. It professes to fit its items into a system, but any one item, in its richness of being, may defy the system until Doomsday. Science provides only one type of chart for the experience of man in the world; in so far as this becomes the basis of education, that is, the basis of interpretation for other charts, a violence is done to human sensibility, which likewise has an appreciative concern with persons, objects, and events of this world—a concern called, in its formal aspect, art. But under the scientific civilization, according to Donald Davidson, the artist “is against or away from society, and the disturbed relationship becomes his essential theme, always underlying his work, no matter whether he evades or accepts the treatment of the theme itself.” (Under the present order one may observe that when the artist determines to be “social-minded” he generally becomes a propagandist, employing the technical resources of an art for the purpose of thesis. His art becomes a mere instrument; and he a scientist, albeit an imperfect one.)

The way of life congenial to the terms of the myth of rationality is called industrialism. The God of Reason has offered a machinery, a technique, and a gospel of production which provide, theoretically at least, a maximum of efficiency in the gratification of desire. Two objections may be raised to the easy acceptance of this way of life prescribed by the myth of rationality. First, such blessings as the myth may afford are the property of a relatively small number of believers. But even if a more equitable distribution of its blessings should be contrived, the second objection would remain in force: the very superiority in efficiency may brutalize desire, for reason, pure and simple, dictates an immediate gratification without let or irrelevancy. This superior efficiency separates man from brute creation, but a sensibility which the exercise of reason in this fashion would destroy or impair might differentiate him even further. In the experience of love, as a case in point, man dwells on the extraordinarily complex qualities which are possessed by the beloved, so that the experience becomes a rich concern not exhausted by physical satisfaction. This total process involves the basic desire and its satisfaction, which is the “reasonable” objective, but it also involves much more than unassisted reason would prescribe in fulfilling that desire. In a system dedicated to the gratification of appetite by the most competent, the most reasonable, process, effective action becomes the ideal of human conduct: Progress, or the perpetual violation of nature. But to be human at all, “we have to have something which will stop action, and this something cannot possibly be reason in its narrow sense.” It is sensibility.

Ransom’s recommendation of an agrarian economy depends on the foregoing principles. The practical details of that prescription are here irrelevant; it is sufficient to point out that the objective is not the abolition, but the correction of industrialism, just as the objective on the theoretical side of Ransom’s argument is not the abolition, but the correction of science; that is, the interpretation of science in the total context of human experience. The agrarian establishment, presumably, would provide fuller opportunity for the play of man’s sensibility, or in other words, for the play of his proper humanity. The essential qualities of that establishment—order, tradition, stability—are merely aspects of that sensibility.

Now for a moment of recapitulation. Man has been unable to dispense with myth, but his new myths, the basic one of modern religion and the more special ones of science, are of peculiar poverty. They neither represent nor provide for the exercise of man’s complete sensibility. The terms of actual existence dictated by the basic myth and propagated by the application of science create a milieu further opposed to the exercise of that sensibility. Ransom’s fundamental motive is the defense of sensibility, by which, I take it, he means the harmonious adjustment, or rather unified function, of thought and feeling. This will sound very tame to some, who, if pressed, would probably explain that it is a truism, is not new, is not original, or to sum up, is not “revolutionary”; and revolutionary is precisely what it is not. Ransom has merely been concerned to defend man against a revolution which, by a dogma of unadulterated reason, has endangered his sensibility; which has, in fact, promoted its dissociation.


It is time to ask to what extent and in what fashion this fundamental motive appears in Ransom’s poetry, on which, to date, his literary reputation is chiefly founded. To answer this I shall, perforce, be roundabout. Wit and irony are the two properties most generally ascribed to his poetry, but their meaning and reference in this particular regard have gone uninvestigated. And to investigate them seems to me the shortest way, after all, to the answer of my question.

“Most of Ransom’s poetry,” George Williamson writes in his essay “Donne and the Poetry of Today,” “combines an amusing texture with a serious emotion.” This “witty texture,” use of the conceit, and occasionally something of “conceptual form,” he relates to the Donne tradition, especially to the Cavalier heirs of Donne. In Ransom’s verse, he writes, “wit has become a poetic attitude.” This seems to be the conventional description of Ransom’s work.

Wifiiamson’s last remark, I presume, means that wit exists for wit’s sake, that it is the “poetic attitude” and not a functional aspect of the general state of mind from which the poetry is written. In other words, it is implied—I hope I do the critic no wrong—that the wit is irresponsible; the poet merely elects subjects which will provide scope for his talent of agility and shock. This approximates Johnson’s criticism of the Metaphysicals, although Williamson does not speak in any pejorative sense.

But the poet in question is not a child with such a precocious toy. As a matter of fact, in only two poems, “Survey of Literature” and “Our Two Worthies,” the latter of which, according to Williamson, is the closest approach to Eliot, do I feel that the interest is primarily in the wit as such. Elsewhere in the poet’s three volumes the wit appears as an instrument. The precise business of this instrument can, perhaps, be best illustrated by a comparison with metaphor. Metaphor, we are told, implies a comparison which, on factual basis and according to strict science, is not defensible, but which justifies itself in terms of the emotional enrichment of a poetic theme, or more ambitiously sometimes, as the vehicle of its communication. Now wit is a critical and intellectual quality; when it appears in a poem, that poem, if otherwise successful as poetry, is enriched, but in another direction. Again, like metaphor, it may be a device toward resolution of a theme. Contrary to opinion among softer readers of poetry, usually those whose taste has been formed on nineteenth-century models, wit and emotional quality in poetry are not mutually exclusive, or necessarily opposed, but indeed may be so interfused that (only a violence of abstraction may define them individually. The examples of this readiest to my mind would come from Donne and Marvel, or perhaps in rarer instances from Dryden. (In the present case, the wit represents an attempt toward the integration I have been discussing, an attempt at the fusion of the emotional and the intellectual or critical qualities in poetry. This is a technical aspect of the general theory implied in the following quotation from one of Ransom’s essays which appeared in the Fugitive in 1925: “It is evident that not Byron nor Keats nor Shelley ever became quite sophisticated, or grown-up, though Byron showed an indefatigable and alarming tendency to devote a complete act of cerebration to each of his poetical themes; and Keats missed writing a second English epic because he was too young when he tried it,—he did not know how to bring his whole mind to bear on his subject. . . . Nobody in the whole century knew how to put his whole mind and experience to work in poetry. . . .” (It is interesting to note that Eliot sees in the second “Hyperion” “traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility.”)

This instrument of wit in Ransom’s poetry, whether it is employed in incidental imagery, in a certain pedantry of rhetoric, or in the organization of the entire material, is usually directed to a specific and constant effect. This effect is ironical. Something of this nature may be intended in the remark that his “poetry combines an amusing texture with a serious emotion,” but such scarcely appears a complete account. It would make the irony an unessential one of manner only.

Irony, like wit, may be used because the writer happens to be enamoured of the effect divorced from any persistent point of view. On this basis it is entirely unphilosophical, a constant flight from “centrality.” It is that romantic irony which, by its lack of ethical reference, has provoked such agitation in the Humanists. But the irony of Ransom’s poetry is not one of irresponsible contrasts and negations. Babbitt might not have sanctioned the ethical propriety of the center to which it refers, but that center, at all events, is constant

I hope that by this time I shall have been anticipated by those readers familiar with Ransom’s poetry in the definition of its center. It is to be defined in terms of that sensibility whose decay Ransom, along with various other critics, has bewailed. It has been remarked that his poetry deals with “intimate little psychological cruxes.” To an astonishing degree, in far more than a majority of cases, the hero or heroine of the poem is a sufferer from that complaint of “dissociation of sensibility.” The poem itself is a commentary on the situation, its irony deriving from the fact that these perhaps otherwise admirable people “cannot fathom nor perform their nature.” In general they represent a disorder contrary to the principles of order which the poet, in his more explicit, non-poetic work, has defended. Here the poet, from the security of his position, yet with that concrete realization of detail which is any poet’s faculty, dramatizes) the commentary.

When I say from the security of his position, I do not mean to imply that the sensibility of the poet himself is, necessarily, integrated. The individual cannot, even with a clear diagnosis of his predicament, will himself into the desired state of being; he is, by far, too much a part of all that he has met. But awareness, let it be said, merits the prerogative of commentary. This awareness constitutes the “ethical” reference of the irony. (In the Socratic irony, to employ Babbitt’s analysis, the reference is not to perfect knowledge but to a consciousness of man’s limitation in attaining truth.) To restrain the poet from his commentary because he has only awareness would be a sort of argumentum ad hominem forbidden by the manuals. Now, as a matter of fact, the poet’s own insufficiency has on occasion been the theme of a poem, “Blackberry Winter,” or, better, “Philomela”; and a sympathy with the situation in which the heroes and heroines are troubled does something to account for the particular feeling which invests a good many of the poems,

Naturally enough, this type of irony does not appear in the earliest collection of Ransom’s poems, but even in that collection, “Poems About God,” there is an occasional tartness, a certain astringency, which must have come gratefully enough in 1919. In these poems of conventional rhythm and simple idiom, so different in these respects from Ransom’s later verse, there is a more obvious provincialism of theme, which once betrayed a foreign critic into the absurdity of saying that the poor whites of Tennessee had at last found an interpreter. This provincialism seems to have derived from an instinctive, perhaps nostalgic, turning to an order of life which the poet since that time has analyzed and defended with more formidable social and economic doctrine. But the relation of Ransom’s later poetry to his agrarianism is of another type, a type probably more fundamental. In the later poetry the relation is not that of a bucolic background, but of the primary impulse behind the poetry and the defense of an agrarian order.

The irony present in the first volume is largely of the circumstantial sort. The cherubim rebuke an abused woman’s prayer to the Lord because it “shrewed His splendid features out of shape.” Or there is

God’s oldest joke, forever fresh:
The fact that in the finest flesh
There isn’t any soul.

In other words, the poet simply observes and records certain discrepancies in the nature and conduct of human affairs. This is essentially an anecdotal and external irony; the poet merely offers the situation, with its obvious contrasts, for what it is. It is the type of irony so persistent and systematized in the poetry of Hardy, whose success, perhaps, has influenced Ransom’s general preference for the little objective fable, with a kernel of drama, rather than lyric rumination concerning an experience or situation. But Ransom has, even in the later volumes, his own satires of circumstance, such as “Night Voices,” “Miriam Tazewell,” “Piazza Piece,” or “Husband Betrayed,” though these are less sardonic and indeed less mechanically exact in execution than some of Hardy’s more celebrated contrivances. The reason is not far to seek. In Hardy’s “Satires” the contrast is usually based on some idea of justice, arbitrary discrepancies in tjie conduct of the world—a theme running through much of his prose as well. In Ransom’s pieces of this anecdotal type the theme is not so specific; it is rather the discrepancies between human desires or expectations and their fulfilment. Variety is easier of attainment than under Hardy’s more rigid scheme.

But in the second and third collections, “Chills and Fever” and “Two Gentlemen in Bonds,” titles which in themselves bear a critical implication, the more mature version of Ransom’s poetry appears. The prefatory piece of “Chills and Fever” gives a clue to the poet’s intention:

I will be brief,
Assuredly I have a grief,
And I am shaken; but not as a leaf.

That is, a poem is not to aim at representation of emotion; nor is the “grief” of the natural man merely subdued by the ritualistic objectifying function of verse, certainly not by what Tennyson termed “the sad mechanic exercise of dull narcotics.” Rather, the pure emotional cry is only a fragmentary expression of the experience of which the complete sensibility is capable. To be more specific, let me call attention to “Bells for John Whitesides’ Daughter,” which, as a matter of fact, is a poem of grief.

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder that her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond,
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple dreams, and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells and we are ready;
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

Now the peculiar effect of this admirable little poem is largely implied in the words astonishes and vexed. First, simple grief is not the content of the primary statement. We are astonished at this event, which, though common to nature, has upset our human calculation. Second, it is not a poem whose aim is unvarnished pathos of recollection. Third, the resolution of the grief is not on a compensatory basis, as is common in the elegy formula. It is something more modest. The word vexed indicates its nature: the astonishment, the pathos, are absorbed into the total body of the mourner’s experiences and given perspective so that the manly understatement is all that is to be allowed. We are shaken, but not as a leaf.

The premisses of “Agitato ma non troppo,” however, are clearer when the ironist speaks out in proper character. This speaker observes a world of “Plato, Scythian, dog and wart,” and is scarcely consoled by the monistic fable rehearsed by the Doctor of Genealogy “with wisdom on his red eyeball,” who would reduce the infinite and contradictory richness of the items into a system and perfect relationship; is “tricked by white birds or tall women into no wonder, and no sound”; tests with his stick the unsoundness of the vaunting oak which the lady regards as “an eminent witness of life”; is “vexed” at the little girl’s “brown study, lying so primly propped”; is shaken, in staring at the Miller’s Daughter, by “primary chrome of hair, astronomied Oes of eyes” more than by books or “a tale told”; and is in despair if the “bantering breed, sophistical and swarthy,” to which he himself belongs, may be made worthy of Philomela.

The speech of this character, in comparison with the earlier poems, is more complex, at the same time more witty and pedantic, can make a bolder, because more self-conscious, use of rhetorical resource, is less lyrical and more dramatic. The rhythms are more intricate and disciplined; they are no longer founded on the line, but are organized for the effect of stanza or even longer division. (One of the difficulties of giving an idea of the quality of Ransom’s poetry by mere extract springs from the fact that the poetry, being dramatic rather than lyrical, has been largely purged of merely local excitement. This difficulty is particularly great in a poem like “Persistent Explorer,” from which I am forced to give extracts farther on in this essay.) The effect is one of subtle or passionate, but never vehement, statement, rather than song. An appropriate idiom, in fine, has been devised for that character, the ironist.

But to return to the actual working of that irony. In point of composition “Necrological” is, I believe, the first poem in which the particular effect appears. Likewise, it is the first poem in the general style that has become characteristic, although its rhetoric is more elaborate, more tapestried, and less witty than has since been common. The debate of the young man in “Nocturne” who cannot decide between the ball and his book, which is “flat and metaphysical,” is also an early and more unsure example.

The centuries have blown hard and dried his blood
Unto this dark quintessence of manhood;
Much water has passed beneath the bridges, fretfully,
And borne his boats of passion to the sea; …

But still the plum tree blooms, despite the rocks at its root,
Despite that everyone knows by now its wizened and little fruit,
And the white moon plunges wildly, it is a most ubiquitous ghost,
Always seeking her own old people that are a long time lost—

The last volume is more fruitful, although in the previous one I should not neglect to point out “Armageddon” with its confusion of doctrines which relates to the same background as the poems already mentioned. I shall take a few instances which, to me, seem clear-cut. There is the “poor bookish hind with too much pudding in his head of learned characters” who stares at the Miller’s Daughter—

A learned eye of our most Christian nation
And foremost philosophical generation—
At primary chrome of hair,

Astronomied Oes of eyes

and is puzzled because all of this has no reference to the experience that shakes him. In “Morning,” as soon as the “true householder Learning” comes back “to tenant in Ralph’s head,” it is “simply another morning, and simply Jane” who is beside him. But “Man Without Sense of Direction” is the most disordered of all the heroes and heroines. He is “spaced round with perfect Forms,” but “there is no moon of them that draws his flood of being”; he “cannot fathom nor perform his nature.” No matter where he walks, he cannot care “for the shapes that would fiddle upon his senses,” and “for his innocence walks in hell.”

He flails his arms, he moves his lips:
“Rage have I none, cause, time, nor country—
Yet I have travelled land and ships
And knelt my season in the chantry.”

And when he rushes back to his love,

But let his cold lips be her omen,
She shall not kiss that harried one
To peace! as men are served by women,
Who comfort them in darkness and in sun.

His is the special form of loneliness which, we are sometimes told, is a modern predicament: he can find community with neither man nor nature.

Others with similar complaints are “Amphibious Crocodile,” who tries travel, projects, affaires de coeur, religion, psychoanalysis, and metaphysics, but in the end can only, with nostalgic tears, resort to his primal mud; the two lovers of “Equilibrists,” who present a theme treated with less distinction in “Spectral Lovers” of the second volume; and the “Two Gentlemen in Bonds,” brothers who present, in a fashion perhaps too obvious and mechanical for full poetic success, the practical and appreciative faculties. From the tomb their father laments the resulting pow-wow in his house:

… now I see
My manhood halved and squandered, two heads, two hearts,
Each partial son despising the other’s parts;
And so it is, and so it always will be.

There is one addition to this catalogue, which, in all probability, has even now violated the reader’s patience as well as the poetic quality of the examples. But this is an example very pertinent to the present purpose, for the hero appears as something of a poet. In “Persistent Explorer” he walks where “noise of water teased his literal ear,” but thinks “that is more than water I hear.” The thunder smites him “somewhat as the loud Words of the god that rang around a man Walking by the Mediterranean,” but the sound and spectacle can, finally, spell nothing to him. He does not even know what he would have it spell. It is by definition the insipid chemical H2O.

So be it. And no unreasonable outcry
The pilgrim made; only a rueful grin
Spread over his lips until he drew them in;
He did not sit upon a rock and die.

There were many ways of dying; witness, if he
Commit himself to the water, and descend
Wrapped in the water, turn water at the end
And flow with a great water out to sea.

But there were many ways of living too,
And let his enemies gibe, but let them say
That he would throw this continent away
And seek another country,—which he would do.

He demands, as a man, the privilege of his myths, the privilege of the complete experience. He would seek another country—which is the sum of the whole matter.

But this catalogue, if it has served its intention, has made clear the basic theme of Ransom’s poetry. Under ideal conditions, perhaps, this very theme might not exist, just as one of the central themes of Eliot’s early work and “The Waste Land,” that of tradition, would not exist, certainly in its present form, under such conditions. Even in “Ash Wednesday” something of the theme persists, most obviously in Section VI.

Eliot and Ransom have been concerned with the same problem. The method of irony in Ransom’s poetry, for want of a better word, may be called psychological. Factors in the make-up of his heroes which might work for strength actually work toward weakness. Eliot’s method may be called historical: the ignoble present is suddenly thrust into contrast with the noble past. This matter has ‘been frequently analyzed. For instance, in “Sweeney among the Nightingales” the nightingales sing while the host of the vulgar dive plots at the door apart,

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonored shroud.

And in the seduction scene of “The Waste Land,” Tiresias has

. . . foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.

Further, Eliot’s use of quotation, either directly or in parody, derives its ironical effect from the same basis. This difference in method, however, merely conforms to the difference in critical approach. The literary nature of Eliot’s ironical devices is consistent with the fact that his principles have, in most cases, emerged through essays which took the apparent form of literary analysis; Ransom, on the other hand, has written a very small amount of specific literary criticism, having chosen to be more general and to use literature, if at all, as illustration.

But the theme in the poetry of both men is similar: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Both have experienced a necessity for order, and, in consequence, have concerned themselves with disorder as the overt subject matter of their poetry. Both have diagnosed the disorder in terms of dissociation of sensibility, although Ransom, on this point, has been more general.

Neither man as poet, however has been able to avoid the consequences of that disorder about which he has written. Each, as Donald Davidson said of the artist in the scientific civilization, “is against or away from society, and the disturbed relationship becomes his essential theme, always underlying his work, no matter whether he evades or accepts the treatment of the theme itself.” Eliot has more obviously accepted it; Ransom, not evading it, has merely given himself to greater indirection. Neither is in the position which Eliot attributes to the Elizabethan dramatists: “We feel that they believed in their own age, in a way in which no nineteenth- or twentieth-century writer of the greatest seriousness has been able to believe in his age. And accepting their age, they were in a position to concentrate their attention, to their respective abilities, upon the common characteristics of humanity in all ages, rather than upon the differences.” Further than this, both of the present poets have suffered, along with most others of the day, from their situation in another respect. Their dependence for theme on the private critical point of view has produced a certain lack of variety in the poetry itself, a certain predictability about the performance; in the weaker pieces of both a formula may obtrude.

It is fruitless to speculate about what might have been their achievement in another age. As it stands, these writers have developed what, on a priori grounds, might be regarded as a poetic liability into a poetic resource, limited but real. It is not inappropriate, however, that I quote here from the lad in Ransom’s poem who climbs Bagley Hill at Oxford to hear the nightingale, only to find, after all, that her classics register a little flat.

Philomela, Philomela, lover of song,
I am in despair if we may make us worthy,
A bantering breed, sophistical and swarthy;
Unto more beautiful, persistently more young,
Thy fabulous provinces belong.


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