Skip to main content

A Naturalist Looks at Sentiment

ISSUE:  Summer 1977

This essay was undertaken in an effort to penetrate the masks of John Crowe Ransom. For years I had assumed that logic provided the driving force behind the man’s cheerful public exterior and his far more complex private nature. Allen Tate has persuasively argued that logic was Ransom’s ultimate standard of judgment, the value to which everything else—emotion, ambition, passion—was subordinated. Superficially the argument appears to be unassailable, yet when one considers the most important decisions in Ransom’s life (as they are revealed in Thomas Daniel Young’s richly detailed biography and in the man’s extensive correspondence), the issue becomes problematic. Most of Ransom’s major decisions—such as his entering matrimony and his teaching English rather than philosophy or classics—were made in a spirit that was anything but coldly logical.

My hunch was that the dualism that underlies Ransom’s criticism and poetry must also inform the life. So I began my investigation of Ransom’s complicated attitude toward sentiment, an investigation which led to his relations with various friends during the last 60 years of his life, especially the relation with Tate. Considering the connection between a critic who incidentally became a great minor poet and a poet whose criticism is not only superior to his own poetry but superior to that of any Southerner of his time (including his master Ransom) illuminates the private and public selves of both principals. In each case one sees to what extent knowledge was carried to the heart.

The essay that ensues is an account of the history of sentiment in the life of John Crowe Ransom, a history of the ways in which the curve of his behavior touches the shape of his thought. My procedure is biographical, with critical excursions.


“Sentiment is not useful, nor moral, nor even disciplinary; it is simply aesthetic,” Ransom observes in “Sentimental Exercise.” Sentiment’s homely but powerful surety will irrupt into everyday life at expected and unexpected turns all the same, and it will affect even the business world. Its near cousins— familiarity, nostalgia, respect, tenderness, affection for the object, love—are “all subjective or emotional terms.” In its mysteriousness, irrationality, and perfect inutility sentiment reminds us of poetry.

Art affords the poet the opportunity to join sentiment and aesthetics, Ransom argues: the poet can use his sentiments, “when nourished by properties and privacies, and by rites or ceremonies,” as one dimension of the experience in which his poetry must be rooted. He might, for instance, write a lyric about the ritual of the fox hunt or the ceremonies of death. On the other hand, like the businessman or the scientist, he might, willingly or not, let friendship’s demands intrude upon his life and his art. Aristotle, Ransom reminds us, argues that friendship is “the occasion of a great extension of knowledge.”

What part did sentiment play in the life of John Crowe Ransom and in the making of his art? It is a critical commonplace that in his poetry he avoided sentimentality by the use of aesthetic distance—the observer in Ransom’s lyrics is posted far from the action that he describes—and by the employment of subtle and sometimes devastating irony. The poet achieves this distance and control and balance in the writing of poetry that is often homely and mundane in subject. Ransom’s criticism is only a little less mannered and ironic: even though the critic seems polite and desultory, the control is severe. In both the poetry and the criticism, the tough reasonableness in argument is complemented and buttressed by perspicuous grace of expression. This is not to say that the personae are the same: quite the contrary. In “The Tense of Poetry,” Ransom observes that “prose is the supremely single and exclusive experience, possible only by an abridgment of personality,” The poet in contrast assumes a mask and a costume for the discharge of his office; he does not abridge his personality but assumes the character of others; in this guise he enters and explores the world of make-believe, which Ransom insists is dramatic, not real. So we should not expect the critic and the poet to be one and the same. What of the man himself?

John Ransom never entertained the notion that life imitates art, and he always stressed the relative importance of art to life. “Life must come first,” Robert Penn Warren heard him say. He held fast to that principle throughout his long and full life. The citadel of Ransom’s life was the family—first his father’s, then his own (which he called acquired), then (by the same extension) those of his children and grandchildren. In that fastness he created a world of love and loyalty and discipline and joy where art had small place. Croquet and poker and the Cleveland Browns were as important in his household as poetry. “Anyone who ever entered his house would have known it to be the habitat of a deep joy in life—a place where work was play and play was work, because of an abounding energy and the intensity of the life-sense,” Warren has written.

If Ransom could dispassionately describe the marriage bond as a social propriety which safeguards the physical attachment of the sexes, he could also observe that “the parties have such an imperious animal use for each other that the romantic relation had better be encouraged.” Ransom was a man who experienced sexual urgency and tenderness as well as the drive of the intellect and the reach of the imagination. No one who has read “Lost Lady,” “The Equilibrists,” and “Judith of Bethulia” can doubt as much.

The private life was always guarded, of course (and here I take the sanctity and richness of that world as a donnee). The circle of Ransom’s immediate family stood inviolable amidst the making of poetry, the launching of critical campaigns, the creation of the Fugitive and the Kenyon Review, the rise of Agrarianism, the removal to Gambier, the founding of the Kenyon School of English, the death of colleagues—amidst the attendant blood, toil, sweat, and tears of a career which began in the backwater of a small Southern university and which reached its pinnacle in a considerably smaller and more obscure Midwestern college.

Touches of the warm and full domestic life of the Ransom household appear regularly in Ransom’s letters to Warren, About the time that he was writing “Sentimental Exercise,” he invited the Warrens to his house in Nashville for Thanksgiving. “We’ll bridge, eat, drink (if there’s any liquor), ride, or sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings” (Nov. 6, 1934). In May of 1935, he reported on the last of his children: “Young Jack is a very lusty and eager youth, especially at 2 and 6 a. m. , when he wants his bottle. A promising fellow but needs a great deal of discipline; quite unformed intellectually.” By April 1942, Ransom’s interests had turned for the moment toward canine parturition: “Dooley (I think you know this wretch) has tried a second time to raise a family, and a second time she had to have a Caesarian. She’s doing pretty well though it’s worse than the other time, and she has two spotted pups to show.” One regularly sees the mention of the doings of children and pets in Ransom’s letters to Warren, the youngest of the Fugitives. The relation of the older man to the younger was avuncular (almost that of father to son) in terms of friendship and sentiment; on a professional basis it was entirely different: Ransom treated Warren as an equal. That is evident from his reaction to John Brown; The Making of a Martyr through his high praise of Brother to Dragons (which appeared in part in the Kenyon Review) to his more restrained praise of You, Emperors. (Ransom always thought more highly of Warren’s poetry and criticism than his fiction.)

Robert Penn Warren is one of the two friends with whom Ransoin had a sustained relation of many years standing. The other friend is Allen Tate, and in this relation one can see the essential nature of both men. Ransom’s letters to Tate became at once almost exclusively professional, after he had accepted Tate as a colleague and no longer thought of him as a precocious but trying student. His letters to Tate deal chiefly with matters of poetic practice and critical theory and with the practical politics of the literary world: there is little that goes beneath the surface of his domestic life and a good deal less about Tate’s. Ransom must have quickly sensed that Tate was uninterested in domestic matters, his own or those of anyone else. (Tate observed rightly in 1968 that Ransom’s “life has been so perfectly private that it could bear any public scrutiny.” The same could not have been said of Tate himself.) Ransom and Tate were Southern gentlemen of an older time, regardless of their relation to modernism and the modern world as men of letters. Ransom assumed a mask in public as an ambassador to the unseemly modern world as deliberately as he assumed his masks as poet and critic. Behind the smiling public face was a man who was profoundly skeptical and who was driven by ambition. (He spoke from experience in saying that “a human aspiration is probably the strangest and most characteristic of human behaviors.”) His manners were as nearly perfect and as controlled as his meters. With Tate, the matter is different and more complicated. Certainly the “severe and courteous formality” that Andrew Lytle witnessed at 27 Bank Street in New York City in 1926 was habitual; and just as certainly he was “the soonest friendly,/But then the soonest tired,” as Mark Van Doren observed. Malcolm Cowley put the matter in still another way: “He had the best manners of any young man I had known, in America or in France. I thought he used politeness not only as a defense but sometimes as an aggressive weapon against strangers.” For Tate manners were a sword; for Ransom they were a shield. Neither personal convention could have been perfected anywhere in this country but the South. The grave rites and ceremonies of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate were not restricted to their poetry and prose, needless to say,

The two men seldom resorted to formality with one another after 1924, and there is little or no ceremony in the correspondence written in the ensuing half-century. Ransom deliberately avoids certain subjects or alludes to them elliptically. He often mentions Tate’s family as well as his own, but the enlivening domestic details that regularly appear in his letters to Warren seldom occur in this context. The friendship was chiefly intellectual (“It astonishes me frequently to find how close is our agreement in many departments of thought; and so deep that it is probably permanent,” he wrote Tate in September 1933); but it had a sustained social intercourse to undergird the intense commitment to the community of letters that is the common basis of the relation.

Tate’s commitment to his profession was greater than Ransom’s, especially in terms of the human dimension: he was far less interested in his family but much more concerned about his friends, virtually all of whom were writers. Caroline Gordon, being a productive and committed author, had many of the same drives and instincts as her husband; and their involvement in domestic life was clearly secondary to their involvement in art. (One thinks of their life together in relation to winters with Hart Crane, summers with Malcolm Cowley and, later, Ford Madox Ford and Robert Lowell; of fellowships and academic appointments, of publishing jobs and of books. It was a world with little room for children and pets, for bridge and golf and croquet, for gardening, carpentry, and cooking, for the Little League and the Cleveland Browns.) Ransom’s center was invariably in his family, not in his intellectual pursuits, fierce and total as they were. He forged his identity as the most industrious and responsible child in a large close-knit family; Tate found his identity in rebelling against his family—first his father and mother, then his older brother Ben (his putative father). As the youngest child in a loose-knit family which travelled from place to place in the upper South, gradually dissipating its resources and its strength, Tate had to find his way outside the family circle. He created his identity in large measure in an alien spirit, responding perversely to his mother’s fear that he would injure his mind and fall into “melancholia because of excessive application to books.” Tate became a literary prodigal, prodigal in his commitment to letters and ideas. Ransom in contrast was exceptionally close to his father; Tate could not have been more distant from his father (who “always spoke to me impersonally as if he were surprised that I was there”). The relation recurred with Tate’s own children, But he did not look for a father figure in Ransom, who could not have abided such a relation.

If, then, Ransom and Tate had much in common as Southern men of letters who were raised and educated in the Piedmont South, there were also sharp differences in temperament and in extraliterary values which might have driven them asunder. Such a breach did occur on literary grounds in the Waste Lands controversy of 1927; but once healed, nothing like if occurred in the next half-century. In that crisis Tate won the battle and proved his mettle, and thereafter Ransom accepted him as an equal, not merely as a persistent balky former student. It was the crucial turning point in an association which endured for an astonishing length of time—a friendship that profoundly affected the mature lives of both men. The complexion of that friendship is as complicated as the intellection of its principals.


In “A Southern Mode of the Imagination,” Allen Tate said that John Crowe Ransom taught Lytle, Brooks, Warren, and himself “Kantian aesthetics and a philosophical dualism, tinged with Christian theology, but ultimately derived from the Nicomachean ethics.” In the same year, 1959, Ransom wrote his essay for Tate, “In amicitia.” In it he mentions his fondness for a “sort of pagan bible” entitled The Nicomachean Ethics. “ In this treatise friendship is regarded as the sum and crown of the common single virtues. In its high form Aristotelian friendship requires both intellectual and moral maturity; its best exercise is when two well qualified friends talk long and fruitfully together with perfect understanding.” Ransom continues: “To the best of my knowledge there has been an excellent understanding between us for more than thirty years; and I have felt as comfortable and pleased in his company as in any which I have been offered.”

Ransom once indicted Aristotle for reducing myth to metaphysics, but Aristotle remained his favorite philosopher and his favorite example of the practical critic. Ransom wrote three full-length essays devoted to Aristotle, the last of which is “The Literary Criticism of Aristotle” (1948). Ransom’s theoretical essays are in large part responses to Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel; the literary examples are drawn from Shakespeare more than from any other poet, Milton included. Ransom depreciated Shakespeare as a sonneteer, but he had great respect for Shakespeare’s artistry as a dramatist and for the energy of his language: hence his first two essays on Aristotle, “Poetry: I. The Formal Analysis” and “Poetry: II. The Final Cause” (1947) depend heavily upon Hamlet, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anthony and Cleopatra, and other Shakespearian plays as underpinning; and indeed Ransom detached “The Iconography of the Master” from “The Final Cause” for Beating the Bushes, creating a separate essay on Shakespeare’s imagery, diction, and teleology. (There he remarks in passing: “In naturalistic speculation, a man is nothing less than a biological and psychological organism. I cannot see why he should be more; provided of course the whole man can be figured organically, including the poet in the man.”) This is to say that Ransom’s best criticism often resulted from his renewed engagement with Aristotle and Shakespeare. That is the case with his essays from “On Shakespeare’s Language” (1947) through “The Literary Criticism of Aristotle” (1948); it is true of his essays on the cathartic and mimetic principles which appear in The World’s Body.

John Crowe Ransom was temperamentally and philosophically an Aristotelian in many respects (Aristotle “is a naturalist, and I guess I am,” he wrote to Tate in April 1948). “The Greek philosophers after all had not attained unto a religion,” he wrote in God Without Thunder (1930), explaining: “Aristotle had been a pure metaphysician, with no Gods and only Principles.” His “natural religion” was much the same as the Greeks’, and in 1959 he said: “I . . . confess that my regular piety is that of a pagan,”

If Ransom was Aristotelian in his paganism and naturalism, in his emphasis on the importance of the world’s body, and in his general approach to art, Tate in contrast was far more drawn to Coleridge than to Aristotle for his critical principles; and his great example as a classic poet was Dante, not Shakespeare. There is nothing so revealing in a personal sense about the differing tastes in criticism and poetry as the fact that Tate’s criticism often concerns ideas (e. g. , his attacks upon humanism and positivism) whereas Ransom’s is over and again devoted to sentiment. On the one hand the stress is on values; on the other, on sensibility. The thought of the two men meets in the “general idea that poetry can be an undemonstrable form of knowledge” (as Tate has framed the equation) and in their common revulsion toward science and technology. Ideas for Tate often took on a religious cast; for Ransom the tonality was more rigorously philosophical; the meeting ground between the two was myth. Ransom also shunned the religious valuation as strenuously as Tate often sounded it. For all his fascination with miraculism, Ransom was a naturalist; Tate in contrast was a supernaturalist. Ransom realized that fundamental difference as early as 1924 and wrote this to Tate: “Do you not … stake everything on the chance of recovering some cosmological values out of the debris? . . . I simply renounce Cosmology and Magic. . . . It is quite a quaint idea that we are to find this world out there somewhere transcending sense. And there are no formulas. The formulas are the specific delusions,” Ransom adverted to this general subject from time to time in the 1920’s and 30’s, clinching his point in a letter written in mid-September 1936:

“You are looking, I believe, for something special in the aesthetic experience, whereas I can see only an ordinary scientific or animal core plus glittering contingency.”

“We are of the literary estate,” Ransom wrote of himself and Tate in 1959. The literary estate, needless to say, is not limited to the community of the Fugitives or the Agrarians at their closest, when the Fugitive and the Agrarian symposia were at high tide, It is a country of the mind, and the writer is often alone with the alone in that country. In such circumstances it is understandable that the writer will seek authority and solace outside himself and will depend upon religion or philosophy. Allen Tate did that throughout his career, even if he did not join the Catholic church until he was well into middle age. It was he who argued the religious position in I’ll Take My Stand; he returned to that theme repeatedly over the years. In his preface to Memoirs and Opinions (1975), he asserts that a philosophy of literature is invalid “without religious authority to sustain it.” What is of crucial importance is that Tate joined life and literature in the religious, or supernatural, dimension of man’s experience, whereas Ransom insisted that the same intersection occurs in the world’s body—the realm of mundane human intercourse and of nature itself. He can therefore conclude in “The Literary Criticism of Aristotle” that “the thing which will best certify our humanism” is “something as impractical as gentleness, or love, whose organ is sensibility.” He decides that this love of nature, “if nature means “everything in the world,” “is necessary for art.

After presenting his “crude sketch of a natural history of sentiment and sensibility” in the same essay, Ransom says that the arts exist for the “most perfect expression” of sentiment and sensibility, and he returns to the argument of “Sentimental Exercise.” The equation is that the sentiments, “those irrational psychic formations,” are “alternative forms of aesthetic knowledge.” A sentiment therefore illustrates the world’s body more fully than an idea, for any idea is ultimately reductive. In the “general psychic economy,” the “sentimentalist employs his wits and transforms himself into a man of sensibility; and now he has infinite resources. Poetry lies before him, and the future of poetry is immense. Now the whole of nature … becomes the object of his affection.” This natural history, one quickly perceives, applies to John Crowe Ransom himself.

In such passages one can also deduce considerable evidence for Ransom’s natural religion as well as the grounds of his aesthetics. The cardinal aspect of his piety has already been stated: “Life must come first.” Art must therefore imitate life, must draw its sustenance from life’s precious objects: hence “human affections are vastly and inconspicuously diffused among the objects of poetry, as among those of common experience.” Ransom accordingly could not ignore the affective element in literature: he wrestles with it over and again, especially in “Poetry: The Formal Analysis.” There he demonstrates that “poetry is language in the pathetic mode,” not in the logical mode; it is a “discourse in the “pathetic mode” if we emphasize the feelings which attend it,”

Ransom’s explorations in aesthetics caused Donald Davidson grief, and he objected to their narrowness and formalism in a letter to Tate (Jan. 2, 1943), saying that he held them to be “a misuse of his great gifts.” This bent was to Davidson another instance of Ransom’s perplexing nature and of his treason to the South. “He is a mystery,” Davidson observed to Tate in 1938, “but a mystery so friendly & homely & cheerful that you are always forgetting his capacity for turning up with an entirely new perspective.” In 1974 Tate wrote of Ransom that “the actions of this logical man were unpredictable.” To a certain extent, that statement is perfectly true, but the logic of Ransom’s relations is in retrospect consistent to an astonishing degree. He would not have seen “Art and the Human Economy” (1945) as a move leading to the loss of his “friendship of his old friend Donald Davidson,” as Tate put it in his memorial essay for Ransom; he would have considered that friendship terminated by his move from Vanderbilt to Kenyon and by his earlier loss of interest in the South as a subject for endeavor, particularly Agrarianism. In September 1936, he had written to Tate: “What is true in part for you (though a part that is ominously increasing) is true nearly in full for me: patriotism has nearly eaten me up, and I’ve got to get out of it.” In leaving Vanderbilt Ransom divested himself of Agrarianism and patriotism at once,

As one comes to perceive the subtlety and persistence of John Ransom’s investigations of sentiment, he realizes that the critic was no more on the side of logic than on the side of sensibility. Ransom said to Warren that he viewed man as a kind of “oscillating mechanism,” and such poems as “Painted Head” indicate that Ransom was remarkably balanced in his dualism; and that dualism was not confined to his poetry. The sympathetic imagination accommodates both sense and sensibility. It remains for us to see how Ransom’s imagination operated when affection was directly involved.


In book 8 of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines friendship. He finds that there are three ascending orders of friendship which are based respectively upon utility, pleasure, and a common pursuit of the good. Aristotle’s anatomy is convincing, indeed inexorable, in its logic. Friendships based upon use and pleasure are “only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him.” In contrast the highest order of friendship lies between men who are “friends for their own sake, i. e. in virtue of their goodness. These, then, are friends without qualification.” Such friendship is not only based upon love but upon a state of character. “In loving a friend,” Aristotle believes, “men love what is good for themselves; for the good man in becoming a friend becomes a good to his friend.”

Such was the friendship of Ransom and Tate once it had been forged and tempered. Initially, it was based upon what Aristotle calls “inequality between the parties, e. g. , that of father to son and in general of elder to younger.” But once Ransom had accepted Tate as a colleague, their association was thereafter founded on the bedrock of equality. In July 1927, he wrote to Tate in the midst of the Waste Lands dispute: “Your duplicity is charming from an intellectual point of view, but there’s also a sentimental one. It was a regular bolt from the blue.” After the chill following this argument had abated, there were no similar incidents in the ensuing half century. There were often occasions for misunderstanding and disagreement, to be sure. The friends might have exchanged sharp words over many matters—the converging goals of the Kenyan Review and the Sewanee Review(while Tate was editor of the latter), the failure of Tate to respond positively to many of Ransom’s invitations to write for his quarterly, the composition of the faculty of the Kenyon School of English (and, later, of the Indiana School of Letters), the propriety of Tate’s relations with his wives, and so forth. But nothing of the kind occurred. The relation might have actually been strengthened by the fact that the men seldom saw one another. (“Perhaps in more of those thirty years than not we met no oftener than two or three times the whole year long,” Ransom remarked in 1959.) Aristotle observes that “distance does not break off the friendship absolutely, but only the activity of it.” In close quarters under continuing circumstances, Tate’s wrathfulness and his compulsion for gossip and controversy would have inevitably clashed with Ransom’s discretion, reticence, and reserve. “Readily enthusiastic, he could be as readily bored,” Mark Van Doren said of Tate. “He would change in an instant from a child who remembered nothing to an old man who remembered everything, and suddenly, like the soul in Emily Dickinson’s poem, would close the values of his attention.” The friendship fortunately was never put to that test. It was to remain principally a literary relation based upon the life of the mind. “Ever after the Agrarian movement I believe that Tate and I conducted our lives in much the same fashion; in a free society we assumed the right to live simply and to keep company with friends of our own taste, and with increasingly unpopular books in the library. We lived in an old-fashioned minority pocket of the culture, so to speak,” Ransom wrote in his essay for Tate. Ransom’s friends at Kenyon were primarily his managing editor at the review, Philip Blair Rice, and the chairman of the English department, Charles Coffin. He was also close to the college’s president, Gordon Keith Chalmers. All these men suddenly died in 1956, but Ransom continued his work at the Kenyon Review, even though “the joy of the enterprise must by then have been gone,” as George Lanning later observed. A less responsible man, a weaker man, might have been prompted to retire. Ransom continued as editor for another three years, until his successor (who otherwise would have been Rice) was found and appointed. It must have been a lonely time, but as ever he had his family.

In his earlier life, John Ransom had a wide circle of acquaintances, but these connections were based in large part upon the fortuities of his location and of his commitment to particular interests shared by others. Ransom’s regular correspondence with Christopher Morley and Robert Graves in the period immediately preceding the publication of Poems about God until the publication of Grace after Meat, 1917-1925, is illustrative of the occasional nature of his friendships. He had met Morley while they were both Rhodes scholars at Oxford. Morley then helped him place Poems about God with Holt, and at the same time Morley sent out individual titles for consideration by various magazines while Ransom was in France during the war. After the war, Ransom thought that he would take an editorial or journalistic position in New York City, and he planned to stop by Philadelphia to see Morley. Instead he returned to teach at Vanderbilt in the fall of 1919, and the correspondence of the preceding two years lapsed. In one of his last letters, he closed by saying: “I’m surely going East next year!” He did not, and the friendship came amicably to an end.

Ransom’s relation with Robert Graves was similar in many respects, but the men never met and knew one another only through correspondence. Graves was intensely interested in Ransom’s poetry and placed Grace after Meat with the Hogarth Press. Graves also wrote the foreword and acted in an editorial capacity in seeing the collection through the press. He and Ransom also shared certain critical interests. But when Grace after Meat was in print and the Fugitive (which published Graves) had ceased publication, letters between the two men ceased.

These friendships were based on utility. “Those who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what is good for themselves,” Aristotle declares. “The useful is not permanent but is always changing. Thus when the motive of friendship is done away, the friendship is dissolved, inasmuch as it existed only for the ends in question.” Ransom needed help, especially while he was in France during the first World War, and his mail was often held up and censored; and Morley, with his excellent sources in the publishing world, provided that help. The case with Graves was more complicated, but the upshot was the same. In both instances the associations ended cordially, and there was no ill feeling. The same was true of Ransom’s friendship with Samuel Chew at the Hotchkiss School in 1913-1914 when both men were teaching there. He and Chew saw one another several times a day for six months or more, and they discussed literature and literary theory at length, obviously taking great pleasure in one another’s company; but the bond was not strong enough to survive the test of separation and distance. This was another of Ransom’s incidental friendships—warm and deep for the time being but not enduring. None of them was ever renewed.

There is no substantial reason to account, however briefly, for Ransom’s many other friendships; but it is necessary to dwell momentarily on his associations with Davidson, Coffin, and Rice. (I neglect altogether his relations with such younger men as Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, and Robie Macauley, which in this connection are of considerably lesser significance.)

In March 1938, Davidson wrote to Tate: “I am beginning to see myself as Ransom’s Captain Carpenter… . Yet I tell myself that the long years of fellowship that have tied us all together have made the alliance something that cannot be casually broken. It is unthinkable that the communion should cease, and it won’t.” It did cease, nevertheless, between Ransom and Davidson after a relation which had persisted for a quarter-century; and it was restored only when Ransom returned to Vanderbilt to teach for a semester in 1961. Davidson was grieved by the rupture and said so to Tate in October 1945: “John is and has been his own master; and furthermore there have been other occasions when he swung an axe wildly, not much regarding his friends.” The friendship was nourished primarily, once again, on shared causes—especially the Fugitive and Agrarianism. Ransom lost interest in writing poetry and in pursuing Southern campaigns. In his own defense he might have wryly said that no natural law forced him to fight permanently under the Southern banner. Being a man with an absolute sense of his own identity, he could assume a new tack without a crippling loss of psychic energy. On the other hand Davidson required, almost desperately (as James H. Justus has pointed out), “the consolations of community, of a cohesive, philosophically consonant group of true believers.”

Ransom regularly found Davidson’s gloominess and indecisiveness troublesome (his words for Davidson’s temperament included fretfulness and orneriness), and it is startling and instructive to read his comments on Davidson and Warren, cheek by jowl, in a letter dated Oct. 25, 1932. The older man “is still one of the most intransigent spirits incarnated since Saul of Tarsus… . Our rebel doctrines are good for us all but Don, and very doubtful there, because they are flames to his tinder.” Then a crisp compliment on the younger man: “Red is as good a head and heart as I’ve known and it’s a pleasure to be with him.”

Strong friendship simply did not exist between Ransom and Davidson as it did between Ransom and Warren and between Ransom and Tate, relations which battened over the years.

Part of Tate’s genius, despite his irascibility, lay in his happy talent for striking up and developing friendship; in this and other ways he was the linchpin of the Nashville group. In contrast, Davidson did not possess the gift of sociability, and this fault made it difficult for him to develop and hold friendship. Friendship between virtuous men which is directed toward the good is infrequent, as Aristotle says. “Such friendship,” he argues, “requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have “eaten salt together,” “Davidson’s refusal to engage regularly in social life meant that his friendship would be partial at best, but his remarkable kinship with Tate endured despite the social deprivation. Despite his naturally remote and circumspect disposition, Ransom was an extremely sociable man, an eminently clubable man with a remarkable common touch. It is impossible to imagine Davidson or Tate playing poker at the town dump with his neighbors, as Ransom did at Gambier. Davidson and he were of radically different temperaments—the one a fretful Puritan, the other a cheerful naturalist.

John Ransom’s relation to Philip Rice was, so far as one can infer, very similar to his relation to Warren: as colleagues they were equals; on a social basis the relation of the older man to the younger inclined toward the avuncular. In June 1938, Ransom wrote to Tate: “Each time I have been with [Rice] I have liked him better.” In the ensuing 18 years, the friendship deepened. The connection was not only professional but social, and Ransom felt as at ease with Rice at the dinner table and during the cocktail hour as in the office. Unfortunately, he did not go on record about his sentiments for Rice, and the same holds true for his still greater friendship with Charles Coffin. Of their deaths he said nothing to Tate in correspondence and little to Warren. “Within six months we have lost Rice, Chalmers, and Coffin; a very dreary record. I can’t feel that the place is quite the same without them. And I guess of the three that I was closest to Charles,” he wrote to Warren in late August of 1956.

It is an understatement worthy of Ransom the elegiac poet:

the sentiment is so guarded from sentimentality that one is mystified and perturbed, but then he might remember the friar in “Necrological” who “sat upon a hill and bowed his head/As under a riddle, and in a deep surmise/So still that he likened himself unto those dead.” (In 1974 Ransom would be buried beside Coffin and Rice,) Of Ransom’s place in the Gambier community Ronald Berman has observed: “In the middle of all that sainted normalcy he was cold and in a useful way without illusions.” At such points in John Crowe Ransom’s life one is struck by the sense that the man’s sensibility was too fine to have been violated by the contingencies of our mortality.

“We, for our curse or our pride, have sentiments,” Ransom remarks in “Forms and Citizens.” “They are directed towards persons and things; and a sentiment is the totality of love and knowledge which we have of an object that is private and unique.” It is the burden of being human—the agony and the glory. And Ransom was profoundly and unalterably committed to what he called the common actuals of life.

In “Art Worries the Naturalists,” the critic argues that to understand the ontology of nature one must “deploy the numerous action we call religion or the one we call art; or . . . the numerically still larger one which we might call sentimental attachment, this being for individual natural objects, or for persons and social objects, all of them apparently inviolable and respected in their own objective natures.” (Without that respect the beholder would be a monstrous Platonist to Ransom,) He explains: “In these kinds of behavior the object appears to us as a dense area of contingency, that is, a concretion, a reality on which we cannot take our usual firm grip, and a foreign if not unfriendly being. Toward this object the human creature assumes suddenly a new humility; it figures in religion as a sense of awe, in art as a sense of beauty, and in sentimental life as an uncritical affection.”

Uncritical affection— that is one’s usual attitude for his immediate family and closest friends. For Ransom that attitude was characteristic and natural. At the same time in such matters, he was deeply private and reticent; and in his distaste for sentimentality he always protected his response to sentiment, which takes its most usual form in love, which Ransom called “the dense natural context of an imperious human action” or one’s affection for “the familiar individual objects of nature.” That umbrella will cover the artistic transaction (including the critical performance), and it will apply nearly as well to the human transaction—in this instance to the friendship between two poet-critics who were imperious in differing ways, Tate’s arrogance and quick temper were matched by Ransom’s remoteness and his powerful ambition. And both men were strong-willed, and both possessed remarkable senses of their own natures, their own capabilities.

In “Reflections on Gandhi,” George Orwell wrote that “the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” It is a statement that John Crowe Ransom would have assented to, and it acutely describes the man’s behavior. Tate sought perfection through art and was seldom prepared for defeat in his dealings with humankind. Davidson practiced asceticism to the point that it cut him off from the possibilities of friendship at its most profound. Neither man truly lived a full and natural life, although one can greatly admire their separate virtues (including loyalty) as men of letters and sages—Tate the paradoxical combination of sensualist and religionist, Davidson the stern Puritan. Ransom in contrast led an exemplary life, putting each thing in its own place, whether it was the drama of Shakespeare or the play of the Cleveland Browns. It was a life not merely literary.

Tate declared after Ransom’s death that “logic was the mode of his thought and sensibility.” One must modify that statement to “logic was the mode of his thought.” In his hierarchy of values, Ransom placed the sentiments, especially affection and love, at the top; religion and art fell further down the list. So too did logic. He was the man—and the poet and critic—who insisted on the primacy of life itself.

The common actuals of life, the known familiars, the precious objects made up the world’s body for John Crowe Ransom just as they do for humanity at large, and he never tried to kick free of humanity into the rarified atmosphere of art. Art, he insisted, must always reflect the world of everyday life. (“The work he did was implicitly a criticism of the good life as we commonly imagine it,” Ronald Berman has pointed out.) Ransom stated his beliefs plainly and unmistakably to Tate in 1927: “The poet, again, will simply refer concept to image, with the intention and with the effect of showing how the concept, the poor thin thing, is drowned in the image, how the determinate is drowned in the contingent, and how, ultimately, this world can neither be understood nor possessed. In the poet’s art we will have to see, if we are willing to look at all, the Objectivity of the World; this is a dreadful, an appalling, a religious, and a humble attitude to which we will come perforce after the conceited Subjectivism into which we have been persuaded by the practical and the scientific life alike. The issue will take place on its most emotional and poignant plane, of course, when the concepts referred back to reality are the dearest concepts.”

That is the Man of Sensibility addressing the Man of Idea. Both are men of letters. The Man of Sensibility says that “the poet perpetuates in his poem an order of existence which in actual life is constantly crumbling beneath his touch.” The Man of Idea retorts that “actuality and poetry are respectively and even reciprocally one,” The Man of Sensibility replies, gently but firmly: “Life must come first.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading