Skip to main content

In Our Ends Are Our Beginnings

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

The World’s Body. By John Crowe Ransom. New York: Charles Scrib-ner’s Sons. $2.75. The Triple Thinkers. By Edmund Wilson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.75.

One difference between Edmund Wilson and John Crowe Ransom is easy to put. Mr. Wilson is never satisfied unless he can show what lies behind and about a body of literature—its milieu both in society and in the person of the author—and he sometimes proceeds from that point to translate his sense of milieu into a general idea or set of ideas. Mr. Ransom is discontented unless he can get into the literature itself—the technical medium in which it operates—and he sometimes proceeds from that vantage point to reduce, or heighten, his observations to the level of specific literary principles. Mr. Wilson has to do with ends, Mr. Ransom with beginnings. One consequence of their difference in aims is this. When you have finished one of Mr. Wilson’s better essays (I do not say his better criticisms) you may feel that he has done so well by his method that you do not need to read the works with which the essay dealt: the essay has replaced with its own values all the values that it mentioned. When you have finished one of Mr. Ransom’s essays on particular poems or poets, you will feel, I think, that you have been put into contact with the work itself: the essay replaces nothing; rather, the essay itself disappears, and you find yourself impelled to get the book off the shelf and test out your new knowledge.

A good deal that is illuminating may be drawn out about the critical work of both men by pushing this pair of distinctions a little further into the field of particulars and considering two papers from their latest collections of essays. In “The Triple Thinkers,” Mr. Wilson has a small piece about A. E. Housman. Housman was a poet who had a profound and damaging influence upon the sensibility of his readers, an influence which T. S. Eliot, if he saw it that way, would call diabolic, and which the mere unbeliever must call the influence of the deeply dishonest, wilfully incomplete, and ultimately facile imagination. Such a poet needs showing up in his poetry. Mr. Wilson shows him up as a scholar and as a man: it is a malevolent miniature that he provides of a man with a closed mind, given to trivial and disproportionate fanaticisms, to irrelevant invective, and to paranoiac pride. The miniature seems a likeness, self-complete, obscured only by a general comparison with Gray, Pater, Carroll, Fitzgerald, and T. E. Lawrence: “the monastic order of English University ascetics.” Finally, in a sentence which applies to the total Housman, including the poetry, Mr. Wilson remarks that he “never arrived at the age when the young man decides at last to try to make something out of this world which he never has made.” Now the curiosity about Mr. Wilson’s patient and lucid exposition is double. Although Housman was primarily important, to Mr. Wilson as to the rest of us, as a poet, references to the poetry are made only to illustrate the man, and are made, as it were, in prose. Quotations, that is, are printed with the lines run together but with the initial capitals retained: a bastard and irritating presentation that witnesses, at best, a momentary insensibility on Mr. Wilson’s part. Secondly, unless I am misled, Mr. Wilson’s implication is that the poetry remains somehow valuable despite his argument. Mr. Wilson’s essay circles imaginatively about his subject, rearranging its elements to suit his image, but never coming in contact with it. There is no criticism in his essay; there is nothing there to criticize; in the end, it is just Mr. Wilson’s dramatic imagination at work.

Let us take now, in Mr. Ransom’s “The World’s Body,” his essay on Edna St. Vincent Millay, who like Housman is a poet of wide and damaging appeal and whose fundamental immaturity, if worn with a difference, is equally a radical imaginative quality. She too needs showing up as a poet. Mr. Ransom sets about his task with a more than Southern gallantry, with that honest gallantry which consists in keeping the eye, for all the polite gesture of voice and word, precisely upon the object: Miss Millay’s published verse. Mr. Ransom’s eye focuses successively upon that which, in Miss Millay’s work, is overwriting at the expense of strength; writing “which is ‘literary’ and impeaches the genuineness of the passion”; writing where tropes of such loose development are employed as by their musical nonsense to constitute a “parody of honest poetry”; writing which is a mere act of fancy. There follows, with examples, a discussion of the intellectual reach, the imaginative scope, of Miss Millay’s poetry compared with four other modern poets: in which Miss Millay is limited by the evidence to that poetry which deals with “the love of natural effects, the worship of Nature, the delight of the senses, the concerns of the elemental passions, and . . . the guilt of civilized man.” Finally, when she is rid of her affectations and writes within her limitations, “she has a vein of poetry which is spontaneous, straightforward in diction, and excitingly womanlike; a distinguished objective record of a natural woman’s mind.” Mr. Ransom provides three examples of success: the poem called “Elegy,” which fixes upon the voice of a dead girl as the symbol of the irreplaceable; “The Poet and his Book,” in which Miss Millay envisages her poetic immortality as “a series of precise and living actions”; and lastly “The Return,” which “pictures Earth in a sort of Mother Hubbard character, receiving back the sons she sent out to failure, but too busy to give them much attention, and unaware of any reason why they should have failed.” “The Return” is for Mr. Ransom nearly perfect. He ends his essay by defining the imperfection, which lies in the two words, comfort and comprehend, in the last line: “Comfort that does not comprehend”—a line which apparently means that in the grave the sons of Earth “obtain her loving comfort but not her understanding.” I quote Mr. Ransom’s conclusion. “The [poetic] act seems inadequate, and I look for the trouble, saying confidently: Metre. I think that is the trouble. Let us remember Procrustes, who will symbolize for us the mechanical determinism of metrical necessity, a tyrant against whom only pure-hearted and well-equipped champions will consistently prevail. Procrustes, let us say with absurd simplicity, finds the good word comforter too long for the bed. So he lops off her feet.”

It seems superfluous, but a pleasure, to point out that here we have Miss Millay’s poetry, as it were, by the feet—those it walks on as well as those lopped off. We know as far as Mr. Ransom is able to tell us what Miss Millay’s values are and we can test his account in the verses themselves. Mr. Wilson’s account of Housman, on the contrary, cannot be tested except by its inherent plausibility and persuasiveness, much as we test a poem or a novel. Mr. Ransom is a literary critic, Mr. Wilson an imaginative essayist.

This is not to say that Mr. Wilson’s essay is without critical value; by the accident of his taste and intuition and the discipline of his mind—by the accident of approximate unanimity between him and his readers—it has great implicit value. It is value at one remove; with Mr. Wilson we do not know where we are except on his own say-so—behind the poet. With Mr. Ransom we know where we are all along— in the poetry—and are not required to take anything on trust. Mr. Wilson may go further when he is right; there is always room for fresh creation. Mr. Ransom has the advantage that by sticking to his texts he will never go so far wrong as to write Mr. Wilson’s “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” Mr. Wilson thought he answered yes; actually, all he says is that the novel is a growing technique.

One more difference is this. Mr. Ransom ends his book by a declaration of the necessity for the technical study of literature in order to know what its integrity, that we seize, actually is. Mr. Wilson ends his with an essay on “Marxism and Literature,” which if it has other than a controversial content is concerned with the problem of the literary man, the artist, in uniting his social and aesthetic vision. His final hope is that as “the human imagination has already come to conceive the possibility of re-creating human society,” so it may re-create arts that “will deal with the materials of actual life in ways which we cannot now even foresee.” Mr. Ransom probably does not share that hope because he probably does not see Mr. Wilson’s problem; but if such a transcendence occurred, Mr. Wilson would have to test it out by Mr. Ransom’s method before crowning it with his own. It is the World’s Body of which in the end the Triple Thinker thinks—as Mr. Wilson may remind himself that Flaubert, who made the phrase, inexhaustibly knew.


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

Recommended Reading