The Odd Immortality of John Crowe Ransom
The Complete Poems of John Crowe Ransom | ed. Ashby Bland Crowder | LSU Press (2019)
|Oct 16, 2019|| 2|
Reviewed by James Matthew Wilson
More than forty years ago, John Crowe Ransom’s biographer, Thomas Daniel Young, called for a variorum edition of his subject’s poems. Ransom had published three volumes of poetry between 1919 and 1927, books that struck a distinctive note in modern American poetry, at once awkwardly modern and stiltedly antique, wherein awkwardness and stiltedness are comic virtues. They had shaped the sensibility of two generations of American poets, including Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, and Richard Wilbur.
When Ransom fell silent as a poet and turned to cultural and literary criticism, he further shaped two generations’ sense of what literature ought to do in itself and the role it ought to play in society. His Agrarianism, New Criticism, and religious humanism defined human life as a richly textured, aesthetic whole, from which the modern physical sciences and the utilitarianism of everyday life abstracted, but to which they were finally inadequate. The properly full or rich human life must always return to the localized weave of mythology that was religion, and, Ransom contended, the irreducibly complex, uneven structures that were poems were principal pathways to just such a restoration of experiential fullness.
Poetry and literary criticism were, therefore, matters of great importance: our pedagogues to living not just by abstraction and technical know-how, but in close contact with what he called, as the title of one book, The World’s Body (1938).
It is almost certain that Ransom so overburdened the function of poetry with his theory that it led to his virtual silence as a poet, after 1928. So also is it probable that his critic’s mind provoked him to revise his work extensively, as it hopped from periodical to book, and from individual volume to the several editions of Selected Poems published during his lifetime. Further, in his declining years, he revised a certain few poems so extensively, thinking to “improve” them, that they constituted essentially new poems—new poems that found little favor with his longtime readers.
If you like this review, which will be featured in the autumn 2019 issue of FORMA, subscribe today! It’s just $39 for one year of insightful contemplation about the intersection of classical thought and contemporary culture!
Ransom’s reputation as poet and critic were both in decline at the time of Young’s writing, and for nearly four decades nothing happened to bring all the poems into a single, complete volume, represented in their best versions. And so, it is strange to say that in just the last four years, we have had not one variorum edition of Ransom’s poems, but two.
Years ago, I learned that the poet Ben Mazer was preparing one such edition. The publisher originally contracted to publish the book, as I understand it, delayed and then withdrew from the endeavor. Mazer eventually announced a luxury edition to be published by Un-Gyve Press; to finance the project, the press accepted subscriptions with subscriber names to be listed at the back of the volume. So anxious was I, at last, to have all Ransom’s work in verse that I subscribed immediately, as did many others.
The resulting book was elegantly designed, the pages and text large enough that each poem began on a new page. The editorial apparatus was less elegant. Mazer’s appendix at the back was largely limited to recording textual variations; the headers guiding one through the appendix were sufficiently unhelpful that it was difficult to track down the notes to each individual poem. The edition itself was expensive enough that it seemed unlikely to draw renewed attention to Ransom’s work; those of us who had long cherished it, however, were very much in Mazer’s debt for finally bringing off what had seemed a long frustrated and deferred feat.
By the time I held Mazer’s work in my hands, Louisiana State University Press had announced that it too would publish an edition of the complete poems. Not good, I thought, quite frankly. Mazer’s long toil will almost certainly be superannuated by a properly academic edition from the one publisher that had earnestly tried to keep Ransom’s work in print in the years since his death.
As with Mazer’s edition, however, the LSU Complete Poems almost did not happen. The edition was delayed several times; when it did finally appear, the editor, Ashby Bland Crowder, did not live to see it. He must have worked for many years and up to the very end, for his edition of the poems is a monument of editorial care. The attention to the textual history of the poems is comprehensive. Textual variants appear as footnotes, where they can be conveniently consulted. The annotations of the poems, printed as an appendix, include discussion of the origin and reception of each of Ransom’s three volumes, and not only account for textual matters but attend to interpretation as well, including the glossing of Ransom’s quirky vocabulary compounded of colloquialism and archaism. Finally, Crowder’s years of research reaped poems never before published. At last, Ransom’s work is genuinely complete.
The poems are a bit crammed together, with new titles sometimes starting near the very end of a page, but in fact, that has made the otherwise over-large volume more compact and suitable for use as a proper reading copy, rather than as a mere library reference. Crowder’s superb care in preparing final editions of the poems is conspicuous; alas, I found at least three typos, which are perhaps signs that he was denied by his death the opportunity for one last round of copyediting galley proofs.
I apologize for leading with such a prolonged and pedantic story! Many readers will wonder whether Ransom is a poet worth troubling over, these decades after his death, the great movement in American poetry and literary criticism he helped to incite having been, by and large, routed in the academy and in the broader culture.
The answer is, yes, indeed. When Ransom’s first book, Poems about God, appeared, it was obvious why Robert Frost himself had recommended it for publication. The poems display a homely, ironical humor, where Ransom at once respects and casts a cold light on the various devotions human beings give to whatever is most sacred or lasting in their lives. The union of the folk and rural; a documentary, impersonal eye; and a myriad-minded spirit of irony echoes Frost, Robinson, and A.E. Houseman without being merely derivative.
His earliest and least impressive performances wind plain, even cliché, language into a bundle until the repetitions of rhyme reveal the “waggish humor” behind it all. In “The Swimmer,” for instance, the narrator tells us the “dog-days” are times when “eggs and meats and Christians spoil.” So, he plunges into water, and out of that place of spoiled Christians, like a true Epicurean. He says to the icy pond water,
And now you close about my head,
And I lie low in a soft green bed
That dog-days never have visited.
“By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread:”
The garden’s curse is at last unsaid
Only a few years later, in Chills and Fever, Ransom attained to a more mature synthesis of these elements. His poems from that point on would largely consist of ungainly narrative ballads, a union of the old Scottish ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” with Flannery O’Conner, specifically that eye for the grotesque caricature that marks southern gothic literature’s peculiar spiritual insight about sinfulness and depravity.
In Ransom’s old age, the neighbors complained that he would plant his garden with each kind of flower in a separate row—all the tulips together, as it were, rather than mingling their many colors to form a pleasing whole. For all his concern for the fullness of the world’s body, Ransom’s poems gain some of their charm from the clean, dualistic theoretical categories that he puts in play within them. As the poem unfolds, we have the sensation of abstractions akin to medieval allegorical figures coming into conflict and making a mess of one another. His best-known poem, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” for instance, confronts a vision of the world that is all a young girl’s dynamic, wonderful innocence with its sudden end, as that world is revealed as fallen through her own death:
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.
In “Armageddon,” Christ and Antichrist meet and become brothers, until a “godly liege of old malignant brood” catches the ear of the Lord and in his lust for blood-justice transforms Christ himself into a raging Greek warrior, desirous not of the glory revealed on the cross, but that worldly glory of the pagan societies before his coming:
Christ and his myrmidons, Christ at the head
Chanted of death and glory and no complaisance
“Captain Carpenter” depicts the eponymous character as he goes “riding out” for adventure. At every turn, the disappointments of the world lop off a portion of his body: “his nose for evermore,” “His two legs at the shinny part,” “his arms at the elbows,” until at last “a black devil . . . had plucked out his sweet blue eyes.”
In Ransom’s view, we enter the world with a rich, immediate vision of reality as violent, dramatic, strange. Only too soon does our urge to “science,” to impose abstract concepts, lead us to believe we can master it all and thereby be at peace within it. His poems constitute a third moment, where violence and peace, strangeness and understanding exist together, chastening our ambitions but also restoring to our vision a sense of oddness and mystery.
By the time he wrote the poems for his last book, Two Gentlemen in Bonds, Ransom had mastered the clattering rhythms, the use of a stilted meter and falling, feminine rhymes that give to nearly all his poems their meditative yet clunky music. In “Blue Girls,” for example, youthful beauty, which thinks it will last forever, is suddenly revealed, in its very delicacy, as fragile and subject to loss:
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
There are limits to our power’s doing; we have a certain obligation to stand still in reverence before what is fine but “so frail.” Elsewhere, another girl, beautiful Janet, wakes to discover that her rooster, “Old Chucky,” has been killed by a “transmogrifying bee.” Latinate polysyllables and homely southern names jostle together, delivering a shock of nature as at once brutal and humorous, mythologically grand and disappointingly vain:
And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.
So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.
In both these poems the falling, slant-rhymed, rhythms (PUB-lish/est-AB-lish and JAN-et/up-ON it), which Ransom borrows with so much else from Mother Goose, are coupled with the mundane and the parenthetical, rhetorical, Latinate grandeur, and these all conspire to create poems immediately amusing to the ear; grotesquely jerry-rigged so as to compel us to ponder their inner-workings; and finally insistent that life in this world is a long defeat, where what is most precious, beautiful, and humane merits our reverence and study even though it will, in God’s time, fail us.
Ransom’s world is not ours. The descendant of Methodist ministers and himself an attenuated, but sincere, theist, he feared that the successes of the physical sciences would thoroughly disenchant culture of its necessary, religious mythology. Men would no longer believe in good and evil, discipline and transcendence, tradition and piety, but would rather give themselves over to a religion of commerce and complacency. In response, he tried in his poetry to acknowledge this disenchantment even as he revealed why the primeval insights of the religious imagination give us a truer vision of reality.
In our day, the physical sciences confirm as much as they challenge Christian belief; modernity has not been secularized by the disappearance of Christendom, but by a weird and unpredictable pluralization of religiousness that includes, among many things, that old god Mammon. Scientific knowledge and philosophical wisdom no longer seem incompatible and dualistically divided, as they did for Ransom. For those of us who have outlasted the age of disenchantment and been born into a new age of idolatry, it is possible to see once again the world as a great book authored by our Creator. Philosophy and theology have been restored to their proper place in the intellectual life for many, and that restoration continues apace.
For us, then, Ransom’s poems take on a new significance. Their gaudy, uneven, and awkward constructions remind us to cherish the surface of things and the depths they conceal; to treat the oddness of the rhythm of things as occasion for us to enter more attentively into the mysteries that lie within, behind, and beyond them. Ransom’s influential literary criticism is now mostly of historical interest. His poems, in contrast, are at last demonstrating their independent value and immortality as the great comic fairy tales of modern melancholy and unbelief.
This review was originally published in the autumn 2019 print edition of FORMA Journal.
James Matthew Wilson is an author, essayist, poet, and critic. He is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University. His most recent book of poetry is The Hanging God.
If you enjoyed this review, which is a preview of the autumn 2019 print edition of FORMA, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.