Crowe Ransom

poetry and critical principles of the New Critics went hand in hand, their values founded on a search for order represented, in the poetry, by formal composition. They advocated an intellectual rigor expressed through such characteristics as emotional restraint, irony, complexity, wit, and ambiguity, and contrasting with what they saw as Romantic indiscipline and excess. The multiple complexities of a poem, they argued, could mirror the multiple complexities of the world itself, and the job of the poet was to supply such complexity, and that of the ideal reader/critic to discover and respond to it.

Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, the son of a Methodist minister. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1909 he attended Christ Church, Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar, returning to Vanderbilt to begin teaching in 1914. His education included extensive study in Greek and Latin texts in the original languages. He returned to Europe for two years with the United States army, finishing in 1919, the year in which he published the first of his three books of poems, Poems About God. However, Ransom chose never to republish these early poems.

Back at Vanderbilt, along with a group that included Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, Ransom founded The Fugitive in 1922. In this journal, which ran until 1925, he published many of his mature poems. These were later collected in Chills and Fever (1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927). He later published three editions of his Selected Poems, in 1945, 1963, and 1969. The poems dealing with death are frequently anthologized, for they illustrate well the detached, ironic, shifting attitudes in a Ransom poem in the face of an event that could in another poet produce emotional outburst or cliché. "Here Lies a Lady" recounts in language successively tender, colloquial, elegant, concrete, sympathetic, and self-consciously archaic the illness of "a lady of beauty and high degree." The suffering and loss is summarized in the last line as "six quick turns of quaking, six of burning," but the serious intent of the poem is never far away, including its religious dimension. The range of responses embedded in the poem's language is held together by the speaker's tolerance for and even interest in such intellectual and emotional complexity, just as the poem itself is held together by its rigorous rhyme scheme. There are similar effects in the well-known "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," where vitality in life is contrasted with a death that looks like merely a temporary repose. The concluding emotional response, "vexed," in "vexed at her brown study, / Lying so primly propped" is curiously formal and restrained, although for reasons, the poem implies, connected with the mystery of life and death which is itself at the heart of the poem's concerns. Archaic diction in "Dead Boy" works similarly: "But the little man quite dead, / I see the forbears' antique lineaments." Importantly, none of these moments are representative of their poem's whole stance and tone, but are part of the play of interrelated perspectives held together by the poem's structure. Similarly, in his criticism Ransom distinguished between the "structure" and "texture" of a work.

The characteristics of such poems owed something to the practice ofJohn Donne, and the New Critics followed Eliot in arguing for the importance of Donne and the school of metaphysical poetry, prizing its wit, religious grounding, and intelligence. But although Ransom shared this and a number of other important critical and social concepts with Eliot, his criticism did not, any more than his poetry, advocate the direction of high modernism represented by The Waste Land. Ransom did not share any of Tate's enthusiasm for Eliot's poem. Ransom's values were tied to an agrarian vision of an ordered, racially segregated, aristocratic South set against the chaos of the industrialized North. His prose volume God Without Thunder (1930) tied this order to a return to religious values, although by his 1938 The World's Body poetry is offered as a possible alternative to religion.

In 1937 Ransom began teaching at Kenyon College in Ohio, and in 1939 founded The Kenyon Review, which he edited until his retirement in 1959, and which he turned into a major literary journal. The Kenyon Review thus became part of Ransom's important legacy, which, along with his poems, included his influence upon such students of his as Tate, Randall Jarrell, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Lowell. Later poets who are seen as following his direction include John Berryman, W. S. Merwin, Howard Nemerov, Melvin Tolson, and James Merrill. Ransom's multiple contributions were recognized by his being awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1951.

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