Robert Penn Warren

ments in poetry came in the last 30 years of his life. Warren was born in the small town of Guthrie, in Kentucky, and had to abandon a planned naval career because of an eye injury. He entered Vanderbilt University in 1921, and became a member of the Fugitives group, which included John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, sharing a room for a period with Tate. Warren absorbed their commitment to the culture and history of the South and their conservative program for a return to agrarian values. Before he graduated from Vanderbilt in 1925 he had published his first poems in the journal The Fugitive. Warren's studies continued with graduate work at Berkeley and Yale, and in 1928 he entered Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. While at Oxford he published his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929).

Returning to the United States in 1930, Warren embarked upon a highly successful academic career, teaching in Memphis and at Vanderbilt, before joining Louisiana State University in 1934. There he co-founded the influential Southern Review, which he also helped edit until 1942, and with fellow faculty member Cleanth Brooks he published Understanding Poetry in 1938. This volume, along with its companion Understanding Fiction (1943) had an enormous impact upon the teaching of literature in high schools and colleges well into the 1960s. Intended as textbooks, but also serving to inform generations of teachers, the anthologies synthesized in practical and readable form the ideas of what became known as New Criticism, emphasizing close reading to reveal the complex technical and thematic relationships within a text.

Warren published Night Rider, the first of his ten novels, in 1939. These novels, like his poetry, are centrally concerned with autobiographical and historical themes. The best known of the novels is All the King's Men (1946), which won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a highly successful film in 1949 starring Broderick Crawford. Warren based the powerful story upon the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long.

In 1935 Warren had published his first book of poetry, Thirty-Six Poems. Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) followed, and subsequently Selected Poems 1923-1943 (1944). Although accomplished, these poems are generally viewed as derivative, well-crafted poems in the style of the major influences on his poetry at this time - Tate, and, through Tate and the work of T. S. Eliot, seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry. "Bearded Oaks" is a representative poem from these years. From a concretely evoked landscape scene the poem moves to a series of oracular abstractions ("If hope is hopeless, then fearless fear") that take the poem out of a diminished present, and move it towards the moral urgency and the "eternity" with which the poem ends:

We live in time so little time And we learn all so painfully, That we may spare this hour's term To practice for eternity.

Following the Selected Poems Warren published no poetry for nine years. Then in 1953 appeared the book-length verse narrative Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, in which a number of speakers narrate and reflect upon the 1811 murder of a young slave in Kentucky by a nephew of Thomas Jefferson. This combination of narrative and history characterizes the poetry that marked the rest of Warren's career - along with a more vernacular, less rhetorical, language, a more open formal structure, and more autobiographical content than in his earlier period. Some critics have suggested parallels to the work of Robinson Jeffers. Poetry collections followed regularly after Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (1957), which won Warren his second Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He was awarded a third Pulitzer for Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978. In later volumes Warren's poems often look back to his Kentucky boyhood. "Amazing Grace in the Back Country" (1978), concerning the experience of a camp meeting when he was 12, is an example.

Although in his earlier career Warren's racial views had been segregationist, after he left the South in 1942 to take up a position at the University of Minnesota, and later, in 1950, a position at Yale University, his views became more liberal. In 1956 he published Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, and in 1965 Who Speaks for the Negro?, a series of interviews with leaders of the civil rights movement. Warren taught at Yale until his retirement in 1973, and his wide-ranging publications continued to include fiction and literary criticism as well as poetry. The remarkable achievement of the major phase of his poetry was recognized by his being appointed in 1986 the first Poet Laureate of the United States.

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