John Crowe Ransom

Ransom was born in 1888 in rural Tennessee, the son of a Methodist minister. A precocious student, he entered Vanderbilt at the age of fifteen and graduated in 1909. Ransom studied classics at Oxford from 1910 to 1913, before returning to Vanderbilt as an instructor in the English department. He began writing poetry in about 1916, and in 1919 he published his first volume, Poems about God. In the early 1920s, Ransom discovered his mature poetic voice, publishing his two most important books ofpoetry: Chills and Fever (1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927). From that point on, he wrote relatively few poems, preferring to focus on his teaching and on the critical essays for which he is most famous.

Ransom should rightly be seen as a minor poet of the 1920s rather than a major poet of the modernist era, but he nonetheless wrote a handful of poems in which he achieves a true mastery of poetic form and expression. His poetry is traditional in both form and subject matter, yet it displays a sensibility more typical of modernism in its biting irony and its refusal of nineteenth-century modes of sentimentality. Stylistically, Ransom's best work is characterized by its skillful prosody, its metaphysical wit, and its satirical constrast of formal literary language with the colloquial idiom. In his most famous poem, "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" (1924), Ransom presents a seemingly sentimental situation - the death of a young girl - only to undermine that sentimentality in the poem itself:

There was such speed in her little body, And such lightness in her footfall, It is no wonder her brown study Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window, We looked among orchard trees and beyond Where she took arms against her shadow, Or harried unto the pond.

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud Dripping their snow on the green grass, Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud, Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little Lady with rod that made them rise From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle Goose-fashion under the skies!

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.

As in many of Ransom's poems, we find the theme of mortality, but his treatment of the theme is very unusual. The poem is certainly not a typical elegy, in which the primary purpose is to express grief at the death of a loved one; further, the poem's resolution provides no sense of consolation or compensation for the loss of the young girl. Both the somewhat proselike rhythms and the oddly stiff diction of the poem create a distance from the events described. In Ransom's own terminology, the structure of the poem is that of a traditional elegy, but the texture remains in an uneasy tension with the elegiac form. Even the poem's title distances us from its subject: the girl, whose first name is never given, is referred to only as "John Whiteside's daughter." In the poem itself, the words "astonishes" and "vexed" suggest that rather than an outpouring of grief at the death of the little girl, the narrator experiences surprise and vexation at an event which "has upset our human calculation." Throughout the poem, Ransom plays with the discrepancy between the very simple theme and the unusual diction and phrasing. Ransom adopts a mock heroic language in evoking "wars. . . bruited in our high window" and "arms" taken against shadows. This language, evoking an epic battle rather than a girl's play, is contrasted with the humorous scene of the geese who are herded by the girl and made to "scuttle / Goose-fashion under the skies." The word "bruited," perhaps the most unusual usage in the poem, suggests that the girl's battles with the geese are rumored far and wide, but it also has the less pleasant connotation of a noise or roar which may have disturbed the speaker in his "high window."

The first stanza begins with an evocative portrait ofthe girl, informing us of her youth, vivacity, and grace (the syntactic parallelism of the "speed in her little body" and the "lightness in her footfall" providing a perfectly balanced portrait). But in the final two lines of the stanza, this imagery is strongly contrasted with the image of the girl's body laid out in her coffin (her "brown study"), a sight which "astonishes us all." The contrast between the almost violently active little girl, who "harried" the geese with her "rod," and the still body now in the coffin, is very effective. This effect is accentuated by the final line of the poem, which presents her as "lying so primly propped." Here there is an unnaturalness or formality about her appearance: her primness in death contrasts with her boldness and recklessness in life; her "propped" posture in the coffin contrasts with her former activity; and the "brown study" of her death contrasts with the natural world of orchard, pond, and geese with which she was associated in life.

The poem avoids falling into pathos in several ways: by its contrasts of tone and language, by its use of epithets that create ironic distance ("the little / Lady with rod"), and by never departing from the perspective of an uninvolved adult neighbor who appreciates the girl's innocence and energy but appears not even to know her name. We can easily see why Randall Jarrell called the poem "perfectly realized . . . and almost perfect." The poem subtly blends humor with pathos, connecting both through a simple yet elegant imagery. The simile of the geese dropping their white feathers "like a snow cloud / Dripping their snow on the green grass" suggests the possibility of natural process into an aesthetic appreciation, but the death of the girl affords no such luxury, only the vexation ofbeing "sternly stopped" by her "brown study." The absurdity of the conceit of the geese themselves mourning the girl's death ("Alas" they cry in goose language), adds to the general starkness of the poem's tragi-comic vision. The bells of the poem are church bells, but they are also the bells of mortality that toll, as John Donne put it, for us all.

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