John Crowe Ransom: Critical Essays and a Bibliography
Essays of Four Decades
The Fugitive Group: A Literary History
The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and Agrarians
My occasion is the appearance, in revised and enlarged editions, of John Crowe Ransom’s The World’s Body, first published in 1938, and Allen Tate’s essays, which have been issued in several collections since 1936. Mr. Ransom, ever abstemious, has not given us a Collected Essays, but he has gone over The World’s Body again and added a Postscript, a long essay in second thoughts. Mr. Tate has restored some essays which were displaced in earlier collections, and he has given examples of recent work, a fine appreciation of Herbert Read, an essay on modern poetry, and a rebuke addressed to those who cultivate the unliteral imagination. Mr. Young has brought together some of the most substantial essays on Ransom’s work. The result is a big book which might have been bigger. I miss, from the testaments, Tate’s recent celebration, but otherwise most of the important pieces are included: essays by Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz. The editorial spirit is somewhat protective: in company as fervent as this, Yvor Winters’s strictures on Ransom might have been allowed.
That the history of the Fugitives is not all sweetness is shown in Mrs. Cowan’s excellent study, first published in 1959, a vivid account of the early days, the gifted friends at Vanderbilt, the rise and fall of the famous magazine. Her story ends in 1928 when the surviving Fugitives took their literary consciences into the political world, calling themselves Agrarians. Mr. Stewart’s book continues the story, concentrating upon Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Donald Davidson as Agrarians, poets, critics, novelists. Mr. Stewart is a sharp critic, too hard on Tate’s poems, but otherwise just. For him, the story is not complete: even now, I imagine, he is watching the major figures for signs, smoke signals, new images, new metaphors.
Of The World’s Body it is almost enough to say that it is a beautiful book. Ransom is always ready for close criticism, when it suits his occasion, but he is never pedantic, he never fusses about New Criticism or Old Criticism. His only requirement is that a man know his business. So he has never been guilty of wrenching the poem out of its place and age into thin air. His essays were written at a lively time, when first principles had to be defined and defended. The contexts were often religious and political, but Ransom’s natural temper is philosophical and aesthetic.
He has always been a stylist, a rhetorician of the quiet school, a poet of elegance and verve. He has not favored noise. New readers are astonished to see how much hard thinking can be done with grace; one of Ransom’s sentences, quaintly turned, will stay in the mind for years. (A minor instance, from Ransom’s review of Gone With the Wind: “We feel that Scarlett was not really stupid, but Miss Mitchell enforces her upon us frequently in that light by reading her mind.”) He commands attention without even going so far as to invite it. Old readers know that in verse and prose he bewitches. Like Marianne Moore, he is inordinately gifted in style; the Gods have favored those two outrageously. Even when Ransom’s argument is doubtful or fallacious, the detail of the composition is so entrancing that we almost ignore the doubt and think the fallacy more profound than truth. But it is good to know that, all these years, he has been questioning his own sentences and is now ready to add, here and there, second thoughts. He has always allowed for those late arrivals. In a famous essay on Milton’s Lycidas he says that an artist’s second thoughts tend to be richer than his first, “for in order to get them he has to break up the obvious trains of association and explore more widely.” In the new edition of The World’s Body the reconsidered trains run to Shakespeare’s sonnets and Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, and the thoughtful critic makes amends for his first severity.
The acknowledgement is handsome. Besides, as Ransom said in the first edition, “art is based on second love, not first love.” First love is too demanding for art, too ready to lay hold of its object; the first spirit is likely to be merely biological, somewhat rude and predatory. In art the poet contemplates things “as they are in their rich and contingent materiality.” He attends upon “the world’s body.” I take this phrase to mean: he attends upon Nature, the entire configuration of things; and in this figure it is linked to the human body by natural analogy, with a corresponding implication of purpose, unity, and plenitude. If we think of Nature as the world’s body, we think well of it, in a proper spirit of appreciation: that is to say, we delight in it, but we do not seize it. The poet does not grasp the natural object: the aesthetic forms protect the object, and discourage the poet from his first inclination: they are “a technique of restraint, not of efficiency.”
A poet expresses himself formally, lest he express himself immediately; that is, immoderately. A code of manners confers the same benefit upon the citizen: indeed, as Ransom says, “the object of a proper society is to instruct its members how to transform instinctive experience into aesthetic experience.” Or, in more stringent terms: “the function of a code of manners is to make us capable of something better than the stupidity of an appetitive or economic life.” Ransom’s own poems are construed in this way. They present life as it appears to those who act upon their second thoughts, fortified by their second images. Such people are content to wait, there will be time enough.
In Ransom’s case the code, the formality, the aesthetic delay, are given as virtues of the Old South: featured in his “Antique Harvesters” as “the Lady,” tutelary spirit of the “Old Mansion.” The house has crumbled, alas, but the Lady “hath not stooped.” Her servitors have risen, but that is another story. Art, manners, and religion rest or lean upon one foundation. “A natural affiliation binds together the gentleman, the religious man, and the artist—punctilious character, all of them, in their formalism.” So, for Ransom, the chief part of religion is ritual, not dogma; he values ritual in religion as he values convention, prosody, the metres and forms, the Southern code, because they protect the poet from himself and the soul from itself. “Meters activated, as they are when the metaphysical poets use them, seem at first to be restrictive, and obstructive upon the flow of the language, but actually they are what makes the phrases shine.” Belief, manners, and prosody seem at first a nuisance, but they justify themselves in the benefits they finally confer.
The continuity, in Ransom’s mind, between poetry, criticism, religion, politics, and philosophy is based upon his sense of natural piety, a certain responsibility to deal with the world in a particular spirit. Call it a scruple of the second thought. We are to know the natural object, but we are to know it for its own sake, not for our sake; we are to “conceive it as having its own existence.” Our best knowledge is appreciation, it does not grasp the object or convert it to a merely practical use. “An imitation is better than its original in one thing only,” Ransom says: “not being actual, it cannot be used, it can only be known.” Ransom then rebukes the scientists for laying violent hands upon the natural object: they know the world, but they know it in the wrong spirit, because its plenary nature is to them indifferent. In the poem “Painted Head” Ransom speaks of the dark severance of head and stem, then observes that “beauty is of body,” complete:
…The body bears the head
(So hardly one they terribly are two)
Feeds and obeys and unto please what end?
Not to the glory of tyrant head but to
The being of body. Beauty is of body.
The flesh contouring shallowly on a head
Is a rock-garden needing body’s love….
But the critic requires an endorsing theory.
In recent years Ransom has gone about his criticism with the Hegelian idea of the “concrete universal.” He has been scolded for his critical dualism, especially by those who insist that a poem is one and indivisible. But Ransom has held to his notion of the poem as logical structure enriched by decorative texture. “For each poem, ideally, there is distinguishable a logical object or universal, but at the same time a tissue of irrelevance from which it does not really emerge.” Except for a slight rhetorical excess in “irrelevance,” I have never understood why this notion should be deemed a scandal; it obviously accords with the common sense of a serious poem. A poem does well to make prose sense, whatever else it makes; a play does well to have a plot.
I do not think that Ransom means to report more than this common observation. But he is gay in its elaboration. Structure by itself is blunt and somewhat barbarous until redeemed by wonderfully rich texture. Texture by itself could hardly be approved, although Ransom is fond of it: it refers to that largesse of qualities which an object may possess, far beyond need, confounding the scientist and delighting the ontological poet. But the poem is not abstract Truth; it is Truth, revealed; Idea, incarnate.
Ransom speaks of structure as the moral Universal, redeemed from penury by concrete incarnation. “A Universal in Hegel’s favorite sense is any idea in the mind which proposes a little universe…thus the formula of a chemical reaction; the recipe for a dish; the blueprint of a machine; or even, to the extent in which it is practicable, Newman’s ‘idea of a university.’ It becomes a Concrete Universal when it has been materialized and is actually working.”
So the mixture, in Ransom’s favorite poems, is very rich. The Concrete Universal is important because it testifies to a congenial relation between man and Nature; what man brings to Nature chimes with what he discovers there. “The human kingdom and the natural kingdom appear like free and harmonious powers, collaborating with each other in dignity and peace; and in the sequel the poetic imagination is able to set up memorials of art which bear witness to their concord.”
The prophet of this relation is Kant: in his terminology, the understanding is fulfilled by the moral Universal, and the imagination is gratified by the purposive Concrete of Nature. Understanding seeks a concept, Imagination delights in a manifold of sense. Ransom is content if the two powers are visibly working side by side. He does not insist that the Universal disappear in the Concrete: “as often as not a poem will recite its two versions side by side.” Thus Shakespeare’s Portia,
commending mercy, explains that mercy does not come by compulsion but spontaneously or by grace: its quality is “not strained,” or, as we would say, “unconstrained.” That is the moral Universal. Then comes the poetic consummation. As if this abstract talk of the Universal might not be quite intelligible, she adds, “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath.”
Poetry cannot do better than that, if it recites the two versions separately. Ransom is content. But he allows that in some great poems, especially metaphysical poems, and in Shakespeare’s sonnet, “That Time of Year,” it is virtually impossible to distinguish between Understanding and Imagination. The theory of the Concrete Universal seems on these occasions redundant or inadequate.
But Ransom is not dispirited: if a theory comes under rebuke he tries again. Perhaps he is too much a gentleman. It is my impression that he has been rebuked by his Southern friends for accommodating himself too genially to the victorious Yankee; meaning also the victorious Science, cities, machines. He smokes the pipe of peace. Similarly, unregenerate readers, whatever their politics, have deplored the serenity of Ransom’s later poems, pointing to the revised versions of “Conrad in Twilight” and “Prelude to an Evening.” Why, these readers ask, would a poet, revising his stark “Prelude,” choose to play Marriage Guidance Counsellor? And why, allowing Master Thomas Hardy to strike a blow against the Gods, should Ransom make it, in the revised version of the twilight-poem, “a pantomime blow,” and the ending almost happy?
Those who loved the old stern poems will not welcome these second thoughts. But my own feeling is that in the revisions Ransom sought a deeper justice for his transfixed characters, he would not leave them in Hell forever. If the Master cannot pray, then at least he can play, in the new poem, since play is “sweeter than pray”: hence the pantomime. Play is Ransom’s allowance, what remains to the formal gentleman in the poem when dogma has receded; poetry remains, and its accordant ritual. The man is not wholly bereft. I cannot see that Ransom has disgraced these poems, offering second thoughts. He thinks the first version of the “Prelude” vindictive, and he is right. He thinks the first version of “Conrad in Twilight” “rather ignominious,” and he has tried to redeem it. He has not even suppressed the early texts; they are retained in the new books, but qualified now by the second versions nearby.
The World’s Body is, indeed, most welcome. But it is time to ask for a Collected Ransom: too much of the work is out of print, especially God Without Thunder, a remarkable book which must be recovered. As a critic of his own poems, Ransom has already done time’s work, throwing away the inferior pieces. But there are magnificent essays which can be read only in the files of the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review, and other more distant places. Like E. M. Forster, like William Empson, Ransom does not take up much space on the shelves, but the work is permanent.
Tate and Ransom are old friends with a lively difference in temper. I judge from Tate’s early poems and essays that he was emotionally violent, intellectually saucy. He must have been a trial to his teacher, and on other days a joy. The difference between the two men soon declared itself. When The Waste Land appeared, Tate acclaimed it as marking the great new direction, but Ransom did not agree. The episode is quiet enough in the retrospect of Mrs. Cowan’s book, but it was painful, I imagine, at the time. Ransom adhered to the old formal decencies, taking care to show that they might still deliver powerful effects. Tate wanted to break the forms, and thought that the way was now clear in Eliot, Hart Crane, and the French poets. He was soon off to New York, Crane, Edmund Wilson. But gradually he returned to Southern things and in later years made his allegiance decisive.
Different as they were, the two men shared much. What Ransom challenged as scientific, Platonic, abstract, Tate attacked as positivist. Particularly Tate rebuked “the angelic imagination,” the claim to grasp the essence of things without recourse to their existence in the palpable world. “I call that human imagination angelic which tries to disintegrate or to circumvent the image in the illusory pursuit of essence.” The proper way is by “the symbolic imagination,” which conducts an action through analogy; as in the last scene of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, when Myshkin and Rogozhin stand over the dead body of the murdered Nastasya:
At the end of the bed there was a crumpled heap of lace and on the white lace the toes of a bare foot peeped out from under the sheet; it seemed as though it had been carved out of marble and it was horribly still. Myshkin looked and felt that as he looked, the room became more and more still and death-like. Suddenly there was the buzz of a fly which flew over the bed and settled on the pillow.
Tate’s commentary upon this great scene is remarkably eloquent, but I shall quote a little with the certainty of spoiling it. “The fly comes to stand in its sinister and abundant life for the privation of life, the body of the young woman on the bed. Here we have one of those conversions of image of which only great literary talent is capable: life stands for death, but it is a wholly different order of life….” The fly is an image, as natural and as literal as an image can be, and it acquires symbolic radiance without loss of its nature or power. The symbol needs the image; the image does not need the symbol. The radiance issues from the relation of the hovering fly to the human figures in the scene, from the density of their experience. Through the image we sense the experience and gain its meaning.
The symbolic imagination, in Tate’s recital, depends upon a certain relation of man and nature. Here he is in harmony with Ransom. But Tate has been more resolute than Ransom in his critique. The relation of man and nature is, he affirms, organic, and it is maintained “by an order which goes beyond individual perception—in short, religious order.” Like Ransom, Tate values the rituals; as in his novel The Fathers, where the narrator, Lacy Buchan, speaks of the rituals of death, “which were to us only the completion of life, and in which there could be nothing personal, but in which what we were deep inside found a sufficient expression.” Ransom would preserve the rituals, without insisting now upon the entire religious order. In God Without Thunder he called for thunder and its appropriate God, the Old Testament God of good and evil: keep the Christ, he said, for what he professed to be, “the Demigod who came to do honor to the God.” But in recent years the Unitarian poet has gone silent on the point, trusting in serious play rather than in prayer.
In politics, too, Tate has been tougher. He started out as the least of Southerners, but after the dissatisfactions of New York and the attacks upon the South which he read and heard in 1925 at the time of the Evolution Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, his Southern spirit began to answer back. He published his biography of Jefferson Davis in 1929. “The chief defect the Old South had,” he told Davidson in 1927, “was that in it which produced, through whatever cause, the New South.” The Old South was rural, classical, learned, rhetorical: a code declared in The Fathers, a book which might well have been written in reply to Henry Adams; to Adams, who thought that a proper part of his Education consisted in sneering at Ronny Lee, the Southern General’s son. (“Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two; but in life one could get along very well without ideas, if one had only the social instinct.”) In The Fathers Tate shows that the social instinct in the Old South amounted to more than the Bostonian knew; in Lacy Buchan’s feeling for Virginia, for instance, and the values upon which that feeling depended.
There is a moment in The Fathers, indeed, which seems to bring together many of the Fugitive and Agrarian motives. Lacy is thinking of his sister Susan, who is married to George Posey:
There is no doubt that he loved Susan too much; by that I mean he was too personal, and with his exacerbated nerves he was constantly receiving impressions out of the chasm that yawns beneath lovers; therefore he must have had a secret brutality for her when they were alone. Excessively refined persons have a communion with the abyss; but is not civilization the agreement, slowly arrived at, to let the abyss alone?
Place this beside Ransom’s account of Lycidas as “a poem nearly anonymous”; where the poet’s feeling, whatever its personal source, is consigned to the form, the serious pageantry of the convention, with only enough feeling left over, exacerbated, to make the case strange and angular. As Tate said of Dr. Cartwright’s graveside oration in The Fathers: “no feeling but in the words themselves.” Does this not partly explain why the Fugitives held themselves somewhat aloof from the new poetry; even Tate, devoted student of Baudelaire, Poe, Flaubert, Yeats, and Eliot? Perhaps they felt that, despite many appearances, it would still be possible to make a civilization while leaving the abyss alone. They would commit themselves to the rich vagary of Nature, to “the speech of the place,” to ritual, memory, history, manners, and to that mythology which reflects its region.
“There are even more Ransoms in Tennessee than Tates in Kentucky,” Wallace Stevens wrote. Ransom went North, and Tate went everywhere, but neither strayed too far from the governing rituals of his early days. Speaking of the Old South, Tate said:
It was better for a person, however impoverished, of my name, to be identified with Tate’s Creek Pike, in Fayette County, than to be the richest man in town without the identification of place.
Ransom has a passage in The World’s Body which contrasts the first Adam, to his disadvantage, with an ante-bellum Louisiana planter. The contrast is gorgeous nonsense; not a word about the slaves who made such felicity possible. Tate goes further again:
I can think of no better image for what the South was before 1860, and for what it largely still was until about 1914, than that of the old gentleman in Kentucky who sat every afternoon in his front yard under an old sugar tree, reading Cicero’s Letters to Atticus. When the hands suckering the tobacco in the adjoining field needed orders, he kept his place in the book with his forefinger, walked out into the field, gave the orders, and then returned to his reading under the shade of the tree. He was also a lawyer, and occasionally he went to his office, which was over the feed store in the county seat, a village with a population of about four hundred people.
Davidson went further still, angered by the Northern condescension of W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. The year was 1941:
The South, Old or New, was not a friend to the savage ideal. Not only could the South never have imagined or understood Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia; it could not have understood even the England of Chamberlain and Churchill; and, I strongly suspect, does not now understand the America of Roosevelt. Those who sincerely wish to comprehend the true basis of democracy that they profess to defend will do wrong if they neglect to study the first principles which the South mastered long ago.
We speak of old passions. I do not know that they still survive in these men or, if they do, in what measure. I offer two notes, with no intention of opening healed wounds. First, I think that these men, and other Southerners, inherited the Greek idea that slavery could be justified. Aristotle justified it in his Politics. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt points out that “the ancients…felt it necessary to possess slaves because of the slavish nature of all occupations that served the needs for the maintenance of life.” “What all Greek philosophers…took for granted is that freedom is exclusively located in the political realm, that necessity is primarily a prepolitical phenomenon, characteristic of the private household organization, and that force and violence are justified in this sphere because they are the only means to master necessity—for instance, by ruling over slaves—and to become free.” Slavery was therefore an enabling instrument, it enabled the master to become free. “Civilization” began for him, as a possibility largely political, at that point. Much of Southern rhetoric seems to depend upon a similar sense of hierarchical life.
My second gloss is directed specifically toward the Fugitives and Agrarians: their fundamental motive, I think, was to discover how much of the violence of life, and especially how much of the violence of feeling, could be contained by certain formidable analogies. The chief analogies were domestic, paternal, traditional, feudal, landed; their enemies were industrial and mercantile. Since a family includes father, mother, and children, this natural figure might be extended to justify the life of a Louisiana planter, yeoman farmer, Kentucky student of Cicero. If the analogies could hold, against every exacerbation of feeling, the abyss might still be left alone. Ransom’s poems and, of Tate’s writings, The Fathers are the classic fictions of those analogies, and of their failure in the proffered instances.
Cash Nexus October 9, 1969