Selected Poems (A Revised and Enlarged Edition)
by John Crowe Ransom (A Revised and Enlarged Edition)
Knopf, 111 pp., $4.00
The classical English poet whom Mr. Ransom most closely resembles, a poet much praised in our time but not very much practically “drawn on” by modern poets, is Andrew Marvell. T. S. Eliot, for instance, wrote an excellent essay on Marvell in which he defined the Caroline wit, which Marvell exemplifies at its finest, as “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.” But Donne was the poet on whom Mr. Eliot drew for his own work, and Donne is neither “reasonable” in Marvell’s sense, nor is “slight…grace” an appropriate term for his lyrical quality. Donne’s voice is deep, slow, and harsh, what Saintsbury called “a sad clangor,” and the temper of his mind, wild logic, and frank sophistry at the service of passion, is something less or more, something at any rate other, than a “tough reasonableness.” There is in Marvell a polite and slightly mock distance, a serious playfulness, which links him with his lesser Caroline contemporaries, and which looks forward to aspects of Augustan poetry; his extreme self-control is a quality which A. Alvarez, in his excellent book on the Metaphysicals, The School of Donne, both admires and dislikes. Of notable contemporary English or American poets, Mr. Ransom seems to me the only one who possesses that slightly mocking distancing self-control, that serious playfulness, as a central and constant quality. It arises from a temper of mind or spirit which is urbane, skeptical, critical, but fundamentally enjoying. And just as one finds more affinities between Marvell and, say, Suckling or Lovelace at their best, than between Marvell and Donne—affinities even between Marvell and Butler—so, looking over Mr. Ransom’s work as a whole (as I have been doing before embarking on this piece) one finds more affinities with some of the lighter and more grotesque moods of the earlier Robert Graves or the earlier Edith Sitwell, even with the fantasies of a poet of an older generation like Walter de la Mare, than one does with poets with whom it might seem more natural to group him, T. S. Eliot, say, or Allen Tate. He can play with extremes but always comes back to balance. His voice is light and delicate, moving with a kind of circular wheeling irony, like a roulette wheel that knows that wherever it stops it will lose many critics their rash bets and baffle their most infallible systems.
Why he has never brought out a complete collected edition of his poems I do not know; perhaps the poems in the first volume, Poems About God, seem to him too young, too simple, and some of the later poems too theologically argumentative, or too slight. But one would like to have easily available, for instance, the extraordinarily clever folk-tale-cum-allegory narrative sonnet sequence, “Two Gentlemen in Bond,” or the rumbustiously comical poem about the would-be Europeanized American coming back with relief to the Mark Twain country, “Captain Crocodile.” Mr. Ransom’s present selection is more generous, at least, than …