Selected Poems (A Revised and Enlarged Edition)
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 his selection of 1945, containing (at a rough count) nine poems not included in that, as well as expansive rewritings of two that are, “Conrad in Twilight” and “Prelude to an Evening.” The motives behind the revision of the latter poem are explained in a small sermon, on the real meaning of the Adam and Eve story, which is one of Mr. Ransom’s gayest and most beguiling pieces of persuasive prose.
What will worry many readers, however, is the extent to which, in detail, Mr. Ransom has subjected other poems of his in this selection, originally written very many years ago, to quite drastic verbal revision. It seems to me that one principle, or one impulse, behind many of these very late revisions has been a dislike which Mr. Ransom has been feeling in his old age to the touches of whim and oddity which were partly no doubt external ornament, independent of the basic structure of a poem, but which have always helped to give his poetry its characteristic flavor. His later taste is more for plainness and decorum. Thus the last lines of a moving short poem, “Emily Hardcastle, Spinster” (about the impoverished Southern belle, who would only marry an aristocrat, and has now married Baron Death), used to run:
But right across her threshold has the Grizzled Baron come.
Let them wrap her as a princess, who would patter down a stairway
Where the foreigner may take her for his gloomy halidom.
They run now:
But right across her threshold has her Grizzled Baron come;
Let them wrap her as a princess, who’d go softly down a stairway
And seal her to the stranger for his Castle in the gloom.
The new version is more decorous, it suits more with the contemporary taste (that, say, of Professor Yvor Winters and some of his disciples) for the “plain style,” but I think one loses more than one gains by losing the half-mocking small tenderness of “would patter down” and the surprising quaint aptness of “halidom.” A slighter, mildly satirical poem, “The Vanity of the Bright Young Men” (originally “Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son”) gained, for me at least, most of its original attraction from the ornamental quaintness and surprisingness of its diction. It has been almost totally robbed of that, so that the original opening stanza,
Grim in my little black coat as the sleazy beetle,
And gone of hue,
Lonely, a man reputed for softening little,
now reads much more flatly:
You think in my tight black coat I’m like a beetle,
I never mind my looks,
I’m removed, a boy reported not liking people,
My familiars mostly are books.
A finely vivid though odd stanza,
How I have passed, involved in these chances and choices,
By certain trees
Whose tiny attent auricles receive the true voices
Of the wordless breeze,
becomes, very disappointingly, and commonplacely,
One time I went, by the luck of my chances and choices
Past certain Druid trees
Whose leaves were ears and tongues translating the voices
Hid in the muffling breeze.
“Druid” and “muffling” there, moreover, give a certain effect of padding, which is never a fault of Mr. Ransom’s in his earlier versions.
A poet, of course, has a right to revise his own work, and in his earlier days Mr. Ransom’s revisions have often been very fortunate. “Philomela” began as a rather gauche self-mocking poem, by an American Rhodes scholar bantering slightly heavily at his own awkwardness in England and Europe. It gained its present poise, the mockery swung rather against England and Europe, or as much against them as against the United States, when the lines
How could her delicate dirge run democratic,
Delivered in a boundless, cloudless public place
To a hypermuscular race?
became, the last two,
Delivered in a cloudless bound- less public place
To an inordinate race?
and when the too humbly apologetic line about the American as a poet,
My scene is prose, this people and I are earthy,
became comic disguised praise of Americans and their potentialities as poets:
A bantering breed sophistical and swarthy.
Some of the revisions here, though I deplore others, strike me as genuine improvements. In “Old Mansion,” for instance, the line,
Towers, arcades, or forbidding fort- ress walls,
for what one does not imagine in an old Southern mansion seems more apt than
Towers, white monoliths, or even ivied walls,
for surely some Southern manstons are of brick or stone with ivy growing on them, and do have rows of white pillars, if perhaps not so commonly towers? Yet I cannot forgive Mr. Ransom the omission of one stanza from this poem, ending in the beautiful and wholly original image (for the death of an old house and its history):
for it expired as sweetly as Nature.
With her tinge of oxidation on autumn leaf.
Perhaps the brownness of leaves, unlike the rust on iron, is not oxidation, but does it matter? Luckily there are quite a number of Mr. Ransom’s poems, these among his most famous ones, which are word-perfect and he has recognized this and left them alone, or almost alone. But in his revisions generally he seems to me to have forgotten his own famous definition, once, of a poem as a structure of logic crossed and enriched and made poetical by a texture largely logically irrelevant. His revisions here make for clearer structure, and less textural richness. He remains a classic major-minor poet of our times; but this late volume may not, perhaps, remain the classic text to study him in.