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,