New and Selected Poems: 19231985
by Robert Penn Warren
Random House, 322 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Robert Penn Warren, born April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, Kentucky, is at the age of eighty our most eminent man of letters. His position is the more remarkable for the extraordinary persistence with which he has made himself into a superb poet. A reader thinks of the handful of poets who wrote great poetry late in life: Browning, Hardy, Yeats, Stevens, Warren. Indeed, “Myth of Mountain Sunrise,” the final poem among the new work in this fifth Warren Selected Poems, will remind some readers of Browning’s marvelous “Prologue” to Asolando, written when the poet was seventy-seven. Thinking back fifty years to the first time he saw Asolo, a village near Venice, Browning burns through the sense of loss to a final transcendence:
How many a year, my Asolo, Since—one step just from sea to land—
I found you, loved yet feared you so—For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed! No—
“God is it who transcends,” Browning ends by asserting. Warren, older even than Browning was, also ruggedly remains a poet of immanence, of something indwelling and pervasive, though not necessarily sustaining, that can be sensed in, for example, a mountain sunrise:
The curdling agony of interred dark strives dayward, in stone
No light here enters, has ever entered but
In ageless age of primal flame. But look! All mountains want slow-
ly to bulge outward extremely. The leaf, whetted on light, will cut
Air like butter. Leaf cries: “I feel my deepest filament in dark rejoice.
I know the density of basalt has a voice.”
Two primal flames, Browning’s and Warren’s, but at the close of “Myth of Mountain Sunrise” we read not “God is it who transcends” but “The sun blazes over the peak. That will be the old tale told.” The epigraph to the new section of this Selected Poems is from Warren’s favorite theologian, St. Augustine: “Will ye not now after that life is descended down to you, will not you ascend up to it and live?” One remembers another epigraph Warren took from the Confessions, for the book of poems Being Here (1980): “I thirst to know the power and nature of time.” At eighty Warren now writes out of that knowledge, and his recent poems show him ascending up to living in the present, in the presence of time’s cumulative power. Perhaps no single new poem here quite matches the extraordinary group of visions and meditations in his previous work that includes “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” “Heart of Autumn,” “Evening Hawk,” “Birth of Love,” “The Leaf,” “Mortmain,” “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress,” and so many more. But the combined strength of the eighty-five pages of new poems that Warren aptly calls “Altitudes and Extensions” is remarkable, and extends the altitudes at which perhaps our last poet to attempt the ultimate questions of life and death continues to live and work.
Warren’s first book was John Brown …