New and Selected Poems: 19231985
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: The Making of a Martyr (1929). I have just read it, for the first time, and discovered, without surprise, that it made me very unhappy. The book purports to be history, but is Southern fiction, on a Confederate theme—along the lines of Allen Tate’s ideology of Confederate nobility, and portrays Brown as a murderous nihilist, fit hero for the equally repellent Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed I find it difficult to decide, after suffering the book, whether the young Warren loathed Brown or Emerson more. Evidently both Brown and his intellectual supporter seemed to represent for Warren an emptiness making ruthless and passionate attempts to prove itself fullness. But John Brown, if read as a first work of fiction, does presage the Warren of Night Rider (1939), his first published novel, which I have just reread with great pleasure.
Night Rider is an exciting and remorseless narrative, wholly characteristic of what were to be Warren’s prime virtues as a novelist: good storytelling and intensely dramatic unfolding of the moral character of his doom-eager men and women. Mr. Munn, upon whom Night Rider centers, is as splendidly unsympathetic as the true Warren heroes continued to be: Jerry Calhoun and Slim Sarrett in At Heaven’s Gate (1943), Jack Burden and Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1946), Jeremiah Beaumont and Cassius Fort in World Enough and Time (1950). When Warren’s central personages turned more amiable, starting with poor Amantha Starr in Band of Angels (1955), the books alas were much less interesting. This unfortunate phenomenon culminated in Warren’s last novel (so far), A Place to Come To (1977), which Warren himself ranks with All the King’s Men and World Enough and Time. I wish I could agree, but rereading A Place to Come To confirms an earlier impression that Warren likes his hero, Jed Tewksbury, rather too much. Without some real moral distaste to goad him, Warren tends to lose his narrative drive. I find myself wishing that Tewksbury had in him a touch of what might be called Original John Brown.
Warren’s true precursor, as a novelist, is not Faulkner but Conrad, the dominant influence upon so many American novelists of Warren’s generation. In one of his best critical essays, written in 1951 on Conrad’s Nostromo, Warren gave an unwitting clue to why all his own best work, as a novelist, already was over:
There is another discrepancy, or apparent discrepancy, that we must confront in any serious consideration of Conrad—that between his professions of skepticism and his professions of faith….
Cold unconcern, an “attitude of perfect indifference” is, as he says in the letter to Galsworthy, “the part of creative power.” But this is the same Conrad who speaks of Fidelity and the human communion, and who makes Kurtz cry out in the last horror and Heyst come to his vision of meaning in life. And this is the same Conrad who makes Marlow of “Heart of Darkness” say that what redeems is the “idea only”….
It is not some, but all, men who must serve the “idea.” The lowest and the most vile creature must, in some way, idealize his existence in order to exist, and must find sanctions outside himself….
Warren calls this a reading of Conrad’s dual temperament, skepticism struggling with a last-ditch idealism, and remarks, much in T.S. Eliot’s spirit:
We must sometimes force ourselves to remember that the act of creation is not simply a projection of temperament, but a criticism and a purging of temperament.
This New Critical shibboleth becomes wholly Eliotic if we substitute the word “personality” for the word “temperament.” As an analysis of the moral drama in Conrad’s best novels, and in Nostromo in particular, this is valuable, but Warren is not Conrad, and like his poetic and critical precursor, Eliot, Warren creates by projecting temperament, not by purging it. There is no “cold unconcern,” no “attitude of perfect indifference,” no escape from personality in Eliot, and even more nakedly Warren’s novels and poems continually reveal his passions, prejudices, convictions. Conrad is majestically enigmatic, beyond ideology; Warren, like Eliot, is an ideologue, and his temperament is far more ferocious than Eliot’s.
What Warren rightly praises in Conrad is not to be found in Warren’s own novels, with the single exception of All the King’s Men, which does balance skepticism against belief just adroitly enough to ward off Warren’s moralism. World Enough and Time, Warren’s last stand as a major novelist, is an exuberant work marred finally by the author’s singular fury at his own creatures. As a person who forgives himself nothing, Warren abandons Conradian skepticism and proceeds to forgive his hero and heroine nothing. Rereading World Enough and Time, I wince repeatedly at what the novelist inflicts upon Jeremiah Beaumont and Rachel Jordan. Warren, rather like the Gnostics’ parody of Jehovah, punishes his Adam and Eve by denying them honorable or romantic deaths. Their joint suicide drug turns into an emetic, and every kind of degradation subsequently is heaped upon them. Warren, who can be a superb ironist in his novels as well as in his poetry, nevertheless so loves the world that he will forgive it nothing; and a poet can make more of such a position than a novelist.
Warren’s poetry began in the modernist revival of the metaphysical poets, as a kind of blend of Eliot’s The Waste Land with the gentler ironies of Warren’s teacher at Vanderbilt, John Crowe Ransom. This phase of the poetry took Warren up to 1943, and then came to an impasse and, for a decade, an absolute stop. At Heaven’s Gate, All the King’s Men, and World Enough and Time belong to that decade of poetic silence, and perhaps the major sequence of his fiction usurped Warren’s greater gift. But he was certainly unhappy in the later stages of his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1950, and it cannot be accidental that his poetry fully resumed in the late summer of 1954, two years after his marriage to the writer Eleanor Clark.
The book-length poem, Brother to Dragons (1953, revised version 1979), formally began Warren’s return to verse, and is undoubtedly a work of considerable dramatic power. I confess to admiring it only reluctantly and dubiously, ever since 1953, because its ideological ferocity is unsurpassed even elsewhere in Warren. This ferocity is manifested by its implicit assertion that Thomas Jefferson is somehow affected by the barbaric act of his nephews in butchering a black slave. Much improved in revision, it remains unnerving, particularly if the reader, like myself, longs to follow Emerson in forgiving himself, if not everything, then at least as much as possible. But Warrenunlike Emerson—does not wish us to cast out remorse. Like his then master, Eliot, though in a more secular way, Warren was by no means reluctant to remind us that we are original sin. Brother to Dragons is rendered no weaker by its extraordinary tendentiousness, but it is not necessarily persuasive, if you happen not to share its moral convictions.
Warren’s shorter poems; his lyrics and meditations, evolved impressively through three subsequent volumes: Promises (1957), You, Emperors and Others (1960), and a Selected Poems (1966), where the new work was grouped as “Tale of Time.” I recall purchasing these volumes, reading them with grudging respect, and concluding that Warren was turning into a poet rather like Melville (whom he was to edit in a Selected Poems of Herman Melville, in 1971) or the younger Hardy. Warren’s poems of 1934 through 1966 seemed interestingly ungainly in form, highly individual in genre and rhetoric, and not fundamentally a departure from Eliot’s high modernist mode. A poetry of moral belief, with some of the same preoccupations as the Four Quartets, I would have judged it, rather dismissively, and not of overwhelming concern if a reader was devoted to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Such a reader would also have preferred contemporary volumes like Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel (1965) and John Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains (1966), which were in the poetic tradition of Crane and Stevens, of visionary skepticism rather than Eliot’s poetry of belief in the “truth,” whether moral or religious. I could not foresee the astonishing breakthrough that Warren, already past the age of sixty, was about to accomplish with Incarnations (1968) and Audubon: A Vision (1969).