Poet of the Violent and the Chaste

John Crowe Ransom
John Crowe Ransom; drawing by David Levine

There are many writers—novelists, critics, journalists—who, after composing and even publishing poetry, come to a halt. Many find notable success in prose: Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence of Arabia. There is, however, a sadder version of the story, that of a writer who finds himself unable to continue as a lyric poet: Eliot is the most vexing example. Another, lesser poet, the Tennessean John Crowe Ransom (1888–1974), wrote poetry for only nine years, and spent the rest of his life being a critic (while obsessively revising, mostly for the worse, the poems he had published years before). Like George Herbert, afflicted because he “could not go away, nor persevere,” Ransom could not persevere in poetry; yet he could not retreat from it.

Although the American Academy of Arts and Letters bestowed the Gold Medal for Poetry on Ransom in 1973, the year before he died at eighty-six, he had not written poetry for decades, and as an ironist himself, he would have felt, one imagines, the incongruity of the medal at that moment of decline. Except for his service as an artillery officer at the front in France in World War I, he lived an uneventful life as a son, brother, husband, and father, while conducting a parallel life as a cultural advocate, literary critic, lecturer, teacher, and editor. That he was born a southerner, and a Methodist minister’s son, determined his intellectual and emotional affinities.

After his undergraduate degree in classics at Vanderbilt, his three-year Oxford experience as a Rhodes Scholar, and some high school teaching of Latin and Greek, Ransom was invited back to Vanderbilt as a professor of English. He probably expected to remain in Nashville, but Gordon Chalmers, the president of Kenyon College, pressed Ransom to come to Kenyon and found a literary magazine. In a life-changing move, Ransom at forty-nine went to Ohio and founded and edited for over twenty years the most influential literary journal of its era, The Kenyon Review. With firm taste, high intelligence, and confident literary power, he rounded up a dazzling stable of writers, himself included: Wallace Stevens quipped of the Review, “Why does it exist, if not for the very purpose of enabling Ransom to find himself in its pages?”

Ransom’s own literary criticism argued that since experimental science represents the factual in its universal generality, human beings need, as its complement, imaginative writing aiming at an exact representation of human consciousness and sensibility. If science was the world’s analytic mind, poetry had to be the world’s physical body, manifesting, with logic and precision, the particular nature of sense-phenomena, the feel of the felt world. In The New Criticism (1941), Ransom called for critics who could perceive and describe the high degree of technique and texture by which a poet not only expressed an individual sensibility but also brought to life a recognizable counterpart of the experienced world, making known the feelings…

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