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The invisible I: John Crowe Ransom's shadowy speaker.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry introduces John Crowe Ransom with the claim that his "poems could never be mistaken for anybody else's."(1) As introductions go, it is a good one, yet the poetry itself -- like its creator -- tends to stand a bit aloof, an easy acquaintance, but difficult to fathom. Robert Penn Warren has said that there is "something inconclusive" about Ransom's poems, a statement echoed by many critics and embodied in various critical debates. Is, for example, the speaker of "Dead Boy" inappropriately cold (David Perkins), or merely "objective" (Robert Buffington)?(2) Is Ransom's poetry best characterized as full of "mockery and playfulness" (Delmore Schwartz), or of "terror and savagery" (Louis D. Rubin, Jr.)?(3) Ransom would have found it ironic that so many of the disagreements surrounding his poetry center on interpretations -- this for a man who in his entire corpus of literary criticism offers hardly a single reading, and who frustrated generations of undergraduates by his unwillingness to tell them what a poem "meant." Indeed, a good portion of the "New Critical" criticism of Ransom exhibits few of the virtues of his own theoretical approach, focusing almost exclusively upon readings and neglecting the ontology -- to use one of his favorite terms -- of the poems themselves.(4) Buffington has pointed out that analyses of Ransom's poetry have usually centered upon an examination of irony (p. 9). Although several critics (Warren, Cleanth Brooks, G. R. Wasserman, F. O. Matthiessen, Thomas Daniel Young) have produced insightful criticism via an irony-based approach, I agree with Buffington that irony has probably been overemphasized.(5) In this essay, I examine Ransom's speaker, arguing that the ironic stance usually ascribed to this figure fails to explain fully its role, which in providing linguistic access to the "world's body," foregrounds its own poetic medium.

Before examining Ransom's speaker, however, we should first note that when we refer to a poem's "speaker," we may be referring to one or more of a number of things: a reporter of action, a character who him- or herself acts, a persona who reveals him- or herself (wittingly or unwittingly) during the course of the poem, a moralizer with our best interests at heart, even a relative non-entity whose only "role" is as generator of the language we are reading. Roman Jakobson's well-known paradigm of verbal communication provides a useful framework for categorizing the different roles a speaker might play:
 context (referential)
 message (poetic)

addresser (emotive)-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- addressee (conative)
 contact (phatic)
 code (metalingual)

According to Jakobson, any speech act (of which poetry is a subset) entails six constitutive elements. The addresser sends a message to an addressee. The message requires a context (or referent), a code ("language") at least partially common to the addresser and addressee, and a contact, the physical channel and psychological connection between addresser and addressee.(6) When one of these elements predominates in the speech act, the verbal structure of the message is altered. The emotive function, for example, "aims at a direct expression of the speaker's attitude," while the conative function is oriented toward the addressee, often involving imperatives (pp. 22-23). The referential function dominates everyday discourse, as when we are "speaking of something." The poetic function, according to Jakobson, focuses attention upon the message itself "for its own sake," as opposed to its more usual subsidiary, accessory role (for example, in speaking about the weather, we are unlikely to concern ourselves with rhyme and meter) (p. 25).(7)

In poetic discourse (using a broader definition than Jakobson), a rough correlation suggests itself between sub-dominant function and poetic genre, as illustrated by the following diagram:
 referential (narrative poetry)
 poetic (lyric poetry)

emotive (dramatic poetry) -- -- -- -- -- -- conative (didactic poetry)(8) Aside from purely lyric poetry, where it tends to be rather ambiguous, the speaker's role generally orients itself in a particular direction -- toward the emotive, referential, or conative functions.(9) In Ransom's poetry, however, a rather eclectic and unusual amalgam of poetic genres obscures the reader's perception of a speaker whose "role" or "character traits" infuse and inform an entire poem. Virtually all of Ransom's poems contain a narrative "situation"; well over half contain a first-person pronoun; many contain imperatives. Yet the "I" of a Ransom poem typically remains a shadowy presence, often appearing only at the beginning or end of the poem, or interspersed at seemingly random points. In The New Criticism, Ransom claims that

Most poems -- exceptions would be poems in the "grand style" or poems in the severe

classical" style-particularize themselves with great naturalness because they

represent inferentially some particular speaker . . . [The poem) becomes a speech

of a "character" in a situation," and its idiom becomes a feature of poetic texture,"

though it comes up for review under the head of "dramatic propriety.'" . . . It is tempting

to make a historical generalization and say that lyric poetry derives from dramatic

monologue. . . . Lyric might conceivably deliver its argument "straight," and

also "strong," but it prefers to entrust it to a speaker out of the common ranks of

humanity, who is to speak it in "character." (pp. 61-62) The "character" of a number of his own poems, however, retains but a vestige of any dramatic character, often frustrating the reader's impulse toward hypostatizing a tangible persona. With a few exceptions, constructing a persona for a Ransom speaker is a difficult task, almost inevitably leading to claims like, "the speaker of |Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter' is someone who is |astonished' and |vexed.'" Whereas we can, with some confidence, call Browning's Duke of Ferrara "cruel" and "proud," Ransom's speakers generally resist extra-textual description. The reader, to put the matter another way, is forced to construct a speaker tautologically, if he or she chooses to do so at all.

Yet our impulse toward constructing a persona is strong. In his consideration of deictics in lyric poetry, Jonathan Culler claims that the presence of a deictic "I" forces us to decide "what kind of |I' the poem secretes, and give the answer a central place in our interpretation."(10") Although I do not necessarily consider this a sound prescription (at least for Ransom), Culler is doubtless correct in describing a New Critical convention that many readers and critics bring to bear on a lyric poem.(11) Discussing the uneasiness and consequent misreadings Ransom's quasi-personae have induced in several critics, Buffington writes:

The vagueness about the narrator of which the [unnamed] critic complains in "Here

Lies a Lady" is due really to the fact that there is no narrator at all -- that is, no

speaker distinct from the poet, as long as we understand that by poet we do not

mean the historical John Crowe Ransom. The I of "Here Lies a Lady" is no different

from the I of "The Equilibrists," or "Spectral Lovers," or "Good Ships"; in these

poems there is no intention to make the I a distinct character, with a distinct relation

to other distinct characters, as the term "narrator" or "speaker" might imply.

(pp. 8-9) I agree with Buffington's analysis, particularly with respect to the poems he cites, although he does little by way of explaining the enigmatic presence of such a speaker (or poet, as he has it). Referring back to Jakobson's diagram, we can posit a speaker (addresser) whose inherently emotive function is generally subsumed within a poetic one. Using Ransom's terminology, poetic texture supersedes dramatic propriety. Where we expect the "I" to express -- directly or indirectly -- attitudes or embody traits, it confounds our expectations and instead foregrounds its own poetic milieu. Thus, the speaker, along with the function he traditionally represents, is collapsed within the verbal artifact. The shadowy and often fleeting presence of the speaker frequently serves to heighten the reader's awareness of this collapse, thus heightening the tangibility of the poem itself.

Once constructed, however, the speaker does not simply disappear: the voice remains. Although reading, say, "Captain Carpenter" as the "speech of a" |character' in a |situation'" may well be misleading, this is not to claim that "dramatic propriety" becomes entirely irrelevant, or that there is an internal discontinuity. On the contrary, the dramatic or emotive element is merely backgrounded. The historical movement Ransom posits from the dramatic monologue to lyric poetry is frequently embodied within his own poems, which often juxtapose the "speech" of a "persona" -- sometimes a relatively tangible one, although usually less so -- with a more lyric mode in which the speaker's role is less self-reflexive, and consequently more ambiguous. A useful way of approaching Ransom's poetry is in terms of the speaker's "relative presence" -- how overtly he calls attention to himself. In the poems I will consider, the presence of the "I" generally indicates a discursive, orientational, often colloquial, verbal construction, while the absence of the "I" often parallels heightened poetic diction and increased use of metaphor. In some sense, then, this movement of the speaker can be described as from (literally) "speaker" to "poet."

When Ransom's speaker retains his status as dramatic persona throughout, as in "Puncture," "Old Mansion," or the sonnet sequence "Two Gentlemen in Bonds," the result is often a weak poem. "Old Man Playing with Children' provides an interesting contrast, although it, too, is not entirely successful. In it, the speaker appears only once, in the second stanza:(12)

But I will unriddle for you the thought of his mind,

An old one you cannot open with conversation.

What animates the thin legs in risky motion?

Mixes the snow on the head with the snow on the wind?(13) The first line of this stanza constructs the discursive frame of the poem, containing an addresser ("I"), an addressee ("you"), and a referent ("the thought of his mind"). The second line, however, calls discourse itself into question, for the old man cannot be "open[ed] with conversation." It is a mistake to confuse the speaker with an omniscient narrator, as does Thornton Parsons, who laments this "crude device": "This narrator has a purely mechanical function, to relay to the reader the old man's thought; his presence is not justified by a more subtle or more complex view than the old man's' (p. 86). On the contrary, the relationship between the speaker and the old man is more complex and ambiguous than Parsons allows, for in "unriddle-ing" the thought of his mind in the poem's final three stanzas, the speaker effects a poetic conflation with the old man:

"Grandson, grandsire. We are equally boy and boy.

Do not offer your reclining-chair and slippers

With tedious old women talking in wrappers.

This life is not good but in danger and in joy.

"It is you the elder to these and younger to me

Who are penned as slaves by properties and causes

And never walk from your insupportable houses

And shamefully, when boys shout, go in and flee.

"May God forgive me, I know your middling ways,

Having taken care and performed ignominies unreckoned

Between the first brief childhood and the brief second,

But I will be more honorable in these days." (P, p. 32) These stanzas ostensibly provide an answer to the questions posed in lines three and four of the second stanza, particularly the latter: "[what] Mixes the snow on the head with snow on the wind)" This line embodies Jakobson's binary division of the symbolic process, containing both metaphor (the old man's hair is "snow") and metonymy (suggested by the contiguity -- the "mixing" -- of the two types of "snow").(14) As Jakobson puts it, "Similarity superimposed on contiguity imparts. to poetry its thoroughgoing symbolic, multiplex, polysemantic essence" (p. 42). It should be noted that the contiguity of Ransom's line overlays a referential plane onto a verbal one: not only are the two types of "show" physically contiguous, they are the same word. The conflation of metaphor and metonymy within the word "snow" is typical of Ransom's strategy of evading discursive constructions, the erection of which, according to R. P. Blackmur, leads to words "with the least possible meaning preserved, instead of the most."(15)

The juxtaposition of discursive and poetic elements in stanza two is bound up in the figure of the speaker, whose discourse is directly represented. A similar juxtaposition exists in the "speech" of the old man, the first line of which contains the same combination of metaphor and metonymy as the line immediately preceding it. Like the previous line, which juxtaposes literal snow with metaphoric snow (as white hair), the opening line of the old man's speech -- "Grandson, grandsire. We are equally boy and boy" -- employs the word "boy" both literally and metaphorically. The similarity between the way language is poetically handled in these lines makes it difficult to distinguish between the speaker and the old man. Taking into account that the speaker has assumed direct responsibility for the "unriddle-ing," I read the last three stanzas as the speaker's "poem," his attempt to give linguistic form to the riddle with which he is confronted. Although it is largely discursive, the remainder of the "old man's speech" contains other poetic structures that serve the speaker's professed objective, most notably the continued use of metonymy and metaphor. Just as the "reclining-chair and slippers" are metonymically equated with the patronizing treatment of the elderly, the adults to whom the speech is addressed are metaphorically "penned as slaves by properties and causes," and "the first brief childhood" is metaphorically equated with "the brief second." Furthermore, the adults "never walk from their insupportable houses," a metonymic "walking motif," so to speak, the obverse of "thin legs in risky motion."

The doubling of key terms that have both literal and figurative significance -- snow, boy, childhood -- foregrounds, in Jan Mukarovsky's sense of the word, the semiotic status of "Old Man Playing with Children"; its verbal signs are made palpable as signs.(16) Coexistent with any self-focused message, according to Jakobson, is ambiguity, which extends from the message itself to include the addresser and addressee, resulting in a "quasi-quoted discourse' (p. 42). The poem-within-a poem structure of "Old Man Playing with Children," as I have suggested, calls into question the identity of the speaker. But more importantly, I think, the poetic foregrounding calls attention away from the notion of identity and directs it toward the construction of empathy on the part of the speaker for the old man. William Elford Rogers argues that lyric poems in which "speaker" and "poet" are not identical -- what he calls poems of "anomalous voice" -- are best interpreted using a model of empathy in which there is a movement from pre-discursive, symbolic, concrete intuition to discursive, conceptual knowledge.(17) In Ransom's poem, in which the speaker/old man relationship functions much like Rogers's poet/speaker relationship, the empathetic movement embodied in the old man's speech follows a similar pattern, beginning with a pre- (or extra-) discursive poetic formulation and moving toward a discursive assertion in the poem's final line. This movement toward discourse, rather than away from it, is atypical for Ransom, whose better poems usually employ the opposite strategy.

When Ransom's poetry contains -- as is often the case -- archaic or mock-poetic diction, or odd rhyme, the common critical response has been to attribute these features to an ironic, detached speaker. Speaking for a number of critics, David Perkins claims that Ransom's poetry creates a wide distance between the speaker and his subject" (p. 104). With critics such as Perkins, this "ironic" stance has often led to charges of coldness directed at the speaker; for others, such as Brooks, Warren, and R. W. B. Lewis, the distance is of a kinder nature:


In Ransom's poetry, we may say, the characteristic tenderness, the charity, the pitifulness

with which he describes his characters, appears, paradoxically, only when

the persona is more rigorously detached from the world of the subjects: that is, when

the observer is located at a greater distance. Thus irony -- and here we may call irony

a kind of index of the distance -- makes the tenderness, the involvement, possible.

(My emphasis)(18) Although my own view is closer to that of the second group, I think that they too needlessly hypostatize a speaker who is deliberately disengaged from "the world of the subjects." The phrase "rigorously detached" -- echoed by several critics -- suggests a trait of the persona (i.e., the persona has an ironic attitude), rather than a condition in which he finds himself, which is more often the case. This admittedly fine distinction can be illustrated by any number of poems. The speaker of "Janet Waking," for example, does not "detach himself" from the death of the "dainty-feathered hen"; he merely occupies a perspective from which the death is not tragic. Similarly, the "distance" between the speaker and the young ladies of "Blue Girls" is not so much a function of his character as it is of his age: he is older and he knows more than they. In these poems and others, the speaker comes to represent not merely a particular person, or even a type (although again, these entities are not wholly disregarded), but a condition of consciousness, specifically that of the post-Cartesian mind. Ransom continually affirmed the efficacy of poetry in mediating the dualistic dilemma. As he writes in The World's Body, "Where is the body and solid substance of the world? It seems to have retired into the fulness of memory, but out of this we construct the fulness of poetry, which is counterpart to the world's fulness."(19) I contend that the language of poetry -- always for Ransom a stylized, self-conscious language -- itself permits re-access to the world's fulness, almost apart from its grounding in a discrete persona. Discussing what he calls the "impersonal lyric," Rogers claims that lyric poems without an overt speaker are best interpreted using a model of "aesthetic contemplation," a "state in which one |feels' oneself |in' [some physical thing] that is not oneself" (p. 104). The collapse of the speaker I have been describing entails a similar process, a motion away from the speaker's discursive self-construction toward a poetic knowledge of the world's body.

The ironic label which has attached itself so often to Ransom's speaker is also misleading in that the phase suggests that the matter at hand could have been treated in a more "straightforward" manner. Doubtless it could, but the result would not be a poem. That we do not have "direct access" to the subject matter, this line of reasoning goes, is directly attributable to the speaker as a function of his character. It may be relevant that, almost invariably, the "obscuring" features of a Ransom poem are not contiguous with the speaker's overt presence. In "Captain Carpenter," for instance, a poem as quintessentially Ransom as any in his oeuvre, the "I" appears in four lines, all of which are simple and discursive:

I wish he had delivered half his blows

. . .

I heard him asking in the grimmest tone

. . .

I would not knock old fellows in the dust

. . .

I thought him Sirs an honest gentleman. (P, pp. 33-35) More importantly, this argument does not take into account that the access we do have via the speaker -- usually in his role as "poet" -- is often peculiarly perspicuous; as Graham Hough has shrewdly remarked, "Nothing said about Captain Carpenter could be as effective as this subtly chosen manner of telling his story."(20) A more general issue at stake, however, is the notion of irony as it is typically attributed to the speaker in New Critical discourse. Irony is a strategy of attributing poetic texture to persona. Because, if the poem is to avoid becoming what Northrup Frye calls the "sub-poetical level of metrical talk," the ironic relationship must allow for the ambiguity inherent in poetic language, the speaker must avoid "saying what he means." This, in turn, becomes a feature of the speaker's identity. Although we might be tempted to do away with this notion according to Occam's Razor, we have more concrete reasons for at least modifying it in relation to Ransom's work.

Paradoxically, the concept of irony relies, in one respect, on the transparency of language. When we read a line of poetry as the voice of an ironic speaker, we are looking through the language to the fictive construct that lies behind it. This apprehension, as John Hollander says, involves the suppression of the linguistic nature of the poem.(21) The relative presence of Ransom's speaker -- which, to repeat, parallels the relative emphasis on discursive and poetic constructions -- creates what Robert Scholes describes as a "literary tension between the utterance as communicative and externally referential, on the one hand, and as incommunicative and self-referential, on the other."(22) The mistake common to New Critical analyses of Ransom is the emphasis on a given poem's architectural structure, an emphasis that tends to generate "rules" concerning the speaker's role that apply to an entire poem at once. On the contrary, the temporal interplay between the speaker's various roles is often at the very heart of the poem. For example, in the quotation above, Brooks claims that the speaker's "rigorous detachment" -- his irony or "distance" -- "paradoxically" makes "involvement" possible. My claim is that this paradox is often resolved during the course of a poem, and usually involves a motion away from a discursively grounded identity toward an empathetic or contemplative knowledge available through poetically foregrounded, rather than discursive, uses of language.

The neglected poem "Dog" -- a "trifling" work, "with insufficient wit or charm to counteract the doggerel," according to Parsons (p. 116) -- is perhaps Ransom's most sustained poetic treatment of the relationship between discourse and poetry. The poem begins with two primarily discursive stanzas:

Cock-a-doodle-doo the brass-lined rooster says,

Brekekekex intones the fat Greek frog--

These fantasies do not terrify me as

The bow-wow-wow of dog.

I had a little doggie who used to sit and beg,

A pretty little creature with tears in his eyes

And anomalous hand extended on his leg;

Housebroken was my Huendchen, and so wise. (P, p. 59) Noting the apparently anomalous nature of these stanzas, we might pose the question of what they accomplish: what do we learn about the speaker, and is this information important with respect to the rest of the poem, in which the speaker does not appear at all? The most important feature of these stanzas -- particularly the first -- is the dissociation manifest between the speaker's own emotive, discursive language and language that is more closely associated with the natural world, here embodied in the onomatopoeic terms "cock-a-doodle-doo," "brekekekex," and "bow-wow-wow."(23) While the first two are merely "fantasies," the last is a source of terror (it is important to note that it is the sound, not the dog, which terrifies). Thus, in "telling" us something about himself, the speaker is in effect separated from sound, which of course is ironic when one considers that the medium here -- a poem -- foregrounds its status as a series of sounds.

As the poem shifts into a more poetic (or mock-poetic) mode, beginning with the transitional "However" in stanza four, the interplay between "pure" sound and sound that has been reductively translated into discourse remains a focus of the poem:

But, on arriving at the gap in the fence,

Behold! again the ubiquitous hairy dog,

Like a numerous army rattling the battlements

With shout, though it is but his monologue,

With a lion's courage and a bee's virulence

Though he is but one dog.

Shrill is the fury of the proud red bull,

His knees quiver, and the honeysuckle vine

Expires with anguish as his voice, terrible,

Cries, "What do you want of my twenty lady kine?" (P, p. 59) The bull's voice, like the "sorrowing Moo" of his "blameless ladies," is easily (though absurdly) translated by the speaker. The sound of the dog, an amorphous "monologue," proves more difficult. The dog is compared to "a numerous army rattling the battlements[With shout," a simile emphasizing that this beast is not to be confused with the housebroken Huendchen or Madam's Fido, who "Rehearses his pink paradigm, To yap" in the third stanza. The anomalous simile of that stanza's first line ("Booms the voice of a big dog like a bell") retrospectively assumes a new significance, for it is the first simile in a poem which has only three, each describing a threatening dog. The ostensible disappearance of the speaker after the second stanza parallels the conflation of his emotive role with the physical characteristics of the poem -- its increasing emphasis on its own artifice. The simple masculine rhymes of the first three stanzas are replaced by a doggerel rhyme that would do the Byron of Don Juan proud: fence/battlements, them/mayhem, bull/beautiful, dog/monologue, vine/kine, and so on.

The artifice apparent in the physical poem highlights the artificiality of the attempt to fit the world into a discursive frame via the speaker. Although it is tempting to read this artificiality in terms of the speaker's identity, we must note that the speaker becomes less of a persona as the poem proceeds, and more engaged with the scene he reports. The culmination of the movement away from identity comes in the last stanza, which embodies a profound shift in tone:

Old Hodge stays not his hand, but whips to kennel

The renegade. God's peace betide the souls

Of the pure in heart! But in the box that fennel

Grows round, are two red eyes that stare like coals. (p. 60) The emjambement of the first three lines highlights the end stop of the culminating last line, which in some sense is the only "serious" line in the entire poem, containing only its third simile. As I have noted, the first two similes also deal with a threatening dog, yet this last one differs in that it is not related to the dog's sound (or voice, as the speaker has it). The dog, finally, resists comparison to a bell or a rhetorician. The tension between what the world "says" and what it is finds some resolution in the concluding image, suggesting what Ransom claims throughout his theoretical work: that poetry allows us a special access. The world's meaning -- its body -- cannot be translated via a discursive frame into discourse. The simile itself -- the "two red eyes that stare like coals" -- is quintessentially poetic, a metaphoric construction contiguous to both verbal structure (it rhymes) and physical scene: the "fennel/Grows round" the dog's box, suggesting the latter as a point of reference, a center. The key word in the simile is "stare," which modifies "eyes" rather than "coals." In the original version of the poem, published in Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927), this line reads: "Two red eyes shine with chemistry of coals."(24) The later construction suggests that language will have to bend toward the beast, rather than vice-versa.

In "Dog," then, we find a speaker whose function as speaker -- to "translate" the natural world -- is shown to be inadequate to the task. The concluding simile completes the poem by showing why: access to the world's body is available only through an extra-discursive use of language. Metaphor, which bridges the space between referential and poetic functions, is in some sense self-contained, not relying on its creator or audience. One of Ransom's most famous poems, "Dead Boy," further explores the relationship between speaker and metaphor:

The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction,

A green bough from Virginia's aged tree,

And none of the county kill like the transaction,

Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.

A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever,

A black cloud full of storms too hot for keeping,

A sword beneath his mother's heart -- vet never

Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping.

A pig with a pasty. face, so I had said,

Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretense

With a noble house. But the little man quite dead,

I see the forbear's antique lineaments. (P, p. 5) The speaker here, at least initially, is more tangible than in most Ransom poems; he is apparently a distant relative or friend of the family, and he has (or has had) definite feelings about the dead boy. Discussing the "wide distance between speaker and subject," David Perkins remarks that "To speak of a child's death as a |subtraction' is peculiar and oblique to the nth degree, and so also is calling it a |transaction.' Reinforced by the rhyme, the terms inevitably suggest that the boy's death is not much felt by the speaker" (p. 104). Although I perceive the speaker's feelings, even at the beginning, as being more ambiguous than Perkins allows, he is certainly correct in attributing a sort of emotional flatness to the first stanza. The terms he highlights are oblique, and the metaphor of the second line appears superfluous, inappropriately romanticized in relation to the stanza's generally understated language (note particularly the litotes of the next line). Although, as Parsons, notes, here it is but a tired version of the family-tree cliche, this same metaphor -- in slightly altered form -- appears again at the conclusion of the poem, where the emotional and poetic effect is markedly different.

As in "Dog," the speaker's relative presence diminishes during the course of "Dead Boy." The second stanza, in which the speaker does not appear, is framed by, an evaluative first and a descriptive last line -- lines perceived as being grounded in a persona. Yet the metaphoric second and third lines resist this grounding, their respective vehicles -- "cloud" and "storm" -- assuming some of the "weight" of the speaking voice. In Ransom's reading of this poem for the Yale Series of Recorded Poets, the contrast in tone between the highly inflected first and last lines and the regular, uninflected second and third lines is quite perceptible, suggestive of the distinction I am making between the "speaking" and the "poetic" voices.(25) The first line of the third stanza delineates a past relationship between metaphor and speaker. "A pig with a pasty face, so I had said." The discursive qualification of the metaphor indicates the speaker's awareness that the boy's death has transmuted his metaphor's context, and thus the metaphor itself, which will not cohere to the "forbear's antique lineaments" the speaker perceives now that the little man is "quite dead." (Presumably these lineaments are not hoglike.) The present context, forcefully presented in the poem's fourth stanza, requires a different metaphor:

He was pale and little, the foolish neighbors say;

The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken;

But this was the old tree's late branch wrenched away,

Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken. (P, p. 5) The salient feature of this last stanza is the contrast between what the neighbors and the preacher "say" or "saith," and what the poem authenticates. The neighbors attach only facile, descriptive terms to the dead boy; thus, they are "foolish." The preacher employs metaphor, but as Parsons suggests, it is a stock biblical metaphor doubtless used in other less appropriate circumstances (p. 52). Moreover, the "first fruits" will not cohere to the speaker's impression of the living boy as a "pig with a pasty face." The dead boy's significance -- his meaning -- is available only in terms of his death. The concluding construction again conflates metonymy ("the old tree's late branch wrenched away,/Grieving the sapless limbs") and metaphor (the family as "old tree"), and again signals a movement away from the speaker's discursive self-presentation to a poetic engagement with the world around him.

John Crowe Ransom believed in the concept of "impersonality in art." Although critics have usually applied this idea only with respect to Ransom as poet, it also has a particular relevance for his speakers. When the speaker of "Dead Boy" calls the deceased a "branch," he is telling us nothing about himself; he does not "say" in the way the neighbors and the preacher "say." In "Dead Boy," as in most of Ransom's poems, the speaker should be approached not merely as a personality, but as an agent who uses language to create meaning. Poetry, Ransom reminds us, "is a kind of language" (The World's Body, p. 235). Resolving the uncertainty of Ransom's "I" in terms of normal discourse will ultimately hinder us from hearing what is being said. (1) Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, eds., John Crowe Ransom," in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988), p. 467. (2) David Perkins, A History of modern Poetry: Modernism and after (Cambridge: Belknap, 1987), p. 104; Robert Buffington, The Equilibrist: A Study of John Crowe Ransom's Poems, 1916-1963 (Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967), pp. 62-63. (3) Delmore Schwartz, "Instructed of Much Mortality," in John Crowe Ransom: Critical Essays and a Bibliography, ed. Thomas Daniel Young (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1968), p. 51; Louis D. Rubin, Fr. "John Crowe Ransom's Cruell Battle' (1958), in Young, p. 157. (4) As Noralyn Masselink points out, Ransom's prosody "has, for the most part, been treated incidentally, if at all,' an oversight "particularly surprising considering the extraordinary attention Ransom pays to meter in his own critical writings' ("Apparition Head Versus Body Bush: The Prosodical Theory and Practice of John Crowe Ransom," Southern Quarterly [Winter 19911, 17-30). For other discussions of Ransom's use of meter, see Henry W. Russell," "John Crowe Ransom: The Measure of Civil Man," Southern Review, 32 (Spring 1987), 256-270, and William Vesterman, "The Motives of Meter in |Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter'," Southern Quarterly, 22 (Summer 1984), 42-53. (5) Buffington points out that Ransom himself, in The New Criticism, comments on the overemphasis on irony: "Mr. [Cleanth] Brooks is so insistent upon having in his poetry some irony, some form of |conflict' and |inclusion of opposites' that he has been led to make devastating slashes in the poetry of an English anthology that is now well shaken down and rather definitely accepted. . . . My belief is that opposites can never be said to be resolved or reconciled merely because they have been got into the same poem, or got into the same complex of affective experiences to create there a kind of |tension'; that if there is a resolution at all it must be a logical resolution; that when there is no resolution we have a poem without a structural unity; and that this is precisely the intention of irony, which therefore is something very special, and ought to be occasional." John Crowe Ransom, The New Criticism (Norfolk, Virginia: New Directions, 1941), pp. 94-95. (6) Roman Jakobson, "Linguistics and Poetics," in Selected Writings, 6 vols, ed. Stephen Rudy (The Hague: Mouton, 1981), III, 21-22. (7) The phatic and metalingual functions, as the diagram suggests, concern themselves with contact ("Are you on the line, Mr. Smith?") and code ("Do you understand how I am defining |love'?"), respectively. These functions have less bearing on the immediate topic of discussion. (8) Although the horizontal axis of this diagram is fairly straightforward, the vertical axis is problematic. The lyric poetry referred to here is something like "pure" poetry (Poe's "Bells," e.g.), the "straight" lyric Ransom describes in the quotation cited below from The New Criticism. Jakobson proposes a similar diagram, although he associates the lyric mode with the emotive function. Certainly he is correct historically, although I hope my distinction between dramatic and lyric modes justifies my placement of them here. (9) A dramatic speaker -- Browning's Duke of Ferrara, for instance -- exists as a "character a collection of traits informing the entire poem. In addition, the dramatic speaker exists in some sense "outside" the poem; the verbal communication that comprises "My Last Duchess" suggests a man who has made other speeches in other situations. In narrative poetry, the speaker acts as a more or less objective locus of perception and report. In didactic poetry, the speaker acts as an instructor and/or exhorter, acutely aware of his audience. It need hardly be pointed out that pure examples of these sub-genres and their respective speakers are rare, if they exist at all. (10) Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 165-166. (11) Culler's discussion of Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the jar "highlights my own differences with his position. As in many of Ransom's poems, its speaker appears only momentarily -- once, to be precise. Culler claims that "the fact that the deictic appears in the poem indicates that the agency is of some importance and must be, integrated with any interpretation" (pp. 166-167). I would contend that the deictic plays a different hermeneutic role. In any case, it is impossible to attribute any traits (in the common sense of the word) to the "I," as many critics have done with similar Ransom poems.

With regard to Romanticism, Ransom's poems often show a kinship, with the typical romantic lyric, as described by M. H. Abrams in "Structure of the Greater Romantic Lyric," in Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Norton, 1970), pp. 201-229. The Romantic lyric, according to Abrams, typically "present[s] a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent. . . . In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the inter-vening meditation" (p. 201). The "rise" from the vernacular to "more formal speech" is similar to the speaker/poet relationship I am describing, although the "I" in Ransom's work is often backgrounded when this occurs. "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," however, shows a particular kinship to the type of lyric Abrams describes. (12) Throughout this essay, when I refer to a speaker "appearing" in a poem. I am using the term to indicate the presence of a first-person pronoun, not the "presence" (in a more general sense) of the speaker. I have also used the masculine pronoun to refer to the speaker, more to avoid awkward constructions than anything else. Although the "I" often seems masculine -- in "Blue Girls," for example -- its gender is rarely explicit, another "shadowy" aspect of the speaker. (13) John Crowe Ransom, Poems and Essays (New York: Vintage, 1955), p. 32. Except where noted otherwise, I have used this volume of selected poems and essays, hereafter referred to parenthetically as (P). Ransom made two later selections of his poetry, in 1963 and 1969, revising and adding poems each time. Critics are nearly unanimous in agreeing that the final Selected Poems is artistically inferior to earlier versions; there is some disagreeme as to whether the 1955 or the 1963 edition is superior. I have accepted Thornton Parsons's argument in favor of the 1955 edition. See John Crowe Ransom (New York: Twayne, 1969), pp. 129-162. (14) This well-known definition of poetry, Jakobson claims that the poetic. function combines the "two basic modes of arrangement used in verbal behavior": the metaphoric mode of selection (based on equivalence, similarity, dissimilarity, synonymy, and antonymy) and the metonymic mode of combination (based on contiguity): "The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination" (""Linguistics and Poetics," p. 27). (15) R. P. Blackmur, Form and Value in Modern Poetry (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 293. (16) Mukarovsky sees foregrounding as the key component in poetic language: "The function of poetic language consists in the maximum foregrounding of the utterance. . . . [language] is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression, the act of speech itself." See Mukarovsky's "Standard Language and Poetic Language," in A Prague School Reader on Aesthetics, Literary Structure and Style, ed. and trans. Paul L. Garvin (Washington, D. C.: Georgetown University Press, 1964), pp. 43-44. (17) William Elford Rogers, The Three Genres and the Interpretation of Lyric Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 84. (18) Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, "John Crowe Ransom," in American Literature: The Makers and the Making, 2 vols. (New York: St. Martin's, 1973), p. 2644. (19) John Crowe Ransom, The World's Body (New York: Scribner's, 1938), p. x [sic]. (20) Graham Hough, "John Crowe Ransom: The Poet and the Critic," in Young, p. 200. (21) John Hollander, Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 194. (22) Robert Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 23. (23) For a brief and interesting account of how poetry bounds the language of discourse, see William Harmon's "Basho and Proust: A Note on the Nature of Poetry," Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 11, no.2 (1983), 186-191. Harmon locates onomatopoeia as "one of the boundaries of poetic language," the other being hieronymy, or proper and sacred names. These elements, which often occur at the beginning or end of a true poem, according to Harmon, are found throughout Ransom's poetry. In "Captain Carpenter," for instance, the Captain's name, "God," and the onomatopoeic "clack clack" all converge in the last stanza. Note also the "Old Hodge" and "God" in the last stanza of "Dog." (24) John Crowe Ransom, Two Gentlemen in Bonds (New York: Knopf, 1927), p. 47. (25) John Crowe Ransom, "John Crowe Ransom Reads His Works," Yale Series of Recorded Poets, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New Haven: Yale University Department of English, n.d.)
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Author:Romine, Scott
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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