Comparing "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" and "Dead Boy"
Vivienne Koch (1950)
Ransom begins to take possession of another order of the fabulous. This is the fable of
childhood, childhood viewed as
innocence, as a necessary condition to knowledge which corrupts, and which is difficult and tragic in its essence. The ultimate,
permissive grace given to this kind of knowledge is most luminous in later poems like "Dead Boy" and "Janet Waking." Here,
the clearest exposition is in the much-admired "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter."
Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (1958)
The idea of death coming to little children is a theme of several Ransom
poems. In "Dead Boy" the family gathers about the
corpse of a dead child, "the little man quite dead." The frequently anthologized "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" depicts a
little girl "lying so primly propped."
Beneath the more reticent and allusive poems in the selected edition are
the same foundations as those of Poems About God.
But the tone has changed. Resignation, acceptance are not the appropriate words. The world is what it is, and the powers that
rule it. There is no use saying any more about that, directly. It is only the reflections of this uncompromising actuality in various
facets of various human lives that Ransom's poetry feels called upon to deal with. Usually small facets. His poetry delights in
putting massive and ineluctable facts in small or delicate settings. The child learns about death, the most massive and ineluctable
fact she will ever have to learn, through the death of her pet hen. It is a group of chattering schoolgirls who are presented with
the picture of blear-eyed decrepitude. The justly famous "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" presents the whole of insatiable
youthful vitality in the recollection of the little girl harrying the geese round the pond, and the whole incredible outrage of its
extinction in the picture of her still lifelike little body in its coffin. But there is no more troubling deaf heaven with bootless cries.
The facts being as they are it is more bearable to look at them in cross-lights than full face--as in "Dead Boy," where the pathos
of the child's death is approached only by contrasting the mother's grief with the far from lovable nature of the boy in life, and
both are subordinated to the deep dynastic wound suffered by the old family. Yet these small, pathetic, and understated deaths
are the same Death as that of the hired man in "Grace," dropping among his vomit under the killing sun, for which the speaker
arraigned his God.
from "John Crowe Ransom: The Poet and the Critic." Southern Review (1965).
One might innocently assume satire was at work in opening John Crowe
Ransom's Selected Poems and discovering the titles
he gave to its two main sections: "The Innocent Doves" and "The Manliness of Men."' It does not take long, however, before
one realizes that these categories are meant seriously, despite his wry tone and bemused perspective on all human endeavor. In
the 1924 poem "Miriam Tazewell" a woman weeps when a thunder storm breaks and afterward walks out to see "her lawn
deflowered." Apparently this is the sort of sophomoric joke Ransom imagines his male readers enjoying together. It seems to
her "the whole world was villain, / The principle of the beast was low and masculine." In "Lady Lost," first published in 1925, in
which a bird serves as a figure for all women, the speaker asks "has anybody / Injured some fine woman in some dark way?" If
so, it represents no real problem:
Let the owner come and claim possession,
No questions will be asked. But stroke her gently
With loving words, and she will evidently
Return to her full soft-haired white-breasted fashion
And her right home and her right passion.
His poems are full of foolish girls and worldly men. When Ransom's men
commit errors of pride, the price paid is manly and
imposing: solid oaks split, winter storms strike, or battlefields are strewn with dead. Ransom's women flirt and flutter and give
themselves over only to romance or its rejection. Despite all this, his sexism is not unselfconscious. It is rather a deliberate and
witty effort to articulate what he sees as the differences between men and women. Yet of all the well-known modern American
poets his oeuvre may be the most thoroughly constituted by misogyny, for his whole poetic project is founded on an
exaggerated and absurdly stereotypical view of sexual difference. Subtract these views and there are few poems left, no career
to speak of remaining. Nonetheless, the poems are too intricately crafted, their diction too surprising, for Ransom's sexism to
warrant simple outrage. And often enough the rhetoric of his wit offers pleasures that counter the pettiness of his subject matter
and his attitude toward it. But his career is finally wholly circumscribed by cliches about men and women that he could not see
A conservative reader might attempt to defend Ransom by noting that some of the more condescending poems are written to
young girls, not mature women, but the effect of his Selected Poems, which mixes poems devoted to women of a variety of
ages, is to make older women and young girls interchangeable. The additional poems in his individual books, moreover, add
significantly to the sense that a frustrated idealism underlies a generalized misogyny in his work.
Although one would not know it from the surface of Ransom's poems, for example, their constitutive rage at women is again
historically grounded. In Ransom's despair at the changes he saw in the country and in his regret at the passing of the old South
is also a distress about destabilized gender relations. In Ransom we see how condescending idealization can evolve into an
oppressive but deceptively elegant system of gender differentiation. It is a model of sophisticated prejudice that no nonpoetic
discourse could give us in such perfected form.
In "The Cloak Model"' a young man is described (by an older speaker) as imagining that a woman's "broad brow meant
intelligence," that "her fresh young skin was innocence, / instead of meat that shone." The older man draws his attention to
"God's oldest joke, forever fresh; / The fact that in the finest flesh / There isn't any soul." "The Cloak Model" was not reprinted
in Ransom's Selected Poems, but there too sexual difference is pervasively, if often less blatantly, constitutive. "Dead Boy," for
example, mourns the loss of a complex, ambiguous, individual human being; "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," on the other
hand, mourns an empty, unspecific feminine innocence: "We are vexed at her brown study / Lying so primly propped."
Moreover, the male child is taken as a figure for the ambivalent status of southern history and culture; the female child is
decisively other. In the very inescapability of its obsessions, Ransom's poetry in turn can help us to focus on the politics of
sexual difference in modern poetry in general.
Copyright © 1999 by Cary Nelson
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