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On "Dead Boy"

F.O. Matthiessen

This poem displays all the aspects of his skill in their full development. By choosing the very kind of theme upon which the nineteenth century spilled out its worst sentimental excesses, it is as though he deliberately set out to demonstrate his complete break with the Southern romantic past.

The diction works upon us in the ways we have already noted, but here the occasional elaborate-pedantic words are introduced into the very first rhyme for a shock of wit that makes us aware at once through the odd dryness that we are faced with no conventionally moist poem on the death of a little cousin. The unobtrusive thoroughness with which Ransom presents a whole way of life and its milieu can be sampled through the deft off-setting of "the county kin" against all the rest of the world as "outer dark." The usages and values of the Virginia forebears are re-enacted in this dynastic ceremonial, and the saturation of these values in the language of the Bible extends far beyond the words of the Preacher. Phrase after phrase from "the green bough" through "outer dark," the "cloud full of storms," the "sword beneath his mother's heart," to the "late branch wrenched away" are either direct or indirect allusions to the rich King James version.

The prevalence of that source in traditional country speech accounts for the mingling in that speech of the simple and the archaic, a mingling which Ransom seems consciously to emulate even in phrases which have no direct connection with the Scriptures. Such mingling gives rise in particular to the quiet compelling eloquence of the fourth stanza where the simple "box of death" is suddenly more forceful than the expected "coffin" could be; and where the archaic unfamiliar "bruit" is by its very unfamiliarity made to release its full store, not only of the "rumors" of the day, but of the very breath and sound of the old men voicing them. But lest Ransom's combination of the homely and the learned be made to sound too deliberate, we must remember how his diction is always being spiced by the easily colloquial: "a pig with a pasty face," "squealing for cookies."

from "Primarily Language." Sewanee Review (1948)

Vivienne Koch

The tone hovers perilously between irony and sorrow, or irony and nostalgia. The irony is complex: it is directed against the narrator himself, "Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me"; against the subject, the little cousin, "A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever, / . . . A pig with a pasty face, so I had said . . ."; and against the narrator's own judgment of the relationship of the dead boy to the equally dead Virginia past, ". . . But the little man quite dead, / I see the forbears' antique lineaments." This fusion of the elegiac and the satiric is illumined by the final stanza, where the narrator abandons his role as participant and becomes the Olympian commentator:

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.

from Sewanee Review (1950)

 G. R. Wasserman

Ransom's critics have emphasized the affinity of his irony to metaphysical wit, its ability of stiffening "soft" subjects rather than softening stiff ones. The attention given to Ransom's poems on the death of children is indicative of this tendency. It is of course true that a part of the irony of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" and "Dead Boy" depends upon the contrast between the stock response to the subject and Ransom's attitude toward it. The latter poem, for instance, begins with an objective view of "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 ...

But the poet's attitude toward the boy is not left at that; nor, I maintain, is it modified merely by the rhetoric of the poem. The awareness of an irony that is deeper than the contrasts between certain words is inevitable--as I have already indicated--to Ransom's peculiar position as ironist. The poet's attitude is qualified and humanized by the boy's relationship to something for which the poet feels a more tender, although controlled, nostalgia, "a noble house":

The first fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken;
But this was the old tree's late branch wrenched away.

And supporting the modification of this irony--the irony dependent upon the contrast between "first-fruits" and "late branch"--is the shift in point of view implied in the first line of the third stanza ("A pig with a pasty face, so I had said"), from that implied in the opening stanza:

The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction,
A green bough from Virginia's aged tree,
And none of the county kin like the transaction,
Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.

It is the closeness of his attention, his objectivity, in the third stanza, which undercuts the sentimentality of the situation and critidzes the "muttering low" of the "elder men" on "the wide flag porch" as "friendly waste of breath." But it is the distancing of the first stanza which permits him safely to subject this irony to his personal feeling, to reconsider, in a sense, not "the elder men" as "foolish," but those outside "neighbors" for whom the boy was "pale and little," and finally to extend to the former one note of sincere, but controlled, sympathy: "Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound."

The effect of the irony in the poems just mentioned--modified as it is by structural factors like the manipulation of point of view--does more, then, than make us aware of the irreconcilable contrasts which are opposed in them. Because we are able to see both sides of the situation, we are made to feel some sympathy for the effort of reconciliation, however impossible it is of attainment. By balancing one view against the other, we see the partial validity of both.

from "The Irony of John Crowe Ransom." University of Kansas City Review (1956)

Thornton Parsons

 When be writes about death, he wants above all to avoid wonder at anything so pervasive and so inevitable. His method for controlling the emotion in "Dead Boy" is to give the multiple responses to a particular death, to show it in a configuration, to depict the different degrees of grief and the different motives that elicit grief and sorrow in the survivors. His method of preserving freshness and originality is to concentrate upon a subdued, elusive grief that is not often dealt with in poetry.

As the narrator of "Dead Boy" is apparently a distant relative who has come to the funeral, he is plausibly free to register and report the different intensities of grief and the various reasons for it. The opening is remarkable for its quiet announcement of the poem's motifs, for the extraordinary amount of information deftly packed into it, and for the scrupulous attitude which it sets for the whole poem. "Foul subtraction' is a good example of Ransom's successful "metaphysical" language. The outrage implied in "foul" is swiftly tempered by "subtraction," implying an emotionless, impersonal force that cuts down human life. This tonal complexity is much more satisfying than the straight indignation of Thomas' poem. Paradox is appropriate to capture the balanced feelings of the narrator, who resents the fact of death but who will not give up complexity and immerse wholly in indignation.

'Transaction" provides an intensification of the horror of death, a quietly understated chill. "A green bough from Virginia's aged tree' introduces an esthetic suspense as we wonder how Ransom can save this figure from its tired associations. The rest of the stanza makes the distinction between the members of the family who live in that county and those from farther counties or other states. "Outer dark" carries the attitude of the local people, a sense of the vague and mysterious geography of provincial people. This precise distinction is sustained by the words "none" and "some," and its importance is clear by the end of the poem. It is an admirable stanza.

Now follows some effective rhetorical parallelism:

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--yet never
Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping.

There is a low-keyed directness in the quick glance at the boy's appearance, behavior, and talent. This line is followed by two striking metaphors that establish his lamentable temperament--his tantrums, the power to torment. Then comes the paradox of the mother's extraordinary grief, which is not so paradoxical when we remember that even a negatively active child registers himself in the consciousness of adults more strongly than a mild one does. The boy had no attributes that would mitigate the ugly temperament.

Factual reporting of the mother's grief in the setting of paradox allows the reader to feel the powerful emotion without being coerced by it. Then the narrator delivers his shocking metaphor for the boy alive, a description that diminishes his significance even more than  'black cloud' and "sword" had done:

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 forbears' antique lineaments.

He was so disreputable to an objective observer that it seemed be could not have belonged to this admirable family. But, lying immobile in the casket, he does resemble his ancestors. The language here is here is subtly toned. "Little man" is complex: it has the usual aura of mawkishness an adult condescension, but it reflects too the narrator's polite deference for the mother's grief, his willingness to soften his judgment under the circumstances; and it gently pivots the poem into the dynastic theme of the last two stanzas, from the narrator's perspective a more important reason for lessening his old disapprobation. This "little man" does belong to them, for he has in the immobility of death "the forbears' antique lineaments." Now the precise emotion of the poem is established: the emphasis is upon the grief of the sterile old men of the family, a grief they do not reveal as outwardly as the mother reveals hers.

"Box of death" is like "foul subtraction" in its restraint that releases a powerful sense of horror. "O friendly waste of breath!" is the perfectly concise line for funereal small talk. These men are restrained, ritualistically discussing the local news and gossip in order to avoid a direct and indecorous confrontation of raw grief in one another. "Deep dynastic wound" is probably the best phrase in the poem. The elder men wanted the ancestral line to continue, and this boy was their only hope.

In the conclusion are other local responses to the boys death:

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.

Neighbors, who have no emotional investment in the boy, and who do not have the imaginative sympathy of the narrator, can dismiss this death easily. The Preacher has a standard metaphor designed to comfort, and he delivers it in scriptural language. Here, though, is the poem's most ingenious stroke: the narrator now has a good excuse to modify the Preacher's tired metaphor and thus return to the figure of the family tree and its young branch, and end the poem by gathering in the implication of "antique" in the third stanza. The elder men of the family are sapless and palsied, unable to beget more heirs; and the line will die out. In this redemption of the family-tree cliche Ransom has achieved an inspired combination of strong pathos and decorous expression.

Ransom keeps "Dead Boy" free from sentimentality by sustaining a fiction that allows for a consistent undermining of the boy's character or intrinsic importance. The use of the narrator from "outer dark" is a meticulous justification for this severe objectivity at a time when standards usually melt into the general sadness. (In "The Death of the Hired Man" Frost manages this effect by slyly keeping Warren from seeing Silas before some of his negative traits have been lodged with the reader.) Ransom steers the emphasis away from the most immediate and obvious kind of grief: the most unqualified kind. When he has the narrator speak of the mother he uses formalized, archaic diction: "bewept her babe." This is a way of diverting the reader's sympathy from the mother. Her grief is merely one datum in the whole configuration; her attitude is presented with no more emphasis than is the narrator's, the neighbors', or the Preacher's.

The narrator is precisely right for this poem. He is Ransom's fictional device not only for avoiding raw and excessive emotion but for registering a certain kind of grief. He is imaginative enough to understand a motive that is not his own, a legitimate human motive for a powerful grief that is not dependent upon the boy's intrinsic worth. The interest of the old men in the disreputable dead boy transcends his temperament, character, and appearance. So the emotion of the poem feels authentic. It is won not by exploiting the obvious regret over the sheer fact of death, but by giving the sense of a particular boy in a particular context, and by intensifying the highly selective grief of the old men: their regret that transcends mere personal loss, their heightened sense of mortality dramatized by the cessation of an ancestral line. Their quiet, deeply aching regret is very elusive; and Ransom has conveyed it admirably. Emotion is enhanced, and not overwhelmed or diminished, by technique. Fiction and perspective are consistent; the narrator is free to tell the truth about the boy and yet to feel what his death means to others.

from John Crowe Ransom. Copyright © 1969 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Karl F. Knight

The way in which Ransom attains an ironic position through the use of several kinds of diction is very well illustrated by the poem "Dead Boy". The central fact of the poem is the death of a male child in a Virginia family. The various reactions to the death are complex, and the distinctions between them are subtle. The attitudes presented in the poem are those of the family, the speaker, the neighbors, and the preacher who conducts the funeral. To the family the death is a great personal shock, and their reflections are cast mainly in elevated or circumlocutory language. The first stanza seems to contain the thoughts of the family. . . .

"Dead" is a direct word, but it is outweighed by the euphemistic words "subtraction" and "transaction" and by the metaphor of the bough. The analysis of the family's reaction is complicated, too, by the fact that their feelings are not expressed directly, but are conveyed through the speaker, who may be mocking their language with elevated terms which are distractingly humorous. In any event, the effect of the language is to demonstrate that the family finds it difficult to think of the death in consistently direct terms.

The last line of the stanza identifies the speaker as some sort of outsider, and the last two words, "like me", indicate that the succeeding lines contain the speaker's observations. . . .

The speaker's attitude is more objective and more comprehensive than that of the family, for he recognizes the unpleasant characteristics which the boy had. Of the two descriptive metaphors used by the speaker, the one of the pig is exceedingly common in contrast to the euphemistic language, such as "subtraction" "transaction", used to convey the family's attitude. But in seeing the family traits in the boy, the speaker is sympathetic with the saddened family. And too, he finds the sad muttering of the bereaved old men a "friendly waste of breath!"

The neighbors also are relatively objective in their recollections of the boy, who was to them "pale and little" - common, direct, and descriptive words. But the neighbors, who would have had a close relationship with the boy, do not observe positively unpleasant things, as did the speaker. To the preacher, representing still another view, death is the ordered conclusion to life in the world, and his words associate this particular death with a religious scheme of things. He says only that "The first-fruits ... the Lord hath taken...." Wheras the family takes the death primarily as an individual occurrence, the preacher sees it as one more manifestation of a general pattern of happenings, The preacher's function is to relate individual h appenings to the rituals of the church, and appropriately his words are taken from St. Paul (I Corinthinians, 15 : 20), words which are echoed in the Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer. Between those extremes of the personal and the ritualistic attitudes lie the slightly detached view of the neighbors and the sympathetic but objective view of the speaker. And those four attitudes are manifested largely through the choice of kinds of diction. If the assignment of lines and phrases to different characters and attitudes seems arbitrary, then it must still be maintained that the different kinds of diction nonetheless are present and contain the varying attitudes. The problem is not whether the different people react variously, but just where one attitude leaves off and another begins.

The diction in "Dead Boy" results in the ironic inclusion of four attitudes toward the boy's death. Each attitude has its own validity, with no simple choice of one "correct" attitude. A different kind of irony occurs when Ransom uses pedantic diction in situations which ordinarily are treated in another kind of diction. Irony such as that in "Dead Boy" stems from the oppositions established among antithetical kinds of diction, and none of the language can really be called inappropriate.

from The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom: A Study of Diction, Metaphor, and Symbol. Copyright © 1964 by Mouton & Co.

Robert Buffington

In "Dead Boy," which to a degree also involves a failure of ceremony, we can count five ways of viewing the death. There is the purely objective view: "He was pale and little, the foolish neighbors say." The view is conveyed by the title itself--"dead boy," object, one of a class; by the businesslike metaphors of death, "subtraction" and "transaction"; by the very tone the speaker takes in a phrase like "the world of outer dark":

And none of the county kin like the transaction,
Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.

But the purely objective or practical viewpoint is held only by the "foolish neighbors"; the speaker's viewpoint, while objective, is also understanding and sympathetic.

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 forbears' antique lineaments.

The tone of the second sentence, "But the little man quite dead . . . " as Ransom reads it, is not a tone of revelation, but of concession, so that there is no development in the speaker's attitude: the speaker instead keeps his dual viewpoint.

These are the objective viewpoints. The subjective viewpoints are that of the mother: "never / Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping" (but the verb the poet assigns her, bewept, keeps her at a distance); and, very different from hers, that of the Virginia patriarchs, who are "hurt with a deep dynastic wound." And last, there is the religious viewpoint: "The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken." Ideally, the religious viewpoint becomes the inclusive viewpoint. But the grief of the elder men, on which the poem focuses, is not reconciled to the large view. Much of their situation and their feeling tells in the single word strode in the next-to-last stanza:

The elder men have strode by the box of death
To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round
The bruit of the day.

The word suggests the long limbs of the men of the "noble house"--though sapless now--their habit of decisive movement, the wide-legged movement perhaps of horsemen--in a word, the strength which will end with them and to which the boy, "pale and little," would probably not have succeeded anyway had he lived. And the word implies their impatience with the ceremony of death, which does not console them; for

this was the old tree's late branch wrenched away,
Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.

from The Equilibrist: A Study of John Crowe Ransom's Poems, 1916-1963. Copyright © 1967 by Robert Buffington.

Miller Williams

The "little cousin," as dangerous an opening as the "little body" of John Whiteside's daughter, is removed to the right distance by the introduction of an apparently out-of-place term with connotations far from the ambiente of the poem. "Foul subtraction" suggests a transaction and carries the sense that such dying, albeit unpleasant, is not outside the realm of the day-to-day business of this world. It is a world, after all, which cares little for the concerns of man. This is one of Ransom's most effective uses of Latinate terms with deliberate reference to the root meaning, a practice which allows him to speak with a precision not possible in the modern sense of the words and at the same time with a remarkable ambiguity.

He takes us to the deeper meaning, the almost lost meaning, of the word, which now to our ears acts as a connotation of the word, so that technical and objective as the terms are, they become in Ransom's line three-dimensional. "Subtraction" is a drawing from under; "transaction" is a carrying across. This last, especially since it is followed by the "world of outer dark," puts us in mind of the River Styx, and we are in a context at once more classical, more distant, and more noble than we were before.

The irony of the poem is not found primarily in the tension between the family's status and the observation that the boy was "a pig with a pasty face" nor in the pull between the seriousness of the subject and the tone of the language. It is at least half in the realization we must be drawn to that, if the boy had lived, the dynasty would probably not have survived with him. Antique, indeed, are the forbears' lineaments.

from The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom. Copyright © 1972 by Miller Williams.

David Perkins

Though the tone of this is complex and difficult to define, one's first impression is not. 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 their rhyme, the terms inevitably suggest that the boy's death is not much felt by the speaker. "Foul" therefore seems a cold, half-comic hyperbole, and the "green bough" a cliché, though one that renders the semibiblical speech of this traditional community. But on reflection we note that since the speaker is not one of the kin, he can appropriately view the death from detached perspectives, and whatever sympathy he feels may be the more moving because it emerges through and despite his detachment. But no matter where we finally arrive in our response to this poem, the initial shock is chilling.

From A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

Richard Gray

Its occasion is a simple one, the death of a young child known to the narrator. With the help of radical alterations of diction, metaphor, and metrical effect, however, Ransom suggests a response that is far from simple:

[. . .]

The feelings aroused by this portrait are labyrinthine. The ornate, Latinate diction of the first three lines, and the elevated image in the second, suggest one reaction to the death, which is to distance it with the help of ceremonious language and gesture. But this is hastily qualified by phrases that echo the King James version of the Bible ('outer dark', 'black cloud full of storms') and consequently help to place the event in a larger, religious context, where it seems part of a universal process. And it is flatly contradicted by lines such as the ninth, in which the staccato rhythm combines with a dismissive image and harsh alliterative effects to suggest the intrusion of a more realistic assessment. Throughout the poem archaisms jostle with a more colloquial idiom, and the mellifluous cadences of one line are denied by the eruptive movement of the next. And all these reactions, we are led to infer, belong, not to different people, but to one complex personality, who can love the dead boy and yet recognise his frailty; regret his death but know that his world was doomed in any case; realise the 'poor pretence' involved in talk of 'forbears' and in the funeral rites, while acknowledging the value of the beliefs, in tradition and ceremony, so illustrated. The style of the poem, in effect, dramatises the personality of the narrator; and that personality defines for us that unity of being, the marriage of thought and feeling, which Ransom's un-traditional people so conspicuously lack.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. London: Longman, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group UK Ltd.

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