Comparing 2

Comparing "Bells For John Whiteside’s Daughter" And "Dead Boy" Essay, Research Paper Vivienne Koch (1950) Ransom begins to take possession of another order of the fabulous. This is the fable of

Comparing "Bells For John Whiteside’s Daughter" And "Dead Boy" Essay, Research Paper

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


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."Graham Hough

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).

Cary Nelson

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