A FORTNIGHT AGO , a silver-haired Southern gentleman named John Crowe Ransom stood up in Manhattan to receive the 1964 National Book Award for poetry. As founder and editor of the Kenyon Review, mentor to a platoon of celebrated poets and writers, and father of the New Criticism, Ransom is probably the most influential U.S. scholar-critic of the past 40 years. As the author of a few slender books of poetry, he has drawn the highest praise from the knottiest intellectuals of his time.
It might be assumed, therefore, that his prizewinning Selected Poems (Knopf; $4) could not be usefully perused without benefit of The Golden Bough, Kierkegaard, or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Not so. Many of Ransom's gentle verses deal in genteel terms with subjects easily apprehended by the lingering tea-and-antimacassar set in Ransom's own home town of Pulaski, Tenn. His topics run to ceremonious family occasions, chivalric legends, brief encounters between might-have-been lovers, small social events, the death of a boy, even the demise of a child's pet hen that has been stung to death by a bee:
So there was Janet
And weeping fast as she had breath
And would not be instructed in how deep
Taken alone, deceptively simple poems like this seem to lack substance. But like the threads of a spider web, a garland of such verse woven together creates a captivating world. Its charm, perhaps, is that it seems old-fashioned. Ransom's courtly poetic rhetoric seems antique to the ear of an age that banned charm and rhetoric from poetry in order to come to grips with life. Newcomers wandering in Ransom's poetic kingdom are likely to bark a shin on such arch words as "pernoctated," or be mildly astonished at the poet's unfashionable fondness for bucolic life, his hopeless disapproval of industry, efficiency, and the practical machinery of getting ahead. Ransom's poems, Critic Randall Jarrell has correctly observed, "are full of an affection that cannot help itself for an innocence that cannot help itself."
Frozen Dust. Customarily a cavalier poet, even about serious subjects, Ransom sometimes compresses feeling under a surface of grave understatement that eventually reveals, like New England reticence, the hidden vein of pure joy or grief beneath. In the small encounters that he chronicles, a clash of two points of view or a strange moment of fear is often apprehended with a sudden, minute clarity, like two specks of dust frozen in the searchlight of a morning shaft of sun:
Robin's sisters and my Aunt's lily daughter
Where have I seen before, against the wind,
Rapturous Piety. Unabashedly, Ransom describes a lyric poem as "an act of rapturous piety; a homage to human nature despite its hateful and treacherous tendencies." Dry, knit-browed New Critics, trying to justify their unexpected fondness for such a man, are often as unsuccessful as connoisseurs trying to convey the exact flavor of a vintage wine. One thing that especially endears the poet to his colleagues, however, is his fashionable fondness for antinomies —his perception that life is lived in impossible tension between unresolvable opposites. Ransom heroines die of "six spells of fever and six of burning." They have only to appear, magnolia fresh, on the piazza, and the rustle of death stirs in the wisteria trees. His lovers can find no rest, so tormented are they by such archaic inner struggles as lust v. honor, or passion v. philosophy. For his part, Ransom allows neither them nor the world any ease this side of the grave:
In Heaven you have heard no marriage is,
Great lovers lie in Hell, the stubborn ones
Let them lie perilous and beautiful. Full of tart paradox and sweet passion, Ransom is himself a poetic equilibrist of rare skill. Girded against sentiment with irony, against dullness with wit and cerebral learning, he yet manages to convey the flavor of an innocent past when poetry was thought to treat directly of such things as Truth and Beauty. When he accepted the 1964 award, with typical courtesy he gave thought to "the other nominated poets who were passed over."His pleasure, he averred, was "compounded with a pain." Then, characteristically, Ransom added: "But perhaps every pleasure is the denial of some other pleasure."