Week 223: Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter, by John Crowe Ransom

I promised we’d come back to John Crowe Ransom so here is another of his elegies for dead children (cf. week 50), and again it is something of a puzzle to me, not because of any difficulty with the meaning, but because one feels that Ransom’s slightly archaic style, fastidious to the point of preciousness, like a man handling words with white gloves, simply should not work as well as it does, especially for a subject of such pathos. Yet somehow those cadences mesmerise.

Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

John Crowe Ransom

2 thoughts on “Week 223: Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter, by John Crowe Ransom

  1. Part of the reason the poem works is that the language attempts to keep reality (that she’s dead) at a distance? She’s in a “brown study”. Her games are “wars”. The geese cry “Alas” (like geese in a fairy tale?). She’s a “little / Lady”. She’s “primly propped” (in her coffin?). etc. Without the distancing the speakers would be overcome with grief?

    • Yes, and similarly it works in part because the reality of the child in life is so vividly presented: she is there in the poem in all her mischievous vitality (even if one does feel a bit sorry for the geese). It’s the same kind of strength that informs Lewis Glyn Cothi’s beautiful elegy for his five-year old son, ‘Marwnad Siôn y Glyn’, that I might get round to featuring one day, and to my mind contrasts with, for example, Dylan Thomas’s rather repugnant ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, where the poet is simply in love with his own rhetoric and not thinking at all about the actuality of a young life cut agonisingly short.

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