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

Week 114: Vision By Sweetwater, by John Crowe Ransom

I have long found this poem enchanting but also just a little annoying. I like to understand a poem as thoroughly as I can, and get frustrated when that understanding seems to require some private key that I don’t have. And this one, after its beautiful opening stanzas, appears to tail off into a slightly wilful irresolution. ‘Where have I seen before, against the wind, These bright virgins…?’. I don’t know, mate, where have you seen them before? And what’s with the scream?

I have seen it suggested that the allusion is to the story of Susannah and the Elders in the apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel, but if that’s really what Ransom had in mind, I can only say that the parallel between two voyeuristic old men hiding in the bushes to watch a woman bathing and the awakening of a young boy to his first romantic perception of womanhood does not seem a particularly happy one. But I’ll forgive all for the willows, clouds, deep meadowgrass and the steep turn of Sweetwater.

Later: one suggestion I have had is that the boy is startled out of his daydreaming by one of the girls, who has ‘been adventuring with delicate paces’, falling into the steep-banked stream, hence the sudden cry.

Vision By Sweetwater

Go and ask Robin to bring the girls over
To Sweetwater, said my Aunt; and that was why
It was like a dream of ladies, sweeping by
The willows, clouds, deep meadowgrass and river.

Robin’s sisters and my Aunt’s lily daughter
Laughed and talked and tinkled light as wrens
If there were a little colony all hens
To go walking by the steep turn of Sweetwater.

Let them alone, dear Aunt, just for one minute
While I go fishing in the dark of my mind:
Where have I seen before, against the wind,
These bright virgins, robed and bare of bonnet,

Flowing with music of their strange quick tongue
And adventuring with delicate paces by the stream,
Myself a child, old suddenly at the scream
From one of the white throats which it hid among?

John Crowe Ransom

Week 50: Dead Boy, by John Crowe Ransom

The American poet John Crowe Ransom wrote in a fastidious, ornate style that may sometimes seem to put too much distance between poem and reader but at its best produces work that combines great formal elegance with a uniquely bittersweet, elegiac flavour. I was torn between this one, ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’ and ‘Vision By Sweetwater’. But we can always come back…

Dead Boy

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.

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.

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 elder men have strode by the box of death
To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round
The bruit of the day. O friendly waste of breath!
Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound.

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.

 John Crowe Ransom