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John Crowe Ransom

1888–1974

On April 30, 1888, John Crowe Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee. He received an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University in 1909, studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and served in the First World War. He became a professor at Vanderbilt and later accepted a position at Kenyon College, where he became founder and editor of The Kenyon Review, and remained there until his retirement in 1959. He received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1968.

Ransom published three slim volumes of highly acclaimed poetry, but after 1927 principally devoted himself to critical writing. He was a guiding member of the Fugitives, a group of writers who were wary of the social and cultural changes they were witnessing in the South during the early part of the twentieth century. The Fugitives sought to preserve a traditional aesthetic ideal which was firmly rooted in classical values and forms. As a critic, he had an enormous influence on an entire generation of poets and fellow academics, who subscribed to the doctrines he laid out as the "New Criticism." His ideals were John Donne and the English metaphysical poetry of the 17th century. He believed in the poetic virtues of irony and complexity, and the importance of adhering to traditional prosodic techniques of meter, stanza, and rhyme. His own poems are marked by irony and a spare classicism, and a concern with the inevitable decay of all things human.

John Crowe Ransom died on July 3, 1974.

A Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Poems About God (1919)
Chills and Fever (1924)
Grace After Meat (1924)
Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1926)
Selected Poems (1945)
Poems and Essays (1955)

Prose

God Without Thunder (1931)
The World's Body (1938)
The New Criticism (1941)
A College Primer of Writing (1943)
The Kenyon Critics: Studies in Modern Literature (1951)
Poetic Sense: A Study of Problems in Defining Poetry by Content (1971)
Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays, 1941-1970 (1997)

John Crowe Ransom

By This Poet

17

Here Lies a Lady

Here lies a lady of beauty and high degree.
Of chills and fever she died, of fever and chills,
The delight of her husband, her aunts, an infant of three,
And of medicos marvelling sweetly on her ills. 

For either she burned and her confident eyes would blaze,
And her fingers fly in a manner to puzzle their heads—
What was she making?  Why, nothing; she sat in a maze
Of old scraps of laces, snipped into curious shreds—

Or this would pass, and the light of her fire decline
Till she lay discouraged and cold as a thin stalk white and blown,
And would not open her eyes, to kisses, to wine;
The sixth of these states was her last; the cold settled down.

Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,
But was she not lucky?  In flowers and lace and mourning,
In love and great honour we bade God rest her soul
After six little spaces of chill, and six of burning.

Sickness

The toughest carcass in the town
Fell sick at last and took to bed,
And on that bed God waited him
With cool, cool hands for his frantic head,
And while the fever did its dance
They talked, and a good thing was said:
“See, I am not that Scriptural!
A lesser, kinder God instead.”

Fever must run its course, and God
Could not do much for the countryman,
At least he saved him certain dreams:
“I die! O save me if you can,
I am a bruised, a beaten slave,
I march in a blistering caravan,
They dash a stone upon my head—
Ah no, but that is God’s white hand.”

God plucked him back, and plucked him back,
And did his best to smoothe the pain.
The sick man said it was good to know 
That God was true, if prayer was vain. 
“O God, I weary of this night,
When will you bring the dawn again?”
The night must run its course, but God 
Was weary too with watching-strain. 

A cluck of tuneless silly birds,
A guilty gray, and it was dawn. 
The sick man thumped across the floor
And slid the curtain that was drawn:
“O pale wet dawn! O let it shine
Lustrous and gold on the good green lawn!
The lustre, Lord!” Alas, God knows
When sad conclusions are foregone.

The sick man leant upon his Lord,
On that imperfect break of day,
“Now, Lord, I die: is there no word,
No countervail that God can say?”
No word. But tight upon his arm, 
Was God, and drew not once away 
Until his punctual destiny. 
To whom could God repair to pray?

Now God be thanked by dying men
Who comrades them in times like these,
Who dreads to see the doom come down
On these black midnight canopies
And on this poisonous glare of dawns,
The whole world crumples in disease,
But God is pitying to the end,
And gives an office to my knees. 

The Swimmer

In dog-days plowmen quit their toil,
And frog-ponds in the meadow boil,
And grasses on the upland broil,
And all the coiling things uncoil,
And eggs and meats and Christians spoil.

A mile away the valley breaks
(So all good valleys do) and makes
A cool green water for hot heads sakes,
And sundry sullen dog-days aches.

The swimmer’s body is white and clean,
It is washed by a water of deepest green
The color of leaves in a starlight scene,
And it is as white as the stars between.

But the swimmer’s soul is a thing possessed,
His soul is naked as his breast,
Remembers not its east and west,
And ponders this way, I have guessed:

I have no home in the cruel heat
On alien soil that blisters feet.
This water is my native seat,
And more than ever cool and sweet,
So long by forfeiture escheat.

O my forgiving element!
I gash you to my heart’s content
And never need be penitent,
So light you float me when breath is spent
And close again where my rude way went.

And now you close above my head,
And I lie low in a soft green bed
That dog-days never have visited.
“By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread:’
The garden s curse is at last unsaid.

What do I need of senses five?
Why eat, or drink, or sweat, or wive?
What do we strive for when we strive?
What do we live for when alive?

And what if I do not rise again,
Never to goad a heated brain
To hotter excesses of joy and pain?
Why should it be against the grain
To lie so cold and still and sane?

Water-bugs play shimmer-shimmer,
Naked body s just a glimmer,
Watch ticks every second grimmer:
Come to the top, wicked swimmer!

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