Tennessee’s preeminent poet and arguably the South’s most influential literary critic and teacher, John Crowe Ransom was born in Pulaski and educated at Vanderbilt, where he later taught English and became the leading member of the Fugitives, whose magazine contained many of Ransom’s finest poems. Ransom’s students included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and such distinguished Tennessee authors as Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle, Cleanth Brooks, Peter Taylor, and Randall Jarrell. Emphasizing close consideration of language in literature, Ransom’s analytical method of reading poetry would precipitate a movement in literary theory called the New Criticism, which culminated in Understanding Poetry (1937), an anthology prepared by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren which revolutionized the teaching of college English in this country.
Ransom’s skills as poet and critic were balanced by an interest in philosophy and theology, reflecting the influence of his father, a Methodist minister who preached in several Middle Tennessee towns before moving to Nashville, where Ransom entered Vanderbilt at the age of fifteen and graduated first in his class in 1909. After studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, Ransom accepted a position at Vanderbilt in 1914, where he taught until 1937, when he joined the English department at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. There he founded and edited for twenty years the Kenyon Review, an enormously influential quarterly which promoted the New Criticism, published works by many southern authors including Andrew Lytle and Flannery O’Connor, and attracted writers as diverse as Bertrand Russell, W. H. Auden, and Bertolt Brecht. Ransom died and was buried at Gambier in 1974.
Ransom’s early poetry, collected in Poems About God (1919), evokes experiences and places from his Tennessee childhood and introduces many of the themes to be developed in later poems and essays: the division between past and present, nature and man, and the search for wholeness and place in an increasingly fractured and uprooted world. These concerns were shared by T. S. Eliot; however, Ransom, like Robert Frost, preferred to use provincial settings and more traditional verse forms. Most of Ransom’s best poems were written during the publication of The Fugitive (1922-25) and were collected in three volumes: Chills and Fever (1924), Grace After Meat (1924), and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927).
In the late 1920s Ransom turned from poetry to social criticism. Attacking industrial capitalism and a pervading belief in the perfectibility of man, he contributed “Introduction: A Statement of Principles” and the initial essay, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” to the Agrarian symposium I’ll Take My Stand (1930). His first book of prose, God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy (1930), defends religious ritual, not doctrine, and anticipates many of the views expressed in The World’s Body (1938), where Ransom argues that science studies nature in order to control it while poetry, even more than religion, can best represent the mysterious complexity of nature (the world’s body). In The New Criticism (1941), which gave the movement its name, Ransom calls for a critic who can demonstrate the ways in which poetry presents the concrete body of the world through language and structure.
Ransom’s literary theories mirror his poetic practice: “metaphysical” lyrics achieve a precarious balance between intellect and emotion, irony and love. The style is restrained, the subject matter often violent and shockingly varied: dead chickens, “transmogrifying” bees, and disembodied heads. In “Piazza Piece” the grim reaper is a dirty old man in a dustcoat lurking in the vines beneath a lady’s verandah. In “Amphibious Crocodile” a dislocated southerner longs for green slime and suffers lewd nostalgic tremors. In mock ballads with Mother Goose rhythms, the young are deprived of their innocence and sometimes their lives while a childlike old man violently retains his innocence but loses everything else. “Captain Carpenter,” like other defeated Southern men, is told he shall “bear no more arms,” but fights on to lose ears, eyes, even “the red red vitals of his heart.” Whether confronting the frailty of innocence or the greater vexation of mortality, the more Ransom’s reserved narrators try to remain unemotional and uninvolved, the more they reveal how much they really care.
Many of his finest lyrics are iconoclastic pastoral elegies like “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” “Janet Waking,” and “Winter Remembered,” in which Latinate diction, reflecting Ransom’s education in classical languages, and allusions to the rituals of an older, more formal southern culture are countered by colloquial diction, a skeptical modern awareness of the “forgetful kingdom of death,” and the poignant “cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart.”
Described by Allen Tate as one of the “best elegiac poets in the language” and by Randall Jarrell as a poet whom “generations of the future will be reading page by page with Wyatt, Campion, Marvell, and Mother Goose,” John Crowe Ransom received the Bollingen Award in Poetry in 1951 and the National Book Award for poetry in 1963.