John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)
Contributing Editor: Martha E. Cook
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Focusing on Ransom's use of language, his wit and irony, seems to be the best route to exploring his themes on a level that students will respond to. Moving from the particular to the universal works even for the poems that seem to be fairly abstract; certainly the theme of "The Equilibrists" is one that students can react to once they have discovered or uncovered it. Using the kind of close analysis practiced by the New Critics is invaluable in studying Ransom's poetry.
Reading Ransom's poetry aloud is a very good strategy, since reading aloud reveals a lot of the liveliness that students sometimes miss on the printed page and also illuminates the ironic tone.
Students seem to be interested in the themes of transience and mutability and in the dichotomy of the body and the soul. They also sometimes get involved with Ransom's work by following up allusions to myths and legends.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Themes: tradition, ritual, myth; mutability; the transience of life and love; death; the dichotomy of body and soul.
Historical issues: Ransom's relationship to the Fugitive group and the little magazine, The Fugitive; Ransom as a New Critic; the relationship of a classical education to modernism in poetry; the 1920s and reaction to the Great War.
Personal issues: Ransom's life as a teacher and editor; his experience as a Rhodes scholar and as a soldier in the war; his strong classical education.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Ransom is so closely related to the metaphysical poets whom he knew so thoroughly that exploring this aspect of his style and form is particularly useful, as is any consideration of his juxtaposition of different levels of diction and his use of surprising words or word forms. He can be seen in the context of the Southern Renaissance of the 1920s or specifically as part of the Fugitive movement, primarily in his concern with tradition and traditional values, though not in his use of southern subjects. As one of the New Critics, his critical theories are important both for their own value and as they provide an avenue into the poetry. Howard's 1988 Yale Review essay gives a fascinating description of Ransom's teaching methods in a prosody course.
A different approach to Ransom that I have found invaluable is to place him in the context of the outpouring of literature in the 1920s and to relate his experiences in the war to those of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, etc. The Fugitives are often seen as a group unrelated to other writers in the 1920s, but especially Ransom's European experiences can be compared to those of his contemporaries.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Ransom can be productively compared to other Fugitive poets, especially to Allen Tate in his wit and irony; to metaphysical poets, both early and modern; to the tradition of the elegy; and to other writers who explore the same subject matter, for example,"Philomela" to The Waste Land.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. I tell them to be sure to look up the definitions of any unfamiliar words, and I also mention particular works we have already read that might be relevant, such as other poems on death, war, love, etc. Usually T. S. Eliot would precede Ransom or immediately follow, so I might warn students to watch for parallels and contrasts.
2. Specifically, students usually do best with Ransom when they focus on his use of language. In general, I find it useful to have students draft their own ideas, using support from the particular work, before they go to outside sources for a historical context or other critics' views.
Howard, Maureen. "There Are Many Wonderful Owls in Gambier." Yale Review 77 (Summer 1988): 521-27.
Morton, Claire Clements. "Ransom's 'The Equilibrists.' " Explicator 41 (Summer 1983): 37-38.
Pratt, William. "In Pursuit of the Fugitives." In The Fugitive Poets. New York: Dutton, 1965, 13-46.
Quinlan, Kieran. John Crowe Ransom's Secular Faith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Rubin, Louis D., Jr. "John Crowe Ransom: The Wary Fugitive." In The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978, 1-63.
Tate, Allen. "Gentleman in a Dustcoat." Sewanee Review 76 (Summer 1968): 375-81.
Young, Thomas Daniel. "The Fugitives: Ransom, Davidson, Tate." In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and others. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985, 319-32.