WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (New York: Payson & Clarke, 1929).
- Thirty-Six Poems (New York: Alcestis Press, 1935).
- Night Rider (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1940).
- Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1942).
- At Heaven's Gate (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1943; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1943).
- Selected Poems, 1923-1943 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1944; London: Fortune Press, 1951).
- All the King's Men (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946; abridged edition, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948).
- Blackberry Winter (Cummington, Mass.: Cummington Press, 1946).
- The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952).
- World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel (New York: Random House, 1950; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1951).
- Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (New York: Random House, 1953; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954; new version, New York: Random House, 1979).
- Band of Angels (New York: Random House, 1955; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956).
- Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (New York: Random House, 1956; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957).
- To a Little Girl, One Year Old, In a Ruined Fortress (New Haven: Yale School of Design, 1956).
- Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (New York: Random House, 1957; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959).
- Selected Essays (New York: Random House, 1958; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964).
- Remember the Alamo! (New York: Random House, 1958).
- How Texas Won Her Freedom (San Jacinto Monument, Tex.: San Jacinto Museum of History, 1959).
- The Cave (New York: Random House, 1959; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959).
- The Gods of Mount Olympus (New York: Random House, 1959; London: Muller, 1962).
- All the King's Men: A Play (New York: Random House, 1960).
- You, Emperors, and Others: Poems 1957-1960 (New York: Random House, 1960).
- The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (New York: Random House, 1961).
- Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (New York: Random House, 1961; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962).
- Flood: A Romance of Our Time (New York: Random House, 1964; London: Collins, 1964).
- Who Speaks for the Negro? (New York: Random House, 1965).
- A Plea in Mitigation: Modern Poetry and the End of an Era (Macon, Ga.: Wesleyan College, 1966).
- Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (New York: Random House, 1966).
- Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968 (New York: Random House, 1968; London: Allen, 1970).
- Audubon: A Vision (New York: Random House, 1969).
- Homage to Theodore Dreiser: August 17, 1871-December 28, 1945, On the Centennial of His Birth (New York: Random House, 1971).
- Meet Me in the Green Glen (New York: Random House, 1971; London: Secker & Warburg, 1972).
- Or Else: Poem / Poems 1968-1974 (New York: Random House, 1974).
- Democracy and Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).
- Selected Poems: 1923-1975 (New York: Random House, 1977; London: Secker & Warburg, 1977).
- A Place to Come To (New York: Random House, 1977; London: Secker & Warburg, 1977).
- Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 (New York: Random House, 1978).
- Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (A New Version) (New York: Random House, 1979).
- Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980 (New York: Random House, 1980; London: Secker & Warburg, 1980).
- Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980).
- Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980 (New York: Random House, 1981; London: Secker & Warburg, 1982).
- Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (New York: Random House, 1983).
- New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 (New York: Random House, 1985).
- Portrait of a Father (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988).
- New and Selected Essays (New York: Random House, 1989).
- A Robert Penn Warren Reader, edited by Albert Erskine (New York: Random House, 1987).
- "The Briar Patch," in I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners (New York: Harper, 1930).
- An Approach to Literature: A Collection of Prose and Verse with Analyses and Discussions, edited by Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and John Thibault Purser (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1936).
- A Southern Harvest: Short Stories by Southern Writers, edited by Warren (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937).
- Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, edited by Warren and Brooks (New York: Holt, 1938).
- Understanding Fiction, edited by Warren and Brooks (New York: Crofts, 1943).
- "A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading," in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946), pp. 59-117.
- Modern Rhetoric, by Warren and Brooks (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949).
- Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric, by Warren and Brooks (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950; London: Dobson, 1952).
- An Anthology of Stories from the Southern Review, edited by Warren and Brooks (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1953).
- Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Warren and Albert Erskine (New York: Dell, 1954).
- Six Centuries of Great Poetry: From Chaucer to Yeats, edited by Warren and Erskine (New York: Dell, 1955).
- A New Southern Harvest, edited by Warren and Erskine (New York: Bantam, 1957).
- The Scope of Fiction, edited by Warren and Brooks (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1960).
- Dennis Devlin, Selected Poems, edited by Warren and Allen Tate (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963).
- Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Warren (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966).
- Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, edited by Warren, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967).
- Selected Poems of Herman Melville: A Reader's Edition, edited by Warren (New York: Random House, 1970).
- John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry, edited by Warren (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).
- American Literature: The Makers and the Making, 2 volumes, edited by Warren, Brooks, and R. W. B. Lewis (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973).
- Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Warren (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979).
- The Essential Melville, edited by Warren (New York: Ecco, 1987).
[This entry was updated by Victor Strandberg (Duke University) from his update in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, volume 6, of the entries by him in DLB 48: American Poets, 1880-1945, Second Series, and by Everett Wilkie (University of South Carolina) and Josephine Helterman in DLB 2: American Novelists Since World War II.]
Robert Penn Warren's reputation as one of the most versatile and talented American men of letters has grown steadily since the publication of his first work in 1929. Although he achieved instant recognition among scholars as a critic, poet, and essayist, popular acceptance of his work was not forthcoming until the 1946 publication of All the King's Men. As Leonard Casper and Charles Bohner have noted, this situation was the probable result of financial disasters at home and wartime conditions abroad. Warren's first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929), reached bookstores during the stock-market crash; Night Rider (1939) was published as Hitler entered Prague; and At Heaven's Gate (1943) was largely ignored at the height of American military involvement in Europe during World War II. In a sixty-year career he published more than twenty-five volumes of verse and fiction, a dozen books of nonfiction prose, and manyessays and textbooks. This prolific creativity arguably made Warren his nation's foremost living man of letters--"America's Dean of Letters," according to a 25 August 1980 Newsweek essay.
Far from imagining such a future, Warren, the son of Robert Franklin and Ruth Penn Warren, grew up in the small town of Guthrie, Kentucky, wanting to be a sea captain. After dividing his boyhood years between his grandfather's farm in summer and his family home during school terms, he obtained an appointment to enroll as a naval cadet at Annapolis. While he was waiting for the appointment to become active, however, a serious eye injury changed his plans, and he instead matriculated at Vanderbilt University in 1921 with the intention of becoming an electrical engineer.
During his freshman year, an English course with John Crowe Ransom along with the influence of Allen Tate , an older student whom he met early in 1923, combined to kindle Warren's passion for literature, leading him to become part of the Fugitive group in Nashville, so named after their literary magazine of the mid-1920s. During these formative years Tate and Ransom helped shape Warren's poetic style both through their own examples (Ransom's verse being especially instructive) and through their respective affinities. Ransom's taste for traditional poets from the metaphysical school to A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy left its mark on many of Warren's earlier poems. "The Garden," for example, shows Andrew Marvell 's strong influence in its imagery, style, and tone; and "Love's Parable" develops a central metaphor as elaborately as a conceit of John Donne 's while using consciously archaic diction: "As kingdoms after civil broil, / Long faction-bit and sore unmanned, / Unlaced, unthewed by lawless toil ...."
Likewise, Allen Tate 's affinities with modern experimenters such as Hart Crane and T. S. Eliot proved influential early on. After The Waste Land was published late in 1922, Warren drew its scenes on his dormitory wall (Tate was most impressed by the rat crawling through vegetation); he later claimed in a 1970 interview that he and most of his college literary circle had soon learned the poem by heart. "To a Face in a Crowd," the earliest of his poems to survive into later volumes (it terminates all four of the Selected Poems), clearly displays the influence of Eliot in its theme of alienation (implicit in the title), its imagery of the futile quest for meaning ("we ... weary nomads in this desert"), its dread of mortality ("I was afraid"), and its mood of world-weariness rendered in memorable sound play: "how black and turbulent the blood / Will beat through iron chambers of the brain." Within a few years Warren's two most ambitious early poems were to show a more sophisticated level of apprenticeship to Eliot: "Kentucky Mountain Farm" for its form (in five segments) and imagery (including a death by water), and "The Return: An Elegy" for its mood and prosody.
After graduating summa cum laude from Vanderbilt in 1925, Warren went for graduate study to the University of California at Berkeley, where he met his wife-to-be Emma Brescia, but found the program of literary studies unfulfilling compared with the excitement of his Fugitive circle at Vanderbilt. He therefore headed East, first to Yale and then on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England, where he worked on his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929). This portrayal of Brown as a bloody fanatic who had coldly slaughtered several entire families in the name of the abolitionist ideal prior to Harper's Ferry was the precursor to a memorable series of similar characters in Warren's fiction and poetry, including Adam Stanton in All the King's Men and Lilburne Lewis in Brother to Dragons (1953).
Returning from Oxford in 1930 to marry Emma Brescia and take up a teaching career, Warren found positions as an assistant professor at Southwestern Presbyterian College (now Southwestern College at Memphis; 1930-1931) and as an acting assistant professor at Vanderbilt (1931-1934). In autumn 1934 he went on to Louisiana State University, where, with Cleanth Brooks and Charles W. Pipkin, he founded the Southern Review in 1935 and where his collaboration with Brooks also produced several textbooks of landmark importance for their propagation of the so-called New Criticism--an approach to literature stressing analysis of the formal elements making up the work of art. The most important of these books was Understanding Poetry (1938), which brought the New Criticism into thousands of college classrooms over the next several decades.
With his first novel, Night Rider , Warren took historical facts and created a fictional context for the interpretation and redefinition of the event, a pattern which was to become the hallmark of his fiction. Set in Kentucky in the first years of the twentieth century, the novel offers a vivid picture, with moralistic overtones, of the Association formed by local tobacco growers in an attempt to wrest higher prices from the large tobacco companies. When non-Association farmers accept only slightly higher prices for their tobacco, the Association's "night riders," a secret organization using Ku Klux Klan tactics, retaliate by destroying the unfortunate farmers' crops.
Warren's novel, superficially a story of only regional implications, invites interpretations of universal scope in its portrayal of attorney and night rider Percy Munn ("Mr. Munn" throughout the novel), a modern man in search of selfhood. Barnett Guttenburg emphasizes, "He is not Man, but Munn," a distinction which in Munn's mind exempts him from the problems of this world. Even when all his pretenses are stripped away and he stares directly into the existential void, Munn cannot clearly perceive his moral dilemma. For Warren, selfhood is achieved when man looks into the void and accepts his Sartrian responsibility, thereby having knowledge of it in a manner reminiscent of the "Fortunate Fall."
The traditional dichotomies of light/dark and good/evil are woven into the fabric of the novel in such a manner that they become the compelling metaphors in the work. Darkness and evil are represented in Mr. Munn, and his consistent refusal to respond to the knowledge symbolized in the light imagery leads to his ultimate destruction "in the woods, the absorbing darkness." His refusal naturally colors all he perceives. Thus, May, who is basically innocent, is raped by Munn in the night, an extension of the violence still raging in him after he has committed a murder. Even Lucille Christian, whose name means "Light of Christ," is perverted in Munn's own mind into a creature of the night, one identified "with all the small night noises." It is Munn's resounding rejection of knowledge and its responsibility that leads to his violent deeds and his violent death. Despite the existential overtones, living by the sword brings its promised conclusion, and, ultimately, Munn must inherit man's fate.
Despite his outstanding success in letters, Warren was not promoted to full professor at Louisiana State University, and so he accepted a position as professor of English at the University of Minnesota in 1942. Here, after completing his Selected Poems, 1923-1943 (1944), he devoted the remainder of the decade to writing several major prose works, including the novels All the King's Men and World Enough and Time (1950).
Warren's second novel, At Heaven's Gate (1943), bridges the simple chronology of Night Rider and the more elaborate time juxtapositions of All the King's Men. Although his more complex structural techniques do not approach the maturity of his craft in All the King's Men, they do anticipate his extensive use of flashback and demonstrate his experimentation with second-person narration. In this second novel, Warren counterpoints time past with time present to emphasize the futility of defining oneself through an alter ego. Set in Tennessee in the 1920s, At Heaven's Gate is based on the career of Luke Lea, a wealthy and unscrupulous financier prominent during Warren's undergraduate years at Vanderbilt. Like Lea, Warren's Bogan Murdock, with his corrupt machinations, represents to the Agrarian mind the evils of a spiritually empty urban world. Contrasted to Murdock is Ashby Wyndham, a farmer and visionary, whose combination of stoicism and traditional Christianity provides Agrarianism's answer to the corruptions of a modern age. One must, as Wyndham's life makes clear, not only accept oneself, but other people, and also recognize the legitimacy of their existence.
Warren's most celebrated novel is All the King's Men (1946), which was made into a movie in 1949. This work, which has received the bulk of critical attention given Warren's novels, is based on the story of Huey Long, the celebrated Louisiana governor who rose to national prominence through his populist politics, only to be gunned down in mid-career by Dr. Carl A. Weiss, who acted from motives still unclear. Warren has denied that the novel is based directly on Long, insisting instead that Long's story simply gave him the "line of thinking and feeling" he used to construct the novel.
As he often does, Warren shifts the natural historical focus of the story. All the King's Men does not concentrate on Willie Stark (Long's counterpart), but rather on Jack Burden, the governor's sycophant who does much of Stark's gumshoe work. As Stark requires one manipulation after another, Burden always rises to the occasion. It is Burden's gradual realization of his own true position and the consequences of his actions that lead to his heightened, more nearly correct perception of his role in this life.
The temptation is to point to the role of lies and deceit in this novel; however, it is not deceit per se which is the basis of the book, but rather the uses to which truth may be legitimately put. Burden's major task is not to fabricate lies, but to discover truth and to put it into the hands of those who can use it to their own ends and to the purposes of their political ideology.
Burden has, for the most part, lived his life believing he is exempt from both time and responsibility. His explanation for the events of this world is "The Big Twitch," or alternately, "The Big Sleep." He is slow to perceive causal relationships between what he does and ensuing events and ascribes chains of events to the Twitch itself rather than to anything he does, where the responsibility properly belongs. It may be that no greater force does shape this world; however, as Burden discovers, that fact does not exempt him from responsibility for what he does. Nor is he exempt from time, as he initially believes. All his actions are on a continuum of existence, and Burden must gradually realize that all his beliefs have no validity in the face of certain realities, of which time is the most real of all.
The complex interweavings of several dimensions of time reinforce Burden's realizations. All the King's Men is a masterpiece of narrative technique. The flashbacks reinforce the idea that all existence is on the continuum Burden seeks so desperately to avoid or escape and that events of the past reach forward to shape present events, which will themselves have ramifications in the future. However, it is also clear in the technique that time will not save one, either; it always comes for a person, that moment when his time in this world ceases.
The so-called Kentucky Tragedy forms the basis for World Enough and Time , although Warren expertly moves the tale from the melodramatic confines often given it by other writers to a realm of universal significance. In many respects the physical details remain the same, and Warren loudly echoes his source. For example, the historic Colonel Sharp becomes Colonel Fort; Jeroboam Beauchamp becomes Jeremiah Beaumont; and both tales are set in Kentucky during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. But Warren has managed to imbue the old story with new life and has expanded his fictional version of it far beyond the original boundaries.
The point of view from which the story is told is crucial to the success of the novel. Rather than permitting one of the characters to control the narrative, Warren places that role in the hands of an unnamed historian who has discovered the truth of the matter among the papers of the now dead Wilkie Barron, a principal in the novel. The crucial document is Jeremiah's diary, from which the bulk of the information is derived; however, its contents are not served up in a raw, undigested state. Rather, the scholarly narrator chooses which elements to show us and connects the parts with his own comments, which give insight into the moral dilemmas posed by the history.
This technique gives Warren three stages of control over the vocabulary, that element upon which the success of such a narrative must rest. The first stage, that of the primary sources such as the diary and letters, reflects the preoccupations and concerns of the characters, who themselves are not totally blind to the implications of their deeds and whose developing awareness the reader may view. The second stage, that of the connecting passages, allows the impartial observer to correct the characters' impressions and to become involved himself, to a certain extent, in the incredible tale of love, revenge, and politics he has discovered, and of which "We have what is left, the lies and half-lies and the truths and half-truths." The interplay between the narrator and the characters forms one of the salient features of the technique of the novel. Of most importance is the third level of vocabulary, that which describes all of life, including that with which the reader might describe his own. One is not particularly inclined to see his own life in terms of "blood," "revenge," or "murder," as is the case in this novel; however, everyone may well question the consequences of his actions and the horrible weight which they often compel him to bear, as when Beaumont, reflecting on the enormity of his deeds, sums up the response in his journal entry for 20 October: "Drunk." He later concludes, "It is the crime of self, the crime of life. The crime is I."
During this period Warren produced, as well, important essays in literary criticism such as his classic book-length interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge , "A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading" (published in a 1946 edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), and pioneering studies of Joseph Conrad , Ernest Hemingway , William Faulkner , Robert Frost , Herman Melville , Katherine Anne Porter , and Eudora Welty . In addition to their many penetrating and original insights, these essays furnish significant revelations concerning Warren's own practice as a creative writer. His essay on Conrad (collected in Selected Essays, 1958), for example, includes a statement of purpose applicable to every particle of Warren's own literary creation: "The philosophical novelist, or poet, is one for whom the documentation of the world is constantly striving to rise to the level of generalization about values, for whom the image strives to rise to symbol, for whom images always fall into a dialectical configuration, for whom the urgency of experience, no matter how vividly and strongly experience may enchant, is the urgency to know the meaning of experience." The essays on Porter and Welty have an even more direct relevance to Warren's poetry in that Welty's "A Still Moment," together with a word of advice from Porter, combined to form the genesis of Warren's Audubon: A Vision (1969), published some twenty-five years later.
In 1950 Warren's acceptance of a professorship at Yale University coincided shortly thereafter with divorce from Emma Brescia (1951) and marriage to the writer Eleanor Clark (1952), by whom he fathered his only two children, Rosanna (1953) and Gabriel (1955). From that time Warren divided his habitation between his home in Fairfield, Connecticut, a former barn in which he personally did much of the renovation in carpentry and stone work, and his summer home in Stratton, Vermont. These settings, together with his frequent sojourns with his family in France and Italy, provided a vital stimulus to much of Warren's verse since Brother to Dragons in 1953.
Brother to Dragons, the most ambitious long poem in Warren's fourteen volumes of poetry, is generally seen as a watershed separating his traditional, formally disciplined earlier verse from the later volumes, which display the loosening effects that were becoming prevalent in American poetry of the 1950s. Among those loosening effects was a more open use of his own persona in the later poetry, once he had broken away from the "impersonality of art" doctrine by installing "R. P. W." as a major character in Brother to Dragons. It should be remarked, however, that the loosening effects in Warren's later style, though extending far enough to encompass free verse, generally coexist with a continuing respect for traditional forms. From first to last, Warren's verse comprises a virtual catalogue of modified conventions, from the epic grasp of Brother to Dragons to the nursery rhymes in You, Emperors, and Others (1960). Sonnets, terza rima, iambic couplets, rhyming quatrains, sestinas, quasi-Spenserian stanzas, and various combinations thereof characterize Warren's style in virtually all his volumes of poetry.
Within this great range of styles, however, a fundamental coherence in the development of Warren's themes gives his poetic opus an underlying unity reminiscent of William Faulkner 's remark that "not only each book had to have a design but the whole output or sum of an artist's work had to have a design." In Warren's verse this total design may in the end justify reference to another eminent quotation, T.S. Eliot 's assertion that "We must know all of Shakespeare's work in order to know any of it." Something similar may be said of the poetry of Robert Penn Warren.
The master theme that unifies Warren's volumes of verse published over six decades is the neoromantic trauma of the Fall--considered as a philosophical and psychological phenomenon--along with a gradually evolving set of redemptive possibilities. In retrospect, it can be seen that this subject matter has extended across Warren's poetic opus within the frame of three overlapping phases. Using mainly lyrical form, the poetry of the first phase--the 1920s and 1930s--depicts the Fall in the usual fashion: original innocence, characterized by delight in one's being within the kingdom of nature, yielding to a forced, one-way passage into a world ruined by time, loss, and evil, the naturalistic Waste Land promulgated in the writings of Eliot and Hemingway. At times, Warren employs a frankly Wordsworthian manner, as in "Letter from a Coward to a Hero" (Thirty-Six Poems, 1935): "The scenes of childhood were splendid, / And the light that there attended, / But is rescinded: / The cedar, / The lichened rocks, / The thicket where I saw the fox, / And where I swam, the river." Elsewhere, somewhat like Robert Frost , he makes nearly obsessive use of an autumnal setting as a seasonal pun for the theme of losses--in "Late Subterfuge" and "Garden Waters," for example, as well as "The Garden" and "Aged Man Surveys Past Time" (all in Thirty-Six Poems). And as these poems of passage proliferate, Eliot continues to manifest his spectral presence; for example, a phrase lifted from "Gerontion"--"fractured atoms"--appears in the Kentucky Mountain Farm segment entitled "At the Hour of the Breaking of the Rocks" (Thirty-Six Poems).
To the irony and regret of this "Paradise Lost" perspective, Warren adds still deeper trauma through bringing the Fall to bear upon the inner psyche. Repeatedly in his verse the lapsarian experience precipitates a bifurcation within the psyche between a fleeing anima figure, representing the lost child-self, and a fallen persona that is left behind to cope as best it can with its inner vacancy and its ruined environment. In "Man Coming of Age" (Thirty-Six Poems) the lost self is "That frail reproachful alter ego" who, harking back toward "a season greener and of more love," flees the approach of his lapsed, autumn-bound doppelgänger as the poem ends. In other poems, the fleeing anima takes a nonhuman form, like the doe escaping the hunt in "Eidolon" and the hawk sailing into the sunset (Warren's most frequent version of this motif) at the end of "Picnic Remembered." The often anthologized poem "Bearded Oaks" (Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, 1942), which portrays the state of being dead in terms of undersea imagery (like Eliot's "Death by Water" in The Waste Land), illustrates the bankrupt condition of the fallen self without its anima. Here, pursuing their intent to "spare an hour's term / To practice for eternity," the two lovers maintain absolute silence and total stasis in a sea-bottom setting, where "Dark is unrocking, unrippling, still." To this scene, the upper, living world contributes just so much sediment: "Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay / Descend, minutely whispering down, / Silted down swaying streams."
Further exacerbating this postlapsarian sense of fragmentation--of being separated from one's deepest self, from nature, from the world of the living--is the motif of broken relationships that extends through these poems. Portrayed at times in terms of society at large, as in two poems in Thirty-Six Poems--"Pondy Woods" (where a killer flees the manhunt) and "History" (whose present generation disgraces the noble dream of its pioneer ancestors)--this theme of alienation most commonly affects intimate relationships, such as that between mother and son in "The Return: An Elegy" (Thirty-Six Poems) and "Revelation" (Eleven Poems on the Same Theme). Most often, it dissolves the bond between lovers, thereby promoting an ultimate expression of the "Paradise Remembered" sensibility. In their depictions of this subject, poems such as "Monologue [as opposed to Dialogue] at Midnight," "Love's Parable," and "Picnic Remembered" (all in Eleven Poems on the Same Theme) anticipate the broken romance between Anne Stanton and Jack Burden after their one Edenic summer in All the King's Men--itself a title whose reference to Humpty Dumpty implies the "Great Fall" from innocence suffered by all the main characters in the book.
Extending its ruinous sway in this fashion, the first phase of Warren's verse culminates at last in the five-poem sequence, "Mexico Is a Foreign Country: Five Studies in Naturalism" (Selected Poems, 1923-1943). Like his predecessor John Brown, or like the bloody ideologues who were precipitating global war at the time the poem was written, the political fanatic in poem one, "Butterflies Over the Map," seeks relief from his intolerable inner vacancy by committing slaughter while "robed in the pure / Idea." By comparison, the ragged beggar sitting passively in poem two, "The World Comes Galloping: A True Story," is a figure of wisdom and dignity. For the speaker of these poems, the world's fragmentation widens from the human dimension in poem three, "Small Soldiers with Drum in Large Landscape" (their drumbeat accentuates his solitude: "And I am I, and they are they, / And this is this, and that is that"), to the theological level in poem five, "The Mango on the Mango Tree," where God the "Great Schismatic" is to blame for "the Babel curse by which we live." To the craving for communion in this poem there is no answer but fantasy--"And I could leap and laugh and sing ... and everything / Take hands with us and pace the music in a ring."
Reversing the biblical analogue, the second phase of Warren's verse--that of the 1940s and 1950s--moves from the theme of the Fall to that of "Original Sin," which Warren defines (in his essay on Coleridge) as "original with the sinner and ... of his will." Here the bifurcation of the psyche precipitated by the lapsarian experience brings on a crisis of identity that necessitates the addition of dramatic and narrative elements to Warren's earlier elegiac-lyric mode. Extending from Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) through "The Ballad of Billie Potts" (in Selected Poems, 1923-1943), Brother to Dragons (1953), Promises (1957), and You, Emperors, and Others (1960), this phase of Warren's verse dramatizes the lost alter ego of prelapsarian innocence being supplanted by a fearsome new identity, a figure of innate evil rising up with hatchet in hand--like Big Billie Potts or Lilburne Lewis--to answer the fallen self's yearning for definition. In terms of Jungian archetypes, the "undiscovered self" or "shadow" (comparable to Freud's id) thus replaces the lost child-self, or anima; and the poems of Warren's middle period become a sort of psychodrama in which a sanctimonious surface ego (whom Warren calls "you") attempts to repudiate any consanguinity with its polluted Jungian shadow.
In the most original of the Eleven Poems on the Same Theme --"End of Season," "Original Sin: A Short Story," "Crime," "Pursuit," and "Terror"--"you" is portrayed in headlong flight from this bestial doppelgänger, but the pursuit is relentless. Hence the "Terror" of that last title: there is no preserving of innocence. In "End of Season" the persona takes refuge in a beach resort whose quasi-baptismal rites of play offer a cleansed new identity. (John the Baptist, Ponce de Leon, and Dante add to the ironic "new life" motif in this stanza.) The undersea realm renders protection in lines of rich sound texture--"deep and wide-eyed, dive / Down the glaucous glimmer where no voice can visit"--but the past self is a relentless pursuer: "But the mail lurks in the box at the house where you live." In "Crime" another passage of arresting aural effects describes the polluted self as a corpse showing alarming signs of resurrection from the secret place where "you" had buried it: "though the seasons stammer / Past pulse in the throat of the field-lark, / Still memory drips, a pipe in the cellar-dark, / And in its hutch and hole ... / The cold heart heaves like a toad, and lifts its brow ...." In "Terror" the "clean" part of the self strives mightily to maintain its sanctity, as "you now, guiltless, sink / To rest in lobbies, or pace gardens ...," but the worldwide outpouring of depravity in this poem, embodied in the figures of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Franco, makes innocence an increasingly untenable concept, as "you" admit in the closing comparison between "you" (vis-à-vis the shadow) and Macbeth "the criminal king" (vis-à-vis Duncan): "the conscience-stricken stare / Kisses the terror; for you see an empty chair."
This effort of "you" to escape or renounce its fallen shadow self creates the central drama of Warren's subsequent four volumes. In "The Ballad of Billie Potts" Little Billie's "original sin"--his attempt to ambush and murder a wayfarer--precipitates first his loss of Eden ("the green / World, land of the innocent bough"--a reference to Eden's Tree) and then his loss of the anima, whose departure "like the cicada had left ... / The old shell of self, thin, ghostly, translucent, light as air." Flight to the West gives Billie "another name and another face," but the insufficiency of this new identity imposes the vacancy of "you" upon the runaway, bringing him home at last in search of the missing anima:
For its visionary power, its vividness of image, and its appeal to the ear, that conclusion (in the closing lines of "The Ballad of Billie Potts") marks a pinnacle of achievement rarely equalled and never surpassed in Warren's other poetry:
As though to illustrate the Coleridgean reconciliation of opposites, "you" (the lapsarian ego) are here reconciled with the shadow self represented in the multitude of animal faces--faces that call up such precursors as the "old horse" and "old hound" that "you" locked out in "Original Sin: A Short Story." In their compulsive movement homeward, driven by intuitions of subhuman or prehuman origin, they manifest Jung's insight that the collective unconscious is "the only accessible source of religious experience." Using expressly religious diction and imagery, the coda to "The Ballad of Billie Potts" opens up two specific religious possibilities: the lapsarian ego's recovery of "innocence" through a shared identity with these questing creatures ("Brother to pinion and the pious fin that cleave / Their innocence of air and the disinfectant flood"); and--a crucial tenet in any religious attitude--the sacramental acceptance of one's mortality:
Because this moment is so crucial in Warren's total poetic vision--it initiates the third major phase in his design, that which postulates a kind of redemption from the Fall--its philosophical groundwork requires some exposition from two of Warren's seminal prose writings. The first of these is Warren's essay on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which he had already begun to contemplate at the time he was writing this poem. While speaking of Coleridge, Warren defines the nature and purpose of poetry in terms directly applicable to his own practice. Calling poetry "a myth of the unity of being" and "a glorious synthesis in which all breaches would be healed and all malice reconciled," he quotes Coleridge's celebrated definition of the Imagination for confirmation of his inferences: "It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate: ... at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify." This unification may begin on the psychological level--"We know by creating, and one of the things we create is the Self"--but ultimately it entails theological consequences. The "imagination shows us how Nature participates in God," Warren says; and the poet who apprehends this truth--whether Coleridge or Warren--then promulgates "the theme of sacramental vision," which is "the sense of the 'One Life' in which all creation participates." From such a sacramental vision, the wanderer in "The Ballad of Billie Potts" derives a sense of final identity that transcends the fragmentation, the "original sin," and the fear of mortality which the Fall had precipitated.
Further illumination of this central design of Warren's poetry may be found in "Knowledge and the Image of Man," an essay whose publication date (1955) suggests that it is the poet's retrospective on his mythopoeic construction. "Man eats of the tree of knowledge, and falls," Warren writes. "But if he takes another bite, he may get at least a sort of redemption." For Warren this redemption does not postulate a convert's withdrawal from the world of the "unclean," as orthodoxy teaches; it rather requires an opposite process of union between oneself and the whole of reality: "[Man is] in the world with continual and intimate interpenetration, an inevitable osmosis of being, which in the end ... affirms his identity." From the reconciliation of opposites that this vision permits, merging "the ugly with the beautiful, the slayer with the slain," Warren's figures of grace may derive "such a sublimation that the world which once provoked ... fear and disgust may now be totally loved." Moreover, as against the unconscious innocence of the Eden period, the redemptive knowledge that is attained through this osmosis of being is the more precious for being willed and earned: "Man can return to his lost unity, and if that return is fitful and precarious, if the foliage and flower of the innocent garden are now somewhat browned by a late season, all is the more precious for the fact, for what is now achieved has been achieved by a growth of moral awareness ...."
Although Warren's system of ideas was essentially complete with "The Ballad of Billie Potts," he has renewed and reinvigorated his fundamental themes in his later poetry by bringing on vast stretches of freshly imagined material--"willing," as he says in his tribute to Conrad, "to go naked into the pit, again and again, to make the same old struggle for his truth." About half of Warren's total body of verse, written over six decades, relates to the theme of the Fall, or forced passage into a ruined world; against this background he has played off the other two themes--reconciliation between the ego and its shadow, and between the self and the whole of reality--in a continuous dialectical tension.
In Brother to Dragons (1953), it is Thomas Jefferson and his nephew Lilburne Lewis who act out this drama of reconciliation between the "innocent" surface ego and its bestial shadow. Drawn from the Book of Job--the story of another "innocent" character who eventually comes to say, "Behold, I am vile"--the title of the poem refers primarily to Lilburne's vivisection of a slave in retaliation for a minor transgression, an actual incident in the family history that Jefferson was never known to mention in speech or writing. In the poem, Jefferson's disillusion at this betrayal of his humanistic idealism generates variations upon the "brother to dragons" motif such as his cacophonous description of the minotaur: "In the blind dark, hock-deep in ordure, its beard / And shag foul-scabbed, and when the hoof heaves-- / Listen! the foulness sucks like mire. / / The beast waits. He is ... / Our brother, our darling brother." That this president, probably the only genius ever to hold the office, should state such sentiments bespeaks a national Fall from innocence appropriate to the biblical analogue in the poem. But here again, as in "The Ballad of Billie Potts," the shadow self offers redemptive affinities with the whole of reality which are inaccessible to the surface ego. Thus, as Jefferson downgrades the human image toward these bestial archetypes, dragon and minotaur, R.P.W. in contrary fashion upgrades the beastly toward the human level. The giant snake that rears up "taller / Than any man" from the ruins of the Lewis home thereby assumes a demeanor more humane than reptilian in R.P.W.'s view of it: "then / The bloat head sagged an inch, the tongue withdrew, / And on the top of that strong stalk the head / Wagged slow, benevolent and sad and sage, / As though it understood our human pitifulness / And forgave all, and asked forgiveness, too." Likewise, the Mississippi catfish, though its "brute face / Is the face of the last torturer," enjoys an immersion in nature of quasireligious dimensions: "The catfish is in the Mississippi and / The Mississippi is in the catfish and / Under the ice both are at one with God. / Would that we were!"
Described by Hyatt Waggoner in his American Poets: From Puritans to the Present (1968) as "certainly a central document in American poetry," Brother to Dragons has elicited responses ranging from encomiastic to contemptuous. When it first appeared, Parker Tyler complained that the poem is "full ... of ideological axes" (Poetry, December 1953), and Hugh Kenner said its style "resembles that of a Kentucky preacher hypostatizing Sin" (Hudson Review, Winter 1954). But other poets found it admirable. Robert Lowell , saying he had read the work three times through without stopping, found it "superior to any of the larger works of Browning" (Kenyon Review, Autumn 1953); Delmore Schwartz thought it "most remarkable as a sustained whole" (New Republic, 14 September 1953); and Randall Jarrell called it "an event, a great one" (New York Times Book Review, 23 August 1953). In 1979 Warren published a rewritten version of Brother to Dragons, revising the characterization (Jefferson, for one thing, is less vitriolic), recasting the form (in five segments), and generally doing away with "the blank verse trap," as the poet later called it. Although the later version is more economical than the first, it retains the most skillful passages, like the coming of the annus mirabilis and R. P. W.'s long closing meditation, virtually intact.
Warren's 1955 novel, Band of Angels , is rich in complex ironies and sudden reversals of fortune. Told from the first-person view of Amantha Starr, the tale explores the painful acquisition of the answer to the question "Who am I?" as Amantha's fortunes sink when she is gradually caught up in the lost cause of the Old South, at first by no fault of her own, later by a deliberate choice on her part. It is a world where nothing is really as it seems and Amantha has stripped away from her the physical attributes by which she formerly defined her own nature and the meaning of existence. It is a world of masks.
The question "Who is everybody else?" is posed as well and becomes a significant feature in the novel. Amantha's father, though he tried to protect and educate her, ended up laying a trap for her by concealing her birth and then by failing to rectify the deceit before his death. The kindly Hamish Bond, who at first pitied her and to whom she becomes devoted, in fact uses her instead of feeling any true affection for her. He was previously a dealer in slaves. Seth Parker, a wild-eyed idealist at Oberlin, where Amantha was taught "the vanity of this, our perishing world," eventually deserts his calling to follow the lures of this world instead. Finally, Tobias Sears, a Union officer, marries her, and, after some wandering, both real and symbolic, the couple begins to resolve the problems of identity which have plagued them. It is in this resolution that the key to the novel lies. Amantha learns that she is the only one in this world who can solve the problems of self-knowledge in a manner that gives them meaning to her own life.
In a world of pretending, it is important that one not pretend, for such action is only deceptive and self-defeating. Amantha runs speedily from her own origins, but finds that they pursue faster than she can escape and must, as everyone must, come to grips with the reality of who she really is. The slave mentality is not only symbolic, it is real, and even the emancipation following the Civil War does not set Amantha free; only she can do that, for freedom is a relative concept, not truly dependent upon circumstances of birth or position. This world is not constituted of bands of angels, only bands of humans struggling on the face of this earth. God is not coming to set you free; there is no one to do that "except yourself."
In his prizewinning volume Promises (1957), Warren's belated experience of fatherhood revives a lyric strain, as he fills the two sequences dedicated to his son and daughter with sonnets, ballads, lullabies, and other harmonic forms. In substance, however, his theme of the Fall is still in evidence. The five-poem sequence dedicated to Rosanna, "To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress," creates a dialectic tension between the melancholia of the narrator, thinking of "The malfeasance of nature or the filth of fate" ("The Child Next Door"), and the prelapsarian delight of his daughter: "And you sing as though human need / Were not for perfection" ("The Flower"). The "Promises" sequence addressed to Gabriel includes episodes of "Original Sin," such as a father's slaughter of all his children ("School Lesson Based on Word of Tragic Death of Entire Gillum Family") and a grandfather's culpability in a legalized lynching ("Court-Martial"). Probably Warren's most obsessive image of a fallen soul is the tragically rootless wandering bum in "Dark Night of the Soul," a character transposed into poetry from his most widely admired short story, Blackberry Winter (published in 1946). But in "Dragon Country: To Jacob Boehme," the poet argues the "fortunate fall" idea that the world's evil--the dragon--gives life its truest meaning: "in church fools pray only that the Beast depart. / / But if the Beast were withdrawn now, life might dwindle again / To the ennui, the pleasure, and the night sweat, known in the time before / Necessity of truth had trodden the land ...." Also counteracting the Fall are the epiphanies in Promises emanating from the world's beauty ("Gold Glade") and from a boy's first experience of shared work ("Boy's Will, Joyful Labor Without Pay, and Harvest Home--1918").
For its visionary power, the most original and momentous poem in Promises is "Ballad of a Sweet Dream of Peace," a sequence of seven lyrics in which a brash young fellow (resembling "you") is forcibly initiated into the next world through the ministrations of a skeletal granny. Reminiscent of Cass Mastern's cosmic web in All the King's Men, the guide's assertion that "all Time is a dream, and we're all one Flesh, at last" promulgates the Osmosis of Being in this setting, as do the spectral hogs that embody the "one Flesh" principle.
The 1959 novel The Cave , based on the real story of Floyd Collins, is not so much the story of Jasper Harrick, who is trapped in a cave he was exploring, as it is the tale of his rescuers. Warren is able to explore not only the individual consciousnesses of each character, but also to reveal the groping and struggling of the entire community as it wrestles with its own preoccupations and helplessness in the face of disaster.
This work is unusual among novels in that the main character and object of the rescue is never seen or heard from. Trapped far below ground, he is never reached alive, despite false reports from the cowardly, grandstanding Isaac Sumpter, and dies alone and unrelieved in the darkness of his underground tomb. Although he is lost from view, his plight is never forgotten and serves as a foil to the machinations of the would-be rescuers whose lives are revealed through their schemings.
The novel is explicitly a tale of knowledge, self-discovery, and communal responsibility. The epigraph of the novel links the story to a scene in Plato 's The Republic, the metaphor of the cave. The question naturally arises whether any of the characters in the novel have struggled up the long road to the pure sunlight and to real appreciation of reality or whether they have simply perverted the concepts of truth and justice to make them fit their own ends. Thus, the cave metaphor operates on two levels in the novel. The first is the obvious one of Jasper trapped below, with no one above of sufficient fortitude or knowledge to save him. The second level is that of the metaphysical cave in which the whole community and all mankind is trapped. In reality, it is not Jasper who is trapped, it is everyone else. They are chained and unable to glimpse anything but the most perverted images of reality, like Isaac, who ends up pursuing money and makes publicity for himself from Jasper's plight.
In many respects, the knowledge gained is of a negative nature; it is not so much the knowledge of what we are, but rather the realization of what we are not. This is knowledge gained by the process of elimination rather than an aggressive examination of the human condition. After Jasper is declared dead, the crowd goes off into an orgy of drinking and intercourse. The commissioner observes, "They have enthusiasm." The lieutenant replies: "It is the same old kind Red-eye and nookie. They are also enthusiastic about not being dead in the ground." As Plato makes clear, and Warren with him, knowledge is a hurtful thing and often odious to him who acquires it. It is far simpler to stare at the shadows of reality dancing before our eyes than to see it revealed clearly in the bright light of perfect truth.
You, Emperors, and Others (1960) concludes the poems about "you" that had commenced two decades earlier in Eleven Poems on the Same Theme. In the "Garland for You" sequence, a new intensity is manifest in the postlapsarian psychodrama. "Man in the Street," for example, portrays a young man with "eyes big as saucers" who simply can not accept the fallen world: "I see facts I can't refute-- / Winners and losers, / Pickers and choosers ... / And my poor head, it spins like a top." Although the headnote of the poem relates Jesus to this world ("Raise the stone, and there thou shalt find me"), the young man prefers the Christianity of the flight reflex: "And I go to prepare a place for you, / For this location will never do." Another notable instance of the flight reflex is "The Letter About Money, Love, or Other Comfort, If Any," in which "you" first revert to the anima-self of childhood ("crooning among the ruined lilies to a teddy bear, not what a grown man ought / / To be doing past midnight") and finally lapse back into primal bestiality ("you, like an animal, / will crouch among the black boulders ... / / waiting for hunger to drive you down to forage ..."). The emperors--two of the worst, Domitian and Tiberius--add further instruction to "you" about innate depravity ("Let's stop horsing around--it's not Domitian, it's you / We mean ...").
The most moving poems in this volume are the "Mortmain" sequence about the death of the poet's father. Here, poised between his small son's and his father's life spans, the speaker stares "Down the tube and darkening corridor of Time" to glimpse a scene from his father's boyhood: "The boy, / With imperial calm, crosses a space, rejoins / The shadow of woods, but pauses, turns, grins once, / And is gone ..." ("A Vision: Circa 1880"). Poem four of this sequence, "In the Turpitude of Time: N.D.," recalls the "One Life" theme at the end of "The Ballad of Billie Potts" while also anticipating later poems such as "Trying to Tell You Something" (Selected Poems: 1923-1975, 1977): "Can we--oh, could we only--know / What annelid and osprey know, / And the stone, night-long, groans to divulge? / If only we could, then that star / That dawnward slants might sing to our human ear ...."
The 1966 Selected Poems opens with a section titled "Tale of Time: New Poems 1960-1966." Here Warren's growing preference for poem sequences--a reminder of his comment that he stopped writing short stories because they kept turning into poems--resulted in six such arrangements that subsume nearly the whole collection. (The only separate poem is "Shoes in the Rain Jungle," an early protest against the war in Vietnam.) Through five of the six sequences, the Tale of Time is the familiar story of the Fall retold as individual history. "Notes on a Life to be Lived," somewhat like Promises, juxtaposes the postlapsarian narrator's fear ("Stargazing"), grief ("Blow, West Wind"), and regret against various anima figures: the prelapsarian lad in "Little Boy and Lost Shoe," the fetus rapt in its "pulse and warm slosh of / ... unbreathing bouillon" in "Vision under the October Mountain," the eagle "climbing / The light above the mountain" in "Composition in Gold and Red-Gold," and the speaker's small son in "Ways of Day": "I watch you at your sunlight play. / Teach me, my son, the ways of day." "Tale of Time," the title sequence, recalls that supreme trauma in any man's life, the death of a mother--in this case amplified by the additional death of an ancillary mother figure, the family's black servant. Tracing the mother's life from an Edenic girlhood ("What Were You Thinking, Dear Mother?") to her funeral ("What Happened?"), "Tale of Time" fashions for this occasion a new formulation of the Osmosis of Being concept, reminiscent of the hogs' feast in "Ballad of a Sweet Dream of Peace": "the solution: You / Must eat the dead. / You must eat them completely, bone, blood, flesh, gristle ...." The "Homage to Emerson, On Night Flight to New York" sequence juxtaposes the great figure of transcendentalist prophecy--who said that there was no Fall, that man is an incarnation of God living in nature, the divine kingdom--against a series of postlapsarian images: "The Wart," "The Spider," masturbation, drunkenness, fear of flying, urban filth, the inhuman immensity of nature. "The Day Dr. Knox Did It"--committed suicide--uses its setting of August 1914 as a paradigm of lost innocence reaching from the boy-witness to the Western world. The discovery of "original sin" on the narrator's part--his confession that "I have lied... committed / adultery, and for a passing pleasure / ... inflicted death on flies"--completes the experience of the Fall: "for there is / / no water to wash the world away. / We are the world, and it is too late / to pretend we are children at dusk watching fireflies." In the "Holy Writ" sequence Warren's theme of "original sin" informs the first poem, "Elijah on Mount Carmel," in that the slaughter of the priests of Baal precipitates psychopathic frenzy--suggestive of Warren's first murderous fanatic, John Brown--in God's prophet: "he screamed, / Screaming in glory / Like / A bursting blood blister." The other biblical episode, "Saul at Gilboa," is probably the grimmest instance of postlapsarian trauma in all Warren's poetry. Here the prophet Samuel anoints Israel's first king only to witness, later, the anointed head lying severed from its torso, which, with "a stake / Thrust upward to twist the gut-tangle, towered / Above the wall of Beth-shan." Saul's prelapsarian innocence during the anointing--"How beautiful are the young, walking!"--is all the more unbearable in this hindsight: "through / The enormous hollow of my head, History / Whistles like a wind ...." Yet the "Tale of Time" section ends in "Delight," a sequence of seven short, exquisitely musical lyrics about the world's redemptive beauty.
Two remaining books of the 1960s, Incarnations (1968) and Audubon: A Vision (1969), counterbalance morbidity versus delight. Incarnations , as its title implies, takes up the "One Flesh" theme of "The Ballad of Billie Potts" and Promises, drawing support for the concept from a biblical epigraph: "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren.--Nehemiah 5.5" The flesh in Incarnations is greatly various: animal ("The Red Mullet"), human ("Internal Injuries," about a dying convict and an old woman struck by an automobile), and even vegetable ("The Ivy"). What binds most of these poems into unity is the premise of limitation: to be incarnated as a man is to be conscious of time, death, and separation from the "One Flesh" ideal. "Myth on Mediterranean Beach: Aphrodite as Logos" is particularly effective in its portrayal of Aphrodite as a humpbacked old crone whose fleshly decay represents the Logos (Truth) principle: "The breasts hang down like saddle-bags, / To balance the hump the belly sags ...." Rising from the sea "In Botticellean parody," she "passes the lovers, one by one, / / And passing, draws their dreams away, / And leaves them naked to the day." Several poems of "delight" counteract this mood, including "The Faring" (in a style reminiscent of Old English poetry), "The Enclave," and "Skiers," but Incarnations ends with two images of limitation: fog, a recurring image of being dead in Warren's later verse; and, in the fog, a crow call, evoking the problem of solipsism: "crow, / Come back, I would hear your voice: / / That much, at least, in this whiteness."
Initially, Audubon too seems morbid, describing an attempted murder that is punished by the hanging of the perpetrators. But, as Allen Shepherd has shown, Warren departed sharply from John James Audubon 's Ornithological Biography (1831-1839), where the great naturalist, saved from murder by a band of vigilantes, was "well-pleased" at seeing the "infernal hag" who tried to kill him hanged for her turpitude. The poem instead imputes to Audubon a profound empathy with the old woman, whose willfulness during her hanging evokes something close to a mystical experience in the observer: "The face, / Eyes, a-glare, jaws clenched, now growing black ... had achieved, / It seemed to him, a new dimension of beauty." This beauty of human character, like the beauty of Audubon's birds, has the effect of reversing the Fall, imparting to Audubon that perfected contentedness with himself ("Simply ... as he was / ... The blessedness!") and with the surrounding world that is normally reserved to prelapsarian innocence. Even his own mortality is easily accepted in this spirit, and the Osmosis of Being becomes immanent ("Thinks / How thin is the membrane between himself and the world"). In the end, the narrator (Warren's persona) takes instruction from this figure of grace, emulating Audubon's life-joy as he hears the geese flying North (the anima returning): "Tell me a story of deep delight."
Warren's remarkable late-flowering of creativity, compared by George P. Garrett, Jr., to that of Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and William Butler Yeats , produced four more volumes in the 1970s, as the poet was settling into his eighth decade. Subtitled Poem / Poems 1968-1974, Or Else takes as its epigraph a verse from Psalm 78 that identifies Jehovah's succor of Israel with the modern poet prophet's mission: "He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths." The dialectic between rocks / wilderness and drink in Or Else begins in poem one with the ominous image of Time the Devourer: "the sun, / Beyond the western ridge of black-burnt pine stubs like / A snaggery of rotten shark teeth, sinks ...." Poem two, "Natural History," counteracts this mood with a visionary portrayal of death as a benign absorption into nature. Here the spectral old couple's nakedness implies a return to Edenic innocence, and their embodiment in rain and flowers signifies the Osmosis of Being perfectly: "In the rain the naked old father is dancing .... / Her breath is sweet as bruised violets, and her smile sways like daffodils reflected in a brook." A similar counterpoint juxtaposes the two artists in "Homage to Theodore Dreiser"--a soul damned by his knowledge of his own and the world's evil--and "Flaubert in Egypt," in which Gustave Flaubert 's life is redeemed by his intense experience of the beauty of the world: "his heart / burst with a solemn thanksgiving to God for / the fact he could perceive the worth of the / world with such joy. / / Years later, death near, he remembered the palm fronds-- / how black against a bright sky!" At the close of Or Else, two verbal paintings represent the terminal instance of this juxtaposition. In "Birth of Love" a man, "all / History dissolving from him, is / Nothing but an eye. Is an eye only. Sees," as he is absorbed totally into the spectacle of his beloved bathing, "A white stalk from which the face flowers gravely toward the high sky." This epiphany yields in the next poem, however, to a description of death as "A Problem in Spatial Composition." Here Warren's long-standing image of the anima as a hawk disappearing into darkness at sunset occurs in a newly pictographic fashion, with the patterning of words on the page providing a visual image of the bird's descent:
Though few in number, the new poems in Selected Poems: 1923-1975 (1977) include several memorable achievements. Gathered under the title "Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand?--Poems 1975," these ten poems subserve that collective title in their recurring reach toward transcendence ("Arcturus") from a generally postlapsarian environment ("Where I Stand"). The opening poem, "A Way to Love God," depicts the dialectical conflict between the world's immanent beauty and its appalling turpitude through sudden contrast in sound and image patterns: "the sea's virgin bosom unveiled / To give suck to the wavering serpent of the moon; and / In the distance, in plaza, piazza, place, platz, and square, / Boot heels, like history being born, on cobbles bang." The closing memory of sheep standing in fog ("Their eyes / Stared into nothingness") amplifies the title of the poem: waiting quietly for death is a way to love God. "Evening Hawk" recalls a familiar anima image--the bird "climbing the last light / Who knows neither Time nor error"--and sharply contrasts its inaccessible realm of transcendence ("The star / Is steady, like Plato , over the mountain") against the fallen world, where one might "hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar." Two other poems about loss and fragmentation, "Answer to Prayer" (a "paradise past" poem about a lost romance) and "Brotherhood in Pain" (a paradox defining loneliness as the deepest human bond), add resonance to perhaps the greatest postlapsarian poem in this collection, "Loss, of Perhaps Love, in Our World of Contingency." Trying to isolate the exact lapsarian moment, when the "Loss, of Perhaps Love" of the world occurred, this poem moves backward from the present moment, epitomized in the image of a ruined bum sliding shoe soles on the pavement, and forward from the prelapsarian memory of "the dapple / Of sunlight on the bathroom floor while your mother / Bathed you."
The concluding line of this poem, "We must learn to live in the world," states simply enough the prevailing issue of Warren's postlapsarian poetry. Total immersion in the world's beauty, like that portrayed in "Trying to Tell You Something," is one way of addressing this issue; but Warren's most distinctive and, in the "Arcturus" collection, most ambitious response to the problem is the final and longest poem of the group, "Old Nigger on One Mule Cart Encountered Late at Night When Driving Home from Party in the Back Country." Like Audubon, the Old Nigger becomes in the end a figure of grace and an alter ego for Warren's persona, despite the barriers imposed by race, class, age, education, and--since their near-collision--time and distance. "Brother, Rebuker, my Philosopher past all / Casuistry," the Old Nigger reconciles "Arcturus" and "Where I Stand" within the vast embrace of his final attitude: "Between cart and shack, / [he] Pauses to make water, and while / The soft, plopping sound in deep dust continues, his face / Is lifted into starlight, calm as prayer."
Warren's next novel, A Place to Come To (1977), is in many respects his most personal. The story of a renowned medieval scholar who has come far from his humble beginnings in Dugton, Alabama, the novel poses many of the questions Warren has explored in his earlier works and shows the futility of seeking to escape the past and the flux of time. The work is apparently autobiographical to a certain extent, and Warren's use of history in this case seems to lean heavily on his own experiences as a scholar and teacher.
The main character, Jed Tewksbury, narrates the story in the first person, and everything is filtered through his enlightened, though somewhat confused, view of the world and the events that have shaped his life. Whereas Jack Burden in All the King's Men ascribed events to "The Big Twitch," Jed sees the world in terms of "The Great Avalanche," or what might be called the "Great Dong Theory." Jed's father died in a particularly obscene accident and as the story of his death passed into local legend, Jed found he could not escape it and eventually tried to sublimate the effects of the incident by telling the tale, complete with gestures, to his friends at parties. All of his maneuverings, however, prove futile, for his past continues to come back on him when he least suspects it, and it is not until he integrates his heritage into his life that he can hope to find some peace with himself and the world.
The narrative technique of the novel is a complex web of narrative-within-narrative and flashbacks, which reinforces the awful presence of the past. Moreover, Jed's work as a medievalist makes him even more sharply aware of the past, for he not only wonders why a man who is supposedly in control of his life prefers such ancient history, but he also sees in the medieval texts situations and phrases which apply to his present condition. One may not, as Jed learns, live his life divorced from what has come before. As he states early in the novel: "Something is going on and will not stop. You are outside the going on, and you are, at the same time, inside the going on. In fact, the going on is what you are. Until you can understand that these things are different but are the same, you know nothing about the nature of life. I proclaim this." The narrative technique is itself a "going on" that embodies the complexities of Jed's experiences.
The novel clearly expounds an existential view of existence. In one of the more moving passages, Jed's wife concludes even as she dies that there is no God. Indeed there is no God in this work except the one of knowledge and knowing, from whom Jed constantly turns his face. Even as Jed struggles to persuade his lover, whom he first met in high school, to leave her husband, the chiming of the clock interrupts his speech, "words fraught with the authority of passion," and he feels that each of them is "like a grasshopper that, impaled on a boy's fishhook, is swung out, twitching, kicking, spitting, and gesticulating, over the dark water." Only Jed's gradual realization and acceptance of his condition in a world where all time is realized in the present allow him to view the world with the dispassionate sobriety required truly to know one's condition.
Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 (1978), the volume that earned Warren his second Pulitzer Prize for poetry, adumbrates the theme of the Fall in its title--the Now of lapsarian consciousness being played off against the Then of Edenic memory. In general, the Then motif occurs in the opening ("Nostalgic") cluster of poems, while the Now preoccupies the second ("Speculative") collection, but several of the finest poems weave the Now and Then together. The opening poem, "American Portrait: Old Style," accomplishes this design by juxtaposing the youth and the old age of "K," a boyhood friend who had figured into one of Warren's early short stories, "Goodwood Comes Back." The paradise past of K's youth, now resembling "a vision still clinging to plaster / Set by Piero della Francesca," allowed him to "float / With a singular joy and silence, / In his cloud of bird dogs, like angels, / With their eyes on his eyes like God, / And the sun on his uncut hair bright ...." Later a big-league pitcher, until ruined by booze, K. now, "some sixty / Years blown like a hurricane past," has deteriorated into a pathetic ruin of a man, illustrating "How the teeth in Time's jaw all snag backward / And whatever enters therein / Has less hope of remission than shark-meat." The closing summation, "And I love the world even in my anger," suggests the dialectic of moods that the rest of the volume amplifies.
The biblical epigraph of Now and Then--" ... let the inhabitants of the rock sing ..." (Isaiah 42:11)--also announces this dialectical pattern through its contrast between the noun "rock" (a Waste Land analogue) and the verb "sing." Among the poems that sing most lyrically of nature's beauty are "Star-Fall," "Code Book Lost," and "Dream of a Dream": "Moonlight stumbles with bright heel / In the stream, and the stones sing ...." The poems of the contrary "rock" mentality, such as "Waiting," "Sister Water," and "Last Laugh," lead to a deepening of the speaker's hunger for his lost anima. In "Ah, Animal," where a storm's ruinous aftermath is "a metaphor for your soul ... in the hurricane of Time," the vacancy of the fallen self prompts the vain wish "that you, even in the wrack and pelt of gray light, / / Had run forth, screaming ... to leave / / The husk behind, and leap / Into the blind and antiseptic anger of air." "Heart of Autumn"--a notably imagistic postlapsarian title--closes Now and Then with an extraordinary expression of this anima-hunger in a speaker who stands watching a flock of geese fly south:
Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980 (1980), dedicated to Warren's grandfather, begins with three epigraphs about Time, the last of which is Warren's own formulation: "Time is the dimension in which God strives to define His own Being." For the poet, memory is the dimension of Time in which the attempt to define his Being occurs, creating most of these poems in the process. This gathering of memories begins with a prefatory poem, "October Picnic Long Ago," that portrays the poet-persona as a seven-year-old safely ensconced within his nuclear family. As against this fragile prelapsarian moment, section one counterposes early episodes of lost innocence. Death and funerals--including his mother's funeral in "Grackles, Goodbye"--are landmarks of initiation here, but almost as traumatic is the first awareness of solipsism. In the opening poem, "Speleology," the solitude of self in the cave--"I dared not move in darkness so absolute. / I thought: This is me. Thought: Me--who am I?"--precipitates a wish for self-transcendence ("to be, in the end, part of all"), a motif that recurs in "Boyhood in Tobacco Country" ("I ... try / To forget my own name and be part of the world") and in "Platonic Drowse" ("your body began to flow / On every side into distance, / ... / / Leaving only the steady but pulsing / Germ-flame of your Being ..."). Section two portrays the emergence of the poet's artistic purpose, which in "Youthful Truth-seeker, Half-Naked, at Night, Running down Beach South of San Francisco," evokes a strong biblical analogy: "You dream that somewhere, somehow, you may embrace / The world in its fullness and threat, and feel, like Jacob, at last / The merciless grasp of unwordable grace." Skillful appeals to the eye and ear characterize this section ("the glutted owl makes utterance," "Scraggle and brush broken through, snow-shower jarred loose / To drape shoulders ...."), but not all its poems record Nature's beauty; "Sila" concludes section two with the remembered mercy killing, by knife blade, of a wounded deer. Section three focuses upon the religious imagination, beginning and ending with the imagery of the Cross--the speaker mounting a cross in the first instance and erecting a grave marker for a drowned monkey in the other. Guilt, like that of Warren's "Original Sin" poems, proves a recurrent theme here, linking together the callous decapitation of kittens in "Dream, Dump-Heap, and Civilization," the killing of snakes for sport in "Deep--Deeper Down," a clandestine romance in "Vision," a giant boulder poised to overrun a valley "like God's wrath" in "Globe of Gneiss," and the color white as a cover for guilt in "Function of Blizzard." And the summoning of the dead--"Each wants to know if you remember a name"--adds another religious dimension in "Better Than Counting Sheep." Section four, focusing on the inadequacy of communication, begins with a similar seance ("Truth is the long soliloquy / Of the dead all their long night"), and goes on to counterpose the silence of Nature in "No Bird Does Call" and "Language Barrier" against indecipherable or fragmentary speech in "What Is the Voice That Speaks?" and "Lesson in History." Section five concludes Being Here by gathering up the themes of the book in a dialectical configuration. "Eagle Descending," an anima poem dedicated "To a Dead Friend," evokes a vision of mortality that advances upon the persona himself in "Acquaintance with Time in Early Autumn." Here, watching a leaf "Release / Its tiny claw-hooks, and trust / A shining destiny," he sees it instead "descend to water I know is black." This less-than-benign paradigm of his own death leads to a moment of theomachy--"and I hate God"--which appears to be strengthened by other postlapsarian poems such as "Ballad of Your Puzzlement" ("He picks the scab of his heart"), "Trips to California" (during the Dust Bowl disaster), and "Auto-da-Fe" ("stench of meat burned: / Dresden and Tokyo, and screams / In the Wilderness ..."). On the other hand, the Osmosis of Being transpires in "Antimony: Time and Identity," where, in a canoe at night, "As consciousness outward seeps, the dark seeps in. / As the self dissolves ... / .... / / I wonder if this is I." And the epiphanies in "Synonyms" and "Night Walking" affirm that "beauty is one word for reality" ("Synonyms"). In "Passers-By on Snowy Night," the last poem of Being Here, the lyrically rhyming quatrains restate earlier themes (such as "the moon, skull-white" evoking nature's beauty and threat) while balancing the theme of isolation against its motif of the encounter. Here the essential purpose of poetry seems implicit in this partial release from solipsism: "Alone, / I wish you well in your night / As I pass you in my own."
Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980 (1981) derives its distinctive unity and power from the intensity of its meditations on mortality--a natural theme in the poet's eighth decade. The ramifications of the subject include the expiring of a day in "Sunset Scrupulously Observed" ("The evening slowly, soundlessly, closes. Like / An eyelid"); a bird smashed bloodily in "Going West" (it is going west on a car windshield); a horse being devoured by crows and vultures in "Dead Horse in Field," its missing eyes enabling it to "more readily see / Down the track of pure and eternal darkness"; the deaths of friends in "Minneapolis Story" and "Small Eternity"; the obituary of an old girlfriend, "photograph unrecognizable," in "Afterward"; and the death of the poet's father in "One I Knew" and "Questions You Must Learn to Live Past." In this last poem, the memory of father's deathbed (played off against seeing "your own child, that first morning, wait / / For the school bus") calls forth a prospect of the speaker's own impending future, "when / After the fable of summer, a lithe sinuosity / / Slips down to curl in some dark, wintry hole, with no dream."
In relating this central subject of Rumor Verified to himself, the Warren persona retains a characteristically dialectical range of responses. "Rumor Verified," the title poem, appears to imply some mode of death as the subject of its "rumor"--the death of an old identity if not physical death. "Since the rumor has been verified, you can, at least, / Disappear," the poem begins; "you" can now abandon the carefully cultivated persona of public life in favor of some new possibilities, such as becoming a guerrilla fighter in a Third World country. But in the end, there is no escaping "the terror / Of knowledge"--in this instance, a knowledge of limitations sufficient to transform an old idiom into an ominous pun: "you are simply a man, with a man's dead reckoning, nothing more." The dead reckoning of "Convergences" somewhat resembles Edwin Arlington Robinson 's "The Man Against the Sky" in its portrayal of a distant figure disappearing into a railroad tunnel: "Now I saw him a half-mile back, / / A dot in the distance of sun / Where two gleaming rails became one / / To impale him in the black throat / Of a tunnel that sucked all to naught." Another poem, "Immanence," has the persona foreseeing his own death even more nihilistically; he "will, into / / The black conduit of Nature's Repackaging System, be sucked. / But that possibility is simply too distressing / / To--even--be considered." Yet other poems, in the "But Also" section, conceive of death as a welcome absorption into larger being reminiscent of the son's return "home" at the end of "The Ballad of Billie Potts." "What Voice at Moth-Hour" depicts its twilight scene in such tones of invitation: "It's late! Come home." Likewise, "Gasp-Glory of Gold Light" evokes the Osmosis of Being through a quasi-romantic apprehension of Nature so annealing that "The Self flows away into the unbruised / Guiltlessness of no-Self," and one may "try to think, at the same moment, / Of the living and the dead." And "English Cocker: Old and Blind" describes the blind creature's descent of the stairs--"At the edge of each step one paw suspended in air"--as representing the One Flesh concept impinging against mortality: "But you remember how you last saw / Him hesitate in his whirling dark, one paw / / Suspended above the abyss at the edge of the stair, / And ... you knew in him / The kinship of all flesh defined by a halting paradigm."
"Fear and Trembling," the concluding section of Rumor Verified, begins, in "If Ever," with a formulation of this dialectical tension: "Do contradictory / Voices now at midnight utter / Doom--or promise?" One of the contradictory voices, in "Have You Ever Eaten Stars?," describes how a field of wild mushrooms suddenly--like Wordsworth's daffodils--entrances the speaker: "There, by a deer trail, by deer dung nourished, / Burst the gleam, rain-summoned, / Of bright golden chanterelles. / However briefly, however small and restricted, here was / A glade-burst of glory." Gathered to be eaten, these starlike plants also nourish, metaphorically, the poet's appetite for epiphanies: "What can you do with stars, or glory? / ... Eat. Swallow. Absorb .... / Let brain glow / In its own midnight of darkness, / ... let the heart / Rejoice." The contrary voice, in "Afterward," fastens with Melvillean brooding upon the "polar / Icecap stretching forever in light of gray-green ambiguousness, / And, lulled by jet-hum, [you] wondered if this / Is the only image of eternity." A "nameless skull"--suggesting the final meaning of the title "Afterward"--poses the riddle of mortality in a radically stoic question: the skull, "In the moonlit desert, smiles, having been / So long alone. After all, are you ready / To return the smile?" Set off by itself in a "Coda" to Rumor Verified, "Fear and Trembling" recalls the two poems that begin the book by comprising its "Prologue." The first of these, "Chthonian Revelation: A Myth," is a strikingly Edenic love poem set against a Mediterranean seacoast. The other poem, "Looking Northward, Aegeanward: Nestlings on Seacliff," describes the tenacity of new life in a harsh environment: "From huddle of trash, dried droppings, and eggshell, lifts / ... The pink corolla of beak-gape, the blind yearning lifeward." In "Fear and Trembling," those earlier seasons of love and vitality give way to autumnal meditation, not only about the speaker's impending transition--"The gold leaf--is it whirled in anguish or ecstasy skyward?"--but also about the efficacy of turning one's past life into poems. "It is time to meditate on what the season has meant," the first stanza posits; but it is hard to meditate as the seasonal metaphor takes a more ominous coloring: "Can one, in fact ... find his own voice in the towering gust now from northward?" In the end, a sacrifice of self ("the death of ambition") precipitates the new life of poetic resurrection: "only at death of ambition does the deep / Energy crack crust, spurt forth, and leap / / From grottoes, dark--and from the caverned enchainment."
In 1983 Warren's abiding interest in American history was manifested in a book-length narrative poem, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce: Who Called Themselves the Nimipu "The Real People." Focusing on the War of 1877, in which Chief Joseph resisted efforts, in violation of several treaties, of the U.S. government to relocate his people, the poem re-creates the long trek of the Indians through Idaho and Montana until their valiant and resourceful band was overcome by superior force. Told partly by the poet and partly in the native eloquence of Chief Joseph's own voice, the narrative also draws upon a broad range of contemporary documents for added resonance. Thus the sympathy of Presidents Jefferson and Grant for the Indians is set against Charles Dickens 's contempt for these "savages" and the satisfaction expressed in an Oregon newspaper when a party of miners returned from an expedition "with twenty scalps and some plunder. The miners are well." The Indians' achievement of glory despite military defeat is nicely encompassed in two quotations from General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose words at the outset serve as an epigraph: "The more we can kill this year, the less will have to be killed the next war." In the end he wrote: "The Indians throughout have displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise; they abstained from scalping; let captive women go free ... they fought with almost scientific skill."
Wallace Stevens 's remark that a poet reveals his personality in his choice of a subject has interesting implications in this instance. Warren's lifelong effort to revise Americans' perception of their past frequently has taken the form of reversing the traditional assignment of guilt and innocence: John Brown, in Warren's first book, was a murderous fanatic, while the Secession's leader, in Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980), was a high-minded gentleman. But Warren's purpose is not merely to expose, once again, the moral turpitude of the victorious Northern politicians and generals; his deeper interest lies in his affinities with the aging Indian leader. Chief Joseph's devout attitude toward nature (reminiscent of Warren's Audubon), his strong loyalty to the father figure ("I prayed / That my father ... / Might find some worth in an act of mine, / However slight"), and his posture in facing old age ("A dying animal humped with no motion under / Darkness of skies that reach out forever")--these are deeply felt themes of Warren's later poetry. And perhaps the quest for religious meaning is the final affinity between Chief Joseph and his commemorator: "But what is a man? An autumn-tossed aspen, / Pony-fart in the wind, the melting of snow-slush? / Yes, that is all. Unless--unless-- / We can learn to live the Great Spirit's meaning ...."
On 24 April 1985--the poet's eightieth birthday--Random House published Warren's fourth volume of selected poems (New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 ). Although too few poems are republished here from his earlier volumes, the new poems in this book--gathered in a section entitled "Altitudes and Extensions 1980-1985"--are an important addition to Warren's poetic oeuvre. The "Extensions" of his title encompass large horizons in both geography and time, represented by poems such as "Minnesota Recollection," "Arizona Midnight," "Far West Once," "Winter Wheat: Oklahoma," and "Old-Time Childhood in Kentucky." This last poem, evoking the octogenarian poet's octogenarian grandfather, indicates the great range of personally felt time in this collection (which is dedicated to Warren's infant granddaughter). Perhaps the most striking achievement of this collection relates to the other key word in its title, "Altitudes." From the first poem, "Three Darknesses," to the terminal "Myth of Mountain Sunrise" a dialectical pattern of images gradually produces an extraordinary final effect of rejuvenation. At one pole of the dialectic are several intimations of mortality in such poems as "Mortal Limit," "Old Dog Dead," "Rumor at Twilight," "Last Walk of Season," and "Sunset." At the other pole are the poems of virtually pantheistic affinities with nature (reminding us of Chief Joseph and Audubon yet again), such as "Caribou," "Hope," "Why You Climbed Up," and "First Moment of Autumn Recognized." Initially rejuvenation appears hopelessly remote as the speaker (at the end of "Three Darknesses") compares his stay in the hospital to "A dress rehearsal / ... for / The real thing. Later. Ten years? Fifteen?" Even here the "Altitudes" suggest a presence, however, in the miniature form of a background image in the television movie the patient is watching: "Far beyond / All the world, the mountains lift .... / ... They float / In that unnamable altitude of white light." Reappearing with increasing imminence at various points in the collection (in "Last Walk of Season," "If Snakes Were Blue," "Wind and Gibbon," "Delusion--No!"), the mountains are animate in the end, infused by the poet's vitalistic vision: "The mountain dimly wakes, stretches itself on windlessness. Feels its deepest chasm, waking, yawn." Ending the poem ("Myth of Mountain Sunrise") and the collection is one of the most striking images in all Warren's verse as the mountain birch assumes an erotic stance toward the rising sun, her lover:
For its originality, its visionary power, and its technical virtuosity, poetry such as this seems to justify Warren's comment in the Georgia Review for Summer 1982 that "I've done some of my best poems in the last few years." Concerning his work as a whole, perhaps the best summary of Warren's poetic career is his own statement of purpose from his Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, published as Democracy and Poetry in 1975. Beginning in his foreword with "the notion of the self as the central fact of 'poetry.'" Warren later explains that "only insofar as the work [of art] establishes and expresses a self can it engage us." Ultimately, "the work itself represents the author's adventures in selfhood," he goes on to observe; and in the end Warren's concept of creating selfhood serves to describe the design of his sixty years of poetic practice: "we may declare that the self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process ...." The shelf of books in which Warren recorded that life process has now become, by general consensus, a major document in American poetry. Given the magnitude and excellence of his achievement, it seems singularly appropriate that in February 1986 the Librarian of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin , designated Robert Penn Warren the first official poet Llaureate of the United States of America. On 15 September 1989, after a long battle with bone cancer, Warren died at the age of eighty-four at the family's vacation home in Stratton, Vermont.
Most of Warren's manuscripts and letters are on deposit in the Beinecke Library at Yale University; the Margaret I. King Library, Special Collections and Archives, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington; and the Southern Review files at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The Warren family has donated Warren's personal library to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where it is open to visitors.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950-1978, edited by Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers (New York: Random House, 1980).
- James A. Grimshaw, Jr., Robert Penn Warren: A Descriptive Bibliography 1922-1979 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981).
- Floyd C. Watkins, Then & Now: The Personal Past in the Poetry of Robert Penn Warren (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982).
- Joseph L. Blotner, Robert Penn Warren: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997).
- Charles Bohner, Robert Penn Warren (New York: Twayne, 1964; revised edition, 1981).
- John M. Bradbury, The Fugitives: A Critical Account (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), pp. 172--255.
- John Burt, Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
- Leonard Casper, Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960).
- Casper, The Blood-Marriage of Earth and Sky: Robert Penn Warren's Later Novels (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997).
- William Bedford Clark, The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991).
- Clark, ed., Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren (Boston: Twayne, 1981).
- Walter B. Edgar, ed., A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Robert Penn Warren (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984).
- Lucy Ferriss, Sleeping with the Boss: Female Subjectivity and Narrative Pattern in Robert Penn Warren (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997).
- George P. Garrett, Jr., "The Recent Poetry of Robert Penn Warren," in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John L. Longley, Jr. (New York: New York University Press, 1965), pp. 223--236.
- Richard Gray, ed., Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980).
- James A. Grimshaw, Jr., ed., Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons: A Discussion (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).
- Grimshaw, Jr., ed., Time's Glory: Original Essays on Robert Penn Warren (Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1986).
- Barnett Guttenburg, Web of Being: The Novels of Robert Penn Warren (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1975).
- James H. Justus, The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981).
- Robert S. Koppelman, Robert Penn Warren's Modernist Spirituality (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995).
- Joseph R. Millichap, Robert Penn Warren: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1992).
- Neil Nakadate, ed., Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981).
- Randolph Runyon, The Braided Dream: Robert Penn Warren's Late Poetry (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990).
- Runyon, The Taciturn Text: The Fiction of Robert Penn Warren (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990).
- Hugh M. Ruppersburg, Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990).
- Katherine Snipes, Robert Penn Warren (New York: Ungar, 1983).
- Victor Strandberg, The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1977).
- Dennis L. Weeks, ed., To Love So Well the World: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Penn Warren (New York: Peter Lang, 1992).