Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)

John Crowe Ransom writes with a haunting yet romantic style fueled by mystery and longing. Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, on April 30, 1888. At age fifteen, he attended Vanderbilt University. In 1910 Ransom traveled to England to attend Oxford University where he focused on language and philosophy. Ransom was a small town boy but certainly not a small-minded man. In the early 1900’s when the ability to travel and receive an education was almost impossible for most, he managed it and was successful.

Ransom finished his first book, Poems about God, shortly after his stint in the military in 1919. The book focused on philosophy and religion, which was only partially true to Ransom’s poetic prose. He was most famous for poems he wrote during his time with a group of philosophers and writers in Nashville, “The Fugitives,” which included notables Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. The poetry, however, written later in his career begins to visit human nature. Ransom’s style of poetry has a distinct metered rhythm to each verse; his words are fluid which adds a taste for the dramatic.

In the late 1920’s Ransom began to move his focus from his literary career as a poet towards social criticism and wrote his first book of prose, God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy, defending religious ritual but not doctrines. In The New Criticism, which gave the movement its name, Ransom calls for a critic who can demonstrate the ways in which poetry presents the concrete body of the world through language and structure. A critic himself, Ransom was influential to an entire generation of poets and academics; he preferred complexity and irony in writing and had a genuine concern for the breakdown of humanity and its values.

In 1937 Ransom accepted a position at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, as Carnegie Professor of Poetry. While at Kenyon he founded and edited for twenty years the important literary quarterly, The Kenyon Review. Ransom often explored the ironies of life, for example, in 1924’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” using the death of a small child to epitomize the fate all meet, in this case coupled with the abruptness of the end of a new life. One of Ransom’s best known poems, it is about an encounter with the corpse of a little girl, “sternly stopped” and “vexed” to see her so “primly propped.” Ransom used regular life and sentimentality to draw attention to the irregularities of everyday life.

Ransom was described by Allen Tate as “one of the best elegiac poets in the English language,” and by Randall Jarrell as a poet whom “generations of the future will be reading page by page with Wyatt, Campion, Marvell, and Mother Goose.” In 1952 Ransom won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and in 1964 received the National Book Award for his Selected Poems published the previous year. After retiring from a teaching career and focusing solely on his literary efforts, Ransom passed away in his sleep on July 3, 1974.


Selected Bibliography

Poems About God, 1919
Chills and Fever (poetry), 1924
Grace After Meat (poetry), 1924
Two Gentlemen in Bonds (poetry), 1926
God Without Thunder (nonfiction), 1931
The World’s Body (nonfiction), 1938
The New Criticism (nonfiction), 1941
Selected Poems, 1945
Poems and Essays, 1955


Selected Links

John Crowe Ransom at Poets.org:
http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/12

John Crowe Ransom at the Poetry Foundation (with several published poems): http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=5589

John Crowe Ransom’s entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture:
http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/imagegallery.php?EntryID=R013

John Crowe Ransom chronology compiled by Michael Alberts of Millikin University: http://www.millikin.edu/aci/Crow/chronology/ransombio.html

John Crowe Ransom’s page at the University of Illinois’ Modern American Poetry site: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ransom/ransom.htm

John Crowe Ransom’s essay “Criticism, Inc.” in The Virginia Quarterly: http://www.vqronline.org/articles/1937/autumn/ransom-criticism-inc/

“John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony,” essay by Robert Penn Warren in The Virginia Quarterly:
http://www.vqronline.org/articles/1935/winter/warren-ransom/

A Selection of John Crowe Ransom’s poems from The Fugitive: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ransom/fugitive.htm