Robert Penn Warren, born April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, Kentucky, is at the age of eighty our most eminent man of letters. His position is the more remarkable for the extraordinary persistence with which he has made himself into a superb poet. A reader thinks of the handful of poets who wrote great poetry late in life: Browning, Hardy, Yeats, Stevens, Warren. Indeed, “Myth of Mountain Sunrise,” the final poem among the new work in this fifth Warren Selected Poems, will remind some readers of Browning’s marvelous “Prologue” to Asolando, written when the poet was seventy-seven. Thinking back fifty years to the first time he saw Asolo, a village near Venice, Browning burns through the sense of loss to a final transcendence:
How many a year, my Asolo, Since—one step just from sea to land—
I found you, loved yet feared you so—For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed! No—
“God is it who transcends,” Browning ends by asserting. Warren, older even than Browning was, also ruggedly remains a poet of immanence, of something indwelling and pervasive, though not necessarily sustaining, that can be sensed in, for example, a mountain sunrise:
The curdling agony of interred dark strives dayward, in stone
No light here enters, has ever entered but
In ageless age of primal flame. But look! All mountains want slow-
ly to bulge outward extremely. The leaf, whetted on light, will cut
Air like butter. Leaf cries: “I feel my deepest filament in dark rejoice.
I know the density of basalt has a voice.”
Two primal flames, Browning’s and Warren’s, but at the close of “Myth of Mountain Sunrise” we read not “God is it who transcends” but “The sun blazes over the peak. That will be the old tale told.” The epigraph to the new section of this Selected Poems is from Warren’s favorite theologian, St. Augustine: “Will ye not now after that life is descended down to you, will not you ascend up to it and live?” One remembers another epigraph Warren took from the Confessions, for the book of poems Being Here (1980): “I thirst to know the power and nature of time.” At eighty Warren now writes out of that knowledge, and his recent poems show him ascending up to living in the present, in the presence of time’s cumulative power. Perhaps no single new poem here quite matches the extraordinary group of visions and meditations in his previous work that includes “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” “Heart of Autumn,” “Evening Hawk,” “Birth of Love,” “The Leaf,” “Mortmain,” “To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress,” and so many more. But the combined strength of the eighty-five pages of new poems that Warren aptly calls “Altitudes and Extensions” is remarkable, and extends the altitudes at which perhaps our last poet to attempt the ultimate questions of life and death continues to live and work.
Warren’s first book was John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929). I have just read it, for the first time, and discovered, without surprise, that it made me very unhappy. The book purports to be history, but is Southern fiction, on a Confederate theme—along the lines of Allen Tate’s ideology of Confederate nobility, and portrays Brown as a murderous nihilist, fit hero for the equally repellent Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed I find it difficult to decide, after suffering the book, whether the young Warren loathed Brown or Emerson more. Evidently both Brown and his intellectual supporter seemed to represent for Warren an emptiness making ruthless and passionate attempts to prove itself fullness. But John Brown, if read as a first work of fiction, does presage the Warren of Night Rider (1939), his first published novel, which I have just reread with great pleasure.
Night Rider is an exciting and remorseless narrative, wholly characteristic of what were to be Warren’s prime virtues as a novelist: good storytelling and intensely dramatic unfolding of the moral character of his doom-eager men and women. Mr. Munn, upon whom Night Rider centers, is as splendidly unsympathetic as the true Warren heroes continued to be: Jerry Calhoun and Slim Sarrett in At Heaven’s Gate (1943), Jack Burden and Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1946), Jeremiah Beaumont and Cassius Fort in World Enough and Time (1950). When Warren’s central personages turned more amiable, starting with poor Amantha Starr in Band of Angels (1955), the books alas were much less interesting. This unfortunate phenomenon culminated in Warren’s last novel (so far), A Place to Come To (1977), which Warren himself ranks with All the King’s Men and World Enough and Time. I wish I could agree, but rereading A Place to Come To confirms an earlier impression that Warren likes his hero, Jed Tewksbury, rather too much. Without some real moral distaste to goad him, Warren tends to lose his narrative drive. I find myself wishing that Tewksbury had in him a touch of what might be called Original John Brown.
Warren’s true precursor, as a novelist, is not Faulkner but Conrad, the dominant influence upon so many American novelists of Warren’s generation. In one of his best critical essays, written in 1951 on Conrad’s Nostromo, Warren gave an unwitting clue to why all his own best work, as a novelist, already was over:
There is another discrepancy, or apparent discrepancy, that we must confront in any serious consideration of Conrad—that between his professions of skepticism and his professions of faith….
Cold unconcern, an “attitude of perfect indifference” is, as he says in the letter to Galsworthy, “the part of creative power.” But this is the same Conrad who speaks of Fidelity and the human communion, and who makes Kurtz cry out in the last horror and Heyst come to his vision of meaning in life. And this is the same Conrad who makes Marlow of “Heart of Darkness” say that what redeems is the “idea only”….
It is not some, but all, men who must serve the “idea.” The lowest and the most vile creature must, in some way, idealize his existence in order to exist, and must find sanctions outside himself….
Warren calls this a reading of Conrad’s dual temperament, skepticism struggling with a last-ditch idealism, and remarks, much in T.S. Eliot’s spirit:
We must sometimes force ourselves to remember that the act of creation is not simply a projection of temperament, but a criticism and a purging of temperament.
This New Critical shibboleth becomes wholly Eliotic if we substitute the word “personality” for the word “temperament.” As an analysis of the moral drama in Conrad’s best novels, and in Nostromo in particular, this is valuable, but Warren is not Conrad, and like his poetic and critical precursor, Eliot, Warren creates by projecting temperament, not by purging it. There is no “cold unconcern,” no “attitude of perfect indifference,” no escape from personality in Eliot, and even more nakedly Warren’s novels and poems continually reveal his passions, prejudices, convictions. Conrad is majestically enigmatic, beyond ideology; Warren, like Eliot, is an ideologue, and his temperament is far more ferocious than Eliot’s.
What Warren rightly praises in Conrad is not to be found in Warren’s own novels, with the single exception of All the King’s Men, which does balance skepticism against belief just adroitly enough to ward off Warren’s moralism. World Enough and Time, Warren’s last stand as a major novelist, is an exuberant work marred finally by the author’s singular fury at his own creatures. As a person who forgives himself nothing, Warren abandons Conradian skepticism and proceeds to forgive his hero and heroine nothing. Rereading World Enough and Time, I wince repeatedly at what the novelist inflicts upon Jeremiah Beaumont and Rachel Jordan. Warren, rather like the Gnostics’ parody of Jehovah, punishes his Adam and Eve by denying them honorable or romantic deaths. Their joint suicide drug turns into an emetic, and every kind of degradation subsequently is heaped upon them. Warren, who can be a superb ironist in his novels as well as in his poetry, nevertheless so loves the world that he will forgive it nothing; and a poet can make more of such a position than a novelist.
Warren’s poetry began in the modernist revival of the metaphysical poets, as a kind of blend of Eliot’s The Waste Land with the gentler ironies of Warren’s teacher at Vanderbilt, John Crowe Ransom. This phase of the poetry took Warren up to 1943, and then came to an impasse and, for a decade, an absolute stop. At Heaven’s Gate, All the King’s Men, and World Enough and Time belong to that decade of poetic silence, and perhaps the major sequence of his fiction usurped Warren’s greater gift. But he was certainly unhappy in the later stages of his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1950, and it cannot be accidental that his poetry fully resumed in the late summer of 1954, two years after his marriage to the writer Eleanor Clark.
The book-length poem, Brother to Dragons (1953, revised version 1979), formally began Warren’s return to verse, and is undoubtedly a work of considerable dramatic power. I confess to admiring it only reluctantly and dubiously, ever since 1953, because its ideological ferocity is unsurpassed even elsewhere in Warren. This ferocity is manifested by its implicit assertion that Thomas Jefferson is somehow affected by the barbaric act of his nephews in butchering a black slave. Much improved in revision, it remains unnerving, particularly if the reader, like myself, longs to follow Emerson in forgiving himself, if not everything, then at least as much as possible. But Warrenunlike Emerson—does not wish us to cast out remorse. Like his then master, Eliot, though in a more secular way, Warren was by no means reluctant to remind us that we are original sin. Brother to Dragons is rendered no weaker by its extraordinary tendentiousness, but it is not necessarily persuasive, if you happen not to share its moral convictions.
Warren’s shorter poems; his lyrics and meditations, evolved impressively through three subsequent volumes: Promises (1957), You, Emperors and Others (1960), and a Selected Poems (1966), where the new work was grouped as “Tale of Time.” I recall purchasing these volumes, reading them with grudging respect, and concluding that Warren was turning into a poet rather like Melville (whom he was to edit in a Selected Poems of Herman Melville, in 1971) or the younger Hardy. Warren’s poems of 1934 through 1966 seemed interestingly ungainly in form, highly individual in genre and rhetoric, and not fundamentally a departure from Eliot’s high modernist mode. A poetry of moral belief, with some of the same preoccupations as the Four Quartets, I would have judged it, rather dismissively, and not of overwhelming concern if a reader was devoted to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Such a reader would also have preferred contemporary volumes like Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel (1965) and John Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains (1966), which were in the poetic tradition of Crane and Stevens, of visionary skepticism rather than Eliot’s poetry of belief in the “truth,” whether moral or religious. I could not foresee the astonishing breakthrough that Warren, already past the age of sixty, was about to accomplish with Incarnations (1968) and Audubon: A Vision (1969).
Other critics of Warren’s poetry see more continuity in its development than I do. But in 1968 I was a belated convert, transported against my will by reading Incarnations, and able at least to offer the testimony of a very reluctant believer in his poetic strength, a strength maintained by Warren throughout these nearly two decades since he began to write the poems of Incarnations in 1966.
Incarnations opens with a closely connected sequence of fifteen poems called “Island of Summer,” which is the volume’s glory. Unfortunately, Warren has included only five of these in his new Selected Poems, but they are the best of a strong group, and I will discuss only those five here, since Warren subtly has created a new sequence or a condensed “Island of Summer.” Like the original work, the sequence is a drama of poetic incarnation, or the death and rebirth of Warren as a poet. In what is now the opening meditation, “Where the Slow Fig’s Purple Sloth,” Warren associates the fig with fallen human consciousness and so with an awareness of mortality:
Split the fig, you will see
Lifting from the coarse and purple seed, its
Flesh like flame, purer
The darkening room with light.
This hard, riddling style is now characteristic and has very little in common with the evocations of Eliot in his earlier verse. “Riddle in the Garden” even more oddly associates fruits, peach and plum, with negative human yearnings, suicidal and painful; with a horror of inwardness. A violent confrontation, “The Red Mullet,” juxtaposes the swimming poet and the great fish, eye to eye, in a scene where “vision is armor, he sees and does not / Forgive.” In a subsequent vision of “Masts at Dawn,” the optical effect of how: “The masts go white slow, as light, like dew, from darkness / Condensed on them” leads to what in some other poet might be a moment of illumination, but here becomes a rather desperate self-admonition, less ironic than it sounds: “We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.” This reversed Augustinianism is a prelude to a burst of Warren’s poetic powers in the most ambitious poem he had yet written, “The Leaf.”
When he was fifteen, Warren was blinded in one eye by a sharp stone playfully thrown by a younger brother, who did not see that Warren was lying down on the other side of a hedge. Only after graduating from Vanderbilt did Warren get around to having the ruined eye removed and replaced by a glass eye. Until then, the young poet suffered the constant fear of sympathetic blindness in his good eye. There may be some complex relation between that past fear and Warren’s remarkable and most prevalent metaphor of redemption, which is to associate poetic vision both with a hawk’s vision and with a sunset hawk’s flight. This metaphor has appeared with increasing frequency in Warren’s poetry for more than half a century, and even invades the novels. So, in A Place to Come To, Jed Tewksbury endures the same vision as he loses consciousness, after being stabbed:
I remember thinking how beautiful, how redemptive, all seemed. It was as though I loved him. I thought how beautifully he had moved, like Ephraim, like a hawk in sunset flight. I thought how all the world was justified in that moment.
“The Leaf” centers upon an image of redemption, that of a hawk’s flight, with the difference from earlier poems of Warren being in the nature of the redemption. Opening with the fig again, seen as an emblem of human mortality and guilt, and of “the flaming mullet” as an encounter in the depths, the poem proceeds to an episode of shamanistic force:
Near the nesting place of the hawk, among
Snag-rock, high on the cliff, I have seen
The clutter of annual bones, of hare, vole, bird, white
As chalk from sun and season, frail
As the dry grass stem. On that
High place of stone I have lain down, the sun
Beat, the small exacerbation
Of dry bones was what my back, shirtless and bare, knew. I saw
The hawk shudder in the high sky, he shudders
To hold position in the blazing wind, in relation to
The firmament, he shudders and the world is a metaphor, his eye
Sees, white, the flicker of hare-scut, the movement of vole.
Distance is nothing, there is no solution, I
Have opened my mouth to the wind of the world like wine, I wanted
To taste what the world is, wind dried up
The live saliva of my tongue, my tongue
Was like a dry leaf in my mouth.
Nothing in Warren’s earlier poetry matches this in dramatic intensity, or in the accents of inevitability, as the poetic character is reincarnated in him by his sacrificial self-offering “near the nesting place of the hawk.” Much of the guilt and sorrow in Warren’s earlier life come together here, with beautiful implicitness: the fear of blindness, the decade of poetic silence, the failure of the first marriage, and most mysteriously, a personal guilt at having become a poet. The mystery is partly clarified in the poem’s next movement:
The world is fruitful, In this heat
The plum, black yet bough-bound, bursts, and the gold ooze is,
Of bees, joy, the gold ooze has striven
Outward, it wants again to be of
The goldness of air and—blessedly—innocent. The grape
Weakens at the juncture of the stem. The world
Is fruitful, and I, too,
In that I am the father
Of my father’s father’s father. I,
Of my father, have set the teeth on edge. But
By what grape? I have cried out in the night.
From a further garden, from the shade of another tree,
My father’s voice, in the moment when the cicada ceases, has called to me.
Warren’s father died in 1955, at the age of eight-six. Robert Franklin Warren, who wanted above everything else to be a poet, became a banker instead, solely to support not only his own children, but also a family of young children bequeathed to him by his own father, who had married again and then died. Reflecting upon all this, Warren has said: “It’s as if I’ve stolen my father’s life,” somberly adding: “If he had had the opportunity I did, with his intelligence and energy, he’d have done a lot better than I did.” This is probably part of the sorrow heard in: “I, / Of my father, have set the teeth on edge.” From Warren’s own account, one might think it the larger part of the sorrow, but imaginatively the heavier burden may have been his poetic inheritance, the influence of Eliot, which Warren here almost involuntarily disavows and overcomes. Eliot’s “not the cicada” from The Waste Land becomes here the moment when Eliot’s presence in Warren’s voice ceases, to be replaced by the poetic voice that Robert Franklin Warren had to abandon. The return of the father’s voice becomes the blessing of Warren’s new style, the gift given by Warren in his father’s name. Warren reverses the biblical trope from Jeremiah 31:29—30,
In those days it shall no longer be said, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes / and the children’s teeth are set on edge”; for a man shall die for his own wrongdoing; the man who eats sour grapes shall have his own teeth set on edge…
and thus ironically celebrates the harshness of his new style:
The voice blesses me for the only
Gift I have given: teeth set on edge.
In the momentary silence of the cicada,
I can hear the appalling speed,
In space beyond stars, of
Light. It is
A sound like wind.
From this poem on, Warren rarely falters, whether in Audubon: A Vision or in the half-dozen books of shorter poems (or new sections in selected volumes) that have followed. The achievement throughout these books necessarily is mixed, but there are several score of poems that manifest all the marks of permanence.
I want to look at just one of these poems, because it raises again, for me and for others, the ancient problem of poetry and belief. The poem is “A Way to Love God” from “Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand?,” the section of new poems in the Selected Poems that preceded the book under review. I quote only the poem’s final vision, which is no grislier than the ones preceding it:
But I had forgotten to mention an upland
Of wind-tortured stone white in darkness, and tall, but when
No wind, mist gathers, and once on the Sarré at midnight,
I watched the sheep huddling. Their eyes
Stared into nothingness. In that mist-diffused light their eyes
Were stupid and round like the eyes of fat fish in muddy water,
Or of a scholar who has lost faith in his calling.
Their jaws did not move. Shreds
Of dry grass, gray in gray mist-light, hung
From the side of a jaw, unmoving.
You would think that nothing would ever again happen.
That may be a way to love God.
By loving God, Warren appears to mean loving what he calls “the truth,” which is that all human beings are dreadfully involved in sin. This is an ancient and Augustinian polemic in all his work, poetry and prose, and does not pretend to settle what “truth” is, but rather asserts a necessarily personal conviction. Warren, despite the critical efforts of his more pious exegetes, is a skeptic and not a believer, but he is a Bible-soaked skeptic. His way of loving God is to forgive himself nothing, and to forgive God nothing.
The aesthetic consequences of this position, in the poetry written since 1966, seem to me wholly admirable, while the spiritual grimness involved remains a formidable challenge for many readers, myself among them. Missing from this new Selected Poems is a notorious sequence, “Homage to Emerson, On Night Flight to New York,” to be found in the “Tale of Time” section of Selected Poems: 1923–1975. I don’t regret its deletion, but it has considerable value in clarifying Warren’s lifelong distaste for Emerson. Here is its first part, “His Smile”:
Over Peoria we lost the sun:
The earth, by snow like sputum smeared, slides
Westward. Those fields in the last light gleam. Emerson—
The essays, on my lap, lie. A finger
Of light, in our pressurized gloom, strikes down,
Like God, to poke the page, the page glows. There is
No sin. Not even error. Night,
On the glass at my right shoulder, hisses
Like sand from a sand-rblast, but
The hiss is a sound that only a dog’s
Ear could catch, or the human heart. My heart
Is as abstract as an empty
Coca-Cola bottle. It whistles with speed.
It whines in that ammoniac blast caused by
The passages of stars, for
At 38,000 feet Emerson
Is dead right. His smile
Was sweet as he walked in the greenwood.
He walked lightly, his toes out, his body
Swaying in the dappled shade, and
His smile never withered a violet. He
Did not even know the violet’s name, not having
Been introduced, but he bowed, smiling,
For he had forgiven God everything, even the violet.
When I was a boy I had a wart on the right forefinger.
The final line is redundant, since the entire poem vigorously thrashes Emerson for his supposedly deficient sense of fact. Accusing Emerson of an abstract heart is not original with Warren, but I wince properly at the effective anti-transcendentalism of: “At 38,000 feet Emerson / Is dead right.” At ground level, I believe Emerson to be dead right also. “His Smile” is a good polemic, and should be admired as such.
The vexed issue of poetry and belief arises rather when I reread a poem like “A Way to Love God,” which is an impressive nightmare from my perspective, but a truth from Warren’s. A secularized conviction of sin, guilt, and error is an obsessive strand in Warren’s work, and for him it helps to create a position that is more than rhetorical. However, the effect is only to increase the rich strangeness of his poetic strength, which is wholly different from that of the best living poets of my own generation: Ashbery, Merrill, Ammons, and others, and from their precursor, Stevens.
Ideological ferocity never abandons Warren, but he passionately dramatizes it, and he has developed an idiom for it that is now entirely his own. He would appear to be, as I have intimated elsewhere, a sunset hawk at the end of a great tradition. Because of our increasing skepticism, I doubt that we will ever again have a poet who can authentically take this heroic a stance. He has earned, many times over, his series of self-identifications with the flight of the hawk, or an aspect of the truth. The second new poem in this Selected Poems, “Mortal Limit,” is a sonnet celebrating again his great image of the hawk:
I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the last purity of snow-snags.
There—west—were the Tetons. Snow- peaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constella- tions. Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?
Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore
The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?
So long as he abides, there will be someone capable of asking that grand and unanswerable question: “Beyond what range will gold eyes see / New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?”
May 30, 1985