Jul 24, 2011

John Crowe Ransom, "Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter": Sympathy vs. Judgment and the Dramatic Monologue

Agrarian Movement

Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter by John Crowe Ransom : The Poetry Foundation

I've thought several times of posting John Crowe Ransom's elegant poem, "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," but each time I hesitated to post something as dark as the death of a child. I've also wondered if Ransom's formalism and air of southern gentility on the subject might feel alienating or even offensive. For no particular reason, I've decided today to post it anyway.

I've admired the poem for many years, and I think Ransom's inability or unwillingness to express more than vexation in such a situation is painfully honest, if not consoling. Shall we require the speaker to roll on the ground, spew tears, gnash teeth, and wail skyward? Is there one right way to do death?

Or, coming at it from the other direction, how many of us are willing to say of any recently deceased person that we didn't much like her. In this case, the Whiteside child was something of a pest--nothing criminal, nothing serious, just an annoying little human, maybe trying to pass for a charming belle-to-be, and that makes it diffiicult to go through the formal motions of mourning without being dishonest. In the end, all we can say is that we are "vexed." The decedent's youth dramatically increases the tensions among acceptable shows of emotion, ceremonious restraint, and honest feelings or thoughts.
Ceremonious Restraint

The poem's rhyme and meter invest in the speaker an additional stiffness, which may get in the way of our liking him. We might be close to the situation Professor Robert Langbaum describes in The Poetry of Experience and his study of dramatic monologues. In the end, readers are likely to find themselves in a tension between sympathy and judgment. We sympathize with the speaker in that we are drawn to him; as our equal or in some way our superior, we find him appealing. Maybe he is smart or charming or silver-tongued. For whatever reason, we find ourselves liking and respecting the speaker.

We don't pity or condescend to him; instead, Langbaum's "sympathy" means we feel some affinity or sense of identification with him. At the same time, however, we want to, need to judge him, almost always on moral grounds, or in something like a moral context. He is engaged in something (act, deeds, words, thoughts) we find wrong, or at least suspicious, ethically uncomfortable. So we are caught in a genuine tension, and the poem leaves us there rather than resolving the conflict, especially if resolution would have meant some facile swooping in of gods, heroes, resolving platitudes, or some such.

Though unnamed, the speaker in "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" might be called an identifiable character in an identifiable situation, like a scene from a play (hence "dramatic" monologue). However, the poem lacks an identifiable listener and therefore does not technically fit the genre of dramatic monologue. (By the way, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" and Tennyson's "Ulysses" are two of the most famous dramatic monologues, as is T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," although both speaker and listener are Prufrock, as he thinks to himself en route to a taking of tea).

However, Langbaum's tension between sympathy and judgment is likely by the end of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," and so much the better, I say. The situation is full of complexity, and the speaker's manner and content both add to that. There is probably no right way to mourn any death and be honest with ourselves. Ransom makes us re-discover that, makes us feel it, makes us squirm. That's not bad for a 20-line poem.

Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter by John Crowe Ransom : The Poetry Foundation

13 comments:

Pasadena Adjacent said...

spoken as "us and we" gives the author the needed distance. No details as to the why. Vexed I think of as being cross, but in this case it's about disbelief. I once heard a woman artist, (well respected) answer when questioned why her experience of childbirth etc didn't make an appearance in her art. She said because the intensity of the experience would only come out sentimental. It's the puppy and kitten problem. The dryer the delivery, the better the result.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

of course none of the above applies to Bukowski

Banjo52 said...

PA, Yeah, sentimentality is always a potential problem, but some subjects are just asking for trouble.

James Michael Sterling Seymour Franklin B? THAT Bukowski? :)

Paula said...

Ransom certainly has me standing in judgement. Vexing? How awful is that word being used here. I think it's important to know, though, that we might not be able to sort out our feelings at times when we think we should so we won't rely on such a lack of empathy to carry us. In that light, confusion could be a welcome state of mind.

PA, interesting point. When I was taking creative writing classes I wrote a poem about a miscarriage I had. All was well until I allowed it to be published and there was a simple typo that threw the whole thing off. No more publishing poems that personal after that.

Paula said...

and then bewilderment leading to sorrow..

RuneE said...

A bit on the side, but: Thank your very nice comment and condolences. they are highly appreciated.

Crow said...

Another side note, Thank you for your comments over at my place. I have read them more than twice.

One never knows how a touch into another soul's reality. How that contact soon ripples out like a stone cast into still water.

I enjoyed today's poetry, and the simple why of how you decided to share it.

My best,
~crow

Banjo52 said...

Rune, I keep thinking, if it's hard for me to imagine in Norway, what's it like for you who live there?

Crow, welcome and thanks. Critters, paintings, photos, and good words aplenty at your W.Va. place.

altadenahiker said...

I can't quite get my teeth into this one. At first, I thought he was being funny -- you know, like an irritating child and no one really regrets the passing.

But you made me read it three times, and I guess that's not it. In which case, well, I'm not connecting.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I DO think he's found her irritating. Although he says "we," I'm not sure he presumes to speak for everyone there, but maybe he does. And I'm asking, Is it OK for him to say so, up front, at least to himself? Or would he be a better man to hang on to the fact of her youth and mourn accordingly, even if she was a little loud, a bit of a pest, especially to the geese?

Paula said...

I started to say this in my earlier comment but then relented. This is a poem with Southern sensibilities, ie, the narrator views this tom boy as a belle in embryo, waiting for her to bloom into her assigned role. I found him irritating but I understand him.

Brenda's Arizona said...

In ten years, will this child be remembered as less than perfect? I side with PA here. Will people not look at her grave stone and feel sorry for the robbed life, the sadness the parents knew, the emptiness left behind?

Banjomyn, will your next post be on a specific mean child you know/taught/fought - so that we can better view this poem's dramatic monologue and feel hatred toward the child?

Banjo52 said...

Paula, it's interesting to wonder just how southern the poem is, especially given Ransom's southern roots. I wouldn't argue with you, though I'd ask if you think yankees are exempt from such . . . complex? vexing? . . . attitudes, responses. Probably not, I'd say. The poem feels aristocratic to me, but I don't think his thoughts and feelings are class-bound either.

Brenda, I don't think he hates her. It's not that simple, and having found her sometimes noisy or annoying could be a long way from hatred. I'm not even sure his "vexation" outweighs his sadness at losing the "speed in her little body" or "the lightness of her footfall." How perplexing to see all that action and noise converted to "her brown study," her serious, meditative expression (if memory serves, that's the meaning of "brown study," which might be a southern idiom).

I'm certainly not asking anyone to feel hatred for that or any child, and I don't think the speaker feels anything as simple or extreme as hatred. But I do wonder how honest I am, or we all are, in the wake of the death of someone we didn't especially care for, or toward whom we felt simultaneously positive and negative emotions. Funerals, weddings, and other social ceremonies are notorious for bringing out hypocrisy, or at least false-fancy rhetoric and empty gestures. Aren't they?

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