Nov 20, 2011

Hopkins' "Spring and Fall" with Ransom's "Janet Waking": Children, Mortality, Wisdom

G.M. Hopkins’  deservedly famous autumn poem, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child,” raises a question for me:  how critically may an adult speak of the limitations in a child’s awareness of life’s largest issues and crises, especially mortality?  I’ve posted it before, but here it is again:

Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation

 John Crowe Ransom’s “Janet Waking” takes that question to another, higher (or lower?), questionable level. Doesn’t it? 
Janet Waking by John Crowe Ransom

In what might be seen as an anti-Thanksgiving poem (I know, I know, it’s a chicken, not a turkey), Ransom seems engaged in a competition with himself:  whom shall I mock more, a bee-wounded, dead hen, or the little girl who named her Chucky and loved her?  To whom do I feel more superior, dead chicken or grieving child?

In the first six stanzas, I hear avuncular amusement from the speaker as he portrays little Janet in her distress. If there’s been any doubt about the presence of humor, surely “transmogrifying bee” decides the matter. And that’s soon followed by:

            purply did the knot
            Swell with the venom and communicate
            Its rigour! Now the poor comb stood up straight
            But Chucky did not.

Maybe the speaker doesn’t want us to think he is taking the whole scene too seriously, so he uses preposterous, pompous diction for humor and emotional distance. 

But I hear it as snotty. And if I weren’t sure, the ever so scholarly, condescending conclusion clinches it for me. Little Janet "would not be instructed in how deep/Was the forgetful kingdom of death."

I'll go this far with the speaker:  little Janet will probably grow up about death someday, become a little hardened,  philosophical, religious. But now? At her age? Minutes after she’s discovered her dead pet? In what way is it right or reasonable to mock her grief?  Can we like or respect a mature man who speaks this way about childhood trauma?

Yes, I might feel as he does toward a hysterical child, but aren’t there things you don’t say, even as one adult to another? How important is honesty?  In each and every situation? If he showed more empathy and respect for Janet, would we find him foolish? 

Moreover, if those last two, didactic lines are all he has to offer in the ways of Solomon, about death, just how wise is he? 

If we could feel that the author had invited us to criticize the speaker’s bombast, the ironic disparity between writer and speaker could be a major portion of the poem’s purpose:  look how insensitive and supercilious an adult can be in responding to a child’s hysteria. In that case, we'd sense a wise, compassionate author presenting a speaker who shows no effort at empathy, at remembering how limited his own understanding of death was when he was a child.

However, I don’t feel any of this from Ransom.  I don’t feel him critiquing the speaker’s condescension; I only hear a speaker looking down at the child, and he sounds cold and mean. 


Hannah Stephenson said...

What gets to me about that poem is the lack of compassion for Janet...I sense that the speak has this compassion, but withholds it until the very last line (where the tone shifts). Actually, the tone shifts with "us," I think...who is that "us," I wonder.

I thought of this Jane Hirshfield poem, which has really stayed with me (I find her so compassionate in her work):

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, yes, I do hear his compassion, in spite of himself, until the close. I wonder if the "us" could mean the speaker is Janet's father, but to me he sounds more like an uncle or family friend. But if he's not the father, what's he doing there so early in the morning? (Maybe it really is Thanksgiving . . .).

The Hirshfield is really something. Maybe I'll post it later. I'm not sure how to read its conclusion.

Rune Eide said...

I may be biased since we have four children. I'm all on the side of little Janet.

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, so you didn't mock their griefs, no matter how minor? I don't think I did either with my two. So to think or feel some "tut tut, there there" is one thing, but to speak it "aloud" for six or seven stanzas is another.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I thought the rhyme of "only a small one gave she to her daddy" was kind of funny and telling.

I don't see condescension but knowingness and empathy on the part of the author. When a child gives a perfunctory small peck she tells you all you need to know about that relationship.

When I was a small kid in San Diego, the neighbor girl raised a rabbit that her father killed for Easter dinner. She couldn't eat it, so he made her sit hours at the table until she did. I still remain disturbed by that event - so thus my spin on the poem

(new blog post up)

Anonymous said...

Oh gosh, I wrote a long comment and now it's gone. But I don't think the poet is mocking grief or the object of the little girl's grief. I think he's treading lightly over how, when death enters the picture, we're incapable of comforting one another.

Stickup Artist said...

Love that first image. The path is so inviting, the colors and detail so vivid. I'd love to step right on in! I think the author of Janet Walking squandered the chance to think deeply and communicate how a child feels and thinks when first confronted (and so bluntly in this case) by the awareness of death. loss and grief. After reading Ernest Becker's book The Denial of Death, I suddenly realize that a child's experience is even more raw than an adults because a child has not yet had time to build up any defenses, which indeed you point out in your critique. You have introduced an extremely important topic in that children's sensitivities are way too often dismissed.

Banjo52 said...

PA, and now I’m disturbed by that event. Holy cow.

AH, I hate when that happens, and it has, to me, several times. I like your reading of the poem’s conclusion, but I still hear him dismissing Janet earlier.

Stickup, thank you. My teaching primarily involved youth from mid-teens to early twenties, and I regret to say that it was later in my career that I began to see them less as adversaries and more as vulnerable kids who sometimes had dumb, obnoxious ways of expressing insecurity and anxiety. The poem’s Janet is much younger, but I think all that still applies, and I still don’t hear the speaker giving her and her way of being enough awareness and recognition. Sometimes I think we throw around sloppily the words and concept of “human dignity,” but surely little Janet deserves more of it from an adult who, paraphrasing Janet’s perception as he sees it, says:

It was a transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigour! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

Maybe I should opine more?? on the nature of teens and/or students as I came to see it (and really always did).

Lovers' Lane