The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren



Reviewed by Victor Strandberg


Edited by John Burt, with foreword by Harold Bloom

 Victor Strandberg, a member of the Duke University English department since 1966, is the author of The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren as well as numerous essays about the writer. In 1990 he founded the Robert Penn Warren Circle, a group of scholars and other people interested in Warren's life and work.


 "This extraordinary volume, magnificently edited… , should establish the permanent place of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry… as an American masterwork, one that will be read, studied, and absorbed, so long as the love for, and understanding of, great poetry survives among us."

So says Yale Professor Harold Bloom-arguably the most magisterial voice in Anglo-American literary criticism since Dr. Samuel Johnson-in his Foreword to this volume. Bloom’s judgment, I feel sure, is correct, but unfortunately, he and his Yale colleagues have erected two serious obstacles to Warren’s reputation-Bloom by failing to acknowledge the high achievement of Warren’s early and middle career (Bloom credits only the late poetry, written after Warren had reached his mid-sixties); and the Yale literary faculty by propagating the disservice to literature implied by the term "deconstruction."

The cultural politics attached to that term, and the widespread deference accorded to its attendant ideologies (Marxism, Feminism, Queer Studies, etc.), have proved ruinous to the status of many artists of the white male heterosexual persuasion. Robert Penn Warren’s wavering reputation as a poet is an excellent case in point. After earning immortality with his novel All the King’s Men-a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1947-Warren gathered laurels mainly for his verse: a Pulitzer in 1957 for Promises; the highly esteemed Bollingen Prize in 1967, another Pulitzer in 1979 for Now and Then; official Poet Laureate status in 1986 and countless accolades bestowed by rival poets: e.g. Robert Lowell’s designation of Warren’s 1953 epic Brother to Dragons as "an event, a great one."

Yet, since the poet’s death in 1989, his fifteen volumes of verse have gone virtually out of print. Pushed by market pressures to serve the prevailing politics of race and gender, even the big anthologies have been strikingly parsimonious with their pages. The McGraw-Hill anthology of 1994, The American Tradition in Literature, allotted nine pages to Adrienne Rich and twelve to Elizabeth Bishop, but only three pages to Warren. The Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich anthology of 1991, The Heritage of American Literature, allotted 14 pages to Adrienne Rich and 23 to Elizabeth Bishop while giving four pages to Warren. And the Macmillan text of 1993, entitled the Anthology of American Literature, makes no mention of Robert Penn Warren at all, as critic, novelist, or poet, in the 2377 pages it devotes to modem American literature. Clearly these numbers spell a drift toward oblivion for this once celebrated poet.

Providentially, this edition of Warren’s Collected Poems, coming between last year’s definitive biography by Joseph Blotner and a forthcoming collection of Warren’s letters edited by William Bedford Clark, may precipitate a reversal of the poet’s fortunes. These 850 densely packed pages present the entire Warren oeuvre, from his college years (he entered Vanderbilt in 1921) to his final volume in 1985, published four years before his death. The editing is superb, with thoughtfully chosen versions of each poem (Warren was an incorrigible post-publication reviser) accompanied by definitive textual and explanatory notes that run to 200 pages.

With Warren’s entire poetic oeuvre now gathered for the first time within one pair of covers, its underlying coherence becomes more manifest.

Moving from pre-modern to modem and postmodern styles of composition as it crosses the twentieth century, this poetry demonstrates what T. S. Eliot said of the Shakespeare canon: to know any of it well, you have to know all of it. To that end, the Humpty-Dumpty reference in All the King’s Men is a key to Warren’s lifelong ground theme: how to cope with a fall from innocence. The following lines from his teenage years show how even then he yearned back toward the lost paradise of childhood, which is now fossilized within a ruined "heart-stone":

As, delicate within the stone,
Pick-steel divulges to the view
The printed frond that once had grown
Greener-but perfect now as new;
So had disaster’s bluntless stroke
Cracked the heart-stone and there revealed
Within the stone the stone that spoke
Of ferned shade and summer’s field.

Later in the 1920s this Wordsworthian theme acquired modernist garb in poems like "The Return: An Elegy" and "Kentucky Mountain Farm," but the full emergence of Warren’s unique vision and voice occurs (pace Harold Bloom!) in Warren’s thirties with the publication of Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) and "The Ballad of Billie Potts" (1943). Here the verse texture becomes markedly more rich and original while developing the two themes that interweave contrapuntally through his later work. One of those themes, indicated in Eleven Poems by the titles "Crime," "Terror," "Pursuit," and "Original Sin: A Short Story," is the pervasive sense of guilt--another effect of the "fall" from innocence

--that Warren expresses through vivid nature imagery:


By walls, by walks, chrysanthemum and aster,
All hairy, fat-petalled species, lean, confer,
And his ears, and heart, should bum at that insidious whisper
Which concerns him so, he knows; but he cannot make out the words.

The peacock screamed, and his feathered fury made
Legend shake, all day, while the sky ran pale as milk;
That night, all night, the buck rabbit stamped in the moonlit glade,
And the owl’s brain glowed like a coal in the grove’s combustible dark.


Warren’s answer to this lapsarian state-his other dominant theme--is a pantheistic union with this fallen world that "[merges] the ugly with the beautiful, the slayer with the slain, [evoking] such a sublimation that the world which once provoked. . . fear and disgust may now be totally loved." That last adverb-"totally loved"-poses a serious challenge, which Warren answers by assuming the perspective of nature’s humbler creatures. The poet’s initial fusion with these creatures occurs in Coleridgean majesty at the end of "Billie Potts," accompanied by a richly harmonious sound texture:


The bee knows, and the eel’s cold ganglia burn,
And the sad head lifting to the long return,
Through brumal deeps, in the great unsolsticed coil,
Carries its knowledge, navigator without star,
And under the stars, pure in its clamorous toil,
The goose hoots north, where the starlit marshes are.
The salmon heaves at the fall, and, wanderer, you
Heave at the great fall of Time….

A quarter century later, Audubon famously follows suit in Audubon: A Vision (1969)-"[he] Thinks/How thin is the membrane between himself and the world-and later still the same impulse is powerfully at work when the speaker joins the wild geese in "Heart of Autumn," the terminal poem in Now and Then (1977):

I stand, my face lifted now skyward,

Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,

With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance-
Toward sunset, at a great height.

To the very end, Warren continued to amplify his vision of what Wordsworth called "natural piety." In the closing lines of his last published poem, "Myth of Mountain Sunrise" (1985), Warren’s expanding arc of pantheistic insight embraces even inanimate nature, as the rising sun grips its birch-tree lover:


... Think of a girl-shape, birch-white sapling, rising now


From ankle-deep brook-stones, head back-flung, eyes closed in first beam, While hair-long, water-roped, past curve, coign, sway that no geometries know--Spreads end-thin, to define fruit-swell of haunches, tingle of hand-hold. The sun blazes over the peak. That will be the old tale told.

Needless to say, there is more in this vast treasury of verse than we can here delineate: lyrics, ballads, character portraits, parodies and satires, nursery rhymes, dramatic monologues, and extended narrative sequences. The materials of art range from Biblical/classical episodes-Elijah hunting down Ahab, Achilles killing Penthisilea--to contemporary science and politics. The settings, richly documented, follow the poet’s wanderings from his old Kentucky home to San Francisco to Louisiana to Vermont to France and Italy (only his Rhodes Scholarship in England left no imprint). And the moods cross the spectrum from bleakly stoic to the foregoing "unwordable utterance" of geese ecstatically in flight.

Thanks to John Burt’s long labor of love, it’s all here within one pair of covers. As a result, The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren marks one writer’s well-deserved triumph in the ageless struggle between literary merit and oblivion. It should ensure, as Professor Bloom says, "the permanent place of [this] poetry… as an American masterwork."