Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter by John Crowe Ransom

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"--rhyming, more or less metered--provides us some respite from the weirdness of Berryman, who teases us with promises of form. But also its elegiac form underlines what is impressive about it: how subtly it shows us the disconnect between the world of children and the world of adults. "Bells" is about the funeral of a little girl, but its slow, stately quatrains put it squarely in the perspective of the adult funeral-goer.

Not that the speaker doesn't try to enter her perspective, or the perspective she had in life. The middle stanzas are an attempt to enter the world of the little dead girl, isolated to a single memory of the girl chasing a troupe of geese. The vocabulary is Romantic, in the King Arthur sense: She "took arms" against them; they "cried in goose, Alas;" her wars were "bruited," a word that has a distinctly archaic flavor. Ransom packs so much in these phrases. There is the unmistakable sense of adventure that colors the games of childhood, but to express them in such terms is to speak as an adult about things that are, as a child, mostly ineffable. In other words, the girl may have experienced this sense of adventure, but she certainly never connected it to the word "Alas"--and despite what the speaker says, neither do the geese. Whatever our first impressions, the speaker is decidedly not admitted into the little girl's consciousness and is only guessing at things.

In death, she has become a "brown study" (another phrase severe in its maturity) and lost those hallmarks of childhood: "such speed," "such lightness in her footfall," her "tireless heart." In death, she has more in common with her onlookers, who like she are "sternly stopped." The speaker's reaction at this is remarkably cold, not grief but astonishment, vexation. "Bells" is an elegy strangely devoid of sadness, and what of it is there seems to be more over the loss of childhood than of a child. Grief peeks in at the edges, or is only implied, like a footnote.

I love "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" because it is a classic piece of misdirection. The goose bits are wonderful in their lightness (I love that they scuttle "goose-fashion") but they tell you far more about the speaker than the geese. The whole poem, in fact, is wholly not about what it seems. The stronger grief is that the girl's death presages our own, which, as we ourselves are so removed from her fleetness and mired in our own immobility, is unthinkably near. If we didn't know it were (thankfully) not based on the death any real person, it might conceal a heart of true selfishness. As it is, we might acquit Ransom of such cruelty by considering the real gravity of the allusion, which is plucked wholesale from Donne:

Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . .


Brent Waggoner said...

This is a great poem, and a good analysis. It's a lot like what Bloom says about in the compendium I have.

Christopher said...

Does he agree with me?

Brent Waggoner said...

He says you're a dillhole.