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On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

Robert Penn Warren

Now the peculiar effect of this admirable little poem is largely implied in the words astonishes and vexed. First, simple grief is not the content of the primary statement. We are astonished at this event, which, though common to nature, has upset our human calculation. Second, it is not a poem whose aim is unvarnished pathos of recollection. Third, the resolution of the grief is not on a compensatory basis, as is common in the elegy formula. It is something more modest. The word vexed indicates its nature: the astonishment, the pathos, are absorbed into the total body of the mourner's experiences and given perspective so that the manly understatement is all that is to be allowed. We are shaken, but not as a leaf.

From "John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony." Virginia Quarterly Review. (1935)

Vivienne Kock

This delicately-turned elegy, suffused with an affectionate humor by the poet's intrusion into the child's own universe of geese and grass, in the end reckons death as an incongruous visitor:

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

Robert Penn Warren points out that it is the words "astonishes" and "vexed" which are pivotal to the pathos of the poem. I should add to this the colloquial term "brown study," which is domestic and yet foreign to the nature of childhood, which is all "speed" and "lightness." The repetition in the last stanza of "brown study" in conjunction with the key word "vexed" clinches the unwillingness of the narrator to accept the "little lady" as departed:

In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped-

From "The Achievement of John Crowe Ransom." Sewanee Review (1950)

M. E. Bradford

This Ransom poem is, as its title suggests, a miniature but highly traditional elegy. The five quatrains follow, as a structure, the three-stage progression which is a convention of the genre: from statement or indication of occasion of grief to expression of grief and from thence to reconciliation to or transcendence of grief. And, again in accordance with the convention, the concluding consolation is developed directly and organically out of the context established by the reactions to the girl's death which immediately precede it.

The opening quatrain, because the title of the poem relieves it of the obligation of stating the occasion of the elegy, the death of Mr. Whiteside's daughter, is free to be very specific about what there is in her death that "astonishes us all"—about the singular implications of this particular death which cause it to affront the speaker's sense of order, justice, and propriety:

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

The recollections of the child's vivacity and grace which make the stillness and abstracted or vacuous appearance of her dead body disturbing, identified in these verses as the provocation of grief, are presented fully in the three following quatrains which make up the second section of the poem. Together, in the language of high chivalric romance, they validate the explanation of collective sorrow far more effectively than could any exclamatory lamentation or full-throated Miltonic remonstrance against harsh fate. For the substance of human grief at the loss of those beloved is memory; and the most natural thing to remember about a dead child when in the presence of its mortal remains is the seemingly "tireless heart" with which it once conducted the petty affairs (in the language of the romances, "wars") of its life. The image of quest or knightly conflict suggested by the idiom Ransom applies to the remembered adventures of the little "goose girl" is likewise appropriate to the function of this section of the poem as the second and lamentory division of a three-part elegiac structure. According to the conventions of the elegy, it is not at all indecorous to express grief at the death of the subject through a recitation of his adventures, a recitation which will normally stress those qualities which he revealed in life that make of his death a loss to those who mourn. Ransom's evocation of "wars . . . bruited in our high window," of "arms" taken against "shadows" and "lazy geese," is gently ironic—his acknowledgement that he has adjusted his form to the necessities of his poetic situation. The fantasies which children enact in anticipation or imitation of the business of adult life may amuse us as we observe them; they can but play at making war. But these fantasies take on a different (and in this case, suitable) coloring when remembered in so funereal a context as that given them by this poem.

The word "ready" in the first line of stanza five marks it as the climax of an elegiac sequence: "Now go the bells and we are ready. . . ." In stanza one the speaker declares that the gathered mourners are "astonished" at the death of John Whiteside's daughter. In stanzas two, three, and four we are made to understand why. But the placement of line seventeen of the poem forces us to look at its first four quatrains and to ask how they explain the "readiness" of the bereaved, who were before "astonished" and "unready," to ask what has changed their mood and prepared them to complete the obsequies for which they have gathered; it raises the question of how sorrow at death may be assuaged by forceful expression of that selfsame sorrow. And, at the same time, it forces us to recognize in the structure of the entire poem the pattern of the traditional elegy.

At first glance, the announcement—without prelude or explanation—that those gathered in bereavement are now prepared for the last rites is surprising. The movement from section two to section three in the elegiac pattern appears to be, in the case of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," forced and poetically unearned. But on re-examination from the perspective afforded us by line seventeen, Ransom's strategy in embodying consolation in the raw material of grief itself becomes apparent. The dead girl put the mourners in mind of the girl alive; and the contrast between the two, which serves first to explain what is astonishing about the child's corpse, comes then in immemorial fashion to offer what is perhaps the oldest and most natural of all consolations, that provided by the changed and "uninhabited" appearance of the corpse. The "brown study" propped before the mourners is not recognizable as the "tireless . . . little lady with rod." Whatever vitality and grace were earlier "bruited" in the "high window" of this now diminished household will not answer with its members the summons of these bells.

Or, to take "ready" another way, and to explain in accordance with pagan or classical practice the consolation offered by memory to those gathered before a child's body, special significance may be attached to the "Alas" (line twelve) of the geese harried by the "little lady," to the "rod" with which she "took arms" and disturbed their "apple dreams," and to the general description of her activities while yet alive as a conflict with "her shadow" (lines six and seven).

In the classical elegy the question of an afterlife does not usually arise; reactions to bereavement are conditioned by emphasis upon the naturalness of death, its part in the great cycle of life from which all good and fruitfulness are derived. Always nature as order, as life giving and inevitable, is affirmed.

The geese, after the fashion of animals in the ballads, may have been preternaturally wise in seeing an ill omen in Miss Whiteside's contention with shadows. No good can come of "such speed" and "lightness," such an excessive struggle with providentially imposed limitations. Death is the issue to be expected. No platonic "wand" can provide mere mortals with the transcendence of their condition which their hearts desire. Only sorrow can result from its employment. If the rehearsal of the child's life that makes her still body "astonish" be understood according to the ominous emphasis here given certain words in the three middle stanzas of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," the structural placement and the "ready" of that poem's fifth stanza (and therefore its total design) still give us no problem.

In the interview in Conversations on the Craft of Poetry quoted above, Mr. Ransom has indicated that his elegy may be read as I have just suggested. And in the same exchange with Brooks and Warren he implies that even a third reading is possible, that stanzas two, three, and four of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" may offer consolation by attributing to the child's passing ''as much magnificence as possible." To manage the transition from expression of grief to accommodation of grief according to this formula is more Stoic than naturalistic. But the Stoic formula combines easily with the classical as do both with the more-or-less religious offered earlier in this paper. At Vanderbilt University in November, 1961, I discussed all three (classical/naturalistic, Stoic, and religious) readings of the poem in question with Mr. Ransom. The poet accepted each as valid "if not pushed too far—to the exclusion of the others." That the one situation might provoke three distinctive and yet connected responses in the astonished mourners, and that all three can be rendered by the one image of the living behavior of the girl they recall we might take to be an illustration of Ransom's theory that it is poetry's special province to capture and objectify the complex texture of "the world's body" in what he has described when speaking of such images as "inconclusive miracles."

Finally, we must acknowledge and remember that, however we take "ready," the experience implicit in this poem's order is only minimally reassuring. The mourners remain, at its conclusion, "sternly stopped" and "vexed." Death is still death, the final deprivation of the living to whom the poem as an elegy is addressed. To see it otherwise is facile cheeriness—the aforementioned bland pseudo-"Platonism" against which Mr. Ransom has inveighed at every opportunity. But, as reinforced by the muted, ceremonious, and archaic language in which it is clothed—a language which is itself comforting in that it has the effect of holding the loss and attendant pain at arm's length—the traditional design of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" nevertheless enables it (in Ransom's Own phrase) to "perform its nature" and identifies it as one of the finest modern examples of its poetic kind.

from "A Modern Elegy: Ransom's 'Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter.'" Mississippi Quarterly 21:1 (Winter 1967-1968.) Copyright Mississippi State University.

Miller Williams

The almost nonconnotative "bruited," the humor of the geese scuttling "goose-fashion," lend the distance, the perspective the poem has to have, especially after such an opening line. We realize slowly that the poem is not a simple elegy, that the grief is not so great as the consternation and wonder. The "brown study" "astonishes" us; we are vexed, but we are vexed more at the turning of quickness into stillness than at the loss of the little girl herself, and we are taken most with the contrast between the stillness of the girl and the scuttling of the geese. Our understanding is incomplete, we are taken aback, and because of this--only Ransom's word will do--we are vexed.

From The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom. Copyright 1972 by Miller Williams.

Thornton Parsons

A plausible fiction sustained by an exactly appropriate narrator accounts for the parallel success of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter." "Little body" in the first line is perilously close to obvious pathos, but this effect is counteracted by the word "speed," which begins an important motif. The reader's accruing sense of loss in "Dead Boy" is gleaned through the negative impression of the narrator, and a similar technique is used in this poem. The narrator, again, is capable of a considerable emotional distance from the death. He is astonished at the quietness that can come over, has come over, the little girl whose energetic noisiness had disturbed him so much.

"Lightness in her footfall' is a delicate suggestion of gracefulness--a quiet way to make the girl attractive before the parallels to "speed" are brought in. She was graceful, but she was vigorous and clamorous even when playing by herself. The conceit of warfare conveys this emphasis: "Her wars were bruited"; "she took arms against her shadow"; she "harried" the geese. The narrator's annoyance by the rude disturbance of placidity is projected upon the geese, "Who cried in goose, Alas." The lovely, gently surrealistic image of serenity--geese presented as a diaphanous snow-cloud passively dripping whiteness on the grass, geese that have "noon apple-dreams"--is abruptly dispersed by the indefatigable girl who converts them into scuttling, goose-stepping soldiers.

Here is a rich and complex controlling of the tone. The finely attenuated feeling of harassment in the narrator is achieved by hyperbole--an extravagant figure for peacefulness followed by an extravagant contrasting figure for clamor. This is the narrator’s central memory of the dead girl: her enormous ability to shatter placidity. It justifies the use of the word "Astonishes." It is hard to credit the stillness of the little girl now in the coffin.

Precisely chosen language is the elusive strength of the concluding stanza. Direct statements about the dead girl are terse and restrained, and the horror of death is implicit. "Brown study" is an effective euphemism for death because it has an ironic relevance to the personality of the girl alive; during her energetic life, the quiet, pensive mood seemed as unnatural for her as now seems the reality that so much clamorous liveliness could be permanently stilled. "Vexed" is exquisitely attuned to the narrator’s emotional perspective. He is not outraged, not overwhelmed. He was resignedly distressed by her noisiness when alive, and be is resignedly distressed by her temperamentally unnatural repose in death. The implication is that death itself is vexatious to human beings. This is close to our usual attitude toward it, our recurring sense of uneasiness that our lives logically imply deaths some time in the future; and, though we grow accustomed to the inevitability, it is vaguely annoying.

The motionlessness of the violently active girl has made her survivors motionless, has "sternly stopped' them, has made them confront death directly and definitely. "Primly propped" ends the poem with the emphasis upon the unnaturalness, the excessive formality, of the girl's appearance. This phrase conveys quietly and implicitly more horror than an indignant outburst would. It is the culmination of a strong and clear pathos that has been won by deft indirection; it is pathos under control, arrived at by dramatically working through the data of speed, energy, noise--and the vacuum left by death.

A little girl's death could readily entail a crude and trite pathos, but Ransom skillfully avoids it by limiting the reader’s view of the girl to the narrator's version of her. A vivid picture of her in a characteristic moment of her life is presented in language formalized enough to keep us detached, to keep us from empathizing her persona purely: "the tireless heart within the little / Lady with rod." The adult's perspective upon her is consistent to the end. There are no technical "tricks," as in "Janet Waking" and "Here Lies a Lady," to damage the fiction and to remind us of Ransom's decorous vigilance or vigilant decorum. The fiction is superbly integrated with a consistent perspective. The technique subserves the evocation of an appropriate pathos.

From John Crowe Ransom. Copyright 1969 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Thomas Daniel Young

"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" (1924), Ransom's best-known poem, is also one of his best, one that Randal Jarrell has called "perfectly realized . . . and almost perfect." Like many of Ransom's other poems, this one is on the precariousness of human life, the fleetingness of feminine beauty. It demonstrates a quality of Ransom's artistry that Graham Hough has noted: the poet's ability to present important problems through delicate subject matter. Since it concerns the death of a little girl, the poem could easily deteriorate into trite and shabby pathos, but Ransom handles his material admirably. He achieves aesthetic distance by presenting the essentials of the poem from the "high-window" of an interested but uninvolved bystander. Then, as Robert Penn Warren has pointed out, the burden of the poem lies in the poet's development of his attitude to the girl's death. First he is astonished because the news is so unexpected ("There was such speed in her little body, / And such lightness in her footfall"); after a moment's reflection, however, the astonishment turns to vexation. The speaker has confronted another of the inexplicable mysteries of the world he must live in. There is no piteous cry to heaven for justification or solace; the poet uses a usually lamentable occasion for some of his most effective irony, achieved by contrasting the stock response to death to the one addressed in the poem.

from The History of Southern Literature. Ed. Louis D. Rubin et al. Copyright 1985 by Louisiana State UP

 Kieran Quinlan

Far from being a simple pessimist, however, Ransom has the positive intention of making the reader face up to the sobering facts of existence without having recourse to the kind of consolation traditionally offered by religious belief. It is especially significant in this regard that his many poems on death have a somewhat different background than might appear at first. All of them are motivated by a philosophic purpose that he had entertained certainly when composing Poems About God and probably long before that. The genesis of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" illustrates the matter particularly well. Ransom told his biographer that the poem had been suggested to him while watching a little girl from a neighbor's house at play on a street nearby: he had imagined what it would be like were she to die. So, in the poem, the child's "speed" and "lightness" as she scuttles the lazy geese are abruptly brought to an end:

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," then, is not a memorial for a neighbor's child's actual death but an exploration of man's vexation in the face of the inevitable outcome of life. Ransom stated his purposes clearly in a letter to Tate in 1927: "My object as a poet might be something like the following, though I won't promise to stick by my analysis: (1) I want to find the Experience that is in the common actuals; (2) I want this experience to carry (by association of course) the dearest possible values to which we have attached ourselves; (3) I want to face the disintegration or nullification of these values as calmly and religiously as possible." Crudely stated, the little girl is an instance of the "common actuals" that have "the dearest possible value" for human beings; her death, therefore, forces man to confront the cruel facts of life, and he does so "religiously," not by entertaining vain hopes of future bliss, but rather by remaining stoically calm in these "vexing" circumstances.

From John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith. Copyright 1989 by Louisiana State University Press.

Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan

This loss of faith and certainty, conveyed paradoxically in decorous and charming linguistic and poetic forms usually associated with the poetry of chivalry and romance and treated with a wit that verges on black comedy, becomes the model for other Ransom poems. In "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," he once again dramatizes the enigmatic and shifting nature of existence. The speaker, a neighbor of the Whitesides, is reflecting on the totally unexpected death of John Whiteside's daughter. He remembers how he and others once gazed from their high window at the daughter's battle with the geese below as she "harried unto the pond / The lazy geese, like a snow cloud / Dripping their snow on the green grass." Then "There was such speed in her little body,/And such lightness in her footfall." But now "her brown study" is still. Although she did not hesitate, unlike Hamlet, to take "arms against her shadow," her "brown study" is now "Lying so primly propped." At first the speaker is astonished that death came to such a lively and young creature. The more he reflects, however, the more he is anguished and vexed by her death:

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.

The poem reverberates with a number of striking contrasts that capture the paradoxical nature of human existence: life-death, past-present, memory-reality, astonishment-vexation, starkness-artifice (the brown study primly propped). The bells then, as John Donne exclaims, ring not only for Whiteside's daughter but, more important, for the speaker, as well as all others still alive, and the readers who are unable to solve the riddles of human existence. The fact that the "tireless heart" of the daughter has stopped has, in turn, "sternly stopped" either a comfortable or comforting vision of existence. To add to the paradoxical tone, Ransom plays his theme against the basic lightness and even gaiety of the poem's imagery and rhythms. Thus, we are both charmed and, to use Ransom's word, vexed by the poem. This resultant irony perhaps is Ransom's finest achievement. It brilliantly captures the enigmatic nature and complexity of existence; lightness and darkness, comedy and tragedy become one.

From Modern American Poetry, 1865-1950. Copyright 1989 by G.K. Hall & Co.

Douglas Fowler

Although John Crowe Ransom's "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" has been widely admired and anthologized since its publication in 1924, commentators seem to have had difficulty describing, in this instance, the nature of the poet's achievement. For example, Robert Penn Warren (98) speaks somewhat patronizingly of Ransom's "admirable little poem," praises what he calls its "manly understatement," and notes mysteriously that "simple grief is not the content of the primary statement" the poem makes--although it is precisely as a statement of grief that readers have received the poem for seventy years.

Vivienne Koch describes the poem simply as a "delicately turned elegy, suffused with affectionate humor" (382), a statement that is true but superficial. Randall Jarrell speaks in glowing but indistinct terms of its "real, old-fashioned enchantment" (380). Graham Hough manages to come only a step closer to exploring (as far as any critic can explore the heart of any artwork) the emotional mechanism of the poem when he notes that Ransom's procedure, in this poem as elsewhere in his verse, is a treatment of "massive and ineluctable facts in small or delicate settings" (5). And the editors of a recent text for university students single out the poem for extended illustrative comment but do not seem really to comprehend the quality that sets Ransom's poem apart: Thus, William M. Chace and Peter Collier claim only that Ransom's language is understated and that the death of the little girl creates a "sense of loss" not because her death is unique, but because it "is like most deaths, perhaps our own death to come." That is, they claim that the poem operates on our emotions by somehow making death "familiar, natural, ordinary" (427). Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The unique procedure that has assured immortality for Ransom's poem seems to have been missed again and again. In effect, he has created a bitter coating for a sugar pill and given to mature readers, by indirection and verbal cunning, an experience of primal sentimental catharsis. Part of Ransom's success derives from his smuggling into his poem full-blown, potentially mawkish feelings--the "sugar"--and yet making them work by disguising those feelings inside a sheath of formality and ironic distance--the "pill."

Notice that the most vivid image in the poem is that of John Whiteside's daughter harrying the geese across the lawn. It is a comic image, of course, but the comedy inheres less in the energetic little girl than in the "sleepy and proud" geese. The geese themselves are only partially played for comedy, for they give back to the poem a lovely image of themselves "like a snow cloud / dripping their snow on the green grass." Further, these vexed, beautiful, comical geese (it would give Ransom's game away to have imaged swans, too patently a beautiful, fairy-tale creature) cry out, "in goose, Alas," and thus contribute behind the mask of comedy that shimmering and almost unforgivable word "Alas," a word that no mature poet could use with a straight face in our century. An image of great beauty has been injected subcutaneously into the lines, but it is not applied to the child herself, a nice bit of indirection: we have the effect without the aftertaste of having been cheaply maneuvered into swallowing it whole. And although the geese only regret the girl's "tireless heart" because it disturbs their gooselike "noon apple dreams," the idea of a "tireless heart" is smuggled into the poem as a statement that we immediately recognize as a pitiful irony: her daughterly heart was not tireless; her daughterly heart has stopped.

Thus, Ransom's geese give the poem the means by which its emotional effect can be dilated without its being compromised by obvious sentiment. The quaint, laconic terms in which the girl's death is described--the "brown study" that is repeated twice and the prissily inanimate plosives of "primly propped," with which the poem ends--represent strategic withdrawals at those points in the poem where we would expect elegy or eulogy, or some other sort of frontal assault on our sense of pity.

The real emotional life of the poem lies in the vivid, comical, beautiful "war" between the geese that scuttle and the "tireless" little girl who makes them scuttle. The poem's effect is thus specific and intimate, and death is made not to seem "ordinary" at all (as Chace and Collier suggest), but wasteful and tragic beyond tears--so much so that it is startling to discover that Ransom's poem had no basis at all in biographical reality. The idea was suggested to him solely by watching a neighbor's girl playing in some piles of leaves. The geese were entirely his own invention--or really his own appropriation, an appropriation of stock icons of fairy tale for use in a fairy tale told for adults. Thus the provenance of the poem illuminates its creator's procedure.

In discursive prose, Ransom once noted that "to wish to make a thing look pretty or look smart is to think poorly of it in itself and to want it more conventional, and to try to improve it is to weaken and perhaps destroy it" (81). As poet, Ransom has profited from his own advice and created an exquisite poem by smuggling into his lines beauty disguised as ironic comedy.


Chace, William M., and Peter Collier. An Introduction to Literature. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1985.

Hough, Graham. "John Crowe Ransom: The Poet and the Critic." Southern Review 1 (1965): 1-21.

Jarrell, Randall. "John Ransom's Poetry." Sewanee Review 56 (1948): 378-90.

Koch, Vivienne. "The Achievement of John Crowe Ransom." John Crowe Ransom: Critical Essays and a Bibliography. Ed. Thomas Daniel Young. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1968. 54-92.

Ransom, John Crowe. The World's Body. New York and London: Scribner's, 1938.

Warren, Robert Penn. "John Crowe Ransom: A Study in Irony." Virginia Quarterly Review 11 (1935): 93-112.

from The Explicator 52.2 (Winter 1994)

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