Not Sentimental?

Here's another poem -- John Crowe Ransom's "Dead Boy" -- I have loved a long time & though I now find Ransom's celebration of the "dynastic" families of the Agrarian South pretty offensive, the language of this poem is not sentimental. Ransom does not ask the reader to produce an emotional response for which he has not provided an occasion in language. The subject lends itself to sentimental excess, which the specificity of the language avoids:
The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction, A green bough from Virginia's aged tree, And none of the county kin like the transaction, Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me. A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever, A black cloud full of storms too hot for keeping, A sword beneath his mother's heart—yet never Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping. A pig with a pasty face, so I had said, Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretense With a noble house. But the little man quite dead, I see the forbears' antique lineaments. The elder men have strode by the box of death To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round The bruit of the day. O friendly waste of breath! Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound. He was pale and little, the foolish neighbors say; The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken; But this was the old tree's late branch wrenched away, Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.
In thinking about this a bit more, it occurs to me that we might accuse Ransom of sentimentality toward the idea of a "noble" family even as he writes an unsentimental elegy for an individual little boy. Or is this splitting heirs? It is the (self-deprecating) position of the speaker of this poem in relation to the subject that I find convincing in this poem, but not in Wright's "A Blessing." On the one hand, Ransom seems utterly unaware of his (sentimental?) attachment to the idea of the noble souther family, but on the other hand he acknowledges his critical but reconciled (by death) attitude toward the dead boy.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

8 thoughts on “Not Sentimental?”

  1. Interesting that this was the style that Wright was trying to get away from–the dominant mode in Am. poetry of the period right before his. Didn’t Wright study with Ransom? Irony has to be earned, just as much sentiment. Isn’t Crowe Ransom trying to hard not to be sentimental? Does he come by his irony too cheaply?

    The poem puts into play a fascinating clash of perspectives, though.

    A piggish kid–but loved by his mother. The hyperbole in the way her response is conveyed is necessary to drive the point home.

    A scion of noble family–yet “kinned” to his ancestors by accident, not worthy of their heritage–yet resembling them more dead than alive.

    Death ennobles, changes perspectives around. Of course the perspective of someone who finds nothing to admire in old Virginia families also comes into play in the reader’s response.

  2. The description of Wright’s family background shows him to spring from a working class family, not from an old Virginia family, well-born. (My comment becomes entered accidentally as my computer entry of a comment on an earlier blog entry places me commenting here, again.) My own back ground relates me to England only by my college diplomas. Recently I read that a large proportion of the English immigrants to the United States were a part of the tobacco industry. The chance that the people described by John Crowe Ransom were earning their money in the tobacco industry is real. Our times have used the courts to demand reparation for deaths that are attributed to tobacco. Although my heritage is not English, my experience with reading has been with reading English – it has been a lifelong happiness to love reading.

  3. Colonial America was child-centered and passed on child-centered thinking, which continues to influence us, unfortunately. Thier child-centric thinking was self-interested – a tiny representation in their endless wilderness, they wanted legitimate white children to raise their numbers. Later they were motivated by sales profit. We should remember this whenever cute is a way of understanding children.

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