Louis D. Rubin

Thomas Daniel Young: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

"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.