Thornton Parsons

Thornton Parsons: On "Dead Body"

 When be writes about death, he wants above all to avoid wonder at anything so pervasive and so inevitable. His method for controlling the emotion in "Dead Boy" is to give the multiple responses to a particular death, to show it in a configuration, to depict the different degrees of grief and the different motives that elicit grief and sorrow in the survivors. His method of preserving freshness and originality is to concentrate upon a subdued, elusive grief that is not often dealt with in poetry.

As the narrator of "Dead Boy" is apparently a distant relative who has come to the funeral, he is plausibly free to register and report the different intensities of grief and the various reasons for it. The opening is remarkable for its quiet announcement of the poem's motifs, for the extraordinary amount of information deftly packed into it, and for the scrupulous attitude which it sets for the whole poem. "Foul subtraction' is a good example of Ransom's successful "metaphysical" language. The outrage implied in "foul" is swiftly tempered by "subtraction," implying an emotionless, impersonal force that cuts down human life. This tonal complexity is much more satisfying than the straight indignation of Thomas' poem. Paradox is appropriate to capture the balanced feelings of the narrator, who resents the fact of death but who will not give up complexity and immerse wholly in indignation.

'Transaction" provides an intensification of the horror of death, a quietly understated chill. "A green bough from Virginia's aged tree' introduces an esthetic suspense as we wonder how Ransom can save this figure from its tired associations. The rest of the stanza makes the distinction between the members of the family who live in that county and those from farther counties or other states. "Outer dark" carries the attitude of the local people, a sense of the vague and mysterious geography of provincial people. This precise distinction is sustained by the words "none" and "some," and its importance is clear by the end of the poem. It is an admirable stanza.

Now follows some effective rhetorical parallelism:

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.

There is a low-keyed directness in the quick glance at the boy's appearance, behavior, and talent. This line is followed by two striking metaphors that establish his lamentable temperament--his tantrums, the power to torment. Then comes the paradox of the mother's extraordinary grief, which is not so paradoxical when we remember that even a negatively active child registers himself in the consciousness of adults more strongly than a mild one does. The boy had no attributes that would mitigate the ugly temperament.

Factual reporting of the mother's grief in the setting of paradox allows the reader to feel the powerful emotion without being coerced by it. Then the narrator delivers his shocking metaphor for the boy alive, a description that diminishes his significance even more than  'black cloud' and "sword" had done:

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.

He was so disreputable to an objective observer that it seemed be could not have belonged to this admirable family. But, lying immobile in the casket, he does resemble his ancestors. The language here is here is subtly toned. "Little man" is complex: it has the usual aura of mawkishness an adult condescension, but it reflects too the narrator's polite deference for the mother's grief, his willingness to soften his judgment under the circumstances; and it gently pivots the poem into the dynastic theme of the last two stanzas, from the narrator's perspective a more important reason for lessening his old disapprobation. This "little man" does belong to them, for he has in the immobility of death "the forbears' antique lineaments." Now the precise emotion of the poem is established: the emphasis is upon the grief of the sterile old men of the family, a grief they do not reveal as outwardly as the mother reveals hers.

"Box of death" is like "foul subtraction" in its restraint that releases a powerful sense of horror. "O friendly waste of breath!" is the perfectly concise line for funereal small talk. These men are restrained, ritualistically discussing the local news and gossip in order to avoid a direct and indecorous confrontation of raw grief in one another. "Deep dynastic wound" is probably the best phrase in the poem. The elder men wanted the ancestral line to continue, and this boy was their only hope.

In the conclusion are other local responses to the boys death:

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.

Neighbors, who have no emotional investment in the boy, and who do not have the imaginative sympathy of the narrator, can dismiss this death easily. The Preacher has a standard metaphor designed to comfort, and he delivers it in scriptural language. Here, though, is the poem's most ingenious stroke: the narrator now has a good excuse to modify the Preacher's tired metaphor and thus return to the figure of the family tree and its young branch, and end the poem by gathering in the implication of "antique" in the third stanza. The elder men of the family are sapless and palsied, unable to beget more heirs; and the line will die out. In this redemption of the family-tree cliche Ransom has achieved an inspired combination of strong pathos and decorous expression.

Ransom keeps "Dead Boy" free from sentimentality by sustaining a fiction that allows for a consistent undermining of the boy's character or intrinsic importance. The use of the narrator from "outer dark" is a meticulous justification for this severe objectivity at a time when standards usually melt into the general sadness. (In "The Death of the Hired Man" Frost manages this effect by slyly keeping Warren from seeing Silas before some of his negative traits have been lodged with the reader.) Ransom steers the emphasis away from the most immediate and obvious kind of grief: the most unqualified kind. When he has the narrator speak of the mother he uses formalized, archaic diction: "bewept her babe." This is a way of diverting the reader's sympathy from the mother. Her grief is merely one datum in the whole configuration; her attitude is presented with no more emphasis than is the narrator's, the neighbors', or the Preacher's.

The narrator is precisely right for this poem. He is Ransom's fictional device not only for avoiding raw and excessive emotion but for registering a certain kind of grief. He is imaginative enough to understand a motive that is not his own, a legitimate human motive for a powerful grief that is not dependent upon the boy's intrinsic worth. The interest of the old men in the disreputable dead boy transcends his temperament, character, and appearance. So the emotion of the poem feels authentic. It is won not by exploiting the obvious regret over the sheer fact of death, but by giving the sense of a particular boy in a particular context, and by intensifying the highly selective grief of the old men: their regret that transcends mere personal loss, their heightened sense of mortality dramatized by the cessation of an ancestral line. Their quiet, deeply aching regret is very elusive; and Ransom has conveyed it admirably. Emotion is enhanced, and not overwhelmed or diminished, by technique. Fiction and perspective are consistent; the narrator is free to tell the truth about the boy and yet to feel what his death means to others.

Thornton Parsons: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

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.