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.