Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan Criticism Target John Crowe Ransom
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Modern American Poetry, 1865-1950
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