Karl F. Knight: On "Dead Body"

The way in which Ransom attains an ironic position through the use of several kinds of diction is very well illustrated by the poem "Dead Boy". The central fact of the poem is the death of a male child in a Virginia family. The various reactions to the death are complex, and the distinctions between them are subtle. The attitudes presented in the poem are those of the family, the speaker, the neighbors, and the preacher who conducts the funeral. To the family the death is a great personal shock, and their reflections are cast mainly in elevated or circumlocutory language. The first stanza seems to contain the thoughts of the family. . . .

"Dead" is a direct word, but it is outweighed by the euphemistic words "subtraction" and "transaction" and by the metaphor of the bough. The analysis of the family's reaction is complicated, too, by the fact that their feelings are not expressed directly, but are conveyed through the speaker, who may be mocking their language with elevated terms which are distractingly humorous. In any event, the effect of the language is to demonstrate that the family finds it difficult to think of the death in consistently direct terms.

The last line of the stanza identifies the speaker as some sort of outsider, and the last two words, "like me", indicate that the succeeding lines contain the speaker's observations. . . .

The speaker's attitude is more objective and more comprehensive than that of the family, for he recognizes the unpleasant characteristics which the boy had. Of the two descriptive metaphors used by the speaker, the one of the pig is exceedingly common in contrast to the euphemistic language, such as "subtraction" "transaction", used to convey the family's attitude. But in seeing the family traits in the boy, the speaker is sympathetic with the saddened family. And too, he finds the sad muttering of the bereaved old men a "friendly waste of breath!"

The neighbors also are relatively objective in their recollections of the boy, who was to them "pale and little" - common, direct, and descriptive words. But the neighbors, who would have had a close relationship with the boy, do not observe positively unpleasant things, as did the speaker. To the preacher, representing still another view, death is the ordered conclusion to life in the world, and his words associate this particular death with a religious scheme of things. He says only that "The first-fruits ... the Lord hath taken...." Wheras the family takes the death primarily as an individual occurrence, the preacher sees it as one more manifestation of a general pattern of happenings, The preacher's function is to relate individual h appenings to the rituals of the church, and appropriately his words are taken from St. Paul (I Corinthinians, 15 : 20), words which are echoed in the Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer. Between those extremes of the personal and the ritualistic attitudes lie the slightly detached view of the neighbors and the sympathetic but objective view of the speaker. And those four attitudes are manifested largely through the choice of kinds of diction. If the assignment of lines and phrases to different characters and attitudes seems arbitrary, then it must still be maintained that the different kinds of diction nonetheless are present and contain the varying attitudes. The problem is not whether the different people react variously, but just where one attitude leaves off and another begins.

The diction in "Dead Boy" results in the ironic inclusion of four attitudes toward the boy's death. Each attitude has its own validity, with no simple choice of one "correct" attitude. A different kind of irony occurs when Ransom uses pedantic diction in situations which ordinarily are treated in another kind of diction. Irony such as that in "Dead Boy" stems from the oppositions established among antithetical kinds of diction, and none of the language can really be called inappropriate.


Title Karl F. Knight: On "Dead Body" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Karl F. Knight Criticism Target John Crowe Ransom
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom: A Study of Diction, Metaphor, and Symbol
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