Kieran Quinlan: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

Far from being a simple pessimist, however, Ransom has the positive intention of making the reader face up to the sobering facts of existence without having recourse to the kind of consolation traditionally offered by religious belief. It is especially significant in this regard that his many poems on death have a somewhat different background than might appear at first. All of them are motivated by a philosophic purpose that he had entertained certainly when composing Poems About God and probably long before that. The genesis of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" illustrates the matter particularly well. Ransom told his biographer that the poem had been suggested to him while watching a little girl from a neighbor's house at play on a street nearby: he had imagined what it would be like were she to die. So, in the poem, the child's "speed" and "lightness" as she scuttles the lazy geese are abruptly brought to an end:

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.

"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," then, is not a memorial for a neighbor's child's actual death but an exploration of man's vexation in the face of the inevitable outcome of life. Ransom stated his purposes clearly in a letter to Tate in 1927: "My object as a poet might be something like the following, though I won't promise to stick by my analysis: (1) I want to find the Experience that is in the common actuals; (2) I want this experience to carry (by association of course) the dearest possible values to which we have attached ourselves; (3) I want to face the disintegration or nullification of these values as calmly and religiously as possible." Crudely stated, the little girl is an instance of the "common actuals" that have "the dearest possible value" for human beings; her death, therefore, forces man to confront the cruel facts of life, and he does so "religiously," not by entertaining vain hopes of future bliss, but rather by remaining stoically calm in these "vexing" circumstances.

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Criticism Overview
Title Kieran Quinlan: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kieran Quinlan Criticism Target John Crowe Ransom
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith
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