Miller Williams: On "Dead Body"

The "little cousin," as dangerous an opening as the "little body" of John Whiteside's daughter, is removed to the right distance by the introduction of an apparently out-of-place term with connotations far from the ambiente of the poem. "Foul subtraction" suggests a transaction and carries the sense that such dying, albeit unpleasant, is not outside the realm of the day-to-day business of this world. It is a world, after all, which cares little for the concerns of man. This is one of Ransom's most effective uses of Latinate terms with deliberate reference to the root meaning, a practice which allows him to speak with a precision not possible in the modern sense of the words and at the same time with a remarkable ambiguity.

He takes us to the deeper meaning, the almost lost meaning, of the word, which now to our ears acts as a connotation of the word, so that technical and objective as the terms are, they become in Ransom's line three-dimensional. "Subtraction" is a drawing from under; "transaction" is a carrying across. This last, especially since it is followed by the "world of outer dark," puts us in mind of the River Styx, and we are in a context at once more classical, more distant, and more noble than we were before.

The irony of the poem is not found primarily in the tension between the family's status and the observation that the boy was "a pig with a pasty face" nor in the pull between the seriousness of the subject and the tone of the language. It is at least half in the realization we must be drawn to that, if the boy had lived, the dynasty would probably not have survived with him. Antique, indeed, are the forbears' lineaments.

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Criticism Overview
Title Miller Williams: On "Dead Body" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Criticism Target John Crowe Ransom
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom
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