Richard Gray: On "Dead Body"

Its occasion is a simple one, the death of a young child known to the narrator. With the help of radical alterations of diction, metaphor, and metrical effect, however, Ransom suggests a response that is far from simple:

[. . .]

The feelings aroused by this portrait are labyrinthine. The ornate, Latinate diction of the first three lines, and the elevated image in the second, suggest one reaction to the death, which is to distance it with the help of ceremonious language and gesture. But this is hastily qualified by phrases that echo the King James version of the Bible ('outer dark', 'black cloud full of storms') and consequently help to place the event in a larger, religious context, where it seems part of a universal process. And it is flatly contradicted by lines such as the ninth, in which the staccato rhythm combines with a dismissive image and harsh alliterative effects to suggest the intrusion of a more realistic assessment. Throughout the poem archaisms jostle with a more colloquial idiom, and the mellifluous cadences of one line are denied by the eruptive movement of the next. And all these reactions, we are led to infer, belong, not to different people, but to one complex personality, who can love the dead boy and yet recognise his frailty; regret his death but know that his world was doomed in any case; realise the 'poor pretence' involved in talk of 'forbears' and in the funeral rites, while acknowledging the value of the beliefs, in tradition and ceremony, so illustrated. The style of the poem, in effect, dramatises the personality of the narrator; and that personality defines for us that unity of being, the marriage of thought and feeling, which Ransom's un-traditional people so conspicuously lack.


Title Richard Gray: On "Dead Body" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Gray Criticism Target John Crowe Ransom
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry of the Twentieth Century
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