Thornton Parsons: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

A plausible fiction sustained by an exactly appropriate narrator accounts for the parallel success of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter." "Little body" in the first line is perilously close to obvious pathos, but this effect is counteracted by the word "speed," which begins an important motif. The reader's accruing sense of loss in "Dead Boy" is gleaned through the negative impression of the narrator, and a similar technique is used in this poem. The narrator, again, is capable of a considerable emotional distance from the death. He is astonished at the quietness that can come over, has come over, the little girl whose energetic noisiness had disturbed him so much.

"Lightness in her footfall' is a delicate suggestion of gracefulness--a quiet way to make the girl attractive before the parallels to "speed" are brought in. She was graceful, but she was vigorous and clamorous even when playing by herself. The conceit of warfare conveys this emphasis: "Her wars were bruited"; "she took arms against her shadow"; she "harried" the geese. The narrator's annoyance by the rude disturbance of placidity is projected upon the geese, "Who cried in goose, Alas." The lovely, gently surrealistic image of serenity--geese presented as a diaphanous snow-cloud passively dripping whiteness on the grass, geese that have "noon apple-dreams"--is abruptly dispersed by the indefatigable girl who converts them into scuttling, goose-stepping soldiers.

Here is a rich and complex controlling of the tone. The finely attenuated feeling of harassment in the narrator is achieved by hyperbole--an extravagant figure for peacefulness followed by an extravagant contrasting figure for clamor. This is the narrator’s central memory of the dead girl: her enormous ability to shatter placidity. It justifies the use of the word "Astonishes." It is hard to credit the stillness of the little girl now in the coffin.

Precisely chosen language is the elusive strength of the concluding stanza. Direct statements about the dead girl are terse and restrained, and the horror of death is implicit. "Brown study" is an effective euphemism for death because it has an ironic relevance to the personality of the girl alive; during her energetic life, the quiet, pensive mood seemed as unnatural for her as now seems the reality that so much clamorous liveliness could be permanently stilled. "Vexed" is exquisitely attuned to the narrator’s emotional perspective. He is not outraged, not overwhelmed. He was resignedly distressed by her noisiness when alive, and be is resignedly distressed by her temperamentally unnatural repose in death. The implication is that death itself is vexatious to human beings. This is close to our usual attitude toward it, our recurring sense of uneasiness that our lives logically imply deaths some time in the future; and, though we grow accustomed to the inevitability, it is vaguely annoying.

The motionlessness of the violently active girl has made her survivors motionless, has "sternly stopped' them, has made them confront death directly and definitely. "Primly propped" ends the poem with the emphasis upon the unnaturalness, the excessive formality, of the girl's appearance. This phrase conveys quietly and implicitly more horror than an indignant outburst would. It is the culmination of a strong and clear pathos that has been won by deft indirection; it is pathos under control, arrived at by dramatically working through the data of speed, energy, noise--and the vacuum left by death.

A little girl's death could readily entail a crude and trite pathos, but Ransom skillfully avoids it by limiting the reader’s view of the girl to the narrator's version of her. A vivid picture of her in a characteristic moment of her life is presented in language formalized enough to keep us detached, to keep us from empathizing her persona purely: "the tireless heart within the little / Lady with rod." The adult's perspective upon her is consistent to the end. There are no technical "tricks," as in "Janet Waking" and "Here Lies a Lady," to damage the fiction and to remind us of Ransom's decorous vigilance or vigilant decorum. The fiction is superbly integrated with a consistent perspective. The technique subserves the evocation of an appropriate pathos.

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