Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter

Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

This loss of faith and certainty, conveyed paradoxically in decorous and charming linguistic and poetic forms usually associated with the poetry of chivalry and romance and treated with a wit that verges on black comedy, becomes the model for other Ransom poems. In "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," he once again dramatizes the enigmatic and shifting nature of existence. The speaker, a neighbor of the Whitesides, is reflecting on the totally unexpected death of John Whiteside's daughter. He remembers how he and others once gazed from their high window at the daughter's battle with the geese below as she "harried unto the pond / The lazy geese, like a snow cloud / Dripping their snow on the green grass." Then "There was such speed in her little body,/And such lightness in her footfall." But now "her brown study" is still. Although she did not hesitate, unlike Hamlet, to take "arms against her shadow," her "brown study" is now "Lying so primly propped." At first the speaker is astonished that death came to such a lively and young creature. The more he reflects, however, the more he is anguished and vexed by her death:

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.

The poem reverberates with a number of striking contrasts that capture the paradoxical nature of human existence: life-death, past-present, memory-reality, astonishment-vexation, starkness-artifice (the brown study primly propped). The bells then, as John Donne exclaims, ring not only for Whiteside's daughter but, more important, for the speaker, as well as all others still alive, and the readers who are unable to solve the riddles of human existence. The fact that the "tireless heart" of the daughter has stopped has, in turn, "sternly stopped" either a comfortable or comforting vision of existence. To add to the paradoxical tone, Ransom plays his theme against the basic lightness and even gaiety of the poem's imagery and rhythms. Thus, we are both charmed and, to use Ransom's word, vexed by the poem. This resultant irony perhaps is Ransom's finest achievement. It brilliantly captures the enigmatic nature and complexity of existence; lightness and darkness, comedy and tragedy become one.

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.

Thomas Daniel Young: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" (1924), Ransom's best-known poem, is also one of his best, one that Randal Jarrell has called "perfectly realized . . . and almost perfect." Like many of Ransom's other poems, this one is on the precariousness of human life, the fleetingness of feminine beauty. It demonstrates a quality of Ransom's artistry that Graham Hough has noted: the poet's ability to present important problems through delicate subject matter. Since it concerns the death of a little girl, the poem could easily deteriorate into trite and shabby pathos, but Ransom handles his material admirably. He achieves aesthetic distance by presenting the essentials of the poem from the "high-window" of an interested but uninvolved bystander. Then, as Robert Penn Warren has pointed out, the burden of the poem lies in the poet's development of his attitude to the girl's death. First he is astonished because the news is so unexpected ("There was such speed in her little body, / And such lightness in her footfall"); after a moment's reflection, however, the astonishment turns to vexation. The speaker has confronted another of the inexplicable mysteries of the world he must live in. There is no piteous cry to heaven for justification or solace; the poet uses a usually lamentable occasion for some of his most effective irony, achieved by contrasting the stock response to death to the one addressed in the poem.

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.

Miller Williams: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

The almost nonconnotative "bruited," the humor of the geese scuttling "goose-fashion," lend the distance, the perspective the poem has to have, especially after such an opening line. We realize slowly that the poem is not a simple elegy, that the grief is not so great as the consternation and wonder. The "brown study" "astonishes" us; we are vexed, but we are vexed more at the turning of quickness into stillness than at the loss of the little girl herself, and we are taken most with the contrast between the stillness of the girl and the scuttling of the geese. Our understanding is incomplete, we are taken aback, and because of this--only Ransom's word will do--we are vexed.