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John Crowe Ransom, 1888-1974
Poems about God
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919.


John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) was born in Pulaski, Tennessee. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1909, Ransom studied classics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England. He returned to Vanderbilt as an English professor in 1914 and joined the Fugitive Group. This group of sixteen writers convened to read and discuss poetry, and together published The Fugitive, a journal of poetry and criticism that advocated southern agrarianism and classical aesthetic ideals. At Vanderbilt, his students included Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and others who went on to become leaders in the Southern Literary Renaissance. In 1937, Kenyon College hired him to head The Kenyon Review, a literary and critical journal. From that time forward, he focused his literary efforts on writing criticism, rather than poetry. Ransom and his fellow Fugitives helped launch the New Criticism, a school of literary criticism that focuses on the text as self-sufficient. Wary of reader response and authorial intention as determinants of meaning, the New Critics asserted the text should be the primary focus of criticism and eschewed paraphrase. Ransom was one of the first literary critics to assert that the particular social and cultural context in which the author was writing does not decide textual meaning, and thus he ushered in a new way of reading, which remains influential today.

Ransom was the son of a Methodist minister, and his first collection of poetry, Poems About God (1919), reflects the importance of religion in his early life. In these poems, Ransom searches for God in the traditional places—in nature, cathedrals, and sick rooms—but he also questions the presence of God in barrooms and impromptu wrestling matches. Honest and ardent in tone, the poems are lyrics with traditional meters (primarily iambic) and regular rhyme. Though a markedly immature effort because of the poems' conventional diction, sentimental tone, and excessive emphasis on structure and narrative at the expense of figurative language, Poems About God forecasts what would later become Ransom's trademarks: a blending of classical and modern forms, an ironic voice, and a preoccupation with the domestic life, the evanescence of youth, and the duality of the human body and soul.

See also the entry for John Crowe Ransom from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture available on this site.

Work Consulted: Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989; Quartermain, Peter, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets, 1880-1945, First Series, volume 45, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1986.

Bond Thompson

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