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Steven D. Ealy


Poetic Yearner

Robert Penn Warren's "religious sense."

I can show you what is left. After the pride, passion, agony, and bemused aspiration, what is left in our hands. Here are the scraps of newspaper, more than a century old, splotched and yellowed and huddled together in a library, like November leaves abandoned by the wind, damp, and leached out, back of the stables or in a fence corner of a vacant lot. Here are the diaries, the documents, and the letters, yellow too, bound in neat bundles with tape so stiffened and tired that it parts almost unresisting at your touch. Here are the records of what happened in that courtroom, all the words taken down. Here is the manuscript he himself wrote, day after day, as he waited in his cell, telling his story. The letters of his script lean forward in their haste. Haste toward what? The bold stroke of the quill catches on the rough paper, fails, resumes, moves on in its race against time, to leave time behind, or in its rush to meet Time at last at the devoted and appointed place. To whom was he writing, rising from his mire or leaning from his flame to tell his story? The answer is easy. He was writing for us.1

The opening paragraph of Robert Penn Warren's World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel, places the two volumes here under review within a context that Warren spent his career as novelist and poet exploring: the interplay between history, memory, and truth—or, as Warren himself often wrote, Truth. Both of these volumes document Warren's drive to write, and provide convincing evidence that writing was Warren's life, for his waking hours were largely spent composing letters, plays, short stories, poems, novels, and critical essays both social and literary. But if we raise the question asked by the narrator of World Enough and Time—"To whom was he writing?"—we may find that the answer is not as simple as was that narrator's. Was Robert Penn Warren writing for us, or for himself? Warren was writing both for us and for himself, but not necessarily in that order. ...

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