Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

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. He regarded writing as both a means of discovery and a creative act—and for Warren the ultimate creation of the writer's writing is the construction of the author's own self.2

These two volumes are vastly different in intent and content. Volume 3 of the Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, even though under new editorship, continues the high standard set by William Bedford Clark in the first two volumes. Warren's letters, accompanied by annotations and the editors' connecting narrative, provide the best available intellectual biography of this complex man. In the period covered by this volume, Warren made his grand entrance on the national stage, but this phase of his life was not without its own internal tensions and disappointments. Warren's best-known work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men, was completed and published in 1946, and was made into an Academy Award-winning film which was released in 1949. Yet in early references to his novel-in-progress to his editor Lambert Davis, Warren worries that Number One, a novel just published by John Dos Passos, might preempt his yet unfinished work. Among the "transitions" traced through these letters is the dissolution of Warren's first marriage and his prolonged struggle over the question of whether he should leave teaching behind and commit himself totally to his writing career. Two major themes emerge from the third volume of Warren's letters: Warren's desire for conversation with his friends and colleagues and, in his words, his "prowling in backwashes of American history." This "prowling," combined with Warren's penchant for the melodramatic, provided the primary materials which were the inspiration for many of his poems and works of fiction.

The massive "documentary volume" edited by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., is equivalent to a trip to Grandma's attic, complete with a couple of footlockers full of interesting stuff—letters, memorabilia, report cards, and school assignments—collected over a lifetime. At one level this volume provides a convenient one-stop shopping trip for anyone interested in an overview of Warren's life and career, for it contains personal materials along with professional. At another level this volume helps to put Warren's career as novelist and poet into perspective, for the collection provides some balance in that it contains critical as well as favorable reviews of Warren's work.

While many topics could be singled out to illustrate the value of these two volumes—Warren's changing views on race as a reflection of the revolutionary American landscape of the 20th century, his influence on the teaching of literature through the textbooks he coauthored with Cleanth Brooks, or the dramatic impact of the Fugitives and Agrarians on the state of American letters—I will focus briefly on what these collections show us about Warren's religious position. His novels are peppered with characters for whom questions of faith and religious experience are crucial (Cass Mastern in All the King's Men and Ashby Wyndham in At Heaven's Gate for example), and his poetry contains reflections on man's relation to the universe, and, perhaps, God or the absolute. In a 1936 review, Morton Zabel identified two sources of Warren's poetic strength, both of which relate to this issue. The first reflected Warren's agrarian background and southern roots: Warren was grounded in "a tragic vision that defines a faith without dictating it." This, however, may be little more than atmospherics, for as Flannery O'Connor reminds us, the South is a Christ-haunted land. The second source of Warren's strength, Zabel suggested, is his "emphasis on his own conflict of spirit." While this conflict is related to the tragic vision embraced by other southern writers, it suggests that the vision of Warren's poetry is the outgrowth of personal struggle rather than a mere reflection of heritage.

These concerns surfaced at various points throughout the remainder of Warren's life, as documented in these volumes. Alfred Kazin, in a 1959 review of Warren's Selected Essays, sees Warren as participating in the effort "to reclaim the Christian, sacramental vision of the world destroyed by scientific materialism." While linking Warren to this particularly southern movement through his connections with Allen Tate and Cleanth Brooks, Kazin simultaneously distances Warren from what he calls "the Southern 'school'" by arguing that Warren—presumably unlike his agrarian colleagues—is "much more various and subtle in practice than he is in theory." But Warren does share the general southern view that sees "the experience of modern man as one that cries out for the Christian vision of the world as sacramental, not accidental or meaningless." Kazin then shrewdly points to Joseph Conrad as reflective of Warren's own views on the nature of the world and the writer's place in the world.

Warren concludes his essay "'The Great Mirage': Conrad and Nostromo" with a brief discussion of "the philosophical novelist," a description that reveals as much about Warren's own approach to writing as it does about Conrad. Warren wrote:

The philosophical novelist, or poet, is one for whom the documentation of the world is constantly striving to rise to the level of generalization about values, for whom the image strives to rise to symbol, for whom images always fall into a dialectical configuration, for whom the urgency of experience, no matter how vividly and strongly experience may enchant, is the urgency to know the meaning of experience. This is not to say that the philosophical novel is schematic and deductive. It is to say quite the contrary, that he is willing to go naked into the pit, again and again, to make the same old struggle with truth.3

Kazin quotes from Warren's essay on Conrad the observation that "the last wisdom is for man to realize that though his values are illusions, the illusion is necessary, is infinitely precious … in the end, his only truth." He then notes that Warren "says the motif in Conrad's fiction is the 'true lie'—that which we believe because we must, not because we can." The way in which I understand Warren's discussion of illusion relates closely to the way in which theologians understand the nature of myth. Myth is not something untrue, but a truth deeper than a mere fact. The notion of illusion also raises questions about the foundation of these beliefs, and Warren's view seems to be that there is no ultimate foundation for human beliefs beyond human experience.

But to claim human experience as the foundation of both knowledge and belief is to claim much, not to claim that nothing is knowable. As Eric Voegelin maintains, at its deepest levels all human knowledge involves the discovery or uncovering of the psyche through the examination of basic human experiences. And, as Voegelin recognizes, the uncertainty and tension involved in basing knowledge on experience leads many to more stable and certain foundations. These more certain foundations, however, once codified, lose their life as symbols of reality and become mere concepts. Warren is constantly struggling with living truths, and as Kazin rightly points out, he rejects both "the sanctions of orthodox Christianity, which proclaim spiritual values as absolute truth, and the naturalistic interpretation of values as pragmatically necessary to man."

What foundation does Warren accept in light of his rejection of orthodoxy and pragmatism? Ultimately Warren builds on his understanding of the nature of man. In a letter dated August 4, 1947, to Kimon Friar, who was editing an anthology of modern American and British poetry which would include a number of his poems, Warren discussed his understanding of man's "religious sense." In responding to a question about the origins of his poem "Terror," Warren said that it was inspired by the juxtaposition of a number of otherwise unrelated news reports. An item about scientific efforts to keep the heart of a dead chicken alive led to speculation in the press about the possibility of "mortal immortality." For Warren this story "seemed to summarize a view current in our time—that science (as popularly conceived) will solve the problem of evil by reducing it merely to a matter of 'adjustment' in the physical, social, economic, and political spheres." This view was also articulated in a book by John Strachey, a British social activist and Member of Parliament, who argued that the problem of evil would be solved "by abolishing disease and death." Warren was struck by Strachey's equation of death with evil, especially when compared with news reports concerning self-sacrificing Americans volunteering to fight in foreign armies and putting themselves at risk for others, thus giving their threatened lives meaning. For Warren, these "two reports set up a paradox: the yearning for mere survival as meaning, and the appetite for death as meaning."

In the poem, these contrasting and conflicting views are brought together in a meditation pointing to modern man's lack of an "adequate definition of terror." Such an understanding would include a "proper sense of the human lot, the sense of limitation and the sense of the necessity for responsible action within that limitation." For Warren this sense, broadly understood, is "the religious sense." The first component of this religious sense emphasizes man's finitude, and seems to me to be roughly equivalent to the sense of humility and proportion that Richard M. Weaver calls "piety" in his writings.

But what of the "necessity" for human action? And whence an understanding of "responsibility"? Warren's comments to Cleanth Brooks in a letter dated December 6, 1943, help clarify Warren's views on the foundation of human action, and therefore on the foundation of human knowledge. In commenting on an essay Brooks has sent him on Macbeth, Warren suggests that we should "regard [Macbeth] in the light of his metaphysical attempt as contrasted with his personal attempt at a throne." Warren then argues that Macbeth "has undertaken a more than mortal struggle but a struggle which man must as man forever undertake. Man must try to predict and plan and control, as his destiny. But he can never be sure that he has arrived at the right premise for the effort. M is trying to follow man's destiny. Man has to try to break the bank of the future. The fact that he cannot does not mean that he must not try. The question is on what terms and with what attitude." Man cannot not act—his whole being aims at and is designed for action—but responsible action takes place only with the tension of "the proper sense of the human lot."

Stanley Plumly, in his 1970 review of Warren's long poem Audubon and the selection of new poems entitled Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968, points to one dimension of the human lot which preoccupied Warren and which fits within the context of traditional Christian theology: the notion of original sin. In the central section of Audubon, Plumly writes, Warren "provides the romantic/Christian vision of the source of all corruption, man himself." Indeed, reflections on man's propensity to evil provide the foundation for much of Warren's poetry, from the early "Original Sin" through the long Brother to Dragons (revised version, 1979). In Brother to Dragons the narrator (named "RPW") questions Thomas Jefferson about the brutal butchering of a slave by Jefferson's nephews, Lilburne and Isham Lewis. "RPW" is particularly interested in discovering how Jefferson reconciled his optimistic view of man with this example of human depravity connected to him by blood relationship.

Man as a fallen creature is the subtext of all of Warren's novels, but I will provide only two examples here. The notion is most famously stated in All the Kings Men by Willie Stark, who tells Jack Burden, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."4 In the novel Flood the Deputy Warden of Fiddlesburg Prison tells a story which encapsulates Warren's own conclusions about the human race. One day a guard on duty in the prison garden was attacked by an inmate wielding a hoe. The sharpshooter in the tower watched the incident but didn't shoot at the prisoner. When confronted by the warden the sharpshooter said he was afraid of hitting an innocent man. The warden exploded: "Innocent man? There ain't no innocent man. You're fired."5

Once we accept the constraints imposed by original sin as fundamental to human existence and experience, where do we go? And further, how is "responsible action" even possible, built on such a foundation? One possibility, and the usual one that Warren emphasizes, is understanding one's place in history. Jack Burden, narrator of All the King's Men, is articulating Warren's own position when he says, "if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other."6 This is why much of Warren's work reflects his "prowling in backwashes of American history" and in his own childhood and relationship with his family.

Another possibility for finding a foundation for responsible action is a more direct approach to the transcendent, and reviews of Warren's later poetry point to this aspect of his writings. J.D. McClatchy, in the December 1977 issue of Poetry, writes of "a terrible divine presence" in "Warren's late poetry who is an indifferent, unknowable, immanent principle of reality both feared and desired." But Paul Piazza, writing under the title "Intimations of Immortality," points to the possibility of a more robust religious experience in Warren's poetry than a mere intellectual "immanent principle of reality" would seem to allow. Further, Piazza suggests that "Even the past … is reduced to irrelevance in the face of Apocalyptic glory." The mystical vision of Apocalyptic glory toward which Warren's later poetry points is an example of "Warren's emphasis on his own conflict of spirit" that Morton Zabel noted in the mid-1930s, and this personal conflict provides a tension that keeps the experience and its symbolization alive. In Piazza's words,

On hawk wing, in heat lightning, on moonlit stream, or in star-filled sky, Warren repeatedly mirrors a visionary gleam akin to ecstasy. Yet he knows full well that he can catch only a glimmer, that his poems are nets that miss the essence. His young men grow sage and mellow, not bitter and disillusioned, and they realize that glory's consummation can be achieved only through death.

A number of commentators note the "scriptural" tone in Warren's later poetry but disagree over whether the Scripture that most influenced Warren was the Old Testament or the New. One of these commentators is Warren's daughter Rosanna, who writes,

The Hebrew Bible, more than Christian Scripture, haunts these … poems. So there was my father, as ever agnostic, as ever God-tortured, having another go at his age-old question: " … We must try // To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God" ("Masts at Dawn"). The ambiguous placement of the words acts out the tension of unbelief and yearning. The sentence proposes, not "to love the world so well," which would be the easy solution, but "to love so well the world"; and it asks us to consider "that we may believe in the end" as much as it tempts us to "believe … in God."

This view is balanced by Sister Bernetta Quinn's review of New and Selected Poems, 1923-1985. She highlights a number of important and provocative issues in this review, including the relationship between Warren's poetry and Christ's parables and Warren's intuition "that there is more to identity than matter." She concludes with the challenging claim that Warren was "driven by the Gospel injunction to regard the kingdom of God as being within."

I am not going to attempt to resolve the tensions in these various views of Warren here, but I want to suggest that Warren's own approach to writing reflected the "religious sense" he described in his letter to Kimon Friar—he understood the limitations of the human lot and the necessity of responsible action in the face of human limitations. Near the end of his letter to Friar he answers a question concerning his attitude toward poetry. He says, "Writing seems to me a very natural thing to do. I don't mean natural to me personally but just a natural human thing to do. Like any other effort to get hold of the world, come to grips with things, understand the world and yourself."

At this point, a consideration of C.S. Lewis' contrast between the attitudes of receiving literature and using literature will be helpful. Lewis is thinking primarily of the way in which we approach literature as readers, but his notion of the openness to experience also applies to Warren's approach to writing poetry. "The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender," writes Lewis. "Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)"7

Now consider Warren on writing poetry:

You have to be willing to waste time. When you start a poem, stay with it and suffer through it and just think about nothing, not even the poem. Just be there. It's more of a prayerful state than writing the novel is. A lot of the novel is in doing good works, as it were, not praying. And the prayerful state is just being passive with it, mumbling, being around there, lying on the grass, going swimming, you see. Even getting drunk. But get drunk prayerfully, though.8

The prayerful state of waiting for a poem, either as poet or as reader, runs counter to the desire to use the poem for one's own purposes. Poets perhaps can seek to use poetry in much the same way readers can. Waiting runs counter to the active spirit that believes the will to control is the highest mode of human existence. While an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, Warren immersed himself in the poetry of John Donne, whose Third Satire captures so well the state of poetic prayerfulness:

To adore, or scorne an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleepe, or runne wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe;
And what the hills suddenness resists, winne so;
Yet strive so, that before age, deaths twilight,
Thy Soule rest, for none can worke in that night.9

To "doubt wisely," Donne suggests, is "to stand inquiring right." This view seems to be in keeping with at least one strain of the biblical tradition. Job's pious comforters were no doubt surprised when God, after having had an earful from the angry and not-so-patient Job, tells Eliphaz, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has."10 As already noted, Warren was influenced by Christian concerns but was not himself an adherent to orthodoxy. By his own description he was a "yearner": "I would say that I have a religious temperament, you see, with a scientific background."11

This yearning, this desire for and search for meaning, is the "germ" of Warren's choices as a writer and as a man. Warren maintained that "A writer doesn't know what his intentions are until he's done writing."12 Meaning and sense come through writing, which was ultimately an activity that allowed Warren to uncover reality and explain it to himself.

The two volumes here under review provide us with the opportunity to encounter Robert Penn Warren, to engage with the issues he was concerned with, and to engage him in a conversation on those topics. Warren suggested that the way the critic engaged with authors was important, not because the critic could somehow pin down the final and correct interpretation of a text, but because the critic's engagement with author shaped the critic as a person, just as the writer's engagement with his materials shaped him. Warren's term for this was the "creation of the self." Just as man cannot not act, we cannot encounter a literary craftsman of Warren's strength and breadth and not be reshaped in some way by the experience.

Steven D. Ealy is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund in Indianapolis.

1. Robert Penn Warren, World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel (Random House, 1950), p. 1.

2. See my "The Struggle to Write as the Creation of the Self: Robert Penn Warren on 'A Vision Earned'," rWp: An Annual of Robert Penn Warren Studies, Vol. 3 (2003), pp. 93-103.

3. Robert Penn Warren, "'The Great Mirage': Conrad and Nostromo," in New and Selected Essays (Random House, 1989), p. 160.

4. Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men (Harcourt Brace, 1982 [1946]), p. 49.

5. Robert Penn Warren, Flood: A Romance of Our Time (Random House, 1963), p. 156.

6. All the King's Men, p. 435.

7. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1961), p. 19.

8. Talking with Robert Penn Warren, ed. Floyd C. Watkins, John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks (Univ. of Georgia Press, 1990), p. 121.

9. The Metaphysical Poets, ed. Helen Gardner (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 50.

10. Job 42:7 (niv).

11. Talking with Robert Penn Warren, p. 213.

12. Talking with Robert Penn Warren, p. 84.

Most ReadMost Shared