Biography John Crowe Ransom

John Crowe Ransom

photo of John Crowe Ransom
  • Time Period1888 - 1974
  • PlaceOhio
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Ransom was the third of four children of a Methodist minister. His family was highly literate, although perhaps not unusually so given that his father was a clergyman. As a child, he read his family's library and engaged his father in passionate discussions. He wrote many books and poems in his life.

Ransom was home schooled until age ten, and entered Vanderbilt University at fifteen, graduating first in his class in 1909. He interrupted his studies for two years, to teach sixth and seventh grades in Taylorsville, Mississippi and Latin and Greek in Lewisburg, Tennessee. After teaching one more year in Lewisburg, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University's Christ Church, 1910-13, where he read The Greats. After one year teaching Latin in the Hotchkiss School, he was appointed to the English department at Vanderbilt in 1914. During the First World War, he served as an artillery officer in France. After the war, he returned to Vanderbilt. In 1920, he married Robb Reavill; they raised three children.

In 1937, Ransom accepted a position at Kenyon College in Ohio. He was the founding editor of the Kenyon Review until he retired from Kenyon in 1959. Ransom has few peers among 20th century American university teachers of humanities; his distinguished students include Donald Davidson, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, Peter Taylor, Robert Penn Warren, E.L. Doctorow and Richard M. Weaver. In 1966, Ransom was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His ashes are buried behind the Chalmers Library at Kenyon College.

At Vanderbilt, Ransom was a founding member of the Fugitives, a literary group that included Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Under their influence, Ransom, whose first interest had been philosophy, specifically John Dewey and American pragmatism, began writing poetry. His first volume of poems, Poems about God (1919), was praised by Robert Frost and Robert Graves, but Ransom later declined to republish them, deeming them unrepresentative of his work. His literary reputation is largely based on two collections of poetry, Chills and Fever (1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927). Believing he had no new themes upon which to write, his subsequent poetic activity consisted almost entirely of revising ("tinkering", he called it) his earlier poems. Hence Ransom's reputations as a poet is based on the fewer than 160 poems he wrote and published between 1916 and 1927. Despite the brevity of his poetic career and output, he won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1951. His 1963 Selected Poems received the National Book Award the following year.

Ransom primarily wrote short poems examining the ironic and unsentimental nature of life, with domestic life being a major theme. Arguably Nashville's greatest author, he was also an Agrarian, and Southern poet. An example of his Southern style is his poem "Janet Waking," which "...mixes modernist with old-fashioned country rhetoric" (Tillinghast 1997).

To highlight the incongruity between a steady rhythm of words and the unsteady moments that make up human existence, Ransom often employed regular meters of the sort once common in the English language tradition, and which he altered as needed to fit the flow of his poems. For example, in his poem "Blue girls," the meter halts the lines to produce a pause at certain moments and to add emphasis. He also occasionally employed archaic diction.

Tillinghast (1997) called Ransom a "major minor poet". A major poet could be expected to labor over great works reminding the audience of his grandeur through sestinas, epics, or a philosophical discovery, whereas a minor poet does not carry such high expectations, and is free to explore simpler subjects purely because they delight him. Ransom knew his poems were minor, and used the opportunity to explore domestic themes and Southern life. Being a minor poet also allowed him to make ironic use of simple diction, playing on the intellectual connotations of words.