Poetry Friday: 1924

It should be noted that the Draconian copyright laws in the United States do nothing but empower the interests of people who have nothing to do with creative product, and limit access to art.  I understand the need to protect copyright for a meaningful amount of time, even if it means decades, or the whole span of an author’s life.  But the fact that virtually every written work published since 1923 is still under someone’s control (though in many cases the author in question has been dead for decades) just drives me over the edge.  Of course, this problem is in the spotlight for me right now because finding poetry up to this point has been marvelously easy.  And from now on it will be ridiculously difficult.

But I will not be turned aside.  So, today’s poem is from the work of John Crowe Ransom, an American writer who has been described as a “major minor poet”.  I leave it to you to decide what that means.  In 1924, he published a collection called Chills and Fever: from it, I offer you “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”:

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

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.

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6 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1924

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    Huh? Brown study? My mind is going a lot of unhelpful places. Do you have any idea what is meant by that?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      “Brown” is what stops me. She’s dead, and she’s been laid out. Perhaps in a brown dress, something stiff and formal she never would have worn, being so active? I think this is a poem about a real death, a real event, and so perhaps the reference is to something his intended audience (John Whiteside, and his family and friends, I presume) would recognize but we don’t. I like pieces of this, the attitude of the geese, for example. But you’re right that “brown study” is a difficult phrase.

  2. Hey, j.r.! I’m having a great time trolling through your old posts and reliving the joys(?) of Pulitzers past, and I just had to stop to comment on this one. (By the way, I love your practice of posting poems from the year also… when we started, I had intended to read along with the Pulitzer winners in poetry too and then… well, got lazy.) Anyway, I love this poem, and I wanted to shed some light on the phrase “brown study.” It’s a melancholy or deeply thoughtful mood, citation here: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brown+study

    I think it’s a pretty graceful way to describe a body in death, particularly when the narrator can’t reconcile that stillness with the constant motion of the child’s life.

    Keep the poetry coming!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, Penny! (or is it Dreadful?) I’m glad the blog provides some enjoyment—I certainly get a lot of fun and insight out of the work you and Diablevert do! The poetry thing has been tough for me to sustain momentum with—not a lot of comments or reactions from folks, despite the fact that, unlike my blog posts, you don’t need to have read anything else to have an opinion. But poetry is worth it, especially when it helps me “see into” the time period and the prevailing literary mood. Thanks so much for your comments about “brown study”: I was totally unaware that the phrase had any meaning outside of this poem’s context (I thought it was a distinctive choice on the poet’s part), and it helps me make more sense of the poem. I hope you’ll comment again—it’s really great to get other people’s perspectives, especially about these poems!

  3. SilverSeason says:

    I have seen the term “brown study” in older books but have never heard anyone actually use the expression in conversation. What put me off in the poem is that a brown study has implications of slight mocking, as when a girl being somewhat withdrawn and the comment is “don’t pay any attention to her, she’s just in a brown study.” The brown study in this poem is serious. Perhaps my associations with the term work in the last stanza where it won’t do any good to tease the person out of her abstraction because she is finally gone and can’t come back.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I appreciate your added insights into the phrase—I had never encountered it before reading this poem (and still haven’t seen it anywhere). I guess that Ransom may be simply enjoying (if I can use the word “enjoy” about a poem involving a dead child) the stern contrast between the girl’s vivacious manner when living and her suddenly calm affect when laid out in the parlor. It’s odd, though—it feels too light-hearted, in a way, to be an appropriate take on the death of the girl. Vexation seems a wholly inappropriate response. I feel as though there’s a layer to the poem that I’m missing. That, or the poem is not a terribly good one! It’s hard for me to say, at this point.

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