The school year is basically over. All that remains are the tests. Yet there are so many, many great writers, stories, poems, and discussions that await us. The Agrarians are defining of Southern literature. Starting in the 1920s, a group of literary scholars began meeting on and off campus around Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. On one occasion, John Crowe Ransom (fourth from the left above) gave a poem to his bright student Donald Davidson (fifth from the left). Iron sharpens iron and so one friend began sharpening another. Other young literary students joined the crowd, including poet and literary critic Allen Tate (first from the left) and Robert Penn Warren (third, in the dark suit, and standing), who wrote great novels, poems, and biographies.
For a time, they were known as the Fugitive Poets. They were writing some of the best modern poetry around. Then they became known as the Agrarians, after the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, which is one of the greatest books ever. Some of them, including Cleanth Brooks, charted a new approach to literature called New Criticism.
The Agrarians poured out a host of literary studies, poetry, novels, and other writings. Their ranks included such other writers as Andrew Nelson Lytle, Frank Owsley, and Arkansawyer John Gould Fletcher.
Those they influenced include such brilliant people as Jesse Stuart, Richard Weaver, M. E. Bradford, and Louise Cowan. Way down on the list of those influenced by the Agrarians you will find the name of George Grant, and further down, my own name.
My poetic tribute to the Agrarians can be found here: “The Agrarians–A Poem.”
Here is a powerful poem by John Crowe Ransom, one of the finer minor poets and brilliant literary scholars of the recent past. Don’t be fooled by the humor and innocence of it all. This poem ponders a mystery that none of us can fathom.
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.
One kiss she gave her mother,
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.
“Old Chucky, Old Chucky!” she cried,
Running on little pink feet upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.
It was a transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly
And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigour! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.
So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.
And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.