James H. Justus: On "Bearded Oaks"

Arguably, even that most characteristic of Warren's early poems, "Bearded Oaks," is not solely lyric; its peculiar force, like that of similar poems in the metaphysical mode ("Picnic Remembered," "Love's Parable," "Monologue at Midnight," "The Garden") derives from the felt urgencies of narrative situations, situations condensed to scenes in which meditation replaces action. By its very nature, the purely meditative lyric is too static to admit the exercise of a temperament such as Warren's, given as it is to the interplay of excess, the dramatic clash of opposites conceived and drawn in large outline.

[. . . .]

It has occasionally been observed that Warren managed better than any other of his southern contemporaries, perhaps including Ransom, to write the kind of poetry that most of them admired and wrote about. The formal precision of such poems as "Bearded Oaks" and "Love's Parable" no doubt accounts for their popularity two or so decades ago: they illustrate perfectly the well-made poem, a conscious artifact whose careful intricacies of manner wedded to portentous matter invite New Critical analysis. With its "dull astronomers," "wastrel bankrupt," "the estate of man," "beshrewed," and especially its opening stanza beginning "As kingdoms after civil broil, / Long faction-bit and sore unmanned," "Love's Parable" is perhaps as close an imitation of Donne as any non-seventeenth-century poem. And despite a basic conceit suggestive of Donne ("Twin atolls on a shelf of shade"), "Bearded Oaks" is an impeccable updating of Marvell, with its compressed quatrains, sonorousness, gracefully phrased logic, slight syntactical inversions, and delicate adjustment of vowels to suggest an emotion consonant with the situation:

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie

Beneath the languorous head of light:

The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy

The nameless motions of the air

From Ransom, Warren learned very early not only the technical resources of strict forms but also the exciting modulations possible in poetic conventions, especially in forms in which dramatic situation takes precedence over purely lyrical evocation. From Tate, Warren observed how the dissociated modern sensibility, exploited so forcefully by Eliot and Pound, could be accommodated to the southern temperament, already known to an exasperated nation for its ragged paradoxes, its touchy sense of "difference," and its aesthetic responses to the fragmentation of ideals. . . . Warren’s personae, locked in their foresight of the extinction of the self, sink into complacency. Velleity , that lowest level of will, characterizes the recessive marine lovers of "Bearded Oaks" and "Picnic Remembered."

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Criticism Overview
Title James H. Justus: On "Bearded Oaks" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James H. Justus Criticism Target Robert Penn Warren
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication "The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren"
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