[Wallace places Warren’s work among those of friends and mentors, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate – southerners who worked together on The Fugitive poetry magazine published in Nashville in the early 1920s. Her reading of "Heart of Autumn" places the figure of the poet in that poem in tension with the portrait of Warren that Allen Tate used as a basis for his 1924 poem, "To a Romantic," reprinted below.]
To a Romantic (to Robert Penn Warren)
You hold your eager head
Too high in the air, you walk
As if the sleepy dead
Had never fallen to drowse
From the sublimest talk
Of many a vehement house.
Your head so turned turns eyes
Into the vagrant West;
Fixing an iron mood
In an Ozymandias’ breast
And because your clamorous blood
Beats an impermanent rest
You think the dead arise
Westward and fabulous:
The dead are those whose lies
Were doors to a narrow house.
– Allen Tate (1924)
In "Heart of Autumn" Warren stands, "my face lifted skyward," watching the wild geese "head for a land of warm water." As the geese move across the autumn sky, some of them dropped from the air by rifle blasts, he asks:
Do I know my own story? At least, they know
When the hour comes for the great wing-beat. Sky-strider,
Star-strider – they rise, and the imperial utterance,
Which cries out for distance, quivers in the wheeling sky.
Those sky-striding, star-striding geese – one of a group of magisterial and invigorating birds that recur throughout Warren’s work – are figures for what arises, "fabulous" (as [Allen] Tate imagined it), amidst what falls and fails. Watching them – looking skyward but equally grounded in his body – and hearing their imperial utterance (a kind of clamor), the poet’s own heart stirs until, at last:
[Wallace quotes the poem’s last 6 lines.]
This poem is one incarnation of Warren, the romantic, as major poet, whose heart resounds with the clamorous utterance he hears in the wild geese, whose body feels their wing-beat. "Fierce impulse" drives his lines out of the narrow margins of Tate’s early poem, and the energy and passion of bodily perception drive him to forge his characteristic noun compounds within a rhythm that is tugged by gravity and rises beyond it. The moment of transformation in this poem comes from a yearning far beyond the boundaries of Ransom’s ironies or the abstract and intellectual complexities of Tate, but that yearning is not narrowly "Romantic." The scope of Warren’s feeling includes the knowledge of "pathlessness" and of "folly" (as we know from many other Warren poems and from his novels as well), yet it reaches toward joy. All Warren’s powerful feeling and passionate aspiration in this poem – which, like the geese, falls, then rises again "Toward sunset, at a great height" – were for many years hemmed in by a narrow formalism and model of ironic paradox that dominated much of American poetry before 1945.