Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

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Perry
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Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

Post by Perry » Fri May 03, 2019 7:05 am

I'm wondering if people from the group would help me interpret this poem. I keep criticizing modern poets for being obscure, but this poem is probably 75 years old, if not 100 years old. John Crowe Ransom is one of America's best 20th century poets, and usually his poems are crystal clear, but I am having trouble with this one. After I post it, I will quote it into a second post to explain the areas I am having problems with.

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.

John Crowe Ransom
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Re: Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

Post by Perry » Fri May 03, 2019 7:08 am

Perry wrote:
Fri May 03, 2019 7:05 am
Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter

There was such speed in her little body, [The poem is about a dead child.]
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study ["brown study" must mean "brown appearance"]
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window. [Her "wars" would mean her childish activities or play, or perhaps fights with other children. I have looked up "bruit" but still don't have a firm grasp of what it means. This line would seem to mean that they watched her playing through a large window.]
We looked among orchard trees and beyond [Here, they are still looking through the window, it seems.]
Where she took arms against her shadow, ["arms against her shadow" would be some form of play.]
Or harried unto the pond [Here and in the next line she is chasing geese to a pond.]

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud [The geese running as a group look like a snow cloud.]
Dripping their snow on the green grass, [The geese poop on the lawn as they run.]
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud, [Tricking and stopping? Is that a description of the movements of the geese?]
Who cried in goose, Alas, [Who is crying in "goose"? The geese, I guess.]

For the tireless heart within the little [I think I understand this stanza well enough, but the syntax isn't great.]
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle [I looked up "scuttle" and it means running with quick, small steps.]
Goose-fashion under the skies! [This whole stanza is still devoted to the geese.]

But now go the bells, and we are ready, [Must be church bells. The wake is taking place in someone's house, probably John Whiteside's.]
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.
Ransom seemed to have a fascination with death at an early age, as he wrote a similar poem about a dead boy. Mainly I need help with the syntax starting in the third line of stanza three, through stanza four. The more I read it, the more I think I understand it. It appears that the bulk of the poem is devoted to describing the girl shepherding the geese to the pond. I wonder why that was so important to him.
Last edited by Perry on Fri May 03, 2019 8:24 am, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

Post by ray miller » Fri May 03, 2019 7:55 am

Only had a quick read for now, but brown study means a reverie. That makes things clearer?
I'm out of faith and in my cups
I contemplate such bitter stuff.

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Re: Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

Post by Perry » Fri May 03, 2019 8:10 am

"brown study" means a reverie? I never would have thought.

One of the meanings of "study", I think, is "countenance", so it seems obvious that "brown study" just means that the girl has turned brown since her death. If "reverie" is what it means in this case, that makes things less clear for me.

Oh oh oh oh oh! I get it now. Her "reverie" (death) seems surprising compared to her energy before she died. Now it is clear.

Actually, I think I have interpreted the whole poem now. The syntax in the section I mentioned is strange, but it is making more sense now. I find the language of this poem to be highly creative.
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Re: Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

Post by David » Fri May 03, 2019 6:52 pm

Ray's right, Perry - "brown study" is quite a well known phrase. Apparently "brown" could once mean "gloomy".

I love this poem. I found it in The Rattle Bag, along with many others that subsequently became favourites. I recommend it. Continually.

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Re: Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

Post by David » Fri May 03, 2019 6:57 pm

And "bruit" is the French word for noise, and used - archaically, I suppose - in that sense in English. Here, perhaps, more like rumoured (or fabled).

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Re: Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter (need help)

Post by Perry » Fri May 03, 2019 8:17 pm

Thank you to both. I guess I understand it now.

So I'm right that "brown study" means "death" in this case. (At the age of 68, this is the first time I am encountering that expression.)

I am taking "bruited" to mean "heard" or "known". The dictionary's definition is:

"(verb) to voice abroad; rumor (used chiefly in the passive and often followed by about ): The report was bruited through the village."

That definition doesn't entirely clarify it for me.

I still don't know what this use of "tricking" means. Tripping?

Certain words in this poem strike me as highly creative, like "war" and "snow" and "apple-dreams". I wish I could get some of that creativity into my own poetry.

In this thread, I am going to post the other Ransom poem about a dead young-un. (I did, but then I transferred it to the Poems That You Love thread.)
If I don't critique your poem, it is probably because I don't understand it.

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