I’m beginning to realize why, besides the stress of moving, I’m having such a hard time getting into Robert Penn Warren’s early poems despite the fact I love his later poems.
Part of it is simply that I’m put off by his early style which seems to be a cross between Poe, Donne and Faulkner. The archaic, convoluted language at times seems pretentious and unnecessarily confusing. Too often the poems seem derivative and unoriginal.
Most of all, though, Penn Warren’s early themes simply don’t resonate with me. While my favorite poem in the section entitled “Eleven Poems on the Same Theme” uses simpler language than most of these early poems, it, too, focuses on the idea of sin and guilt:
Original Sin: A Short Story
Nodding, its great head rattling like a gourd,
And locks like seaweed strung on the stinking stone,
The nightmare stumbles past, and you have heard
It fumble your door before it whimpers and is gone:
It acts like the old hound that used to snuffle your door and moan.
You thought you had lost it when you left Omaha,
For it seemed connected then with your grandpa, who
Had a wen on his forehead and sat on the veranda
To finger the precious protuberance, as was his habit to do,
Which glinted in sun like rough garnet or the rich old brain bulging through.
But you met it in Harvard Yard as the historic steeple
Was confirming the midnight with its hideous racket,
And you wondered how it had come, for it stood so imbecile,
With empty hands, humble, and surely nothing in pocket:
Riding the rods, perhaps-or grandpa’s will paid the ticket.
You were almost kindly then, in your first homesickness,
As it tortured its stiff face to speak, but scarcely mewed;
Since then you have outlived all your homesickness,
But have met it in many another distempered latitude:
Oh, nothing is lost, ever lost! at last you understood.
But it never came in the quantum glare of sun
To shame you before your friends, and had nothing to do
With your public experience or private reformation:
But it thought no bed too narrow-it stood with lips askew
And shook its great head sadly like the abstract Jew.
Never met you in the lyric arsenical meadows
When children call and your heart goes stone in the bosom;
At the orchard anguish never, nor ovoid horror,
Which is furred like a peach or avid like the delicious plum.
It takes no part in your classic prudence or fondled axiom.
Not there when you exclaimed: “Hope is betrayed by
Disastrous glory of sea-capes, sun-torment of whitecaps
-There must be a new innocence for us to be stayed by.”
But there it stood, after all the timetables, all the maps,
In the crepuscular clatter of always, always, or perhaps.
You have moved often and rarely left an address,
And hear of the deaths of friends with a sly pleasure,
A sense of cleansing and hope, which blooms from distress;
But it has not died, it comes, its hand childish, unsure,
Clutching the bribe of chocolate or a toy you used to treasure.
It tries the lock; you hear, but simply drowse:
There is nothing remarkable in that sound at the door.
Later you may hear it wander the dark house
Like a mother who rises at night to seek a childhood picture;
Or it goes to the backyard and stands like an old horse cold in the pasture.
Probably what I like best about this poem in comparison to so many of the other poems is the semi-humorous treatment of the nightmare as established in the first stanza, with the nightmare being compared to an “old hound” snuffling at the narrator’s door. And rather than being totally repelled by the nightmare the author admits that “You were almost kindly then, in your first homesickness.” This is not the kind of nightmare that destroys people’s lives, but, instead, one that “hears of the death of friends with a sly pleasure.” Though it is “nothing remarkable,” this nightmare always seems there to remind us that we are all victims of “original sin.”
Perhaps the title of the poem itself suggests why I have so much of a problem identifying with these poems, for personally I’ve never believed in the concept of “Original Sin.” I still remember the outrage I felt when someone told me that a baby had to be baptized before it died or it could never attain heaven. That seemed like a totally ridiculous idea to me. No adult, even one just baptized, could ever be as innocent as a newborn babe. While novels like Lord of the Flies have made me question the validity of the concept oforiginal sin, in the end I have always rejected that concept for the idea that it is society, not human nature that is the real source of evil. Though people obviously inherit some personality traits, in the end it is their environment that determines how those traits are developed or corrupted.
Furthermore, though I can somewhat identify with reoccurring nightmares, the fact is that, despite my Vietnam experiences, I have never felt the kind of extended guilt that Warren describes in these earlier poems. It did take me several months to come to terms with Vietnam after I’d returned, and I spend many a night trying to understand what had happened and why I felt the way I did. In many ways it was a life-shattering experience. And though I still have been known to reflect on my Vietnam experiences with certain people after I’ve had a few too many beers, it is not with any great sense of guilt. It’s more, “God, I can’t imagine how I could have been that na”ve or that stupid.” Once I had time to examine what I had gone through, though, I was never again haunted by what I had done there.
I simply do not believe we inherit the sins of our forefathers, especially the sins of some mythical Adam and Eve. Perhaps if I’d been born to a wealthy family or had been born in the South the son of a son of an ex-slaveholder I would feel some of the narrator’s guilt, “for it seemed connected then with your grandpa.” Never having met a grandparent, and too poor to have inherited anything, though, it’s hard for me to identify with this kind of guilt.