Robert Penn Warren’s “Promises: Poems 1954-1956”

Robert Penn Warren’s “Promises: Poems 1954-1956” finally contains some of the kinds of poems I was expecting when I asked for his collected poems for Christmas. After a hundred pages of slogging through poems that I found less than inspirational, I was delighted to find several poems in this forty page section that I liked a lot.

My favorite poem is probably “Gold Glade,” although the poem is far too optimistic to truly represent the rest of the poems in this section. Though I do find Warren’s vision of the world rather more optimistic in this section, poem number VI, entitled “School Lesson Based on Word of Tragic Death of Entire Gillum Family,” describes how a father killed his entire family with an ice pick while they were getting ready to go to school. So, it’s certainly not just a shift to optimism that makes these poems more appealing to me. Perhaps it is the introduction of a “personal” touch in the poems that I find most appealing. Somehow, unlike his earlier poems, you sense a real person behind these poems:

III. Gold Glade

Wandering, in autumn, the woods of boyhood,
Where cedar, black, thick, rode the ridge,
Heart aimless as rifle, boy-blankness of mood,
I came where ridge broke, and the great ledge,
Limestone, set the toe high as treetop by dark edge

Of a gorge, and water hid, grudging and grumbling,
And I saw, in mind’s eye, foam white on
Wet stone, stone wet-black, white water tumbling,
And so went down, and with some fright on
Slick boulders, crossed over. The gorge-depth drew night on,

But high over high rock and leaf-lacing, sky
Showed yet bright, and declivity wooed
My foot by the quietening stream, and so I
Went on, in quiet, through the beech wood:
There, in gold light, where the glade gave, it stood.

The glade was geometric, circular, gold,
No brush or weed breaking that bright gold of leaf-fall.
In the center it stood, absolute and bold
Beyond any heart-hurt, or eye’s grief-fall.
Gold-massy in air, it stood in gold light-fall,

No breathing of air, no leaf now gold-falling,
No tooth-stitch of squirrel, or any far fox bark,
No woodpecker coding, or late jay calling.
Silence: gray-shagged, the great shagbark
Gave forth gold light. There could be no dark.

But of course dark came, and I can’t recall
What county it was, for the life of me.
Montgomery, Todd, Christian-I know them all.
Was it even Kentucky or Tennessee?
Perhaps just an image that keeps haunting me.

No, no! in no mansion under earth,
Nor imagination’s domain of bright air,
But solid in soil that gave it its birth,
It stands, wherever it is, but somewhere.
I shall set my foot, and go there.

There is something magical in this poem, something that reminds me of my own childhood experiences in the woods, a magical experience that may only truly be possible in childhood but one we seek to repeat for the rest of our lives.

Of course, it is the kind of sentimental scene you’d expect to find in a movie like Lord of the Rings, but it’s also a realistic portrayal of a childhood moment that lingers in the memory, a moment that, as an adult, you can never be truly sure existed at all. Perhaps one must be truly innocent to perceive such a moment in its fullness.

As adults looking back, it’s hard to be truly sure that the moment did exist at all. Perhaps we only imagined the moment after reading it in romantic novels or seeing it portrayed in sentimental paintings. Still, there’s something to be said for the adult who refuses to believe the moment is entirely imaginary and seeks to regain that experience.

6 thoughts on “Robert Penn Warren’s “Promises: Poems 1954-1956””

  1. Loren,

    Good to see you back and commenting again. I haven’t read Penn Warren, but I like Gold Glade. Don’t like it nearly as much as Frost’s “For Once then, Something”, but they treat similar themes.


  2. I’m hoping that I’m now on track to post new literary posts at least three times per week, David, with other days filled in with the “usual” trivia.

    I also wrote an article for href=”“ Open Source Politics that should be published shortly and I hope to write at least one of those weekly, too.

    I have it on my “to do” list to re-read Frost’s Collected Poems, something I haven’t done for many a year,

  3. This is a lovely poem. As one who also wandered alone in woods, I know of where he speaks, though the woods themselves are long gone.

  4. This is absolutely beautiful, heartfelt and touching, an incredible work of literature, poetry. The way it is written is absolutely impressive.

  5. Always pleased to see there are still readers who love Warren’s work. If you were moved by Gold Glade, pls see the triptych of poems in Promises titled Dark Woods, especially the first two – which also describe a close encounter of the arboreal kind. Then go to the end of the book and feel the power of Warren’s peroration in the poem called Hands are Paid. It brings together the themes of the three previous poems and, for that matter, the entire book. The set of four poems is called Boys Will, Joyful Labor Without Pay, and Harvest Home.

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