Warren’s “Altitudes and Extensions: 1980 – 1984”

“Altitudes and Extensions: 1980 “1984” were the last poems published during Robert Penn Warren’s lifetime. Regretfully, I did not find as many poems I liked in this section as in those published during the 60’s and 70’s, but perhaps that is merely because I have been reading so much Warren lately, 584 pages so far, with another thirty to forty pages to go today and tomorrow. I’m afraid it’s difficult to read that many pages in a row without becoming somewhat jaded.

Truthfully, though, I’m looking forward to starting Stanley Kunitz’s Collected Poems next week. Hopefully it won’t drag out nearly as long as it took me to finish Warren’s poems. Luckily, I’m not planning another move in the midst of this book.

That caveat delivered, my favorite poem in this section was:

Mortal Limit

I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the last purity of snow-snags.

There ” west — were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constellations. Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?

Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore

The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?

Perhaps I like this poem because the hawk is a reoccurring image in Warren’s poems, perhaps because the poem in many ways serves as a summary of Warren’s vision.

Even in these last poems there are images of transcendence, of hope:

Since my idiot childhood the world has been
Trying to tell me something. There is something
Hidden in the dark. The bear
Was trying to enter the darkness of wisdom.

and in describing a sighting of a bull elk:

” I had never seen
A bull wapiti, wild before ” the
Great head lifted in philosophic
Arrogance against
God’s own sky.

Invariably, though, these images are balanced against images of despair and doubt.

“Mortal Limit” with its image of the hawk appearing to soar higher than the Tetons themselves seems to describe Warren’s aspirations. The human soul must have such aspirations if it is to truly soar. In the end, though, the poet cannot escape the conclusion that even the hawk must accept “the mortal limit,” that in end we must all accept the “downwardness” that inevitably brings “rot,” and “the darkness of whatever dream we clutch.”

2 thoughts on “Warren’s “Altitudes and Extensions: 1980 – 1984””

  1. He’s certainly as fond of the hawk symbol as Jeffers is.

    Like Jeffers he has a certain disdain for human weaknesses, but I don’t think he’s quite as cynical as Jeffers.

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