The South Will Rhyme Again: The Fugitive Poets

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The following essay was originally written for a college course in April, 2018. It is posted here because, well, words.

Self-labeled “southern rebels,” since the American Civil War, have waved Confederate Battle Flags and preached southern tradition like all else had been taken away, as if the symbols of a more virulent past were (as they often actually were) the only things southerners still had. During such movements— including the spread of “the blues” in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the contentious amalgamation of black-people-music and white-people-music (the birth of rock and roll) in the late 1950’s, the insurgence of country-rock (also known as “Southern rock”) in the 1970’s, the various Christian religious revivals which pepper the timeline of more than two centuries of the southern United States’ existence, and the current popularity of modern country music and “redneck” culture which began and continues since the late 2000’s— the musical styles, food choices, antiquated folkways, and political stances commonly accepted by southerners intertwine, calcify, and rouse individuals throughout the nation. They all cry, “the South will rise again,” not realizing (or perhaps refusing to admit) that “the South” failed to rise the first time. Whatever images these cultural customs conjure, there is, and always has been, a different kind of southern rebel: persons infatuated with the undeniable beauties of the southern landscape and lifestyle, yet dissatisfied with old-fashioned southern traditions. Following World War I, a small group of poets studying at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University began a literary magazine called “The Fugitive.” These poets, later known as “Fugitives,” were at once the American south’s most fanatic champions and its harshest critics. The Fugitives used poetry to fashion a lens through which a southern-raised American could view the South in a way both loving and critical, through which one could envision both preservation and change of the culture, a lens which modern day southerners ought to be looking through today.

Attitude was the primary binder of the Fugitive Poets, with no singular discernible writing style common between them. Classic rhymes schemes and rhythms were used by all at times, but the strength of the movement came from the varying approaches to poetry. Take John Crowe Ransom’s elegy, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” which is written in common alternating couplets:

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. (17-20)

Ransom favored the use of quatrains with alternating rhyming couplets, possibly for its simplicity. For what he lacked in stylistic variance, he made up for in content and irony. Put a page Ransom’s work next to fellow Fugitive Allen Tate, and surely Tate’s will stand out. Even when using the same style as Ransom, Tate might use alternating indents to alter the rhythm. Tate also wrote without rhyme:

I saw myself furious with blood

Neoptolemus, at his side the black Atridae

Hecuba and the hundred daughters, Priam

Cut down, his filth drenching the holy fires. (1-4)

That excerpt is taken from the poem, “Aeneas at Washington,” and contains a total of four near structureless stanzas, the first with sixteen lines, the next with four, the third with sixteen again, and the last with three.

According to author William Pratt, in his 1965 book on the Fugitives, “The images of age and death that are present in so much Fugitive poetry are in one sense a link to the earlier Gothic South of Edgar Allan Poe… but they are also evidence of the obsolescence of Southern culture, and proof that the poets were much aware of its transience and fragility” (33). Fugitive poet Donald Davidson directly addressed the matter of the obsolescence of Southern culture in his poem, “Lee in the Mountains.” Davidson takes the point of view of Robert Lee Junior pining about his father, General Robert E Lee, and the hurt that the South fails to let go of following General Lee’s surrender:

The rifle

Returns to the chimney crotch and the hunter’s hand. 

And nothing else than this? Was it for this

That on an April day we stacked our arms

Obedient to a soldier’s trust? (65-69)

What Davidson observes here is the South’s desire for a strong unification with itself, something that was last accomplished with succession and lost with surrender. Davidson, not quite able to align himself with these feelings, was smart to use the Lee family to represent the South as a whole. One could also consider much of the work not only written, but self-published and distributed by the Fugitives, as irreverent and antagonistic toward the traditional southern culture. John Crowe Ransom suggested, in a poem addressed simply to the “Blue Girls,” “Under the towers of your seminary / Go listen to your teachers old and contrary / Without believing a word.” To southern Belles: religion can be questioned. Ransom’s Fugitive cohort Robert Penn Warren pushed the issue of religion even further in his poem, “Waiting,” a bit that covers the conservative Christian taboos of pre-marital sex, unplanned pregnancy, and divorce. He wrote: “You realize, truly that our savior died for us all, and as tears gather in your eyes, you burst out laughing / for the joke is certainly on Him, considering what we are.”

But the Fugitive’s greatest cultural adversary was the perception that southerners were dumb, non-intellectual, and this foreign perspective they fought harder than any southern-borne paradigm. Their greatest contribution to the greater literary canon and to the South in general was the insertion of southern voice into well-crafted literary pieces. Donald Davidson did it well enough that one can almost hear a southern accent speaking these beautiful words from “Lee in the Mountains”:

He was old then–I was a child–his hand

Held out for mine, some daybreak snatched away

And he rode out, a broken man. Now let

His lone grave keep, surer than cypress roots

The vow I made beside him. God too late

Unseals to certain eyes the drift

Of time and the hopes of men and a sacred cause.

The South continued to gain its own literary canon following the work of the Fugitives. William Faulkner began his rise to fame shortly after the Fugitive movement in the 1930’s, followed decades later by Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, and others. Faulkner, Lee, and Welty each won a Pulitzer prize for their works, and they each wrote with love for the South while tackling its greater cultural issues. Perhaps this desire for a nuanced culture as expressed by the Fugitives does not provide a strong enough identity for persons who feel forgotten or neglected or misplaced, but if national readership of southern literature tells us anything, it’s that non-southerners want to love the South too, if only we could all look at it the same way.

Pratt, William. The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective. New York, Dutton, 1965.

Ransom, John Crowe. “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.” The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective. New York, Dutton, 1965.

Tate, Allen. “Aenaeus at Washington.” The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective. New York, Dutton, 1965.

Davidson, Donald. “Lee in the Mountains.” The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective. New York, Dutton, 1965.

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