American Poet, Novelist, Educator
Robert Penn Warren
American Poet, Novelist, Educator
History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.
History is all explained by geography.
History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond. It modifies our complacency to look at the blurred and harrowing old photographs ? the body of the dead sharpshooter in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg or the tangled mass in the Bloody Lane at Antietam. Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.
How could I exist in the same world with that brightness? Two years later she smiled at me. She Named my name. I thought I would wake up dead.
How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.
Her eyes were glittering like the eyes of a child when you give a nice surprise, and she laughed with a sudden throaty, tingling way. It is the way a woman laughs for happiness. They never laugh that way just when they are being polite or at a joke. A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life. A woman only laughs that way when something has touched her way down in the very quick of her being and the happiness just wells out as natural as breath and the first jonquils and mountain brooks. When a woman laughs that way it always does something to you. It does not matter what kind of a face she has got either. You hear that laugh and feel that you have grasped a clean and beautiful truth. You feel that way because that laugh is a revelation. It is a great impersonal sincerity. It is a spray of dewy blossom from the great central stalk of All Being, and the woman?s name and address hasn?t got a damn thing to do with it. Therefore, the laugh cannot be faked. If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bifocals and ground-gripper shoes with bands on their teeth. She could get all society by the ears. For all any man really wants is to hear a woman laugh like that.
He gave you the impression of being a slow and deliberate man to look at him, and he had a way of sitting loose as though he had sunk inside himself and was going down for the third time and his eyes would blink like an owl's in a cage. Then all of a sudden he would make a move.
He had had a beautiful and eager young wife and another man had taken her away from him and had fathered his child, and all he had done was to walk away, leaving her in possession of everything he owned, and crawl into a hole in the slums and lie there like a wounded animal and let his intellect bleed away into pious drivel and his strength bleed away into weakness. And he had been good. But his goodness had told me nothing except that I could not live by it. My new father, however, had not been good. He had cuckolded a friend, betrayed a wife, taken a bride, driven a man, though unwittingly, to death. But he had done good.
He would get up and go out into a world which seemed very unfamiliar, but with a tantalizing unfamiliarity like the world of boyhood to which an old man returns.
Hell, a man can lie there and want something so bad and be so full of wanting it he just plain forgets what it is he wants. Just like when you are a boy and the sap first rises and you think you will go crazy some night wanting something and you want it so bad and get so near sick wanting it you near forget what it is.
For, no: not faith by fable lives, but from the faith the fable springs ? It never is the song that gives tongue life, it is the tongue that sings; and sings the song.
Go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.
Goodness . . . You got to make it out of badness . . . Because there isn't anything else to make it out of.
For the truth is a terrible thing. You dabble your foot in it and it is nothing. But you walk a little farther and you feel it pull you like an undertow or a whirlpool. First there is the slow pull so steady and gradual you scarcely notice it, then the acceleration, then the dizzy whirl and plunge into darkness. For there is a blackness of truth, too. They say it is a terrible thing to fall into the Grace of God. I am prepared to believe that.
For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar's gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
For what is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding: it is the deepest part of autobiography.
For whatever you live is life.
For when you get in love you are made all over again. The person who loves you has picked you out of the great mass of uncreated clay which is humanity to make something out of, and the poor lumpish clay which is you wants to find out what it has been made into. But at the same time, you, in the act of loving somebody, become real, cease to be a part of the continuum of the uncreated clay and get the breath of life in you and rise up. So you create yourself by creating another person, who, however, has also created you, picked up the you-chunk of clay out of the mass. So there are two you's, the one you create by loving and the one the beloved creates by loving you. The farther those two you's are apart the more the world grinds and grudges on its axis. But if you loved and were loved perfectly then there wouldn't be any difference between the two you's or any distance between them. They would coincide perfectly, there would be perfect focus, as when a stereoscope gets the twin images on the card into perfect alignment.
For years I had condemned her as a woman without heart, who loved merely power over men and the momentary satisfaction to vanity or flesh which they could give her, who lived in a strange loveless oscillation between calculation and instinct.
For life is a fire burning along a piece of string--or is it a fuse to a powder keg which we call God?--and the string is what we don't know, our Ignorance, and the trail of ash, which, if a gust of wind does not come, keeps the structure of the string, is History, man's Knowledge, but it is dead, and when the fire has burned up all the string, then man's Knowledge will be equal to God's Knowledge and there won't be any fire, which is Life. Or if the string leads to a powder keg, then there will be a terrific blast of fire, and even the trail of ash will be blown completely away.
For Life is Motion toward Knowledge. If God is Complete Knowledge then He is Complete Non-Motion, which is Non-Life, which is Death. Therefore, if there is such a God of Fullness of Being, we would worship Death, the Father.
For fire flames but in the heart of a colder fire. All voice is but echo caught from a sound-less voice. Height is not deprivation of valley, nor defect of desire. But defines, for the fortunate, that joy in which all joys should rejoice.
For God and Nothing have a lot in common. You look either one of Them straight in the eye for a second and the immediate effect on the human constitution is the same.
For either killing or creating may be a crime punishable by death, and the death always comes by the criminal's own hand and every man is suicide. If a man knew how to live he would never die.
During all that time I didn't see Willie. I didn't see him again until he announced in the Democratic primary in 1930. But it wasn't a primary. It was hell among the yearlings and the Charge of the Light Brigade and Saturday night in the back room of Casey's saloon rolled into one, and when the dust cleared away not a picture still hung on the walls. And there wasn't any Democratic party. There was just Willie, with his hair in his eyes and his shirt sticking to his stomach with sweat. And he had a meat ax in his hand and was screaming for blood. In the background of the picture, under a purplish tumbled sky flecked with sinister white like driven foam, flanking Willie, one on each side, were two figures, Sadie Burke and a tallish, stooped, slow-spoken man with a sad, tanned face and what they call the eyes of a dreamer. The man was Hugh Miller, Harvard Law School, Lafayette Escadrille, Croix de Guerre, clean hands, pure heart, and no political past. He was a fellow who had sat still for years, and then somebody (Willie Stark) handed him a baseball bat and he felt his fingers close on the tape. He was a man and was Attorney General. And Sadie Burke was just Sadie Burke. Over the brow of the hill, there were, of course, some other people. There were, for instance, certain gentlemen who had been devoted to Joe Harrison, but who, when they discovered there wasn't going to be any more Joe Harrison politically speaking, had had to hunt up a new friend. The new friend happened to be Willie. He was the only place for them to go. They figured they would sign on with Willie and grow up with the country. Willie signed them on all right, and as a result got quite a few votes not of the wool-hat and cocklebur variety. After a while Willie even signed on Tiny Duffy, who became Highway Commissioner and, later, Lieutenant Governor in Willie's last term. I used to wonder why Willie kept him around. Sometimes I used to ask the Boss, What do you keep that lunk-head for? Sometimes he would just laugh and say nothing. Sometimes he would say, Hell, somebody's got to be Lieutenant Governor, and they all look alike. But once he said: I keep him because he reminds me of something. What? Something I don't ever want to forget, he said. What's that? That when they come to you sweet talking you better not listen to anything they say. I don't aim to forget that. So that was it. Tiny was the fellow who had come in a big automobile and had talked sweet to Willie back when Willie was a little country lawyer.