Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn

American Poet, Novelist, Educator

Author Quotes

Dying--shucks! If you kin handle the living, what's to be afraid of the dying?

Everything seems an echo of something else.

By the time we understand the pattern we are in, the definition we are making for ourselves, it's too late to break out of the box. We can only live in terms of the definition, like the prisoner in the cage in which he cannot lie or stand or sit, hung up in justice to be viewed by the populace. Yet the definition we have made of ourselves is ourselves. To break out of it, we must make a new self. But how can the self make a new self when the selfness which it is, is the only substance from which the new self can be made?

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but spring out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. You happy foot or you gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God's eye, and the fangs dripping.

Close to the road a cow would stand knee-deep in the mist, with horns damp enough to have a pearly shine in the starlight, and it would look at the black blur we were as we went whirling into the blazing corridor of light which we could never quite get into for it would be always splitting the dark just in front of us. The cow would stand there knee-deep in the mist and look at the black blur and the blaze and then, not turning his head, at the place where the black blur and blaze had been, with the remote, massive, unvindictive indifference of God-All-Mighty or Fate or me, if I were standing there knee-deep in the mist, and the blur and the blaze whizzed past and withered on off between the fields and the patches of woods.

Committing yourself is a way of finding out who you are. A man finds his identity by identifying.

Dirt's a funny thing,' the Boss said. 'Come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?

But I don't know, in the end, what deserts, chasms, achievements, virtues, and beauties have to do with love. We can love for so many different, and paradoxical, qualities in the object of our love--for strength or for weakness, for beauty or for ugliness, for gaiety or for sadness, for sweetness or for bitterness, for goodness or for wickedness, for need or for impervious independence. Then, if we wonder from what secret springs in ourselves gushes our love, our poor brain goes giddy from speculation, and we wonder what is all meaning and worth. Is it our own need that makes us lean toward and wish to succor need, or is it our strength? What way would our strength, if we had it, incline our heart? Do we give love in order to receive love, and even in the transport or endearment carry the usurer's tight-lipped and secret calculation, unacknowledged even by ourselves? Or do we give with an arrogance after all, a passion for self-definition? Or do we simply want a hand, any hand, a human object, to clutch in the dark on the blanket, and fear lies behind everything? Do we want happiness, or is it pain, pain as the index of reality, that we, in the chamber of our heart, want? Oh, if I knew the answer, perhaps then I could feel free.

But I knew how the play would come out. This was like a dress rehearsal after the show has closed down.

But I'm not a lawyer. That's why I can see what the law is like. It's like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks on a cold night. There ain't ever enough blanket to cover the case, no matter how much pulling and hauling, and somebody is always going to nigh catch pneumonia. Hell, the law is like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy, but it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone's in the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind. The best you can do is do something and then make up some law to fit and by the time that law gets on the books you would have done something different.

But it wasn't a Primary. It was hell among the yearlings and the Charge of the Light Brigade and Saturday night in the backroom of Casey's Saloon rolled into one, and when the smoke 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.

But to poetry ? You have to be willing to waste time. When you start a poem, stay with it and suffer through it and just think about nothing, not even the poem. Just be there. It's more of a prayerful state than writing the novels is. A lot of the novel is in doing good works, as it were, not praying. And the prayerful state is just being passive with it, mumbling, being around there, lying on the grass, going swimming, you see. Even getting drunk. Get drunk prayerfully, though.

Blood is the first cost. 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.

But for the present I would lie there and know I didn't have to get up, and feel the holy emptiness and blessed fatigue of a saint after the dark night of the soul. 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.

But he was saying, '--and so I'm not going to make any speech--' In his old voice, his own voice. Or was that his voice? Which was his true voice, which one of all the voices, you would wonder.

And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love truth.

And he said, 'Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.

And in the new country and in the new, place the eyes of the new friend will reflect the new face and his mouth will speak to frame the syllables of the new name and the name is you and is the agitation of the air and is the wind and the wind runs and the wind is everywhere. The name and the face are you. And they are you. Are new. For they have been dipped in the healing flood. For they have been dipped in the redeeming blood. For they have been dipped in Time and Time is only beginnings. Time is only and always beginnings. And is the redemption of our crime? For Time is always the new place, and no-place. For Time is always the new name and the new face, and no-name and no-face. For Time is motion. For Time is innocence. For Time is West.

And soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

And the testicles of the fathers hang down like old lace.

And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.

As for the public, the PR man, like the advertising expert and others who deal with people in the lump, including a number of would-be-statesmen and redeemers-at-large, conceive of that body as composed of non-ideographic units which are to be regarded not as ourselves but as, ultimately, gadgets of electrochemical circuitry operated by a push-button system of remote control. In fact, in dealing with the public in a purely technological society, the very notion of self is bypassed by various appeals to an undifferentiated unconscious, such appeals often having little or no relation to the vendible object or idea; in this connection history gives us to contemplate the fact that the psychologist J.B. Watson, the founder of American behaviorism, wound up in the advertising business. So history may become parable.

At first it was, as I have said, rather bracing and tonic. For after the dream there is not reason why you should not go back and face the fact which you have fled from (even if the fact seems to be that you have, by digging up the truth about the past, handed over Anne Stanton to Willie Stark), for any place to which you may flee will not be like the place from which you have fled, and you might as well go back, after all, to the place where you belong, for nothing was your fault or anybody's fault, for things are always as they are. And you can go back in good spirits, for you will have learned two very great truths. First, that you cannot lose what you have never had. Second, that you are never guilty of a crime which you did not commit. So there is innocence and a new start in the West after all.

Beauty is the fume-track of necessity. This thought is therapeutic. If, after several applications, you do not find relief, consult your family physician.

All I've tried to do (with my writing) is capture the essence of my time.

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Robert Penn
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American Poet, Novelist, Educator