Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Robert Penn Warren

American Poet, Novelist, Educator

"The poem... is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see - it is, rather, a light by which we may see - and what we see is life."

"I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and Heard mountains moan in their sleep. By daylight, They remember nothing, and go about their lawful occasions Of not going anywhere except in slow disintegration. At night They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember. So moan.Their's is the perfected pain of conscience that Of forgetting the crime, and I hope you have not suffered it. I have. "

"Tell me a story. In this century, and moment, of mania, Tell me a story. Make it a story of great distances, and starlight. The name of the story will be Time, But you must not pronounce its name. Tell me a story of deep delight. "

"There is always another country and always another place. There is always another name and another face. And the name and the face are you, and you The name and the face, and the stream you gaze into Will show the adoring face, show the lips that lift to you As you lean with the implacable thirst of self, As you lean to the image which is yourself, To set the lip to lip, fix eye on bulging eye, To drink not of the stream but of your deep identity, But water is water and it flows, Under the image on the water the water coils and goes And its own beginning and its end only the water knows. There are many countries and the rivers in them -Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, Colorado, Pecos, Little Big Horn, And Roll, Missouri, roll. But there is only water in them. 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 And is our Saviour's priceless blood. 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. "

"In silence the heart raves. It utters words Meaningless, that never had A meaning. I was ten, skinny, red-headed, Freckled. In a big black Buick, Driven by a big grown boy, with a necktie, she sat In front of the drugstore, sipping something Through a straw. There is nothing like Beauty. It stops your heart.It Thickens your blood. It stops your breath. It Makes you feel dirty. You need a hot bath. I leaned against a telephone pole, and watched. I thought I would die if she saw me. "

"Then let us turn now — you to me And I to you — and hand to hand Clasp, even though our fable be Of strangers met in a strange land Who pause, perturbed, then speak and know That speech, half lost, can yet amaze Joy at the root; then suddenly grow Silent, and on each other gaze. "

"That earlier hope had, if fulfilled, Been but child's pap and toothless meat — And meaning blunt and deed unwilled, And we but motes that dance in light And in such light gleam like the core Of light, but lightless, are in right Blind dust that fouls the unswept floor 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. Then, let the act Speak, it is the unbetrayable Command, if music, let the fact Make music's motion; us, the fable. "

"Accept these images for what they are — Out of the past a fragile element Of substance into accident. I would speak honestly and of a full heart; I would speak surely for the tale is short, And the soul's remorseless catalogue Assumes its quick and piteous sum. "

"After the Dinner Party - You two sit at the table late, each, now and then, Twirling a near-empty wine glass to watch the last red Liquid blimb up the crystalline spin to the last moment when Centrifugality fails: with nothing now said. What is left to say when the last logs sag and wink? The dark outside is streaked with the casual snowflake Of winter’s demise, all guests long gone home, and you think Of others who never again can come to partake Of food, wine, laughter, and philosophy— Though tonight one guest has quoted a killing phrase we owe To a lost one whose grin, in eternal atrophy, Now in dark celebrates some last unworded jest none can know. Now a chair scrapes, sudden, on tiles, and one of you Moves soundless, as in hypnotic certainty, The length of table. Stands there a moment or two, Then sits, reaches out a hand, open and empty. How long it seems till a hand finds that hand there laid, While ash, still glowing, crumbles, and silence is such That the crumbling of ash is audible. Now naught’s left unsaid Of the old heart-concerns, the last, tonight, which Had been of the absent children, whose bright gaze Over-arches the future’s horizon, in the mist of your prayers, The last log is black, while ash beneath displays No last glow. You snuff candles. Soon the old stairs Will creak with your grave and synchronized tread as each mounts To a briefness of light, then true weight of darkness, and then That heart-dimness in which neither joy nor sorrow counts. Even so, one hand gropes out for another, again."

"Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true. And the line where the incoming swell from the sunset Pacific First leans and staggers to break will tell all you need to know About submarine geography, and your father's death rattle Provides all biographical data required for the Who's Who of the dead. I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and Heard mountains moan in their sleep.By daylight, They remember nothing, and go about their lawful occasions Of not going anywhere except in slow disintegration.At night They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember. So moan.Theirs is the perfected pain of conscience that Of forgetting the crime, and I hope you have not suffered it.I have. I do not recall what had burdened my tongue, but urge you To think on the slug's white belly, how sick-slick and soft, On the hairiness of stars, silver, silver, while the silence Blows like wind by, and on the sea's virgin bosom unveiled To give suck to the wavering serpent of the moon; and, In the distance, in plaza, piazza, place, platz, and square, Boot heels, like history being born, on cobbles bang. Everything seems an echo of something else. And when, by the hair, the headsman held up the head Of Mary of Scots, the lips kept on moving, But without sound.The lips, They were trying to say something very important. But I had forgotten to mention an upland Of wind-tortured stone white in darkness, and tall, but when No wind, mist gathers, and once on the Sarré at midnight, I watched the sheep huddling.Their eyes Stared into nothingness.In that mist-diffused light their eyes Were stupid and round like the eyes of fat fish in muddy water, Or of a scholar who has lost faith in his calling. Their jaws did not move.Shreds Of dry grass, gray in the gray mist-light, hung From the side of a jaw, unmoving. You would think that nothing would ever again happen. That may be a way to love God. "

"A friend of your youth is the only friend you ever have."

"A look at the past reminds us of how great is the distance, and how short, over which we have come. The past makes us ask what we have done with us. It makes us ask whether our very achievements are not ironical counterpoint and contrast to our fundamental failures."

"A meaning. I was ten, skinny, red-headed, freckled. In a big black Buick, driven by a big grown boy, with a necktie, she sat in front of the drugstore, sipping something through a straw. There is nothing like beauty. It stops your heart. It thickens your blood. It stops your breath. It makes you feel dirty. You need a hot bath. I leaned against a telephone pole, and watched. I thought I would die if she saw me."

"A man does not die for words. He dies for his relation to them."

"Against firelight, he sees the face of the woman lean over, and the lips purse sweet as to bestow a kiss, but this is not true, and the great glob of spit hangs there, glittering, before she lets it fall. The spit is what softens like silk the passage of steel on the fine-grained stone. It whispers."

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

"All items listed above belong in the world in which all things are continuous, and are parts of the original dream which I am now trying to discover the logic of. This is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness may be converted into the future tense of joy."

"After a great blow, or crisis, after the first shock and then after the nerves have stopped screaming and twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things and feel that all possibility of change has been used up. You adjust yourself, and are sure that the new equilibrium is for eternity. . . But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn't the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day."

"A young man?s ambition ? to get along in the world and make a place for himself ? half your life goes that way, till you?re 45 or 50. Then, if you?re lucky, you make terms with life, you get released."

"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."

"America was based on a big promise?a great big one: the Declaration of Independence. When you have to live with that in the house, that?s quite a problem?particularly when you?ve got to make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all the things you have to, raise your children, and so forth. America is stuck with its self-definition put on paper in 1776, and that was just like putting a burr under the metaphysical saddle of America?you see, that saddle?s going to jump now and then and it pricks."

"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."

"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 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 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."

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

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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?"

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

"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."

"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?"

"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."

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

"Everything seems an echo of something else."

"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."

"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 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 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 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."