Fugitive/Agrarian School of Poetry

The Fugitives, a group of poets from Nashville, Tennessee, led the vanguard for modernist verse in the South in the 1920s. In contrast to the Imagist movement centered in England, the Fugitives emphasized traditional poetic forms and techniques, and their poems developed intellectual and moral themes focusing on an individual’s relationship to society and to the natural world. The Fugitive group met relatively briefly, from the end of World War I to the late 1920s, and they published a journal of verse, the Fugitive, for only three years (1922–25). As poets, fiction writers, social critics, and literary theorists, however, the leading members of the group—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren—have had an enormous impact on modern literature.

Initially the men who became the Fugitives met regularly for friendly conversations that ranged over history, religion, philosophy, art, and poetry in the home of an eccentric Jewish aesthete, Sidney Mttron Hirsch. Most of the members were professors from Vanderbilt University, and they naturally gravitated toward Ransom, a young English professor, Rhodes scholar, and war veteran who had recently published his first volume of poems. Eventually Ransom and the other members of the group began exchanging poems, and their poems reflected Ransom’s artistic influence. His poems, such as Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter, tended to develop abstract, fantastic images in a detached tone and to explore the relationship between the intellect and the imagination. Later, a precocious undergraduate, Tate, joined the group, and he added a dynamic sense of poetic energy to the group’s collective style. The most thoroughly modernist writer, Tate encouraged the Fugitives to experiment with poetic form and to write in free verse, which shifted the Fugitives’ traditional foundation.

In 1922 the Fugitives began publishing a little magazine. In the first issue, they explained that they named their journal the Fugitive because they intended to “flee from nothing faster than from the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South,” meaning that they rejected the tendency among southern writers to romanticize the antebellum South. At first they considered only contributions from within the group, and they chose to use pseudonyms in the first two published issues, but they took offense to the suggestion that the entire journal had been written by one person, presumably Ransom, under a variety of different names. As the magazine became more established, they printed poems from outside contributors, including Hart Crane, John Gould Fletcher, Robert Graves, Laura Riding, William Alexander Percy, Carl Sandburg, and Louis Untermeyer, but the vast majority of poems in each issue came from members of the Fugitive group. At the height of its membership, in 1924, the group listed all of its members on the masthead of the Fugitive: Walter Clyde Curry, Davidson, William Yandell Elliott, James M. Frank, William Frierson, Hirsch, Stanley Johnson, Merrill Moore, Ransom, Alec Brock Stevenson, Tate, Warren, Jesse Wills, and Ridley Wills. At age 19, Warren was the youngest member of the group and a literary prodigy who would become one of the 20th century’s finest poets.

During the period of the Fugitive’s publication, however, Ransom and Tate were the most mature and most dominant poets, and their contrasting styles defined Fugitive verse. Deeply influenced by the metaphysical poets and French symbolism, Ransom’s poems frequently describe images of decay and decadence. For example, the poem “Piazza Piece” (1927) juxtaposes the voice of death, personified as a gentleman in a dustcoat, with a beautiful, vital young lady preoccupied with ideas of love; the man tells the woman, “Your ears are soft and small / And listen to an old man not at all.” In spite of the evidence of mortality in her presence, specifically roses dying on a trellis, the maiden fatuously refuses to hear the gentleman in a dustcoat. For her, death has less consequence than romance, yet she, like the lovely roses, will inevitably die.

In contrast to Ransom’s bleak poems, Tate’s intellectually challenging and formally adventurous poems explore the artist’s relationship to society. In one of his best early poems, “Mr. Pope” (1928), Tate imagines the crippled 18th-century British poet Alexander Pope enduring the pity of his contemporaries, who feel sorry for his physical deformity but who fail to understand that his poetic art transcends the mortal coil. Tate describes Pope as a snake wrapped around a tree, hissing verses of wit and rage. In the poem’s final lines, the image of the coiled snake changes into an emblem: “Around a crooked tree / A moral climbs whose name should be a wreath.” The last line of Tate’s poem alludes to the ancient practice of crowning the accomplished poet with a wreath of laurel, symbolizing his rhetorical skill and his value to society.

Ransom and Tate engaged in a spirited debate about the nature of modern poetry in the Fugitive. In an editorial column, Ransom describes the modernist tendencies to emphasize images over themes and language over form. He claims that stripping poetry of meter reduces it to prose, which undercuts its social value and dissolves its artistic integrity, and he sees the modern poet as forced to choose between the inherent value of traditional formal poetry and the vulgar inanity of free verse. In a rebuttal column, Tate offers a solution to Ransom’s dilemma. He suggests that the new mode of versification is an extension, rather than an abandonment, of the established tradition. He explains that writing in free verse requires as much artistry to accomplish effective poetry as formal verse, and he claims that the modern world, in which cultural standards have become more relative, requires a more flexible form of rhetorical expression. In many respects, Tate’s argument echoes T. S. ELIOT’s essay Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919), and, indeed, he found Eliot profoundly influential.

The Fugitives thought of themselves as peculiarly southern poets. When they began their discussions, however, they felt critical of the southern writers’ tendency to mythologize the Old South. Instead they intended to create an artistic vision for the Modern South. Influenced by the South’s most outspoken critic, H. L. Mencken, a powerful journalist, they embraced the social, economic, and intellectual changes sweeping the South in the wake of World War I. But in 1925, the same year that they chose to end the Fugitive, an event occurred that led them to reconfigure their notions of southern identity. That year John T. Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in a rural Tennessee school, and the ensuing trial pitted Clarence Darrow, a famous liberal attorney, against William Jennings Bryan, an evangelist and perennial presidential candidate, as they argued science versus scripture. Some of the Fugitives, especially Ransom, Tate, and Davidson, objected to the ridicule heaped upon the South, much of it from Mencken. They reconsidered their earlier position on the idea of progress and its impact on southern culture, and they began to wonder if change, specifically the shift from an agricultural society to an industrial society, would benefit the South.

In 1930 four of the original Fugitives—Davidson, Ransom, Tate, and Warren—and eight other southern intellectuals, including Fletcher, Andrew Lytle, and Stark Young, collected a group of essays that addresses the social and economic changes in the South. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by “Twelve Southerners,” who have become known as the Agrarians, reexamines the values of the Old South in the 20th century. The essays maintain that an industrial society commodifies people, regarding them in economic terms as laborers, investors, or consumers, thus destroying individualism and damaging all levels of society—religion, art, education, community, and even family. At the time of its initial publication, soon after the collapse of the stock market, I’ll Take My Stand received little recognition, and the few critics who did notice it dismissed the Agrarians as a group of conservative reactionaries. But later generations have found the collection to be an especially prophetic analysis of an individual’s relationship to an industrial society and an intriguing articulation of the values, good and bad, of the American South.

Three of the original Fugitives also played important roles in the development of contemporary literary theory. In 1941 Ransom published a book titled The New Criticism that outlined a revolutionary method of literary criticism. He explained that critics should focus their attention directly on the work, rather than on history or the details of an author’s life. Meaning, he contends, emerges from the relationships among the words within the writing or the form of the text, not from the external context of a literary work. New Criticism had an enormous effect on literary scholars in the United States, and numerous critics aligned themselves with the movement, including R. P. Blackmur, Kenneth Burke, and Yvor Winters. Ransom’s technique also influenced the former Fugitives Tate and Warren. Tate wrote numerous elegant essays on literature in the New Critical style that have been collected in Essays of Four Decades (1968). Warren and fellow Vanderbilt alumnus Cleanth Brooks, a former student of Ransom, established New Criticism as the dominant mode of literary criticism in America with their series of college textbooks— Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1959), and Modern Rhetoric (1949). Although Warren divided his attention between creative writing and literary criticism, Brooks devoted his career to the development of literary study, and he became the finest practitioner of New Criticism.

Ransom, Tate, and Warren—the three writers most closely associated with the Fugitive group and the Agrarian movement—had extremely prolific and productive careers as writers, teachers, and editors. Ransom taught at Vanderbilt University and Kenyon College, where he founded the Kenyon Review. He published a few collections of poetry, including Chills and Fever (1924), Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927), and Selected Poems (1969), and, in addition to The New Criticism, he wrote two books of intellectual inquiry, God without Thunder (1930) and The World’s Body (1964). Among his most frequently anthologized poems are “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” “Janet Waking” (1927), and “Blue Girls” (1927). Tate taught at several universities, including the University of the South and University of Minnesota, and he briefly edited the Sewannee Review and Hound and Horn. He wrote a novel, The Fathers (1960), biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and several books of poems. His Collected Poems appeared in 1977. His most frequently anthologized poems include Ode to the Confederate Dead, The Swimmers (1953), and The Mediterranean (1936). Warren taught at Louisiana State University, University of Minnesota, and Yale University; while at LSU, he and Cleanth Brooks founded and coedited the Southern Review. He wrote many novels and short stories, winning a Pulitzer Prize for All the King’s Men (1946), as well as several books of social and literary criticism. But his reputation rests on his poetry, which won two more Pulitzer Prizes for Promises (1957) and Now and Then (1978). In 1985 he became the first poet laureate of the United States, and his Collected Poems appeared in 1999. The lyrics “Bearded Oaks” (1942), “There’s a Grandfather’s Clock in the Hall” (1974), and “The Ballad of Billie Potts” (1944) and the long poems Brother to Dragons (1953) and Audubon: A Vision (1969) are among his most famous works. Together, they taught or influenced numerous poets and writers, including John Berryman, James Dickey, Randall Jarrel, and Robert Lowell.

Cowan, Louise. The Fugitive Group: A Literary History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
Davidson, Donald, ed. The Fugitive: April, 1922–December, 1925. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967.
Pratt, William, ed. The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective. Nashville: J. S. Sanders & Co., 1991.
Rubin, Louis. The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. 1930. Reprint, edited by Louis Rubin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

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