Study Guide Prepared by
Michael J. Cummings..©
of Work and Date of Publication
for John Whiteside's Daughter" is an elegy, a poem that reflects on a person's
death or on death in general. It consists of five stanzas, each with four
lines. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., published the poem in New York in 1924 in
a collection of Ransom's poems, Chills and Fever.
action probably takes place in the rural South. (Ransom was born in the
small town of Pulaski, Tennessee.) The time is the early 1920s.
of the Poem
death of a lively little girl shocks neighbors who used to observe her
while she was outdoors. She was always so energetic and so full of noise
and mischief. Playfully, she would make war against her shadow and sometimes
rouse sleepy geese—which were no doubt dreaming of eating apples from a
nearby orchard—and chase them across the green grass and into a pond. When
the funeral bells toll, the neighbors are “vexed" (line 19) that a child
who was only recently so full of life is now a silent, “primly propped"
(line 20) corpse.
theme of the poem is that an unexpected death jolts people into confronting
the fragility of life and the inscrutability of the forces that end life.
Although they may mourn the loss of the spirited presence on the grass
outdoors, they also mourn for themselves in the realization that they too
are mortal and that they too will one day become a “brown study" (lines
3, 23). As John Donne wrote in Meditation 17 of Devotions Upon Emergent
[S]end not to know
Is a Brown Study?
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
study" (lines 3 and 23) is term that means a state of deep thought, like
that of the figure depicted in Rodin's most famous sculpture, The Thinker.
Scheme and Meter
each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third, and the second rhymes
with the fourth. Note, however, that only the last two letters rhyme in
each of the following pairs: lines 1 and 3, 13 and 15, and 17 and 19.
meter and line length vary.
Took arms against (line
7): These words appear to allude to those used by Shakespeare's Hamlet
when, in his famous soliloquy, he considers whether to “take arms against
a sea of troubles or, by opposing, end them" (3.
1. 66). Hamlet's main flaw was his indecisiveness. The little girl,
by contrast, does not deliberate; she acts.
Now go the bells (line
17): These words may allude to the following famous lines from Meditation
17 of John Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:
Each man's death
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
green grass appears to symbolize life. The sleepy geese—and the comparison
of their feathers to snow—may symbolize death. The little girl, who is
full of life, chases the geese into the pond. Her action suggests that
she, like most children, does not dwell on death and does not exhibit any
fear of it.
Figures of Speech
are examples of figures of speech from the poem:
of a Consonant Sound
Lines 1, 2:
There was such
in her little body, / And such
in her footfall
Is the Opposite of What Is Expected
lively little lady is now lifeless.
she was anything but stiff and formal while alive, she lies "primly propped"
(line 20) at her funeral.
of Unlike Things Without Using Like, As, or Than
10: Dripping their snow (comparison of goose feathers to melting snow)Simile
of Unlike Things Using Like, As, or Than
9: The lazy geese, like a snow cloud (comparison of the geese to a
of the Speaker
title suggests that the poem's speaker was not close to the little girl
and therefore reacts to her death more with shock than grief. After all,
if he had regularly befriended her, he most likely would have used her
first name in the title and in the poem. Instead, he refers to her as “John
Whiteside's daughter" in the title. In the poem, he uses pronouns and “little
lady" to refer to her.
poem can stand as a reflection on how death can affect anyone in any culture
at any time or place. It therefore remains relevant today—and will continue
to remain relevant—for all readers of English-language poetry.
"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" was published in 1924, it remains
under copyright protection and is not in the public domain. However, you
can access the complete text at the following sites, which have obtained
permission from the publisher to reprint the poem.
Questions and Writing Topics
1. Give an example of humor
in the poem.
2. What were the little
girl's "wars"? (line 5)
3. Is "Goose-fashion" (line
16) redundant? (The author has already informed the reader that the scuttling
creatures are geese.)
4. Is "vexed" an appropriate
word in line 19?
5. Write an essay or a poem
that focuses on how you were affected by the death of a young person you