A Poem by John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2010
Type of Work and Date of Publication
......."Bells 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.
.......The action probably takes place in the rural South. (Ransom was born in the small town of Pulaski, Tennessee.) The time is the early 1920s.
.......The 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 geesewhich were no doubt dreaming of eating apples from a nearby orchardand 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
.......The 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 Occasions:[S]end not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee. What Is a Brown Study?
......."Brown 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.
.......In 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.
.......The 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:
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.Symbols
.......The green grass appears to symbolize life. The sleepy geeseand the comparison of their feathers to snowmay 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
.......Following are examples of figures of speech from the poem:
Repetition of a Consonant Sound
Line 10: green grass
Line 14: rod that made themrise
Line 18: stern stopped
Line 20: primly proppedIrony
Outcome That Is the Opposite of What Is Expected1...The lively little lady is now lifeless.
2...Though she was anything but stiff and formal while alive, she lies "primly propped" (line 20) at her funeral.Metaphor
Comparison of Unlike Things Without Using Like, As, or ThanLine 10: Dripping their snow (comparison of goose feathers to melting snow)Simile
Comparison of Unlike Things Using Like, As, or ThanLine 9: The lazy geese, like a snow cloud (comparison of the geese to a cloud)Attitude of the Speaker
.......The 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.Universality
.......The poem can stand as a reflection on how death can affect anyone in any culture at any time or place. It therefore remains relevant todayand will continue to remain relevantfor all readers of English-language poetry.
.......Although "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.Internet Archive
The Poetry Foundation
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 knew.