Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Of Herons, Hags and History: Rethinking Robert Penn Warren's Audubon: A Vision

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Of Herons, Hags and History: Rethinking Robert Penn Warren's Audubon: A Vision

Article excerpt

Robert Penn Warren's characters do not light out for the territories and stay there. Warren's life-long critique of American idealism--of our failure to measure up to the excessive standards of our Constitution and Declaration--consistently and schematically contests the dream of innocent nature at the heart of frontier myth. The Bavarian "Adam" of Wilderness finds the usual human vileness in an American wilderness presumed innocent; even the title--taken from the name of a Civil War battleground--suggests the ironies of Arcadia. Brother to Dragons, about the brutal murder of a slave by one of Thomas Jefferson's nephews, interrogates the moral status of the wilderness of Kentucky; the book-length poem wavers between a critique of rationalized racial violence and a sense that maybe human evil really does come from the woods. World Enough and Time displaces an ante-bellum gothic romance into a wilderness inhabited by what appear to be Washington Irving's feared mongrel races. Even for Jack Burden of All the King's Men--in a postmodern coda to the theme--recycled cliches of westering utterly obscure the California landscape.

Warren's most dense and ironic meditation on nature and the frontier, the long poem Audubon: A Vision, has generally been read as diverging from this critique, as a celebration by Warren of a type of man for which he usually displays a measure of contempt. Hugh Ruppersburg articulates the poem's enigmatic quality well by contrasting it with Warren's treatment of Emerson. "Warren can hardly muster even begrudging esteem for America's most famous idealist," Ruppersburg notes, so "Why should Audubon earn such admiration from Warren, and Emerson such scorn?" (79). John Burt points out that

   it is also odd that Warren chooses, through Audubon, to idealize the figure
   of the wilderness explorer who looks for innocent satisfaction from nature,
   for this is a figure Warren had already thoroughly discredited in the
   person of Meriwether Lewis in Brother to Dragons, and whose wishes, as the
   experience of all of Warren's western journeyers should make clear, are
   perhaps disreputable attempts to evade human entanglements. (93-94)

Charles Bohner, although reading the poem largely as "a celebration of blessedness," also describes the verse as varying "from vivid, concrete narrative to cryptic and puzzling abstractions" (124-25). A solution to this critical uneasiness lies, in my judgment, in reading the poem as a more problematized but ultimately consistent reworking of Warren's usual questions.

Glimmerings of Warren's less celebratory view of Audubon appear in his 1944 essay "Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty." Written long before the poem, the essay documents Warren's early interest in Audubon. (1) In Welty's story John James Audubon must kill a heron before he can paint it; Warren is fascinated by the irony of this, writing that Welty's Audubon is aware that for this reason "the best he can make of it now in a painting would be a dead thing, `never the essence, only a sum of parts'" (200). Warren goes on to note that, "there is in the situation an irony of limit and contamination."

Warren's subsequent reading of Welty's "A Memory" articulates a theme he sees linking a series of her stories, including "A Still Moment." Warren describes "A Memory" as presenting "the moment of the discovery of the two poles--the dream and the world; the idea and nature; innocence and experience; individuality and the anonymous, devouring, life-flux; meaning and force; love and knowledge" (201). Warren's own rendering of Audubon engages these same antinomies, with Audubon flinching at a nature that is clearly in the column of experience. Although Warren certainly doesn't "thoroughly discredit" Audubon, as perhaps he does Meriwether Lewis, his portrait is as much characterized by "irony and limit" as by eulogy.

Even the brief biographical headnote and opening poem contain traces of this ambivalence. …

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