The Critical Voice and the Narrative Voice: Robert Penn Warren's Essay on Coleridge and All the King's Men

By Le Cor, Gwen | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Critical Voice and the Narrative Voice: Robert Penn Warren's Essay on Coleridge and All the King's Men


Le Cor, Gwen, The Mississippi Quarterly


So I had it after all the months. For nothing is lost, nothing is ever
lost.
(All the King's Men FE 228)

Oh, nothing is lost, ever lost! at last you understood.
("Original Sin: A Short Story" 179)

For nothing we had,
Nothing we were
Is lost.
(Brother to Dragons 195)

WHEN ASSESSING ROBERT PENN WARREN'S WORK ONE IS STRUCK BOTH BY its diversity and by the fact that it resists categorizing. Novelist, poet, playwright, short-story writer and critic, Warren had a rare capacity to experiment with all genres. The successive versions of All the King's Men and Brother to Dragons are a case in point. Starting in one form and evolving into another, they can be seen as literal experiments across genres. For Warren, novels and poems stem from "the same germ," "spring from the same source" (Talking 232-33), suggesting a close connection between genres. The many facets of Warren's works thus appear as a coherent whole in which each piece resonates with the others, or which, in the manner of his spider web metaphor, "ripples to the remotest perimeter" of his work (All the King's Men FE 188, RE 266). Because the coherence of his work (1) deserves a longer treatment than can be provided within the scope of a single paper, I will limit my purpose here to one of the ripples and focus on the interrelatedness of criticism and fiction writing.

Warren repeatedly asserted the need for a unified approach to the fiction and nonfiction works: "Whatever we do--teaching or reading criticism or practicing it a little--has an effect on us. It gets inside us. We can't throw it away, except by a feat of total amnesia" (Talking 141). Or, as many fictional voices could say, "nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost" (FE 228, RE 319). The most obvious manifestation of that unity is probably to be found in the numerous allusions and direct references to other writers which permeate Warren's work, (2) but what I find even more significant is the connection which Warren formulates as a direct influence of his critical practice on his fiction writing: "I am sure that criticism has modified my writing" (Talking 130). What I am interested in, then, is the way his critical practice molds his writing.

Several critics have analyzed Warren's non-fiction writing as a way to gain insight into the fiction. Victor Strandberg, for instance, very rightly views Warren's criticism as both "admirably reasonable and elucidating in its own right" and as serving "the secondary purpose of illuminating and often vindicating his own practice in literature" (Poetic Vision 34). Warren's critical response to other writers can indeed often become a useful commentary on own work. Yet, limiting the role of the criticism to that of comment or "gloss" for the fiction (Poetic Vision 34) does not account for the closer link which Warren's remark suggests.

I would like to examine that question by focusing on what is perhaps Warren's best known piece of criticism, his essay on Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and on the ties that link it to All the King's Men. My purpose here is to re-read All the King's Men through the prism of the essay, and to examine the imprint the essay has left on the themes and structure of the novel.

I

Coleridge's influence on Warren's fiction and poetry has been well established. Lesa Corrigan believes that "A Poem of Pure Imagination" helped Warren recover his poetic voice (124) and James Grimshaw that it "provides further understanding of Warren's development as a poet" (20). Similarly, for Strandberg, the "essay, on The Ancient Mariner, turns out to be an explanation and vindication of Warren's own purpose and practice in poetry" (Poetic Vision 31). The comments do not limit themselves to the poetry. Joseph Blotner observed that Warren's "comments on Coleridge's work were full of relevance to his own" (218). James Justus, offering the most extensive study to date of Coleridge's influence on Warren's fiction, identifies Mariner figures in all of Warren's novels prior to 1955, starting with Willie Proudfit (Night Rider) and concluding with Hamish Bond (Band of Angels). …

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