Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Janet Waking - One of my favorite poems...

I love this poem. And not without a good cause. This morning a situation I was watching made me think of it again. I even considered writing a poem about how part of me would like to interrupt 'Janet's ' crisis, but as Peter learned, that is not the mind of Christ about the matter.

Janet Waking

By John Crowe Ransom

Beautifully Janet slept
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.

One kiss she gave her mother,
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.

“Old Chucky, Old Chucky!” she cried,
Running on little pink feet upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.

It was a transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigour! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.

And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.


“Janet Waking” is a metaphor for her initiation into knowledge of grief, loss, and the irreversibility of death. After a pleasant sleep, nothing seems amiss in Janet's world, but her true awakening begins when she decides to see how Chucky (a “dainty-feathered hen”) has “kept” (a colloquial expression referring to its well-being). As she pauses to give each parent a dutiful morning kiss, it is obvious that she usually gets her way. Next Janet runs “across the world upon the grass” to Chucky's house. In running from her home (where she is in control) to Chucky's house, she figuratively runs “across the world” because her world is about to be completely changed, as she moves from innocence to knowledge. (The speaker may also be punning with the Southern colloquialism of ’run across’ meaning ’inadvertently discover.’)

Janet discovers that “alas” Chucky has died. “Alas” both suggests the depth of her shock and loss and, by its very extravagance, creates a mock serious tone that undercuts and balances her grief. Chucky has died from a bee sting on its bald head. The “venom” (a term usually associated with evil) has caused a large purple knot on Chucky's head and rigor throughout the hen's body. The speaker observes that now Chucky's “poor comb” stands straight but Chucky does not. This flippant understatement seems intended to distance the speaker from Janet's emotions and remind the reader that a pet hen's death may not be taken very seriously by adults.

This initiation poem, which begins with literal sleep, ends with death (a sleep from which Chucky cannot be awakened). Janet attempts to “wake” Chucky, but the hen is “translated” beyond the reach of earthly power. Weeping so hard that her sobs seem inseparable from her breathing, Janet then turns to the adults, begging them to intervene. When they try to explain the concept of death, Janet simply rejects this idea that she is not ready to comprehend.

Brooks, Cleanth. “John Crowe Ransom: As I Remember Him.” American Scholar 58, no. 2 (Spring, 1989): 211-233.

Cowan, Louise. The Fugitive Group: A Literary History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Howard, Maureen. “There Are Many Wonderful Owls in Gambier.” Yale Review 77 (Summer, 1988): 521-527.

Malvasi, Mark G. The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

Modern American Poetry Web site. “John Crowe Ransom.” http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ransom/life.htm.

Quinlan, Kieran. John Crowe Ransom's Secular Faith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “The Wary Fugitive: John Crowe Ransom.” Sewanee Review 82 (1974): 583-618.

Young, Thomas Daniel. Gentleman in a Dustcoat: A Biography of John Crowe Ransom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

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