This post is for me. i will be surprised if anyone reads it. i will be stunned if anyone reads the two poems that are the subject of the paper.
i really don’t care. As i said, this one is for me.
Oh, i would be thrilled if my grandson in future years reads the poems and my paper, and gets something out of it for him. And i would be pleased if others read it and get something out of it for them. But if not that’s okay. You see this is sort of closure for me.
i have been missing from this site for several days. i was working on this. It was written in August 1967. i hand wrote it and then began to type it in the early evening the day before it was due. It was typed on an Underwood typewriter on top of our dining room table on Castle Heights Avenue. Around 10:00 p.m., my mother had gotten ready for bed but came to check on me. She knew i was frustrated and offered to type the remaining dozen pages for me — Estelle Jewell was a superb typist, clicking off over 80 words a minute flawlessly; i could hack out about half of that with errors on almost every line, it was a product of my sports writing habits. She sat down in her nightgown and robe and thrashed it out with my looking over her shoulder to interpret my hen scratchings and explaining the formats. She finished after midnight.
i turned it the next day and two days later, proudly reported we had made an A+.
It was the last paper i wrote for Dr Bill Holland, and the last i would write in my undergraduate work.
It was so much more. This paper, William Wordsworth, Robert Penn Warren, and Bill Holland gave me insight and appreciation of a depth in literature i had not known before. And that has provided me with a life long more thoughtful way in how i have lived my life.
It remains the best thing, for me, i’ve ever written.
Oedipus in the Transcendent Dower:
Robert Penn Warren’s “The Ballad of Billie Potts”
William Wordsworth’s “The Brothers”
Middle Tennessee State University
This study was conducted by drawing my own comparisons between “The Brothers” by William Wordsworth and “The Ballad of Billie Potts” by Robert Penn Warren. Due to the absence of any discovered study on this subject, the ultimate conclusions are mine.
However. the basis for my comparison would have to be derived from earlier studies of the two poets. I am greatly indebted to Victor H. Strandberg and his theory on Warren’s poetry, A Colder Fire and the lectures of and talks with Dr. W. H. Holland during the summer of 1967 at Middle Tennessee State University concerning William Wordsworth. Other sources from which I borrowed conclusions were Mr. Curtis Whittington of the Middle Tennessee English Department, John L. Stewart’s The Burden of Time, and Arthur M. Beatty’s William Wordsworth: His Doctrine and Art in Their Historical Relation.
II. A Brief Comparison of Warren and Wordsworth
III. The Beginnings of Time
IV. The Brother and the Priests
V. The End of the Quest
VI. The End of Time
“With, what a clue like that in my hands and fail to find out my birth.”
– Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex1
In forming a comparison between Robert Penn Warren’s “The Ballad of Billie Potts” and William Wordsworth’s “The Brothers,” some suppositions had to be formulated which are, at least, dangerous.
The danger does not lie in the interpretation of Warren. The danger does exist in misinterpretation. But to apply a parallel between these two poems is possibly stretching Wordsworth’s intended meaning. Wordsworth stated in his letters that “The Brothers” was composed to point out the “Dignity of the poor.”1 My conclusions can be justified even considering the Lake Poet’s own statement of purpose. When one realizes the depth of the man would not allow him to limit himself to a singular objective as simple as this. Perhaps I have read more of Warren into Wordsworth than Wordsworth into Warren. which would be the logical order. But I feel if the exalted resident of Grasmere could view the comparison, he would favorably approve of the conclusions and the attempt.
II. A Brief Comparison of Warren and Wordsworth, the Men
It would not fall short of ludicrous to draw distinct parallels in the lives of Robert Penn Warren and William Wordsworth. But noting similarities-of a-degree in the thoughts of the Agrarian and the Romantic may well aid in the comparison of “The Ballad of Billie Potts” and “The Brothers.”
On first appearance, a striking difference is the gap in the academic accomplishments of the two. Warren has achieved renown as a noted scholar as well as for his literary efforts if not more so. His attainments through schooling were above average to say the least. Wordsworth, on the other hand. never distinguished himself in the scholastic spectrum. About the only contribution his formal schooling made to his life was to offer him a period of existence away from Nature. a time between becoming and being. which possibly greatly affected his philosophy. But schooling is not the only road to intellectual acknowledgment, and Wordsworth’s fame in his criteria for poetry and gargantuan reputation for intellectual endeavors can never be dimmed by R. P. W.
Both men reach a definite a metaphysical theory that is distinctly their own. “Billie Potts” and “The Brothers” ably show their belief, especially in the light of their other works. This writer feels that basically the two philosophies shown are strikingly similar. The modes for explanation may differ (this difference becomes practically nil in the two works discussed), but the final messages remain close. If a large difference does exist, it is in the method in which the arrive at their respective philosophies. Wordsworth’s thoughts as shown in “The Brothers” were not formulated completely until his lingering with Godwinism was culminated by rejection. Nevertheless. it appears that the ultimate conclusions drawn by the Lake Poet were inevitable and that his philosophy was not a developed conclusion but was inherent in the man from the beginning.
Warren, on the other hand, actually does conduct a search for knowledge. His quest is genuine: he does not reach an acceptable answer until the writing of “Billie Potts.” The end of his quest is ably signified by the ten-year period which lapsed between this writing and Warren’s next attempt at poetry. Warren’s reaching this conclusion resulted only after he had struggled with the harsh naturalism of T. S. Eliot. In earlier work, this naturalism prevails, but it doesn’t fit, and only by resorting to a doctrine similar to Wordsworth’s Romanticism does the Kentuckian resolve his problem. Warren himself admits his Romanticism in his essay on “Knowledge and the Image of Man.”
III. The Beginnings of Time
To discover the importance of the settings in these two works is almost a revelation in itself. Warren’s “Land between the rivers” obviously refers to another land between the rivers, Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. This stark symbolism is even bolstered further by the frequent description of Mr. and Mrs. Potts that casts them in a role related to that of Adam and Eve. Mrs. Potts especially fits the part: she is “clever” with “eyes like a cat,” and she motivates the murder of Little Billie. (“Yeah, but you wouldn’t done neither hadn’t been for me.”).
The brothers are reared in a land of shepherds, and the picture Wordsworth presents could very well describe another ancient land, although not as specifically as in “The Ballad of Billie Potts.” But in the context of the poem itself, as in Warren’s, the valley is the beginning, at least for Leonard. He was “reared among the mountains.” The area is “his paternal home.”
The scene shifts when Leonard and Little Billie are forced to leave the beginnings, and here the poems divaricate from a similar course. Leonard travels the sea as a mariner, and water (the greatest water being the sea) is a constant symbol of eternity for Wordsworth. The last of The River Duddon Sonnets ably points this out. Leonard achieves a catharsis with Nature “while the broad green wave and sparkling foam flashed / round him images and hues that wrought / In union with the employment of his heart.” He is in Timelessness.
Billie, unlike Leonard. does not escape Time in his travels. Quite the contrary, he becomes more involved with Time when he travels West. The westward movement was always movement toward the future on the frontier. But the Missouri River is crossed when leaving the land between the rivers. and Warren’s Missouri is analogous to Wordsworth’s sea. The river is Warren’s eternity, and it includes past, present. and future. “For it was Roll, Missouri, / it was Roll, roll, Missouri” recalls Wordsworth’s motion that “rolls through all things.” in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour.”
Warren emphasizes the West still lies under “Time’s unwinking eve.” and further notes:
But water is water and it flows,
Under the image on the water the water coils and goes
And its own beginning and its end only the water knows.
(my underline), and,
And Time is only beginnings,
‘Time is only and always beginnings.
Two other vital elements to the setting exist in “The Brothers.” The exchange between Leonard and the priest occurs in the church graveyard, and the religious connotation (not necessarily Christian) is important. It is here in the beginnings, the shepherd’s valley among the mountains, where Leonard’s consummation and completed revelation of Nature is reached. An allegory lies in the story of the two springs. Not only does it parallel the death of James, the younger brother, it also signifies the ultimate identity of Leonard:
There were two springs which bubbled side by side
As if they had made that they might be
Companions for each other; the huge crag
Was rent with lightning – one had disappeared;
The other, left behind, is flowing still.
Warren also uses another scene; but Paducah is not an allegory. It is brought into the narration in order for the poet and reader to keep their aesthetic distant – to view the scene without becoming involved. The reader and Warren are only passing through the homeland of Billie Potts. The dreamer wants to know “is this the right road to Paducah?” And the inhabitant informs the passer-through that “They say hit so, but I ain’t bin.” The resident of the land between the rivers, lives in his context as do the Pottses. They are involved with the ballad’s story, and Paducah lies outside their scope.
IV. The Brother and the Priests
Death comes to one person in each poem, Little Billie in “Ballad” and James, the younger brother, in “Brothers,” and the first inclination would be to cast them in similar roles. But such is not the case. The frail James is, and remains throughout, Wordsworth’s child of Nature, and he dies in Nature by sleepwalking off a cliff and “in his hand he must have held / his Shepherd’s staff.” His life in Time has been halted as the flow of the spring has been stopped.
The position of Big Billie is also open to misinterpretation. Critics have felt that he is the protagonist instead of Little Billie, and some have conceived of him as a naturalistic God. But Victor H. Strandberg notes that Big Billie “simply does not have the credentials of supernatural omnipotence, which even a naturalistic God of hate must have in order to be a responsible God.”4
Big Billie’s most important office is that of a priest, himself. Little Billie’s death comes at the altar where:
Little Billie gets down on his knees
And props his hands in the same old place
To sup the water at his ease.
Big Billie and the priest serve similar functions in their respective poems.
Both are essential to the consummation of the major character’s quest for self-identity.
The priest in the church graveyard like the priest of the spring reveals to the protagonist what he is (the priest informs Leonard what has happened to his other half). It should be stressed that his and Big Billie’s priesthood is in a mystical religion, not that of Christianity.
Mrs. Potts is the mother of man and she, more than any other character, belongs to the land between the rivers. As aforementioned, her relation to Eve is potent: “Nobody. knew
what was in her head,” and she is the initiator of the crime:
And the old woman said: “Pappy, why don’t you take the young gentleman
down to the spring so he kin get hit good and fresh?”
The old woman gave the old man a straight look.
She gave him the bucket but it was not empty but it was not water.
“I figgered he was a ripe ‘un,” the old man said.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t done nuthen hadn’t bin for me,” the old woman said.
In the mother’s role, Mrs. Potts provides the answer to Little Billie’s true identity.
For even though…
Ain’t Billie, ain’t Billie,” the old woman cries,
Oh, hit ain’t my Billie..
…she remembers that when he was little she:
…kissed him whar
The little black mark waz under his tit,
Shaped lak a clover under his left tit,
With a shape fer luck and I’d kiss it—”
Two other characters in “The Ballad of Billie Potts” play important mechanical roles.
The traveler who shoots Little Billie in the hijack attempt causes the youngster to leave the valley and travel West. Joe Drew, whom Little Billie meets on his return to the valley, provides the reader and Little Billie with the information that his parents “luck” left when Little Billie did, and Billie reveals that he is planning to “fun” his parents before disclosing his Identity. Also, Joe later tells the Potts that the traveler was Little Billie.
V. The End of the Quest
I think myself the child of Good Luck, and that the years are my foster brothers. Sometimes they have set me up, and sometimes thrown me down,but he that has Good Luck for mother can suffer no dishonor. That is my origin, nothing can change it, so why should I renounce this search into my birth?
Robert Penn Warren’s “The Ballad of Billie Potts” deals with the search for self-identity:
Though the setting differs, Billie Potts is driven like Oedipus (Rex), after all evasions fail, to find his identity, and to find it at whatever cost. Oedipus lost his eyes and his kingdom; Billie Potts loses his life, but in each case the lost. outweighed by a spiritual gain at the quest’s end.6
Billy Potts is an innocent at the outset of the narration—he is described in terms of nature that existed on the frontier, the Land between the rivers:
Little Billie was full of piss and vinegar
And full of sap as a maple tree
And full of tricks as a lop-eared pup.
But in maturation, Little Billie leaves the land between the rivers, and Warren strongly points out the significance immediately before the younger Potts fails in his robbery-murder attempt with the parenthetical verses:
And like the cicada had left, at cross-roads or square,
The old shell of self, thin, ghostly, translucent, light as air.
He rides “away from goodbye, goodbye/ And toward hello, toward Time’s unwinking eye.” (Warren’s italics). And here,
Billie questions “Which are you? What?”
But Billie fails and is baptized into the world of Time “with blood on his shirt and snot in his nose / And pee in his pants for he’d wet his clothes.” He crosses the Missouri and gazes into the stream “To drink not of the stream but of your identity, / But water is water and It flows” like Time. In the West, he assumes a new identity, “And his mouth will speak to frame / The syllables of a new name.” He goes to the West “For Time is always the new name and the new face, / And no-name and no-face,” and “For Time Is West.”
In the West under the auspices of Time, Billie succeeds, but after ten years he discovers “Why, I’m not in it at all!” And Billie Potts takes his search for self-identity back to the land between the rivers “For there is no place like home,” and the irony of the situation comes into full-play, Billie has had his identity with him all the while – he just could not see it. Joe Drew sees it for when Billie tells of his plan to fool his folks, Joe remarks, “Durn if you always wusn’t a hand to git yore fun.” Because of his tendency to get his fun, Billie rides to meet his fate. He well knows his father’s occupation, but he continues his little joke and it kills him.
In death, at the beginning of Time (the land between the rivers) and on the brink of Timelessness, Billie Potts finds his identity. During the walk to the spring, all is dark except “the star is there but it does not wink,” reminding the reader of “Time’s unwinking eye” mentioned earlier, And then Little Billie kneels at the altar, and as he looks into the water, “the star is gone (Time’s eye has winked; Billie has achieved Timelessness) but there is his face.”
Little Billie Potts has found his identity. He found it in death and Timelessness. It had been with him all the time as had his birthmark. “The little black mark wuz under
his left tit,” or, appropriately, over his heart. His identity brought him death. Little Billie embodied naturalistic traits. As “The bee knows, and the eel’s cold ganglia burn, / And the sad head lifting to the long return,” Billie also must return:
…and, wanderer, you
Heave at the great fall of Time…
Back to the silence, back to the pool, back
To the high pool; motionless, and the unmurmuring dream…
…And bear through that limitless and devouring fluidity
The itch and humble promise which is home.
But Warren does not limit himself to the naturalistic world, encompassed by Time. Billie Potts gained far more than he lost:
And you, wanderer,
For the beginning is death and the end may be life,
For the beginning was definition and the end may be definition,
And our innocence needs, perhaps, now definition.
The concluding lines leave no doubt to the import Warren has intended. Billie, in his search has returned home and he must die because in Time he lives in a naturalistic world.
The priest of this naturalistic religion performs the rites of sacrifice at the altar and in Timelessness, Billie sees his identity– the birthmarks:
And you, wanderer, back,
After the striving and the winds word,
Here in the evening empty of wind or bird,
To kneel in the sacramental silence of the evening
At the feet of the old man
Who is evil and ignorant and old,
With the little black mark under your heart,
Which is your name,
Which is shaped for luck.
Which is your luck.
Leonard, the major character in “The Brothers,” also conducts a search for his identity, but to Wordsworth, the world is not as harsh as Warren would have us believe. The search itself is much more subtle.
Leonard is much closer to Nature than Billie Potts could ever be. He and Janes “Were brother Shepherds on their native hills.” The major portion of his quest has been completed when the narration begins, and the reader is informed of this portion in retrospect. For sixteen years, Leonard had lived in nature in the valley of shepherds, but Walter Ewbanks, the brothers’ grandfather dies, the estate is sold:
…and they were destitute.
And Leonard, chiefly for his Brother’s sake,
Resolved to try his fortune on the seas.
But as aforementioned, Leonard escapes Time. He goes to the sea – eternity or timelessness. On the sea, he becomes one with Nature; ho experiences a Calenture (from Wordsworth’s note) which is extremely similar to the device Billie Potts uses in beginning and ending his search – by gazing in water:
… would often hang
Over the vessel’s side, and gaze and gaze
And, while the broad green wave and sparkling foam
Flashed round him, images and hues that wrought
In union with the employment of his heart.
It is interesting to note that the Calenture is similar to Wordsworth’s recollection of his youthful involvement with Nature expressed in other poems:
He, thus by feverish passion overcome,
Even with the organs of his bodily eye, in the bosom of the deep,
Saw mountains – saw the forms of sheep that grazed
On verdant hills – with dwellings among trees,
And shepherds clad in the same country gray
Which he himself had worn.
But Leonard too is beckoned to return to the beginning. He returns in search of the other half of himself, the younger brother James. With his search half-accomplished, he goes to the church graveyard and meets the Priest. The Priest does not represent the naturalistic priest of Big Billie Potts but performs similar duties by giving Leonard the answer to his ultimate identity, even though he does not recognize it himself.
Leonard and James are the two springs; one has stopped flowing because of fact of nature. But both are water during their existence – they are one with Nature and Timelessness. Leonard discovers, through the Priest, what has become of his other half. He is saddened – though not dejected. And after he received this knowledge “he went on shipboard, and is now / A Seaman, a gray-headed Mariner.” He returns to Timelessness, the sea, he has become one with Nature.
VI. The End of Time
But I will start afresh and make the dark things plain.
Leonard Ewbanks and Little Billie Potts have found their identities In Timelessness. The difference in the manner that each reaches his goal reflects a great deal of the difference between William Wordsworth, the Romantic, and Robert Penn Warren, the Fugitive, That the resolution of the quest in both works is extremely similar shows the two writers have grasped near-identical solutions in their philosophies.
Often his rejection of Godwinisn, Wordsworth holds Nature as the ultimate road to the final answer and that answer lies in Timelessness. “The Brothers” is an excellent exhibit of his theory, and Leonard embodies the ideal Wordsworthian traits.
Warren, like Wordsworth, finds the answer of Timelessness only after grasping a colder and harder philosophy – in Warren’s case, T.S. Eliot’s naturalism. His lingering with the claimed philosophy is longer than Wordsworth’s and it is much more convincing, But Eliot’s answers are not suitable in the final analysis.
“The Ballad of Billie Potts” resolves the problem and shows Warren’s new conclusion admirably.
The major difference in the two ultimate answers is that Warren does not believe that the knowledge of identify can be achieved in Time. The problem lies within the temporal existence, but the answer is reached only as Billie Potts reached it –through gaining eternity himself. Wordsworth disagrees: The answer does exist in Timelessness, but it can be reached within the limits of Time, by contemplation of Nature, becoming one with Nature and transcending Time, and Nature as well, to gain the vision of the ultimate form in Timelessness. Leonard is exemplary of this process.
Therefore, Wordsworth’s philosophy is softer and more idealistic to the layman than Warren’s. It appears that Warren, unable to accept Eliot’s summation, believes in the mystical conclusions of Wordsworth but not having the mystical experience himself, cannot honestly admit to the answer existing inside the limits of Time.
1Sophocles, King Oedipus, translated by William Butler Yeats; reprinted in The Continental Edition of World Masterpieces, ed. Maynard Mack et al. (New York, 1956), P. 249
2Raymond Dexter Havens: The Mind of a Poet: A Study of Wordsworth (Baltimore, 1941), P. 364.
3Robert Penn Warren, “Knowledge and the Image of Man,” Sewanee Review,
LXIII (Spring 1955), 182-92.
4Victor H. Strandberg, A Colder Fire: The Poetry Robert Penn Warren (Lexington, Kentucky, 1965), P. 146.
5Sophocles, P. 250.
6Strandberg, p. 98.
7Sophocles, p. 234.
Beatty, Arthur. William Wordsworth: His Doctrine and His Art in Their Historical Relations. Madison, Wisconsin, 1962.
Havens, Raymond Dexter. The Mind of a Poet: A Study of Wordsworth. Baltimore, 1941.
Holland, W. H. Lectures and conversations during the summer of 1967 at Middle Tennessee State University.
Sophocles. King Oedipus, translated by William Butler Yeats. Reprinted in The Continental Edition of World Masterpieces, ed. Maynard Mack et al. (New York, 1956), pp 232-256.
Stewart, John L. The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and the Agrarians, Princeton, 1965.
Strandberg, Victor I. A Colder Fire: The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren.Lexington, Kentucky, 1965.
Robert Penn Warren poems: “The Ballad of Billie Potts.” Selected Poems: 1923-1943. New York, 1944.
“Knowledge and the Image of Man,” Sewanee Review, LXIII (Spring 1955), 182-192.
Whittington, Curtis. Conversations during the summer of 1967 at Middle Tennessee State University.
Wordsworth, William. Poems of Wordsworth, ed. Matthew Arnold. London, 1912.
2 thoughts on “An Academic Wonder i’m of Which i’m Proud”
Interesting read, a bit to academic for my old brain, but I did enjoy the poem excerpts. I can see why you and Mom got and A+
Thanks, Rod. It’s bit academic for my old brain too, but more than worth it as i got to read both of my favorite poems several more times. If you would like, i will let you borrow my copies of both.