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John Crowe Ransom is today better known as a critic, but he also wrote excellent poetry. One of my favourites is 'Vision by Sweetwater', which, because it is short and not too well known, I hope the reader will forgive me for giving in full:

Vision by Sweetwater

Go and ask Robin to bring the girls over
To Sweetwater, said my Aunt; and that was why
It was like a dream of ladies sweeping by
The willows, clouds, deep meadowgrass, and the river.

Robin's sisters and my Aunt's lily daughter
Laughed and talked, and tinkled light as wrens
If there were a little colony all hens
To go walking by the steep turn of Sweetwater.

Let them alone, dear Aunt, just for one minute
Till I go fishing in the dark of my mind:
Where have I seen before, against the wind,
These bright virgins, robed and bare of bonnet,

Flowing with music of their strange quick tongue
And adventuring with delicate paces by the stream,—
Myself a child, old suddenly at the scream
From one of the white throats which it hid among?

How are we to understand the dramatic shift in tone in the last two lines?

Is this poem autobiographical? If so, does 'the scream/ From one of the white throats' correspond to a known incident?

If the poem is not a factual account of a specific event, how are we to interpret the girl's scream? How it strikes me is that either (1) the narrator stumbles on one of the girls naked (more likely), or (2) something macabre, such as a dead body, floats down the watercourse (less likely). Interpretation (1) would fit with the broader spirit of the poem, i.e. the awakening of narrator's sexual feelings; but it's hardly clear.

I have also read some critics claiming that the poem is a loose retelling of Susanna and the Elders, and such critics usually connect the fact that Susanna means lily to the image of the 'lily daughter' for support. But that line of argument seems pretty thin to me.

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  • Perhaps the girls came upon a nest of Cottonmouth (white throats) snakes.
    – Sam
    Commented Apr 25 at 14:35

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Here are a few ways in which this poem has been interpreted. I couldn’t find anyone who thought that it might be autobiographical. Poets are free to invent and fictionalize, so a biographical interpretation needs to be based on evidence.

Robert Penn Warren interpreted ‘Vision by Sweetwater’ as a story about the narrator remembering being suddenly confronted, as a child, with the mystery of sexuality:

As a young boy, he is outside the world of the girls, fascinated but uncomprehending, shy but yearning toward their mystery, and when the scream bursts forth, it is charged, not only with terror, loss, and pain, but with sexuality. It is a Dionysiac scream, a darker reality, bursting forth to violate the “innocent dream of ladies sweeping by,” to chill into sudden silence the gay, innocent festival of the “bright virgins” moving by the water in their “delicate paces,” as on a frieze.

What complexity and power lie, too, in the fact that we know nothing of the origin of the scream, not what provoke vokes it, not from what throat it comes. This ignorance, and anonymity, is an index to the archetypal nakedness of the scream—merely scream, the ineluctable scream. It bursts forth in that nakedness from “one of the white throats” where it has been hidden—hidden as though lying in wait, or as though in guilt. Or both.

Robert Penn Warren (1968). ‘Notes on the Poetry of John Crowe Ransom at His Eightieth Birthday’. The Kenyon Review 30:3, p. 341.

Grey Elliot detected an allusion to the myth of Pan and Syrinx from Ovid’s Metamorphoses 1.689ff. The god Pan pursued the virgin nymph Syrinx, who escaped by transforming into hollow river-reeds, which Pan made into the first pan-pipes.

More ambiguous is the third line of stanza four. These ambiguities are partially explained by the beautifully veiled allusion to the metamorphosis of Syrinx, which was a contingent in Pan’s invention of music. That is, the shift to sterner tone is paralleled in the shift from the music of their strange quick tongue to the scream. Further, the scream gives impetus and direction to music and, by extension, poetry. This makes the speaker old suddenly through his sudden aware ness of the universality of experience, but the impact of the original ambiguity still resonates—even through its partial clarification.

Grey Elliot (1969). John Crowe Ransom: A study of the literary strategy in his poems, pp. 51–52’. Master’s thesis, University of Montana.

A. R. Coulthard thought the poem alluded to the story of Susanna and the Elders from the apocryphal part of the book of Daniel. While Susanna was bathing in the garden, two old men asked her to have sex with them, threatening to slander her if she refused, by falsely claiming she had a young lover.

Lust is the link between Ransom’s poem and the Susanna story. What seem mere “girls” to the aunt are “like a dream of ladies sweeping by” to the coming-of-age narrator. Though just dawning, his sexual yearning is as ancient as the elders’ inflamed desire to violate the pure and innocent Susanna. Like the elders, he voyeuristically observes the unaware objects of his lust as they prattle in “their strange quick tongue.” Susanna is oblivious to the hiding elders as she bathes in her garden, and Ransom’s boy is an ignored but enthralled auditor of the “little colony of hens” who “tinkled light as wrens”—blithely vulnerable virgins reminiscent of Susanna with her handmaidens.

One of the girls in “Vision” is singled out as “my Aunt’s lily daughter.” Not only does the adjective stress her lust-enhancing purity, but it also suggests that Ransom may have consciously used the Apocrypha parallel: “Susanna” means “lily” in Hebrew.

A. R. Coulthard (1988). ‘Ransom’s Vision by Sweetwater’. The Explicator 46:3, pp. 41–42.

John Burt analyzed the ambiguity in the last stanza without committing to an interpretation:

The moment the speaker remembers is a moment some time before the moment with the Aunt, her lily daughter, and Robin’s sisters, some moment when he was a child, but a moment when he became suddenly old, which is to say, a moment when he learned and experienced something deep and chilling and dark, something long-term, indeed life-changing. Is the scream something he actually heard? Or is it a thought or suggestion that somehow crossed his mind? He refers to what he hears as “the scream,” as if it is a scream he has thought about many times, perhaps even a scream he expects his readerly interlocutor to already have some knowledge of.

John Burt (2020). ‘Recovering John Crowe Ransom’s Poems’. Mississippi Quarterly 73:1, p. 103.

Burt thought the mythological and biblical interpretations of Elliot and Coulthard “implausible”, but added:

To my mind the closest comparison is to the moment in Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ when the narrator, as a child, hearing and understanding the dark mourning song of the mockingbird, first faces the mysterious intertwining of eros and death, and knows that he will never be happy again, but also will never quite stop singing, having received the questionable gift of poetic knowledge.

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