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Robert Penn Warren: youngest of the Fugitives

Prolific poet and author of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men

  • Mortal Limit
  • I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
  • It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
  • Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
  • Of dream-spectral light above the lazy purity of snow-snags.
  • There—west—were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
  • In dark profile to break constellations. Beyond what height
  • Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
  • New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?
  • Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
  • Hang motionless in dying vision before
  • It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
  • And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore
  • The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
  • Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?
  • Evening Hawk
  • From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
  • Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
  • Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding
  • The last tumultuous avalanche of
  • Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
  • The hawk comes.
  • His wing
  • Scythes down another day, his motion 
  • Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
  • The crashless fall of stalks of Time.
  • The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.
  • Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
  • Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
  • Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
  • Into shadow.
  • Long now,
  • The last thrush is still, the last bat
  • Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
  • Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
  • Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.
  • If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
  • The earth grind on its axis, or history
  • Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.
  • San Francisco Night Windows
  • So hangs the hour like fruit fullblown and sweet,
  • Our strict and desperate avatar,
  • Despite that antique westward gulls lament
  • Over enormous waters which retreat
  • Weary unto the white and sensual star.
  • Accept these images for what they are— 
  • Out of the past a fragile element
  • Of substance into accident.
  • I would speak honestly and of a full heart; 
  • I would speak surely for the tale is short,
  • And the soul’s remorseless catalogue
  • Assumes its quick and piteous sum.
  • Think you, hungry is the city in the fog
  • Where now the darkened piles resume
  • Their framed and frozen prayer
  • Articulate and shafted in the stone
  • Against the void and absolute air.
  • If so the frantic breath could be forgiven,
  • And the deep blood subdued before it is gone 
  • In a savage paternoster to the stone,
  • Then might we all be shriven.
Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was an American poet and novelist, and the youngest and latest addition to the 1920s Southern literary movement known as the Fugitives, which also included Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson. Like his fellow Fugitives, Warren sought to celebrate all that was best and noble in Southern culture and history through his literary output. Although he was a prolific poet, he is perhaps best known as the author of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men, a fictional retelling of the story of Huey Long, the “Kingfisher” who served as governor of Louisiana in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

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  • Mortal Limit
  • I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
  • It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
  • Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
  • Of dream-spectral light above the lazy purity of snow-snags.
  • There—west—were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
  • In dark profile to break constellations. Beyond what height
  • Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
  • New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?
  • Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
  • Hang motionless in dying vision before
  • It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
  • And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore
  • The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
  • Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?
  • Evening Hawk
  • From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
  • Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
  • Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding
  • The last tumultuous avalanche of
  • Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
  • The hawk comes.
  • His wing
  • Scythes down another day, his motion 
  • Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
  • The crashless fall of stalks of Time.
  • The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.
  • Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
  • Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
  • Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
  • Into shadow.
  • Long now,
  • The last thrush is still, the last bat
  • Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
  • Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
  • Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.
  • If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
  • The earth grind on its axis, or history
  • Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.
  • San Francisco Night Windows
  • So hangs the hour like fruit fullblown and sweet,
  • Our strict and desperate avatar,
  • Despite that antique westward gulls lament
  • Over enormous waters which retreat
  • Weary unto the white and sensual star.
  • Accept these images for what they are— 
  • Out of the past a fragile element
  • Of substance into accident.
  • I would speak honestly and of a full heart; 
  • I would speak surely for the tale is short,
  • And the soul’s remorseless catalogue
  • Assumes its quick and piteous sum.
  • Think you, hungry is the city in the fog
  • Where now the darkened piles resume
  • Their framed and frozen prayer
  • Articulate and shafted in the stone
  • Against the void and absolute air.
  • If so the frantic breath could be forgiven,
  • And the deep blood subdued before it is gone 
  • In a savage paternoster to the stone,
  • Then might we all be shriven.
Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was an American poet and novelist, and the youngest and latest addition to the 1920s Southern literary movement known as the Fugitives, which also included Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson. Like his fellow Fugitives, Warren sought to celebrate all that was best and noble in Southern culture and history through his literary output. Although he was a prolific poet, he is perhaps best known as the author of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men, a fictional retelling of the story of Huey Long, the “Kingfisher” who served as governor of Louisiana in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

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