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Despite nearly universal critical acclaim for Robert Penn Warren’s later poetry, much about this large body of work remains unexplored, especially the psychological sources of these poems’ remarkable energy. In this groundbreaking work, Warren scholar Joseph R. Millichap takes good thing about current research on developmental psychology, gerontology, and end-of-life studies to offer provocative new readings of Warren’s later poems, which he defines as those published after Audubon: A Vision (1969). In these ceaselessly intricate poems, Millichap sees something like an autobiographical epic focused on the process of aging, the inevitability of death, and the potential of transcendence. Thus Warren’s later poetry reviews an individual life seen whole, contemplates mortality and dissolution, and aspires to the literary sublime.
Millichap locates the beginning of Warren’s late period in the atypical collection Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968–1974, basing his contention on the book’s complex, indeed obsessive sequencing of new, up to now published, and up to now collected poems unified by themes of time, memory, age, and death. Millichap offers innovative readings of Or Else and Warren’s five other late gatherings of poems — Can I See Arcturus from Where I Stand?: Poems 1975; Now and Then: Poems 1976–1978, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Being Here: Poetry 1977–1980; Rumor Verified: Poems 1979–1980; and Altitudes and Extensions 1980–1984.
Among the autobiographical elements Millichap brings into his careful readings are Warren’s loneliness in these later years, especially after the deaths of members of the family and friends; his alternating feelings of personal satisfaction and emptiness toward his literary achievements; and his sense of the power, and now and then the impotence, of memory. Millichap’s analysis explores how Warren ceaselessly returned to images and themes of his earlier poems, especially those involving youth and midlife, with the new point of view given by advancing age and time’s passage. Millichap also relates Warren’s work to that of other poets who have dealt profoundly with memory and age, including Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and, now and then, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and the whole English and American nineteenth-century Romantic tradition.
An epilogue traces Warren’s changing reputation as a poet from the publication of his last volume in 1985 through his death in 1989 and the centennial of his birth in 2005, concluding persuasively that the finest of all of Warren’s literary efforts may also be found in his later poetry, concerned as it’s with the work of aging and the quest for transcendence.