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American author (1905-1989)

Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true.


The poem ... is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see — it is, rather, a light by which we may see — and what we see is life.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, Saturday Review, Mar. 22, 1958

The end of man is knowledge but there's one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it would save him.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

I had no interest in writing when I went to college. I was interested in reading—oh, poetry and standard novels, you know. My ambitions were purely scientific, but I got cured of that fast by bad instruction in freshman chemistry and good instruction in freshman english.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, The Paris Review, spring/summer 1957

A man does not die for words. He dies for his relation to them.


For, no: not faith by fable lives,
But from the faith the fable springs
— It never is the song that gives
Tongue life, it is the tongue that sings;
And sings the song.


What is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding? It is the deepest part of autobiography.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, The New York Times, May 12, 1985

The past is always a rebuke to the present.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, "Fugitive's Reunion"

What we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

I've been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, but writing was always first. It's a kind of pain I can't do without.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, National Observer, Mar. 12, 1977

The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

Is the fume-track of necessity. This thought
Is therapeutic. If, after several
Applications, you do not find
Relief, consult your family physician.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, "Island of Summer"

I turned around to face the reality, which was not something caught in the ice of the mind but was something now flushed, feline, lethal, and electric and about to blow a fuse.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

America was based on a big promise—a great big one: the Declaration of Independence. When you have to live with that in the house, that’s quite a problem—particularly when you’ve got to make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all the things you have to, raise your children, and so forth. America is stuck with its self-definition put on paper in 1776, and that was just like putting a burr under the metaphysical saddle of America—you see, that saddle’s going to jump now and then and it pricks.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, The Paris Review, spring/summer 1957

So little time we live in Time,
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour's term
To practice for Eternity.


If something takes too long, something happens to you. You become all and only the thing you want and nothing else, for you have paid too much for it, too much in wanting and too much in waiting and too much in getting.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

If a man knew how to live he would never die.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

When you get in love you are made all over again. The person who loves you has picked you out of the great mass of uncreated clay which is humanity to make something out of, and the poor lumpish clay which is you wants to find out what it has been made into. But at the same time, you, in the act of loving somebody, become real, cease to be a part of the continuum of the uncreated clay and get the breath of life in you and rise up. So you create yourself by creating another person, who, however, has also created you, picked up the you-chunk of clay out of the mass. So there are two you's, the one you create by loving and the one the beloved creates by loving you. The farther those two you's are apart the more the world grinds and grudges on its axis. But if you loved and were loved perfectly then there wouldn't be any difference between the two you's or any distance between them. They would coincide perfectly, there would be perfect focus, as when a stereoscope gets the twin images on the card into perfect alignment.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, Four Quarters, 1970

Whatever you live is Life.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

A young man’s ambition — to get along in the world and make a place for himself — half your life goes that way, till you’re 45 or 50. Then, if you’re lucky, you make terms with life, you get released.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, The New York Times, Jun. 2, 1981

The urge to write poetry is like having an itch. When the itch becomes annoying enough, you scratch it.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, The New York Times, Dec. 16, 1969

The creation of man whom God in his foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God's omnipotence. For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection. To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension. Separateness is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God Himself, and to be separate from God is to be sinful. The creation of evil is therefore the index of God's glory and His power.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

My mind is intact, but the shapes
of the world change.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, "Island of Summer"

It never crossed my mind when I began writing fiction that I could write about anything except life in the South. It never crossed my mind that I knew about anything else; knew, that is, well enough to write about. Nothing else ever nagged you enough to stir the imagination.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, The Paris Review, spring/summer 1957

Dying--shucks! If you kin handle the living, what's to be afraid of the dying?


Storytelling and copulation are the two chief forms of amusement in the South. They’re inexpensive and easy to procure.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, Newsweek, Aug. 25, 1980

They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other people there wouldn't be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

Life is strange and changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture, and the toad bears a jewel in its forehead, and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that scarcely ruffles the leaf of the willow.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

In silence the heart raves. It utters words
Meaningless, that never had
A meaning.


Everything seems an echo of something else.


If you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other ... for only out of the past can you make the future.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, All the King's Men

History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond. It modifies our complacency to look at the blurred and harrowing old photographs — the body of the dead sharpshooter in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg or the tangled mass in the Bloody Lane at Antietam.

ROBERT PENN WARREN, The Legacy of the Civil War

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