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The Fugitives literary movement is comprised of a group of poets and scholars from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid-1920s. 

These writers all contributed to a literary magazine, The Fugitive, from 1922-1925. The group was a significant school of poetry in the twentieth century in the United States. Much of modern Southern literature from the period can be traced back to their work. 

Fugitives Poets movement definition

Fugitive Poetry Definition

Fugitive poetry was a type of verse written in the southern United States during the mid-1920s.

 It is characterized by the author’s interest in a return to formal structure, expression of experiences in the rural south, and dislike of urbanization. These poems used standard rhyme schemes and metrical patterns. The scholars of the period, such as John Crow Ransom, valued analyses that stuck to the text itself rather than counting the influence of cultural elements. 

Parts of the Fugitive group are also associated with the Agrarians. They published I’ll Take My Stand, their manifesto, in 1930. This document is controversial to this day in that it sought to return to the “past,” a past that was marked by segregation and slavery in the south. 

Fugitive Writers 

Below are a few of the best-known fugitive poets and scholars who contributed to The Fugitive. They include: 

Characteristics of Fugitive Poetry 

  • Authors who worked within this movement were known for: 
  • Use of formal structure (meter, rhyme scheme)
  • Imagery from experiences in the rural south. 
  • Experiences of Black Americans in the south. 
  • Dislike of urban industrialization. 
  • Work lacked sentimentality. 
  • Poems were carefully crafted. 

Examples of Fugitive Poetry 

Tell Me a Story by Robert Penn Warren 

This is an excerpt from the last section of Warren’s book-length poem “Audubon: A Vision” (1969). This poem reveals the hollowness of modernity and the ravages of time. The first section hints at the past when the speaker was young and heard a bird’s call that was migrating to the north. In the second part, he asks the audience to tell him a story about distant objects.

Here is an excerpt from the poem: 

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

Bearded Oaks by Robert Penn Warren 

‘Bearded Oaks’ was first published in Poetry magazine in 1937 and has steadily gained popularity since then. Robert Penn Warren was the first U.S. Poet Laureate and the only author to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and fiction. This piece is a complex, image-rich poem that describes an eternal moment between two lovers. Here is a quote from the beginning of the poem: 

The oaks, how subtle and marine!

Bearded, and all the layered light

Above them swims; and thus the scene, 

Recessed, awaits the positive night. 

Two lovers rest on the forest floor, looking up at the sky and trees. The speaker focuses on the power of the marine-like sky above them and the forest floor below. As Warren put it, the two are laying in the forest after the sun goes down, and it feels as “though the lovers were submerged in the water.”

Read more Robert Penn Warren poems

Ode to the Confederate Dead by Allen Tate 

This piece is one of Tate’s best poems and is considered by some critics to be his most important. It was published in 1928 in Mr. Pope and Other Poems. The poem takes much of its influence from the work of T.S. Eliot, but it takes place in a confederate graveyard in the south. The author uses the graveyard and the buried dead as a metaphor for the narrator’s unsettled mind. It is written in a stream of consciousness style. Here is a quote from the beginning of the poem: 

Row after row with strict impunity

The headstones yield their names to the element,

The wind whirrs without recollection;

In the riven troughs the splayed leaves

Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament

To the seasonal eternity of death;

Then driven by the fierce scrutiny

Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,

They sough the rumour of mortality.


What does “fugitive” mean in poetry?

It is a term that refers to a group of poets from the southern United States who were from the same university and published work in The Fugitive, a literary journal. 

Who was the editor of the journal The Fugitive

The editor was Allen Tate. He was one of the most important members and is remembered today for his poem Ode to the Confederate Dead.’ 

What did the Fugitives believe in?

They believed in maintaining an image of the rural south that did not include new means of industrialization and urbanization. They sought to return poetry to more traditional forms, seen through standard rhyme schemes and metrical patterns. 

Related Literary Terms

  • Beat Generation: a literary movement that began after the Second World War and known for its liberal attitudes towards life.
  • Dirty Realism: a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.
  • Harlem Renaissance: a cultural and intellectual movement in African American art, literature, dance, must, and more.
  • Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.
  • End Rhyme: a common type of rhyme found in poetry. They occur when the last word of two or more lines rhyme.

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