Friday, 26 September 2014

John Brown's Body by Stephen Vincent Benet

Down the back of Charlie’s yesterday I got 4 books for ein euro each. “They’re a euro each and well worth it” I said to the assistant. That one bounced of every wall, then he laughed. For the record they were:
The Renaissance by George Clarke Sellery
Modern English Short Stories selected by E.J. O’Brien (pub.1930)
Selected Essays by Samuel Butler
John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet

That last is the most interesting of the four. I came across the name some days ago somewhere in the vastness of the internet as one who used to be extremely popular and now has faded even from the anthologies. It is clear that this is an undeserved fate. He is a master of the long impassioned line, the dithyrambic, favoured of Blake, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. It rises and falls in a chant that his own reading brings out:
The Opening of the Battle of Gettysburg


They came on to fish-hook Gettysburg in this way, after this fashion.
Over hot pikes heavy with pollen, past fields where the wheat was
Peaches grew in the orchards; it was a fertile country,
Full of red barns and fresh springs and dun, deep-uddered kine.

A farmer lived with a clear stream that ran through his very
They cooled the butter in it and the milk, in their wide, stone jars;
A dusty Georgian came there, to eat and go on to battle;
They dipped the milk from the jars, it was cold and sweet in his

He heard the clear stream's music as the German housewife served him,
Remembering the Shenandoah and a stream poured from a rock;
He ate and drank and went on to the gunwheels crushing the harvest.
It was a thing he remembered as long as any guns.

Country of broad-backed horses, stone houses and long, green meadows,
Where Getty came with his ox-team to found a steady town
And the little trains of my boyhood puffed solemnly up the Valley
Past the market-squares and the lindens and the Quaker meeting-house.

Penn stood under his oak with a painted sachem beside him,
The market-women sold scrapple when the first red maples turned;
When the buckeyes slipped from their sheaths, you could gather a pile
of buckeyes,
Red-brown as old polished boots, good to touch and hold in the hand.

The ice-cream parlor was papered with scenes from _Paul and
The pigs were fat all year, you could stand a spoon in the cream.
--Penn stood under his oak with a feathered pipe in his fingers,
His eyes were quiet with God, but his wits and his bargain sharp.

So I remember it all, and the light sound of buckeyes falling
On the worn rose-bricks of the pavement, herring-boned, trodden for
The great yellow shocks of wheat and the dust-white road through
And, in Fall, the green walnut shells, and the stain they left for a

So I remember you, ripe country of broad-backed horses,
Valley of cold, sweet springs and dairies with limestone-floors;
And so they found you that year, when they scared your cows with
their cannon,
And the strange South moved against you, lean marchers lost in the

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