After a ten-year period of writing prose, during which he found poems impossible to finish, Warren emerged as a poet of peculiar power and originality with the publication in 1953 of Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, a book-length poem unlike any in American literature. The subject was a shocking real-life murder perpetrated by Lilburne Lewis, a nephew of Thomas Jefferson (primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States).
Warren invented a unique mode of presentation for this work. It is neither narrative poem nor play but a discussion by characters long dead (except for one, the poet himself, designated as RPW), who try to understand the grisly event that occurred in the meat house when Lilburne Lewis hacked a teenage slave to pieces with an ax for breaking a pitcher belonging to Lilburne’s late mother, Lucy Jefferson Lewis. The other slaves witnessed this performance. As Warren explains in a brief preface: “We may take them to appear and disappear as their urgencies of argument swell and subside. The place of this meeting is, we may say, ’no place,’ and the time is ’any time.’” Besides the victim, the main characters include Lilburne, the killer; Isham Lewis, who watched his older brother commit the murder; their mother, Lucy; her brother, Thomas Jefferson; Letitia, Lilburne’s wife; Aunt Cat, Lilburne’s Negro mammy; Meriwether Lewis, Lilburne’s cousin, who went West on the Lewis and Clark expedition; and RPW.
The central character, if the poem can be said to have one, is not the hapless victim, who has only one brief speech in the first edition (three in the 1979 revision). It is not even Lilburne, the moral monster, but Thomas Jefferson, inheritor of the eighteenth century optimism about the perfectibility of humankind. The poem examines the hideous event and...
(The entire section is 765 words.)