The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

“General William Booth Enters into Heaven” is a short, fifty-six line, rhymed elegy. It is divided into two sections. The first section contains two stanzas, totaling twenty-three lines, and the second section contains five stanzas, totaling thirty-three lines. The title establishes the dramatic setting of the poem—General Booth’s ascension into the glory of heaven. The poem makes heavy use of repetition and onomatopoeia.

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The poem is written in third-person, omniscient, simple narration. No attention is drawn to the narrator, as the narration is intended to report, rather than interpret, the events of the poem. In the modern tradition of the elegy, “General Booth Enters into Heaven” is a dignified and climactically glorifying chronicle. This form of simple narration is intended to recite events and is largely chronological, creating a you-are-there presentation.

The poem takes as its subject the ascent into heaven of a well-respected, generous, self-sacrificing historical figure; Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army. The qualities that the general possessed in life not only permit his ascension but also, by extension, elevate the status of the street people that surround him and to whom he dedicated his life to helping. Through his intervention, they accompany him to heaven.

Vachel Lindsay based the poem on the cadences and tune of the Salvation Army hymn “The Blood of the Lamb” and included parenthetical instructions for the poem’s recitation, such as “Bass drum slower and softer” and “Sweet flute music.” The poem combines Salvation Army oratory and lyricism. With its variations of rhythm and volume and its many contrasts, the poem moves between tension and celebration. Lindsay was very proud that his poems could be danced to (yet he repeatedly said that poetry is intended primarily for the reader’s inner ear, which is a source of truth). His intent was usually to evoke emotional responses. Lindsay’s greatest successes occur when he captures his own excitement concerning his subjects.

“General William Booth Enters into Heaven” is a good example of the simple emotional appeal of Lindsay’s poems. The poem is stately and moves inevitably toward its resounding climax, a movement that is accompanied by the sounds of a Salvation Army band. The first stanza begins with the sound of a bass drum booming loudly. In this stanza the reader (or listener) is introduced to the subject, Booth, the people he helped, and the reaction of the saints to his heralded arrival. The second stanza is accompanied by the sounds of banjos, as a catalog of Booth’s accomplishments is presented. In the third stanza, Booth’s faith is chronicled; his faith persevered despite physical blindness, and, through the image of an eagle, Lindsay makes it clear that his blindness only increased the power of Booth’s inner, spiritual sight. The fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas, accompanied by flute, bass drum again, and then a “grand chorus of all instruments,” depict the arrival of Booth at heaven’s gate. He is met by Jesus and is accompanied by the unfortunate people he had struggled to help in his lifetime of service. Finally, in the concluding stanza, Booth and “King Jesus” meet face to face. The accompanying music is voice only, no instruments, and is “reverently sung.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292

The first line of the poem is one example of the subtle and intimate qualities of Lindsay’s verse. The first metrical foot of the first line is composed of three long syllables. Thereafter, syncopation is achieved through the use of feet composed of two short syllables. Lindsay intersperses trochees (feet of two syllables, of which the first syllable is long or stressed and the second short or unstressed) for vigor and anapests (feet of three syllables, the first two short or unstressed and the last long or stressed) to create the banging drum effects and to imitate marching time. These examples of the noises usually associated with Salvation Army gatherings are also good examples of onomatopoeia in poetry. Under the poem’s title, Lindsay wrote in parentheses that it is “To be sung to the tune of ‘The Blood of the Lamb’ with indicated instrument.” Each stanza is preceded by a notation on that stanza’s intended accompaniment.

Throughout the poem, Lindsay makes effective use of repetition. A stately, mournful, but triumphant effect is produced by the bass drum, which is parenthetically included as accompanying the first and fifth stanzas. Moreover, the line “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” is repeated throughout the poem. In the first and second stanzas, the line occurs parenthetically, almost as an afterthought. By the conclusion of the poem, the question occupies the critical final line. No longer a parenthetical question, it forcefully stands out after Booth has been depicted entering heaven and being received by Jesus, challenging the reader to address his or her own life in comparison to the self-sacrificing and ultimately rewarding life of William Booth. Repetition of this sort, for emotional effect, is frequent in the poetry of Lindsay.

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Themes