The Poem

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The muse that is America is made of mountains and deserts, clipped velvet lawns and skyscrapers, buffalo and cowboys. It is also the place to which slave ships come. The captain of one of these ships tells the mate to get the captives on deck while the weather remains good. The mate reports that one of the black men claims to be a king, and the mate worries about losing more of the female slaves. As he walks into the hold with a lantern in his hand, the mate dreams of washing off the stench of the blackness of the ship.

Jack Ellyat, a Connecticut youth, has premonitions of trouble as he walks with his dog in the mellow New England Indian summer. He and his family are abolitionists, in favor of making slavery illegal in the United States. In Ellyat’s hometown of Concord, the people feel the influence of writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as they talk about an ideal state. In Boston, Minister Higginson and Dr. Howe wait for reports of a project planned for Harpers Ferry. In Georgia, young Clay Wingate also receives a premonition of impending disaster and great change.

John Brown thinks he has been chosen by God to free slaves. He leads a force of his own sons, escaped slaves, and free blacks to seize the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The first man killed in the fracas is Shepherd Heyward, a free black man. Dangerfield Newby, born a slave, becomes the next to fall. The townspeople later cut off his ears as souvenirs. The bullets continue to fly and men continue to die. As the grievously wounded Oliver Brown, one of John’s sons, begs for someone to put him out of his misery, his father tells him to die like a man. Federal troops under Robert E. Lee subdue the Brown party in fifteen minutes; all has ended but the slow, smoldering hatred and the deaths to come.

At Wingate Hall in Georgia, all is peaceful. Sally Dupré and Clay Wingate expect to marry. Meanwhile, Cudjo, the majordomo of the Wingate plantation, hears of the Harpers Ferry raid and of John Brown. He opines that the business of African Americans is not the business of white Americans. In Connecticut, Mrs. Ellyat prays for Brown.

Brown is tried at Charles Town, Virginia. During the trial, he denies the complicity of anyone but himself and his followers in the raid. He insists that he is God’s instrument and that he will forfeit his life to further the ends of justice. A legend grows around his name that mushrooms upon his execution. Brown’s body rests in its grave, but his spirit haunts the consciences of North and South alike.

There is a surrender of Fort Sumter. Representatives of the Confederate States of America elect gaunt, tired Jefferson Davis as their president. Lank, sad-faced Abraham Lincoln, the frontier wit and small-time politician, is president of the United States of America. He orders men to be drafted to fight. Wingate, loyal to the South, joins the Black Horse Troop and rides to the war as Ellyat marches off with the Connecticut volunteers.

Raw soldiers of North and South meet at the Battle of Bull Run under the direction of Generals McDowell, Johnston, and Beauregard. Congressmen and their ladies arrive from Washington, D.C., to watch the expected Union victory. While they watch, the Union lines break and men flee in panic. A movement to negotiate with the Confederacy for peace begins in the North. Lincoln is alarmed, but he remains steadfast.

Ellyat is discharged...

(This entire section contains 1418 words.)

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from service after Bull Run. Later he joins the Illinois volunteers in Chicago and acquires the nickname Bull Run Jack. Near Pittsburg Landing, in Tennessee, he runs during a surprise attack by the Confederates. He is captured but escapes again during a night march. Hungry and weary, Ellyat arrives at the Vilas farm, where he remains in hiding and falls in love with Melora Vilas. At last, he leaves the farm to seek the courage he had lost near Pittsburg Landing, but not before Melora becomes pregnant by him. He is recaptured soon afterward.

Meanwhile, Wingate returns to Georgia on leave. At Wingate Hall, the war seems far away, for the Confederate ships that successfully run through the Union blockade of Southern ports bring luxuries. Lucy Weatherby, a Virginian whose sweetheart had been killed at Bull Run, attends a dance at Wingate Hall and replaces Sally Dupré in Clay’s affections. Spade, a slave on the nearby Zachary plantation who has dreamed of a free life in the North, escapes.

New Orleans is captured by the Union, thereby dealing a heavy blow to the South. Davis and Lincoln begin to bow under the burdens of the war. Union general George McClellan opens his Peninsular campaign while the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee inflicts defeat after defeat on the Army of the Potomac. Ellyat goes to a prison in the Deep South.

The fortunes of the Union sink to their lowest ebb after the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run while the spirit of John Brown is generally invoked by editors and preachers. Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. In the meantime, the escaped slave Spade makes his way north and swims across a river to freedom. When he finally reaches the land of the free, he is railroaded into a labor gang. General McClellan is relieved by General Burnside, who, in turn, is relieved by General Hooker, as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Ellyat, now ill, is returned to the North in an exchange of prisoners of war.

Slowly the Confederacy begins to feel the effects of the blockade and the terrible costs of war. Wingate has thoughts of his next leave—and of Lucy. Ellyat spends the dark winter of 1862-1863 convalescing at his home in the cold Connecticut hills. He is due to report to the Army of the Potomac as soon as his recovery is complete. In Tennessee, Melora gives birth to a baby boy.

Generals Grant and Sherman lead the Union forces to victory in the West; Vicksburg is surrounded. Hunger and anti-inflation riots break out in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. America, meanwhile, is expanding. New industries spring up in the North, and the West is being settled. In Richmond, Shippy, a Union spy posing as a peddler, promises Sophy, a servant at the Pollard Hotel, that he will bring her some perfume from the North. Sophy knows that Wingate and Lucy had stayed together in the hotel. Luke Breckinridge, Sophy’s rebel suitor, is a member of a patrol that stops Shippy to search him. When they find incriminating papers in his boots, Luke gloats, for he is jealous of Shippy.

Stonewall Jackson dies by the guns of his own pickets, while Lee, desperate for provisions, invades the North. Ellyat is in the Union army that meets Lee at Gettysburg. He falls wounded during the battle but finds his courage. After three days of bloody fighting at Gettysburg, Lee falls back to Virginia. Then Vicksburg surrenders, splitting the South in two. Nearly defeated, the South continues to fight doggedly. Union general Sheridan marches through the Shenandoah Valley, leaving it bare and burned. Petersburg is besieged. Luke, along with thousands of other rebel troops, deserts the Confederate army. As he heads back toward his home in the mountains, he takes Sophy with him. Melora and her father, John Vilas, travel from place to place in search of Ellyat; they become a legend in both armies. General Sherman captures Atlanta and continues to march on to the sea. During his march, Wingate Hall catches fire accidentally and burns to the ground. Clay Wingate is wounded in a rearguard action in Virginia. The war comes to a close when Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox.

The war is over but it will not go away. Spade, no longer hopeful about life in the free North, hires out as a farm laborer in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Wingate returns to his ruined home in Georgia, where Sally is waiting. In Connecticut, Ellyat hears stories of strange gypsy travelers who are going from town to town looking for a soldier who was the father of the child of the woman who drives the creaking cart. One day he is standing beneath the crossroads elms when he sees a cart come slowly up the hill. He waits for Melora.

Places Discussed

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Ellyat farm

Ellyat farm. New England farm of the Ellyat family. Because Benét organizes his poem as alternating pictures of the Civil War as seen from the perspectives of Americans on both sides, he creates a number of fictional characters whose stories reflect those of the larger groups affected by the struggle. Jack Ellyat, the protagonist, comes from a small farm in New England. With great care, Benét sketches both the farm and the surrounding forests and meadows to give readers a sense of the region this character represents. Relying on the reader to bring to the poem certain preconceived notions of regionalism, the poet is able to use a kind of shorthand to suggest values associated with men such as Ellyat.

Wingate Hall

Wingate Hall. Plantation home of Clay Wingate and his family, which the poem contrasts with the simple farmstead on which Ellyat is raised. Benét’s portrait of the southern plantation perpetuates many of the stereotypes about the South. Plantation lifestyle, founded on the system of slavery that Northerners considered an abomination, helps produce in Benét’s young protagonist a sense of honor sometimes devoid of discretion, a predilection for paternalism in dealing with those beneath him in social standing, and an attitude of chauvinism masked as chivalry in his treatment of women. Wingate Hall could have been located in any one of the Southern states, making it an appropriate symbol for the lifestyle that was to disappear at the end of the war.

Vilas home

Vilas home. Home of the Vilas family in the wilderness of the Tennessee woods that becomes a refuge for Jack Ellyat after he escapes from the Confederates who capture him at the Battle of Shiloh. The frontier people in John Brown’s Body are represented in the poem by a number of fictional characters from Kentucky and Tennessee, including the Vilas family. Benét uses the episodes at the Vilas home to discuss the effect of the war on those who still believe that America offers the chance to escape from civilization. The woods around the Vilas home are crisscrossed by soldiers of both armies, and it becomes clear to the Vilas clan that America as a frontier nation must inevitably give way to the encroaching modern industrial age.


*Battlefields. Benét uses real battlefields, such as those at Bull Run, Shiloh, and Gettysburg, to emphasize the themes of heroism and self-development in his fictional protagonists. Both Ellyat and Wingate fight at these three major battles and, as a result, learn something of the horrors of war. Additionally, they come to understand something of themselves and the values for which they are fighting.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. and *Richmond, Virginia. From time to time throughout the poem, Benét shifts the focus to the Northern and Southern capitals. Because this is a historical work, Benét is faithful to the historical record. His major reason for setting some of the action in these cities, however, is that the principal historical figures who determined the strategy for conducting the war were located here. Character studies of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are important to Benét’s portrait of the country in crisis. Nevertheless, the cities also have metaphorical value. The mood of politicians and the populace in these two cities shifts with the vicissitudes of battle, and the poet makes it clear that the attitudes of citizens in Richmond and Washington reflect in great part those of the larger populations in the North and South.


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Capps, Jack L., and C. Robert Kemble. Introduction to John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. The editors identify Benét’s sources, mark recurring motifs in the poem, and identify and annotate the names of persons, names of places, and literary quotations and allusions in the text.

Fenton, Charles A. Stephen Vincent Benét: The Life and Times of an American Man of Letters, 1898-1943. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Discusses Benét’s sources for John Brown’s Body, his writing habits, and the contemporary critical and popular responses to the poem.

Gregory, Horace, and Mary Zaturenska. A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946. In this survey, the authors devote a few pages to Benét. They identify the virtues of John Brown’s Body—clarity, vividness, occasional humor, easy rhythms, and patriotic purposes—and then its defects—stereotypical characters and shallow treatment of griefs and delights.

Monroe, Harriet. “A Cinema Epic.” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 33 (November, 1928): 91-96. A laudatory contemporary review of John Brown’s Body, stressing its several movielike aspects.

Stroud, Perry. Stephen Vincent Benét. New York: Twayne, 1962. Contains a long chapter praising John Brown’s Body as an epic poem of historical and philosophical significance. Discusses its clusters of imagery, notably those involving Phaeton and his chariot, stones, and seeds, its contrasting realistic depiction of war and romantic conception of love, and its varied meters—blank verse, versatile long line, and poetic prose.


Critical Essays