Critical Evaluation

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Jesse Stuart’s MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW is a book of regional and personal poetry come freely from the heart of its author, a book by a man informed with great natural wisdom and one on intimate terms with life close to the land.

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I am a farmer singing at the plowAnd as I take my time to plow alongA steep Kentucky hill, I sing my song—A one-horse farmer singing at the plow.

Thus he describes himself, introduces himself to the reader in the opening lines of this book of 703 sonnets which, taken together, tell not only Stuart’s own story, but the story of the hill country of eastern Kentucky, past and present, people among whom Stuart grew up and still lives.

These are poems written without artifice, and Jesse Stuart speaks the literal truth when he writes lines like these:

I do not sing the songs you love to hear;My basket songs are woven from thewordsOf corn and crickets, trees and men andbirds.I sing the strains I know and love tosing.And I can sing my lays like singingcorn,And flute them like a fluting gray corn-bird;And I can pipe them like a hunter’shorn—All of my life these are the songs I’veheard.

Here in these simple, unpretentious, yet profoundly moving sonnets, Stuart has caught the land we love, the people we know, the moments of beauty which are man’s lot in his journey through life. Here are the warmth of the sun and the wind’s voice in the leaves, the cloying musk of the grainfields, the honest sweat of the plowman, the vespers of the birds, the talking of mountain brooks.

He writes here with great sincerity in a book of such remarkable achievement for a first work, that critical comparison of Stuart with Burns is perfectly apropos. Yet Stuart speaks in his own tongue; he is that rarity among American writers—an original, in the pages of whose book beats the pulse of the soil under the creative passion of a poet who knows that, of all the possessions of man, his land is the last to pass away. This book celebrates the poet’s deep and abiding love of his native earth. It is one rich in bucolic scenes, filled with the beauty of Jesse Stuart’s land, and replete with portraits of men and women who have lived and died in that part of America. It is a book about all mankind, wherever men have tilled the soil, and these sonnets are distinguished for that universality which is the province of all great art.

MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW is a book of unabashed emotion. The pure music, the great gusto and joy of living which are so evident here are designed for every reader—not alone the one who is devoted to poetry. Open the book anywhere; the lines draw and hold you with their clarity, their simplicity, their instant application to life as you yourself know it, their humility and beauty. Listen to Jesse Stuart sing his love of life:

Ah, we get out to work in early April.We brave our bodies to the wind andsun.We swing the plow around the ruggedhillFrom break of day until the setting sun.We break the earth to plant in corn andcane.We canvas burley-beds upon the hill.

Season follows season in these poems. In August “the whispering of the corn Is fine to hear on any summer morn,” and sunset brings “red-evening clouds” “Riding at ease above the corn and timber.” Here is a picture of autumn:

When golden leaves begin to shiverdownAmong the barren brush beneath thetrees,And scarlet leaves and yellow and light-brownBegin to play in wind and pepper downTo earth—these clean and frosted leavesdrip down.Then it is time the corn is in the stack,Potatoes in the hold—hay in the mows.This is the time rust has grown on theplows;The time to haul the pumpkins to theshed,Since frosts have come and pumpkinvines are dead.

Winter is the season when “We saw the crows go flying cross the land,/Up in the icy heavens with the leaves,/We saw the crows fly over gray-starved land/When winter winds sighed in the last year leaves.” In Jesse Stuart’s world the lives of men are joined to the great cycle of nature:

Fields will be furrowed time and timeagain.They will be furrowed by tall men un-bornAs they were furrowed by men nowforlornIn dust— And fences will be builtagainBy men like me and fields be cleanedof brushBy men like me only to grow again.

There is a natural roughness in these poems, from a technical perspective; but it is this very quality of the primitive which gives them their greatest strength. In the spontaneity, the wonder, the resignation to sadness, the joy in earth’s beauty so patent in these poems lies their essential effectiveness. They see life whole. They span man’s time, from birth to death. There is no mawkishness, no sentimentality here. They are faithful to a world where happiness and grief are alike the welcome experience of every man who is whole in his mortality, who understands that life is the greatest privilege he may know, and who knows by this understanding that he ought to spend life as profitably as he can. This is the theme of “Marcus Phelps”:

I hate to leave the world, for I havefoundSuch joy in life—So many things tolove:The sky, the wind and dead leaves onthe groundAnd wild geese flying through theclouds above.I’ve loved the color of the autumnleaves,And color of the frozen corn-fieldstones;And I have loved a winter wind thatgrievesAnd dwindling autumn water’s mono-tone.Earth is too great to lose—earth is toovast!Life is too great to lose—life is too vast!I hate to part with life and things I love;I hate to leave the earth and skies above.And life must pass, but surely Earthwill last.All life must end—the ending must bevast.

Whether he writes of nature or of man—and they are not distinguished in MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW by any sharp demarcation—Stuart celebrates simple existence, praising all of life and all of death. His book is not only filled with songs about the deeply satisfying beauty of the land, but also with epitaphs setting forth in terse lines the lives of the men and women of the hill country, be they successful lives, or failures, happy lives, or sad—lines like these:

I always loved Kentucky’s lonesomewater,And when I went away I wanted toreturn.Just something to Kentucky’s lonesomewaterMakes me remember and my burntheart burn—

Though MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW is a regional book, it is limitless in its application. It should take ultimate rank as one of the finest, most spontaneous of books about man and his earth. This rugged, painfully honest collection of sonnets, with its clean, powerful lines, with its roughness and its gentleness, with its sincere, wholly natural verse has an everlasting freshness. It is a book through the pages of which ring the song of the high hills and the rune of mountain water, through which the heartbeats of men and women mingle with the pulse of earth. These are poems of life and love and death, by a poet in love with life, a poet filled with the humbling wonder and beauty of earth and sky, and a man filled with respect for his fellow men and understanding of their lives.

Open MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW at any page and read poems of singular simplicity and great power—and hear the turning of the soil beneath the blade, hear the wind in the treetops, and keep pace unforgettably with man eternally making his mortal mark upon his little plot of earth.

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