Often mentioned, along with Sandburg, Hart Crane, and Whitman, as a national bard, Stephen Vincent Benét was first and foremost a poet, his stories, novels, and propaganda pieces taking second seat. His topical patriotic pieces, his lyric poems, and some of his children’s poetry have scarcely survived him, but his two narrative poems, JOHN BROWN’S BODY and WESTERN STAR, won for him both Pulitzer prizes and an active posterity.
His interest in history manifested itself early. At the age of seventeen he published FIVE MEN AND POMPEY, Browningesque monologues in a form that he often used in his later works. The ballads which followed, while winning a poetry prize at Yale, showed less promise, though one, “The Hemp” fancifully retells an incident from colonial history. The conclusion dramatized the title, indicating the rhythmic effects which became Benét’s hallmark.
In his first collected edition Benét rearranged some of his early poems under the division American Names, the title poem being one of his best and a preview of his expert use of place names in JOHN BROWN’S BODY. “The Ballad of William Sycamore” is a sustained attempt to present through one character a view of the American way, here the frontier life so important to national development. William Sycamore speaks of a growing nation, a growth which took from him his way of life. His father was a mountaineer and his mother was happy and brave. She bore him, as did so many other mountain women in childbirth, with only nature to comfort her in her labor. He remembers his youth, the tall, thin, brown visitors, and the barn dances. When he grew up, his father could give him only a knowledge of the land. After he married, he and his wife settled uncleared land and raised their children. His sons all died, the oldest at the Alamo, the youngest with Custer. When he died William Sycamore again felt the freedom he had known in his youth; he now slept like an old fox gone to earth, and he was again with the buffalo.
The ballad evokes our sympathy and strong feelings for the hard, wild, free growth of our nation. In “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” Benét used folklore to great advantage and described an old fiddlers’ contest, a practice which survives, but in this case won by young Hill-Billy Jim in what the poet subtitled “A Georgia Romance.” By taking lines from singing calls and combining them with fanciful ancestry he re-creates a period and achieves effects much as Sandburg does with proverbs in THE PEOPLE, YES.
In a very different vein, but with as great an assurance as in “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” the young poet startled readers of THE NATION with an irreverent “King David,” a sophisticated ballad expressing playful disbelief. His college poems of these first collections display a normal sophomoric attitude, though the lyrics are sometimes bright and original, “Memory” in particular. His Gothic themes and fantastic works were better managed in short stories than in sonnets.
To this early period belong poems later collected, love poems to Rosemary Carr, and after their marriage collaboration on A BOOK OF AMERICANS, now a standard work in children’s literature. These poems celebrate not only famous but infamous figures in American history, both men and women. Much of the pleasure in these lyrics comes from the deft handling and gay daring, the unconventional though carefully patriotic praise and blame, qualities also to be found in his most famous story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
BURNING CITY, prophetic poems of doom fortunately not fulfilled for New York City as Benét envisioned, vividly suggests that through war, natural causes, universal sterility, and collective madness we will fall. A modern Everyman is the narrator and the time follows World War III, though the tense is present. The most vivid poem concerns the eating away of skyscrapers by giant steel-hungry termites, while the best artistically is a monologue of the revolting machines that have taken over from nonthinking people. “Notes to Be Left in a Cornerstone” is a somewhat metaphysical poem describing the contradictory nature of New York as we know it, just before the fall that Benét brilliantly envisions. While the entire sequence is noteworthy, coming as it does after the great success of JOHN BROWN’S BODY and seven years before the publication of his posthumous WESTERN STAR, Benét’s reputation chiefly rests on his Civil War saga.
Ironically, Stephen Vincent Benét’s deep patriotism prevented his completing what might have been his greatest work, comparable even as a fragment to parts of LEAVES OF GRASS and THE BRIDGE. As Parry Stroud suggests in his critical biography of Benét, WESTERN STAR was planned to complement JOHN BROWN’S BODY, the ODYSSEY of America’s westward movement as his Civil War poem had been his country’s ILIAD. He had begun the work in 1928, collected materials constantly though always postponing the final work in order to engage in governmental and other activities. He invoked not the muses but the spirit of the pioneer as his guide.
Around representative individuals, he planned to write a poetic history in ten books for the safeguarding of national unity expressed in the continuous mobility of the people. The fragment of the poem actually written ends with his pioneers looking toward the West, ahead of them the endless wilderness and a guiding star.
Though criticism of Benét in his lifetime and immediately thereafter is divided, and recent evaluations often derogatory, the pendulum seems now to be swinging in his favor. His voice was clear; his meanings were immediate.