Stephen Vincent Benét Critical Essays

Stephen Vincent Benét Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman called for a national poet for the United States and sought to be that poet. While he envisioned himself as the poet working in his shirt sleeves among the people and read by the population at large, he was never really a poet of the people, absorbed by the people. Ironically, Stephen Vincent Benét became the poet that Whitman wanted to be. Although Benét’s approach as a poet was a literary, academic one, his poetry was widely read and popular with the public.

Using American legends, tales, songs, and history, Benét was most effective writing in epic and narrative forms, especially the folk ballad. Benét’s primary weakness is related to his strength. He lacks originality; he takes not only his subjects but also his techniques from other sources. In his first published poems, a series of dramatic monologues called Five Men and Pompey, the influence of Robert Browning and Edwin Arlington Robinson is evident. As Donald Heiney indicates in Recent American Literature (1958), Benét never developed a single stylistic quality that was his own.

Benét’s poetry, particularly John Brown’s Body, is nevertheless worth reading for its presentation of American folklore and history. As he himself indicated in a foreword to John Brown’s Body, poetry, unlike prose, tells its story through rhyme and meter. By using such a method to tell stories and convey ideas, the poet can cause the reader to feel more deeply and to see more clearly; thus, the poet’s work will remain in the reader’s memory.

Tiger Joy

Benét’s strengths are evident in the volume preceding John Brown’s Body, Tiger Joy. The best poems in this collection include an octave of sonnets, “The Golden Corpse,” and two very good ballads “The Mountain Whippoorwill: Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers’ Prize” (subtitled “A Georgia Romance”), and “The Ballad of William Sycamore.”

In “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” Benét uses the dialect of the inhabitants of the Georgia hills. The rhythm of the poem suggests the music that is produced as Big Tom Sargent, Little Jimmy Weezer, Old Dan Wheeling, and Hill-Billy Jim attempt to win the first prize at the Georgia Fiddlers’ Show. The mountain whippoorwill serves as a unifying element; initially, the whippoorwill is supposedly the mother of Hill-Billy Jim, the narrator, but then becomes symbolic of him as fiddler and of his genius.

“The Ballad of William Sycamore”

“The Ballad of William Sycamore,” one of Benét’s frequently anthologized poems, is the autobiography of William Sycamore, an archetype of the pioneer. The son of a Kentucky mountaineer, Sycamore was born outdoors near a stream and a tall green fir. Following a childhood during which he learned his woodsman’s skills from his father, he and his wife were part of the westward movement; he lost his eldest son at the Alamo and his youngest at Custer’s last stand, and died with his boots on. At the end of the poem, he tells the builders of towns to go play with the...

(The entire section is 1288 words.)