William Rose Benét Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

A classically educated man who straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, William Rose Benét, judged by his poetry, seems to belong more to the leisurely Victorian era into which he was born than to the hectic modern period in which he flourished. Benét’s adherence to medieval French poetic forms (particularly in his earlier work), his choice of subject matter, and his florid writing style all reinforce this impression. Benét’s verses are typically composed according to the rules of their type—rondeau, cinquain, lai, chanson, triolet, iambe, sestina, villanelle, sonnet, or ode—each of which demands a particular syllabic rhythm and fixed rhyme scheme. Many of his poems would not be out of place in the Romantic tradition; they are replete with symbolism and full of controlled emotion. Some deal colorfully and imaginatively with exotic, faraway places, and long-ago times. Others are impassioned paeans to aspects of nature, explorations of self, musings on spirituality, love poems, or combinations of various ideas.

Benét’s verse contains more exclamation points than is considered seemly by twenty-first century writers. He occasionally resorts to such outmoded devices as feminine rhyme (using two rhyming syllables instead of a single syllable at the end of a line, as in “gave me/save me”). He inserts obsolete expressions (for example, “Thee, ”doth,” and “Lackaday”) to add the flavor of yesteryear to a piece. He employs old-fashioned expressions such as “o’er” for “over” or “’neath” for “beneath,” and applies antique pronunciations (such as REACH-ed) to improve scansion. The poems often rely on arcane allusions from history and mythology that require annotations or research to gain fuller understanding, or dwell on larger-than-life figures and monumental events.

However, despite such potential drawbacks, Benét can still be appreciated as a master craftsperson of great technical skill and is a worthy model for traditionalists. His interests are far ranging and creatively presented. As he matured as a poet, Benét dealt with more modern topics, but with few exceptions, he approached them through well-wrought rhyme that became increasingly more free-form and less dependent on past conventions, and as a consequence, he produced work unique in style, tone, and substance. Benét’s rhymes are for the most part true, with great attention paid to varying the choice of words to end lines (as in “beau,” “flow,” “so,” and “dough”) to keep the reader’s visual interest high. Though generally adhering to established rhyme schemes, Benét was canny enough to avoid reader monotony and to impart a feeling of spontaneity and freshness by...

(The entire section is 1112 words.)