In 1811 a nephew of Thomas Jefferson nearly chopped off the head of a young slave named George. The seventeen-year-old boy had broken a pitcher belonging (we are told) to the deceased mother of his master, Lilburne Lewis. The drunken master, with the help of his own brother Isham, dragged George into the kitchen cabin, tied him down, and assembled the other slaves to witness the punishment that followed. Then Lilburne sank an axe into George’s neck, killing and almost decapitating him.
He forced one of the black men to dismember the body with the same axe. The pieces were thrown into the fireplace, where roaring flames had been built up. Lilburne Lewis warned the slaves to tell nobody what had happened.
At two o’clock the next morning a violent earthquake struck the region of western Kentucky where the Lewises lived. The chimney of the kitchen cabin fell down, smothering the fire and halting the process of cremation. Lilburne had the slaves rebuild the chimney and fireplace, hiding the fragments of George’s body in the masonry. But the quakes continued, exposing the remains; and a dog carried off the head, to gnaw on it until a neighbor noticed and turned the skull over to officers of the law.
Three months after the crime, a grand jury indicted Lilburne and Isham Lewis for murder; but both men were admitted to bail while awaiting trial. Three weeks later, in keeping with a pact they had made, the two brothers went to a graveyard intending to shoot one another. Lilburne showed Isham how to commit suicide if the flintlock misfired, but he accidentally shot and killed himself during the lesson. Isham left the graveyard and was jailed two days later as accessory to his brother’s self-murder. But he escaped, and we do not know what became of him.
My story of these events is taken from the handsomely documented and welltold account by Boynton Merrill, Jr., in his book Jefferson’s Nephews.* Mr. Merrill asks what Jefferson knew or said about the monstrosities of his sister’s children, and he tells us, “No evidence has been discovered…that Jefferson ever wrote or spoke a word directly concerning this crime, or that it changed his life or attitudes.”
In 1953 Robert Penn Warren published Brother to Dragons, a narrative poem based on the crimes I have reviewed. He organized it as a dialogue of disembodied voices conversing long after the event, in an unspecified place. Instead of making the incidents themselves the substance of his poem, Warren treated those as starting a debate on “the human condition,” particularly the extent of men’s innate virtue or depravity. To suit his plan, he not only altered some of the facts; he not only added some fictitious characters; but he also planted himself and Thomas Jefferson in the poem, giving these outsiders many long speeches. Warren has now carefully revised and shortened Brother to Dragons for a new publication, altering many details, reassigning speeches, breaking up long lines, and giving the verse a dryer texture.
In Warren’s telling, although the sickening episodes emerge gradually from the give and take of the speakers, the element of suspense seems weak; and a reader unfamiliar with the story would not gather it easily from the poet’s presentation. Warren diversifies the main line of his narrative with other ingredients: memories of his own research into the historical evidence, fictitious incidents of sexual passion and family tension, monologues in which real and imaginary persons tell us about their feelings of love and guilt. We hear Lilburne’s wife recall the stages of her courtship and marriage, and the sexual abuse practiced on her by Lilburne. We hear Meriwether Lewis review his exploration of the northwest territories and supply graphic details of his suicide.
Such secondary narratives, mainly fictitious, illustrate the depravity of human nature. Warren attributes the death wish of Meriwether Lewis, for example, to the failure of the optimistic philosophy which Jefferson supposedly taught him. The other autobiographical speeches lead us in the same direction.
In the choral commentary of the poet’s dialogues with Jefferson, Warren suggests that we are all responsible for the mischief done by any one of us; the victim of evil, however weak and vulnerable he may be, participates in the beastly motivations which lead to his destruction, and so does the righteous denouncer of the crime. Jefferson himself, we are told, shared the potentiality for evil which his nephew realized in action. Unfortunately, this doctrine transpires in such a way as to darken Jefferson’s character and to brighten Warren’s. It is hard for one not to feel that the author takes advantage of his place as inventor of the fiction when he assigns to Jefferson a less perceptive morality than that of the poet who confronts him.
One may ask as well whether a plain historical account, even in my few words, is not more absorbing than Warren’s self-indulgent, highly reflexive work. It would take a most dramatic discussion of the problem of original sin to hold us better than a bare chain of startling but true events. Warren composed the poem in flexible, varied free verse, often approximating blank verse. Is the poetic element attractive enough to carry us over the difficulties of Warren’s theme?
If we do listen to the verse, we find that the poet’s style is more lyrical, descriptive, or reflective than narrative, dramatic, or discursive. When he remembers a landscape or evokes passionate love, Warren’s poetic energies seem more deeply engaged than when he rehearses a story or produces moral arguments. His speakers often sound alike, or they talk out of character. They are given to clichés of language or sentiment. Consequently, the ingredients which ought most to please us receive inadequate support from Warren’s style. As for the lyrical and descriptive passages themselves, one may judge their freshness and power from a specimen on the coming of spring:
The red-bud shall order forth its flame at the incitement of sun.
The maple shall offer its golden wings for the incitement of air.
Powder of oak-bloom shall prank golden the deerskin shirt
Of the woodsman, like fable.
Gleaming and wind-tossed, the raw
Conclamation of crows shall exult from the swale-edge.
The redbird whistles, the flame wing weaves,
And the fox barks in the thicket with its sneezing excitement.
The ceremony of joy is validated in the night cry,
And all earth breathes its idiot and promiscuous promise:
If the narrative and the verse are open to censure, the scheme of debate becomes peculiarly important; for it could supply the challenge which an audience seeks from a poem of this length. If the disagreement set forth between the poet and Jefferson—the quarrel over the meaning of the Lewis brothers’ crime—were handled forcefully, if the reader found himself drawn into the substance of the controversy (regardless of the data which provoked it and regardless of the poet’s limitations of style), Brother to Dragons might deserve the attention it invites.
But when an author supports his moral doctrine by a mixture of fact, speculation, and invention, it cannot seem sturdy. The last fifty years of human events have provided abundant evidence of the ugliness of man’s inborn character. I suspect that the power of Warren’s poem when it first appeared sprang from the precipitate decline of American moral optimism, a decline which followed the full disclosure of the German nation’s bestiality, made known in the years after 1945. Since that period, the conduct of other nations, including our own, has not reversed the decline. On this issue, history has overtaken poetry.
Warren dwells on the betrayal of the vision of men like Jefferson by the sins of the republic they conceived. In America—many used to think—history had been granted a fresh opening. Jefferson himself sometimes claimed that for the United States the present was independent of the past. For this people to practice abominations was the last offense to minds that thought of it as a proving ground of human potentiality. Warren lists the disgraces: the destruction of the Indians, the institution of slavery, and so forth; and he declares that all of us—high and low, Southern aristocrat and humble slave—are, like the rest of the world, caught in history. The peculiar loathesomeness of Lilburne Lewis was his kinship with the most splendid type of American manhood, Jefferson.
Unfortunately, every aspect of Warren’s analysis is now over-familiar. The failure of our national character is a favorite theme of the American literary imagination. The myth of Southern aristocracy has been stripped bare too often for another exposure to move us. Moreover, the appeal to fact, which the poem urges upon us, works against the drift of Warren’s argument. Whoever examines the scholarly accounts of Jefferson, the Lewis brothers, or Meriwether Lewis will undermine Warren’s case.
So far from being taken in by any optimistic misrepresentation of Jefferson’s, Meriwether Lewis himself said, “I hold it an axiom incontrovertible that it is more easy to introduce vice in all states of society than it is to eradicate it, and this is more strictly true when applied to man in his savage than in his civilized state.” When Warren says, “We must believe in the notion of virtue,” he hardly disagrees with Jefferson, who thought a moral conscience was an integral part of human nature.
Returning from the meaning to the form, I have to wonder whether the enterprise of such a poem as Brother to Dragons does not represent one more desire to equip the United States with a verse epic. The ambition to do so goes back to the early years of the republic. But by that date, large-scale narrative had already become the responsibility of the novel. When poets finally accepted this truth, they altered their definition, and spoke of writing a “long poem,” which should be neither narrative in the manner of Virgil nor exposition in the manner of Lucretius. One of the monuments of the revised hope is W.C. Williams’s Paterson. But for all the praise that Paterson and efforts like Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems have received, no one ever wished them longer; and in search of honest pleasure, readers without a vested interest in duration are likely to turn to the shorter pieces in Williams’s Selected Poems.
American poetry became mature when the novel, the film, and the theater supplied dramatic and narrative works that required hours for their consumption. The genius of our poetry is indeed lyric and reflexive. If we need a verse epic, the want is satisfied by Whitman’s Song of Myself, which is a cluster of poems kept together by the spirit and theme of the author. The transformations of the self give our poets their best starting point, as they gave Whitman his. Self-conscious, self-dramatizing, self-mocking, self-awed, the poet looks out on a world whose contents are sanctified by his inspection; and it is by identifying himself momentarily with the figures and scenes of that world that he nourishes his identity.
For Whitman, as Richard Chase said, the drama of the self was essentially comic. For poets today, that drama must modulate unforeseeably from pathos to humor, from despair to irony. Poems like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem” (“About the size of an old-style dollar bill”), Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Richard Wilbur’s “Walking to Sleep,” and James Merrill’s “The Thousand and Second Night” are suitable models, not because they reveal any scandal about the poet but because they involve world and self in the fascinating, funny, terrible work of connecting and disconnecting the immediate sensibility and the experiences that produced it. A group of such poems is the grandest epic we can use.
Warren himself, in his recent and best poems, shows an affinity with this tradition rather than with the evasions of Ashbery, the surfaces of Strand, or the monotones of James Wright. His last collection, Now and Then, has at least half a dozen good poems. In them the poet looks at himself from the remoteness of old age eyeing death; and he searches for the meaning of experiences embodied in his identity. The strength of remembered emotions, the montage of past and present, the crescendos and diminuendos of sensation provide satisfactions that almost make up for the carelessness of the language. One wishes that Warren’s flights were less effortful and that his earthiness were less commonplace, just as one wishes that his metrics were more purposeful. There is also the lushness which troubles one in Brother to Dragons; but it is undercut here by the critical perspective of memory.
Although the attitude, in these poems, is highly serious, the intensity of the poet’s self-consciousness and the sense one has of extremes in time being pressed quickly together infuse irony into the tone. The themes include earthly and spiritual aspiration, the desire for glory; they include the transformation of the self through faith, the need to make a self that will not merely vanish—the possibility of resurrection. As with Whitman, the egoism (for Warren rarely delights in self-effacement) is redeemed by typology, and the poet becomes Everyman.
In this autobiographical verse, the narrative part is easy to manage, because it springs from personal anecdote. Actor and setting partake of each other:
In the dark kitchen the electric icebox rattles.
It whispers like the interior monologue of guilt and extenuation….
Dramatization is no problem, since the poet speaks of and for himself. Instead of argument and morality, he strives to convey insights and feelings; and we are not troubled with self-conferred rectitude.
Death closes the process of metamorphosis. In “Departure,” Warren makes the end of summer into a hint of the end of life. In “Heat Wave Breaks,” he turns a summer storm into a foreshadowing of Judgment. In “Heart of Autumn” the passage of Canada geese overhead becomes a premonition of the poet’s own passage—
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance—
Toward sunset, at a great height.
The poems comment on and reply to one another. They cohere naturally and give the reader a beautiful impression of a brave ancient gathering the resources of intellect and spirit against the challenge of finality. For ambitious young poets a sequence of such lyrics could, I think, be more powerfully suggestive than Crane’s The Bridge or Pound’s Cantos.
February 21, 1980