Stephen Vincent Benet was an acclaimed poet of American democracy. Though he also wrote novels and short stories (including "The Devil and Daniel
Webster" ), he remains best known for John Brown's Body (1928), a long narrative poem on the Civil War, whose commercial and literary success brought him to national attention. To open his epic, Benet invoked the "strong and diverse heart" of America as his muse; it became his great lifelong theme. Benet insisted that poetry "is meant for everybody, not only for the scholars" (34), "open to any reader who likes the sound and the swing of rhythm, the color and fire of words" (35). This approachability made him "the most widely read serious poet of his time" (Fenton 80), but his poems have received less subsequent esteem than the more difficult and experimental works of modernism. His influences include Robert Browning and Vachel lindsay.
Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Benet published his first book, Five Men and Pompey, in 1915, during his freshman year at Yale University. In 1921 he married Rosemary Carr, who inspired his love poems and collaborated on A Book of Americans (1933). His ballad "King David" (1923) received the Nation's Poetry Prize. On a Guggenheim Fellowship (1926-27) in Paris, he wrote John Brown's Body, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in that year, he won its Gold Medal in 1943. In 1933 he became editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition (see poetry prizes). Western Star (1943), his unfinished long poem on the settlement of the American West, won Benet a second, posthumous Pulitzer in 1944.
In John Brown's Body Benet alternates blank verse with a longer, rougher line, and he continued to use both traditional forms and looser, unrhymed structures throughout his career (see prosody and free verse). "American Names" (1927), a ballad, joins individual identity to the national identity embodied in place-names with its final demand, "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee." In the 1930s Benet's unrhymed poems increasingly turn from past to future with nightmare visions that are both monitory and elegiac. "Notes to be Left in a Cornerstone" (1936) commemorates the New York City he lived in and loved, addressing future historians who cannot reconstruct from its ruins "that beauty, rapid and harsh, / That loneliness, that passion or that name."
Benet wrote passionately in democracy's defense from World War Il's outbreak until his death. In "Nightmare at Noon" (1940), he acknowledges Americas failure to fulfill its ideals, as symbolized by "the lynchers rope, the bought justice, the wasted land," but he refuses to abandon the promise of democratic freedom that was "bought with the bitter and anonymous blood" of past generations. The radio verse-drama "Listen to the People" (1941) concludes with the commitment to sustain "[t]his peaceless vision, groping for the stars." As the "poet-historian of American democracy," in the words of Parry Stroud (145), Benet brought Americas past to life and sought its future.
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