John Brown's body

by Stephen Vincent Benét

Hardcover, 1956






New York : Book-of-the-Month Club, [1980] c1956.


One of the most widely read poems of our time--a masterful retelling of the American Civil War. Magnificently readable. --New Statesman

User reviews

LibraryThing member jppoetryreader
Wow is my response to this incredibly ambitious book-length treatment of the Civil War using poetry in a variety of forms. This is a complex book and I find that it isn't accurately treated in a lot of descriptions of it, especially those that call it narrative and blank verse. Though it has narrative strings, they are broken by multiple perspectives, as well as expository and lyrical sections (making it arguably modern). There is blank verse (his best), free verse, prose, ballads, rhymed couplets in tetrameter (his worst), etc. It is primarily a book of many voices and perspectives providing a broad experience of the tragedy of the Civil War.

I discovered this book at my local library and decided I should read it since I have an interest in longer works. Notice I said "should" rather than wanted to. I'm not a history buff, especially not a fan of war stories. Also, when I first cracked the book to get a feel for it, I struck an early saccharine passage about Sally Dupre (who is not so sweet and simple as she develops). Uhg. I suspected there would be a lot of that but thankfully there isn't. Benet also tends to juxtapose more sentimental/saccharine passages against those that are stark portrayals of harsh realities (in fact, some of the juxtapositions are brilliant). Sometimes he uses sing-songy rhymed couplets for subject matter that makes the whole passage ironic.

It amazes me that this book has not been a subject of more serious criticism, but I can guess why. The poetry, though it has stellar moments, is not stellar overall. Some of it could simply have been prose; where meter/rhyme is used, it can be clunky. Though I eventually came to watch carefully when he slipped into couplets for how he was using the form to underscore an event or personality or turn it on its head, I still cringed as I read.

Yet the book is complex and fascinating. It does not take a simplistic or even heroic view of this conflict, which is what I suspected/expected. The men/boys are imperfect, good some days and in some circumstances and not so admirable during others. Not only did I get caught up in the tapestry that Benet weaves, but at the end I would have been happy (were there not already too many books and too little time) to turn around and begin again because I think the second read would have been richer now that I see all he was trying to accomplish--all that he eventually portrays about war, being human, being American, America itself, about being flawed and the outcomes of actions large and small. The book also made me curious about the battles of the Civil War and the key players than I ever have been.

So Wow. Definitely a keeper.
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LibraryThing member patricia_poland
The rhythm of this epic poem was superb - an incredible way to read about the Civil War. I was quite caught up with several of the fictional characters and moved by the intimate look into the historical figures as well. Many, such as the passage on Lee-- "I'm always wanting something" -- had me glued to the book and wanting more. It was an experience and well worth the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member Joycepa
This book, which I read for the first time over 50 years ago when I was 17, changed my life in two ways: I stopped thinking I didn't like poetry, and I started on a life-long fascination with the American Civil War. It's one of the most moving books/stories I have ever read. I still have the copy I got for Christmas in 1954.… (more)
LibraryThing member KLMTX
Civil War epic in verse, beautiful language.
Also an audio version in 50s Raymond Massey, Tyrone Powers, Dame Judith Anderson with a chorus. A stage production first. Columbia: SL 181 (ML 4690--ML4691). Fabulous!
It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929.
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
On Mar 27, 1951, I said: "Began reading John Brown's Body. 'Tis quite a book. What it really is is a verse history of the Civil War by Stephen Vincent Benet and his poetry reaches the tops of greatness at times. Some of it nearly reduces me to paroxysms. Like this picture of Clay Wingate, young Georgiz aristocrat: 'Wingate sat in his room at night. . . Reading his Byron with knitted brow While his mind drank in the peace of the house, . . .And the slow clock ticking the time that dies . . .'' Or sallies like this: 'the whole troop grumbled and wondered asking For fighting or fleeing or fornicating Or anything else but this bored waiting.' Or this line: 'He only dreams that he is back at home With a heroic wound that does not hurt.' And so it is. Undistilled snatches of greatness and poignancy dot the poem , and thru it all it is eminently readable poetry. With all the work I've to do, you'd think I wouldn't have time. But I'm liking ti so. Am I not entitled to do a little reading like this? It's good for me." On Mar 29 I said: "Finished reading John Brown's Body. 'Tis a great work, and though I'm not good at reading a lot of poetry at once, this didn't even illustrate that fact to me so much, because the meter keeps changing and you never are reduced to a sing-songness that other long poems reduce me to. His account pf Gettysburg, besides reminding me of how little I know of it, was great. These lines knocked me over: 'We have made the sick earth tremble with other shakings in our time, in our time, in our time, but it has not taught us to leave the grain in the field.' Then there was there was this part of John Vilas' soliloquy on returning to Connecticut--the Connecticut he had run away from as a boy--'I shall smell lilac in Connecticut No doubt, before I die, and see the clean White, reticent, small churches of my youth, . . .The pasture -bars I broke to run away. It was my thought to live in an uncropped And savage field no plough had ever scored . ..It was my thought to be beside a stream . . .Too solitary for remembrance.' A tremendous work."… (more)
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
A long poem, about the Civil War, with many characters and views, but it has some good bits. I read the original edition.


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