Brother to Dragons* by Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren, (1905-1989), poet, critic, novelist, teacher, born in Guthrie, Kentucky, was to become America's first Poet Laureate, publishing 10 novels,16 books of collected poems, one book length poem, three books of collected short stories, four textbooks, a play, six books of collected essays, three historical works, and one biography. Two of his collected poems and his novel All the King's Men won Pulitzer Prizes. Two of his novels, All the King's Men and Band of Angels were made into movies.
His major theme and the one he is best known for is the dissection of the moral dilemmas of the South. His major works, one of which is featured here, chooses a historical event as a canvas on which to paint the tragic irony of life.
Brother to Dragons is the book-length dialogue incorporating Thomas Jefferson, a man who built a capital and a university, served as the third President of the United States, bought 828,000 acres of wilderness in the West at three cents an acre, who must also deal with the news his nephew butchered a man. Two versions of the poem exist; one written in 1953 the other in 1979. I read the original. A comparison of the two versions would make an interesting essay.
Some insight into the character of Thomas Jefferson is helpful before reading the poem. Author David McCullough in his biography of John Adams writes, "Jefferson was devoted to the ideal of improving mankind but had comparatively little interest in people in particular." John Adams said of Jefferson,"He is a man of science,...but he knows little of the nature of man--very little indeed."
A little background of slavery is also helpful: Black slavery was an accepted part of life in all 13 colonies during Jefferson's time. Quoting from McCullough's John Adams again,
"Of a total population in the colonies of nearly 2,500,000 people in 1776, approximately one in five were slaves, some 500,000 men, women and children. In Virginia alone, which had the most slaves by far, they numbered more than 200,000... Boston harbor prospered from the trading of slaves... Londoner Samuel Johnson asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?"
Jefferson certainly benefited from the ownership of slaves. Again from McCullough:
Jefferson's "...earliest childhood memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave and in countless ways he had been carried ever since by slaves, though they were never called that, but rather 'servants' or 'laborers.' It was not just that slaves worked his fields; they cut his firewood, cooked and served his meals, washed and ironed his linen, brushed his suits, nursed his children, cleaned, scrubbed, polished, opened and closed doors for him, saddled his horse, turned down his bed, waited on him hand and foot from dawn to dusk."
The dilemma of slavery existed for Jefferson who owned over 600 slaves; at any one time over 200 worked on the 5,000 acre Monticello in Albemarle County, Virginia. The institution of slavery was known to be wrong by many Southern planters but a source of labor not one thought he could abandon in his lifetime. No planter saw himself freeing the slaves he currently owned; abolishing the slave trade sometime in the future was the ideal that eased their consciences. One of the statements left out of the Declaration of Independence was the gradual removal of the slave trade from the new nation's economy. Jefferson listed the importation of Africans for forced labor as one of the faults of George III, an accusation few members of the Continental Congress could support.
In Notes on the State of Virginia published in 1781, Jefferson wrote of the conflict he felt over the ownership of slaves, but Jefferson believed there was a biological difference between blacks and whites which would prevent a black person from ever being able to live as an equal with whites--the very root of racism. His passionate work for the freedom of man which led to the American Revolution did not include the black man. The dilemma was that Jefferson knew slavery was wrong. In fact, about the same time Notes was published he proposed a policy to phase out slavery by stating all slaves born after 1800 would be freed and their owners compensated; slavery would be prohibited in all future land acquisitions as the nation expanded west.
Earlier in the 1760s and 70s, most Virginia planters argued for the end of the slave trade, not the abolition of slavery. The slaves then at work on the plantations would become even more valuable as they became a scarce commodity. Jefferson concurred with this thinking which made him appear very progressive.
The Britannica makes an interesting statement:"Jefferson's deep aversion to controversy made him withdraw from the cutting edge of the anti-slavery movement once he experienced the sharp feelings it aroused." Couple this with his feelings that Blacks were biologically inferior and that he kept slaves on his plantation. He called them 'his family," indicating a generous, caring attitude toward his slaves. The conflict he felt then was probably the conflict many slave owners felt: Owning another human being and making him work for me is wrong, but there is no way to stop slavery, at least during my lifetime. Of course the plantations were economically dependent on cheap labor, adding another reason for continuing slavery. At the end of his life Jefferson may have had the opportunity to free his slaves, but most of them were mortgaged to other planters and thus not his to free. The only slaves he freed were the members of the Hemings family. The Jefferson/ Hemings affair would make another interesting study.
The reader of Brother to Dragons, then must ask himself two questions: Why did Jefferson ignore, at least in public, the horrid murder of a slave committed by a relative? Was it because of a lack of compassion for the individual or because he could not accept that he, such a wealthy, prominent leader, could carry within his blood the capacity to perform such evil? Robert Penn Warren investigates these two questions, then points out that the dilemma is a struggle for all of us: the recognition that we, who are mostly good, are quite capable of despicable acts.
The despicable act in Brother to Dragons is the act of Lilburn Lewis, the nephew of Thomas Jefferson, who butchers a slave for breaking a pitcher, a story documented by witnesses and court records but never mentioned in Jefferson's writings. An immense conflict exists between the relative's committing murder, slavery, and Jefferson's ideal so prominently written in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I tell you this to demonstrate from historical records that Jefferson lived with a huge conflict in his life, presenting his ideals of liberty to a young nation yet never able to extend that liberty to those immediately near him. Even now, history avoids conflict by emphasizing Jefferson's ideals, brushing by his dilemma.
No one accepts the lie of the happy slave, strolling home in the late afternoon sun, a hoe over his shoulder, singing four part harmony of a Stephen Foster song. American Slavery As It Is, Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses by Theodore D. Weld, published by the American Anti- Slavery Society, 1839, records the horrible crimes committed against slaves. Witnesses tell of masters and mistresses whipping them to death, committing murder and being acquitted, cutting off hands, burning them alive. In it under the heading "Tortures of Slaves,Ó the reader finds "George, a slave, chopped piece-meal, and burnt by Lilburn Lewis. Retributive justice in the awful death of Lilburn Lewis, Trial of Isham Lewis, a slave murderer.Ó
Court records and a letter from one pastor to another also establish the facts of the murder. In the letter Lilburn Lewis, the nephew of Thomas Jefferson is described as a wealthy (there is disagreement over his economic status) slave owner who butchers a 17 year slave in the meat house in front of the other slaves whom he swears to silence. The body parts are thrown into the fire. A dog finds the skull, soon discovered by a sheriff. Lilburn and his brother Isham are arrested but released on bail. The brothers at Lilburn's urging, plan to shoot one another over the grave of their mother. By accident Lilburn kills himself; Isham is jailed but escapes before he is hanged. Reportedly he makes his way to Andrew Jackson's army and is killed in the Battle of New Orleans.
The structure of the poem is an important part of the verse. No place and no time are given as the speakers, Thomas Jefferson, RPW (the poet); members of the Lewis family: Lilburn, his wife Laetitia, Aunt Cat, a slave; Isham Lewis, Meriwether Lewis, and the slave George, speak of the murder. Within each character exists the duality man must acknowledge about his existence: we are capable of great possibilities and great evil, a human constant.
The conversation among the dead and the living poet, RPW, takes place at the ruins of the Lewis house in Kentucky, the scene of the murder, that RPW has chosen to visit with his father. Much of the construct of the poem derives from the father-son relationship. RPW is visiting the site of the old Lewis house with his father; Lilburn's father, Charles, has moved the family to Smithland, seeking a more prosperous life. Jefferson talks of his relationship with his "Near-son" Meriwether Lewis. "The failures of our fathers are the failures we shall make, Their triumphs the triumphs we shall never have."**
Jefferson speaks first about the fathers of the Revolution as they met in Philadelphia in 1776 to write the Declaration of Independence.
...delegates by accident, in essence men: .. we were only ourselves,,,, establishing the conflict ordinary men might recognize... writing in "Language that betrays...words are always the lie...that establishes a nation.
After the ultimate conflict, death, he now sees, " was nothing, nothing but joy, And my heart cried out, Oh, this is Man!"
Now he understands the evil in his innocence. The words of independence contained the seeds of a war that lasted six years.
Again the duality of existence appears in an allusion to the Minotaur, the half bull, half man beast Theseus slays in the labyrinth. Like Theseus Jefferson sees himself facing the Minotaur in the labyrinth though he could not see the eyes of the Minotaur. I had been blind with light (innocence). That was my doom. ..I who once had said All liberty is bought with blood, now must say All truth is bought with blood...
Men cannot see the evil that is inherent in their actions, even the actions that appear wholesome and for the common good. The writers of the Declaration of Independence, a document on the surface a necessary thing, could not envision the destruction and death they were about to bring to the young nation. Jefferson could not see the evil in his ideals.
Jefferson continues, telling of his exuberance over the Louisiana Purchase, of his opening of the West with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, of sending his relative Meriwether Lewis to investigate the wilderness, a fact Meriwether states contributed to his death.
Charles Lewis speaks next. He had moved his destitute family with his grown sons, Lilburn and Isham and their families, from Virginia to Smithland, Kentucky, seeking a better life, a move that Lilburn says later killed his mother. Lilburn's first wife had died, leaving him with five children. Moody and distraught, Lilburn turned to alcohol to help him forget his debts and large family left in his care. His father, Charles, describes the home: Not much of a place--but good for raising boys. The irony of life continues as Lucy, Lilburn's mother, Jefferson's sister, is introduced. Her grave stone names her as the sister of the president but leaves out the fact she was the mother of "Two black-hearted murderers.Ó She chastises herself for not doing her best to raise her sons.
I did not do my best. I died...That the human curse is simply to love and sometimes to love well, But never well enough.
Jefferson answers her, "There's no forgiveness for our being human, It is the inexpugnable error."
A snake startles RPW and Jefferson comments. "...all earth's monsters are but innocent, but one, that master-monster--ah, but once I did not think so, for I thought him innocent, too..."At RPW's surprise Jefferson corrects himself. He was aware of the lack of innocence in some men. In death Jefferson can see more clearly the fallacy in his ideals: "There is no form to hold Reality and its insufferable intransigence...I know, for I once tried to contrive A form I thought fit to hold the purity of man's hope."
We read next of Lilburn Lewis who has butchered a slave who broke his beloved mother's pitcher. Did he really love his mother so much or did he just need her? That his black need of her needs some other word.
I have long since come to the firm and considered conclusion That love, all love, all kinds, descriptions, and shapes, Is but a mask to hide the brute face of fact, And that fact is the immitigable ferocity of self... Even the desirable emotion of love cannot be pure. Our salvation is in the recognition of that.
Lilburn's second wife, Laetitia, loves him but retreats from him in horror when she hears the screams from the meat house. "All screaming they made a big scream filling Up all the world," suspecting he has committed some horrible crime. Lilburn blames her for withdrawing from him. He in his fury he rapes her, an act he tells himself she enjoys. "...but now I see when angels Come down to earth, they step in dung, like us. And like it."
Then he forgives her for leaving him. Jefferson comments, "...forgiveness is the one unforgivable Act. Lilburn forgives his wife ...That he might blame her too, in his act of forgiveness."
Aunt Cat, a fictional slave RPW created, helps Laetitia get away from her husband.
The hoss is saddled, I saddled him you go, Go now, afore they knows--and when they knows, Ain't nothin they kin do but beat me--
RPW confirms the paradox as he speaks to Laetitia.
She loved you so much, yes, that's one way to put it. Or hated them for that's another way To put the reason, and there's nothing strange in that, for every act is but a door Between two rooms, on equal hinges hung To open either way, on either room, and every act is Janus-faced and double, And every act to become an act must resolve The essential polarity of possibility.
The motivation for the risk Aunt Cat takes is mixed.
...if for love or hate, or both, She sent Laetitia out. She loved her, yes, But, oh, she knew Laetitia was the sure One instrument, one weapon, that she had... Divide the white folks and sit back and wait.
Aunt Cat remembers her jealousy over baby Lilburn, the child she had nursed. Now is the time for revenge. "Even love's a weapon." Laetitia comes back for the trial of her husband, stating, Why he's the nephew of the President. A true-blood kin to old Tom Jefferson.
Jefferson must face the crime.
that fiend...it is always The dearest that betrays...we must always be betrayed by the most dear,... Yes, that's the fact that shakes my heart with the intrinsic shock: Born of my sister's body, vessel of my blood, An yet what it is...it's my fault. I tell you what I would have done When I first saw it and it lay on the lace pillow--You know an infant's face, wizened and seamed And of no beauty, yet when that sweet parcel of flesh Is laid on the lace pillow, your heart stirs. It stirs at a new sense of innocence and the human possibility... No, despite the violence of the first shock At the news from Kentucky, there was no immediate impairment Of the general structure of my human hope. there was no preliminary shudder, and I said, This is merely a personal anguish, and individual evil... Oh, what's one nigger dead, One nigger more or less--except he's all, And all responsibility now spreads. It spreads like a stain in water...
The details of the murder follow.
Lilburn grows more and more enraged. He hates one particular slave, a 17 year old named George whom he has beaten in the past for breaking a cup, running away, fetching him from the tavern at his mother's request.
Lilburn seems the most consistently evil of all the speakers. Jefferson says, "For Lilburn is an absolute of our essential Condition, and as such, would ingurgitate All, and all you'd give, all hope, all heart, Would only be disbursed down that rat hole of the ultimate horror."
No, Lilburn had no truck with the Evil One, But knew that all he did was done for good, For his mother and the sweetness of the heart, And that's the instructive fact of history, That evil's done for good, and in good's name... The disorder of the wood land. Lilburn defends it. Lilburn would defend civilization and define The human mission, bring light to the dark place. but what does he defend? Only a pitcher, As some poor symbol, not the truth itself. He defends the letter while the spirit flees. And how define the human? By love of Mother, And in affirming love lifts high the meat-axe.
Lilburn is alone just before the murder.
So Lilburn's now alone. They have left him now, Mother and father, wife, and old Aunt Cat... We must remember that always the destroyer It is who has most need of love;
Only his younger brother Isham stands by him.
The year is 1811, "annus mirabilis," the year during which history records strange happenings. Floods change the courses of rivers, create lakes, sickness strikes the valley dwellers, squirrels migrate in huge numbers, pigeons scour the grain fields, a total eclipse of the sun, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes rock the county.
The sun sets on December 15, 1811. Lilburn, drunk, asks his brother Isham to gather the slaves in the meat house and build a fire. He calls George, demands he pick up the pitcher Lucy Lewis had loved so much. George and Lilburn take the pitcher into the woods to fetch water. And [Lilburn] saying soft. "That pitcher--if you break it--Lilburn and George return without the pitcher and enter the meat house. George is tied to the butcher block. The chilling words are spoken. Hand me that meat-axe, Ishey....The axe came down. Lil flung the hands in the fire...And whacked his feet because they ran away... "Lilburn proceeds to hack up George a few joints at a time, tossing the stubs into the fire. He swears the recoiling slaves to silence, promising them the same treatment if they tell. From the fire the bones are taken and buried. An earthquake strikes, the chimney of the cabin falls on the buried bones.
But even George is not entirely innocent.
The victim becomes the essential accomplice, provocateur... Not driven by hunger or fear, but drawn sweetly Back to wreak his merciless frailty on Lilburn. And if Lilburn Is George's victim, it's only a manner of speaking, A way to say we're all each other's victim.
The bones will be discovered by a dog.
It was the hound That Lilburn loved, the only thing alive He loved, his mother--and my sister--dead.
The hound finds the bone in the spring. The jawbone of poor George, tradition says.
But it's the hound, the loved hound from Virginia, That works poor Lilburn's deepest will, and betrays him. By the trace, with the bone, the hound now crouches, and waits, While red-birds whistle and the flame wing weaves, And all earth breathes its idiot and promiscuous Promise: joy.
The discovery of the bones leads to Lilburn's arrest. He is released on bail and later tried.
And here's the fact: On March 19 the Jury Took evidence and didn't linger long. True bill it was, and murder: Lilburn Lewis, He, with an axe of the value of two dollars ($2.00) Held in his hands, did willfully and maliciously And with hate, cut a death wound..
Lilburn writes his will and speaks to Isham.
Oh, you're afraid they'll hang us,..
Well, Ishey-Boy, we sort of killed the nigger.
But just a nigger --and my breath got choked--But just a nigger that done our mother wrong!
Lilburn promises Isham won't hang and plans for them a double suicide over their mother's grave.
To face each other over your mother's grave? That's what the record says, and by your word, To stand and each present to the other's breast The muzzle of the weapon and to wait for the count to chime.
Isham remembers how slowly Lilburn counted.
Well, what a fool I've been! I see it all. How Lilburn counted slow to make you do, To strike him down, and be his last betrayer, And leave him in that perfectest delight, Alone, alone, in that sweet alienation... Because you loved him he betrayed you, too? He betrayed you when he made you murder him...
But Isham does not murder Lilburn for Lilburn's rifle misfires into his own chest. Isham is arrested for the murder, acquitted, but judged to hang for George's murder. He is helped to escape, makes his way to Andrew Jackson's army and is killed at the Battle of New Orleans.
The murder reminds Jefferson of his near-son Meriwether Lewis who, he thinks, also committed suicide. (There is some controversy among historians whether Meriwether committed suicide or was murdered.)
Meriwether to Jefferson:
...murdered by your lie. It was your lie that sent me forth, in hope. To the wilderness...I became Governor... I would kill the slander That I'd embezzled and engrossed... Denied my drafts... Resting for the night I laid me down. But not to sleep. To meditate on justice. I rose and spoke aloud and declared myself. In the disturbed darkness I declared myself. For suddenly I knew there was no Justice. No, not for me, nor any man, for the human Heart will hate justice for its humanness... For in your lie was my death...especially that lie spoken in the vanity of virtue.
Vanity, no. It was but my hope that in the exfoliation Of years man might, in the end...
Yes, that sweet lie, And I would honor more the axe in the meat house, As more honest at least, than your special lie Concocted, though out of nobleness--oh, yes, It was noble, but was concocted for your comfort To prove yourself nobler in man nobleness. Yes, in man's nobleness, you'd be the noble Jefferson. And if that is not vanity--
At the end of the poem, the mother Lucy offers her final defense.
But now I say that what he [Lilburn] would have defended Was but himself against the darkness that was his... He saw poor Gorge as but his darkest self And all the possibility of the dark that he feared, And so he struck, and struck down that darkest self... And to Jefferson ...for in your rejection you repeat the crime. Over and over, and more monstrous still, For what poor Lilburn did in exaltation of madness You do in vanity--yes, Meriwether is right. No, worse, you did it in fear-- ..His name is Jefferson. I mean yourself. I mean the deepest fear. Yes, when you had learned in that report from Kentucky What evil was possible even in the familial blood, Your fear began, the fear you had always denied, the fear That you--even you--were capable of all. And so in that consanguinity, still to deny The possibilities of self, Even in the moment when you claimed that Lilburn Had robbed you of your hope of human good, In vanity and virtue and your fear, You struck. You struck Lilburn down--and yet strike Poor Lilburn down , over and over again, the axe Falls. The axe falls, and you cast him forth in the fire, And the fire flares red on your face where the sweat is. And as George was to Lilburn, so Lilburn is to you, And as innocence was all Lilburn wanted it is all You yourself want, or have wanted. But Brother, If you would assume the burden of innocence--and dear Brother, I must say to you now, for it comes now strangely to me to say it, That the burden of innocence is heavier that the burden of guilt-- ...For whatever hope we have is not by repudiation, And whatever health we have is not be denial, But in confronting the terror of our condition. All else is a lie. ..Your dream, my dear Brother, was noble... If there was vanity, fear, and deceit, in its condition, What of that? For we are human and must work In the shade of our human condition. The dream remains.
Now I should hope to find the courage to say That the dream of the future is not Better than the fact of the past, no matter how terrible For without the fact of the past we cannot dream of the future. I think I begin to see the forging of the future. It will be forged beneath the hammer of truth On the anvil of our anguish.... But we are condemned to reach yet for a reason. We are condemned to some hope... ...if there is to be reason, we must Create the possibility Of reason... For nothing we had, Nothing we were, Is lost. All is redeemed, In knowledge.
RPW leaves the hill on which the ruined house stands and concludes:
But we must argue the necessity of virtue... In so far as man has the simplest vanity of self, There is no escape from the movement toward fulfillment. And since all kind but fulfills its own kind, Fulfillment is only in the degree of recognition Of the common lot of our kind. And that is the death of vanity, An that is the beginning virtue... The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence. The recognition of necessity in the beginning of freedom. The recognition of the direction of fulfillment is the death of the self, And the death of the self is the beginning of selfhood. All else is surrogate of hope and destitution of the spirit.
Thus the terror of our condition is the possibility that evil exists in our good works. _______________________
*The title is a Biblical reference, Job, 30:29, listing his reasons to mourn: "I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls."
**There is an interesting project, "Man in his Naked Absoluteness" that discusses the father/son relationships in Brother to Dragons reproduced at Study-Bro to Dragon
britannica.com. "Robert Penn Warren" (Subscription required)
Weld, Theodore D., American Slavery As It is, Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, American Anti-Slavery Society, New York, 1839.
McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Modern American poetry english.uiuc.edu/maps/
Warren, Robert Penn Warren. Brother to Dragons, A Tale in Verse and Voices. New York: Random House, 1953.
Essay presented by Diane McCormick August 19, 2003