Warren’s “Incarnations, Poems 1966-1968”

Despite Harold Bloom's assurances that in "Incarnations, Poems 1966-1968" a "new Warren emerged with astonishing intensity," I found it difficult to find a poem that really resonated with me like his later poems.

However, after repeated readings, "In the Mountains" struck me as my favorite poem in this section because it best introduced later themes, or, perhaps, simply because it best fits my own view of life:


To Baudouin and Annie de Moustier

I. Skiers

With the motion of angels, out of
Snow-spume and swirl of gold mist, they
Emerge to the positive sun. At
That great height, small on that whiteness,
With the color of birds or of angels,
They swoop, sway, descend, and descending,
Cry their bright bird-cries, pure
In the sweet desolation of distance.
They slowly enlarge to our eyes. Now

On the flat where the whiteness is
Trodden and mud-streaked, not birds now,
Nor angels even, they stand. They

Are awkward, not yet well adjusted
To this world, new and strange, of Time and
Contingency, who now are only
Human. They smile. The human

Face has its own beauty.

II. Fog


White, white, luminous but
Blind-fog on the
Mountain, and the mountains

Gone, they are not here,
And the sky gone. My foot
Is set on what I

Do not see. Light rises
From the cold incandescence of snow
Not seen, and the world, in blindness,

Glows. Distance is
Obscenity. All, all
Is here, no other where.

The heart, in this silence, beats.


Heart-oh, contextless-how
Can you, hung in this
Blank mufflement of white

Brightness, now know
What you are? Fog,
At my knees, coils, my nostrils

Receive the luminous blindness,
And deeper, deeper, it, with the
Cold gleam of fox-fire among

The intricate secrets of
The lungs, enters, an eye
Screams in the belly. The eye

Sees the substance of body dissolving.


At fog-height, unseen,
A crow calls, the call,
On the hem of silence, is only

A tatter of cold contempt, then
Is gone. Yes, try to remember
An act that once you thought worthy.

The body's brags are put
To sleep -- all, all. What
Is the locus of the soul?

What, in such absoluteness,
Can be prayed for? Oh, crow,
Come back, I would hear your voice:

That much, at least, in this whiteness.

At first I was simply attracted by the beautiful skiing images in the opening stanza. Part of the appeal of skiing is simply the austere beauty of the snow-covered mountains and the sensation of flying though the snow at super-human speeds, freed from everyday bodily restraints. And yet, in this poem, the people don't quite become "human" until they come to a stop "where the whiteness is/ Trodden and mud-streaked." On first reading, the last sentence, "The human/ Face has its own beauty," while obviously true, doesn't quite seem to fit, becoming clear only within the context of the whole poem.

The second stanza captures one of the basic appeals of the mountains in the winter, one I've referred to earlier in "Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home." Although it may well be true that each snowflake is unique, it doesn't appear so to the human eye, and areas covered in snow, even, remarkably enough, clearcuts, take on an abstract beauty. Seen through the "fog" of abstraction many things appear beautiful, even if they may appear less so when seen in their full reality.

The third stanza, though, presents the central dilemma of the poem. How can the heart, suspended in this blinding whiteness, this total abstraction, know itself? In such abstract beauty, the heart must invariably lose itself. Is there room for love in total abstraction. Can anyone truly "love" a painting called "White on White?"

In the final stanza, a stanza reminiscent of Yeats' "Crazy Jane Meets the Bishop," the crow, or perhaps a raven, in all its blackness, intrudes on, or, perhaps, redeems, the blank, snow-covered landscape. Is it only the tarnished human soul, never totally redeemed, that can give meaning to life?

Warren’s “Tale of Time: Poems 1960-1966”

Robert Penn Warren's "Tale of Time: Poems 1960-1966" continues his exploration of the dark side of human life, this time with a particular focus on death. The title poem is a sequence of VII poems, with several sub-poems that focuses on his mother's death. Although not all the poems focus on death, many of the best ones do. At my age, having lost both parents, the poems do seem quite moving and bring back old, and not so old, memories.

My favorite poem in this section doesn't deal directly with death, though the mood of the poem certainly fits this theme:


The faucet drips all night, the plumber forgot it.
A cat, in coitu, squalls like Hell's honeymoon.
A child is sick. The doctor coughs.
Do you feel, in your heart, that life has turned out as once you expected?

Spring comes early, ice
Groans in the gorge. Water, black, swirls
Into foam like lace white in fury. The gorge boulders boom.
When you hear, in darkness, the gorge boulders boom, does your heart say, "No comment"?

Geese pass in dawn-light, and the news
From Asia is bad, and the Belgians sure mucked up
The Congo. Human flesh is yet eaten there, often uncooked.
Have you sat on a hillside at sunset and eaten the flesh of your own

The world drives at you like a locomotive
In an archaic movie. It whirls off the screen,
It is on you, the iron. You hear, in that silence, your heart.
Have you thought that the headlines are only the image of your own heart?

Some study compassion. Some, confusing
Personal pathology with the logic of history, jump
Out of windows. Some walk with God, some by rivers, at twilight.
Have you tried to just sit with the children and tell a tale ending in laughter?

Oh, tell the tale, and laugh, and let
God laugh-for your heart is the dragon-tree, the root
Feels, in earth-dark, the abrasive scale, the coils
Twitch. But look! the new leaf flaps gilt in the sunlight. Birds sing.

I don't know about you, but I've certainly had the feeling described in the first stanza more times than I care to remember. It would be hard to imagine going through life without feeling that your life is not turning out the way you thought it would or wanted it to. Does it ever turn out the way you "wanted it to?"

I've experienced the feelings described in the second stanza even more than those described in the first stanza. One of the greatest weaknesses of being an introvert is that far too often you tend to observe life rather than live it. I've certainly never been known for showing affection; even as a child I would hide in the closet when I cried.

The scenes in the third stanza could have been ripped directly from today's paper. Despite our heroic defeat of the "evil empire," there certainly seems to be as much evil and as much consequent sorrow in the world as there has always been, doesn't there? Too often world events do seem to come at me "like a locomotive/In an archaic movie." When I'm not just throwing my hands up in despair, I am amazed how much anger and hatred these stories can evoke from me. How can people do these things to other people, and how can we stand by and let it happen?

While current events have never driven me to contemplate jumping out of a window, it has certainly evoked as much compassion as anger from me. But, increasingly I've enjoyed sitting and reading a book to Gavin or watching Peter Pan and laughing uproariously at poor old Captain Hook as he tries to keep from being devoured by the gigantic croc. Doing the same thing with my kids when they were young apparently didn't change the universe, but it did make it possible for me to enjoy life in ways that would never have been possible otherwise. Hope springs eternal with each child.

Warren’s “You Emperors, and Others”

Apparently concerned "Promises" may have given too optimistic view of human nature, Warren returned to old themes in "You, Emperors, and Others." In fact, the section begins with a series of poems entitled "Garland for You," you being, apparently, we, we the readers, and, thus, the series is an exploration of human nature. It's not a pretty view.

I liked this opening sequence better than anything in this section, but my favorite poems are those that open and close the series, "Clearly About You," and "The Self that Stares." The simple fact that the poem begins with the epitaph from an unknown Roman citizen suggests that Warren is attempting to diagnose human nature itself:

I. Clearly about You
-On tomb of Roman citizen of no historical importance, under the Empire

Benefac, hoc tecumferes.

Whoever you are, this poem is clearly about you,
For there's nothing else in the world it could be about.
Whatever it says, this poem is clearly true,
For truth is all we are born to, and the truth's out.

You won't look in the mirror? Well-but your face is there
Like a face drowned deep under water, mouth askew,
And tongue in that mouth tastes cold water, not sweet air,
And if it could scream in that medium, the scream would be you.

Your mother preferred the more baroque positions.
Your father's legerdemain marks the vestry accounts.
So you didn't know? Well, it's time you did-though one shuns
To acknowledge the root from which one's own virtue mounts.

In the age of denture and reduced alcoholic intake,
When the crow's dawn-calling stirs memory you'd better eschew,
You will try the cross, or the couch, for balm for the heart's ache-
But that stranger who's staring so strangely, he knows you are you.

Things are getting somewhat out of hand now-light fails on the marshes.
In the back lot the soft-faced delinquents are whistling like snipe.
The apples you stored in the cellar are acerb and harsh as
The heart that on bough of the bosom all night will not ripe.

Burn this poem, though it wring its small hands and cry alack.
But no use, for in bed, into your pajama pocket,
It will creep, and sleep as snug as a field mouse in haystack,
And its heart to your heart all night make a feather-soft racket.

I suspect the opening stanza grabbed me before I had a chance to truly realize what the theme of the poem was because, for me, at least, the best poetry is always clearly about "me," not just because I'm self-centered, though I probably am, but because the best poetry is about human nature itself and because I'd like to believe that poetry, and art in general, does a better job of revealing truth, whatever that may be, then anything else.

By the second stanza, I'd begun to have some doubts whether Warren's vision of truth and of "me" really coincided with my view. Still, I have little doubt that there are certain "truths" about myself that I really don't want to see. It's not too difficult to imagine, considering the current state of world affairs, that our forefathers may, like ourselves, have had some questionable motives for what they did.

By the last stanza Warren is right on, because I do want to deny that this is what I'm like, but he's equally right that at moments, in my worst nightmares, I do fear my own motives.

The sequence ends with an equally chilling vision of human nature, rounding out the vision shared in the first poem:

VIII. The Self That Stares

John Henry said to the Captain, "A man ain't nothing but a man."
A folk ballad

Have you seen that brute trapped in your eye
When he realizes that he, too, will die?
Stare into the mirror, stare
At his dawning awareness there.
If man, put razor down, and stare.
If woman, stop lipstick in mid-air.
Yes, pity makes that gleam you gaze through-
Or is that brute now pitying you?
Time unwinds like a falling spool.
We have learned little in that school.

No, nothing, nothing, is ever learned
Till school is out and the books are burned,
And then the lesson will be so sweet
All you will long for will be to repeat
All the sad, exciting process
By which ignorance grew less
In all that error and gorgeous pain
That you may not live again.
What is that lesson? To recognize
The human self naked in your own eyes.

There is undeniably a part of us, a physical self, perhaps even a "brute," though I'll admit to being a little more accepting of the physical side of myself than Warren seems to be, that is terrified by death. And certainly when the thought of death arrives, it's difficult not to feel at least a little "self-pity." And at my age, time does seem to unwind "like a falling spool."

Having taught 30 years, I can certainly believe that "nothing, nothing, is ever learned/ Till school is out and the books are burned," though I'm not at all sure that Warren is really referring to "school" here, unless all of life can be seen as a form of "schooling." Is it death itself that will make us long for all the "excting" mistakes in life that, despite the pain they caused, made us just a little smarter and gave life its meaning.?

In his introduction, Harold Bloom said, "At their strongest, Warren's poems win their contest with the American Sublime and find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant, Emersonian tradition." While I'm not sure it's a compliment for a poet's poems to be compared to Melville's poems, at his best, Warren does seem to offer the same kinds of insight into the frailties of human nature that Melville does.

Robert Penn Warren’s “Promises: Poems 1954-1956”

Robert Penn Warren's "Promises: Poems 1954-1956" finally contains some of the kinds of poems I was expecting when I asked for his collected poems for Christmas. After a hundred pages of slogging through poems that I found less than inspirational, I was delighted to find several poems in this forty page section that I liked a lot.

My favorite poem is probably "Gold Glade," although the poem is far too optimistic to truly represent the rest of the poems in this section. Though I do find Warren's vision of the world rather more optimistic in this section, poem number VI, entitled "School Lesson Based on Word of Tragic Death of Entire Gillum Family," describes how a father killed his entire family with an ice pick while they were getting ready to go to school. So, it's certainly not just a shift to optimism that makes these poems more appealing to me. Perhaps it is the introduction of a "personal" touch in the poems that I find most appealing. Somehow, unlike his earlier poems, you sense a real person behind these poems:

III. Gold Glade

Wandering, in autumn, the woods of boyhood,
Where cedar, black, thick, rode the ridge,
Heart aimless as rifle, boy-blankness of mood,
I came where ridge broke, and the great ledge,
Limestone, set the toe high as treetop by dark edge

Of a gorge, and water hid, grudging and grumbling,
And I saw, in mind's eye, foam white on
Wet stone, stone wet-black, white water tumbling,
And so went down, and with some fright on
Slick boulders, crossed over. The gorge-depth drew night on,

But high over high rock and leaf-lacing, sky
Showed yet bright, and declivity wooed
My foot by the quietening stream, and so I
Went on, in quiet, through the beech wood:
There, in gold light, where the glade gave, it stood.

The glade was geometric, circular, gold,
No brush or weed breaking that bright gold of leaf-fall.
In the center it stood, absolute and bold
Beyond any heart-hurt, or eye's grief-fall.
Gold-massy in air, it stood in gold light-fall,

No breathing of air, no leaf now gold-falling,
No tooth-stitch of squirrel, or any far fox bark,
No woodpecker coding, or late jay calling.
Silence: gray-shagged, the great shagbark
Gave forth gold light. There could be no dark.

But of course dark came, and I can't recall
What county it was, for the life of me.
Montgomery, Todd, Christian-I know them all.
Was it even Kentucky or Tennessee?
Perhaps just an image that keeps haunting me.

No, no! in no mansion under earth,
Nor imagination's domain of bright air,
But solid in soil that gave it its birth,
It stands, wherever it is, but somewhere.
I shall set my foot, and go there.

There is something magical in this poem, something that reminds me of my own childhood experiences in the woods, a magical experience that may only truly be possible in childhood but one we seek to repeat for the rest of our lives.

Of course, it is the kind of sentimental scene you'd expect to find in a movie like Lord of the Rings, but it's also a realistic portrayal of a childhood moment that lingers in the memory, a moment that, as an adult, you can never be truly sure existed at all. Perhaps one must be truly innocent to perceive such a moment in its fullness.

As adults looking back, it's hard to be truly sure that the moment did exist at all. Perhaps we only imagined the moment after reading it in romantic novels or seeing it portrayed in sentimental paintings. Still, there's something to be said for the adult who refuses to believe the moment is entirely imaginary and seeks to regain that experience.

Warren’s “Original Sin”

I'm beginning to realize why, besides the stress of moving, I'm having such a hard time getting into Robert Penn Warren's early poems despite the fact I love his later poems.

Part of it is simply that I'm put off by his early style which seems to be a cross between Poe, Donne and Faulkner. The archaic, convoluted language at times seems pretentious and unnecessarily confusing. Too often the poems seem derivative and unoriginal.

Most of all, though, Penn Warren's early themes simply don't resonate with me. While my favorite poem in the section entitled "Eleven Poems on the Same Theme" uses simpler language than most of these early poems, it, too, focuses on the idea of sin and guilt:

Original Sin: A Short Story

Nodding, its great head rattling like a gourd,
And locks like seaweed strung on the stinking stone,
The nightmare stumbles past, and you have heard
It fumble your door before it whimpers and is gone:
It acts like the old hound that used to snuffle your door and moan.

You thought you had lost it when you left Omaha,
For it seemed connected then with your grandpa, who
Had a wen on his forehead and sat on the veranda
To finger the precious protuberance, as was his habit to do,
Which glinted in sun like rough garnet or the rich old brain bulging through.

But you met it in Harvard Yard as the historic steeple
Was confirming the midnight with its hideous racket,
And you wondered how it had come, for it stood so imbecile,
With empty hands, humble, and surely nothing in pocket:
Riding the rods, perhaps-or grandpa's will paid the ticket.

You were almost kindly then, in your first homesickness,
As it tortured its stiff face to speak, but scarcely mewed;
Since then you have outlived all your homesickness,
But have met it in many another distempered latitude:
Oh, nothing is lost, ever lost! at last you understood.

But it never came in the quantum glare of sun
To shame you before your friends, and had nothing to do
With your public experience or private reformation:
But it thought no bed too narrow-it stood with lips askew
And shook its great head sadly like the abstract Jew.

Never met you in the lyric arsenical meadows
When children call and your heart goes stone in the bosom;
At the orchard anguish never, nor ovoid horror,
Which is furred like a peach or avid like the delicious plum.
It takes no part in your classic prudence or fondled axiom.

Not there when you exclaimed: "Hope is betrayed by
Disastrous glory of sea-capes, sun-torment of whitecaps
-There must be a new innocence for us to be stayed by."
But there it stood, after all the timetables, all the maps,
In the crepuscular clatter of always, always, or perhaps.

You have moved often and rarely left an address,
And hear of the deaths of friends with a sly pleasure,
A sense of cleansing and hope, which blooms from distress;
But it has not died, it comes, its hand childish, unsure,
Clutching the bribe of chocolate or a toy you used to treasure.

It tries the lock; you hear, but simply drowse:
There is nothing remarkable in that sound at the door.
Later you may hear it wander the dark house
Like a mother who rises at night to seek a childhood picture;
Or it goes to the backyard and stands like an old horse cold in the pasture.

Probably what I like best about this poem in comparison to so many of the other poems is the semi-humorous treatment of the nightmare as established in the first stanza, with the nightmare being compared to an "old hound" snuffling at the narrator's door. And rather than being totally repelled by the nightmare the author admits that "You were almost kindly then, in your first homesickness." This is not the kind of nightmare that destroys people's lives, but, instead, one that "hears of the death of friends with a sly pleasure." Though it is "nothing remarkable," this nightmare always seems there to remind us that we are all victims of "original sin."

Perhaps the title of the poem itself suggests why I have so much of a problem identifying with these poems, for personally I've never believed in the concept of "Original Sin." I still remember the outrage I felt when someone told me that a baby had to be baptized before it died or it could never attain heaven. That seemed like a totally ridiculous idea to me. No adult, even one just baptized, could ever be as innocent as a newborn babe. While novels like Lord of the Flies have made me question the validity of the concept oforiginal sin, in the end I have always rejected that concept for the idea that it is society, not human nature that is the real source of evil. Though people obviously inherit some personality traits, in the end it is their environment that determines how those traits are developed or corrupted.

Furthermore, though I can somewhat identify with reoccurring nightmares, the fact is that, despite my Vietnam experiences, I have never felt the kind of extended guilt that Warren describes in these earlier poems. It did take me several months to come to terms with Vietnam after I'd returned, and I spend many a night trying to understand what had happened and why I felt the way I did. In many ways it was a life-shattering experience. And though I still have been known to reflect on my Vietnam experiences with certain people after I've had a few too many beers, it is not with any great sense of guilt. It's more, "God, I can't imagine how I could have been that na"ve or that stupid." Once I had time to examine what I had gone through, though, I was never again haunted by what I had done there.

I simply do not believe we inherit the sins of our forefathers, especially the sins of some mythical Adam and Eve. Perhaps if I'd been born to a wealthy family or had been born in the South the son of a son of an ex-slaveholder I would feel some of the narrator's guilt, "for it seemed connected then with your grandpa." Never having met a grandparent, and too poor to have inherited anything, though, it's hard for me to identify with this kind of guilt.

Warren’s “Uncollected Poems 1922-1943”

Although at times I was tempted to skip through the opening section of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, sticking to my belief that you ultimately gain the best understanding of a poet by reading all of his works chronologically, I finally got through the section entitled "Uncollected Poems 1922-1943."

Considering that Warren would have only been 17 in 1922, but 38 by '43 it's difficult to judge what one has a right to expect from these poems. I certainly wouldn't expect the same quality of poems from a high school senior that you would expect from a college professor.

That said, in stark contrast to Warren's later poems, there weren't too many that I found particularly compelling. Far too many of them sounded like


Even tonight, I think, if you would ask,
I could remember what it was you said
When first you pierced beneath my spangled mask
To find the caverned eyes of one long dead.

Even tonight, when once again a spring
Storms gallantly the wintry bastion,
We might rehearse this tale; it will not bring
Tears to the sockets of a skeleton.

Forgive me, Madam, this metaphor macabre,
One scarce incarnate of those glories fled;
For ghost and ghost commune till dawn together,
Haunted by anguish of the lustful dead.

Now, I don't know about you, but long ago when I was 17, or even 38, and was confronted by a lover I wasn't thinking about death, no matter how blustery the weather outside, though I might not have been above quoting Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress."

That said, I am still fond of a simple poem called:


You see no beauty in the parched parade,
The quivering, heat-glazed highways mile one mile,
The fields where beauty holds a debt unpaid,
The gray, drab barracks in monotonous, grim file.

You take no joy when dust wraiths dimly curl
Above the winding column crawling on far hills.
You see but short beyond the present whirl
Of circumstances, your little wrongs and petty ills.

But when it is all passed and you have lost
The swinging rhythmic cadence of the marching feet,
Then you will reck as paltry small the cost,
And memory will purge the bitter from the sweet.

This simple poem reminds me of my days in the Army and the barracks that I lived in while going through R.O.T.C., later, officer's training at Fort Knox Kentucky, and even serving at Fort Irwin, California. It was hard to imagine that you could ever look bad fondly at basic training and all the harassment we were enduring, and more than a few "petty ills." There was, after all, good reason why "Get Smart" was a favorite among trainees, especially the line "Would you believe..."

Thankfully, I've long passed the time when I am unable to fully appreciate life's challenges for what they are, precious moments that I'll look fondly back on in the future.

The possibilities of self, confronting the terror of our condition

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.

Aunt Cat:

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.

Jefferson responds:

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.

Robert Penn Warren

"Jefferson and the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811."

Essay presented by Diane McCormick August 19, 2003