Thursday, November 25, 2010

Stephen Vincent Benet Western Star

The American writer, Stephen Vincent Benet, is not forgotten but he is not remembered nor read enough in 21st century America.
A writer of fiction, essays and poetry, he appears to be most remembered for his short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" which has been made into a play for the theater and for the radio.
In 1928, he published "John Brown's Body", a book length narrative poem about the civil war.  The book was very popular and well received by most critics.
Mr. Benet had plans to write an even longer narrative poem about the United States but an early death in 1943 (age 44) cut short his plan.  He had proceed far enough to have one book on this subject  published posthumously called "Western Star".
This excerpt is from that book and appropriate to the day of Thanksgiving.
 "And then, no man knows why,
there came the savages, smiling, bringing corn.

Corngivers, why do you give
That these men live?
They think that you are devils of the wood
And you have fought them once and will again,
Yet, in their last extremity, you come
As if in answer to some forest drum
To bring the bounty never understood,
To bring the food that saves the starving men.

Gods?  You have seen them die like truculent fools
Where anyone one of you would live and thrive
And, if they have the iron and the tools,
The powder and the shot,
These things avail them not.
Their magic cannot keep their best alive.

Pity?  Why should you pity them or care?
They will be greedy, soon, when they are fed.
Look in their eyes and see
The felling of the tree,
The great vine-twisted tree of Powhatan.

Look in their eyes and see the hungry man
Moving with ax and fire upon the wood,
Spoiling the rivers, digging up the dead.
This is your own destruction that you bear
In venison and corn
and the red Autumn leaf
That falls before the snow,
This is the doom of werowance and chief.
This is the breaking of the hazel-bow.

And yet, before it happens, and the great
Passionate drum of wrong begins to sound,
Ere the dead lie upon the bloody ground
And the chief's sons lie drunken in the street,
Let us remember how this happened, too,
And how the food was given, not in hate,
Liking or dazzled wonder, but, it seems,
As if compelled by something past all plans,
Some old barbaric courtesy of man's,
Wild as his heart, red as his hunter's dreams,
-And for no cause the white men ever knew.


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