“What this country needs most,” President Herbert Hoover remarked to Christopher Morley early into the Great Depression, “is a great poet.” Inspiration in a time of despair, solace under loss, fortitude under grinding anxiety, are best supplied by such a poet as Britain found in Wordsworth when he wrote his stirring sonnets during the Napoleonic Wars.
Assuredly, Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929, did more to lift the hearts of men in Hoover’s era than the work of economists and politicians. It showed how a great people endured a long ordeal.
What seems askew with the poets, novelists and intellectuals of the whole Western world today is that so many of them write on themes and in moods unacceptable to courageous-hearted people. Too many are ignorant or scornful of the best humanistic traditions, too much addicted to petty specialization and ideologically driven both; a sort of mythological world where political alliance and reality collide which is dealt with by reality conforming to, and affirming ideology; flawed concepts with short shelf lives. The theory of dueling oligarchies means following well-trodden paths too skeptical of progress and purposefulness.
The central disability is probably bewilderment and anxiety in the loss of old landmarks, and the overturn of long-accepted truths. Our “experts” and so called leadership always end up being stunned by the rapidity, multiplicity and immensity of the revolutions of our age, and baffled by the enormous enlargement of knowledge. There is no clear sense of perspective since it keeps whirling incessantly and new tools of research and interpretation constantly replace the old.
John Brown’s Body
Army of the Potomac, advancing army,
Alloy of a dozen disparate, alien states,
City-boy, farm-hand, bounty-man, first volunteer,
Old regular, drafted recruit, paid substitute,
Men who fought through the war from First Bull Run,
And other men, nowise different in look or purpose
Whom the first men greated at first with a ribald cry
“Here they come! Two hundred dollars and a ka-ow!”
Rocks from New England and hickory-chunks from the West,
Bowery boy and clogging Irish adventurer,
Germans who learnt their English under the shells
Or didn’t have time to learn it before they died.
Confused, huge weapon, forged from such different metals,
Misused by unlucky swordsmen till you were blunt
And then reforged with anguish and bloody sweat
To be blunted again by one more unlucky captain
Against the millstone of Lee.
Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns
By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.
The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,
They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,
And then, just as you know the grip of your rider’s hands
And begin to feel at home with his horseman’s tricks,
Another rider comes with a different seat,
And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,
And it beats you again – and it all begins from the first,
The patching of wounds, the freezing in winter camps,
The vain mud-marches, the diarrhea, the wastage,
The grand reviews, the talk in the newspapers,
The sour knowledge that you were wasted again,
Not as Napoleons waste for a victory
But blindly, unluckily –
until at last
After long years, at fish-hook Gettysburg,
The blade and the millstone meet and the blade holds fast. …Read More:http://www.gdg.org/Research/Authored%20Items/benet.htm