Stephen Vincent Benét

Stephen Vincent

American Poet, Short-Story Writer and Novelist, known for book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War, John Brown's Body

Author Quotes

We are the earth his word must sow like wheat and, if it finds no earth, it cannot grow. We are his earth, the mortal and the dying, led by no star ? the sullen and the slut, the thief, the selfish man, the barren woman, who have betrayed him once and will betray him, forget his words, be great a moment's space under the strokes of chance, and then sink back into our small affairs. And yet, unless we go, his message fails.

We heard the shots in the night but nobody knew next day what the trouble was and a man must go to his work. So I didn't see him for three days, then, and me near out of my mind and all the patrols on the streets with their dirty guns and when he came back, he looked drunk, and the blood was on him.

When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction. They ran about like ants in the streets of their city ? poor gods, poor gods!

When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? 'Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American like yourself ? and of the best descent ? for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.

Where first two men spread wings for flight and dared the hawk afar.

Why should I lie about it? I am a priest and the son of a priest. If there are spirits, as they say, in the small Dead Places near us, what spirits must there not be in that great Place of the Gods? And would not they wish to speak? After such long years? I know that I felt myself drawn as a fish is drawn on a line. I had stepped out of my body ? I could see my body asleep in front of the cold fire, but it was not I. I was drawn to look out upon the city of the gods.

You will have money and all that money can buy.

Was it not better so to lie? The fight was done. Even gods tire of fighting... My way was the wrong. Now I should drift and drift along to endless quiet, golden peace... and let the tortured body cease. And then a light winked like an eye. . . . And very many miles away a girl stood at a warm, lit door, holding a lamp. Ray upon ray it cloaked the snow with perfect light. And where she was there was no night nor could be, ever. God is sure, and in his hands are things secure.

She stood there, and at once I knew the bitter thing that I must do. There could be no surrender now; though Sleep and Death were whispering low.

Something begins, begins; starlit and sunlit, something walks abroad in flesh and spirit and fire. Something is loosed to change the shaken world.

Sometimes signs are sent by bad spirits. I waited again on the flat rock, fasting, taking no food. I was very still ? I could feel the sky above me and the earth beneath. I waited till the sun was beginning to sink. Then three deer passed in the valley going east ? they did not mind me or see me. There was a white fawn with them ? a very great sign.

Talking so quietly; when they hear the cars and the knock at the door, and they look at each other quickly and the woman goes to the door with a stiff face, smoothing her dress. "We are all good citizens here. We believe in the Perfect State."

The fire began to die on the hearth and the wind before morning to blow. The light was getting gray in the room when Dan'l Webster finished. And his words came back at the end to New Hampshire ground, and the one spot of land that each man loves and clings to. He painted a picture of that, and to each one of that jury he spoke of things long forgotten. For his voice could search the heart, and that was his gift and his strength. And to one, his voice was like the forest and its secrecy, and to another like the sea and the storms of the sea; and one heard the cry of his lost nation in it, and another saw a little harmless scene he hadn't remembered for years. But each saw something. And when Dan'l Webster finished he didn't know whether or not he'd saved Jabez Stone. But he knew he'd done a miracle. For the glitter was gone from the eyes of the judge and jury, and, for the moment, they were men again, and knew they were men.

The iron ice stung like a goad, slashing the torn shoes from my feet, and all the air was bitter sleet. And all the land was cramped with snow, steel-strong and fierce and glimmering wan, like pale plains of obsidian.? And yet I strove ? and I was fire And ice ? and fire and ice were one in one vast hunger of desire.

The moon, a sweeping scimitar, dipped in the stormy straits, the dawn, a crimson cataract, burst through the eastern gates, the cliffs were robed in scarlet, the sands were cinnabar,

The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest. Afterwards, both the man and the metal must be purified. These are the rules and the laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods ? this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name. It is there that spirits live, and demons ? it is there that there are the ashes of the Great Burning. These things are forbidden ? they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.

The time is ? time. The place is anywhere. The voices speak to you across the air to say that once again a child is born. A child is born.

Then he turned to Jabez Stone and showed him as he was ? an ordinary man who'd had hard luck and wanted to change it. And, because he'd wanted to change it, now he was going to be punished for all eternity. And yet there was good in Jabez Stone, and he showed that good. He was hard and mean, in some ways, but he was a man.There was sadness in being a man, but it was a proud thing too. And he showed what the pride of it was till you couldn't help feeling it. Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you'd know it. And he wasn't pleading for any one person any more, though his voice rang like an organ. He was telling the story and the failures and the endless journey of mankind. They got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey. And no demon that was ever foaled could know the inwardness of it ? it took a man to do that.

There was no pain when I awoke, no pain at all. Rest, like a goad, spurred my eyes open ? and light broke upon them like a million swords: and she was there. There are no words. Heaven is for a moment's span. And ever.

These I see, blazing through all eternity, a fire-winged sign, a glorious tree!

This in my heart I keep for goad! Somewhere, in Heaven she walks that road. Somewhere... in Heaven... she walks... that... road...

Perhaps 'tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence ? but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.

She is all peace, all quiet, all passionate desires, the eloquent thunder of new, glad suns, shouting aloud for joy, over fresh worlds and clean, trampling the air like stooping hawks, to the long wind of horns, flung from the bastions of Eternity... And she is the low lake, drowsy and gentle, and good words spoken from the tongues of friends, and calmness in the evening, and deep thoughts, falling like dreams from the stars' solemn mouths. All these.

Nevertheless, we make a beginning. it is not for the metal alone we go to the Dead Places now ? there are the books and the writings. They are hard to learn. And the magic tools are broken ? but we can look at them and wonder. At least, we make a beginning. And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods ? the place newyork ? not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others ? the gods Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.

Now I tell what is very strong magic. I woke in the midst of the night. When I woke, the fire had gone out and I was cold. It seemed to me that all around me there were whisperings and voices. I closed my eyes to shut them out. Some will say that I slept again, but I do not think that I slept. I could feel the spirits drawing my spirit out of my body as a fish is drawn on a line.

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Stephen Vincent
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American Poet, Short-Story Writer and Novelist, known for book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War, John Brown's Body