Robert Penn Warren's encounter with Thomas Jefferson in Brother to Dragons.
Three of Warren's long poems, Brother to Dragons, Audubon: A Vision, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, deal with these concerns. These poems, for all of their differences in theme and style, share certain characteristics that this paper will highlight. 1) Each poem has, as its title character, an archetypal American. In the case of Brother to Dragons, that character is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia (BD, 19532). "Audubon" is Jean Jacques, or John James, remembered chiefly for his Birds of America. Chief Joseph was one of the leaders of the "non-treaty Nez Perce" who led his tribe from their traditional home in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon Territory on a thousand-mile trek to freedom in Canada, only to be captured by the US Cavalry within fifty miles of the border, and who came to symbolize the Nez Perce struggle in the popular mind. 2) Each poem features the layering of time, with aspects of the contemporary American landscape or map overlaying that of the earlier period. 3) Each poem includes among its cast of characters the author of the poem, Robert Penn Warren, who either interacts with or reflects on the poem's title figure. 4) Each poem contains a meditation on history, identity, and time.
In Brother to Dragons, Warren ("R.P.W.") interrogates Thomas Jefferson about his understanding of human nature. The poem occupied, or preoccupied, Warren for over two decades. Brother to Dragons, "A Tale in Verse and Voices," was originally published in book form in 1953. As Warren makes clear in the original prefatory note, it is "a dialogue spoken by characters, but it is not a play" (BD, 1953 xiii). In the 1979 "new version," considerably condensed, Warren reiterates even more strongly than in the original that the poem is not a play (New xv). Between the appearance of these two versions of the poem, Warren published Brother to Dragons as "a play in two acts" in the Georgia Review.
The "tale" told in Brotherto Dragonsis both grisly and melodramatic. Lucy Jefferson, younger sister of Thomas Jefferson, married Colonel (2) Charles Lewis. Lewis moved his family, including sons Lilburne and Isham (the younger by a dozen or so years) and his slaves, from Albemarle County, Virginia, to an estate along the Ohio River west of Louisville, Kentucky. Shortly after this relocation Lucy died, and Charles Lewis spent much of his time away from Rocky Hill, leaving Lilburne in charge. On the night of December 15, 1811 (3), Lilburne and Isham, in front of their assembled slaves, used a butcher axe to kill and dismember a young slave for having broken a favorite pitcher of their dead mother. This murder eventually came to the attention of local authorities; Lilburne and Isham were indicted, arrested, and released on bail to await trial. They agreed to avoid trial by engaging in mutually assisted suicide by shooting (over the grave of their mother, according to rumor). But this plan went awry when Lilburne was shot and killed prematurely, either by his own hand or Isham's. Isham was detained for the murder but escaped from jail and disappeared. Legend has it that he joined Andrew Jackson's forces and fought at the Battle of New Orleans, where he was fatally wounded, and that as he lay dying he was recognized by an acquaintance from Kentucky.
While this brutal murder and the bizarre series of events that flow from it provide the backdrop for Warren's poem, the real action of the poem is the encounter between the principals of the historic events and "R.P.W.," the "writer of this poem," who also serves as interlocutor. This encounter between R.P.W. and the shades of the past (4) is set in "no place" at "any time" (BD, 1953 2-3; New 2-3). This particular, and peculiar, placement in time and space is another way of saying, according to Warren, "that the issues that the characters ... discuss are ... a human constant" (New xv). Warren is especially interested in understanding how the murder committed by Jefferson's nephews affected Jefferson's understanding of human nature. But understanding Jefferson's reaction is complicated by the fact that there is no evidence that Jefferson ever commented on the incident)
Jefferson opens the revised version of Brother to Dragons by claiming that he "Cannot, though dead, set/My mouth to the dark stream that I may unknow/All my knowing." He had set his knowledge against his hope: "I tried to bring myself to say:/Knowledge is only incidental, hope is all--/Hope, a dry acorn, but some green germ (6)/May split it yet, then joy and the summer shade." He seeks shelter from his knowledge--his shelter seems to be "senility/And moments of indulgent fiction"--so that he "might try/To defend my old definition of man" (New 5).
Jefferson's "old definition of man" is the "vision" contained in the Declaration of Independence, a vision of man which maximizes liberty and equality, and in which reason rules all. "In Philadelphia first it came, my heart/Shook, shamefast in glory, and I saw, I saw--/But I'll tell you quietly, in system, what I saw" (New 5). At this point in the poem Jefferson loses his train of thought in a nightmare vision of the Minotaur but soon returns to his narrative.
To begin again. When I to Philadelphia came I knew what the world was. Oh, I wasn't That ilk of fool! Then when I saw individual evil, I rationally said, it is only provisional paradox To resolve itself in Time. Oh, easy, Plump-bellied comfort! Philadelphia, yes. I knew we were only men, Defined in our errors and interests. But I, a man too-- Yes, laugh if you will--stumbled into The breathless awe of vision, saw sudden On every face, face after face, Bleared, puffed, lank, lean red-fleshed or sallow, all-- On all saw the brightness blaze, And knew my own days, Times, hopes, horsemanship, respect of peers, Delight, desire, and even my love, but straw Fit for the flame, and in that fierce combustion, I-- Why, I was nothing, nothing but joy, And my heart cried out: "Oh, this is Man!" (New 7)
Jefferson's hopeful definition of man required that one "leap beyond" man's natural limits (physical, moral, and spiritual, I would suggest) as found in the historical world in order "To find justification in a goal/Hypothesized in Nature" (New 8). Jefferson's reorienting comment, "To begin again," which was designed to get himself back on the subject at hand, has a double meaning. He has become confused and strayed from his topic and must start over. But from the perspective of many, Philadelphia--representative of the hope for mankind in the New World more generally--was an opportunity to begin the human experience again. The soon-to-be-new-nation was, after all, the last, best hope for all mankind. The vision of man embodied in the Declaration of Independence held open the possibility of setting aside human history and starting over again, and its grandeur blinded Jefferson (and perhaps other members of the Continental Congress--"delegates by accident, in essence men,/Marmosets in mantles, beasts in boots, parrots in pantaloons,/That is to say, men" [New 5-6]) to the bestial side of man's nature.
But No beast then, the towering Definition, angelic, arrogant, abstract, Greaved in glory, thewed with light, the bright Brow tall as dawn. I could not see the eyes. So seized the pen, and in the upper room, With the excited consciousness that I was somehow Rectified, annealed, my past annulled And fate confirmed, wrote.... Time came, we signed the document, went home. I had not seen the eyes of that bright apparition. I had been blind with light. I did not know its eyes were blind (New 8)
Jefferson was blinded not only by the grandeur of this vision of mankind but also by the possibilities of the American West--"my West" as he calls the new frontier in this poem. Because of the importance of this new land to him, Jefferson decides to have his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis--"a kinsman" (New 2) who is in many ways his spiritual son--lead the expedition of discovery: "But my own blood will go/To name and chart and set the human foot" (New 9). As a reading of Chief Joseph will show, Warren knows that "the human foot" had already trod upon this territory, and not the human foot of Spanish and French explorers only but that of many native Indian tribes. Jefferson describes this territory in lyrical terms:
It was great Canaan's grander counterfeit. Bold Louisiana, The landfall of my soul-- Or then it seemed--
And he shares his vision of this land:
I saw My West--the land I bought and gave and never Saw, but like the Israelite, From some high pass or crazy crag of mind, saw-- Saw all, Swale and savannah and the tulip tree Immortally blossoming to May, Hawthorne and haw Valleys extended, prairies idle, and the land's Long westward languor lifting Toward the flaming escarpment of the end of day--(New 10)
Thus Jefferson's vision of the West as a land flowing with milk and honey and human possibility blinded him to the human realities that the Louisiana Purchase and his policies set in motion. These realities included not only the displacement or destruction of the native peoples already inhabiting but not working the land (a key point always made by the spiritual heirs of John Locke! (7)) but also the self-destruction of Meriwether Lewis (8), commander of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, the Corps of Discovery.
This double vision of humanity and land blinded not only Jefferson himself but also some of those who came under his influence. Late in the poem Meriwether Lewis tells Jefferson, "I was that fool fish to which/Your lie was the perfect lure. Oh, sure, I gulped/It down--your nobleness" (New 109). Lewis tells Jefferson that it is Jefferson's "lie"--his vision of brotherhood--that killed him (New 116-17).
Thus the Jefferson of Brother to Dragons is twice blinded--by his vision of humanity and by his vision of "his West." And perhaps also by his vision of himself as Moses, "the Israelite," destined to bring his people to the Promised Land but not to enter it himself. But perhaps he deceived himself most of all with this image of himself as Moses, in that he never claimed to speak with God and never seemed to acknowledge that his own guilt kept him from crossing the River Jordan and entering Canaan. (9)
Near the beginning of the poem Jefferson refuses to acknowledge Lilburne Lewis as anything but "the bloody brother" (New 18) and later claims "the fact that shakes my heart/With intrinsic shock" is that Lilburne is "blood-kin to old Tom Jefferson" (New 42). He regrets not having killed the infant Lilburne and attempts to "reject, repudiate,/And squeeze from my blood the blood of Lilburne ..." (New 43). The trajectory of this theme of the poem involves the possibility of reconciliation between Jefferson and Lilburne Lewis. For our purposes it is enough to note that Lilburne's crime shakes Jefferson's "sense of the human possibility" (New 42).
In Warren's telling, Jefferson's response to Lilburne's crime is to move from his understanding of human beings as the "bright apparition" of the Declaration to the position that "There's no forgiveness for our being human./It is the inexpungable error" (New 19). Jefferson is at pains to tell us that even during his most optimistic and rational phase he knew what the score was, that he was not a fool (New 7, 26 [twice], 29). Even during the period of his greatest optimism, Jefferson tells R.P.W. and Meriwether Lewis, "if I held man innocent, I yet knew/Not all men innocent" (New 27). But Jefferson has moved from that position and now holds
That all earth's monsters are simply innocent, But one, that master-monster--ah, once I thought him innocent--(New 26).
For Jefferson this earlier view of human innocence is represented architecturally by the "Maison Quarree" in Nimes, France, a Roman temple built around 20 B.C. On Jefferson's recommendation, the Maison Quarree was used as the model for Virginia's Capitol Building (Jefferson 845-48; New 133). As Warren has Jefferson say,
I stood in the place. There is no way For words to put that authoritative reserve and glorious frugality. I saw the law of Rome and the light Of just proportion and heart's harmony. And I said: "Here is a shape that shines, set On a grundel of Nature's law, a rooftree So innocent of imprecision That a man may enter in to find his freedom Like air breathed, and all his mind Would glow like a coal under bellows--(New 29) (10)
Warren has Jefferson contrast the beauty of Maison Quarree with the cathedrals he saw while in France, "abominable relics/Of carved stone heaved up mountain-high by what/Bad energy in what bad time" (New 27). For Jefferson these cathedrals represent "chaos," "confusion," and "evil." There is a certain irony in this distinction, inasmuch as Maison Quarree was also built as a temple.
R.P.W. does not share Jefferson's enthusiasm for Maison Quarree--he calls it "a heap of organized rubble" and finds it "cold and too obviously mathematical." Maison Quarree was "thrown up," according to R.P.W., by "those square-jawed looters/From the peninsula" (New 29). Jefferson claims to recognize the limits of Rome as a historical model (he tells R.P.W., I think "I know what the Romans were, know/Better, perhaps, than you"). Simultaneously, he thought Maison Quarree
spoke Of a time to come If we might take man's hand, strike shackle, lead him forth From his own nightmare--then his natural innocence Would dance like sunlight over the delighted landscape. (New 29)
But even when Jefferson is blinded by the majesty of his view of innocent humanity as portrayed architecturally by Maison Quarree or intellectually in the Declaration, humanity's lower possibilities ("the Roman tax squeeze," or imperial policies determined by reading goat droppings or the equivalent, or the Minotaur as a vital component of the human self (11)) lurk in the background. Just after Jefferson tells R.P.W. of his breathtaking vision of man while at the Declaration Congress, culminating with his heart's cry, "Oh, this is Man!" he reflects more somberly,
And thus my minotaur. There at the blind Labyrinthine turn of my personal time-- What do they call it? Yes, Nel mezzo del cammin--yes, then met The beast, in beauty masked. (New 7-8)
"Nel mezzo del cammin" may be translated "Midway in the journey." These are the opening words--the first half line--of Dante's Inferno, the entire first terzina of which reads as follows:
Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, For the straight way was lost (Inferno 26-27). (12)
By reference to Dante's epic Jefferson announces or acknowledges that he is lost "in a dark wood." This would be an appropriate image for an attempt to sort out Lilburne and Isham Lewis's barbarous treatment of a slave in early nineteenth-century western Kentucky (that "dark and bloody land"). But Jefferson applies this Dantean image not to the events of December 1811 but to the period of his life most responsible for his fame--the period of writing the Declaration of Independence. It is the ghostly Jefferson conversing with R.P.W. who understands this. While in Philadelphia Jefferson "met the beast" but did not recognize it; in 1776 he was midway in his journey but did not realize that he was lost. With this admission, in any case, Jefferson by implication invites a Virgil (13) to lead him on his journey of self-discovery. As a well-trained poet, R.P.W. recognizes the literary reference and perhaps assumes that Jefferson is inviting him to fulfill this role. Inconveniently for Jefferson--but conveniently for Robert Penn Warren--R.P.W. is both at hand and willing to take on the assignment. Whether R.P.W. is ready for this role is another question entirely. Although by implication Jefferson invites a Virgil to lead him, he does not recognize R.P.W. as his guide, for later he asks R.P.W., "Do you think to instruct me?" (New 71). (14)
What kind of guidance or instruction can R.P.W. give to Thomas Jefferson? Jefferson seems to be concerned with two buildings in Brother to Dragons. The first, already discussed briefly, is Maison Quarree, a building that both Jefferson and R.P.W. have seen. The second is the house built in Kentucky by Charles Lewis for his family. Jefferson has never seen this house, for as already noted he never traveled to "his West." R.P.W., however, has at least visited the site where the house had stood:
Yes, I have seen it. Or saw, Rather, all that remained when time and fire Had long since done their kindness, and the crime Could nestle, smug and snug, in any Comfortable conscience, such as mine--or the next man's-- And over the black stones the rain Has fallen, falls, with the benign indifferency Of the historical imagination, while grass, In idiot innocence, has fingered all to peace. Anyway, I saw the house--(New 9)
When R.P.W. again says that the house is gone, Jefferson denies it: "It is not gone, for I, who never saw it,/See it now." He is haunted by the house, and can hear its timbers creak and stair groan (New 12). Perhaps, too, he hears the screams of the butchered slave boy John (15) in his mind. So R.P.W. instructs Jefferson first by literally drawing him a map in speech and providing some historical detail. He tells Jefferson of his first automobile trip to visit Rocky Hill:
I assure you it is gone. I know the place. Up highway 109 from Hopkinsville To Dawson Springs, then west on 62, Across Kentucky at the narrow neck. Above Paducah, east some fifteen miles, Upriver there, they call it Smithland. The town, I mean. It never came to much Just out of Smithland on the Louisville road You'll find the monument, a simple shaft The local D.A.R.'s put up in '24 Amid the ragweed, dog-fennel, and cockleburr, To honor Lucy Lewis for good taste In dying in Kentucky. The stone Does name her sister to the President, But quite neglects her chiefest fame, that she Gave suck to two black-hearted murderers (New 12, 13, 17).
The monument to Lucy Lewis gives directions to the remains of the Lewis house. After obtaining permission from the current owner, R.P.W. went on up the hill by foot.
But I went on, and hit the carriage road Old Lewis' Negroes had chopped from the live rock. I hoped to God it wasn't in July Black hands had grabbed and black sweat dropped. (New 23)
After climbing the hill, R.P.W. found "the huddled stones of ruin,/Just the foundation and the tumbled chimneys,/To say the human hand, once here, had gone,/And never would come back" (New 23). An ensuing discussion of the murder of the slave involves R.P.W., Lilburne's wife, Letitia, and Lilburne's (fictional) mammy, Aunt Cat. Jefferson can be surprised neither by the details of the murder nor by the subsequent discussion of Lilburne's mistreatment of the slave who would be his ultimate victim (New 67-69). Jefferson is not surprised by this cruelty because he knows that slavery established an always potentially cruel dynamic. "There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us," Jefferson had written in "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1782.
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.... The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. (288)
None of Lilburne's actions in the abstract shock Jefferson, for he recognizes, as Meriwether Lewis puts it, that "There had been other and equal fiends." But to this Jefferson protests and expresses the source of his shock, "Not in my blood!/Listen--it is always/The dearest that betrays" (New 34).
Perhaps, however, there is one dearer to Jefferson than his nephew who has betrayed him and his vision of man. When Jefferson tells R. P. W., "I tried/To be innocent" (New 70), R.P.W. reminds him of another house of interest that had produced "black sweat" in its building.
And don't forget you lived In the lean, late years by the skill of some colored mechanics, Nailmakers, I think, that luckily you'd trained up. Well, this is impertinent, but to build Monticello, That domed dream of our liberties floating High on its mountain, like a cloud, demanded A certain amount of black sweat. (New 70)
Jefferson admits that his life required the sweat--and blood?--of slaves: "I lived in the world./Say that." But he tries to mitigate this admission (confession?) with another glance at his "old definition of man:" "Say that. But say, too, that I tried to envisage/The human possibility" (New 70). But Meriwether presses Jefferson even further, presses him to recognize his responsibility for events he, or his "murderous lie" (New 116) about mankind's nobility, had set in motion. Finally Jefferson comes to some self-knowledge that he had not before possessed:
I, too, Was unprepared for the nature of the world, And, I confess, for my own nature. (New 117)
Jefferson's first lesson, then, is one of self-discovery, the discovery that he too shares with all mankind what Warren calls elsewhere "original sin." This does not leave him incapable of action, or totally bereft of the possibility of nobility. As his sister Lucy tells him, "we are human, and must work/In the shade of the human condition" (New 118).
Jefferson's second lesson, related to the first, has to do with the relation of the past to the present:
One day I wrote to Adams, in our age--so long ago-- To Adams my old enemy and friend, that gnarled greatness. I wrote and said That the dream of the future (16) is better than The dream of the past. How could I hope to find courage to say That without the fact of the past, no matter How terrible, we cannot dream the future? (New 118)
This lesson parallels Jack Burden's summation near the end of All the King's Men: "I tried to tell her [Anne Stanton] how if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and how if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future" (461). Acceptance of "the past and its burden" means, in part at least, understanding the mixed legacy of our history and embracing the good and the evil, the noble and the base, as components of the world we live in and of our own nature.
Jefferson has argued that he had lost "the light of reason" when the slave John's "blood ran out." He has refused contact with Lilburne, "the blood brother," throughout the poem, but both John and his sister Lucy press him to embrace Lilburne. When he finally does touch Lilburne the following dialogue takes place:
Jefferson: Oh, may we hope to find-- No, thus create-- Lucy:--the possibility of reason. Yes, And create it only from Our most evil despair? (New 119)
The possibility of recovering reason, not the abstract reason of his life, but a reason mixed with the reality of human nature, is Jefferson's third lesson. The recovery of reason allows for the recovery of knowledge--a chastened knowledge, to be sure. In Jefferson's first speech in Brother to Dragons he bemoans his inability to drink from the River Lethe and lose his knowledge. In his last speech, in dialogue with Meriwether Lewis, he holds out the possibility of joy with knowledge:
Meriwether: For nothing we had, Nothing we were, Is lost. All is redeemed, In knowledge. Jefferson: But knowledge is the most powerful cost. It is the bitter bread. I have eaten the bitter bread. In joy, would end. (New 120)
If Jefferson has found his bearings by the end the poem, it is through understanding that "individual evil" is more than "a provisional paradox" (New 7). To use the poem's images to illustrate the mixed nature of men and mankind, there is no Maison Quarree without the possibility of the Minotaur, no "just proportion and heart's harmony" (New 29) without the potentiality of "midnight's enormity" (New 6). It seems by the conclusion of the poem that it is not R.P.W. who has served as Jefferson's Virgil, but rather that Meriwether Lewis, erstwhile commander of Jefferson's Corps of Discovery, has become the leader of Jefferson's more personal Corps of Self-Discovery, aided by Jefferson's sister Lucy. What role R.P.W., or Meriwether Lewis, or Jefferson himself, may play for the poem's readers is beyond the scope of this particular exploration.
In concluding this discussion of Brother to Dragons, I want to highlight certain important similarities between it and two other poems: Audubon: A Vision and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Taken together these long narrative poems constitute "Warren's Americana Trilogy." While each poem stands apart from the other two in the way it approaches its themes, the three share certain key characteristics: historical documentation, the mapping of contemporary America on an earlier period, and the author's appearance in some fashion as an actor. These characteristics allow for a layering and deepening of the texture of the poems and for a dialogue across generations. Thus all three poems help us to understand the complexities of American life and history.
The foundation of each poem is the marshaling of documentary evidence that gives the appearance that the poem is deeply rooted in the historical American experience. A prose note or foreword that places the protagonist(s) in historical perspective opens each work. Further, each poem contains what seems to be historical documentation. In the case of Brother to Dragons, twelve footnotes (New 133-41) provide excerpts from Jefferson's writings, legal documents, monuments, or other historical material or information that support the "argument" of the poem. Audubon: A Vision recounts one of the "true" (there are questions about Audubon's veracity) stories Audubon tells in his Delineations of American Scenery and Manners (Audubon 524-28) and includes quotations from his journals and correspondence. In Chief Joseph quotations from the principals in the Nez Perce War, from government reports, and from contemporary newspapers, are inserted into the narrative in a way that highlights the historical tensions and encapsulates the competing perspectives at play in Joseph's doomed flight for freedom. This documentation lends an air of historic authenticity to the poems' psychological and moral judgments.
In the foreword to Brother to Dragons, Warren discusses the relationship between poetry and history, a matter of importance for all three of the poems:
I know that any discussion of the relation of this poem to its historical materials is, in one perspective, irrelevant to its value; and it could be totally accurate as history and still not worth a dime as a poem. I am trying to write a poem, not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with non-essential facts. But poetry is more than fantasy and is committed to the obligation of trying to say something, however obliquely, about the human condition. Therefore, a poem dealing with history is no more at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the spirit of his history than it is at liberty to violate what he takes to be the nature of the human heart. What he takes those things to be is, of course, his ultimate gamble.
Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake. (New xiii)
As Warren makes clear, his understanding of the relationship between history and poetry does not commit him to a blind facticity. He readily acknowledged that he has "no compunction about tampering with non-essential facts." Historical documentation has certain strengths and certain limitations, both of which Warren exploits. The record may provide us with an outline of the facts, the sequence of events and certain consequences of those events, but what the record cannot generally provide is an understanding of the moral dimension of those actions or events. Warren suggests as much in his brief discussion of Smithland:
And Smithland too, Though it never came to much, had citizens Who for a century and a half were cramming their courthouse With records of the things they lived by, if not for. Debris of the local courts, Circuit and County, In the fusty vaults, blind: Land transfers, grants, indictments, inquests, plaints, Stompings and stabbings, public blasphemy, Lawings and mayhem, the slapdash Confusions of life flung In a heap like the kitchen-midden Of a lost clan feasting while their single fire Flared red and green with sea-salt, and night fell-- Shellfish and artifact, blacked bone and shard, Left on the sea-tongued shore, And the sea was Time. (New 16-17)
All of these poems involve a layering of contemporary America on the historical materials that are the primary focus of the poem. (17) In both Brother to Dragons and Chief Joseph Warren charts his journey by car to the historic spot that is the location of that particular poem. This verbal mapping--"Up highway 109 ... west on 62 ... Above Paducah, east some fifteen miles ... Just out of Smithland on the Louisville Road" (New 12, 13, 17)--serves a number of functions within the poem. In general terms, this "contemporary documentation" suggests the movement from a traditional to rational society, to use Max Weber's terms. Compare the precision of driving a Honda from along Route 87, map outspread to chart one's progress (Chief Joseph 58-60), to the more general mapping of the Nez Perce Cession of 1855 (Chief Joseph 6-7), to the less formal travel routes of the traditional Nez Perce. We have achieved precision of a sort, but has this precision displaced wisdom, something more difficult to achieve, and therefore more valuable?
Locating our position on a map encourages us to think that we are not lost after all, assures us that we are still operating within the bounds of normality, and that we are still a part of the modern, rational world, even when traveling down rarely used roads and visiting out-of-the-way historic sites. But there are reminders that just under the civilized veneer that provides us with a sense of security that some wildness remains. While walking on Rocky Hill Warren is surprised by a large black snake that arises from the tumbled ruins and scares him, but he regains control of himself, if not of his environment, by identifying it, finally, by its scientific name--Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta (New 25).
Warren himself, or a persona bearing his name or initials, appears in each poem. In Brother to Dragons R.P.W. talks with ghostly characters from the past, while in Audubon he appears but once or twice--perhaps first as a passenger on a Northwest Orient flight bound from New York to Seattle, looking down over the darkening Bitterroot (Audubon 28). He appears more solidly, and unmistakably, as a young boy on a dark Kentucky road, listening to geese pass unseen on their northern flight (Audubon 31). In Chief Joseph he appears as the journalistic investigator, traveling with a couple of friends to the location of the story he is working on to check out the facts.
But in each poem Warren's presence is crucial, for it is his presence that represents the possibility of dialogue with the past. (18) The dynamic Warren writes of explicitly in his foreword to the play version of Brother to Dragons holds for all three of these poems.
The play involves ... two levels of action, one of the present and one of the past, with the suggestion that an understanding of their interpenetration is crucial. On the one level, the character here called the Writer, haunted by the shocking episode and hoping to make sense of it, visits the spot where the Lewis house once stood and where the unmarked graves of Lucy and Lilburn are lost in a tangle of brush and briar. His presence, for the second level of action, summons up the spirits of the persons involved in the old tragedy, who, yet unassuaged and unreconciled, reenact the crisis of their earthly lives, seeking a resolution in understanding and forgiveness--and in, it may be added, a new sense of the historical role of Americans. ("A Play" 67)
The dialogue across the face of American history represented by these poems suggests that the philosopher Eric Voegelin's "Time of the Tale" may take on a uniquely American cast in the poetry of Robert Penn Warren. The Time of the Tale "expresses the experience of being (that embraces all sorts of reality, the cosmos) in flux" (Embry 223). The Time of the Tale often involves the encounter between man and god and the origins of the cosmos, and therefore has a mythic dimension. There may come a time when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, and John Adams are mythical figures whose stories have been told from time immemorial, but that time for us is not yet. Perhaps being remains in flux for Warren because in living our history we constantly remake it. In a lecture delivered during the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, Warren argued that the past
"gives" us nothing. We must earn what we get there. The past must be studied, worked at--in short, created. For the past, like the present, is fluid. History, the articulated past--all kinds, even our personal histories--is forever being rethought, refelt, rewritten, not merely as rigor or luck turns up new facts but as new patterns emerge, as new understandings develop, and as we experience new needs and new questions. There is no absolute, positive past available to us, no matter how rigorously we strive to determine it--as strive we must. Inevitably, the past, so far as we know it, is an inference, a creation, and this, without being paradoxical, can be said to be its chief value for us. In creating the image of the past, we create ourselves, and without that task of creating the past we might be said scarcely to exist. Without it we sink to the level of a protoplasmic swarm. ("Use" 50-51)
America's sense of time--historical time--is distinct. The signing of the Constitution was "done in Convention ... the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth"; in the consciousness of many Americans the second date is of primary significance. "To begin again," Warren's Jefferson says in an offhand way, but for America time is measured from this new creation wrought by Jefferson and his colleagues. Jefferson is, for many, "the spiritual father" of America as Warren says in the first version of Brother to Dragons (xi). This return to the beginning is signified in Chief Joseph by the epigram placed first by Warren, a part of a message from Thomas Jefferson "To the Miamis, Powtewataminies, and Weeauki": "Made by the same Great Spirit, and living in the same land with our brothers, the red men, we consider ourselves as the same family; we wish to live with them as one people, and to cherish their interests as our own" (Chief Joseph ix) and by Warren's opening statement, "The Nez Perce entered history as the friendly hosts to the explorers Lewis and Clark" (Chief Joseph xi).
The Declaration as the beginning, (19) or new beginning, of time (Time, as Warren sometimes writes) is of course belied both in Warren's poetry itself (consider Warren's vision of the Nez Perce before the arrival of Lewis and Clark and the impact of the Maison Quarree on Jefferson) and "the historical record." (20) But for much of American history this has been the operative and operational myth. Many Americans have been obsessed with the issue of "American exceptionalism." To the extent that America is unique, perhaps we can trace part of its uniqueness to the fact that it is simultaneously a modern society founded on and to a large extent still governed by its own unique creation myth. Or, perhaps more provocatively, America is at once a modern rational society in Max Weber's sense and a cosmological civilization in Eric Voegelin's sense.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
--. Purgatorio. Ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Audubon, John James. Writings and Drawings. Ed. Christopher Irmscher. New York: Library of America, 1999.
Barzini, Luigi. "The Americans." Harper's Dec. 1981: 29-36, 83-85.
Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Embry, Charles J., ed. Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin: A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2004.
Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. Ed Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Johnson, Donald, ed. Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents 1783-1854. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1962.
Kendall, Willmoore, and George Carey. The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1970.
Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Times: The Sage of Monticello. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.
Merrill, Boynton, Jr. Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.
Simpson, Lewis P. "Warren and the Father: Robert Penn Warren and Thomas Jefferson." Sewanee Review 104 (1996): 46-69.
Waley, Arthur. The Noh Plays of Japan. London: Unwin, 1921.
Warren, Robert Penn. All the King's Men. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946.
--. Audubon: A Vision. New York: Random House, 1969.
--. "Brother to Dragons: A Play in Two Acts." Georgia Review 30 (1976): 65-138.
--. Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. New York: Random House, 1953.
--. Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices; A New Version. New York: Random House, 1979.
--. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. New York: Random House, 1983.
--"The Use of the Past." New and Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1989. 29-53.
Wood, H. Clay. The Status of Young Joseph and His Band of Nez-Perce Indians Under the Treaties Between the United States and the Nez-Perce Tribe of Indians and the Indian Title to Land. US Army. Department of the Columbia. Portland, Oregon: Assistant Adjutant General's Office, 1876.
STEVEN D. EALY
Liberty Fund, Inc.
(1) The title is taken from Job 30: 29: "I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls." (KJW)
(2) Initially Warren identified Lewis as "a physician" (BD, 1953 2) while the revision identifies him as "Colonel Charles Lewis," "sometimes said to have been a physician" (New xi). On the historical attribution of "a mistaken title," see Merrill 341-42.
(3) The date is relatively easy to pinpoint because the murder was committed on the night of the New Madrid earthquake.
(4) The poet Frederick Turner has suggested to me that Brother to Dragons is reminiscent of the "ghost plays" of Japanese Noh Theater, in which conversations between the living and the dead occur. On "apparitions" in Nob, see Waley: "If ghosts are terrifying, they cease to be beautiful. For the terrifying and the beautiful are as far apart as black and white" (26).
(5) Warren addressed this concern in his foreword to the 1979 version (New xii). As of August 2004 no scholar has uncovered any evidence that Jefferson commented on the incident. Warren muted his characterization of Jefferson in the revised version; in the foreword to the original he identified Jefferson as "the spiritual father" of America (BD, 1953 xi). There is a brief mention of the episode in Dumas Malone's massive biography of Jefferson (153-54).
(6) Compare this to the line from Dante's Purgatorio which Warren uses as the epigram for All the King's Men: "Mentre chela speranza ha fior del verde"--"as long as hope has any touch of green." The entire terzina reads as follows: "By their curse no one so loses the eternal love that it cannot be regained, as long as hope has any touch of green" (55).
(7) See Wood 44 for the Lockean argument that the Nez Perce were not entitled to land simply because they lived on it and they are entitled to no more than they have cultivated. Wood quotes extensively from Vattel's Law of Nations as background for his conclusions (38-41).
(8) Jefferson learned of Meriwether Lewis's death soon after the event and accepted it as suicide (Johnson 467-69, 586-93, 596-98).
(9) Deuteronomy 34: 1-6. On the sin that prevented Moses from entering the promised land, see Deuteronomy 32: 48-52, and Numbers 20: 1-13 (cf. Exodus 17: 1-7). Also see God's command to Joshua after the death of Moses at Joshua 1: 2.
(10) See the letter from Jefferson to Madame de Tesse dated March 20, 1787, which begins, "Here I am, Madam, gazing whole hours at the Maison quaree, like a lover at his mistress" (New 133; Jefferson 891-93).
(11) Speaking of the Minotaur Jefferson says, "He is the infamy of Crete./He is the midnight's enormity. And is/Our brother, our darling brother" (New 6). Thus Jefferson--and mankind as well?--is brother to Minotaurs as well as to dragons. This knowledge, in the poem's account, comes to Jefferson much later than the Declaration Congress.
(12) Compare Jefferson: "Reason? That's the word/I sought to five by--but, oh,/We have been lost in the dark, and I/Was lost who had dreamed there was a fight" (New 119).
(13) Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 B.C. Author of the Aeneid, Eclogues, and Bucolics, Virgil serves as Dante's guide through hell and through purgatory. As a pagan, Virgil does not enter paradise with Dante (see Purgatorio, XXX. 40-75). Note that Virgil's life overlapped the building of the Maison Quarree.
(14) I surmise, then, that Brother to Dragons is Warren's Inferno, and leave open the question of whether Warren also produces a Purgatory and a Paradise. (In this regard consider the passage taken from Dante's Purgatorio which Warren uses as epigraph for All the King's Men.) Perhaps Brother to Dragons is itself an abbreviated but complete Divine Comedy, American style (Simpson 52, 65).
(15) One of the confusing changes that Warren made in revising the poem involved the name of the murdered slave. In the original the slave was named "George," which was the name of the historical slave murdered by Lilburne Lewis, but in the revised poem Warren named the slave "John."
(16) In a letter dated August 1, 1816, Jefferson wrote to Adams, "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. So good night. I will dream on ..." (Cappon 485). For a bloody dream of the future late in Jefferson's life, see his letter to Adams of September 4, 1823:
The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing has eminently changed the condition of the world. As yet that light has dawned on the middling classes only of the men of Europe. The kings and the rabble of equal ignorance, have not yet received its rays; but it continues to spread. And, while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course. A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail ... some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed ... all Europe, Russia excepted, has caught the spirit, and all will attain representative government, more or less perfect.... To attain all this however rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over. Yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation for what inheritance so valuable can man leave his posterity? ... You and I shall look down from another world on these glorious achievements of man, which will add to the joys even in heaven. (Jefferson 1478; Cappon 596-97)
(17) This same effect is achieved in the novels Night Rider and All the King's Men with a slight reversal--a (fictional) "historical" interlude provides some new perspective on the contemporary story.
(18) It is crucial also in that it brings into the open the limits of the poet. He is not an omniscient narrator who knows all and understands all but rather a human with the strengths and weaknesses of humans, including a poor memory at times. R.P.W. made two trips to Rocky Hill; on the second he discovered that the bluff "doesn't look so high / ... And never was, perhaps, but in my head./ ... I had plain misremembered,/Or dreamed a world appropriate for the tale" (New 128).
(19) Luigi Barzini suggested that the appropriate translation of Novus ordo seclorum is "The world and history begin with us" (31).
(20) At least one serious work on American political thought argues that the Declaration is actually the derailment, rather than the origin, of the American experience (Kendall and Carey).
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|Author:||Ealy, Steven D.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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