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Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Ballad of William Sycamore"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Stephen Vincent Benét

Introduction and Text of "The Ballad of William Sycamore [1790-1871]"

Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Ballad of William Sycamore" features 19 rimed, stanzas of traditional ballad form. The subject is the rustic life of William Sycamore, narrated by Sycamore himself from just before his birth to after his death.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Ballad of William Sycamore

My father, he was a mountaineer,
His fist was a knotty hammer;
He was quick on his feet as a running deer,
And he spoke with a Yankee stammer.

My mother, she was merry and brave,
And so she came to her labor,
With a tall green fir for her doctor grave
And a stream for her comforting neighbor.

And some are wrapped in the linen fine,
And some like a godling's scion;
But I was cradled on twigs of pine
In the skin of a mountain lion.

And some remember a white, starched lap
And a ewer with silver handles;
But I remember a coonskin cap
And the smell of bayberry candles.

The cabin logs, with the bark still rough,
And my mother who laughed at trifles,
And the tall, lank visitors, brown as snuff,
With their long, straight squirrel-rifles.

I can hear them dance, like a foggy song,
Through the deepest one of my slumbers,
The fiddle squeaking the boots along
And my father calling the numbers.

The quick feet shaking the puncheon-floor,
And the fiddle squealing and squealing,
Till the dried herbs rattled above the door
And the dust went up to the ceiling.

There are children lucky from dawn till dusk,
But never a child so lucky!
For I cut my teeth on "Money Musk"
In the Bloody Ground of Kentucky!

When I grew as tall as the Indian corn,
My father had little to lend me,
But he gave me his great, old powder-horn
And his woodsman's skill to befriend me.

With a leather shirt to cover my back,
And a redskin nose to unravel
Each forest sign, I carried my pack
As far as a scout could travel.

Till I lost my boyhood and found my wife,
A girl like a Salem clipper!
A woman straight as a hunting-knife
With eyes as bright as the Dipper!

We cleared our camp where the buffalo feed,
Unheard-of streams were our flagons;
And I sowed my sons like the apple-seed
On the trail of the Western wagons.

They were right, tight boys, never sulky or slow,
A fruitful, a goodly muster.
The eldest died at the Alamo.
The youngest fell with Custer.

The letter that told it burned my hand.
Yet we smiled and said, "So be it!"
But I could not live when they fenced the land,
For it broke my heart to see it.

I saddled a red, unbroken colt
And rode him into the day there;
And he threw me down like a thunderbolt
And rolled on me as I lay there.

The hunter's whistle hummed in my ear
As the city-men tried to move me,
And I died in my boots like a pioneer
With the whole wide sky above me.

Now I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,
Like the seed of the prairie-thistle;
It has washed my bones with honey and oil
And picked them clean as a whistle.

And my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,
And my sons, like the wild-geese flying;
And I lie and hear the meadow-lark sing
And have much content in my dying.

Go play with the towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me.

Recitation of "The Ballad of William Sycamore"

Commentary

Benét's ballad offers the romantic notions of an individual close to the land, preferring the rural life to the urban. His zeal for existence continues after his death as he reports his circumstances in the astral world.

First Movement: Surviving in a Dangerous World

My father, he was a mountaineer,
His fist was a knotty hammer;
He was quick on his feet as a running deer,
And he spoke with a Yankee stammer.

My mother, she was merry and brave,
And so she came to her labor,
With a tall green fir for her doctor grave
And a stream for her comforting neighbor.

And some are wrapped in the linen fine,
And some like a godling's scion;
But I was cradled on twigs of pine
In the skin of a mountain lion.

And some remember a white, starched lap
And a ewer with silver handles;
But I remember a coonskin cap
And the smell of bayberry candles.

The speaker describes his parents as scrappy, rough survivors. His mountaineer father had fists that resembled hammers; he ran as fast as a deer, and had a Yankee accent. His mother was merry and brave and also quite a tough woman, giving birth to the narrator under a tall green fir with no one to help her but "a stream for her comforting neighbor."

While some folks can boast of clean linen fine to swaddle them, Sycamores cradle was a pile of pine twigs and he was wrapped in the skin of a mountain lion. Instead of "a starched lap / And a ewer with silver handles," he recalls "a coonskin cap / And the smell of bayberry candles."

Thus, Sycamore has set the scene of his nativity as rustic and rural, no modern conveniences to spoil him. He idealizes those attributes as he sees them making him strong and capable of surviving in a dangerous world.

Second Movement: Rattling the Herbs

The cabin logs, with the bark still rough,
And my mother who laughed at trifles,
And the tall, lank visitors, brown as snuff,
With their long, straight squirrel-rifles.

I can hear them dance, like a foggy song,
Through the deepest one of my slumbers,
The fiddle squeaking the boots along
And my father calling the numbers.

The quick feet shaking the puncheon-floor,
And the fiddle squealing and squealing,
Till the dried herbs rattled above the door
And the dust went up to the ceiling.

There are children lucky from dawn till dusk,
But never a child so lucky!
For I cut my teeth on "Money Musk"
In the Bloody Ground of Kentucky!

Sycamore describes the cabin in which he grew up by focusing on the fun he saw the adults have when they played music and danced. Their visitors were tall, lank, "brown as snuff," and they brought their long, straight squirrel rifles with them. He focuses on the fiddle squealing and the dancing to a foggy song. The raucous partying was so intense that it rattled the herbs hanging over the door and caused a great cloud of dust to rise to the ceiling. He considers himself a lucky child to have experienced such, as well as being able to "cut [his] teeth on 'Money Musk' / In the Bloody Ground of Kentucky!"

Third Movement: Navigating the Woods

When I grew as tall as the Indian corn,
My father had little to lend me,
But he gave me his great, old powder-horn
And his woodsman's skill to befriend me.

With a leather shirt to cover my back,
And a redskin nose to unravel
Each forest sign, I carried my pack
As far as a scout could travel.

The speaker reports that he grew to the height of the Indian corn plant, and while his father had little to offer him in things, his father did give him a woodsman skill, which he found helpful. With his homespun gear, a leather shirt on his back, he was able to navigate the woodlands like a professional scout.

Fourth Movement: Siring Warriors

Till I lost my boyhood and found my wife,
A girl like a Salem clipper!
A woman straight as a hunting-knife
With eyes as bright as the Dipper!

We cleared our camp where the buffalo feed,
Unheard-of streams were our flagons;
And I sowed my sons like the apple-seed
On the trail of the Western wagons.

They were right, tight boys, never sulky or slow,
A fruitful, a goodly muster.
The eldest died at the Alamo.
The youngest fell with Custer.

The letter that told it burned my hand.
Yet we smiled and said, "So be it!"
But I could not live when they fenced the land,
For it broke my heart to see it.

Reaching adulthood, Sycamore married a sturdy woman, whom he describes as "straight as a hunting-knife / With eyes as bright as the Dipper!" The couple built their home where the buffalo feed, where the streams had no names.

They raised sons who were "right, tight boys, never sulky or slow." His sons were fierce warriors, for the oldest died at the famed Battle of the Alamo, and the youngest died while serving with General George Armstrong Custer, during one of the General's Civil War battles: Gettysburg (1863), the Battle of Yellow Tavern (1864), or the Third Battle of Winchester (1864). William does not specify which specific battle his youngest son died in, so it could have any other battle Custer engaged in during the Civil War.

While the letters delivering the news of their fallen sons "burned [his] hand," the grieving parents stoically said, "so be it!" and then pushed ahead with their lives. What finally broke the speaker's heart, however, was the fencing of his land, referring to the government parceling land to individual owners.

Fifth Movement: Gutsy Self-Relaance

I saddled a red, unbroken colt
And rode him into the day there;
And he threw me down like a thunderbolt
And rolled on me as I lay there.

The hunter's whistle hummed in my ear
As the city-men tried to move me,
And I died in my boots like a pioneer
With the whole wide sky above me.

The speaker still shows his gutsy, self-reliance in his breaking of a colt that bucked him off and rolled over him. After he recovered, however, Sycamore continues to hunt, and while the "city-men tried to move [him]," he refused to be influenced by any city ways. He died "in [his] boots like a pioneer / With the whole wide sky above [him]."

Sixth Movement: Untroubled Tranquility in the Astral World

Now I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,
Like the seed of the prairie-thistle;
It has washed my bones with honey and oil
And picked them clean as a whistle.

And my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,
And my sons, like the wild-geese flying;
And I lie and hear the meadow-lark sing
And have much content in my dying.

Go play with the towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me.

Speaking from beyond the grave somewhat like a Spoon River resident, only with more verve and no regret, William Sycamore describes his astral environment as a heavenly place, where "[his] youth returns, like the rains of Spring, / And [his] sons, like the wild-geese flying." He hears the meadow-lark, and he avers that he is experiencing untroubled tranquility in his after-life state on the astral plane of existence. Sycamore disdained the city, as most rustics do, so he uses his final stanza to get in one last dig, telling folks who aspire to city life to go ahead and "play with town" that he deems built merely of "blocks."

The well satisfied speaker then insists that he would never be bound by a town, but instead he sleeps "in my earth like a tired fox, / And my buffalo have found me," referring to the placement of his physical encasement, and also referring to his blessed soul that has found its place among the "[his] buffalo" of spirituality. In his peaceful, afterlife existence, William Sycamore differs greatly from the typical Spoon River reporter.

Traditional Folk Dance: Money Musk

Life Sketch of Stephen Vincent Benét

The works of Stephen Vincent Benét (1898–1943) have influenced many other writers. Cowboy poet Joel Nelson claims that "The Ballad of William Sycamore" made him fall in love with poetry. Dee Brown's title Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee comes directly from the final line of Benét's poem titled "American Names."

The book-length poem, John Brown's Body, won him his first Pulitzer Prize in 1929 and remains the poet's most famous work. Benét first published "The Ballad of William Sycamore" in the New Republic in 1922. Benét's literary talent extended to other forms, including short fiction and novels. He also excelled in writing screenplays, librettos, an even radio broadcasts.

Born July 22, 1898, in Pennsylvania, Benét graduated from Yale University in 1919 where instead of a typical thesis, he substituted his third collection of poems. His father was a military, man who appreciated literary studies. His brother William and his sister Laura both became writers as well.

Benét's first novel The Beginning of Wisdom was published in 1921, after which he relocated to France to study at the Sorbonne. He married the writer Rosemary Carr, and they returned to the USA in 1923, where his writing career blossomed.

The writer won the O. Henry Story Prize and a Roosevelt Medal, in addition to a second Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded posthumously in 1944 for Western Star. Just a week before spring of 1943, Benét succumbed to a heart attack in New York City; he was four month shy of his 45th birthday.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why did he die happily?

Answer: William Sycamore lived a robust, hearty life that satisfied him. He expects to continue with that attitude after death. The final two stanzas address this issue directly:

Now I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,

Like the seed of the prairie-thistle;

It has washed my bones with honey and oil

And picked them clean as a whistle.

And my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,

And my sons, like the wild-geese flying;

And I lie and hear the meadow-lark sing

And have much content in my dying.

Question: What does the word “mountaineer” suggest?

Answer: A person who lives in the mountains.

Question: What "sounds" does he remember from his childhood in Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Ballad of William Sycamore"?

Answer: You can go through the poem and pick out the "sounds." Here, I'll get you started: stanza 5: his mother's laugh; stanzas 6, 7, 8: music with singing and dancing. Now go find others!

Question: How did William Sycamore die?

Answer: According to "William Sycamore," he died ". . . in [his] boots like a pioneer / With the whole wide sky above [him]."

Question: What was the most important event of William Sycamore's life?

Answer: His after-life experience appears to be most important: Speaking from beyond the grave somewhat like a Spoon River resident, only with more verve and no regret, he describes his astral environment as a heavenly place, where "[his] youth returns, like the rains of Spring, / And [his] sons, like the wild-geese flying." He hears the meadow-lark, and he avers that he is experiencing untroubled tranquility in his after-life state on the astral plane of existence.

Question: What were the important events in William Sycamore's lifetime?

Answer: The significant events in William Sycamore's life according to William are being born to strong parents, growing up in an environment that allowed him to be challenged, marrying a fine, compatible wife, having strong children, and dying a happy, fulfilled man.

Question: Did you misinterpret lines 60 - 63? When a horse rolls on you, you do not recover. My reading is that he died right there hearing the hunters whistle with his boots on despite the city men trying to move him.

Answer: Of course, he died after the horse rolled over them! That's why my comment regarding those lines begins as follows: "Speaking from beyond the grave somewhat like a Spoon River resident, only with more verve and no regret, William Sycamore describes his astral environment as a heavenly place, where '[his] youth returns, like the rains of Spring, / And [his] sons, like the wild-geese flying'."

Question: What two gifts did his father bestow upon him in "The Ballad of William Sycamore"?

Answer: William Sycamore's father gave him, "his great, old powder-horn / And his woodsman's skill."

Question: In Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Ballad of William Sycamore", why does the speaker feel "content in my dying"?

Answer: Because he feels that he lived a rich, full life, and speaking from beyond the grave somewhat like a Spoon River resident, only with more verve and no regret, he describes his astral environment as a heavenly place, where "[his] youth returns, like the rains of Spring, / And [his] sons, like the wild-geese flying." He hears the meadow-lark, and he avers that he is experiencing untroubled tranquility in his after-life state on the astral plane of existence. Sycamore disdained the city, as most rustics do, so he uses his final stanza to get in one last dig, telling folks who aspire to city life to go ahead and "play with town" that he deems built merely of "blocks."

The well satisfied speaker then insists that he would never be bound by a town, but instead he sleeps "in my earth like a tired fox, / And my buffalo have found me," referring to the placement of his physical encasement, and also referring to his blessed soul that has found its place among the "[his] buffalo" of spirituality. In his peaceful, afterlife existence, William Sycamore differs greatly from the typical Spoon River reporter.

Question: What are some examples of exaggeration used in "The Ballad of William Sycamore"?

Answer: While the opening stanza offers this claims which can be considered hyperbolic, "He was quick on his feet as a running deer," a case can be made that each stanza offers examples of exaggeration or hyperbole. The speaker is a mountain man prone to seeing the world in grand terms; thus his drama comes off as one long hyperbolic narrative.

Question: What is the rime scheme of the poem "The Ballad of William Sycamore"?

Answer: Each stanza has the rime scheme, ABAB.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-... ."

Question: What kind of boyhood did the speaker of "The Ballad of William Sycamore" have?

Answer: A rustic, enjoyable boyhood: The speaker describes his parents as scrappy, rough survivors. His mountaineer father had fists that resembled hammers; he ran as fast as a deer and had a Yankee accent. His mother was merry and brave and also quite a tough woman, giving birth to the narrator under a tall green fir with no one to help her but "a stream for her comforting neighbor." While some folks can boast of clean linen fine to swaddle them, Sycamores cradle was a pile of pine twigs and he was wrapped in the skin of a mountain lion. Instead of "a starched lap / And an ewer with silver handles," he recalls "a coonskin cap / And the smell of bayberry candles." Thus, Sycamore has set the scene of his nativity as rustic and rural, no modern conveniences to spoil him. He idealizes those attributes as he sees them making him strong and capable of surviving in a dangerous world.

Question: The dates of birth and death that accompany the title are 1790 to 1871, yet his youngest son died with Custer in 1876. Has his death date in the title somehow been changed over the years?

Answer: The youngest son dying with Custer obviously refers to Custer's Civil War battles, such as the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), the Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864), or the Third Battle of Winchester (September 19, 1864).

Question: What does "I cut my teeth on 'Money Musk'" mean in "The Ballad of William Sycamore"?

Answer: It means he grew up watching and learning to participate in the traditional folk dances like "Money Musk."

Question: What makes William "content" about his death in "The Ballad of William Sycamore"?

Answer: William answers that question in stanzas 17 and 18:

Now I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,

Like the seed of the prairie-thistle;

It has washed my bones with honey and oil

And picked them clean as a whistle.

And my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,

And my sons, like the wild-geese flying;

And I lie and hear the meadow-lark sing

And have much content in my dying.

Question: Where did Stephen Vincent Benet live?

Answer: Kentucky

Question: What were the colors used in Benét's "The Ballad of William Sycamore"?

Answer: The following words in Benét's "The Ballad of William Sycamore" designate colors: green, white, silver, brown, red.

Question: Where was Stephen Vincent Benét born?

Answer: Stephen Vincent Benét was born on July 22, 1898, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 23, 2016:

Interesting bit of info, John! Guess that'a fairly common name, like John Smith . . .

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 23, 2016:

Yes, Linda, I am sure I have heard John Brown's Body, but I wasn't aware of the author. p.s. my grandfather's name was actually John Brown :)

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 23, 2016:

Thank you, John! I'm surprised you had not heard of the writer Stephen Vincent Benét. He has been a widely known name for many years, winning 2 Pulitzers and having penned the famous John Brown's Body. Anyway, glad I could introduce you to such a good writer! Thanks again for the comment, and have a great day!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 23, 2016:

I enjoyed reading about this writer and the Ballad of William Sycamore, neither of which I had heard.

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