Excerpts from Stephen Vincent Benet’s

Epic Poem of the Civil War:

John Brown’s Body

 

 

The crows fly over the Henry House, through the red sky of

    evening, cawing,

Judith Henry, bedridden, watches them through the clouded

    glass of old sight.

(July is hot in Virginia – a parched, sun-leathered farmer sawing

Dry sticks with a cicada-saw that creaks all the lukewarm night.)

 

But Judith Henry’s hands are cool in spite of all midsummer’s

    burning,

Cool, muted and frail with age like the smoothness of old yellow
    linen, the cool touch of old, dulled rings.

Her years go past her in bed like falling waters and the waters

    of a millwheel turning,

And she is not ill content to lie there, dozing and calm, remembering
    youth, to the gushing of those watersprings.

 

She has known Time like the cock of red dawn and Time like a

    tired clock slowing;

She has seen so many faces and bodies, young and then old, so   
   
much life, so many patterns of death and birth.

She knows that she must leave them soon.  She is not afraid to

    flow with that river’s flowing.

But the wrinkled earth still hangs at her sufficed breast like a

    weary child, she is unwilling to go while she still has milk for

    the earth.

 

She will go in her sleep, most likely, she has the sunk death-sleep

    of the old already,

(War-bugles by the Potomac, you cannot reach her ears with

    your brass lyric, piercing the crowded dark.)

It does not matter, the farm will go on, the farm and the children

    bury her in her best dress, the plow cut its furrow, steady,

(War-horses of the Shenandoah, why should you hurry so fast

    to tramp the last ashy fire from so feeble and retired a spark?)

There is nothing here but a creek and a house called the Henry

    House, a farm and a bedridden woman and people with coun-

try faces.

There is nothing for you here.  And La Haye Sainte was a quiet

    farm and the mile by it a quiet mile.

And Lexington was a place to work in like any one of a dozen

    dull, little places.

And they raised good crops at Blenheim till the soldiers came

    and spoiled the crops for a while.

 

The red evening fades into twilight, the crows have gone to their
    trees, the slow, hot stars are emerging.

It is cooler now on the hill – and in the camps it is cooler, where

    the untried soldiers find their bivouac hard.

Where, from North and South, the blind wrestlers of armies converge
    on the forgotten house like the double pincers of an iron claw
       converging.

And Johnston hurries his tired brigades from the Valley, to

    bring them up in time before McDowell can fall on Beauregard.

 

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Judith Henry wakened with the first light,

She had the short sleep of age, and the long patience.

She waited for breakfast in vague, half-drowsy wonderment

At various things.  Yesterday some men had gone by

And stopped for a drink of water.  She’d heard they were soldiers.

She couldn’t be sure.  It had seemed to worry the folks

But it took more than soldiers and such to worry her now.

Young people always worried a lot too much.

No soldiers that had any sense would fight around here.

She’d had a good night.  Today would be a good day.

 

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The hands of the scuffed brown clock in the kitchen of the

    Henry House point to nine-forty-five.

Judith Henry does not hear the clock, she hears in the sky a

    vast dim roar like piles of heavy lumber crashingly falling

They are carrying her in her bed to a ravine below the Sudley

    Road, maybe she will be safe there, maybe the battle will go

    by and leave her alive.

The crows have been scared from their nests by the strange

    crashing, they circle in the sky like a flight of blackened leaves,

    wheeling and calling.

 

 

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Judith Henry, Judith Henry, they have moved you back at last, in
    doubt and confusion, to the little house where you know every
       knothole by heart.

It is not safe, but now there is no place safe, you are between the

    artillery and the artillery, and the incessant noise comes to your
       dim ears like the sea-roar within a shell where you are lying.

The walls of the house are riddled, the brown clock in the kitchen   

    gouged by a bullet, a jar leaks red preserves on the cupboard
       shelf where the shell-splinter came and tore the cupboard apart.

The casual guns do not look for you, Judith Henry, they find you in
    passing merely and touch you only a little, but the touch is enough
       to give your helpless body five sudden wounds and leave you
          helplessly dying.

 

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Judith Henry, Judith Henry, your body has born its ghost at last,
   there are no more pictures of peace or terror left in the broken
      machine of the brain that was such a cunning picture-maker:

Terrified ghost, so rudely dishoused by such casual violence, be

    at rest; there are others dishoused in this falling night, the

      falling night is a sack of darkness, indifferent as Saturn to

        wars or generals, indifferent to shame or victory.

War is a while but peace is a while and soon enough the earth-

    colored hands of the earth-workers will scoop the last buried

      shells and the last clotted bullet-slag from the racked
         embittered acre,

And the rustling visitors drive out fair Sundays to look at the

    monument near the rebuilt house, buy picture postcards and

      wonder dimly what you were like when you lived and what

        you thought when you knew you were going to die.

 



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January 22, 2010