An American Poet
The introduction to Stephen Vincent Ben t from the Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism states: He conveyed his faith in the enduring existence of America s fundamental ideals: the virtues of the democratic system of government, the possibility of a common spirit unifying a diverse populus , and, most importantly, the value of the individual (TCLC 68). Stephen Vincent Ben t was an American poet whose works were a combination of romanticism (idealized, optimistic view of life) and realism (factual, objective details of ordinary life).
Ben t, Stephen Vincent, (b. July 22, 1898, Bethlehem, Pa., U.S. – d. March 13, 1943, New York, NY), American poet, novelist, and writer of short stories, best known for John Brown s Body, a long narrative poem on the American Civil War (Fenton).
Born into a military family, Stephen was raised on military posts by his father, Colonel James Ben t. His father read poetry aloud to Stephen, an older brother, William Rose, and a sister, Laura, all of whom became writers (Fenton). Stephen was 17, a student at Yale University, when he published his first book, entitled Five Men and Pompey (Fenton). Civilian service during World War I interrupted his education at Yale Univerisity. When the war was over he returned to Yale. In 1919, he received his master of arts degree, submitting his third volume of poems instead of a thesis (Fenton). A Guggenheim fellowship took him to France, with his wife, the former Rosemary Carr. While there he wrote John Brown’s Body (1928), which won (1929) a Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Hart 198). Over 300 pages, the poem covers the Civil War from John Brown s raid at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., to peace at Appomattox (198). The second Pulitzer was
given posthumously in 1944, for Western Star (1943) , an unfinished narrative poem about movement to the American West (198). In all, Ben t published more than 17 volumes of prose and verse (Fenton). His best-known short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937), a humorous treatment of a theme from folklore, was the basis for an opera, a play, and a motion picture (Fenton).
In 1943 Paul Engle stated: Stephen Vincent Ben t s death was a particular loss because he added to the variety of American poetry (75). Ben t had a deep regard for the United States. He believed in this country and how remarkably it permitted human freedom (76). He knew the misery and corruption, and you ll find them in his books (76). But, you will also find Ben t s fascination to be a place where that reckless and distorted word liberty actually means individual rights (76). The strength of his poetry is in the warmth and vigor of human feeling. The romantic message in Ben t s poetry was highlighted when Henry Steele Commanger in the New York Herald Weekly, June 27, 1943, stated:
Twenty years ago it seems forever now when it was the fashion to sneer at Main Street, to chronicle the American tragedy, to celebrate the Waste Land, and when almost every poet worth his fare to France had fabricated his melancholy testament to futility and despair young Ben t was writing of these simple things (75).
It is this quality that distinguishes Ben t s poetry, the ability to recreate realistic
emotions of historical characters, of soldiers, of the uncommon and common man (75). Ben t brought his mature judgment wrought of liberal ideals and realism, both rooted deep in the American experience (75). It was this optimism, that the critics thought was an important element of romanticism and realism.
If you were with me-as you re not, of course,
I d taste the elegant tortures of Despair
With a slow, languid , long-refining tongue;
Puzzle for days on one particular stare,
Or if you knew a word s peculiar force,
Or what you looked liked when you were quite young.
You d lift me heaven-high-till a word grated.
Dash me hell-deep–oh that luxurious Pit,
Fatly and well encushioned with self-pity,
Where Love s an epicure not quickly sated!
What mournful musics wander over it,
Faint-blown from some long-lost celestial city!
Such bitter joyousness I d have, and action,
Were you here–be no more the fool who broods
On true Adventure till he wakes her scorning–
But we re to pretty for such noble warning,
And I find just as perfect satisfaction
In analyzing these, and other moods! (Ben t 341)
In conclusion, Stephen Vincent Ben t was an American poet whose works were a combination of romanticism (idealized, optimistic view of life) and realism (factual, objective details of ordinary life). Ben t came from a military family, where he was introduced to literature at an early age, by his father reading aloud to the family. He was only 17, while a student at Yale, he published his first book, and at the age of 31 when he won his first Pulitzer prize for poetry, for John Brown’s Body. Stephen Vincent Ben t, died at the young age of 44; in his short life he published 17 volumes of poetry, five novels, and numerous collections of short stories, the most famous being, The Devil and Daniel Webster . He was awarded his second Pulitzer posthumously, in 1944 for Western Star. His critics conveyed his realistic views, and how he loved this country, when they wrote of him. It was this optimism, that was an important element of romanticism . The poem Portrait Of Young Love demonstrates a range of perception and feeling of Ben t s poetry. Ben t s narrative technique is an excellent expression of his liberal imagination.
Ben t, Stephen Vincent. The Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Ben t.
New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1942.
Ben t, Stephen Vincent . Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. 7.
Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1979.
Fenton, Charles. Ben t, Stephen Vincent, 1978 . Britannica Online.
Online. Internet. 5 Apr 1998.
Hart, James. Ben t, Stephen Vincent . Global Encyclopedia. 3. 1987.