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Poetry Analysis Notes


The Ballad of William Sycamore
by Stephen Vincent Benet
interpreted by Samantha Marcum

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

With a leather shirt to cover my back,
And a redskin nose to unravel
Each forest sign, carried my pack
As far as 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 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 a prarie-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.

Poet: Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943). Benét lived in Pennsylvania, where his father was in the military. When the boy was young he and his father would spend hours reading about history. He developed a love for the American frontier life. After graduating from Yale in 1919, he published a book of poems relating to this subject matter (Including the "Ballad of William Sycamore"). He also wrote a few novels and two operas (including the Headless Horseman). Benét is known for his talent of bringing historical events vividly to life. He won the 1944 Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.

Vocabulary: A godling's scion - Descendant or child of a god
Ewer - Large watering pitcher
Salem clipper - Sailing ship from Salem, Mass.; has tall sails and is
Puncheon-floor - Floor made of heavy, broad pieces of timber

Type of poem:

Speaker: A dead man lying in the Earth remembering his life; the Daniel Boone type who spent his entire life in the untamed wilderness

General audience, The speaker seems to be speaking to a group of young children, such as his grandchildren.

Tone: The Tone is lively and upbeat, as if the speaker is telling a folk tale. Towards the end, the tone changes. The speaker seems more concerned how people are fencing in the land, and happy that he is not alive to see it.

This poem is about a man's life on the wild frontier. He talks about the rugged life he and his family led. "I was cradled on twigs of pine in the skin of a mountain lion," (Benét 11-12). This quotation shows the kind of life that he lived. When he grew up he had a family just like the one he grew up in. When he got older, things changed and ruined his life of tranquillity with nature. "But I could not live when they fenced the land, for it broke my heart to see it," (Benét 55-56). This quotation shows how much he hated having the land fenced in. It is what eventually killed him.

Structure of poem: - Traditional poem
- Stanzas 4 lines each
- Strong "song like" beat
- Rhyme Scheme: a b a b, c d c d, etc.
- Definite Rhythm

Examples of poetic techniques used in the poem:

"The eldest died at the Alamo. The youngest fell with Custer," (Benét 51-52). Historical illusion
"I sowed my sons like the apple-seed," (Benét 47).
"With eyes bright as the Dipper," (Benét 44).
"His fist was a knotty hammer," (Benét 2).
"With a tall green fir for her doctor grave and a stream for her comforting neighbor," (Benét 7-8).

Connection between the poem and the poet's life and/or times: This poem does not seem to have a connection with the poet's own real life experiences. Rather, it deals with one of his favorite subjects, life on the American frontier. He was always reading and learning about this lifestyle, so it is only natural for him to write about it.

Most memorable quote from the poem:
"And I sowed my sons like the apple-seed on the trail of the Western wagons," (Benét 47-48).

© Smelli Notes 2001