Ballad of William Sycamore
by Stephen Vincent Benet
interpreted by Samantha Marcum
father, he was a mountaineer,
fist was a knotty hammer;
was quick on his feet as a running deer,
he spoke with a Yankee stammer.
mother, she was meery and brave,
so she came to her labor,
a tall green fir for her doctor grave
a stream for her comforting neighbor.
some are wrapped in the linen fine,
some like a godling's scion;
I was cradled on twigs of pine
the skin of a mountain lion.
some remember a white, starched lap
a ewer with silver handles;
I remember a coonskin cap
the smell of bayberry candles.
cabin logs, with the bark still rough,
my mother who laughed at trifles,
the tall, lank visitors, brown as snuff,
their long, straight squirrel-rifles.
can hear them dance, like a foggy song,
the deepest one of my slumbers,
fiddle squeaking the boots along
my father calling the numbers.
quick feet shaking the puncheon-floor,
the fiddle squealing and squealing,
the dried herbs rattled above the door
the dust went up to the ceiling.
are children lucky from dawn till dusk,
never a child so lucky!
I cut my teeth on "Money Musk"
the Bloody Ground of Kentucky!
I grew tall as the Indian corn,
father had a little to lend me,
he gave me his great, old powder-horn
his woodsman's skill befriend me.
a leather shirt to cover my back,
a redskin nose to unravel
forest sign, carried my pack
far as scout could travel.
I lost my boyhood and found my wife,
girl like a Salem clipper!
woman straight as a hunting-knife
eyes as bright as the Dipper!
cleared our camp where the buffalo feed,
streams were our flagons;
I sowed my sons like the apple-seed
the trail of the Western wagons.
were right, tight boys, never sulky or slow,
fruitful, a goodly muster.
eldest died at Alamo.
youngest fell with Custer.
letter that told it burned my hand.
we smiled and said, "So be it!"
I could not live when they fenced the land,
it broke my heart to see it.
saddled a red, unbroken colt
rode him into the day there;
he threw me down like a thunderbolt
rolled on me as I lay there.
hunter's whistle hummed in my ear
the city-men tried to move me,
I died in my boots like a pioneer
the whole wide sky above me.
I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,
the seed of a prarie-thistle;
has washed my bones with honey and oil
picked them clean as a whistle.
my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,
my sons, like the wild-geese flying;
I lie and hear the meadow-lark sing
have much content in my dying.
play with the towns you have built of blocks,
towns where you would have bound me!
sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
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
- Large watering pitcher
clipper - Sailing ship from Salem, Mass.; has tall sails and is
- Floor made of heavy, broad pieces of timber
Type of poem: Narrative
Speaker: A dead man lying in the Earth remembering
his life; the Daniel Boone type who spent his entire life in the untamed
Audience: 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.
Meaning: 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.
Examples of poetic techniques used in the poem:
eldest died at the Alamo. The youngest fell with Custer," (Benét
sowed my sons like the apple-seed," (Benét 47).
eyes bright as the Dipper," (Benét 44).
fist was a knotty hammer," (Benét 2).
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
© Smelli Notes 2001