Tuesday, June 12, 2012

John Brown

©  2012 Steve King
All rights reserved

I sing only of a man—
the rage must find some other muse.
Of arms and readiments for war,
the patient reader must excuse.
I seek one spirit of that time,
to wonder how it so inclined.

True, Harper’s Ferry had the guns,
bristling in a phony peace.
There was fratricide enough,
and death was hard upon the land:
the time was torn, the spirit fouled:
while Kansas bled, Missouri howled.

A house divided must soon fall.
How sooner must a man decay,
no passion there to unify,
to pull and pummel and upbraid
when destiny would sound a call.
All high-born aims must come to naught
when deeds undo promises made.
And so he felt his place and time,
and raced a path his heavens laid.

How empty is the soul that goes
to any easy pathway shown,
but hesitates at the Abyss
and trembles at the great Unknown.
Like Abraham, like Joshua,
the million stars would light his way.
A black tide rising to reclaim
its covenant would seize the day.

The problem left for later minds
was how to gauge competing crimes:
did subjugation and the lash
bring on itself the fatal clash?
Did slavery itself reward
with bloody recourse to the sword?
Could any reason yet accord
the place of minion, right of lord?

He led his sons through Treason’s gate,
held them all as ready tools,
as acolytes who would delight
their father’s will and share his fate.
In the old Books, fathers are stern
but few would so expect this faith,
and, contemplating on their ends,
seek sacrifice and not amends.

No plan is safe that must depend
upon the vagaries of men,
and so the army he would raise
was lost before his rifles blazed.
This blow to challenge infamy
was short of force and long of pain;
the dreamy triumph was undone
and only martyrdom remained.

Then it was over, he was gone,
or so they thought who strung the knot:
the great uprising would abate
as only force might demonstrate.
As if his gravestone would provide
a dam against the coming tide;
as if the blot the nation held
might, without bloodshed, be expelled.

       *   *   *   *   *   *   *

And now the bones lie peaceably
as far from rage as they might be,
forgotten in the farmstead turf,
his blood a fountain to the earth.

(Executed in 1859, John Brown remains one of the most important interlocutors in the United States’ continuing moral dialogue.  Those who are interested in particulars should refer to W.E.B. Dubois’ biography, John Brown, and Thoreau’s A Plea For Captain John Brown.  The John Brown Farm near Lake Placid, New York, is the final resting place of Brown and several others—including a number of his sons—either killed at the raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, or hanged soon thereafter by the State of Virginia.)


  1. The rhyme rang true
    With a history lesson from you
    That I never knew
    Sounds like such a grim ending came due

  2. I often find the Civil War and its milestones of disunion haunting me these days. We seem to have come again to a place of great divide, and the figures who are available to us seem far more diminutive than those, such as Brown,let alone Lincoln or Douglas that defined and to some extent salvaged, that great bloodletting and built a new nation. This is a thoughtful, well written and thought provoking piece--and I find great serenity in the ending.

  3. have been to harpers ferry quite a few times, so it is a story i am familiar with...and have we become less divided today, or have the issues just changed? i find it an interesting time in our nation to look back on what split us before...

  4. it is so odd that history really does seem to repeat itself...

    his blood a fountain to the earth...

    heartbreakingly beautiful words, those.

  5. Heartbreakingly beautiful, Steve ! Great write.

  6. "the time was torn,the spirit fouled: while Kansas bled,Missouri howled." Those lines popped off the page for me. This a great observation of history, one that the modern time can still learn from.

  7. Great writing Steve. I specially like the last stanza ~ Have we learned something from history ? I sometimes think we have to repeat our mistakes with each generation ~ Enjoyed the visit ~

  8. Such an interesting poem, and subject. I tend to think of Brown as a little crazy - not in his mission, but his fervor seemed so intense = perhaps some craziness was needed given what he was up against - but you've made a wonderful portrait here of him and of the times in very solid verse. Thanks much. k.

  9. A fine word painting of a contraversial figure in our history; beautifully penned, and important to remember. Thank you for sharing this, Steve!

  10. great use of history - inspired piece

  11. very cool capture of the flow in this as well steve...and def. have to read a bit more about him..

  12. Steve, John Brown is one of those people seldom discussed in history textbooks, if only because his legacy is hard for "scholars" to embrace. He fought for what was right; yet, is there such a thing as "just war"? Some say yes, others no. To me, he is a legend and yet fully a human being who saw injustice and felt there was no other way to make his point. He paid a dear price, the dearest, perhaps... Historians paint him as mentally imbalanced, but then, take a look at John the Baptist, eating locusts and honey. Very evocative, provocative write, Steve, thanks for submitting to dverse. Peace, Amy