‘A Minor Poet’ by Stephen Vincent Benét is an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet that is made up of fourteen lines and follows a distinctive rhyming pattern. This type of sonnet is divided into two sections. The first is made up of two quatrains, or sets of four lines. These lines rhyme ABBA ACCA. Benét has chosen to diverge and embellish the traditional rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. The second half of the poem is divided into two tercets, or sets of three lines. Benét has also chosen to adapt a new rhyme scheme in this section. The end rhymes follow the pattern of DEF DGG. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of A Minor Poet
“A Minor Poet” by Stephen Vincent Benét describes the speaker’s beliefs about his own work and how it compares to the work of the world’s greatest writers.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is “a shell.” This shell is something simple, without a direction of its own, and dependent on the power of the sea to move it. This is how he perceives himself in regard to other, greater writers.
His work does not ring with the voice of a viola, nor does it come “Heavy with radiance.” He continues on to say that if one does listen closely to the sea, that one might hear a small part of him. There are many who are greater, grander, and louder than he will ever be, but under close inspection, his work does make a barely audible sound.
In the final stanza he once more describes the power other poets have over the “surging tides” and his own inability to change them. He is only carried along, writing what he can, to the best of his ability.
Analysis of A Minor Poet
I am a shell. From me you shall not hear
The splendid tramplings of insistent drums,
The orbed gold of the viol’s voice that comes,
Heavy with radiance, languorous and clear.
The first quatrain begins with a slighting shocking, and eye-catching statement, “I am a shell.” This depressing phrase is meant to draw the readers into the poem and keep them reading. When taken into consideration alongside the title of this piece, “A Minor Poet,” one might begin to understand what this poem is going to be about. The speaker will be bemoaning the state of both his career and his poetic abilities
He continues on to say that from his lips, or from his writings, “you,” referring to readers of his work, will not hear the “splendid tramplings of insistent drums” or the golden voice of the viola. He is using these complex phrase to demean his own work. He is tellings the reader not to expect anything spectacular from him. The poetry that he creates will not resonate throughout the ages or act as an “insistent” drum beat inside one’s head.
His poetry is not “Heavy with radiance” or any kind of exemplary quality.
Yet, if you hold me close against the ear,
A dim, far whisper rises clamorously,
The thunderous beat and passion of the sea,
The slow surge of the tides that drown the mere.
In the second set of four lines he makes a stipulation. It is not all negative. He tells the reader that if one was to “hold [him] close against the ear,” that one might be able to hear a “far whisper” that is beating on the “passion of the sea.” It is this quiet, almost impossible to hear, sound that represents the impact of his writing.
It is not negligible, as it can be heard amongst the “slow surge of the tides,” but it is no “beating drums.” The poet chose to use the metaphor of the surging tides in this instance to show the amount of power that one must possess to make her or himself heard over it’s drone.
Others with subtle hands may pluck the strings,
Making even Love in music audible,
And earth one glory. I am but a shell
That moves, not of itself, and moving sings;
Leaving a fragrance, faint as wine new-shed,
A tremulous murmur from great days long dead.
In the final section, made up of two tercets, the speaker turns to describe the ways that others go about writing poetry and the impact their work has. The “others” of which he speaks are the greatest poets of all time. Those whose names will never be forgotten and whose words are memorized all over the world. They have “subtle hands” that are able to make the feeling of “Love” audible in their music. They give life and description to the things that others can only feel. Additionally, they are able to make “earth one glory.” They can unite all the people of Earth in their common relationship to words.
In comparison to the work of these giants the speaker sees himself as “a shell.” This description is even more apt after he made use of the power of tides as a metaphor. He is light, and easy tossed in the surf. He controls nothing and has only a small impact in the larger scheme of the world. He cannot even move himself, the ocean must do that for him.
In the last lines the speaker concludes his thoughts about his own impact on the written word and states that his work only contains a small, “murmur,” of the work of others greater than him. He will never be more than a shadow of greater poets.
About Stephen Vincent Benét
Stephen Vincent Benét was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July of 1898. Benét grew up in a military family that lived on a number of different army posts and from a young age Benét’s father made sure to endow Benét, his sister, Laura, his brother, Stephen, with a love for literature. All of the Benét children became writers.
During World War I Benét left Yale for civilian service, but he would later return and receive his M.A. after the war was over. His most widely read work, John Brown’s Body, (published in 1928,) only came after a number of other volumes were released. Among these other works were the Ballad of William Sycamore, as well as a number of short stories and three novels.
Throughout his life Benét published more than seventeen volumes of prose and verse.Before his death in 1943, Benét was working on an epic narrative on American History. This large series of books went unfinished. Benét died in March of 1943 in New York, New York.