Stephen Vincent Benét

The Ballad of William Sycamore by Stephen Vincent Benet

‘The Ballad of William Sycamore’ by Stephen Vincent Benet is a nostalgic articulation of a dead person about his eventful mortal days.

The Ballad of William Sycamore by Stephen Vincent Benet

The Ballad of William Sycamore‘ offers the reminiscent reflections of a person who recapitulates the halcyon days of his childhood, his parents, and his close-to-the-ground upbringing. He remembers his marital life, his sturdy wife, three sons, their brutal demise, and then his own death. And now, he is in his grave, again so close to the ground, telling the tale of a rural boy. The boy’s surname, ‘Sycamore’ refers to a tree that sheds its rough grey-brown bark to reveal its light grey or white wood behind. This is just like the narrator, who sheds his memories to return to his green salad days of childhood and early youth, followed by the struggle and strife of the grown-up man, ultimately leading him to his grave.

The Ballad of William Sycamor
Stephen Vincent Benet

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 merry 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 as tall as the Indian corn,
My father had little to lend me,
But he gave me his great, old powder-horn
And his woodsman's skill to befriend me.
 
With a leather shirt to cover my back,
And a redskin nose to unravel
Each forest sign, I carried my pack
As far as a 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 the 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 my 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 the prairie-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.
The Ballad of William Sycamore by Stephen Vincent Benet


Summary

The Ballad of William Sycamore’ is a song about the rugged life the narrator led. The whole poem is distributed in some movements. The first one is about surviving in the ruthless world, and it starts with a description of the poet’s father, who used to be a mountaineer. His fists resembled hammers, and he was quick as a deer and had a Yankee accent. His mother was quite a brave and tough woman who gave birth to the narrator under tall green fir without any help, comforted only by the stream. The poet recalls that while some people grew up in clean linen, he was cradled in a pile of pine twigs and wrapped in the skin of a mountain lion.

The second is living the present. The poet describes how he grew up by watching the adults dance and have fun. He watched the tall, lank visitors dance to a foggy song. The third is finding and fighting adulthood.  The speaker tells that he grew like an Indian corn plant, and his father had little materialistic things to offer him, so he gave his woodman’s skill which helped him to explore the woodlands with his homespun gear and a leather shirt on his back, like a professional scout.

The fourth is the struggle of adulthood, in which he speaks about his wife and three fierce warriors, their death in wars that were hard to tolerate but that they accepted quite stoically. What he could not accept was the encroachments of the government, of the civilized society, upon his small personal territory.

The fifth is wild self-reliance. The poet stood on firm feet against the fencing and protested against the White civilization. The colt he rode to protest for his territory kicked him off and rolled over him, and he died a pioneer’s death failing all the city men’s efforts to retrieve him from his territory. The last is the peace after death. The poet is now in his grave, lying peacefully, without any regrets. The wheel of life turned again, and now his youth returns like spring rains. He is now living his life once again, from the start.

Theme

The poem ‘The Ballad of William Sycamore‘ is based upon a nostalgic reminiscence of a dead man. His rugged life, his struggle as a child, his acceptance of the death of the three sons, the fencing laws, and then his desperation in protecting his territory, and finally, his death and renewal – everything is delineated in the verse-narrative. Thus the ‘Sycamore’ myth comes into the foreground; like the deciduous tree itself, the woodsman undergoes a cycle of change that doesn’t end in death because the Deadman renews himself by re-living the life he has already lived through his journey down memory lane.

The first name ‘William’ suggests a ‘resolute protector’ or a ‘strong-willed warrior.’ Thus, the theme of ‘The Ballad of William Sycamore‘ is strength, reliability, power of resilience, and resuscitation of the Sycamore-soul

Structure and Form

The poem is a Lyrical Ballad written using a narrative method. A Lyrical Ballad is a genre of Ballad that expresses emotion with all spontaneity. It tells a story often derived from some folk tradition and has supernatural elements.

The poem has nineteen stanzas, each consisting of four lines. The total amount of lines in the poem is seventy-six.

The closest meter is the trochaic tetrameter. The rhyme pattern is an alternate rhyme, and the scheme is abab cdcd. The type of the stanzas is tercet.

Literary Devices

The poet has used some figures of speech that should be mentioned here.

  • Historical Allusion The words “Money Musk,” “Bloody Ground of Kentucky,” “Alamo,” “Custer,” “pioneer,” “Salem clipper,” and “fenced the land” have historical significance.
  • Simile – The poet uses ‘as’ and ‘like’ to create similes in the poem. For example, “as a running deer,” “like the apple-seed,” “as the Dipper”, “like godling’s scion,” “brown as snuff,” “as the Indian corn,” “straight as hunting knife,”
  • Metaphor – The poet uses metaphors like, “His fist was a knotty hammer.”
  • Contrast – The poet, from the beginning, uses juxtaposing images to discriminate him from the rich kids.
  • Imagery – The poet has used beautiful visual, auditory, and olfactory images. For example, a baby “cradled on twigs of pine/In the skin of a mountain lion” (visual image), “and the fiddle squealing and squealing” (auditory), “I remember…the smell of bayberry candles” (olfactory). In the last line of the poem, the poet uses the symbol of ‘buffalo,’ which is a sign of hope and an indication of good times to come.
  • Personification – The poet personified the ‘stream’ as the mother’s ‘comforting neighbor.’
  • Exaggeration – In the first stanza, the poet use hyperbole like, “he was quick on his feet as a running deer.”
  • Anaphora – In the poem, the same words ‘and,’ ‘a,’ and ‘the’ are repeated in some lines, and ‘my’ and ‘and’ are repeated in some stanzas.
  • Characters – The poet uses round characters like William Sycamore. His life can be seen unfolding and developing throughout the poem.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza 1-4

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 emery 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.

As is professed, ‘The Ballad of William Sycamore’ is a ‘ballad,’ a verse-saga of the life of William Sycamore, the son of an unnamed mountaineer, perhaps belonging to a race of aborigines, dwelling on the Appalachian Mountains in the east of Kentucky. The poem begins with the progenitor figure, standing huge at the entrance; he is indeed left nameless, but it’s felt that name is not necessary, as the emphatic paternal presence (“MY FATHER” all in bold font) overlaps all. The father’s strength, his agility, his native and naïve parlance (Yankee accent)-everything is touched upon, and the first stanza is dedicated to the father.

The second one is meant for the mother, a merry and brave woman who gave birth to the narrator in nature’s open-air labor room, with the tall, green fir and a stream caring and caressing the woman-in-labor.

The third stanza describes the neonate cradled on pine twigs in a lion hide. Here, a comparison arises. The narrator discriminates against those who like ‘godling’s scion,’ i.e., the descendants of an affluent nobility, who are wrapped in the luxury of soft linen. A son to the impoverished hunter-couple, naturally, mountain lion’s skin would make the most befitting carry-cot for him.

This mood of comparison and contrast spreads to the fourth stanza and hovers over it all through. The first two lines, which speak of those children who came from rich families and were habituated with ‘white starched’ lap and silver-handled ewers, are juxtaposed with the next two lines that describe the hunter’s son who used the ‘coonskin cap’ and ‘bayberry candles. ‘Coonskin cap,’ a traditional Native American hand-gear made from the skin and fur of a raccoon, a mammal native to North America. again, foregrounds the ‘huntsman’ lineage of the narrator. Similarly, ‘bayberry candles’ point at the forest man’s occupation.

Stanza 5-8

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!

Now the narrator becomes nostalgic. The ‘I remember’ of the 4th stanza, which begins with ‘coonskin cap’ and ‘bayberry candles’, now elongates into a catalog comprising the rough-skinned cabin-log, the ever-jolly mother, the tall, thin, tanned gunmen, somewhat awkward in their looks, who used to frequent their place, their dancing feats, their songs, and music, heard faintly through slumber.

The exuberance runs through the sixth stanza, where the son recapitulates the father’s participation in the music fiesta.

  In the seventh stanza, the ecstasy reaches the pinnacle when the narrator recollects how the fiesta used to get the height of euphoria with the image of the floor dust reaching the ceiling.

In stanza eight, the prolonged musing on the comparison and contrast ends in a solid inference. Maybe, there were many privileged children who could enjoy all the luxuries of life. However, the narrator was the luckiest one who could enjoy the pleasure of apprenticing in money-musk, which was a kind of country dance for three couples and also a pipe-tune. In the last line of the stanza, the narrator clearly and specifically refers to the geographical location of his dwelling; it is Kentucky, a state in the south-eastern region of the U.S.A. Here the narrator proudly alludes to the myth of Kentucky as a ‘bloody ground.’ The region that became the states of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio, was known by the lugubrious name “Dark and Bloody Ground” before the Indians started fighting back against the encroachment of white settlers. The indigenous inhabitants of the region, who fought over this favorite hunting territory, made the ground ‘bloody.’ The region became bloodier when British-American settlers invaded the native Indians’ territory.

Stanza 9-12

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.

The next four stanzas recapitulate the child’s growing into puberty and adulthood, his marriage, and paternity.

 In stanza nine, the narrator, now an adolescent boy, who grew as tall as the Indian corn, recalls his father’s giving him the coveted powder horn, in which he could keep the gun powder, and his sharing with him his experience as a woodsman.

 In stanza ten, the boy is seen to have grown adult enough to venture to scout into the forest to fathom its mystery and unravel its signs and signals.

 Stanza eleven takes us one step further; here, the boyhood is lost, and the narrator is wedded to a girl like a ‘Salem Clipper.’ The phrase curiously refers to a fast-moving ship that moves on from the port of Salem. The next similes that are used to describe the spouse are equally queer. She was straight as a ‘hunting knife,’ and her eyes were as bright as the ‘Dipper,’ which, in this context, means ‘a ladle’ or ‘a scoop.’

The domestic, almost antiromantic, images of the previous stanza veer into romantic in stanza twelve, where the narrator muses over their post-wedding encampment on the grazing ground where they drank to their lees and where they enjoyed the conjugal bliss on the trail of the Western wagons and became parents to three sons.

Stanza 13-16

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, there is a reversal of the situation in the next couple of stanzas. The first two lines of stanza thirteen, describing the three sons as jolly good fellows, stumble on the ground suddenly in the following two lines, where the news of the sons’ death reaches the reader. They died as pioneer warriors at the battles at Alamo and Custer. The allusion to the politico-military events, i.e., to the Battle of Alamo, a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as ‘Custer’s last stand’, refers to the defeat of Colonel Custer and his cavalry by a large force of Native Americans, lend the poem the nuances of historicity.

Stanza fourteen tells how stoically the parents accepted the pang of bereavement. In the same stanza, we find the impatience of the Native, who failed to bear the encroachment of the White civilization upon his territory, imposing the fencing laws. Personal agony can be borne deep at heart. But, being poleaxed at the root of ethnic identity is devastating for a native.

Stanza fifteen shows the man-in-protest. Almost in a Quixotic temper, he rode on a ‘red unbroken colt’, fell on the ground, and died a pioneer’s death, refusing the city men’s effort to retrieve him. He died a soldier, with the hunter’s whistle still humming in his ear, under the bare open sky.

Stanza 17-18

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.

In these two stanzas, the dead man’s voice is heard from beneath the Earth. He was buried in the heart of his territory, and his bones were, after the ablution, became a whistle. He was rejuvenated, and his sons were restored to him after death. He could now hear the meadowlark sing, and his death was now comfort and contentment for him.

Stanza 19

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.

The final stanza addresses the readers, the civilized people, and the vanguards of urbanization. The narrator’s grievance, and his defiance as well, is reverberated throughout the concluding stanza. The city-men ultimately failed to confine the Sycamore-soul. Like a fox, exhausted after a day’s hunting, William Sycamore slept in his earth, and his buffalo alone would have found him in his halcyon haven.

FAQs

What were the colors used in ‘The Ballad of William Sycamore?’

In the poem, ‘The Ballad of William Sycamore,’ green, white, silver, brown, and red are the colors that were used. The color green was used not only to describe the tall fir but used as the symbol of the bravery and strength of the mother. And the other colors were also used to create visual images.

What were the gifts that Sycamore’s father gave him?

As described in the poem, William Sycamore’s father couldn’t give him much of the materialistic things but gave him “his great, old powder-horn” and his woodman’s skill as a gift, which he used in time. Though his father couldn’t offer him much but gave him all the learnings, he achieved throughout his life.

How did William Sycamore die?

William Sycamore died like a pioneer while protecting his territory. He stood with all his strength against the city men and fought for his rights. The colt he rode kicked him off and rolled over him, and he died with the whole wide sky above him.

What is the tone of the poem ‘The Ballad of William Sycamore?’

The poem’s tone is lively and has a song-like beat, like a typical folk tale. But as a change in the tone, the poem has a twist in the ending stanzas. In the last three stanzas, the tone changes and turns into a nostalgic reminiscence.

What was the most important event of William Sycamore’s life?

The most important event of William Sycamore’s life was his standing in protest against the ‘fencing,’ i.e., against the aggression upon the aborigines’ territory. In his life after death, the most important event was his rejuvenation and reunion with his sons.

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The Ballad of William Sycamore by Stephen Vincent Benet
Dipayan Mustafi Poetry Expert
About
Dipayan Mustafi is an enthusiastic literature practitioner who loves to wield his pen in English and to work with different kinds of poetry. He did his graduation as well as his Masters in English literature. He has a blog targeting mainly literature and its criticism.
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