BROTHER TO DRAGONS
A Tale In Verse And Voices (voices Of The South)
Robert Penn Warren
Warren's novels, with one or two exceptions, are terrible; his early poetry, though estimable for its linguistic ripeness and its heart and its astonished American innocence, was often a clustering mess of eloquence. But in the last dozen years or so, Warren has simplified, toned down--at least in his poetry--and achieved a directness many find extremely affecting. This narrative poem in different voices, first published in 1953, has been reworked to conform to the chaster Warren. It takes occasion from the real-life 1811 crime, described in Boynton Merrill, Jr.'s Jefferson's, Nephews (1976), in which two Kentucky nephews of Thomas Jefferson, Lilburne and Isham Lewis, hacked a Negro slave to parts, Speaking as himself--R.P.W.--and giving speaking roles to Jefferson, to Lilburne, to Isham, and to others connected, Warren probes not only the agony and violence of the act, but chiefly Jefferson's from-the-grave response to the across-the-board brutality and blood that accompanied his democratic vision. Innocence denied by history and evil, seems to be the theme, and though it's larded here and there with hyped-up eloquence ("this period of the final tumescence/From fat oubliettes of inwardness/ Let Lilburne speak"), Warren has done well in this new version; the marriage of narrative and decreased poetic assertion produces a strong work.