The American Revolution: An Epic Poem Chapter I by Andrew Benson Brown Chapter II: Thomas Jefferson in Hell On July Fourth of Eighteen Twenty-Six, Old Thomas Jefferson was sent to Hell In his pajamas. At the river Styx He idled, slippers soggy from the swell Of wrathful souls abounding in the slime Whereon Phlegyas rowed, traversing waves To ferry worldlings taken in their prime. Tom had been bad—he didn’t free his slaves. Where three-fifths persons should be whole unchained, A mob of creditors can make intent constrained. The fire and brimstone dappled yellow, red, And orange around him, wafting like the leaves In autumn, crumbling embers flames had shed To blow into Tom’s face and singe his sleeves, An underworld of Indian summer. Some voices in the water whispered sighs And shameful secrets to the newcomer, Like soft wind from a hurricane’s calm eye; Still others shrieked like flapping birds in pitch, Or screeching sirens that no longer can bewitch. Dead Thomas waited on the riverbank Amidst a crowd of criminals and whores. This had to be a nightmare, or a prank. Why was he not upon that whiter shore? While pondering his soul’s collected dross, The boatman docked and beckoned them to board. One sullen shade affirmed he would not cross; Phlegyas marked his tears, and threw him toward Those brooding in the marsh, who pulled him down. Tom, horrified, decided it best not to drown. But stepping forward on the boat to join The rest, his further progress was declined. “You can’t get on unless you pay a coin,” He heard a voice advising from behind. Tom turned his head to view a crimson robe Topped by a bearded, dark-complexioned scowl With candid melancholy eyes that probed Tom’s soul, and nose perched like a hunting fowl. He eyed the figure without commentary. It was quite obviously Dante Alighieri. “I haven’t got a coin,” said Tom, who turned The empty pockets of his fuzzy pants. “I died flat broke, it must be why I burn Here in this hot and miserable expanse.” Once tender Dante would commiserate With fools down here, but now he only walked Bent over with a grave and gentle gait Up to the boat and managed to concoct A gold piece from his robe still somehow clean, Despite his wading through the bowels of Earth’s latrine. The pair squeezed in the craft and moved downstream As Thomas hummed a hymn under his breath. Said Dante: “Men don’t sing in Hell, they scream. No melodies are found in endless death.” —“Old habits are impossible to cure,” And Tom resumed his song, now amplified. —“You have some questions,” Dante said, “I’m sure. It’s best you follow me, I’ll be your guide. The place we’re headed isn’t Monticello; It’s no philosopher’s retreat serene and mellow.” Then Silent Thomas asked, “Why are you here, Exiled so far from heaven’s memory?” —“Old habits, same as you. I was a seer When I described Hell in my reverie, Narrating, as it is, my future fate: I helped defend my faction, the White Guelphs— But it was the wrong side to advocate. So now, like Virgil once did for myself, I show all those with loyalties misplaced Their punishment for the fine virtue they disgraced.” “And what is mine?” asked Tom. “Please do regale.” —“When you arrived, your deepest sin’s amount Was judged by Minos when he whipped his tail.” —“It flopped this way and that, I didn’t count.” Dante: “I understand you are nonplussed. There’s six or seven circles I could guess You might go to—first there’s the one for lust. Francesca da Rimini flirted less Than you…and then there was that Hemings girl. For that alone you should be cast on winds awhirl.” —“I promised Martha never to re-wed, And was to her fond memory sincere. What wrongs I did, I did for her,” Tom said. —“You think a weak excuse can wipe sin clear? Let’s turn to greed—how many creditors Crept on the patio of your plantation To chase your debts like stalking predators, And you paid them with ratiocination? In logic as with cash you’re a spendthrift; You could be rolling stones on the fourth circle’s shift.” They disembarked from off the boat, compelled Towards heavy smog from factories at Dis. The gates spread open to the citadel Where Philadelphia stood all amiss: The library stockpiled with shelves of dust, The fire brigade that tends eternal blazes. Then Dante showed the bell covered with rust Forever knelling to those abject phrases Tom wrote, its tower’s bricks now charred and black. (Cities are born with souls, as men are built with cracks.) The two walked through this polis of the damned To where a frontier framed a busy scene That sketched no space for solace to be crammed: Ships scuttled in a stagnant lake between A junkyard full of coaches, wagons, trains Derailed from tracks receding clockwise far To the horizon of this dim domain. The pictured wasteland moves like flowing tar. Pale pilgrims pull their broken transports west Then east again, a futile migratory quest. Brushed in a sheer dark gown, horned Baphomet Flaps high above, and bears on its goat’s head A pentagram where evil is inset. From its left hand a rope unfurls that threads Behind on through an endless trail of gallows Where swinging settlers flail legs in despair. Its right hand a memento mori hallows, And chiaroscuro fogs the sulf’rous air. The view runs red and black beneath Hell’s skies, A painting dripping blood and oil that never dries. “A grim sight,” Dante said, “don’t you agree? The master of design drew shadows where The wave of progress ends in heresy. Political machines won’t fail to spare Folk shrines that mass-produce some cheerful psalm Chanted by subjects crushed in mills like seed.” —“Why are you showing me all this?” said Tom. —“You lost arcadia, renounced its deed When France sold vast Louisiana cheap To British hands that turned it to a garbage heap.” Upon a broken wagon moving east They hitched a ride, hauled by a pioneer Who colonized this land of the deceased And dragged a mountainous supply o’ gear. Thomas: “You’re really blaming this on me?” —“In my time we had mostly Florentines. But Hell’s frontier will always need grantees. Your negligence brought varied foreign miens From Europe and beyond that we embrace, Expanding far and wide damnation’s motley race.” The pair dismounted in a barren field With rows of flaming holes dug in the ground Where tombs were densely packed and left unsealed, And from each fissure thrived a plaintive sound. “Your faith’s another theme where you went rogue,” Said Dante. “The souls inside this furrowed trench All held the stock enlightenment new vogue. There’s lots of deists here (they’re mostly French). Why there’s Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. And here, I think, is someone that you know.” A balding head rose from a fiery tomb And squinted through bifocals fogged and cracked. “What, is that you, Minette? Will you exhume My offer for a marital contract?” —“Ben Franklin!” came Tom’s mortified reply. “How did you come to be in this mine hole? It’s Thomas Jefferson, your old ally.” But Ben just stared at him like a blind mole. He leaned in, peering through the cloud of smoke. He rubbed his specs, his eyes went wide, and then he spoke: “Poor Richard said be practical and shrewd To reap the industry your labor earns. Poor Richard said the Puritan subdued Will boost your trade’s diminishing returns. Poor Richard said think scientifically To give life higher purpose here within. Poor Richard advertised terrifically, A prophet with no wig upon his chin. Poor Richard was too vague in his Lord’s Prayer— The Deity, it turns out, is quite doctrinaire.” Ben then reached out and gave Tom a slim book. “Carry my wit below,” he said, and fell Back in his pot to simmer and slow-cook. Tom glanced at his new gift, and couldn’t tell Why he should ever need predict the weather Here where the nude abyss was cast to model. “Were it my choice, I’d throw you in this nether Region with him, but we’ve no time to dawdle,” Said Dante. “You’ve great sins of intellect, But private views can’t compass all the lives you’ve wrecked.” Tom tiptoed in his slippers round the flames Like a fine lady loath to drop her tea. “I get your hint,” he said, “stop playing games. For owning other men as property, I’m going to where neighbors are pernicious.” The heavy-lidded lips of Dante winked A grin. “Your hands aren’t clean, but they aren’t vicious. From when the ease of Eden went extinct Men have yoked other men—‘twas a sad start. More tragic, though, are men enslaved to their bad art.” They came upon a den filled with antique Bohemians, the lesser followers From minor periods: Alexandrine Greeks Rewriting grammar errors, wallowers Aborted ere rebirths had lit their spark. “There swaggers one of the Caravaggisti Who soaks his copied masterworks in dark. (The light can’t rise—his spirit isn’t yeasty.) Here similes are shaped by Pseudo-Homers Who call creative violence ‘art,’ but speak misnomers.” Then Dante named one of these nobodies: The diplomat-turned-radical in France, Joel Barlow, blinded by false truths he sees. “An honest man,” said Tom. “What happenstance Occurred since then for which he’s punished now?” —“His epic poem had horrendous flaws: The dull Columbiad.” —“Ah yes, I’ll vow It wasn’t very good. But still…” Tom saw That Barlow, eyes pressed to the page, had penned Some words into his book: he scribbled to the end Illegibly, then turned to start again. —“The poem is so bad, for all of time He has to edit it, and even then He can’t improve its repetitious rhymes On the delusion that religions buy, Or wars derided as impassioned schemes. A cautionary tale for those who’d try Their hand at writing epic with grand themes: Make it a cultural repository, Or you’ll end up in Hell for writing a weird story.” Thus Dante. Thomas turned from his old friend And said, “This journey’s getting wearisome. How many detours must I apprehend Before we reach my dear own dreary slum?” They slid below past the eighth circle’s brink. Dante: “What day is this, are you aware?” Tom shrugged. “I died on a Tuesday, I think.” —“Too bad your funeral will lack fanfare. Your state was strangled in its nursery; This marks its fiftieth year antiversary.” A group of people walking single-file Came into view, their features undisclosed By long dress coats with wigs, in sad profile. —“An ‘anti-versary?’ Am I supposed To know about some date that ne’er occurred?” —“‘Twas when you wrote that wretched document.” —“Ah, that—my masterpiece! I wrote each word To make the followers of Locke repent.” —“‘The Declaration of True Loyalty?’ It’s crap, not fit for chamber pots of royalty.” While Tom and Dante loitered in dispute The line of coats moped closer, glints of gold Reflecting off the dust of their commute. Thomas began to quote himself: “We hold These probabilities to be obscure, That men are all unequal to the king, And need to be reminded to secure The necessary duties their lives bring: Compliance, fealty…all those synonyms. We trust God’s servant George, and his mysterious whims.” —“One emperor would boost our earthly bliss,” Said Dante, “strengthening the public weal, It’s true, I wrote words similar—and this Has landed me in Hell without appeal. My error’s also yours, with this contrast: The papacy I always did abhor, But you once loved a good regal lambaste.” —“Expediency won,” said Tom. “The war Was going badly—Boston and New York Were overrun, and Valley Forge would pitch a fork In the strewn straw of freedom’s loosened bale. Poor Washington was just too undermanned.” A heavy gilded coat had crushed a frail Sinner among those laboring to stand Before the pair where the formation stopped. Tom looked at them. “Who are these weeping courtiers?” —“One view they’d laugh about, then they’d adopt A different stance with some to win more cheers, Wearing beliefs as the occasion fits. They’re diplomats by trade—we call them hypocrites.” A tailcoat fell at Tom’s feet with a thud. “It’s lined with lead,” said Dante, “Same as you. Foul politics makes veins run thick with mud In those who trail the flow of lies they spew.” The line of shadows parted just enough To form a space that fit Tom’s contrapasso. “Come on, let’s put this arm through that sleeve cuff. Those for whom falsehood was a mantra lasso Their bodies to these sluggish shrouds of pain. Your life is gone, and you’ve eternity to gain.” As the contented yeoman farmer wakes To find a blighted field of crops, and sobs For having nothing stored, and then forsakes The plough to go and look for city jobs, Enjoying no more self-sufficiency Or natural abundance, glum to hoard A wage that prizes mean efficiency, Exchanging rural values once adored For urban vices, free and verdant climes For smoke and crowded avenues and violent crimes, So was the face of Jefferson’s world changed That very moment as he lost his marred Illusions, weeping for his soul estranged. “I won’t say that ‘forever’ isn’t hard, But you lose track of time after a while.” The bard’s small comfort didn’t mean a fig. Tom sighed, and ready to begin his trial, He donned the heavy coat and periwig. But then, about to take his place in line, A candle in the scarlet air appeared to shine. The sphere enlarged, its flicker glowed more bright As if it seemed the sun began to fall. It set ablaze the sky with blinding light, Unveiling darkness where the damned did sprawl. A feather floated down from the white orb, And one among that circle stretched his palm To touch this piece of heaven and absorb Its softness—bursting like he’d caught a bomb. Two wings were then outstretched with golden tips That flapped a zephyr through the calm apocalypse. Wise Dante’s singing joints swelled on bent knee, Inflamed to praise this bird of paradise. Old Thomas aped his motions silently, Disdaining the new Common Era vice Of deists keen to keep their hands apart. He said a prayer, and then and there renounced The rational perspective of Descartes. The rays from Gabriel’s white nimbus bounced Around an open hand that sacrificed A page of vellum fashioned from the lamb of Christ. Tom took the parchment and the angel fled. The light receded and was soon snuffed out, Enwrapping them in that which evil bred. Bright stems of lettered lines began to sprout And bulb upon the page that Thomas gripped, The words made lambent by the love of God. He tried to read the Anglo-Saxon script That linked him to his fatherland abroad. Dante, impatient, snatched it from his hand And read (Tom knew not how) the heavenly command. “It seems your shade won’t march here after all.” —“Why?” Thomas said. “What does the letter say?” —“We have to go, take off that leaden pall. There’s something you must see without delay.” Descending to the lowest sphere, it seemed That darkness with more darkness did collide, Which spread more blankets on the unredeemed As if the boundless void were multiplied. The frigid air made Tom hug tight his garment As shadows under ice felt grace’s worst debarment. The poet stopped before a figure trapped Behind the arctic glass that mirrored shame In Old Tom’s pupils struggling to adapt: A man of high stature whom sin did maim Was gleaming there, his well-proportioned form Dismembered, with a floating out-turned arm Saluting those who traveled past his warm And modest eyes that raised no wide alarm When Tom appeared, but kept a distant gaze, A shepherd who woolgathers as his lost sheep graze. The ice smoothed over his slight facial scars, The black cockade froze proudly on his hat, His coat’s rich epaulets were shining stars, His sword hung sheathed and ready for combat. “Witness the traitor’s marshal dignity,” Said Dante, “poised so noble and majestic Amidst degenerate malignity Where countrymen betray affairs domestic.” Tom placed a wrinkled hand against the ice. “I’m sorry, George,” he said, and sought looks of advice From those blue eyes that cast a vacant stare. “Why do his senses not refer to us?” —“His distant manner always made it rare To share emotions deemed superfluous. He was interred here after being drawn And quartered by the British crown for treason To contemplate his tragic denouement.” Tom: “Will I also bear this glacial season?” The great shade raised the heaven-sent epistle. —“Not anymore. You have been granted a dismissal.” He went on: “Don’t abandon hope just yet. Our God has heard your cries and tearful songs; He’s letting you repay your moral debt— You’re being sent back home to right your wrongs. Ah subject colonies, a place of toil, A ship that bears nutritional disease And bleeds into the waves that roll and roil, The scurvied crew of She who rules the seas. Go pluck a lime from liberty, take health— Do what I yearned for Italy’s lost commonwealth.” But Thomas sighed and said, “I’ve grown too old, My life is spent, my weary mind can’t plumb The grand significance that you foretold.” —“You’ll need help, yes—your friend Ben gave you some. It’s there inside your pocket to discover.” Thomas withdrew the curious bric-a-brac Inside his fuzzy pants and read the cover: ‘Poor Richard’s Most Infernal Almanack.’ He scoffed. “Can I have something less didactic? We won’t be freed by proverbs or new farming tactics.” Dante: “This little book has special charm. Hell’s climate guide and cosmic counselor, Its bits of wisdom guard you whole from harm, A trapper swaddled in an ounce of fur. It steers you through an odyssey when clouds Engulf the sun and navigators freeze Like statues at their spinning helms, endowed With marbled death to stand the lawless breeze. There’s just one caveat to this dark horse: You must know how to read it properly, of course.” The crispy book was bound in human skin. Tom opened to a page that flames did etch: ‘Crouching gently forward on hand and shin, Virgo’s head is turning around to catch Eager starry gazers with their spying glass. Rashly judged as pleasing, their thirst will wring Little astral fantasies from withered grass, Finding April’s shower in a former spring. Foolish men will shamelessly recall the past; Wiser stands the conjurer whom time has not harassed. Look to waning crescents that didn’t wax, Bask in shadows forested by stones and stumps. Fate has better grooves when it’s lacking tracks, Overlooking history that skips and jumps.’ Tom stared. “I can’t make sense of this a whit.” —“Some see the future, while the present’s dim. Poor Richard only sees a past forfeit, Lost in a stream of time where none can swim,” Said Dante. “That there book can show you, maybe, Where you went wrong miscarrying your earthen baby.” Tom flipped the book and read another page: Of kneeling Washington victorious At Valley Forge; now Ben—the world’s his stage! A diplomat with purpose glorious. Dante: “You made your general an outlaw, If not for you he might have had a chance. And Franklin isn’t doomed to that bourgeois Materialistic life of mere finance. Now leave this place and go back home to fight A righteous cause that will confirm your country’s might.” Tom’s slippers sloshed in puddles at his feet. The air was tranquil, and long beads of sweat Were trickling down from Washington’s ice sheet. “The lake is melting, try not to get wet,” Said Dante. “Our king isn’t here to flap His wings, he’s busy these last fifty years Up in the world.” The poet gave a clap And teams of devils entered pulling gears, Assembling there a windmill in the zone That would do Satan’s work and spin all on its own. Bespectacled old demons holding quills And ledgers gathered round the bard to write Down orders: “Let’s please circulate more bills Of currency to sinners here tonight To bankroll our new mill. Let them have fun, Then punish those who don’t abstain—oh rats! Reroute the second circle’s winds, someone.” To Thomas: “Even hell needs bureaucrats. Beelzebub charged me to help preserve His new system—it’s called the Federal Reserve.” Thomas: “Will we head back the way we came?” —“I don’t have time to lead you, I’m afraid.” A signal cued a devil to proclaim The need for quick transit, who loudly played A tarnished trumpet badly out of tune. A chariot with horses snorting fire Plummeted towards them, driven by a loon. A crown of sunbeams made his head a pyre Of burning auburn hair and beat-red brow. Not slowing down, the chariot turned to a plough As golden wheels collided with the frost, Displacing bodies from the ice below. “You’ve no doubt read of Phoebus’ son, who lost Control of what he pleaded to borrow, And ravaged all the earth as a result,” Said Dante. “Phaethon is his name, condemned To chauffeur famous sinners to occult Torture and terrorize all those close-hemmed In girdled ground with airborne fusillades. He’s just a bit unhinged—in Hell we’ve few so odd.” Tom eyed with caution the berserk young boy. He gave his solemn guide an awkward hug And mounted onto Vulcan’s crafted toy Behind its cocky driver looking smug. “A word of warning: Satan’s changes wrought Down here are soon reflected up above,” Said Dante. “One may come among your lot, A bird of prey, though passing as a dove, A man whom Washington will have employed. Should he rise high, all your ideals will be destroyed. He bears the name of Hamilton—beware. We’ll meet again, remember, if you stray And nurture your old habits, so take care.” —“Thank you for everything, I shall prevai—” But Thomas was cut off by Phaethon’s rash Departure, and the hand that waved goodbye Now flew to grip the sidebar in a flash. “Just don’t let go, my horses are quite spry,” Said Phaethon, as the thund’rous beating hooves Cleaved poisonous green clouds of gas as lightning moves. He wrestled with the reins and couldn’t steer; He called the steeds their wrong names one by one With gleeful eyes where prudence would show fear. Thomas: “Do you know where you’re going, son?” —“Yes—up!” Tom glanced behind the chariot: A trail of fire had melted the ninth ring And carbonized Judas Iscariot, Whom once the jaws of Dis did chew and fling. The bloody Phlegethon had boiled away To paste, and steam baths scalded killers on display. The carriage bounced the weightless shades about, And Tom held tight as his feet dangled off. The team defied their master’s simple route; They corkscrewed right, inducing Tom to cough When passing through the wood of suicides Now smoldering in ashes of self-pity. “Whoops,” Phaethon said as their careening strides Crashed through and crumbled the infernal city. “I’ll grant I’m no expert equestrian, But doesn’t this beat being a pedestrian?” He laughed and snorted with his neighing steeds As the third circle’s downpour vaporized, And gluttons, mired in their indulgent needs, Were baked inside the mud and fossilized. He spread fire through the second circle’s gale Where lovers, like a lantern sea, were lit. He smashed Hell’s gates, proceeding thence to sail Into the sky away from the dark pit. Although this daft coachman was overzealous, Tom’s long ascent would make even Elijah jealous. Tom patted out the flames on his wool shirt And gazed on the empyrean’s light trails. They passed near Virgo standing at alert, Presenting Libra’s fairly balanced scales. “Please take me home,” said Thomas, “on the double.” “But why?” said Phaethon. “I want to explore!” God saw the grin of mischief that spelled trouble For His creation, though, and did implore Tom, looking down at the New World, to faint As lightning purged the sky of old myths and their taint. Thomas awoke at his library desk. A cry escaped the chasm of his throat As fiery visions danced of the grotesque. “What’s wrong, my love?” He heard a soft voice float Behind and turned to see his Martha there. He took her in his arms and twirled her round. He ran smooth fingers through her auburn hair. He stared into her hazel eyes spellbound, And kissed a finger pricked from stitching seams. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Just been having some bad dreams.” “Then come to bed,” she said, and pecked his lips. “I will,” said Thomas as she left the room. Just like the sun’s edge after an eclipse He grew a smile and let his eyes consume The candlelight against the windowpane Reflecting his red hair and youthful face. The dream had seemed so real—was he insane? The bulge within his pocket did erase All happy thoughts of madness as he reached Inside and saw the almanac that darkness breeched. There on his desk a quill with a black plume Was balanced in an inkwell swirling slow, A whirlpool drawing him to death and doom. Its hypnotizing clockwise spiral flow Caused words to bubble and stir up in him. The quill beckoned his hand, but he recalled His promise to his wife, and drew his limb Away from that by which he was enthralled. He glanced outside where stars above were spread, Then closed the satin curtains, and went off to bed. Poet's Notes: Sally Hemings was one of the slaves of Thomas Jefferson. Even in his own lifetime he was scandalized by speculation that he had fathered a number of her children, and the debate has raged ever since. ‘Minette’ was the nickname of Madame Helvetius, widow of the Enlightenment philosopher of the same name. She ran a salon for freethinkers and her promiscuous inclinations led her to take many lovers, including Ben Franklin, who was smitten with her and once asked for her hand in marriage. Abigail Adams called her a “very bad” woman and was “highly disgusted” upon meeting her at a party. Joel Barlow was the U.S.A.’s first epic poet. In the 1780s he published a Christian epic entitled ‘The Vision of Columbus,’ which had many subscribers—including George Washington and George III. For a time he apparently accrued a high reputation, and over the next 20 years proceeded to lengthen and revise ‘the Vision’ in what became known as ‘The Columbiad.’ In the intervening period he acquired a number of liberal ideas, as indicated in his preface to the poem where he writes that Homer and Virgil have had a pernicious influence upon history due to their glorification of war. His earlier Christian version was transformed into an atheistic epic that culminates in a bizarre scene where the world’s religious leaders gather at a council at a crystal palace in Mesopotamia and throw off the shackles of faith that oppress them. Having recently read ‘The Columbiad’ in its entirety (though not the earlier version), I will limit exposition on its mediocrity by simply noting that, in a poem of a little more than 8000 lines, ‘yield’ is used as an end-rhyme 24 times, and in 23 of these instances it is rhymed with ‘field;’ numerous other repetitions demonstrate that the muse had forsaken poor Barlow. Even so, the thing is not entirely devoid of interest. It is the first extended literary work to chronicle the Revolutionary war (in summarized fashion), and compared to the ‘woke’ academic poets of today I would not hesitate to raise Joel Barlow on a tree stump among the lower foothills of Parnassus. Andrew Benson Brown was a graduate student at George Mason University before taking too many classes outside his discipline coincided with the reality of Debt. He now works as a children’s caseworker in rural Missouri. In his spare time he reads obscure classics, writes things of little market value, and exercises far more than is befitting for a modern intellectual.