Reviewed Book: Legends of Liberty Volume 1, by Andrew Benson Brown, T A J Classics, 2021

by James Sale

Legends of Liberty is an important new poem from the American poet, Andrew Benson Brown. The nearest work that one might compare it to is probably Byron’s mock-epic, Don Juan. It is comparable because both choose serious—heroic—subject matters, yet both contrive to make fun of and send-up their heroes (and the topics), but in doing so aspects of the seriousness remain; in other words, they provide a kind of running critique of society’s mores and values. In the case of Benson Brown we are covering the alleged events that constitute the American war for Independence.

Second, they both embrace narrative as a primary feature of their work: this is all about stories, not lyrics. This means there is an ongoing drive in the verse and a deep anticipation of “what next?” as the verse unfolds: we want to read on to find out more. Lyrics are perfect for depicting brief and intense emotional states, or intellectual conundrums, whereas narrative holds our attention for a much more prolonged period, and provides an opportunity for a much wider sweep of an issue.

Third, they both employ ingeniously tight and classical forms. In the case of Byron this is ottava rima, a notoriously difficult Italian form that rhymes abababcc, which means alternate triple rhymes for the first six lines, and final rhyming couplet to deliver the punchline. Triples rhymes are very difficult in English compared with Italian, whose words have more natural rhymes available; Benson Brown has created a ten-line stanzaic form that rhymes ababcdcdee. This avoids the problem of triple rhymes—a good move—but adds substantial space in which to develop his materials, whilst as the same time keeping the couplet punchline at the end of the stanza; and on the subject of extra space, the final line is extended to be an alexandrine, whereas the rest are pentameters.

With this background, then, how has Benson Brown performed in writing this mock epic? Surprisingly, since this seems his first attempt at a long narrative poem, superbly well. There are many gems in this poem which need to be viewed, and—to mix metaphors—need to be savoured!

One of the key tests for me of outstanding poetry—possibly of great poetry—is what I call “the quotability quotient.” I notice that the great poets of the past—and clearly Shakespeare pre-eminently—are always being quoted: it’s one line, sometimes two, but somehow we call their words to mind when reality confronts us and they seem to have encapsulated it somehow in anticipation of our predicament! Before giving an example, let me just note that this is the opposite of today’s modernist and post-modernist poets: who quotes them? Except when they are being reviewed by their friends in so-called “quality” journals, nobody. Whereas, Robert Frost, for example, we quote all the time—“good fences make good neighbours,” “and that has made all the difference,” and “miles to go before I sleep,” and so on.

Another way of putting this is that really good or great poetry often has an aphoristic quality, and this tendency was itself expressed by a great poet, Alexander Pope, some 300 years or so ago: “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Exactly—great poets write about reality, not about the solipsistic drivel of their egos. Let me, therefore, show you three wonderful aphorisms from Benson Brown’s poem:

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False surfaces, once magnified, see larger truths.

(Chapter 1: Invocation)

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Beneath the “surfaces of things,” even false things, there are truths we can apprehend; this is very succinctly and powerfully put.

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Said Dante: “Men don’t sing in Hell, they scream.
No melodies are found in endless death.”

(Chapter 2: Thomas Jefferson in Hell)

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I have quoted the preceding line here, to indicate the authority of Dante speaking, but what a stunning, concise expression: “no melodies …”

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They’re diplomats by trade—we call them hypocrites.

(Chapter 2: Thomas Jefferson in Hell)

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Finally—for there are dozens more of these aphoristic lines—something in the modern world we are all too familiar with: the diplomat and their almost unbreakable association with hypocrisy. The satire here is almost independent of its context—we know this to be true. And before leaving Benson Brown’s aphoristic power, it needs be said that this fact arises because his poetry is about something, it means something. That is so refreshing in these post-modern times.

A second test for great poetry is the technical test: this relates to syntax, meter, sound effects, and so on. How deftly are these handled? Clearly, this is too much to cover in this short overview, but I think of all these technical issues the most important for a mock-epic à la Byron is the rhyming; for Don Juan is so funny precisely because of its rhyming prowess. In Canto XI stanza 55 he writes:

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Even I—albeit it I’m sure I did not know it, 
Nor sought of foolscap subjects to be king,—
Was reckon’d, a considerable time, 
The grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme.

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Byron is the “grand Napoleon of rhyme.” Can Benson Brown match any of this? Yes, he can. The poem is wonderfully inventive and very funny because of the fecundity of rhyming that he deploys. Four examples will suffice:

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Where honor, valor, loyalty are slandered,
Utopias are raised without a building standard.

(Chapter 1: Invocation)

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Why there’s Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot.
And here, I think, is someone that you know.”

(Chapter 2: Thomas Jefferson in Hell)

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—“Why yes, it is her favorite jiggumbob.
But now the hour is late—you’re needed for a job.”

(Chapter 3: The New-World Mercury)

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Spit deadly cud. Smith’s ego bade resist ‘em:
These soldiers warred with an entire ecosystem.

(Chapter 5: The Old Man of Menotomy)

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One need hardly comment on any of these examples are they are self-evidently funny and strained as many of Byron’s were; inventive too: for example, in stanza 22 of Canto I (Don Juan) the narrator pokes fun at over-bearing women. The stanza concludes: “Oh ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?” A strained rhyme or what? And note, too, that some of Benson Brown’s lines here also have that same aphoristic quality—“Utopias are raised without a building standard”—we commented on before.

Finally, we come to a third quality that we require of great poetry. As GK Chesterton expressed it: “What alone can make a literary man in the ultimate sense great … is ideas; the power of generating and making vivid an incessant output of ideas.” Benson Brown is full of ideas; indeed the poem is a cornucopia of them, and they start in lines one and two!

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Who sings of arms these days? Or even men?
The seed of Adam’s tucked inside Eve’s apple,
Not taking root—he showed his defect when
Atonement trailed equality’s long grapple.

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Well, there’s four lines at least: ostensibly we are writing about the American war of Independence, but immediately we sense the contemporary thrust of the satire: “these days” and of a manhood no longer considered heroic or capable of heroism; they are considered more like oppressors and tyrants in fact. And notice that genius second line: “The seed of Adam’s tucked inside Eve’s apple,”—the reversal of Adam’s apple in Eve’s apple, but not the physiological aspect, but the reference to the whole Fall of man—mankind—but given line 1 seemingly restricted to men only, which is amplified in lines 3 and 4 and the defect he (man) is still trying to atone for as he fails to embrace “equality.” It is a brilliant and actually complex piece of writing, but seemingly simple and jocular.

Or take the final stanza from the Introduction, which in true mock epic mode invokes the Muses, or his case “Parnassus’ power” plus eight specific muses (so totalling the nine!):

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Lend me Parnassus’ power so I might
Ascend its lower foothills from the grave:
From Homer, dogs’ and birds’ raw appetite;
From Virgil, founding sagas people crave;
From Byron give polysyllabic wit;
From Milton, light; from Dante, Hell’s best features;
From Wordsworth’s wardrobe, lyric fabric knit
With vines and buds frayed by romantic natures;
From Ovid, fluid forms (minus the flings);
And from the soaring swan of sweet Avon—his wings.

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How witty and full of insight the listing is: due credit to Byron’s “polysyllabic wit,” which we have already commented on. And a nice distinction between what the epic of Milton offers him—“light”—with what Dante can provide “Hell’s best features.” Nice. But my favourite line is the last: calling on Shakespeare for inspiration, “his wings.” Here the caesura is important—the first time in the stanza the pause occurs just before the final foot, and it’s as he is saving the very best till the very last moment, for without those “wings” the verse is dead.

If I had one criticism to make of this collection, it would possibly be a carping one, and that is what occurs in Chapter 4, “The Shot Heard Round the Universe.” Here I think the poet tries to be too ingenious technically, though I would be interested in other readers’ perceptions. Essentially, Benson Brown attempts to mimetically replicate the confusion and anarchy of the battle scene via linguistic sound effects: to wit, and for example, in an intermittent sort of way he drops the rhyme of the final rhyming couplet, so that we have an ending like:

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And screamed—Apollo had lost all his nerve.
In modern warfare, even gods surrender zen.

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The lack of the rhyme here and in a few other places in this section I feel is a blemish rather than an enhancement. That last line I feel would be much wittier if written as:

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And screamed—Apollo had lost all his nerve.
In modern warfare, even gods lose all their verve.

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Mock-epic (unlike modern epics like, say, Eliot’s Wasteland) requires the closure of rhyme and we feel the want of it.

But that said, one extra benefit of this collection is the extensive set of Notes at the end of it; and these are much funnier and more useful than TS Eliot’s own for his Wasteland. Find out all sorts of obscure and recondite facts and information, such as who Albertinus Mussatus was! Highly readable and a wonderful complement to the poetry.

I could go on, but I think I have said enough now. Andrew Benson Brown’s Legends of Liberty is a modern classic that should be read by all adults and taught in colleges and schools. My final criticism is that I am not sure whether this work is complete or not! As with Byron’s Don Juan (and he did not live to complete his poem), it seems complete (as does the Aeneid in another way). So here—I can see it’s entirely possible that Benson Brown may well extend this further—or not. But it would be good to know. I wish this collection massive success with the public in future, for it is a poem for the public—not the academics, the post-modernists and the know-it-alls, but the reading public who wish to be entertained first and foremost, and whilst that process is going on, to be educated too.

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3 Responses

  1. Evan Mantyk

    If the epic poet John Milton, the magical realist film director Terry Gilliam, and the average disenfranchised middle-class American were to get together to make the United States’ first great epic poem, then this would be Legends of Liberty. Brown’s epic strikes an exuberant, almost hypnotic, balance between the delightfully humorous and the profoundly serious—between rich cultural allusions that transcend nationality and zany adventures that keep the pages turning. At a time when our civilization and culture seem to be dissolving around us, this is a story that revives those elements of Western civilization, traditional American culture, and self-evident visceral enjoyment that are worth celebrating. This is a true classic already.

    Reply
  2. Andrew Benson Brown

    Thanks so much for your promotional efforts, gentlemen. This project would never have gotten anywhere without your active assistance and encouragement!

    Reply

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