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Stephen Vincent Benet - Judith Henry

The follow excerpts from John Brown's Bodya 15,000-line epic Civil-War poem by Stephen Vincent Benet, published in 1928—tell the story of Judith Carter Henry and how she died in the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas).  

At the time of the fighting, the elderly Mrs. Henry (who was 84 or 85 years old) was bedridden.  She refused to leave the upstairs bedroom in her home, despite the battle which raged around her:

The crows fly over the Henry House, through the red sky of evening,
cawing,
Judith Henry, bedridden, watches them through the clouded glass of
old sight.
(July is hot in Virginia--a parched, sun-leathered farmer sawing
Dry sticks with a cicada-saw that creaks all the lukewarm night.)

But Judith Henry's hands are cool in spite of all midsummer's
burning,
Cool, muted and frail with age like the smoothness of old yellow
linen, the cool touch of old, dulled rings.
Her years go past her in bed like falling waters and the waters of a
millwheel turning,
And she is not ill content to lie there, dozing and calm, remembering
youth, to the gushing of those watersprings.

She has known Time like the cock of red dawn and Time like a tired
clock slowing;
She has seen so many faces and bodies, young and then old, so much
life, so many patterns of death and birth.
She knows that she must leave them soon. She is not afraid to flow
with that river's flowing.
But the wrinkled earth still hangs at her sufficed breast like a
weary child, she is unwilling to go while she still has milk for
the earth.

She will go in her sleep, most likely, she has the sunk death-sleep
of the old already,
(War-bugles by the Potomac, you cannot reach her ears with your brass
lyric, piercing the crowded dark.)
It does not matter, the farm will go on, the farm and the children
bury her in her best dress, the plow cut its furrow, steady,
(War-horses of the Shenandoah, why should you hurry so fast to tramp
the last ashy fire from so feeble and retired a spark?)

There is nothing here but a creek and a house called the Henry House,
a farm and a bedridden woman and people with country faces.
There is nothing for you here. And La Haye Sainte was a quiet farm
and the mile by it a quiet mile.
And Lexington was a place to work in like any one of a dozen dull,
little places.
And they raised good crops at Blenheim till the soldiers came and
spoiled the crops for a while.

The red evening fades into twilight, the crows have gone to their
trees, the slow, hot stars are emerging.
It is cooler now on the hill--and in the camps it is cooler, where
the untried soldiers find their bivouac hard.
Where, from North and South, the blind wrestlers of armies converge
on the forgotten house like the double pincers of an iron claw
converging.
And Johnston hurries his tired brigades from the Valley, to bring
them up in time before McDowell can fall on Beauregard.
...
The day broke, hot and calm. In the little farm-houses
That are scattered here and there in that rolling country
Of oak and rail-fence, crooked creeks and second-growth pine,
The early-risers stand looking out of the door
At the long dawn-shadows for a minute or two
--Shadows are always cool--but the blue-glass sky
Is fusing with heat even now, heat that prickles the hairs
On the back of your hand.
They sigh and turn back to the house.
"Looks like a scorcher today, boys!"
They think already
Of the cool jug of vinegar-water down by the hedge.

Judith Henry wakened with the first light,
She had the short sleep of age, and the long patience.
She waited for breakfast in vague, half-drowsy wonderment
At various things. Yesterday some men had gone by
And stopped for a drink of water. She'd heard they were soldiers.
She couldn't be sure. It had seemed to worry the folks
But it took more than soldiers and such to worry her now.
Young people always worried a lot too much.
No soldiers that had any sense would fight around here.
She'd had a good night. Today would be a good day.

------------

A mile and a half away, before the Stone Bridge,
A Union gun opened fire.
...
The hands of the scuffed brown clock in the kitchen of the Henry
House point to nine-forty-five.
Judith Henry does not hear the clock, she hears in the sky a vast
dim roar like piles of heavy lumber crashingly falling.
They are carrying her in her bed to a ravine below the Sudley Road,
maybe she will be safe there, maybe the battle will go by and leave
her alive.
The crows have been scared from their nests by the strange crashing,
they circle in the sky like a flight of blackened leaves, wheeling
and calling.
...
Judith Henry, Judith Henry, they have moved you back at last, in doubt
and confusion, to the little house where you know every
knothole by heart.
It is not safe, but now there is no place safe, you are between the
artillery and the artillery, and the incessant noise comes to
your dim ears like the sea-roar within a shell where you are
lying.
The walls of the house are riddled, the brown clock in the kitchen
gouged by a bullet, a jar leaks red preserves on the cupboard
shelf where the shell-splinter came and tore the cupboard
apart.
The casual guns do not look for you, Judith Henry, they find you in
passing merely and touch you only a little, but the touch is
enough to give your helpless body five sudden wounds and leave
you helplessly dying.
...
Judith Henry, Judith Henry, your body has born its ghost at last,
there are no more pictures of peace or terror left in the broken
machine of the brain that was such a cunning picture-maker:
Terrified ghost, so rudely dishoused by such casual violence, be at
rest; there are others dishoused in this falling night, the
falling night is a sack of darkness, indifferent as Saturn to wars
or generals, indifferent to shame or victory.
War is a while but peace is a while and soon enough the earth-colored
hands of the earth-workers will scoop the last buried shells and
the last clotted bullet-slag from the racked embittered acre,
And the rustling visitors drive out fair Sundays to look at the
monument near the rebuilt house, buy picture postcards and wonder
dimly what you were like when you lived and what you thought when
you knew you were going to die.
...

Stephen Vincent Benet won a Pulitzer Prize for this poem.


Media Credits

Excerpts from John Brown's Body, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning epic poem by Stephen Vincent Benet.  

 

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