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Best Famous Stephen Vincent Benet Poems

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by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Colors

 (For D.
M.
C.
) The little man with the vague beard and guise Pulled at the wicket.
"Come inside!" he said, "I'll show you all we've got now -- it was size You wanted? -- oh, dry colors! Well" -- he led To a dim alley lined with musty bins, And pulled one fiercely.
Violent and bold A sudden tempest of mad, shrieking sins Scarlet screamed out above the battered gold Of tins and picture-frames.
I held my breath.
He tugged another hard -- and sapphire skies Spread in vast quietude, serene as death, O'er waves like crackled turquoise -- and my eyes Burnt with the blinding brilliance of calm sea! "We're selling that lot there out cheap!" said he.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

The Innovator

 (A Pharaoh Speaks.
) I said, "Why should a pyramid Stand always dully on its base? I'll change it! Let the top be hid, The bottom take the apex-place!" And as I bade they did.
The people flocked in, scores on scores, To see it balance on its tip.
They praised me with the praise that bores, My godlike mind on every lip.
-- Until it fell, of course.
And then they took my body out From my crushed palace, mad with rage, -- Well, half the town WAS wrecked, no doubt -- Their crazy anger to assuage By dragging it about.
The end? Foul birds defile my skull.
The new king's praises fill the land.
He clings to precept, simple, dull; HIS pyramids on bases stand.
But -- Lord, how usual!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Going Back to School

 The boat ploughed on.
Now Alcatraz was past And all the grey waves flamed to red again At the dead sun's last glimmer.
Far and vast The Sausalito lights burned suddenly In little dots and clumps, as if a pen Had scrawled vague lines of gold across the hills; The sky was like a cup some rare wine fills, And stars came as he watched -- and he was free One splendid instant -- back in the great room, Curled in a chair with all of them beside And the whole world a rush of happy voices, With laughter beating in a clamorous tide.
.
.
.
Saw once again the heat of harvest fume Up to the empty sky in threads like glass, And ran, and was a part of what rejoices In thunderous nights of rain; lay in the grass Sun-baked and tired, looking through a maze Of tiny stems into a new green world; Once more knew eves of perfume, days ablaze With clear, dry heat on the brown, rolling fields; Shuddered with fearful ecstasy in bed Over a book of knights and bloody shields .
.
.
The ship slowed, jarred and stopped.
There, straight ahead, Were dock and fellows.
Stumbling, he was whirled Out and away to meet them -- and his back Slumped to the old half-cringe, his hands fell slack; A big boy's arm went round him -- and a twist Sent shattering pain along his tortured wrist, As a voice cried, a bloated voice and fat, "Why it's Miss Nancy! Come along, you rat!"


More great poems below...

by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Lonely Burial

 There were not many at that lonely place, 
Where two scourged hills met in a little plain.
The wind cried loud in gusts, then low again.
Three pines strained darkly, runners in a race Unseen by any.
Toward the further woods A dim harsh noise of voices rose and ceased.
-- We were most silent in those solitudes -- Then, sudden as a flame, the black-robed priest, The clotted earth piled roughly up about The hacked red oblong of the new-made thing, Short words in swordlike Latin -- and a rout Of dreams most impotent, unwearying.
Then, like a blind door shut on a carouse, The terrible bareness of the soul's last house.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Love in Twilight

 There is darkness behind the light -- and the pale light drips 
Cold on vague shapes and figures, that, half-seen loom 
Like the carven prows of proud, far-triumphing ships -- 
And the firelight wavers and changes about the room, 

As the three logs crackle and burn with a small still sound; 
Half-blotting with dark the deeper dark of her hair, 
Where she lies, head pillowed on arm, and one hand curved round 
To shield the white face and neck from the faint thin glare.
Gently she breathes -- and the long limbs lie at ease, And the rise and fall of the young, slim, virginal breast Is as certain-sweet as the march of slow wind through trees, Or the great soft passage of clouds in a sky at rest.
I kneel, and our arms enlace, and we kiss long, long.
I am drowned in her as in sleep.
There is no more pain.
Only the rustle of flames like a broken song That rings half-heard through the dusty halls of the brain.
One shaking and fragile moment of ecstasy, While the grey gloom flutters and beats like an owl above.
And I would not move or speak for the sea or the sky Or the flame-bright wings of the miraculous Dove!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Music

 My friend went to the piano; spun the stool 
A little higher; left his pipe to cool; 
Picked up a fat green volume from the chest; 
And propped it open.
Whitely without rest, His fingers swept the keys that flashed like swords, .
.
.
And to the brute drums of barbarian hordes, Roaring and thunderous and weapon-bare, An army stormed the bastions of the air! Dreadful with banners, fire to slay and parch, Marching together as the lightnings march, And swift as storm-clouds.
Brazen helms and cars Clanged to a fierce resurgence of old wars Above the screaming horns.
In state they passed, Trampling and splendid on and sought the vast -- Rending the darkness like a leaping knife, The flame, the noble pageant of our life! The burning seal that stamps man's high indenture To vain attempt and most forlorn adventure; Romance, and purple seas, and toppling towns, And the wind's valiance crying o'er the downs; That nerves the silly hand, the feeble brain, From the loose net of words to deeds again And to all courage! Perilous and sharp The last chord shook me as wind shakes a harp! .
.
.
And my friend swung round on his stool, and from gods we were men, "How pretty!" we said; and went on with our talk again.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Nos Immortales

 Perhaps we go with wind and cloud and sun, 
Into the free companionship of air; 
Perhaps with sunsets when the day is done, 
All's one to me -- I do not greatly care; 
So long as there are brown hills -- and a tree 
Like a mad prophet in a land of dearth -- 
And I can lie and hear eternally 
The vast monotonous breathing of the earth.
I have known hours, slow and golden-glowing, Lovely with laughter and suffused with light, O Lord, in such a time appoint my going, When the hands clench, and the cold face grows white, And the spark dies within the feeble brain, Spilling its star-dust back to dust again.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Poor Devil!

 Well, I was tired of life; the silly folk, 
The tiresome noises, all the common things 
I loved once, crushed me with an iron yoke.
I longed for the cool quiet and the dark, Under the common sod where louts and kings Lie down, serene, unheeding, careless, stark, Never to rise or move or feel again, Filled with the ecstasy of being dead.
.
.
.
I put the shining pistol to my head And pulled the trigger hard -- I felt no pain, No pain at all; the pistol had missed fire I thought; then, looking at the floor, I saw My huddled body lying there -- and awe Swept over me.
I trembled -- and looked up.
About me was -- not that, my heart's desire, That small and dark abode of death and peace -- But all from which I sought a vain release! The sky, the people and the staring sun Glared at me as before.
I was undone.
My last state ten times worse than was my first.
Helpless I stood, befooled, betrayed, accursed, Fettered to Life forever, horribly; Caught in the meshes of Eternity, No further doors to break or bars to burst!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Portrait of a Boy

 After the whipping he crawled into bed, 
Accepting the harsh fact with no great weeping.
How funny uncle's hat had looked striped red! He chuckled silently.
The moon came, sweeping A black, frayed rag of tattered cloud before In scorning; very pure and pale she seemed, Flooding his bed with radiance.
On the floor Fat motes danced.
He sobbed, closed his eyes and dreamed.
Warm sand flowed round him.
Blurts of crimson light Splashed the white grains like blood.
Past the cave's mouth Shone with a large, fierce splendor, wildly bright, The crooked constellations of the South; Here the Cross swung; and there, affronting Mars, The Centaur stormed aside a froth of stars.
Within, great casks, like wattled aldermen, Sighed of enormous feasts, and cloth of gold Glowed on the walls like hot desire.
Again, Beside webbed purples from some galleon's hold, A black chest bore the skull and bones in white Above a scrawled "Gunpowder!" By the flames, Decked out in crimson, gemmed with syenite, Hailing their fellows with outrageous names, The pirates sat and diced.
Their eyes were moons.
"Doubloons!" they said.
The words crashed gold.
"Doubloons!"


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Rain After a Vaudeville Show

 The last pose flickered, failed.
The screen's dead white Glared in a sudden flooding of harsh light Stabbing the eyes; and as I stumbled out The curtain rose.
A fat girl with a pout And legs like hams, began to sing "His Mother".
Gusts of bad air rose in a choking smother; Smoke, the wet steam of clothes, the stench of plush, Powder, cheap perfume, mingled in a rush.
I stepped into the lobby -- and stood still Struck dumb by sudden beauty, body and will.
Cleanness and rapture -- excellence made plain -- The storming, thrashing arrows of the rain! Pouring and dripping on the roofs and rods, Smelling of woods and hills and fresh-turned sods, Black on the sidewalks, gray in the far sky, Crashing on thirsty panes, on gutters dry, Hurrying the crowd to shelter, making fair The streets, the houses, and the heat-soaked air, -- Merciful, holy, charging, sweeping, flashing, It smote the soul with a most iron clashing! .
.
.
Like dragons' eyes the street-lamps suddenly gleamed, Yellow and round and dim-low globes of flame.
And, scarce-perceived, the clouds' tall banners streamed.
Out of the petty wars, the daily shame, Beauty strove suddenly, and rose, and flowered.
.
.
.
I gripped my coat and plunged where awnings lowered.
Made one with hissing blackness, caught, embraced, By splendor and by striving and swift haste -- Spring coming in with thunderings and strife -- I stamped the ground in the strong joy of life!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

The Breaking Point

 It was not when temptation came, 
Swiftly and blastingly as flame, 
And seared me white with burning scars; 
When I stood up for age-long wars 
And held the very Fiend at grips; 
When all my mutinous body rose 
To range itself beside my foes, 
And, like a greyhound in the slips, 
The Beast that dwells within me roared, 
Lunging and straining at his cord.
.
.
.
For all the blusterings of Hell, It was not then I slipped and fell; For all the storm, for all the hate, I kept my soul inviolate! But when the fight was fought and won, And there was Peace as still as Death On everything beneath the sun.
Just as I started to draw breath, And yawn, and stretch, and pat myself, -- The grass began to whisper things -- And every tree became an elf, That grinned and chuckled counsellings: Birds, beasts, one thing alone they said, Beating and dinning at my head.
I could not fly.
I could not shun it.
Slimily twisting, slow and blind, It crept and crept into my mind.
Whispered and shouted, sneered and laughed, Screamed out until my brain was daft.
.
.
.
One snaky word, "What if you'd done it?" And I began to think .
.
.
Ah, well, What matter how I slipped and fell? Or you, you gutter-searcher say! Tell where you found me yesterday!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

A Minor Poet

 I am a shell.
From me you shall not hear The splendid tramplings of insistent drums, The orbed gold of the viol's voice that comes, Heavy with radiance, languorous and clear.
Yet, if you hold me close against the ear, A dim, far whisper rises clamorously, The thunderous beat and passion of the sea, The slow surge of the tides that drown the mere.
Others with subtle hands may pluck the strings, Making even Love in music audible, And earth one glory.
I am but a shell That moves, not of itself, and moving sings; Leaving a fragrance, faint as wine new-shed, A tremulous murmur from great days long dead.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Before an Examination

 The little letters dance across the page, 
Flaunt and retire, and trick the tired eyes; 
Sick of the strain, the glaring light, I rise 
Yawning and stretching, full of empty rage 
At the dull maunderings of a long dead sage, 
Fling up the windows, fling aside his lies; 
Choosing to breathe, not stifle and be wise, 
And let the air pour in upon my cage.
The breeze blows cool and there are stars and stars Beyond the dark, soft masses of the elms That whisper things in windy tones and light.
They seem to wheel for dim, celestial wars; And I -- I hear the clash of silver helms Ring icy-clear from the far deeps of night.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Elegy for an Enemy

 (For G.
H.
) Say, does that stupid earth Where they have laid her, Bind still her sullen mirth, Mirth which betrayed her? Do the lush grasses hold, Greenly and glad, That brittle-perfect gold She alone had? Smugly the common crew, Over their knitting, Mourn her -- as butchers do Sheep-throats they're slitting! She was my enemy, One of the best of them.
Would she come back to me, God damn the rest of them! Damn them, the flabby, fat, Sleek little darlings! We gave them tit for tat, Snarlings for snarlings! Squashy pomposities, Shocked at our violence, Let not one tactful hiss Break her new silence! Maids of antiquity, Look well upon her; Ice was her chastity, Spotless her honor.
Neighbors, with breasts of snow, Dames of much virtue, How she could flame and glow! Lord, how she hurt you! She was a woman, and Tender -- at times! (Delicate was her hand) One of her crimes! Hair that strayed elfinly, Lips red as haws, You, with the ready lie, Was that the cause? Rest you, my enemy, Slain without fault, Life smacks but tastelessly Lacking your salt! Stuck in a bog whence naught May catapult me, Come from the grave, long-sought, Come and insult me! WE knew that sugared stuff Poisoned the other; Rough as the wind is rough, Sister and brother! Breathing the ether clear Others forlorn have found -- Oh, for that peace austere She and her scorn have found!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Ghosts of a Lunatic Asylum

 Here, where men's eyes were empty and as bright 
As the blank windows set in glaring brick, 
When the wind strengthens from the sea -- and night 
Drops like a fog and makes the breath come thick; 

By the deserted paths, the vacant halls, 
One may see figures, twisted shades and lean, 
Like the mad shapes that crawl an Indian screen, 
Or paunchy smears you find on prison walls.
Turn the knob gently! There's the Thumbless Man, Still weaving glass and silk into a dream, Although the wall shows through him -- and the Khan Journeys Cathay beside a paper stream.
A Rabbit Woman chitters by the door -- -- Chilly the grave-smell comes from the turned sod -- Come -- lift the curtain -- and be cold before The silence of the eight men who were God!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Dedication

 To W.
R.
B.
And so, to you, who always were Perseus, D'Artagnan, Lancelot To me, I give these weedy rhymes In memory of earlier times.
Now all those careless days are not.
Of all my heroes, you endure.
Words are such silly things! too rough, Too smooth, they boil up or congeal, And neither of us likes emotion -- But I can't measure my devotion! And you know how I really feel -- And we're together.
There, enough .
.
.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

May Morning

 I lie stretched out upon the window-seat 
And doze, and read a page or two, and doze, 
And feel the air like water on me close, 
Great waves of sunny air that lip and beat 
With a small noise, monotonous and sweet, 
Against the window -- and the scent of cool, 
Frail flowers by some brown and dew-drenched pool 
Possesses me from drowsy head to feet.
This is the time of all-sufficing laughter At idiotic things some one has done, And there is neither past nor vague hereafter.
And all your body stretches in the sun And drinks the light in like a liquid thing; Filled with the divine languor of late spring.


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Dinner in a Quick Lunch Room

 Soup should be heralded with a mellow horn, 
Blowing clear notes of gold against the stars; 
Strange entrees with a jangle of glass bars 
Fantastically alive with subtle scorn; 
Fish, by a plopping, gurgling rush of waters, 
Clear, vibrant waters, beautifully austere; 
Roast, with a thunder of drums to stun the ear, 
A screaming fife, a voice from ancient slaughters! 

Over the salad let the woodwinds moan; 
Then the green silence of many watercresses; 
Dessert, a balalaika, strummed alone; 
Coffee, a slow, low singing no passion stresses; 
Such are my thoughts as -- clang! crash! bang! -- I brood 
And gorge the sticky mess these fools call food!


by Stephen Vincent Benet | |

Talk

 Tobacco smoke drifts up to the dim ceiling 
From half a dozen pipes and cigarettes, 
Curling in endless shapes, in blue rings wheeling, 
As formless as our talk.
Phil, drawling, bets Cornell will win the relay in a walk, While Bob and Mac discuss the Giants' chances; Deep in a morris-chair, Bill scowls at "Falk", John gives large views about the last few dances.
And so it goes -- an idle speech and aimless, A few chance phrases; yet I see behind The empty words the gleam of a beauty tameless, Friendship and peace and fire to strike men blind, Till the whole world seems small and bright to hold -- Of all our youth this hour is pure gold.