Welcome to this website honoring the life and works of . . .

Robert Penn Warren

1905 - 1989

1905 - 1989

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Study-Brother to Dragons

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In the fall of 1807 Colonel* Charles Lewis, an aristocratic planter of Albemarle County, Virginia, removed to western Kentucky and settled himself not far from the frontier village of Smithland, in Livingston County, upriver from Paducah near the confluence of the Ohio and Cumberland rivers. This was, in fact, a family migration. The plan seems to have been developed by and dependent upon two of the Lewis sons, Randolph, who bought (for $9,100) 3,833 1/3 acres on the Ohio, and Lilburne, who bought (for $8,ooo) 1,500 acres, somewhat lower downriver, but still well above Paducah, both tracts largely undeveloped. Colonel Lewis and Lucy (he had married the sister of Thomas Jefferson), once rich but now on evil days, spent time sporadically on the new family holdings, as did Isham, a younger son, something of a feckless wanderer with no fixed occupation. And there were, of course, a number of slaves (though not enough for the task of adequately clearing land), among them a teen-age boy named George (John in my version), a sort of body-servant and handyman for Lilburne. On a bluff overlooking the Ohio, Lilburne built his house, “Rocky Hill,” presumably rather grand for time and place, with quarters and other outbuildings. After the death of Lucy, who was buried on Randolph's land, Colonel Lewis seems to have spent less and less time at “Rocky Hill.” About the same time Lilburne’s first wife died, but he married again, this time to Letitia, a daughter of one of the local families, Rutter by name. This wife was at “Rocky Hill,” pregnant in 1811 when George met his tragic end. I have stayed within the general outline of the available record, but have altered certain details. In my version Lilburne’s first wife does not appear, and I have disposed of a raft of young children as irrelevant to my theme. I omit the presence of Colonel Lewis** in Kentucky in May, 1812, before the trial of Isham. I have placed Lucy’s grave at “Rocky 

* Sometimes said to have been a physician. 

** Colonel Lewis appears at the proving of Lilburne’s will at the May session of the County Court of that year.

Hill,” substituting it for that of Lilburne’s first wife—this for thematic reasons. I have filled in certain gaps in narrative, motivation, and theme. For instance, I have invented a story for Letitia and her husband, and have invented two characters: Aunt Cat, from whole cloth; and the brother of Letitia, who has only a shadowy existence in the record. My poem, in fact, had its earliest suggestion in bits of folk tale, garbled accounts heard in my boyhood. Then came a reference or two, years later, in print. Then, as the poem began to take shape in my head, I went to Smithland and sought out in the dim and dusty huggermugger of a sort of half-basement room (as I remember it) the little bundles of court records, suffering from damp and neglect, but sometimes tied up in faded red tape or string. My first version of Brother to Dragons, the poem, was published in 1953. Only in 1977 appeared a conscientious and scholarly account of the general subject, from Virginia days and genealogies forward, Jefferson’s Nephews, by Boynton Merrill, Jr. (now the owner of much of the Lewis estate). This book, fascinating and reliable as it is, does not change the basic thematic or dramatic outline of my tale. For instance, though Colonel Lewis takes refuge in Kentucky after his financial difficulties, this practical failure, though solving an old mystery, does not necessarily displace the sense of inner failure from which the Colonel suffers in the poem—and which might meld with the sense of more practical failure. It must have been hard to invite daily comparison for years with a brother-in-law of the stature of Jefferson, who, it would seem, had no great concern for him in the first place, and whom he, in the end, defrauded—this according to Merrill’s account. In regard to the role of Jefferson, nothing is changed. Although the tragedy in Kentucky was published in the press at the time, several eminent students of his life and work assured me, when I was working on the first version, that they could find no reference by him to the Kentucky story, and one scholar even went so far as to state in a letter his feeling that Jefferson could not bring himself to discuss—or perhaps even to face—the appalling episode. If this is true (though the chances of further research may make it untrue), it is convenient for my poem; but the role of Jefferson in the poem, or in history, does not stand or fall by the fact. If the moral shock to Jefferson administered by the discovery of what was possible in his blood should turn out to be somewhat literally short of what is here represented, subsequent events in the history of our nation, which he helped to found, might amply supply the defect.

The story of Meriwether Lewis, the cousin of Lilburne and Isham Lewis, and a kinsman of Jefferson himself, to whom he served as a secretary and to whom he stood in a sort of filial relation, is, as far as my poem is concerned, drawn from the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Both Lilburne and Meriwether Lewis entered the wilderness as heralds of civilization, as “light-bringers,” and my story is about the difference with which they performed the role and their tragic ends, Meriwether’s apparently by suicide. Jefferson wrote a biography of poor Meriwether. There is some evidence, which does not strike me as necessarily convincing, that Meriwether was murdered. But certainly there was in the Lewis blood a strain of what Jefferson referred to as “hypochondriacal affection,” as is well evidenced by Lilburne. In any case, Jefferson believed that the death was by suicide committed in despair at the injustice of the charges brought against him as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. I know that any discussion of the relation of this poem to its historical materials is, in one perspective, irrelevant to its value; and it could be totally accurate as history and still not worth a dime as a poem. I am trying to write a poem, not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with non-essential facts. But poetry is more than fantasy and is committed to the obligation of trying to say something, however obliquely, about the human condition. Therefore, a poem dealing with history is no more at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the spirit of his history than it is at liberty to violate what he takes to be the nature of the human heart. What he takes those things to be is, of course, his ultimate gamble. This is another way of saying that I have tried in my poem to make, in a thematic way, historical sense along with whatever kind of sense it may otherwise be happy enough to make. Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake. As I have said, the first version of this poem appeared in 1953, and has run through a number of printings. It may, no doubt, seem odd that at this late date another and very different version should be issued. But this new version is the work, sometimes very sporadic, of some twenty years, and is, in some important senses, a new work. There had been, to begin with, some confusion about the text printed. But as I began to live with the text, sometimes in an off-and-on process of preparation for the stage,*** my dissatisfaction with several features grew. Now there are a number of cuts made from the original version, and some additions. Meriwether is given a more significant role. There is, in large measure, a significant change of rhythm. A number of dramatic effects are sharpened. Though the basic action and theme remain the same, there is, I trust, an important difference in the total “feel.” For the reworking was not merely a slow and patchwork job. It meant, before the end, a protracted and concentrated reliving of the whole process.

***A dramatic version was optioned for Broadway in the middle 1950’s, and after months of work on text and casting, blew up on signing day. A later version was produced by the American Place Theater in New York, in 1964, and under the direction of Adrian Hall, at the Trinity Theater of Providence, several runs occurred, most recently a tour, with the text and production considerably revised, ending in the Wilbur Theater, in Boston.

I have spoken of stage versions drawn from this poem. But even if the present version is a dialogue spoken by characters, it is definitely not a play, and must not be taken as such. The main body of the action lies in the remote past--in the earthly past of characters long dead--and now they meet at an unspecified place and unspecified time and try to make sense of the action in which they were involved. We may take them to appear and disappear as their urgencies of argument swell and subside. The place of this meeting is, we may say, "no place," and the time is "any time." This is but a way of saying that the issues that the characters here discuss are, in my view at least, a human constant.

****Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices--A New Version, Random House, (1979)


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