I think it is possible to find this poem evocative even if, like me, one has little idea of what is being evoked. I have no idea, for example, what associations Carquinez Straits or Skunktown Plain might have for the American reader, but there is always a kind of magic in place-names, those human appropriations or summonings of small pieces of our planet..
The racial appellation in the fourth stanza grates on us now, of course: one can only plead that the poet at the time (1927) would not have seen it as offensive, which invites, I suppose, the rejoinder well, he should have.
I don’t know who the Henry and John of the sixth stanza were. My guess is a couple of writers who left America for Europe, possibly Henry James and John Dos Passos.
Nantucket Light, on the island of Nantucket off the coast Massachusetss, would be one of the first things seen by a traveller returning to America.
I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.
Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy’s horn,
But I will remember where I was born.
I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy’s Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.
I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.
Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman’s Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.
Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?
I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
Stephen Vincent Benét (1927)
I can see the attraction of many of the American names such as Lost Mule Flat and French Lick but in some of them such as Tucson and Harrisburg I find the metal is “thin and worn”. Bleeding-Heart-Yard by Benét’s standards should be American? At depth Benét loves the American names not for their sound or their associations but because they are American?
But you’d surely agree, Chris, that there is no necessary correlation between a place-name’s euphony and its potential for associations? To take an English example, Bath as a place-name is not exactly lyrical, yet for English people it can have something of a romantic vibe – Roman remains, Jane Austen, Georgian terraces. For all I know, and perhaps for all you know, Tucson and Harrisburg might be similarly numinous for Americans!
Hi David, thanks for your reply. Yes you’re right (eg a dull name can have magical associations). In the poem I enjoy the long list of names. As you said in your intro there’s a kind of magic in place names. A list could quickly become tedious but he finds lots of variations eg jumping back and forth between America and Europe. The “ghosts” that the names guard are the associations? “the tea and the laurels had stood all night” – Henry and John stayed up all night drinking tea and discussing books, unable to sleep?