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Poetry: All in the Family for Stephen Vincent Benét

By Neely Simpson. Mar 11, 2015. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Poetry, Pulitzer Prize

Poetry seems to have been woven into the DNA of Stephen Vincent Benét. Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on July 22, 1898, Benét was the youngest child of Colonel James Walker Benét and Frances Neill Rose Benét. Both of the elder Benéts were avid readers with a keen appreciation for poetry. Frances Benét herself wrote poetry, and Stephen said of his father, "[he] was interested in everything from Byzantine Emperors to the development of heavy ordnance and was the finest critic of poetry I have ever known."

Following in her parent's footsteps, Laura Benét, Stephen's eldest sibling by 14 years, grew up to be a prolific poet and writer. She authored two books of poetry, one novel, and seven works of nonfiction. During her career, she worked as an editor for the New York Evening Post, the New York Evening Sun, and the New York Times. The middle Benét sibling was Pulitzer Prize winning poet, William Rose Benét, and he was 12 years Stephen's senior. Born into such a family as this, Stephen Vincent Benét became immersed in poetry from the moment he took his first breath.

Stephen Vincent BenétBenét is best known for his book-length poem John Brown's Body, which chronicles the history of the Civil War in 15,000 lines of blank verse. It won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Benét was, at that time, 31 years old. However, he won his very first poetry prize at the young age of 13 from St. Nicholas Magazine. By the time he was 17, he had published his first volume of poetry, Five Men and Pompey.

Like his older brother William, Stephen attended Yale where he wrote for the Yale Literary Magazine, and the Yale Record. He published his second collection of poems, The Drug Shop in 1917 while still a student at Yale.

Benét also came from a long line of military men, and his father, a colonel in the U.S. Army, was his personal hero. So, in 1918 he took a break from Yale and tried to join the Army. However, due to a childhood bout with scarlet fever, he had very bad eyesight and was discharged three days later. So, he opted for civilian military service in Washington D.C. He worked alongside James Thurber as a cipher-clerk with the State Department.

In 1919, Benét returned to Yale and graduated with a B.A. That same year he published his third collection of poetry, Young Adventure: A Book of Poems. He continued at Yale for his graduate studies, and in 1920, instead of a thesis, he turned in a published collection of poetry called Heavens and Earth, thereby earning his M.A. in English.

selected works of stephen vincent benét: poetry Both of the Benét brothers expanded the family circle of poets and writers through their marriages. William Rose Benét married four times. His second wife was poet and novelist Elinor Wylie. His fourth wife was artist and children's book author Marjorie Flack. Stephen Vincent Benét met Rosemary Carr in Paris in 1920 while traveling on a Yale fellowship. The two married in Chicago on November 26, 1921. Carr was the daughter of Dr. Rachel Hickey Carr, one of Chicago's first women doctors. Rosemary became a well-known poet in her own right. She was also a journalist who, over the course of her career, wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and The New Yorker. In 1933 the husband and wife team collaborated on a children's book of poetry called, A Book of Americans.

Because of the scarlet fever he'd had as a child, Benét always struggled with his health. During his last 13 years, his health continued to decline as he suffered from arthritis of the spine. In addition to physical pain, he was also suffering from financial stress. Finally, the combination proved too much for him, and he died from a heart attack at the young age of 44 on March 13, 1943. He was posthumously awarded the 1944 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 5,000-line narrative poem, Western Star. He is buried in Stonington, Connecticut in Evergreen Cemetery.

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Neely Simpson
Lifelong bookworm. Lover of ghost stories and folklore who writes spooky fiction in her spare time. Is sometimes found rambling around old graveyards.

 

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