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Review of Legends of Liberty Volume 2 by Andrew Benson Brown

In today’s blog we shall continue the trend of reviewing amazing sequels!

In 2021, I reviewed Volume 1 of Andrew Benson Brown’s mock-epic masterpiece Legends of Liberty. Three years later, the much-anticipated continuation will be released March 1st.

The first volume of Legends of Liberty was a masterstroke, blending history with myth, the absurd with the all-too-true, and the blatantly untrue with the sublimely comedic. Volume 2 continues in this vein, effortlessly picking up where we left off at the end of Volume 1.

In brief, Legends of Liberty follows a number of major figures from American history, along with one or two that time seems to have forgotten. We have Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, George Washington, and, on the other side of the pond, King George, Lord Howe, and Thomas Gage.

What is fascinating for historian and casual reader alike is how Benson Brown treats his characters. He viciously satirises them but at the same time handles their stories with compassion and surprising sympathy. For example, his portrait of Benjamin Franklin, or “Lightning Ben”, is of an obsessive who, for all his nerdy attention to scientific details, misses the one truly important thing in his life: his family.

Like all great writers, Benson Brown does not shackle himself to one mode or tone, and often punctuates his wit and humour with real pathos. The stanza below explores Ben Franklin’s return home to find his wife has passed away:

A priest bears crosses with his prioress:

Their souls, in distant abbeys, window-gaze.

A captured lion craves his lioness

And languishes until his cage his raised—

But when, returning to his shaded lair,

He finds the cubs are grown, the mother gone,

His youth departed, cautious of each snare,

His hunting instinct loses taste for fawn.

The priest, likewise, can only pray and nod

When his abstracted nun departs to be with God.”

Quite apart from the sentiment and imagery, which are beautiful and poignant in and of themselves, the control of language—in terms of meter, diction, and rhyme—are totally astonishing. In fact, it is hard to think of any other poet in the English language working today who demonstrates such technical prowess without succumbing to the lure of virtuosity. Benson Brown’s restraint and control render this passage even more moving. Coleridge said that poetry is “The right words in the right order” and Benson Brown’s epic seems the embodiment of this sentiment.

But not only does Benson Brown triumph in these extended images and passages that shape big narrative moments. He is also he master of the pithy and aphoristic witticism, the seemingly throwaway “one-liner” that speaks an entire century’s worth of words:

When morals lead to maxims, lend them:

Those prone to citing rules are liable to bend them.”

The poem is full of similar insightful and funny couplets; they illuminate the story by making the historical and mythological events feel incredibly down to earth. For all the we grandeur of these figures from history (and myth) we recognise in them hypocrisies and human flaws that allow us to access the narrative more fully.

Poetry is often accused of being intellectual and abstract, but Legends of Liberty proves this a false accusation. Legends of Liberty is a poem grounded in the humdrum details of everyday life and ordinary people making the best decisions they can in bad situations. But this everyday and ordinary life also borders realms more weird, fantastical, and dreamlike.

In this way, the evils of King George are explained—and rendered almost sympathetic— through supernatural means: he has been possessed by the Devil, who takes the form of a cockcroach and whispers into King George’s ear. This is an imaginative and ingenious literary device that threads history with layers of biblical significance. Benson Brown further mythologises his version of history with allusions and similes that draw upon the old masters. For example, the ruthless John Burgoyne is described in terms that evoke both the demon Moloch from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

The third man, John Burgoyne – a dashing idol

Of ladies, scourge of children he’d had ripped

Untimely, from used wombs he wouldn’t bridle,

In marriage (no Macduffs, these babes in crypts) –”

The contrast with Macduff, the hero of Macberth, is savagely ironic. As, unlike Macduff, who is born via Caesarian but lives to save Scotland from Macbeth's tyranny, these children are denied a future by Burgoyne's viciousness. 

Again, though Benson Brown’s poem is a mock-epic—and laugh-out-loud humour abounds—he does not limit himself solely to comedy. This is particularly evident when we reach the bloody details of the Battle of Bunker Hill:

Monomaniacal, Lord Howe made red

Rain down: the sun burned darker, hotter, rayed

Its heat; the planet Mars, enlarging, rowed

Against the starry ocean’s course and reigned

In the red sky, a pumpkin moon; the raid

Uphill accelerated: runners rode

Over the red-stained stumps, all bent like reeds…”

The repetition of “red” and the alliteration of “R” serve to onomatopoeically hammer home the brutality of the conflict. The cosmic imagery of Mars—the planet of war—overhead, altering its celestial path, is juxtaposed with the broken, severed limbs on the ground.

All of this is saying nothing of the notes Andrew Benson Brown has written to annotate his poem, which are almost funnier than the poem itself, or of the incredible attention to detail he has put into designing the poem. Every page features relevant artwork, usually a historical piece that has been manipulated to live up to the poem’s surreal intensity. The text snakes and warps around these images, so that both text and image work together to create something worthy of an art installation. It’s truly mind-boggling the effort and attention this must have required and it seriously augments the poem’s readability and enjoyment even further.

As I said in my last review, even if you are not normally interested in history or poetry, I cannot strongly recommend Legends of Liberty enough. There is so much in both Volumes 1 and 2 to delight you, whether it be the surreal comedy of Thomas Jefferson, having met the ghost of Dante Alighieri, tarzaning butt-naked into a conference of delegates from Virginia, the rap-battle-level dressing down of some of history’s most significant institutions, or the pathos of the human stories that beat at the heart of this “divine comedy”.

You can check out the series page for Legends of Liberty here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US