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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

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Review of Legends of Liberty by Andrew Benson Brown

Time moves in cycles—an ouroboros, if you will—and it is exciting to observe trends that seemed dead and gone forever return due to the cyclical nature of reality. We’re currently experiencing a complete resurgence of the Slasher genre, and a renewed interest in Horror overall. The existence of streaming services such as Shudder, and the popularity of modern films such as the Fear Street trilogy, are testament to this revival. What this says about our modern world, I leave to you, but certainly the narratives we invest in tell us something about who we are.

To be fair, Horror has always had a way of hanging on, and surviving cultural movements (even when banned or prohibited). It is one of those genres that never fully goes away, because human fear never truly goes away. It is far more impressive when a genre such as classical poetry makes its grand return. 

In the wake of modernism and post-modernism—the deconstruction of spiritual beliefs and national identity—and the advent of free-verse, classical poetry has been out of fashion for the last half-century. It is far beyond the scope of this review to explore the deeper reasons why here. However, what we can explore is how the genre is seeing a slow, steady, but powerful resurrection. 

In 2020, my own father James Sale published an epic written in terza rima called HellWard, echoing the form Dante used to craft his magnum opus The Divine Comedy. HellWard, whilst classically influenced, is based on my father’s very real personal experience of battling cancer. This is very revealing on a number of levels. It shows that poetry has never been the province of solely the elite, because real poetry, the poetry that influences culture in unimaginably potent ways, is always about true, human, relatable experiences (finding our way home, to our own soul (The Odyssey), or losing a loved one (The Iliad)). In writing HellWard, my father found a way to translate Dante’s sojourn into hell into a contemporary experience of fighting cancer tooth and nail. He has synthesised real trauma with myth

HellWard is the first instalment of The English Cantos, which will similarly mirror Dante’s tripartite model exploring hell, purgatory, and heaven. Whilst I am obviously biased, I am genuinely in awe of this book, and how it has captured the imaginations of so many. There have always been poets, either self-publishing their work or otherwise; this is not necessarily indicative of a revival of anything, especially when so much modern poetry reads like solipsism. But a popular, classically formed poem emerging in the maelstrom of Covid-19 and other catastrophes, now that begins to resemble the beginning of a movement! 

On the heels of HellWard comes Legends of Liberty, a new mock-epic poem written by Andrew Benson Brown. Benson Brown’s poem styles itself after Lord Byron, particularly Don Juan, and whilst the “mock” elements are certainly laugh-out-loud, there is no denying that the poem is serious at its heart and has some important things to say about modern society, the way history is taught in schools, literalism, where Western civilisation lost its way, and much more. Whereas HellWard is written by a Brit, Benson Brown speaks for an American audience, although his truths are universal. He deals with Thomas Jefferson confronting his sins in the inferno, with the battle for America’s independence from the British, and how new technology has shaped the landscape of war. However, Benson Brown never falls into the trap of giving a tedious, preachy history lesson, as many so-called poets do. His scenes have a surreal quality which at times is used for hugely comic effect, and at other times, to evoke mythic grandeur: 

“Their bayonets cast beams — reverse sundials 

Dissecting the empire’s diurnal span

That cast so many shadows on the globe.” 

There is so much to unpack from three lines like this. The image of the bayonets catching the light mirroring the ancient spears of the Greeks in The Iliad, but he does not stop at merely aping the original, but reverses the image, whereby we come to associate the weaponry with the oppressions of Western empire. We move from the “beams” of the bayonets, aka light, toward the “shadows” cast across the whole world. 

Benson Brown has a gift for aphoristic wit, a compact statement that seems to encapsulate the entirety of a gigantic concept. This is essential for writing mock-epic, which is often as much a commentary as it is a narrative, for example: 

“And wear beliefs as circumstance permits.

They’re diplomats by trade— we call then hypocrites.” 

This is where poetry shows its strengths. Form is not a restriction, it is a tool that can produce mimetic effects upon the reader when deployed by a master wordsmith, which Benson Brown assuredly is. In the words of Kurt Seligmann, form is “not resented as a coercion but rather welcomed as a liberation from the tyranny of chance.” The genius of rhyming “permit” and then half-rhyming “diplomat” (which “tricks” the brain into thinking the verse is done), only to then complete the couplet with the rhyme “hypocrites” amplifies the comedic effect by virtue of misdirection. The fact that permit and hypocrite is a “perfect” rhyme also conveys cleverly that “hypocrite” is the true term for the type of person he is describing. 

But Benson Brown does not only use the rhyme scheme to comedic effect. As I said before, the poem is serious at heart. There is a sense of mourning lost values and ideals, exemplified by how many heroic American figures are now forgotten, save for in obscure annals and Benson-Brown’s own poem (these obscure sources are extensively referred to in the poem’s copious notations, often witty, amusing, and informative). This sense of loss is perhaps no better exemplified than in the incredibly dense couplet:

“Of petals, perfect in their fair proportions.

What nature nurtures, time adopts, and chaos orphans.” 

From here, we have the full journey of a human life encapsulated. A petal, like a child, is made perfect. Nature nurtures it, which in itself is a clever play on words, referring to the endless debate as to whether we are more influenced by “nature” (our genes and biology) or “nurture” (what we are taught and experience). Benson Brown’s line here seems to appropriately suggest both play their part. In growing up, the child is taken under the wing of Time, entering the ouroboros of existence, before being orphaned by “chaos”. There are a number of meanings here for “chaos”. In one sense, we all become orphans eventually, as our parents must die. But in another, we are orphans in the sense we have to find our own way through life’s “chaos” and complexities. This is only scratching the surface of meaning.

Even if you are new to American history, or indeed to poetry, I highly recommend you read Legends of Liberty. It is witty, humorous, moving, and unlike anything you have read before. Classical poetry, much like Horror, is coming back from the dead in the hands of skilled writers like Benson Brown. The least we can do is give it a warm welcome. 

You can purchase Legends of Liberty below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US