The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 73-96
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Seizing the "Bounty of This Virtuous Tree":
The Sexual Underpinnings of Jeffersonian Pastoralism in Brother to Dragons
I saw thee first and wedded thee, adorned
With all perfections, so inflame my sense
With ardor to enjoy thee, fairer now
Than ever—bounty of this virtuous tree."
—from Paradise Lost, Book IX
Adam's words to Eve upon eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge serve as a constant reminder that we cannot discuss original sin without mention of sexuality. For no sooner do Adam and Eve eat of the fruit than they retire to a shady bank to indulge in the first session of postlapsarian intercourse. These words serve as a bridge into my discussion of Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons, based largely on the idea of original sin as evident in sexual lust. It is difficult to find any poet in the American canon as interested in original sin as Warren, for he revisits the theme so often that one encounters lengthy discussions on the topic in much Warren criticism. When critics have evoked the theme in Warren's long tale of verse and voices, they do so primarily in terms of violence, namely the violence evident in Lilburne Lewis's terrible dismemberment of his slave on a Kentucky plantation in 1811. The murderous act is the definitive evidence of original sin, not only in Jefferson's [End Page 73] blood but also in humanity. Yet perhaps because of the "tranquilized Fifties" (as Robert Lowell called them) 1 when Brother to Dragons originally hit the bookstores, 2 there was little focus on the overt and subtle references to human sexuality in Warren's long poem. Of all the Brother to Dragons' criticism, only two critical studies directly address the topic of sexuality as original sin. The first of these studies comes from George Palmer Garrett's 1959 short essay "The Function of the Pasiphaë Myth in Brother to Dragons." In Greek mythology, Pasiphaë is the ill-fated wife of Minos who is made to fall madly in love with a bull. In Warren's poem, the actual act of copulation between the two is given in generous detail. Focusing on this scene, Garrett asserts that the lust of Pasiphaë "represents a kind of original sin. It is the lack of awareness of original sin which is presented by Warren as the basic flaw in Jefferson's vision, his dream for mankind" (312). More recently, John Burt's chapter devoted to the poem in his 1988 book Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism focuses on the sexual relationships that exist between the characters. More detailed than Garrett's short article, Burt's study analyzes the sexual tension between the characters as evidence of an "imperfect love" of the flesh trying to attain a higher, more pure love (204). This dualism between the ideal and the debased is common in Warren's writings, Burt points out, and the "evil in this poem is not simply the urge to destroy others; it is the 'cancer of truth,' the product of an overmastering hunger for good" (204). Most significant for my purposes is Burt's assertion that evil (i.e. sexual lust) stems from an ideal, but somehow, the ideal has turned away from itself and gives rise to not only murder (as is evident in Lilburne's brutal dismemberment of his slave John), but also sexual rapacity. My intention in this paper will be to examine what gives rise to such lusty, sexual imagery in the poem—especially since the male characters are possessed primarily by "an overmastering hunger for good."
Both Garrett's and Burt's treatment of sexuality in Brother to Dragons provides a gateway for an even larger look at the way in which original sin is related to sexuality as well as violence. When Jefferson makes room in his mind for a new definition of man, he must include in that definition not only...