John Brown joins the army and goes to fight the enemy. His mother is quite proud of his being in the uniform. When he returns from the war, she is shocked to see him. He has a disfigured. He has lost his eyes and one of his hands. Of course, he had won some medals. Thus, the poem underlines the horrors of war.
About the Poet
Bob Dylan is a widely acclaimed singer, songwriter and artist. He has been honoured with the Noble Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song tradition.”
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, he was born on 24th May 1941 in America. He has influenced music and culture in a way that is recognized all over the world. Many of his songs express social concerns. Early songs of his such as ‘Blowin in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ became hugely popular with people of all ages, especially with those who cherished civil rights and anti-war sentiments. His lyrics show a wide range of social, political and literary influences. His long singing career has explored the traditions in American folk songs and other genres of music.
Her performs with such instruments as guitar, keyboards and harmonica. He has been on what is called Never Ending Tour as a performing artist. As a musician, he has sold over 100 million records, which makes him one of the best-selling artists of all times. Among his numerous awards are : 11 Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, an Academy Award, the Pulitzer Prize, etc.
In May 2012, he was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
About the Poem
‘John Brown’ is an anti-war song. It was written in 1962. It highlights the horrors of war and debunks so-called heroism in war. However, it is ironic that the poet denies that he has written anti-war songs and declares:
‘I’m not a pacifist. I don’t think I’ve ever been one
I believe strongly in everyone’s right to defend
themselves by means necessary.’
The poet’s views matter, but what matters more is what the text itself says. A close reading of ‘John Brown’ shows that it highlights the toll war takes on young men who are taken in by the aura of heroism surrounding war.
The poem is quite traditional . John Brown’s mother wanted to see her son in the uniform, hold a gun, fight the enemy and win lots of medals. The son obliged her and went off to war as a soldier. His mother told everyone in the neighbourhood that her son was going to the front. Whenever she got a letter, she had a smile on her face. She would brag of her son’s uniform, gun and his exploits in the war. But then the letters stopped coming.
One day she received a letter asking her to see her son coming from the war at the station. She was happy and went to the railway station. She could not see her son anywhere. At last she spotted her son, but she could hardly believe her eyes. He was blind and had a disfigured face. He had lost one of his hands. His waist was supported with a metal brace. He could hardly speak. The soldiers-son told his mother how he felt on the battlefront. When he was face to face with his enemy , he was shocked to find that his face was just like his. He realized how he had been reduced to a puppet in a play. He was fighting and killing without any cause. Then a cannon shell took away his eyes. After telling the story, he dropped his medals into her hand.
Dramatic Opening : The poem, like a ballad, has an abrupt, dramatic opening. We are told that John Brown went off to war and his mother was very proud of him. It was his mother who had perhaps goaded him to become a soldier. Seeing him tall and erect in his uniform she had a broad smile on her face. It was a cherished moment for her to see her son in the uniform. She expressed her feelings of happiness and pride on his being able to hold a gun and fight the enemy. She advised him to obey his captain. She hoped he would win lots of medals which they would proudly hang on the wall on his return home.
False Sense of Pride : When John Brown’s train started, his mother shouted to tell everyone in the neighbourhood about her son’s going to war as a soldier. She got some letters from her son for some time which she proudly showed to her neighbours, and boasted about her son’s uniform and gun. She almost made fun of those who called war something old-fashioned.
Mother Shocked : Then she received no letter from her son for some time. One day she got a letter telling her that she should go to the station to receive her son. She smiled and went to the station. She looked around, but failed to spot her eyes. His face was totally disfigured. He had lost one of his hands. He wrote a metal brace around his waist. He spoke in a very low voice. His mother could not recognize even his face.
Horrible Experience of War : The mother asked her son that happened to him in the war. John Brown tried to talk . He could hardly open his mouth. The scene was so repulsive that the mother had to turn her face away. At las the son spoke. He reminded his mother how she thought that the best thing that had happened was his going to the war. He said that she felt proud of him as he was fighting. He wished she should have been in his place.
Confrontation with the Enemy-Soldier : The son continued to speak . He said that he wondered what he was doing in the war, trying to kill someone or die doing so. What frightened him the most was when the enemy soldier stood in front of him . He saw that his face resembled his. There was no difference at all.
Just a Puppet : In the midst of the explosive sounds of shells bursting and stink from the dead bodies he realized that he was just a puppet in a play. He had no will of his own. Through the roaring sound and smoke a cannonball took his eyes away.
Pathetic Moment : The son, while turning to go away, called his mother to come close. As she came nearer he quietly dropped the medals he had won into her hand.
Stanza by Stanza explanation
‘John Brown went ………… in a grin’
A man called John Brown went off to war in a foreign country. John Brown went off to war in a foreign country. His mother was proud of him. He stood erect and tall in his military uniform. As his mother saw him in the uniform, a broad smile spread on his mother’s face.
‘Oh son …………. come home’
John Brown’s mother said, “Oh son, you look so fine. I am proud that you are my son. You make me feel proud that you’ll hold a gun in your hand (to find the enemy). Do obey your captain (commander). I hope you will get many medals for your heroic deeds. When you return home, we will hang those medals on the wall.”
‘As that old train ….. understood’
As the train (boarded by John Brown) started to move, John’s mother told everyone in the neighbourhood, “That is my son, you know, who is going to war. He is a soldier now’. She ensured that all her neighbours knew it well.
‘She got a ……………. old fashioned war!”
She would receive from her so an occasional letter which would make her smile. She would show all the letters to her neighbours. She would boast of her son’s glory in the uniform, holding a gun in his hand. She would show everything that belonged to what you call good old-fashioned war.
‘Then the letters …………. from the war’
Then she received no letter from her son for over then months. Then suddenly she received a letter saying that she should go to the station to receive her son who was coming home from the battlefield. That the letter was not from her son was something alarming, but John’s mother in her excitement paid no attention to it.
‘She smiled ………. her eyes’
She smiled, wasted no time and went to the station. She looked everywhere around but she could not spot her son anywhere. When all the people had gone, her eyes fell upon her son. She could hardly believe what she saw.
‘Oh his face ………… recognize his face!’
Her son’s face was greatly damaged by shooting. He had lost one of his hands. He wore a metal brace around his waist. He spoke very slowly in a manner that his mother could not recognize his voice. In fact, she could not even recognize his face. So disfigured it was, that even she could not recognize his face.
‘Oh tell me ……….. her face away’
She asked, “O my dear son, tell me what they did to you that you are so grievously hurt.” John tried his best to talk but he could hardly open his mouth. Unable to bear it, his mother turned her face away.
‘Don’t you ……….. my shoes’
“Don’t you remember when I went off to war it was you who thought that it was the best thing that I could do? I was fighting in the thick of war, while you were at home, pretending to be proud of the fact since you were not in my place.”
‘Oh, and I ……….. like mine’
“And when I was there fighting I called upon God and asked myself what I was doing there. I was trying to kill someone or die doing so. I got frightened when my enemy came and stood in front of me. And I saw that his face was just similar to mine, just similar to mine.”
‘And I couldn’t …….. eyes away’
“At that time I could not help thinking in the midst of continuous gun-roar and stink that I was just a puppet in a show. At that time in the loud noise and smoke, I failed to play my part and a cannonball took my eyes away.”
‘And he ……….. her hand.’
John turned away to walk. His mother was still in a shock. She continued to stare at the metal brace around his waist, that helped him stand up. As he turned to go, he called his mother to come closer. As she did so, he dropped his medals down into her hand.
Futility of War : ‘John Brown’ by Bob Dylan underlines the idea that war is not something to be proud of as it causes so much damage and destruction. Most of the wars are shows staged by politicians for no real reason. Soldiers are used by them as pawns or puppets in the name of patriotism or heroism, etc.
That is what the young solider John Brown in the poem experiences. He goes off to war and fights bravely. There he realizes the futility of war:
‘And I couldn’t help but think, through the
thunder rolling and stink
That I was just a puppet in a play…….
The enemy-soldier he confronts is in no way different from him. He feels a natural link of humanity with him. This reminds us of the poem ‘The Man He Killed’ by Thomas Hardy which presents a similar situation. The solider in ‘The Man He Killed’, too, realizes an invincible bond between him and the enemy-soldier facing him:
Had he and I but met
By an old ancient turn
We should have sat down to wet
Right many a nipperkin
Thus, ‘John Brown’ by Dylan is in the tradition of anti-war poems. However, it is strange that the poet once denied that he expressed any anti-war sentiments in the poem.
Irony of Life : Another theme of the poem is the unpredictability of life. John Brown’s mother wants to her son to emerge as a war hero and win lots of medals so that she could be proud of him. For some time she feels that her dream had come true. But the irony of fate is that her son wins a lot of medals but he has to pay a heavy price for it. He loses his eyesight and his face gets badly disfigured.
Literary Devices used in the poem
Each verse has a quatrain. There is no set rhyme scheme. In some stanzas rhyming words are used, as in stanza 8 (‘way’ : ‘away’), stanza 11 (‘play’ : ‘away’) and stanza 12 (‘stand’ : ‘hand’). The rhythm varies with the mood, as in stanza 11.
- And he dropped his medals down into her hand. (‘d’ sound)
- That I was just a puppet in a play. (‘p’ sound)
The last stanza presents an ironic situation. John Brown, the proud son of a proud mother, fulfils his mother’s desire that her son won lots of medals in the war. When he drops his medals down in her hand, ironically the mother is far from happy.
As in a song, some key phrases or lines are repeated for emphasis; as,
- Oh, good old-fashioned war!
- Oh, lord, not even recognize his face!
- Oh, Lord, just like mine !
Title : The title ‘John Brown’ is appropriate for a poem that narrates the important part of the life of a young man named John Brown. John Brown may be any person. He remains in focus throughout the poem. Why does the poet entitled his poem John Brown? It is perhaps to catch the attention of young men who are enamoured of heroism and machismo.
Anti-war Subject : There is no doubt that John Brown is anti-war poem, though the poet Bob Dylan has denied its being so. The reference to the war in the poem is not specific. It can be any war in any country, Irq, Vietnam, Afghanistan. John Brown can be any soldier. His mother is representative of all those mothers who only pretend to be proud of their son’s heroism, though inwardly they are full of worries and anxieties. It is towards the end that John Brown, physically badly damaged, tells his mother how destructive and purposeless war is. War is simply inhuman and destructive. John Brown’s damaged body is a living testimony to it.
The poem not only expresses anti-war sentiments but it also criticizes the romantic glamour of war. Some people like John Brown’s mother take pride in false sense of heroism. They feel that those who fight for the country are real heroes. They believe that wars are not obsolete. They are necessary to prove your superiority over others. It is John Brown himself who debunks these notions by saying that soldiers are mere puppets and that they fight with one another for no reason.
Message : The message of the poem is clear : We should not take false pride in anything which proves to be destructive . Wars solve no problems. Other humane ways to solve problems should be discovered.