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The Fearless Benjamin Lay

by James Graham 

Posted: 08 August 2019
Word Count: 312
Summary: Another poem on a historical theme. Again I hope the history comes across. I know there isnít much in the way of fine poetic lines, itís rather prosaic, but I hope the overall impression is of something genuinely poetic. As always, feel free to criticise, or ask questions.

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The Fearless Benjamin Lay
I have a new friend.

He’s a dwarf (he doesn’t mind
being called this) and lives in a cave.
He’s what we would call a Quaker, though
he minds that term very much.
And he’s been dead two hundred years.
But I met him only the other week.
So many are lost, so many, even those
who gave small gifts to the world, a word,
a useful thing, an act of love. No history,
no footnote, retrieves them from the void.
But the book of this man’s life was a door
through which he strode, and greeted me.
His name is Benjamin Lay. He is alive.
The little man in the Quaker hat
has lived with me these weeks, and I
have had joy in his company. He sits
in my easy-chair, and tells me
that at the age of 20, he learned about slavery,
and at once decided it was wrong,
and he would fight it.
He knew no-one else who thought as he did.
Is it wrong to keep a herd of cattle?
He tells me of the quakes he caused at meetings,
loudly calling the slave-holding ministers
agents of the Devil, having his number on their foreheads.
At one meeting (he loves to recall this)
he held a bladder full of pokeberry juice,
drew a sword, slashed, and scattered blood-red juice
over all the nearby Friends. Message much resented,
but received. He doesn’t care
that they expelled him from their congregations,
a seed was sown that germinated
in a generation. I love this little man.
Read. He will walk through that door for you.

Maybe you don’t actually have to read the book, but this is it anyway.
Marcus Rediker: The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist  Verso 5 Sept. 2017

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Comments by other Members

michwo at 13:56 on 09 August 2019  Report this post
I've done what I normally do in cases like this and gone on Wikipedia to find out more about this man.
Born 1682 in Copton, Essex two miles from Colchester.  (I once saw a painting by Camille Pissarro of Dedham Vale in Colchester Art Gallery and went from there to Brantham and from there to the original site of Constable's Flatford Mill.)
He went to Barbados - presumably that was where he had his first encounter with slaves and their overseers. (Agents of the devil = Apostates in one of the pamphlets he published.)  As heroes go his life must certainly have been heroic.  Am I right in thinking that Pennsylvania was a hotbed of Quakers?  I certainly remember a painting called The Peaceable Kingdom illustrating that verse in Isaiah:  The lion shall lie down with the lamb, etc. with Penn smoking a pipe of peace with some of the local Red Indians in the background.  Old B.L. must certainly have made a strong impression on all he came into contact with!


V`yonne at 16:43 on 09 August 2019  Report this post
I like the opening ruse that a historical character can become like a best friend and a hero and that history has already labelled them but you know which they'd prefer because you identify with them, live their life through a biography.

So many are lost, so many, even those
who gave small gifts to the world, a word,
a useful thing, an act of love. No history,
no footnote, retrieves them from the void.

is very sad and a good transition.

He tells me of the quakes he caused at meetings,

made me smile because I have been talking about quakes too and have cause a few at meetings myself laugh
and there are some pokeberries in Belsay laugh

I think this line:
 Quakers were anti-slavery,
and soon many others. 
is redundant as history tell us what came next but I thoroughly enjoyed this poem, James. Three cheers for BL

James Graham at 20:57 on 09 August 2019  Report this post
Thank you, Michael. Yes, Pennsylvania was a hotbed of Quakers. Many were engaged in the slave trade, in one way or another. However, I believe Pennsylvania Quakers were among the first to declare against slavery.
Thank you too, Oonah. I was happy with those ‘transition’ lines and half hoped no-one would find fault with them! The lines towards the end – you’re right, I’ve left them out. The seed that ‘germinated in a generation’ says what needs to be said.

Cliff Hanger at 10:49 on 10 August 2019  Report this post
Hi James

I agree with the positives above. I'm just going to throw in one thing for you to consider. If he doesn't mind being called a dwarf, why are you, the narrator, apologising for it? 

I offer something along the lines (but phrased a lot better)

I have a new friend
A dwarf who lives in a cave.
He hates being called names
like Quaker

Historically he would have called himself a dwarf rather than a little person. It's a quirky turn that he might find the usually inoffensive Quaker offensive rather than being called what he is. I think that's the effect you're trying to achieve. You could of course, leave it if you're worried about giving offense but I don't think you would. 


V`yonne at 11:30 on 10 August 2019  Report this post
I think I'd leave it as it is but for the reason that it leads quite tentatively into the character and that works well.

James Graham at 21:14 on 10 August 2019  Report this post
Thank you for commenting, Jane. Your alternative lines are quite good, but what I meant was  that people, even in his time,  would call him a dwarf, even a ‘***** dwarf’, which would hurt other small people, but in his case it didn’t bother him at all, however insulting it was meant to be. He was insulted and patronised many times, but he was so strong in his convictions that it seemed to pass over his head. I’m not apologising for the term ‘dwarf’ though perhaps for those people who use it hurtfully. I hope this answers the point you make.

Cliff Hanger at 21:30 on 10 August 2019  Report this post
Thanks for clarifying.

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