Is Park Benjamin Guilty of Plagiarism?

by theliterarymaiden

In the Poems of Park Benjamin, editor Merle M. Hoover points out an incident in 1839 in which the Brother Jonathan accused Benjamin of plagiarizing Charles Dance’s “Song of the Grave Digger.”  Hoover suggests that this was precipitated by the fact that Benjamin left Brother Jonathan to establish the New World, a rival journal. This petty enmity seemed to be both a stressful and positive happenstance for Benjamin, for his poems were scrutinized thereafter under the pretense of plagiarism, but he was also provided advertisement for his works—surrounded by scandal (16). 

Benjamin’s poem, “The Old Sexton,” is the poem up for debate. I’ll place both poems back to back and you can judge whether or not it sounds as if Benjamin plagiarized Dance’s work. Hoover insists that this accusation is “unfounded;” however, I disagree to an extent (16). Benjamin’s poem (published in 1840) sounds reminiscent of Dance’s poem (published in 1830), not only because of the blatant copying of the phrase “I gather them in,” but also because of the cadence of both works. Furthermore, the subject matter is the same, and there are words such as “spade,” which echo in both poems. These seem to be loose claims, I’m sure; however, neither does Hoover offer adequate points to articulate his stance. Simply put, they’re far too similar, and Benjamin may be guilty. 

The Old Sexton
Park Benjamin

Nigh to a grave, that was newly made,          
Leaned a sexton old on his earth-worn spade:          
His work was done, and he paused to wait    
The funeral train through the open gate:   
A relic of by-gone days was he,           
And his locks were white as the foamy sea—  
And these words came from his lips so thin, 
“I gather them in! I gather them in!”   
 
“I gather them in! for, man and boy,  
Year after year of grief and joy                
I’ve builded the houses that lie around        
In every nook of this burial ground.   
Mother and daughter, father and son,          
Come to my solitude, one by one—     
But come they strangers or come they kin, 
I gather them in! I gather them in!”     
 
“Many are with me, but still I’m alone!         
I’m king of the dead—and I make my throne           
On a monument slab of marble cold, 
And my sceptre of rule is the spade I hold.           
Come they from cottage or come they from hall—    
Mankind are my subjects—all, all, all! 
Let them loiter in pleasure or toilfully spin— 
I gather them in! I gather them in!”     
 
“I gather them in—and their final rest,         
Is here, down here in the Earth’s dark breast”—        
And the sexton ceased—for the funeral train 
Wound mutely over that solemn plain:          
And I said to my heart—when time is told,     
A mightier voice than that sexton’s old                
Will sound o’er the last trump’s dreadful din—         
“I gather them in! I gather them in!”

Song of the Grave Digger
Charles Dance

Poor mortals imagine they stand on the ground,
Supported by all that is solid and sound;
‘Tis a plank, and beneath it my work’s to be found—
I gather them in,
I gather them in.
The child, strong and healthy, careers on the heath—
Not thinking, not caring, scarce knowing of death;
In an instant he draws his last innocent breath:
I gather him in,
I gather him in.
The youth, in the vortex of folly and crime,
Advised to repent—answers, “Not in my prime” ;
He would, if he knew he had run out his time:
I gather him in, 
I gather him in. 
Says Fifty, “poor Sixty is breaking space;
He must long for the health that he sees in my face.”
Self-deceiver! he dreams not he’s first in the race:
I gather him in,
I gather him in.
“Huzza,” says the dotard, “I’m turned of four score,
And now I shall live to a hundred or more”;
At nightfall his coffin is brought to the door:
I gather him in,
I gather him in.
The drunkard exclaims, “Fill my cup to the brim,
In water life sinks, but in brandy ‘twill swim”’
He dies as he speaks, and I make sure of him:
I gather him in,
I gather him in.
The rich man observes his poor neighbor look old,
And hugs himself on his resources of gold;
A lackey all lace, says, “a knell must be tolled.”
I gather him in,
I gather him in.
E’en while he was speaking, the moralist elf
Was digging, unthinking, a pit for himself;
His spade and his mattock are laid on the shelf;
They’ve gathered him in,
They’ve gathered him in.