John Brown Poem Summary & Line by Line Explanation in English ISC 11


Bob Dylan’s poem, “John Brown”, throws light on the sufferings faced by the soldiers because of the ravaging war. War is not a subject to be glorified (appreciated). The consequences (results) of a war not only destroys a soldier physically but also both mentally and emotionally. They are not even given a choice in this and yet ends up being in front of the enemy’s rifle. 

Stanza 1

John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him! 
He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin. 

In the first stanza, the poet talks about a young soldier called John Brown, who was preparing to go to war on a foreign shore. His mother was proud of his son as he grew up to be a soldier and will do the nation proud one day. His mother can’t get enough of his son as how straight and tall in his uniform he looked. Often soldiers are sent to fight battles at foreign places at a months end and John Brown, here, was going to one such war.

Stanza 2

“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get 
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home.”

In the second stanza, the mother exclaimed with joy that she was feeling very happy and proud by just looking at his son, his brave son who was going to fight in a war, hold a gun. John Brown’ mother was elated (happy) at the very thought of his going to fight in a battle and hold guns. She said that his son should follow all instructions given by the captain in order to get lots of medals, which, once he came back, would adorn the wall. Brown’s mother glorifies war as it was a way to the honorary medals. She didn’t give a thought as whether, along with medals, she will get to see her son alive or not. Ignorant common poeple like Brown’s mother gratifies war in highest regards, without knowing the mental and physical toil it actually takes.

Stanza 3

As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout 
Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood: 
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood. 

In the third stanza, John Brown left for this war and as soon as the old train pulled out (the train left the station), his mother began to boast about his son to everyone in the neighborhood. She made proclamations about how proud she was of her son who was a soldier now and would do her and the nation proud. Her mother would shout and tell anyone who would pass by, making sure her neighbors understood. John Brown’s mother’s false propaganda about war and soldiers are the result of ignorance. 

Stanza 4

She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile 
As she showed them to the people from next door
And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun
And these things you called a good old-fashioned war

In the fourth stanza, Brown’s mother talked of nothing but of the letters she used to get from her son, who was out there on the battlefield. She got a letter once in a while and that was enough to show others as proof of her son writing from a foreign shore. Though she did not get letters frequently, those one or two letters reminded more of her son with his uniform and gun, and not Brown himself as her dear son. The poet mocks this by saying this was how people thought war to be, glorification of the good old fashioned war. 

Stanza 5

Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come 
They ceased to come for about ten months or more 
Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train
Your son’s a coming home from war”

In the fifth stanza, the letter from John Brown ceased (stopped) to come for a long time like about ten months. This was normal for soldiers, once they are out on the battlefield, to not be able to write letters for their families. But then one day, John Brown’s mother received a letter which said that she should go down to the station to wait for the train as your son’s a-coming home. Finally, she received the good news that her son was coming home after a long time. 

Stanza 6

She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around 
But she could not see her soldier son in sight 
But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last 
When she did she could hardly believe her eyes. 

In the sixth stanza, John Brown’s mother went down to the station and waited for the train to arrive. She searched impatiently for the sight of her son, the thought that her son might not be coming alive never crossed her mind. Soon her eyes fell upon her son as the station slowly cleared out and what she saw, she could hardly believe her eyes. Whatever his mother saw was something she never thought herself. 

Stanza 7

On his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off 
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know 
While she couldn’t even recognize his face! 
Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face! 

In the seventh stanza, the appalling (horrifying) description of John Brown was described. War had not been kind to him and it was visible through his appearance. His face was shot up meaning it was all dismantled and one hand was blown off. To support standing a walking, he wore a metal brace around his waist. With great difficulty he could speak, almost as if he was whispering in a voice unknown to his own mother. His mother was horrified at the fact that she was unable to recognize her son’s face. 

Stanza 8

“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done
How is it you come to be this way?”
He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move
And the mother has to turn her face away. 

In the eighth stanza, John Brown’s mother cried out demanding to know what happened to his son, what they done to him that he became like this. She could hardly believe that his son who once stood tall and straight in his uniform, had become disfigured and broken up like this. John Brown, through a lot of pain, tried to tell his mother what had happened but her mother just couldn’t bear to see him so she had to turn her face away. 

Stanza 9

“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do? 
I was on the battleground, you were home…acting proud 
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”

In the ninth stanza, John Brown recalled what his mother had said when he was preparing for the war. He said that according to his mother, going off to war was the best thing he could ever do. His mother was proud at the fact that her son would fight valiantly (bravely) at the war and get medals for his valor. However, the harsh reality was that his mother was not standing in my shoes. His mother was acting proud at home while he was fighting between life and death. This was the irony of life, those who glorify war are the ones sitting at home and not fighting for their life. 

Stanza 10

“Oh and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tying to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close 
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”

Oh! Lord! Just like mine! 

In the tenth stanza, the soldier mused (thought) of the time when he was out in the battlefield,  in the midst of a war. He had thoughts of what he was doing there apart from dying himself or being somebody’s cause of death. I’m a-tryin to kill somebody or die tryin. But what was more frightening for him was when he saw the enemy from close and realized his face looked just like mine. This meant that John Brown realized that even his enemy was a human actually. All humans were trying to fight other humans and it puts a pressure on humanity. It was as if seeing his own face on the enemy. 

Stanza 11

“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink 
That I was just a puppet in a play 
And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke 
And a cannonball blew my eyes away”

In the eleventh stanza, John Brown recalled the events which had occurred at the war. While he was lost in his thoughts of how soldiers like him were just a puppet in a play, when the government and the captains were controlling their strings. None of them wanted to do this but were forced to. While he was busy with those thoughts, the string of a cannonball broke and hit his face ferociously enough to blew my eyes away. 

Stanza 12

As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand 
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close 
And he dropped his medals down into her hand. 

In the final stanza of the poem, John Brown after finishing his tale, turned away while his mother was still in shock. His mother couldn’t believe that hardships her son had to face there. She thought it to be a bed of flowers with medals to adorn the wall once he came back home. The metal brace around her son’s waist was distressing her when John Brown dropped his medals down into her hand. The ending showed how common people think war to be materialistic and value the quantity of medals over the soldier’s well being. His mother all this time had wanted medals from his son and when at the end, she indeed gets them, it seems that she is scarred. She never assumed that along with the medals, her son would be lost somewhere mentally and emotionally. 


Through this poem, the poet shows how vicious the wars can be and how ignorant the common people are to its destructiveness. War is not the solution to peace and those who glorify war and think only of medals in regard to it are nothing but foolish and imbecile (stupid). Soldier’s like John Brown go through extreme mental and physical exhaustion while being out there on the battlefield and his mother doesn’t stop caring about the materialistic medals.