A review of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War: Civil War Poems, by Herman Melville
In 1866 Herman Melville published his first book of poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. It did not receive a warm reception. Although the New York Herald praised his call for reconciliation, most reviewers decried Melville's failure to celebrate the just victory of the North. No one praised the beauty of his poetry. "His sense of melody is deficient," the reviewer for the Round Table observed, "while some of his rhymes are positively barbarous." In their new edition, Richard H. Cox and Paul M. Dowling try to correct this historical injustice—on both counts. In addition to Melville's own preface, poems, notes, and concluding prose "supplement," they include two previously published essays by Helen Vendler and Rosanna Warren, arguing for the literary excellence of Melville's poems. Cox and Dowling themselves contribute original essays intended to bring out the depth, wisdom, and moderation of Melville's politics.
Melville had no doubt about the justice of the Northern cause. In "Inscription," he writes:
We here who warred for Man and Right
The choice of warring never laid with us.
There we were ruled by the traitor's choice.
Nevertheless, he entitles the first of the poems listed in his table of contents, "Misgivings." And in this poem, he states:
I muse upon my country's ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time—
On the world's fairest hope linked with man's foulest crime.
In "The Conflict of Convictions" that follows, he wonders, moreover, about the efficacy of political action. Both God and nature appear to resist mortals' puny efforts to right the order of things.
Power unanointed may come—
Dominion (unsought by the free)….
But the Founders' dream shall flee.
Age after age shall be
As age after age has been.
(From man's changeless heart their way they win);
And death be busy with all who strive—.
Yet Melville concludes his "Battle-Pieces" with a paeon to "America" and the conclusion of the war:
But from the trance she sudden broke—
The trance, or death into promoted life;
At her feet a shivered yoke,
And in her aspect turned to heaven
No trace of passion or of strife—
A clear calm look. It spake of pain,
But such as purifies from stain—
Sharp pangs that never come again—
And triumph repressed by knowledge meet,
Power dedicate, and hope grown wise,
And youth matured for age's seat—
Law on her brow and empire in her eyes.
America had emerged—or at least could emerge—from the holocaust stronger and better. The outcome would depend not simply or even primarily on the lessons politicians drew from the harsh experience. As Melville makes clear in his prose supplement, the effect of the war would depend primarily on the way the people felt about it. His poems are intended, it seems, primarily to shape those feelings. If the American people recognized the depth of suffering on both sides, and their fundamental family relation, the Union could and would be reconstituted on a firmer foundation. If, however, Northerners insisted on punishing the white Southerners, even for the sake of helping the newly freed blacks, the result would be not merely resentment and hatred but something like continuing guerilla warfare. To his "Battle-Pieces" and "Verses Inscriptive and Memorial," Cox and Dowling point out, Melville thus added a long poem concerning the actions of Southern guerillas against the North; an imagined speech by Robert E. Lee to the U.S. Senate in which the defeated general urges the representatives of the North to respect the honor and sufferings of the South; and "A Meditation: Attributed to a Northerner after Attending the Last of Two Funerals from the Same Homestead—Those of a National and a Confederate Officer (Brothers), His Kinsmen, Who Had Died from the Effects of Wounds Received in the Closing Battles." Urging forgiveness, though not forgetfulness, the poet writes:
Mark the great Captains on both sides,
The soldiers with the broad renown—
They all were messmates on the Hudson's marge….
If men for new agreement yearn,
Then old upbraiding best forbear:
"The South's the sinner!" Well, so let it be;
But shall the North sin worse, and stand the Pharisee?
Just as the wideranging reflections of the narrator Ishmael are tied together in Melville's masterpiece by the hunt for the white whale, so the "Battle-Pieces" are organized around the chronology of the war. This reader wishes, indeed, that the editors had extended their excellent critical framework to provide brief annotations concerning the location, outcomes, and broader effects of the battles to which the poet refers. In 1866 the names of these battles would have had immediate, powerful connotations for most of Melville's readers. That is, sadly, no longer true. Such editorial notes would have been extremely useful, because Melville's poems describe or evoke the feelings and reflections, the understandings and misunderstandings, the uncertainty, suspense, and anxiety, the despair and the reviving hopes of both participants and observers—but not the events themselves or their sequence. As any reader of Melville's prose works would expect, the perspectives are multiple and somewhat conflicting.
There is, however, a central theme which links the poems more tightly than the loose chronological thread. As in Moby Dick, so in the "Battle-Pieces" we see that neither force nor right suffices to institute or re-institute order among men. Our passion for justice tends, unfortunately, to degenerate into destructive vindictiveness. Melville begins his "pieces" by emphasizing the innocence of the young that induces them to march blithely into battle in search of glory. So in "The March into Virginia, Ending in the First Manassas" (a disaster for the North), the poet observes,
To every just or larger end,
Whence should come the trust and cheer?
Youth must its ignorant impulse lend—
Age finds place in the rear.
All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys
These "boys" soon find that they reap death rather than glory. Leaders like General Lyon know what to expect from impersonal, industrialized warfare better than their young recruits, but neither a modern general nor his men fight for individual fame or glory. Melville is willing to praise generals on both sides—Stonewall Jackson as well as McClellan and Grant—but his praise is always muted. The human cost of victory, much less defeat, is simply too great.
As the poet reminds his readers in "Malvern Hill," nature is indifferent; and God's support even for the right is too uncertain. As in his novels, so in his poems Melville thus urges men to look to the sympathy of their fellow-sufferers:
Nothing can lift the heart of man
Like manhood in a fellow-man.
The thought of heaven's great King afar
But humbles—us—too weak to scan;
But manly greatness men can span,
And feel the bonds that draw.
Thus, in one of his "verses inscriptive and memorial," "On Sherman's Men Who Fell in the Assault of Kenesaw Mountain, Georgia," the poet suggests that there is a democratic form of glory, attributable to common people acting in common, that he himself is providing.
They said that Fame her clarion dropped
Because great deeds were done no more…
But battle can heroes and bards restore.
Nay, look at Kenesaw:
Perils the mailed ones never knew
Are lightly braved by the ragged coats of blue,
And gentler hearts are bared to deadlier war.
Heroism is not the preserve of ancient warriors or medieval knights. It can be—has been—democratized.
Cox and Dowling argue that by urging a policy of reconciliation, even at the cost of delaying the freedmen's recognition as full and equal citizens, Melville reaffirmed Lincoln's policy that the people should act "with malice toward none…and charity for all." Although slavery was at the root of the conflict, according to both President and poet, both recognized that many Southerners had fought not for the peculiar institution but for rights they thought granted by the Constitution—or simply for hearth and home. Lincoln did not live to pursue his policy. Melville thought Lincoln's death at the hands of vengeful Southerners would bring down, in turn, Northern revenge on them. In a poem entitled "The Martyr," the poet observes,
Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity…
The father in his face.
Melville does not suggest that Lincoln will become the political equivalent of the Savior, however. On the contrary:
They have killed…the Forgiver—
The Avenger takes his place.
The "passion" to which the poet points is, moreover, not that of the "martyr" who suffers out of love, but the indignant anger of the people. Twice he repeats the refrain:
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.
For all his celebration of human sympathy in the face of death and suffering, Melville was not optimistic about the war's outcome or the possibility of achieving mutual respect, much less restored fraternity. He did not, in other words, seem to believe that his own writings would have much immediate popular effect.Cox and Dowling should be praised for making Melville's long-neglected Civil War poems easily available in a paperback edition. What's more, their supple, suggestive interpretive essays provoke readers to ponder not merely Melville's work but also and more broadly the effect poetry can have on politics.