Canonized as one of America's most original and profound novelists, Herman Melville (1819–1891) remains underappreciated, and often unrecognized, as a signifi-cant American poet. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, published in 1866, reflects Melville's intense and anguished engagement with the Civil War. In their variety, density, and experimentalism, the poems of Battle-Pieces reveal an ambitious and self-conscious poet who aspires to prophecy as much as to commemoration. Battle-Pieces tests the possibilities and limitations of a public and political role for the American poet, its "Supplement," a concluding essay on Reconstruction, in fact suggesting how Melville the poet works out of a specialized sense of "patriotism."
FROM PROSE TO POETRY
Melville was in his late forties when Battle-Pieces appeared, and he published the even more ambitious Clarel, a "Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land," in 1876. Deciding in his later years largely to abandon novels and stories for poetry, Melville was reacting in part to the failure of mid-nineteenth-century American readers to comprehend or willingly grapple with the complexities of novels such as Moby-Dick (1851), Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), and The ConfidenceMan (1857). Nevertheless, continuities between the fiction and the poetry are abundant and telling. The imminence of civil war shrouds the composition and content of Moby-Dick; the Pequod, American ship of state, sails toward its own apocalyptic destruction throughout the novel, and Ishmael's query in the book's first chapter—"Who aint a slave?" (p. 6)—anticipates Melville's position in Battle-Pieces that the Civil War needs to be understood as a singular expression of some more generalized history of human conflict and captivity. Likewise, "Benito Cereno" (1855), a story about a slave mutiny, provides a larger allegory of New World slavery and American blindness to its depravity. The Confidence-Man is also a precursor of Battle-Pieces in its critique of American idealisms, its resolutely impersonal presentation of character and event, and the knottiness of its language.
Even the relationship of the lawyer and his employee in "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853), one of Melville's most renowned short stories, prefigures Battle-Pieces, for the lawyer's tentative realization through Bartleby of some "bond of common humanity" generates in him a "fraternal melancholy" (p. 28) that the Civil War poems consistently reproduce. Specifically dedicating Battle-Pieces "to the memory of the three hundred thousand" Union dead, Melville also insists on the fraternity of North and South and the fact that "the rebel is wrong, but human yet" (p. 20). Such bonds, however, are hardly the source of any facile celebration of American solidarity. Rather, Melville articulates how sadness and gloom may well be the inevitable off-spring of what Ahab in Moby-Dick curses as "mortal inter-indebtedness" (p. 471).
The idea for an entire book of Civil War poetry apparently did not take shape in Melville's mind until the end of the war, although some of the poems were written earlier, in the 1860s (the exact order of composition is uncertain). Battle-Pieces is a hybrid assembly of texts: its seventy-two poems are framed by a brief prose introduction and a concluding series of "Notes" on the poems and the "Supplement." A first, long group of poems broadly charts the trajectory of the war from the hanging of the insurrectionist John Brown (2 December 1859) through many of the major battles and movements—the First Manassas battle (21 July 1861) in "The March into Virginia"; Shiloh (6 April 1862) in the poem of the same name; Sherman's devastation of Georgia and South Carolina (1864) in "The March to the Sea"—to Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox (9 April 1865) and Abraham Lincoln's assassination (15 April 1865). A second, shorter group of poems, "Verses Inscriptive and Memorial," is primarily elegiac (and reminiscent of the tablets of the dead mariners in the whaleman's chapel in chapter 7 of Moby-Dick). Three remaining poems—the long ballad "The Scout toward Aldie," "Lee in the Capitol," and "A Meditation"—complete the text.
Melville assiduously followed news of the war, and a number of the poems of Battle-Pieces derive from his readings in periodicals such as Harper's Weekly and the Rebellion Record (an eleven-volume work that purported to serve as a "diary" of the war). In April 1864 Melville visited his cousin Colonel Henry Gansevoort, who was stationed in Vienna, Virginia, with the Thirteenth New York Cavalry. During the visit Melville took part in an unsuccessful scouting expedition in search of the notorious Colonel John Mosby and his Partisan Raiders, a Confederate guerrilla band adept at disrupting Union forces and infrastructure. But despite his familiarity with contemporary events and his brief firsthand battleground experience, Melville's Civil War poems are uninterested in merely transcribing history or personal experience ("The Scout toward Aldie" is the only poem in Battle-Pieces based on Melville's war experience as such, and he is not a participant in the poem's narrative). The poems are intended, rather, to present "the strife as a memory" (p. v), and they call attention to themselves as art, not reportage. "Battle-pieces" itself denoted for Melville's era the specific genre of painting and engravings of battle scenes, and several of his own poems ("The Coming Storm" and "Formerly a Slave," for example) are explicit responses to artwork he had experienced. Battle-Pieces deliberately reimagines its source material as a means of exploring America's mission and destiny and human history generally. In "Lee in the Capitol," for example, based on Lee's February 1866 appearance before the Reconstruction Committee of Congress, Melville gives the vanquished general an imagined speech in which Lee espouses a doctrine of magnanimity toward the South in accord with Melville's own counsel in the supplement.
Battle-Pieces proved less accessible for its initial readers and critics than other significant poetic treatments of the Civil War in the 1860s—for example, James Russell Lowell's "Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration" (21 July 1865) and Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps (1865). Battle-Pieces's shifting perspectives, heavy allusiveness, sometimes crabbed style and obscure thought, and generally unromanticized picture of the war left many readers bewildered. As Melville's cousin Kate Gansevoort confessed, "It is too deep for my comprehension" (Garner, p. 440). An early review chided Battle-Pieces for its "great crudities" and found its poetry "epileptic" and "fearful" (Garner, p. 441). "Nature," Charles Eliot Norton averred of Melville in the Nation (6 September 1866), "did not make him a poet" (Robertson-Lorant, p. 496). In a more damning review in the Atlantic Monthly (February 1967), William Dean Howells complained about Battle-Pieces's "negative virtues of originality" (Robertson-Lorant, p. 496) and the poetry's lack of feeling and outright obliviousness to the human; for Howells, Battle-Pieces is a poetry of "phantasms" and "vagaries" (Robertson-Lorant, p. 496), and like Norton, he seems incapable of viewing Melville's alleged poetic infelicities as part of a deliberate aesthetic appropriate to the attempt to poeticize the nation's bloody war experience. Contemporary critics have praised Battle-Pieces for many of the reasons that its original critics reviled it—its difficulty, its compression, its attempt to find new language and form commensurate to the barbarity of the war. Melville has been identified as a proto-modernist and is now frequently taken to be the most significant nineteenth-century American poet after Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Still, the text has yet to attract a wide readership, even among academicians.
Battle-Pieces remains challenging and disconcerting for many reasons. Melville never relinquishes his conviction that "the glory of the war falls short of its pathos" (p. 242), and his poems are as likely to be about failure as triumph. "What like a bullet can undeceive" (p. 90), Melville might write in the requiem that is "Shiloh," but the trauma of war often unmakes the self rather than illuminating or strengthening it. The "idiot-pain" (p. 130) that afflicts the captive of "In the Prison Pen" makes thought and memory impossible. "Self," Melville says of the "college colonel" of the poem of the same name, "he has long disclaimed," and whatever "truth" came to him during his ordeals goes unspecified (p. 131). The soldiers of "The March into Virginia" are "enlightened by the vollied glare" of gunfire only at the moment they perish, and those who live and succeed to the "throe of Second Manassas" are rendered "like to adamant" (p. 60), the process of war for them one of hardening and petrification.
Part of the considerable achievement of Battle-Pieces, however, is its multiplicity of perspectives, a democratic technique that suggests how no record of the war can be definitive or complete. Both commoners and luminaries contribute to the design of Battle-Pieces; Melville is as interested in the war's prisoners as in its generals. The successive poems "The Cumberland," "In the Turret," "The Temeraire," and "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight" collectively provide a concise, shifting narrative about the evolution of naval battle that contextualizes the significance of the new ironclads, the Northern Monitor and the Southern Merrimac, and the new havoc they make possible. "Donelson" considers the war from the civilian perspective as a variety of "eager" and "anxious" (p. 68) Yankees gather about a bulletin board at several times during a week in February 1862 to obtain news about a pivotal Tennessee battle.
The perspective, however, that the modern reader might find conspicuously absent in Battle-Pieces is that of the nineteenth-century African American. Melville's poems pay little attention to slavery, and only in "Formerly a Slave," based on a portrait by Elihu Vedder that Melville saw at the National Academy of Design in 1865, does he make an African American the poem's center. The woman does not signify much for Melville in and of herself. Rather she serves as an emblem of "prophetic cheer" that forecasts the "good withheld from her" arriving for her "children's children" (p. 157). Melville himself opposed slavery without advocating abolitionism. Although concerned in the supplement for "the future of the freed slaves," he nonetheless believes that it is the larger "future of the whole country" that "urges a paramount claim upon our anxiety" (p. 243), and "Formerly a Slave" reflects this position.
Battle-Pieces also acutely identifies the terrifying uniqueness of the Civil War and its new technologies of destruction. In "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight" the "anvil-din" of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac establishes a dispassionate, mechanical warfare determined by "crank, / Pivot, and screw, / And calculations of caloric" (p. 89). Such technology requires a new kind of poetry, Melville argues: a "plain" verse "More ponderous than nimble" that underplays "rhyme's barbaric cymbal" (p. 89). Yet the Civil War for Melville is also analogous to earlier wars (the English Wars of the Roses, the War of Heaven in Milton's 1667 Paradise Lost), and American battlegrounds can appear to Melville as biblical wildernesses (especially in "The Armies of the Wilderness"). Such resemblances devastatingly critique American Manifest Destiny, the belief not only in territorial expansion but in boundless individual opportunity as well, by suggesting the course of American history is as much regressive as progressive. In "The House-Top," a poem about the 1863 New York draft riots, Melville in fact chronicles how, on the basis of recent American history, "man rebounds whole aeons back in nature" (p. 108).
The fear that the war cannot be known or apprehended through language and poetry lurks throughout Battle-Pieces. "None can narrate that strife in the pines" (p. 120), says Melville in "The Armies of the Wilderness"; his "entangled rhyme / But hints at the maze of war" (p. 120). The last line of the last poem of Battle-Pieces, "A Meditation," appropriately concludes with an image of silent victors—as if silence were in fact the most eloquent possible response to the maze of war. "Silence is the only Voice of our God" (p. 204), Melville actually wrote in Pierre.
Yet the Melville of Battle-Pieces still retains allegiance to an idea of America as "the world's fairest hope" (p. 53). In "America," the poem that concludes the first sequence of Battle-Pieces, a prophetic Melville personifies America as a maternal figure silenced by the fury of the war; by the end of the poem, however, she awakens from an awful dream vision and, with "Law on her brow and empire in her eyes" (p. 163) symbolizes a calmer, graver, purified future. In the supplement Melville works even more explicitly to reconcile North and South as Reconstruction becomes a measure of "the sincerity of our faith in democracy." In a voice of moderation and candor, Melville cautions against "misapplied" Northern "exultation" (p. 241) and asks that a "generosity of sentiment" (p. 243) be extended to the South. Recovering some belief in both "Progress" and "Humanity," he concludes Battle-Pieces with the hope that the "terrible historic tragedy" of the Civil War "may not have been enacted without instructing our whole beloved country through terror and pity" (p. 246).
Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street." 1853. In The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839–1860. Evanston, Ill., and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1987.
Melville, Herman. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: CivilWar Poems. 1866. Foreword by James M. McPherson, introduction by Richard H. Cox and Paul M. Dowling. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2001. Interpretive essays accompanying the text include Richard H. Cox's "A Careful Disorderliness: The Organization of Battle-Pieces," Helen Vendler's "Melville and the Lyric of History," and Rosanna Warren's "Dark Knowledge: Melville's Poems of the Civil War."
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. Evanston, Ill., and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988.
Melville, Herman. Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. 1853. Evanston, Ill., and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1971.
Cohen, Hennig. "Introduction." In Battle-Pieces, edited by Hennig Cohen, pp. 11–28. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1963.
Garner, Stanton. The Civil War World of Herman Melville. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. Vol. 2, 1851–1891. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1996.
Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics andArt of Herman Melville. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Shurr, William H. "Melville's Poems: The Late Agenda." In A Companion to Melville Studies, edited by John Bryant, pp. 351–374. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
"Battle-Pieces." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/battle-pieces
"Battle-Pieces." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Retrieved May 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/battle-pieces
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