July 21, 2011

What two poets heard that day

The First Battle of Bull Run (also called the First Battle of Manassas) was fought in Virginia on July 21, 1861; this first major land battle of the Civil War resulted in a Confederate victory. The Kentucky-born Sarah Morgan Bryan (who had recently married John James Piatt) was living nearby, outside of Washington, D.C. She wrote of the battle in her poem "Hearing the Battle":

One day in the dreamy summer,
On the Sabbath hills, from afar
We heard the solemn echoes
Of the first fierce words of war.

Ah, tell me, thou veiled Watcher
Of the storm and the calm to come,
How long by the sun or shadow
Till these noises again are dumb.

And soon in a hush and glimmer
We thought of the dark, strange fight,
Whose close in a ghastly quiet
Lay dim in the beautiful night.

Then we talk'd of coldness and pallor,
And of things with blinded eyes
That stared at the golden stillness
Of the moon in those lighted skies;

And of souls, at morning wrestling
In the dust with passion and moan,
So far away at evening
In the silence of worlds unknown.

But a delicate wind beside us
Was rustling the dusky hours,
As it gather'd the dewy odors
Of the snowy jessamine-flowers.

And I gave you a spray of the blossoms,
And said: "I shall never know
How the hearts in the land are breaking,
My dearest, unless you go."

For another perspective, Philadelphia-born George Henry Boker grabs attention in the first line of his poem "Upon the Hill Before Centreville" (also dated July 21, 1861) by almost directly answering Piatt:

I'll tell you what I heard that day:
I heard the great guns far away,
Boom after boom. Their sullen sound
Shook all the shuddering air around,
And shook, ah me! my shrinking ear,
And downward shook the hanging tear
That, in despite of manhood's pride,
Rolled o'er my face a scalding tide.
And then I prayed. O God! I prayed
As never stricken saint, who laid
His hot cheek to the holy tomb
Of Jesus, in the midnight gloom.

"What saw I?" Little. Clouds of dust;
Great files of men, with standards thrust
Against their course; dense columns crowned
With billowing steel. Then, bound on bound,
The long black lines of cannon poured
Behind the horses, streaked and gored
With sweaty speed. Anon shot by,
Like a lone meteor of the sky,
A single horseman; and he shone
His bright face on me, and was gone.

Amid "rolling drums," occasional "cheers," and the singing of "songs familiar to my ears," the speaker of the poem watches the battle much more closely than Piatt's narrator:

Beneath whose gloom of dusty smoke
The cannon flamed, the bomb-shell broke,
And the sharp rattling volley rang,
And shrapnel roared, and bullets sang,
And fierce-eyed men, with panting breath,
Toiled onward at the work of death...

Initially, the battle seemed to be in favor of the Union, and Boker's narrator briefly sees a soldier charging past who shouts that victory was theirs. He suddenly feels a stillness in the air ("All nature in the work of death / Paused for one last, despairing breath") before the battle turns in favor of the Confederates. Boker offers an ode to those Union troops who were already dead by the pause that preceded the Confederate victory:

O happy dead, who early fell,
Ye have no wretched tale to tell
Of causeless fear and coward flight,
Of victory snatched beneath your sight,
Of martial strength and honor lost,
Of mere life bought at any cost,
Of the deep, lingering mark of shame
Forever scorched on brow and name,
That no new deeds, however bright,
Shall banish from men's loathful sight!
Ye perished in your conscious pride,
Ere this vile scandal opened wide
A wound that cannot close nor heal;
Ye perished steel to levelled steel,
Stern votaries of the god of war,
Filled with his godhead to the core!
Ye died to live; these lived to die
Beneath the scorn of every eye!
How eloquent your voices sound
From the low chambers under ground!
How clear each separate title burns
From your high-set and laurelled urns!
While these, who walk about the earth,
Are blushing at their very birth;
And though they talk, and go and come,
Their moving lips are worse than dumb.
Ye sleep beneath the valley's dew,
And all the nation mourns for you.
So sleep, till God shall wake the lands!
For angels, armed with fiery brands,
Await to take you by the hands.

Much like Boker himself (who became one of the most prolific poets during the Civil War), his narrator is not merely a passive listener to the battle, as is Piatt's narrator. Instead, he suddenly shouts in the direction of battle:

I found a voice. My burning blood
Flamed up. Upon a mound I stood;
I could no more restrain my voice
Than could the prophet of God's choice.
"Back, howling fugitives," I cried,
"Back, on your wretched lives, and hide
Your shame beneath your native clay!
Or if the foe affrights you, slay
Your baser selves; and, dying, leave
Your children's tearful cheeks to grieve,
Not quail and blush, when you shall come,
Alive, to their degraded home!
Your wives will look askance with scorn;
Your boys, and infants yet unborn,
Will curse you to God's holy face!
Heaven holds no pardon in its grace
For cowards. O, are such as ye
The guardians of our liberty?
Back, if one trace of manhood still
May nerve your arm and brace your will!
You stain your country in the eyes
Of Europe and her monarchies!
The despots laugh, the peoples groan,
Man's cause is lost and overthrown!
I curse you, by the sacred blood
That freely poured its purple flood
Down Bunker's heights, on Monmouth's plain,
From Georgia to the rocks of Maine!
I curse you, by the patriot band
Whose bones are crumbling in the land!
By those who saved what these had won! —
In the high name of Washington!"

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