April 3, 2014

Melville: A city in flags for a city in flames

Confederate leaders had already abandoned Richmond, Virginia, when Union soldiers entered the city and raised the American flag on April 3, 1865. At the time, author Herman Melville had been mostly out of the limelight, in part because of his growing cynicism towards the publishing industry and, more generally, the American reading public. Still, the fall of Richmond, he recalled, originated "an impulse" in him to write again. The result was not the novels for which he was known, but poetry. His collection, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, was published in 1866; it received virtually no attention. In that collection is "The Fall of Richmond," a poem subtitled "the tidings received in the Northern Metropolis":

What mean these peals from every tower,
   And crowds like seas that sway?
The cannon reply; they speak the heart
   Of the People impassioned, and say—
A city in flags for a city in flames,
   Richmond goes Babylon's way—
                   Sing and pray.

O weary years and woeful wars,
   And armies in the grave;
But hearts unquelled at last deter
   The helmed dilated Lucifer—
Honor to Grant the brave,
   Whose three stars now like Orion's rise
When wreck is on the wave—
                   Bless his glaive.

Well that the faith we firmly kept,
   And never our aim forswore
For the Terrors that trooped from each recess
   When fainting we fought in the Wilderness,
And Hell made loud hurrah,
   But God is in Heaven, and Grant in the Town,
And Right through might is Law—
                   God's way adore.

In the book's preface, Melville admitted that they did little justice to the complicated nature of the Civil War: "The aspects which the strife as a memory assumes are as manifold as are the moods of involuntary meditation—moods variable, and at times widely at variance," he wrote. "Yielding instinctively, one after another, to feelings not inspired from any one source exclusively, and unmindful, without purposing to be, of consistency, I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in a window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played upon the strings."

More than that, many scholars have seen an ironic or embittered view of the war in Melville's poetry. In the case of "The Fall of Richmond," his over-the-top rhetoric borders on satirical, as in his reference to the Confederacy as "helmed dilated Lucifer." The subtitle reminds us, however, that such a perspective is one-sided. Further, the poem and its prayer-like italicized sections seems innocent at first reading but actually paints a picture of a population calling for blood: the cannon speaks their collective heart, for example, despite their constant swaying (as in their opinions or loyalties). Hell has come to Earth by the final stanza, and "Right through might is Law" is incongruously connected to adoring "God's way" in the last line. Other poems in the book focus on specific battles of the Civil War, including the more famous "Shiloh: A Requiem."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.