Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

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Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War:

Publishing History

First American edition published August 17, 1866 by Harper & Brothers, New York. There was no contemporary British edition.

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Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.



On starry heights
A bugle wails the long recall;
Derision stirs the deep abyss,
Heaven's ominous silence over all.
Return, return, O eager Hope,
And face man's latter fall.
Events, they make the dreamers quail;
Satan's old age is strong and hale,
A disciplined captain, gray in skill,
And Raphael a white enthusiast still;
Dashed aims, at which Christ's martyrs pale,
Shall Mammon's slaves fulfill?

(Dismantle the fort,
Cut down the fleet --
Battle no more shall be!
While the fields for fight in aeons to come
Congeal beneath the sea.)

The terrors of truth and dart of death
To faith alike are vain;
Though comets gone a thousand years,
Return again,
Patient she stands -- she can no more --
And waits, nor heeds she waxes hoar.

(At a stony gate,
A statue of stone,
Weed overgrown --
Long 'twill wait!)

But God his former mind retains,
Confirms his old decree;
The generations are inured to pains,
And strong Necessity
Surges, and heaps Time's strand with wrecks.
The People spread like a weedy grass,
The thing they will they bring to pass,
And prosper to the apoplex.
The rout it herds around the heart,
The ghost is yielded in the gloom;
Kings wag their heads -- Now save thyself
Who wouldst rebuild the world in bloom.

And top of the ages' strife,
Verge where they called the world to come,
The last advance of life --
Ha ha, the rust on the Iron Dome!)

Nay, but revere the hid event;
In the cloud a sword is girded on,
I mark a twinkling in the tent
Of Michael the warrior one.
Senior wisdom suits not now,
The light is on the youthful brow.

(Ay, in caves the miner see:
His forehead bears a blinking light;
Darkness so he feebly braves --
A meagre wight!)

But He who rules is old -- is old;
Ah! Faith is warm, but heaven with age is cold.

(Ho ho, ho ho,
The cloistered doubt
Of olden times
Is blurted out!)

The Ancient of Days forever is young,
Forever the scheme of Nature thrives;
I know a wind in purpose strong --
It spins against the way it drives.
What if the gulfs their slimed foundations bare?
So deep must the stones be hurled
Whereon the throes of ages rear
The final empire and the happier world.

(The poor old Past,
The Future's slave,
She drudged through pain and crime
To bring about the blissful Prime,
Then -- perished.
There's a grave!)

Power unanointed may come --
Dominion (unsought by the free)
And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
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 --
Death, with silent negative.



Plain be the phrase, yet apt the verse,
More ponderous than nimble;
For since grimed War here laid aside
His Orient pomp, 'twould ill befit
Overmuch to ply
The rhyme's barbaric cymbal.

Hail to victory without the gaud
Of glory; zeal that needs no fans
Of banners; plain mechanic power
Plied cogently in War now placed --
Where War belongs --
Among the trades and artisans.

Yet this was battle, and intense --
Beyond the strife of fleets heroic;
Deadlier, closer, calm 'mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank,
Pivot, and screw,
And calculations of caloric.

Needless to dwell; the story's known.
The ringing of those plates on plates
Still ringeth round the world --
The clangour of that blacksmiths' fray.
The anvil-din
Resounds this message from the Fates:

War shall yet be, and to the end;
But war-paint shows the streaks of weather;
War yet shall be, but warriors
Are now but operatives; War's made
Less grand than Peace,
And a singe runs through lace and feather.


A Requiem.
(April 1862.)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh --
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh --
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there --
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve --
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim
And all is hushed at Shiloh.


The Night Fight.
(November, 1863.)

Who inhabiteth the Mountain
That it shines in lurid light,
And is rolled about with thunders,
And terrors, and a blight,
Like Kaf the peak of Eblis--
Kaf, the evil height?
Who has gone up with a shouting
And a trumpet in the night?

There is battle in the Mountain--
Might assaulteth Might;
'Tis the fastness of the Anarch,
Torrent-torn, an ancient height;
The crags resound the clangor
Of the war of Wrong and Right;
And the armies in the valley
Watch and pray for dawning light.

Joy, joy, the day is breaking,
And the cloud is rolled from sight;
There is triumph in the Morning
For the Anarch's plunging flight;
God has glorified the Mountain
Where a banner burneth bright,
And the armies of the valley
They are fortified in right.


(December, 1864.)

Not Kenesaw high-arching,
Nor Allatoona's glen --
Though there the graves lie parching --
Stayed Sherman's miles of men;
From charred Atlanta marching
They launched the sword again.
The columns streamed like rivers
Which in their course agree,
And they streamed until their flashing
Met the flashing of the sea:
It was glorious glad marching,
That marching to the sea.

They brushed the foe before them
(Shall gnats impede the bull?);
Their own good bridges bore them
Over swamps or torrents full,
And the grand pines waving o'er them
Bowed to axes keen and cool.
The columns grooved their channels,
Enforced their own decree,
And their power met nothing larger
Until it met the sea:
It was glorious glad marching,
A marching glad and free.

Kilpatrick's snare of riders
In zigzags mazed the land,
Perplexed the pale Southsiders
With feints on every hand;
Vague menace awed the hiders
In forts beyond command.
To Sherman's shifting problem
No foeman knew the key;
But onward went the marching
Unpausing to the sea:
It was glorious glad marching,
The swinging step was free.

The flankers ranged like pigeons
In clouds through field or wood;
The flocks of all those regions,
The herds and horses good,
Poured in and swelled the legions,
For they caught the marching mood.
A volley ahead! They hear it;
And they hear the repartee:
Fighting was but frolic
In that marching to the sea:
It was glorious glad marching,
A marching bold and free.

All nature felt their coming,
The birds like couriers flew,
And the banners brightly blooming
The slaves by thousands drew,
And they marched beside the drumming,
And they joined the armies blue.
The cocks crowed from the cannon
(Pets named from Grant and Lee),
Plumed fighters and campaigners
In that marching to the sea:
It was glorious glad marching,
For every man was free.

The foragers through calm lands
Swept in tempest gay,
And they breathed the air of balm-lands
Where rolled savannas lay,
And they helped themselves from farm-lands --
As who should say them nay?
The regiments uproarious
Laughed in Plenty's glee;
And they marched till their broad laughter
Met the laughter of the sea:
It was glorious glad marching,
That marching to the sea.

The grain of endless acres
Was threshed (as in the East)
By the trampling of the Takers,
Strong march of man and beast;
The flails of those earth-shakers
Left a famine where they ceased.
The arsenals were yielded;
The sword (that was to be),
Arrested in the forging,
Rued that marching to the sea;
It was glorious glad marching,
But ah, the stern decree!

For behind they left a wailing,
A terror and a ban,
And blazing cinders sailing,
And houseless households wan,
Wide zones of counties paling,
And towns where maniacs ran.
Was it Treason's retribution --
Necessity the plea?
They will long remember Sherman
And his streaming columns free --
They will long remember Sherman
Marching to the sea.


Sherman's advance through the Carolinas.
(February, 1865.)

So strong to suffer, shall we be
Weak to contend, and break
The sinews of the Oppressor's knee
That grinds upon the neck?
O, the garments rolled in blood
Scorch in cities wrapped in flame,
And the African -- the imp!
He gibbers, imputing shame.

Shall Time, avenging every woe,
To us that joy allot
Which Israel thrilled when Sisera's brow
Showed gaunt and showed the clot?
Curse on their foreheads, cheeks, and eyes --
The Northern faces -- true
To the flag we hate, the flag whose stars
Like planets strike us through.

From frozen Maine they come,
Far Minnesota too;
They come to a sun whose rays disown --
May it wither them as the dew!
The ghosts of our slain appeal:
"Vain shall our victories be?"
But back from its ebb the flood recoils --
Back in a whelming sea.

With burning woods our skies are brass,
The pillars of dust are seen;
The live-long day their cavalry pass --
No crossing the road between.
We were sore deceived -- an awful host!
They move like a roaring wind.
Have we gamed and lost? but even despair
Shall never our hate rescind.


Indicative of the passion of the people on the 15th of April, 1865.

Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm --
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

He lieth in his blood --
The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver --
The Avenger takes his place,
The Avenger wisely stern,
Who in righteousness shall do
What the heavens call him to,
And the parricides remand;
For they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And his blood is on their hand.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.


For Soldiers lost in Ocean Transports.

When, after storms that woodlands rue,
To valleys comes atoning dawn,
The robins blithe their orchard-sports renew;
And meadow-larks, no more withdrawn,
Caroling fly in the languid blue;
The while, from many a hid recess,
Alert to partake the blessedness,
The pouring mites their airy dance pursue.
So, after ocean's ghastly gales,
When laughing light of hoyden morning breaks,
Every finny hider wakes--
From vaults profound swims up with glittering scales;
Through the delightsome sea he sails,
With shoals of shining tiny things
Frolic on every wave that flings
Against the prow its showery spray;
All creatures joying in the morn,
Save them forever from joyance torn,
Whose bark was lost where now the dolphins play;
Save them that by the fabled shore,
Down the pale stream are washed away,
Far to the reef of bones are borne;
And never revisits them the light,
Nor sight of long-sought land and pilot more;
Nor heed they now the lone bird's flight
Round the lone spar where mid-sea surges pour.


Sailors there are of gentlest breed,
Yet strong, like every goodly thing;
The discipline of arms refines,
And the wave gives tempering.
The damasked blade its beam can fling;
It lends the last grave grace:
The hawk, the hound, and sworded nobleman
In Titian's picture for a king,
Are of hunter or warrior race.

In social halls a favored guest
In years that follow victory won,
How sweet to feel your festal fame
In woman's glance instinctive thrown:
Repose is yours -- your deed is known,
It musks the amber wine;
It lives, and sheds a light from storied days
Rich as October sunsets brown,
Which make the barren place to shine.

But seldom the laurel wreath is seen
Unmixed with pensive pansies dark;
There's a light and a shadow on every man
Who at last attains his lifted mark --
Nursing through night the ethereal spark.
Elate he can never be;
He feels that spirits which glad had hailed his worth,
Sleep in oblivion. -- The shark
Glides white through the phosporous sea.

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Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

A rough time of it the country had during our four years' war, and many of the lines in which Herman Melville, in his new character as a poet, commemorates it are not inappropriately rugged enough.... But we wish to direct special attention to the "supplement" which Mr. Melville has added, in obedience to a claim overriding all literary scruples -- a claim urged by patriotism not free from solicitude. So far from spoiling the symmetry of the book, this supplement completes it, and converts it into what is better than a good book -- into a good and patriotic action. The writer sees clearly that there is no reason why patriotism and narrowness should go together, or why intellectual impartiality should be confounded with political trimming, or why serviceable truth should keep cloistered because not partisan.... We welcome these "words in season," not only as the deliberate, impartial testimony of a highly cultivated individual mind, but as hopeful signs of a change in public opinion and sentiment. --New York Herald, September 3 1866

It is impossible, in view of what Mr. Melville has done and of his intention in his present book, not to read his Battle Pieces with a certain melancholy. Nature did not make him a poet. His pages contain at best little more than the rough ore of poetry. Here and there gleams of imaginative power shine out like the grains of gold in a mass of quartz. But, accustomed as we have been of late, in certain works professing to be poetry, to astonishing crudity and formlessness, we yet cannot refrain from expressing surprise that a man of Mr. Melville's literary experience and cultivation should have mistaken some of these compositions for poetry, or even for verse. There are some of them in which it is difficult to discover rhythm, measure, or consonance of rhyme. The thought is often involved and obscure. The sentiment is weakened by incongruous imagery. --New York Nation, September 6 1866

The collection of battle-pieces exemplifies the fact that the poetic nature and the technical faculty of writing poetry are not identical. Whole pages of Mr. Melville's prose are, in the highest sense, poetic, and nearly all the battle-pieces would be much more poetic if they were thrown into the external prose form. The habit of his mind is not lyric, but historical, and the genre of historic poetry in which he most congenially expatiates finds rhythm not a help but a hindrance. The exigencies of rhyme hamper him still more, and against both of these trammels his vigorous thought habitually recalcitrates, refusing from time to time the harness which by adopting the verse-form it had voluntarily assumed. That it is not the nature of his thought which is at fault, may be plainly perceived from multitudes of strong and beautiful images, many thoughts picturesquely put, which, belonging legitimately to the poetic domain, still refuse to obey the rigid regimental order of the stanza, but outly its lines, deployed as irregular, though brilliant skirmishers....
We might go on to instance such technical blemishes as the rhyming of "law" and "Shenandoah," "more" and "Kenesaw," but we forbear, lest we should seem carping at a book which, without having one poem of entire artistic ensemble in it, possesses numerous passages of beauty and power. For these it is well worth going through, and belongs, at any rate, to a place on the shelves of those who are collecting the literature of the war, as well as of that much larger class who would not be without a book of Typee's gifted author. --Richard Henry Stoddard, in New York World, October 19 1866

Mr. Melville has broken a long silence in a manner hardly to have been expected of the author of Typee and Mardi. Among these poems are some -- among them "The March to the Sea" and that upon "Stonewall Jackson, ascribed to a Virginian" -- which will stand as among the most stirring lyrics of the war. --Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1867

Mr. Melville's work possesses the negative virtues of originality in such degree that it not only reminds you of no poetry you have read, but of no life you have known....
Mr. Melville chooses you a simple and touching theme, like that of the young officer going from his bride to hunt Mosby in the forest ... and straight enchants it into a mystery of thirty-eight stanzas, each of which diligently repeats the name of Mosby, and deepens the spell, until you are lost to every sense of time or place, and become as callous at the end as the poet must have been at the beginning to all feeling involved....
Here lies the fault. Mr. Melville's skill is so great that we fear he has not often felt the things of which he writes, since with all his skill he fails to move us. In some respects we find his poems admirable. He treats events as realistically as one can to whom they seem to have presented themselves as dreams; but at last they remain vagaries, and are none the more substantial because they have a modern speech and motion.
With certain moods or abstractions of the common mind during the war, Mr. Melville's faculty is well fitted to deal: the unrest, the strangeness and solitude, to which the first sense of the great danger reduced all souls, are reflected in his verse, and whatever purely mystic aspect occurrences had seems to have been felt by this poet, so little capable of giving their positive likeness....
... Indeed, the book is full of pictures of many kinds, -- often good -- though all with a heroic quality of remoteness, separating our weak human feelings from them by trackless distances....
A tender and subtile music is felt in many of the verses, and the eccentric metres are gracefully managed. --Boston Atlantic Monthly, February 1867

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