Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

by Herman Melville
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

The overall thematic movement of Battle-Pieces is from the chaos of war to the order of peace and reconciliation, a movement also evident in Drum-Taps (1865), Walt Whitman’s collection of Civil War poems. Melville’s volume’s early poems depict a nation torn asunder by a violent storm, but the war’s end and the North’s victory reestablish order in the American universe. For example, “Aurora-Borealis,” a poem commemorating the end of the war, opens with the question, “What power disbands the Northern Lights/ After their steely play?” The northern lights, which appeared vividly in the evening sky after the devastating Union defeat at Fredericksburg, symbolize both the Confederate victory in that battle and the triumph of the forces of night, the forces of disorder and chaos. Yet at the war’s end, “The phantom-host has faded quite,/ Splendor and Terror gone,” giving way to “pale, meek Dawn.” In “Lee in the Capitol,” a poem depicting a postwar visit to the Capitol by Robert E. Lee, Melville describes a nation at peace: “Trees and green terraces sleep below” the Capitol building.

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A frequent theme in individual poems of Battle-Pieces is the loss of innocence, a common theme in the literature of the Civil War. Melville, like other Civil War-era writers, viewed the war as the violent initiation experience that ended American innocence. Melville expresses that theme in “The March into Virginia,” a poem marking the Battle of First Manassas (called the Battle of Bull Run by the North), the first major engagement of the Civil War. Melville declares that “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,” and the young Yankee soldiers depicted in the poem march off to battle as if they were going on a picnic. The youthful troops anticipate the war as an exciting adventure, but many “who this blithe mood present,/Shall die experienced ere three days are spent.”

The same theme is present in “Ball’s Bluff.” The speaker observes a regiment of soldiers marching past his home on their way to an engagement at Ball’s Bluff:

One noonday, at my window in the town,  I saw a sight—saddest that eyes can see—Young soldiers marching lustily   Unto the wars,With fifes, and flags in mottoed pageantry;   While all the porches, walks, and doorsWere rich with ladies cheering royally.

The young men marching off to battle have hearts “fresh as clover in its prime.” The speaker, however, sensing the horrors that lie ahead, asks, “How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime/ Would come to thin their shining throng?” Melville articulates a similar lament in “On the Slain Collegians,” a poem commemorating the many regiments of college students who took sabbaticals from their studies to join in the war effort:

Each bloomed and died an unabated Boy;Nor dreamed what death was—thought it mere Sliding into some vernal sphere.They knew the joy, but leaped the grief,Like plants that flower ere comes the leaf—Which storms lay low in kindly doom,And kill them in their flush of bloom.

Another persistent theme is Battle-Pieces is the endurance of nature in the face of the affairs of humankind. This theme is evident in “Shiloh” in Melville’s description of the swallows swooping over the battlefield to reclaim it after the terrible battle has ended. Melville expresses a similar idea in “Malvern Hill,” a poem depicting an engagement during the Seven Days’ Battle. The speaker addresses the elm trees that stand on Malvern Hill, asking if they recall the great conflict that took place there. The speaker recounts the bloody battle that occurred, describing “rigid comrades” who lay dead in the forest and soldiers fighting with “haggard beards of blood.” The elms respond that they “Remember every thing;/ But sap the twig will fill:/ Wag the world how it will,/ Leaves must be green in Spring.” Regardless of the violent battle, regardless of the heroic stand made by the Union soldiers who fought at Malvern Hill, the elms must simply conduct nature’s business, filling twigs with saps so that the trees will sprout leaves again.

The themes articulated in Battle-Pieces are also present in many of Melville’s fictional works. Melville earned his place in American literary history as a fiction writer and is not generally appreciated as a great poet. Nonetheless, Battle-Pieces represents an ambitious effort by Melville, an attempt to compose an American Iliad, a history of the Civil War in verse.

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