The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War is a collection of seventy-two poems that depict key episodes and individuals of the Civil War as well as the temperament of the American people during the great conflict. Herman Melville arranges the poems in a chronological order so that the collection becomes an impressionistic history of the war delivered in verses rather than in prose. The first poem of the volume, “The Portent,” depicts the hanging of John Brown, the abolitionist who, in 1859, failed in his attempt to start a slave rebellion by capturing the United States military arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and arming the slaves on nearby plantations. Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid is often cited as the first skirmish of the Civil War, and the poem refers to Brown as “The meteor of the war.” Battle-Pieces concludes with “A Meditation,” a poem in which the speaker speculates on whether the United States will be able to heal its war wounds and reunite itself after a four-year conflict that bitterly divided the nation and took the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.

Individual poems in Battle-Pieces re-create many of the key engagements and incidents of the war—the battles of Manassas, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, Gettysburg, Lookout Mountain, Wilderness, Cedar Creek; the fall of Richmond; the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln; General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox court house—and provide portraits of many of the war’s important individuals, among them General Stonewall Jackson, General Philip Sheridan, and Colonel John Mosby. Several poems in Battle-Pieces depict war waged from sailing vessels. Melville, who spent much time at sea as a young man, had previously used an ocean setting in many of his best-known fictional works, including Moby-Dick (1851), generally considered Melville’s masterwork.

The poems vary in type and length. Battle-Pieces contains narrative poems, ballads, hymns, elegies, meditations, and epitaphs. The shortest poem, “On the Grave,” an inscription for the gravestone of a cavalry officer killed on a...

(The entire section is 886 words.)