Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

by Herman Melville

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The Poems

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886

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 battlefield in Virginia, comprises only five lines; the longest, “The Scout Toward Aldie,” which depicts the guerrilla tactics of Confederate colonel John Mosby, runs 798 lines.

The collection’s title comes from the world of art. Paintings and sketches depicting war were generally called battle pieces. Melville had developed an interest in such art works even before the Civil War began; after the war, when he commenced writing poems that captured the conflict, Melville attempted to render in verse what he had seen artists create on canvas and paper. Indeed, a few of the poems in Battle-Pieces are named specifically for famous paintings. In the poem “ ‘The Coming Storm,’” for example, Melville draws an analogy between the wilderness landscape at the start of a storm, depicted in the 1865 painting by Sandford Robinson Gifford, and the situation in the United States as the Civil War approached. In “Formerly a Slave,” Melville also re-creates in verse the woman who is the subject of an 1865 painting by Elihu Vedder.

The poems of Battle-Pieces clearly reveal Melville’s position on the great conflict. Melville dedicates the volume “to the memory of the three hundred thousand who in the war for the maintenance of the union fell devotedly under the flag of their fathers”; the dedication makes no mention of the three hundred thousand Confederate dead. In “The Fortitude of the North,” Melville asserts that the Union soldiers “fight for the Right.” In “Dupont’s Round Fight,” a poem depicting a Union naval victory engineered by Commander Samuel Francis DuPont, Melville states that the Union fleet “Warred for Right,/ And, warring so, prevailed.” The South, according to Melville, fought in defense of slavery, described in “Misgivings” as “man’s foulest crime.” In an essay appended to the collection, Melville condemns the South for supporting a war “whose implied end was the erecting in our advanced century of an Anglo-American empire based upon the systematic degradation of man.” Hence, a poem that recognizes the battlefield prowess of Stonewall Jackson also identifies the great Confederate general as a man “who stoutly stood for Wrong.”

Nonetheless, Melville shows much sympathy for the defeated South. For example, in a poem titled “Rebel Color-Bearers at Shiloh,” and subtitled “A plea against the vindictive cry raised by civilians shortly after the surrender at Appomattox,” Melville paints an admirable portrait of Confederate color bearers; he advises readers, “Perish their Cause! but mark the men.” In “A Grave near Petersburg, Virginia,” Melville describes a Rebel soldier’s grave and declares, “May his grave be green, though he/ Was a rebel of iron mould.” Melville praises President Lincoln in “The Martyr” for his conciliatory postwar policy, and in “Meditation,” the volume’s concluding poem, he urges Americans to set aside wartime animosities and engage in the act of reconciliation.

Melville never saw the war first hand. He did not join the Union army; he spent the war years in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and New York. He did visit a cousin at the front in Virginia in 1864 and heard the war stories of battle-tested troopers. He also read about the war in newspapers, in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, and in a postwar publication titled The Rebellion Record. Moreover, after the war, he spoke with many veterans of the conflict who supplied him with the details that he used in the poems.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

No two poems in Battle-Pieces look or read alike. Besides varying in length and type, the poems also differ according to rhyme scheme and meter. In some poems Melville employs traditional rhyme schemes, while others read like prose poems. In “A Dirge for McPherson,” for example, the four-line stanzas adhere to a traditional abab rhyme pattern. “The House-top,” on the other hand, reads more like a descriptive paragraph than a poem and is virtually without rhyme.

Weather imagery dominates Battle-Pieces. For Melville, the Civil War was a storm that threw the nation into disorder and chaos. For example, “Misgivings,” the second poem of the collection, opens with these lines:

  When ocean-clouds over inland hills   Sweep storming in late autumn brown,  And horror the sodden valley fills,   And the spire falls crashing in the town,  I muse upon my country’s ills—  The tempest bursting from the waste of TimeOn the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.

Likewise, “Apathy and Enthusiasm,” another poem set early in the collection, compares the mood of the nation on the eve of war with a “clammy, cold November” day with “the sky a sheet of lead.” The events precipitating the war “came resounding/ With the cry that All was lost,/ Like the thundercracks of massy ice/ In intensity of frost—/ Bursting one upon another/ Through the horror of the calm.”

Melville also sometimes compares the fury of battle with the raging power of a storm. In “Gettysburg,” for example, the speaker describes Confederate general George Pickett’s fatal charge into the center of the Union line on the third day of the battle as a storm at sea: “Before our lines it seemed a beach/ Which wild September gales have strown/ With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith/ Pale crews unknown—/ Men, arms, and steeds.” In “The College Colonel,” Melville describes a regiment of battle-weary soldiers as “castaway sailorsstunned/ By the surf’s loud roar.”

Melville frequently juxtaposes images and moods within individual poems. “Shiloh,” for example, features a sharp contrast between the peaceful setting and the fury of the battle that recently took place. In the Old Testament, Shiloh is a place of peace, and the poem opens with swallows flying gently over the “forest-field of Shiloh,” where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War has just concluded. Rain is falling, but instead of producing new life, it merely provides solace to “the parched ones stretched in pain”—the dying soldiers still lying untreated on the field. The violent battle has taken place on a Sunday, the traditional Christian day of peace, near a church, a place of sanctuary and peace. The noise of battle is now replaced by quiet, as the swallows skim over the dead and dying soldiers, “And all is hushed at Shiloh.”

In “The College Colonel,” Melville juxtaposes the public celebration of a war hero returning to his hometown with the veteran’s private thoughts. As the wounded colonel marches through the streets of his hometown, “There are welcoming shouts, and flags;/ Old men off hat to the Boy,/ Wreaths from gay balconies fall at his feet.” However, the colonel’s private thoughts are of his terrifying war experiences—frightening episodes during the battles of Seven Days, Wilderness, Petersburg, and his captivity at Libby prison:

But all through the Seven Days’ Fight,  And deep in the Wilderness grim,And in the field-hospital tent,  And Petersburg crater, and dimLean brooding in Libby, there came—  Ah heaven!—what truth to him.

Throughout Battle-Pieces Melville makes frequent allusions to the Bible and to Paradise Lost (1667), the epic poem by John Milton that recounts the war between God’s heavenly angels and the legions of Lucifer. Like many Northerners, Melville viewed the Civil War as an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. In several poems he personifies the South as Satan waging a war of disunion against the North, whose troops are identified with God’s angels, led by Michael the archangel. In “The Fall of Richmond” Melville equates the capture of the Confederate capital with the fall of Babylon and says that the Northern armies have deterred “the helmed dilated Lucifer.” During the conflict, “Hell made loud hurrah,” but now, with Richmond in Northern hands, “God is in Heaven, and Grant in the Town.” In his novels, Melville makes frequent allusions to the Fall of Man, the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as recorded in the book of Genesis. In Battle-Pieces he depicts the United States as a second Eden, corrupted by the sin of slavery.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 175

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