Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War Analysis

Herman Melville

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 767 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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