As he does in his novels, Herman Melville, in his poems, pursues his personal struggle to discover some degree of certainty in a world in which such a task was becoming increasingly difficult. For the Deists of the eighteenth century, God had receded to the role of watchmaker who, after the machine-like world was constructed, left it to run its course. In the nineteenth century, with the impact of historical criticism of the Bible and of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, God seemed to have disappeared altogether. Such awareness, however, was confined to the most perceptive thinkers; the masses of people put off such challenges for a later day. Melville was one of those thinkers who refused to put off an intellectual or spiritual challenge that came his way. He was for his time a seer, a prophet. It is probably for this reason that Melville, while speaking with an ever clearer voice today, found himself misunderstood and finally unheard in his own time. Melville’s personal struggle has become that of our time.
Melville sought to reconcile the antinomies of existence. Since the advent of the Christian era, the most serious of these contraries, life and death, could easily be reconciled by the promise of eternal happiness—for the faithful, that is, although one of eternal torture and hellfire for unbelievers. By Melville’s time, the promise of an afterlife had become less certain, and, to some, improbable and even naïve. This is the kind of conflict that preoccupied Melville, and that he confronted with courage and commitment.
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War
Melville’s first book of poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, was harshly criticized for its unconventional metrics. One reviewer, writing for The Round Table on September 15, 1866, asserted that the poet displayed a “disregard of the laws of verse” and that he “ha[d] but little sense of melody, and almost no sense of proportion.” Educated readers of the mid-nineteenth century still expected both to see and to hear regular patterns of rhyme and rhythm—not the irregular, experimental patterns of Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville. As in the better poetry of Whitman and Dickinson, however, irregularities of rhythm and rhyme, when they occur in Melville’s better poems, do indeed “seem an echo to the sense” (Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, 1711). Perhaps what is true of Melville’s ideas is true of his sound patterns; just as twentieth century minds are required to grasp Melville’s penetrating analysis of human estrangement from time-honored but time-worn ideas of God, so modern ears are necessary to connect sound with sense in his poetry.
The second poem of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War
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- Critical Essays