Civil War Poetry, and an American Modernist

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J. D. McClatchy, the editor of this addition to The Library of America's American Poets Project, reminds us that "over 620,000 soldiers died during those four years, nearly as many as in all of America's other wars combined." Those who saw Ken Burns' version of the war on PBS easily recall the carnage of Shiloh and Antietam, the horrors of Southern and Northern prisoners-of-war camps, the destruction of Atlanta.

Now we have a collection of poems through which we can view one of the most devastating chapters in our nation's history, a time whose effects we still bear. Most of the poems, "anthems and elegies, rallying cries and defenses" are, as the editor readily admits, "second-rate." Nevertheless, although many of the poems are of little literary merit, there should be no doubt but that they are of historical importance. This volume, therefore, should attract a large audience of readers who are Civil War buffs and those curious about the development of American poetry.

Mr. McClatchy, the editor of The Yale Review and of the first publication in the American Poets Project, "Edna St. Vincent Millay," provides a thoughtful introduction to the period. He discusses literary styles (or lack thereof), and comments on some of the 33 poets he selected. More biographical information would have been useful, but its absence is understandable given so many poets and several long poems.

Some of the poets will be unfamiliar to all but students of American poetry. Others, including Herman Melville, Bret Harte, and Ambrose Bierce, are known for their fiction, even though each knew his way about a poem. There is a group of poets, including Whittier, Longfellow and Emerson, whose names will ring a bell from high school, or earlier. Then there is Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, two titans of 19th century American poetry.

The Dickinson poems included here are not her finest, although the following stanza is better than many poems of this collection:

It feels a shame to be Alive-

When Men so brave-are


One envies the Distinguished


Permitted-such a Head-

Compare these lines to ones William Gilmore Simms wrote to open "Ode-Do Ye Quail:"

Do ye quail but to hear,


The first foot-tramp of

Tyranny's minions?

Have ye buckled on armor,

and brandished the spear,

But to shrink with the

trumpet's first peal on the ear?

The greatest poem in the volume, and one of the best ever written, is Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," his elegy for the assassinated president: "And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,/ I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring."

Mr. McClatchy is informative on Whitman's volunteer work during the war, but Whitman's "The Wound-Dresser" directly involves the reader: "I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,/ Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive." The immediacy of war is captured by all 33 poets, but the poems by Dickinson and Whitman shine in this fine anthology. This is a book that belongs in all our libraries. …