"Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War" the Novelist as Poet: A Study in the Dramatic Poetry of Herman Melville

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Introduction

Battle-Pieces' place in the context of Herman Melville's work and nineteenth century American poetry, especially Civil War poetry, has long been both seriously undervalued and uncertain. The main reason for this uncertainty is the work's unconventional aspects of style, as well as Mellville's use of a wide variety of subjects, characters, and tones, which bewildered critics and obscured the book's unity. Critics were content to deal briefly with aspects of style in which they were interested, or to approach the poetry in terms of generalizations, reducing it to misleading formulae. This latter aspect in particular led many critics to miscomprehend the very essence of Mellville's poetry--the way in which it deliberately encompasses a wide range of viewpoints and voices that interact with or work against each other and defy simple categorizations.

This essay explores the relationship between Melville the poet and Melville the novelist in Battle-Pieces, and how the interpenetration of both created a poetry of multiple genres, different from most lyric poetry, in the sense that it is a fundamentally polyphonic or dramatic poetry which adopts, as its basic technique, the creation of characters and dramatic voices. In this respect the collection, Battle-Pieces, foreshadows, in form and style, a great deal of twentieth century poetry. From this collection, one particular poem, because of its concept and qualities of technique and style, has been chosen as representative for the purposes of this essay.

   The Conflict of Convictions. (1860-1.)

   On starry heights
   A bugle wails the long recal;
   Derision stirs the deep abyss,
   Heaven's ominous silence over all.
   Return, return, O eager Hope, 5
   And face man's latter fall.
   Events, they make the dreamers quail;
   Satan's old age is strong and hale,
   A disciplined captain, gray in skill,
   And Raphael a white enthusiast still; 10
   Dashed aims, at which Christ's martyrs pale,
   Shall Mammon's slaves fulfill?

   (Dismantle the fort,
   cut down the fleet -
   Battle no more shall be! 15
   While the fields for fight in the aeons to come
   Congeal beneath the sea.)

   The terrors of the truth and dart of death
   To faith alike are vain;
   Though comets, gone a thousand Years, 20
   Return again,
   Patient she stands-she can no more-
   And waits, nor heeds she waxes hoar.

   (At a stony gate,
   A statue of stone, 25
   Weed overgrown-
   Long `twill wait!)

   But God his former mind retains,
   Confirms his old decree;
   The generations are inured to pains, 30
   And strong Necessity
   Surges, and heaps Time's strand with wrecks.
   The people spread like a weedy grass,
   The thing they will they bring to pass,
   And prosper to the apoplex. 35
   The rout it herds around the heart,
   The ghost is yielded in the gloom;
   Kings wag their heads - Now save thyself
   Who wouldst rebuild the world in bloom.

   (Tide-mark 40
   And top of the ages' strife,
   Verge where they called the world to come,
   The last advance of life -
   Ha ha, the rust on the Iron Dome!)

   Nay, but revere the hid event; 45
   In the cloud a sword is girded on,
   I mark a twinkling in the tent
   Of Michael the warrior one.
   Senior wisdon suits not now,
   The light is on the youthful brow. 50

   (Ay, in caves the miner see:
   His forehead bears a blinking light;
   Darkness so he feebly braves -
   A meagre wight!)

   But He who rules is old - is old; 55
   Ah ! faith is warm, but heaven with age is cold.

   (Ho ho, ho ho,
   The cloistered doubt
   Of olden times
   Is blurted out!) 60

   The Ancient of Days forever is young,
   Forever the scheme of Nature thrives;
   I know a wind in purpose strong -
   It spins against the way it drives.
   What if the gulfs their slimed foundations bare. 65
   So deep must the stones be hurled
   Whereon the throes of ages rear
   The final empire and the happier world. …