Monday, March 7, 2011

Aimless Reading: The M's, Part 37.4 (Herman Melville)

Battle-Pieces by Michael_Kelleher
Battle-Pieces a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Melville, Herman
Battle-Pieces and
Aspects of the War:
Civile War Poems


Why can't I remember where I bought any of my Herman Melville books? This looks as though it were purchased used, so I may have bought it at Rust Belt Books. If not, no clue.

I bought it for my oral exams in graduate school. One of my three lists was on what I called "poetry including history" a la Pound, but which Susan Howe, who oversaw this reading list (and also removed Pound from it, saying she didn't have the time or energy to prepare for an exam including Ezra), insisted was more accurately titled "poetry including war."

We spent a fair amount of time discussing whether or not a distinction would be made between the two. I remember during the exam itself she asked me to compare Melville's response to the Civil War to Whitman's. I answered that I thought the main difference had to do with the perspective of the speaker.

Whitman, I said, tends to speak as someone reporting the action from the ground. He walks among the wounded soldiers and reports on the parades in the capital and so forth, whereas Melville tends to view the war from a kind of god's-eye perspective, reporting on the war as a great moral conflict unfolding beneath his gaze.

Something I said irked Susan, and I recall she began a brief, impassioned defense of Melville's war poems compared to Whitman's. I said I wasn't making a judgment, only that I saw one as viewing things from below and one as viewing them from above. She seemed suspicious, but I passed.

from Battle Pieces

The Portent


Hanging from the beam,
          Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
           Shenandoah!
The cut is on the crown
          (Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
          Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
           Shenandoah!
But the streaming beard is shown
          (Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the the war.

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