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Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863

July 1, 2013

Herman Melville is better known for his prose than his poetry, but he spent more of his life on the latter than the former. His first book of poems, Battle-Pieces, centered on the Civil War. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, about which Melville wrote what is, I think, one of his better poems:


O Pride of the days in prime of the months
Now trebled in great renown,
When before the ark of our holy cause
Fell Dagon down-
Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,
Never his impious heart enlarged
Beyond that hour; God walled his power,
And there the last invader charged.

He charged, and in that charge condensed
His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells-
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
And Right is a strong-hold yet.

Before our lines it seemed a beach
Which wild September gales have strown
With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith
Pale crews unknown-
Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun
Died on the face of each lifeless one,
And died along the winding marge of fight
And searching-parties lone.

Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,
Our centre held that place of graves,
And some still hold it in their swoon,
And over these a glory waves.
The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,
Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,
A meaning ampler bear;
Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer
Have laid the stone, and every bone
Shall rest in honor there.

In case it’s not clear, the identification of the Southern armies with Dagon is far from Melville’s last word on the subject. Here’s more on the subject, from the “Supplement” he appends to Battle-Pieces:

The clouds of heroes who battled for the Union it is needless to eulogize here. But how of the soldiers on the other side? And when of a free community we name the soldiers, we thereby name the people. It was in subserviency to the slave-interest that Secession was plotted; but it was under the plea, plausibly urged, that certain inestimable rights guaranteed by the Constitution were directly menaced, that the people of the South were cajoled into revolution. Through the arts of the conspirators and the perversity of fortune, the most sensitive love of liberty was entrapped into the support of a war whose implied end was the erecting in our advanced century of an Anglo-American empire based upon the systematic degradation of man.

Spite this clinging reproach, however, signal military virtues and achievements have conferred upon the Confederate arms historic fame, and upon certain of the commanders a renown extending beyond the sea — a renown which we of the North could not suppress even if we would. In personal character, also, not a few of the military leaders of the South enforce forbearance; the memory of others the North refrains from disparaging; and some, with more or less of reluctance, she can respect. Posterity, sympathizing with our convictions, but removed from our passions, may perhaps go farther here. If George IV. could out of the graceful instinct of a gentleman, raise an honorable monument in the great fane of Christendom over the remains of the enemy of his dynasty, Charles Edward, the invader of England and victor in the rout at Preston Pans — Upon whose head the king’s ancestor but one reign removed has set a price — is it probable that the grandchildren of General Grant will pursue with rancor, or slur by sour neglect, the memory of Stonewall Jackson?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2013 9:27 am

    I hadn’t read this one of Melville’s poems or even most of Battle-Pieces, but I read and loved “Formerly A Slave.” Based on those two, I am getting the feeling that I should read all of them.

  2. July 6, 2013 11:22 am

    Definitely read more. They do vary in quality, though–some are more awkward than sublime. I haven’t read them all myself, but based on my recollections of the ones Dr. Bainard Cowan had us read in class, I’d recommend in particular:

    “The Portent”
    “The Conflict of Convictions”
    “A Utilitarian’s View of the Monitor’s Flight”
    “The Maldive Shark”
    “The Man-of-War Hawk”

    Of course that’s far from an exhaustive list.

    I need to read more myself.

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