Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Calculations of Caloric. All is hushed near by. - Melville's Civil War poems

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), Herman Melville’s collection of Civil War poems, is unusual (every Melville book is unusual).  It is a book about observing war, or thinking about war.  We visit a battlefield now and then, but usually after the battle, not during – “While over them [dead soldiers] the swallows skim\ And all is hushed at Shiloh” (“Shiloh: A Requiem”).

One of the best, or at least strangest, poems is set during the 1863 New York Draft Riots:

from The House-Top: A Night Piece (July, 1863)

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain - a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.

The insomniac narrator is not obviously Melville, although he is a similarly odd bird, driven to his roof by the July heat, thinking of tigers and deserts.  Well, his brain is bound, so logic may be unavailable.  The riots are in the next line, but at an enormous distance:

Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.

The rioters are not just godless but “ship-rats.”  They come no closer to the poet on his roof, nor do the cannons that suppress the rioters, just a “low dull rumble, dull and dead.”  The riots, or their suppression, or both, are a “grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied, \ Which holds that Man is naturally good,” a faith that the narrator does not share.  “The House-Top” is extreme in its distance from its subject – a modern reader (me) will likely find the clues insufficient and need a footnote – but not untypical.

No surprise that Melville’s Civil War is as much a naval war as a land war, or that many of his best poems (such as “A Requiem for Soldiers lost in Ocean Transports”) are about the sea.  He’s practically obsessed with the ironclads.  “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight” returns to the theme of distance:

Yet this was battle, and intense –
    Beyond the strife of fleets heroic;
Deadlier, closer, calm ‘mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank,
            Pivot, and screw,
    And calculations of caloric.

The “warriors \ Are now but operatives.” I have recently been - still am - a mere observer to my own country’s wars (“War yet shall be, and to the end”).  Battle-Pieces functions well as a book, despite any number of weak poems.  It is quietly patriotic, and weirdly earnest for Melville, particularly in a prose afterward about the need for reconciliation.  Odd the number of times I thought “Yes, exactly.”  I don’t read old books because of their relevance, but here it was.


  1. Melville with all his artistry, ignored and underrated in his own life:it fills me with despair.

  2. I haven't read this whole collection (yet?), but at first I was feeling very iffy about it—largely because of that relevance question. The American Civil War has always bored me rather severely, and I knew that Melville was weirdly earnest about it all. Of course his earnestness about the state of the country, especially as regards the slavery issue, is in a lot of later Melville, and all over Clarel. It's lighter in Israel Potter.

    Anyway, what's my point? I was bored by some of the poems, but I started to get really into others. My favorite was the first one, "Misgivings." I've been thinking about blogging it but would probably just say "here it is, isn't it pretty?" But it is a very good introduction to the collection.

  3. Oh yes, some boring poems in there, some real klinkers. Some are done in by their earnestness, some just seem half-developed.

    Funny thing about "Misgivings" is that the country is turned into a ship - a church spire becomes the mainmast, etc. It's who he is!

    Shelley, I might try to write about that. Sometimes, I'm with you, and sometimes - well, there's more than one model for a writer to follow.

  4. Funny thing about "Misgivings" is that the country is turned into a ship - a church spire becomes the mainmast, etc. It's who he is!

    Yep, that's definitely something I loved about it!