American Civil War ignited the imagination and penmanship of many poets in the country. This resulted in an explosion of poetry written in the Union in the post-Civil War era. Poets created beautiful verses in response to the battles and conflicts with immense patriotic fervor of freedom and pathos for the lost ones. Poetry was infused with political sentiments, call for freedom, and fight for the rights. Poets such as Walt Whitman, Melville, and Emily Dickinson have written verses on the Civil War in the nineteenth century but their treatment, outlook, and representation of the war are distinct.
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The way they treated their verses and the show of their political view, patriotism, expression of pathos or sympathy altered immensely with the Civil war that had immense effect on the style, content, and view of these three poets. An analysis of the poetry written by Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson is undertaken in the present essay and a discussion on the stylistic similarities or differences in their treatment of war, pathos, and political views are undertaken in the essay. For instance, Drum-Taps is more of a historical narrative of the Civil War and the poems freeze the time in the particular period to demonstrate a feeling of heroism and comradeship.
Melville’s catapulting to a poet from a novelist during the Civil War era is often attributed to the brutal exterior force of the war that surged out his patriotic and political view as well as brought forth his sympathetic view towards the defeated Confederates. On the other hand, Emily Dickinson’s poems demonstrate a metaphysical struggle with God related to life and death. The three poets had their own views and sensibility on the Civil War though their imagination and verses were ignited by that one event.
This essay discusses the war poems of Whitman in his Drum-Taps, Melville’s Battle Pieces, and those poems written by Dickinson on the civil war. The paper first discusses the poetry of the three poets on Civil War and then delineates the similarities and differences in their style of treatment of the war. Then the paper compares the style of writing of the poets in pre and post Civil war era and discusses the presence of ‘sympathy’ in the pre- and post- civil war poems written by them.
The War Poets
The influence of the Civil War on the poetry of Whitman is argued, in this essay, to be two fold – one that provides the greater picture of the war and the other is the implication of a comradeship and/or unity. Drum-Taps is set in the time of the Civil War, depicting the war and the psyche of it. These poems demonstrate the larger image of the war in the poems as well as narrate the tale of love and comradeship among men during the Civil War. The very title of the Civil War poems by Whitman, Drum-Taps, suggests a moment denoted by the tap of the drum and dissolves infinity in finite time. However, the meaning of this ‘tap’ changes in each poem of the collection depicting the journey of the poet through the time of the Civil War.
The first poem of the collection, “First O Songs for a Prelude” describes the arrival of battle “news from south” in the peaceful, dormant city of “Manhattan” (Whitman). The poem demonstrates a sense of urgency that swept the city at the advent of the news. The sense of patriotism surging the city is demonstrated in the lines describing men from all ranks and class (mechanics, lawyer, driver, and salesmen) gathering to embrace arms for the cause. The explicit description of the demonstration of patriotism in the city is shown through the flying of the flag: “The flags flung out from the steeples of churches and from all the/ public buildings and stores” (Whitman).
The poem shows the pain in separation as Whitman writes “The tearful parting, the mother kisses her son, the son kisses his/ mother, (Loth is the mother to part, yet not a word does she speak to detain/ him,)” (Whitman). News of war infuses s sense of purpose among the city dweller as the daily routine is disrupted. In all this movement Whitman injects the description of men in uniform: “(How good they look as they tramp down to the river, sweaty, with/ their guns on their shoulders!/ How I love them! how I could hug them, with their brown faces and/ their clothes and knapsacks cover’d with dust)” (Whitman).
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The use of parentheses emphasizes the separateness of the larger preparation of the war with that of the physical beauty of the soldiers in uniform. Similar emphasis on the physical appearance of the soldiers is also found in the next poem in the collection, “Eighteen Sixty-One”: “But as a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing,/ carrying a rifle on your shoulder” (Whitman). However, this description of the hyper-masculine soldiers of the beginning of the war changed in the later part of the nineteenth century when Whitman dedicated his verses to the weary and battered soldiers. The tone in the Drum-Taps changes with one that of rivalry and comradeship to that of frightening aspects of the war. The fading picture of robust soldiers dissipates in the later poems such as The Wound-Dresser:
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,/ In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the/ rush of successful charge,/ Enter the captur’d works–yet lo, like a swift-running river they/ fade,/ Pass and are gone they fade (Whitman)
The poem shows the change in the masculine vitality of the soldiers. Then in poems like O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy the soldier welcomes the physical presence of the young recruit more than presents and gifts: “You came, taciturn, with nothing to give – we but look’d on each other,/ When lo! More than all the gifts of the world you gave to me.” (Whitman).
In As Toilssome I Wonder’d Virginia’s Woods, Whitman describes the inscription on a tablet nailed on a tree. The notice mentions the “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade” (Whitman). Therefore, the transition of the poems in Drum-Taps is from that of masculine, martial poems to memorial elegies. Therefore, the poem of Whitman in Drum-Taps was mainly to draw a parallel idea of national unity. The religious appeal made in later poems of Drum-Taps and the leaving behind of Democratic ideal are a way forward towards the cause of national unity.
Both Whitman and Melville assumed a nationalistic role in their civil war poems. Melville wanted to bring forth a sense of unity between the victorious North and the South. Battle Pieces a collection of poems by Melville on the Civil War is mostly reconciliatory where he laments on the futile bloodshed and destructions of the war. The poems of Melville in the Battle Pieces are scarred with the battle trauma and persistent scar on the country. This is evident in the poem titled The Potent where Melville describes the John Brown’s raid to the South, which begins with the description of a chronometer’s carcass:
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more. (Melville)
The presence of John Brown in Melville’s poems creates an emblematic flux in the historical significance of the poem in the battle fought in Virginia and showing the trauma of the nation: “the stabs shall heal no more” (Melville). Melville tries to establish that violence of the past cannot be erased from the future and the martyrdom of an abolitionist like John Brown cannot be forgotten due to the violent nature of his crusade. Melville, therefore, posits that violent war only paves the path for change in future but it does not expire.
The poems in the Battle Pieces turns back to the Crusades, soldiers and battles mentioned in the Bible in order to the Roman conflicts indicating the futility of war. In the poem titled “Misgivings,” Melville presents the disunited world of the North and South as the source of uncertainty for “the world’s fairest hope” mingled with “man’s foulest crime”. The poem ends with the following metaphoric lines:
With shouts the torrents down the gorges go,
And storms are formed behind the storm we feel:
The hemlock shakes in the rafter, the oak in the driving keel. (Melville)
In these lines Melville point out to unstable Constitutional machinery that is as unstable as a building that has faltering rafters or a ship with a wobbly keel. Melville states “And storms are formed behind the storm we feel” indicating a cyclical nature of history as in case of weather. His distrust for all form of violent revolution is evident from the poem Misgivings and others in Battle Pieces. He has constantly expressed his feeling of dismay towards revolution and its aftereffects in counterrevolution that overthrew aristocracy in case of French revolution. In the poem, “The Conflict of Convictions” the speaker of the poem associates the metallic top of the new US Capitol as an indication of the fading principles of democracy:
Power unanointed may come –
Dominion (unsought by the free)
And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
But the Founders’ dream shall flee. (Melville)
Melville believes that the dome represents the return of imperialism in the post war America. In “The House-Top: A Night Piece”, the poem is a soliloquy of a high-class observer who standing on his rooftop, away from the fray of the town, states, “The Town is taken by its rats” (Melville). The speaker of the poem is shocked by the sight and sound created by the working class mass of the city. The uprising arose in America when the war seemed unending, is shown in The House-Top as an allusion.
Melville’s depiction of the Civil War therefore has two images – one that of the brutality and images of violence that raved the war throng era, and second, the reconciliatory where an ardent supporter of the Northern cause for the war makes an attempt towards North South unity. Therefore, Melville’s poems in the Battle Pieces have less of the description of the war and more of the humanization aspect with the enemy.
His poems also look for a meaning behind the victory that North achieves after the war. Therefore, the war that Melville saw was that of raw brutality and consequent futility of it all. The Battle Pieces not only puts forth a lyrical description of the war but also mourns its embryonic. Melville presented a world the Civil War created – a cold, industrialized, iron clad world. He describes the means (i.e. the Civil War) that created it through mechanical mass killing and “geometric beauty” of contemporary development. This led Melville to create a phantom, in form of industrial capitalism (also glimpsed in Moby Dick, Melville novel) that the war created and the world was left to become.
Dickinson’s representation of the Civil War was from her belief of its brutal and bloody nature. Therefore, Dickinson wrote in her poem: “They dropped like flakes – / They Drop like Stars-/Like Petals from a rose”. Dickinson gives a description of the nature worn out in war in per war poems:
If springs from winter rise.
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?
If night stands first – then noon
To gird us for the sun –
When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Dickinson uses the turn of the season and the diurnal movement of the earth as the metaphor the changes in the cycle of life and death. This idea is more clearly expressed in “How slowly/ The Seasons must have turned/ Till Bullets clipt an Angle/ And He passed quickly round”. The poem metaphorically shows the life cycle of the soldier with that of the changing seasons.
Dickinson constantly compares Death and the soldiers with nature indicates that the destruction that the war brought forth was not solely on human world but also on natural world: “His Comrades, shifted like the Flakes/ When Gusts reverse the Snow”.
The later poems are mourners’ song of the dead. She laments the death of the soldiers and the poems become an elegy for the dead. In her sadness, for the destruction the war created Dickinson “feels a shame to be Alive” especially when there are “Men so brave” who are dead. in the pain she feels for the dead, Dickinson shows her usual confrontation with the Almighty and she questions his presence in the world: “At least – to pray – is left -/ Oh Jesus – in the Air -/ I know not which thy chamber is -/ I’m knocking – everywhere”. The empathy she felt for the dead is expressed in other poems also (“I’m sorry for the Dead – Today”). These lines resonates Dickinson’s belief that the war has left the world and there is no place, where her prayers for peace would be heard. Actually, unlike her contemporaries, Dickinson felt remorse for the unnecessary bloodshed and the mass deaths.
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Dickinson’s awareness of the war is shown in her civil war poems. However, she believes the reason for the war, “Color – Caste – Denomination”, is just devises men have created to wage a war. Nevertheless, her metaphysical understanding of death shows the futility of this reason for “Death” fails to classify these reasons. Therefore, death takes away all, whether they are democrats or not.
Dickinson’s poems show her belief that the Civil War was fought at the great cost of blood of men. She task of the disrupted lives of farmers (“Those Farmers – and their Wives –/ Set separate from the Farming –/ And all the Neighbor’s lives”). Therefore the price of was not paid by those who died but also by their families who embraced the deaths.
Dickinson’s war poems are a tribute to those soldiers, men and boys, who have died as a “pawn for liberty” and feel ashamed to still be alive and look at the Dead. That is why she believes that “Tis not that dying hurts us so -/ Tis Living – hurts us more”. However, Dickinson has always been fond of death, but she was unable to reconcile her thoughts when it came to mindless death in name of victory and if victory was an enough price for the mass deaths that occurred in the Civil War.
Comparing Whitman, Melville and Dickinson’s Civil war Poetry
Poetry of the civil war sings praises for the valor and strength of the soldiers as observed in early poems of Whitman in Drum-Taps, then it laments the mindless death that the war brought in the later poems of Whitman, those written by Melville and Dickinson. So all these poems have one similarity i.e. they lament the dead.
In terms of political view, both Whitman and Melville were believers of Democratic form of government, however, latter faltered in his views with his implicit references to industrialization and “geometric” modernization brining no good in the post war years. Melville presented a world of “geometric beauty” of planned industrialization and modernization that followed an era of mass killing: “Nor less the Fleet that warred for Right, / And, warring so, prevailed, / In geometric beauty curved, / And in an orbit sailed.” (Melville 30) Both the poets believe that the war was being fought between the Northern and Southern whites to liberate the Blacks but Melville was skeptical if this effort worthy of all the deaths that the cause brought.
All the three poets, Dickinson, Whitman, and Melville feel that death was the ultimate creation of the war. It was the relative, young men, wearied men who were dying at war. Dickinson differs from Whitman and Melville in her metaphysical treatment of Death as she fights with God at his incapacity to stop wall this bloodshed. Dickinson felt that the war was futile, unlike Whitman and Melville, who to a great extent believed in the Northern cause of liberation.
Though Melville lamented more on the dead, Whitman valorized the soldiers, their manliness, and strength. Whitman saw the soldiers as hero, while Melville as average person dragged in the fight of the politicians to enforce democracy and equality in the country but through a means that had to be paid through the blood of the soldiers who were just common men. Dickinson only saw death, bloodshed, and loss of loved ones. Therefore, the treatment of war was very different in poetry of the three poets.
Civil war poetry by Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson show different sensibility and belief in the war. Whitman was a firm believer in the Northern cause, and therefore, romanticized the comradeship among strong soldiers, rather than lamenting on the dead soldiers. Melville on the other hand, though a believer in the same cause, looked beyond valor to find death, destruction, and end of a life and journey towards a world that was distinct from the past. He predicted an iron world once the war ended. Dickinson saw death, mourning, loss, and blood in war. Her treatment of death was mourning on their and feeling ashamed for her own life when brave men laid their life for the war. She question god’s presence and omnipresence of death’s clutches. War, therefore, had different meaning in the poetry of the three poets.
Melville, Herman. “Battle-pieces and aspects of the war.” Cohen, Henry. Battle-pieces. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1963. NA. Print.
Whitman, Walt. “Drum-Taps.” 1931. Leaves of grass. Mundus Publishing. Web.