Battle-pieces And Aspects Of The War

Civil War Poems


By Herman Melville

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“A brilliant, magisterial verse opus . . . a masterpiece with virtually no readers.”–Civil War Times

Herman Melville (1819-1891) stopped writing fiction after the publication of The Confidence Man: His Masquerade in 1857; as he entered his forties, he turned to poetry as his literary avocation. His first published book of poems was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), a meditation on the Civil War in short lyric and narrative verses, and a work as ambitious and rich as any that issued from his pen.

Melville was well acquainted with the war. He made many trips south to visit his cousin Henry Gansevoort, a Union officer–on one such trip, he was active in an unsuccessful pursuit of Confederate raider John Mosby. He had met Abraham Lincoln in Washington, and called upon General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia in 1864. And his position within his family, whose members were involved in almost every aspect of the war, was close enough to allow him a rare vantage point on this country’s greatest conflict.

But, Battle-Pieces is anything but epic. Rather than celebratory, the tone of Melville’s poem is grievous and disconsolate. “Unmindful, without purposing to be, of consistency” (as Melville puts it in his preface), the poems do not attempt to paint a broad picture of the whole of the war, but rather represent disjoint aspects, each faithful to Melville’s impulsive, modern, yet realist view of the tragedy.

This facsimile edition of Battle-Pieces includes 72 poems on almost every major campaign, battle, and event; Melville’s own detailed historical notes and his supplementary essay on Reconstruction; and a new introduction by Lee Rust Brown, who teaches English at the University of Utah and is the author of The Emerson Museum. An American classic is thus available once again.


Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War.

By Herman Melville.

Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six, by
Harper & Brothers,
In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the Southern District of New York.

The Battle-Pieces
in this volume are dedicated
to the memory of the
who in the war
for the maintenance of the Union
fell devotedly
under the flag of their fathers.

[With few exceptions, the Pieces in this volume originated in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond. They were composed without reference to collective arrangement, but being brought together in review, naturally fall into the order assumed.

The events and incidents of the conflict—making up a whole, in varied amplitude, corresponding with the geographical area covered by the war—from these but a few themes have been taken, such as for any cause chanced to imprint themselves upon the mind.

The aspects which the strife as a memory assumes are as manifold as are the moods of involuntary meditation—moods variable, and at times widely at variance. Yielding instinctively, one after another, to feelings not inspired from any one source exclusively, and unmindful, without purposing to be, of consistency, I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in a window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward wilds have played upon the strings.]

The Portent.

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


  When ocean-clouds over inland hills
    Sweep storming in late autumn brown,
  And horror the sodden valley fills,
    And the spire falls crashing in the town,
  I muse upon my country's ills—
  The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world's fairest hope linked with man's foulest crime.
  Nature's dark side is heeded now—
    (Ah! optimist-cheer disheartened flown)—
  A child may read the moody brow
    Of yon black mountain lone.
  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.

The Conflict of Convictions.[1]


[1] The gloomy lull of the early part of the winter of 1860-1, seeming big with final disaster to our institutions, affected some minds that believed them to constitute one of the great hopes of mankind, much as the eclipse which came over the promise of the first French Revolution affected kindred natures, throwing them for the time into doubt and misgivings universal.

On starry heights
  A bugle wails the long recall;
Derision stirs the deep abyss,
  Heaven's ominous silence over all.
Return, return, O eager Hope,
  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;
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!
    While the fields for fight in æons to come
    Congeal beneath the sea.)
The terrors of truth and dart of death
  To faith alike are vain;
Though comets, gone a thousand years,
    Return again,
Patient she stands—she can no more—
And waits, nor heeds she waxes hoar.
    (At a stony gate,
    A statue of stone,
    Weed overgrown—
    Long 'twill wait!)
But God his former mind retains,
  Confirms his old decree;
The generations are inured to pains,
  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.
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.
    And top of the ages' strike,
    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;
  In the cloud a sword is girded on,
I mark a twinkling in the tent
  Of Michael the warrior one.
Senior wisdom suits not now,
The light is on the youthful brow.
    (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;
Ah! faith is warm, but heaven with age is cold.
    (Ho ho, ho ho,
    The cloistered doubt
    Of olden times
    Is blurted out!)
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?
So deep must the stones be hurled
Whereon the throes of ages rear
The final empire and the happier world.
    (The poor old Past,
    The Future's slave,
    She drudged through pain and crime
    To bring about the blissful Prime,
    Then—perished. There's a grave!)
  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.
Agee after age shall be
As age after age has been,
(From man's changeless heart their way they win);
And death be busy with all who strive—
Death, with silent negative.
    Yea, and Nay—
    Each hath his say;
    But God He keeps the middle way.
    None was by
    When He spread the sky;
    Wisdom is vain, and prophesy.

Apathy and Enthusiasm.

O the clammy cold November,
  And the winter white and dead,
And the terror dumb with stupor,
  And the sky a sheet of lead;
And events that came resounding
  With the cry that All was lost,
Like the thunder-cracks of massy ice
  In intensity of frost—
Bursting one upon another
  Through the horror of the calm.
  The paralysis of arm
In the anguish of the heart;
And the hollowness and dearth.
  The appealings of the mother
  To brother and to brother
Not in hatred so to part—
And the fissure in the hearth
  Growing momently more wide.
Then the glances 'tween the Fates,
  And the doubt on every side,
And the patience under gloom
In the stoniness that waits
The finality of doom.
So the winter died despairing,
  And the weary weeks of Lent;
And the ice-bound rivers melted,
  And the tomb of Faith was rent.
O, the rising of the People
  Came with springing of the grass,
They rebounded from dejection
  And Easter came to pass.
And the young were all elation
  Hearing Sumter's cannon roar,
And they thought how tame the Nation
  In the age that went before.
And Michael seemed gigantical,
  The Arch-fiend but a dwarf;
And at the towers of Erebus
  Our striplings flung the scoff.
But the elders with foreboding
  Mourned the days forever o'er,
And re called the forest proverb,
  The Iroquois' old saw:
Grief to every graybeard
  When young Indians lead the war.

The March into Virginia,

Ending in the First Manassas.
(July, 1861.)
Did all the lets and bars appear
  To every just or larger end,
Whence should come the trust and cheer?
  Youth must its ignorant impulse lend—
Age finds place in the rear.
  All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,
The champions and enthusiasts of the state:
  Turbid ardors and vain joys
    Not barrenly abate—
  Stimulants to the power mature,
    Preparatives of fate.
Who here forecasteth the event?
What heart but spurns at precedent
And warnings of the wise,
Contemned foreclosures of surprise?
The banners play, the bugles call,
The air is blue and prodigal.
  No berrying party, pleasure-wooed,
No picnic party in the May,
Ever went less loth than they
  Into that leafy neighborhood.
In Bacchic glee they file toward Fate,
Moloch's uninitiate;
Expectancy, and glad surmise
Of battle's unknown mysteries.
All they feel is this: 'tis glory,
A rapture sharp, though transitory,
Yet lasting in belaureled story.
So they gayly go to fight,
Chatting left and laughing right.
But some who this blithe mood present,
  As on in lightsome files they fare,
Shall die experienced ere three days are spent—
  Perish, enlightened by the vollied glare;
Or shame survive, and, like to adamant,
  The throe of Second Manassas share.


Battle of Springfield, Missouri.
(August, 1861.)
Some hearts there are of deeper sort,
    Prophetic, sad,
Which yet for cause are trebly clad;
    Known death they fly on:
This wizard-heart and heart-of-oak had Lyon.
"They are more than twenty thousand strong,
    We less than five,
Too few with such a host to strive"
    "Such counsel, fie on!
'Tis battle, or 'tis shame;" and firm stood Lyon.
"For help at need in van we wait—
    Retreat or fight:
Retreat the foe would take for flight,
    And each proud scion
Feel more elate; the end must come," said Lyon.
By candlelight he wrote the will,
    And left his all
To Her for whom 'twas not enough to fall;
    Loud neighed Orion
Without the tent; drums beat; we marched with Lyon.
The night-tramp done, we spied the Vale
    With guard-fires lit;
Day broke, but trooping clouds made gloom of it:
    "A field to die on"
Presaged in his unfaltering heart, brave Lyon.
We fought on the grass, we bled in the corn—
    Fate seemed malign;
His horse the Leader led along the line—
    Star-browed Orion;
Bitterly fearless, he rallied us there, brave Lyon.


On Sale
Aug 22, 1995
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press