On Historical Art: Melville and the Poetry of the Civil War

by Frederick Turner

Let us pray that the terrible historic tragedy of our time may not have been enacted without instructing our whole beloved country through terror and pity: and may fulfillment verify in the end those expectations which kindle the bards of Progress and Humanity.

—Herman Melville, from the supplemental comments on his Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (Harper and Brothers, 1866) 

One of the oddities of the Civil War, whose sesquicentennial we celebrate this year, is that its moral heroism, its ethical beauty, has not been fully matched by the arts that depicted it.

Classical Greek wars had their Praxiteles, their Homer, to sculpt the martial glory of Troyand Thermopylae; Indiahad its epic poet Vyasa to recount the battle of Kurukshetra, Japanits blind bard Kakuichi with his biwa lute to tell of the battles of the Taira and the Minamoto. The great artists of Mayan frieze and bas-relief did full justice to the victories of the Hero Twins and their human successors. But the causes of these wars were tolerably base: injured vanity, lust for land or plunder, samurai or kshatriya honor, a fresh supply of sacrificial victims.

The arts of epic, painting, song and sculpture that celebrated these battles ennobled them (and, by implication, more or less prostituted themselves). The American Civil War, on the other hand—especially to a citizen raised, as I was, in foreign lands—is unique: its arts, often undertaken for base journalistic or sensationalistic motives, were ennobled by their subject.

The Civil War was unique in that it was waged, fundamentally, for the sake of a point of crucial moral principle, waged by a nation with itself to purge itself of a sin against God and Man.The sin was not unique; and the war, like all wars, was not unique in involving mixed and unworthy motives of profit and power, matched perfectly on both sides. But the preparedness of a nation to sacrifice a whole generation of young men and the wealth of its most profitable industries to redeem a basic ethical principle is indeed unique. And that this war, for no preponderant prospect of selfish gain, was one of choice, and conducted largely by volunteers, free citizens who knew the issues, is simply astonishing to a European like myself—and probably more astonishing still, to the point of suspicious incredulity, to Asians and Africans.

Marxist historians of the war have failed signally to substantiate their cynical claim that the war was fought for capitalist or mercantilist profit, or that the abolition of slavery was not the central issue.Lincoln was provably genuine—much to the chagrin of the historical revisionists. Quite simply, the war would not have happened without the essentially moral issue of slavery. It was a truly idealistic war—and this, of course, made it the more terrible.

Moreover, though both sides in the war had their ideologues and fanatics—John Brown and Stonewall Jackson come to mind—there was on the whole surprisingly little of the disgusting, blind and inhuman partisanship of the jihadi or crusader, who inflates himself into a grotesque with the fantasy that he is the agent of God. North and South debated their positions in earnest, sober reason before, during and after the debate on the battlefield; and they largely respected each other as they did so. Lincoln’s words in the Second Inaugural—“with malice toward none; with charity toward all”—were echoed less eloquently in almost every personal encounter between the soldiers and officers on both sides when they met outside the field of battle. Many on both sides hated war, regretted the temptations of its glory, and recognized its horror. Robert E. Lee said at Gettysburg: “It is well that war should be so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.” Though indeed the North was in the right, the South was defending constitutional principles of real weight that the North itself respected: and Southerners like Lee who abhorred slavery felt an irrefutable patriotic duty to their homeland that the North recognized.

But how could the arts do justice to a war in which so many of the traditional artistic tropes had lost much of their credibility—demonizing the enemy, idolizing the leaders, rejoicing in the sufferings of one’s foes, triumphing in victory—and, in a free press civilization, lying to glorify atrocity and cover up shame?

In the visual arts, the paradox of how to represent this war was compounded and epitomized by the nascent technology of photography. I do not know if any other commentator has felt as I do that that the photographs we have of the Civil War are wretchedly inadequate. Those grubby sepia shots, instead of bringing the reality to us, seem to separate us from it as if by some incomprehensible cultural convention. The soldiers in the portraits strike patently theatrical military poses, whose effect is one of pathos, almost bathos, rather than grandeur. The landscapes are more figuratively Appalachian—bleak, neglected and messy—than literally so, with no sense of the great fresh burgeoning continent that Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, Bierstadt and theHudson RiverSchoolhad celebrated.

One might argue that modern war, with its industrial scale of slaughter, should not be given false glory. But Civil War photography, with some exceptions, seems to be failing in an attempt at grandeur rather than succeeding in an attempt at gritty reality. And even the gritty reality, as in some of the more courageous journalistic photos of corpses and shattered battlefields, feels anticlimactic: a mess rather than an apocalypse. We would learn how to photograph the devastation of war only later, in World War I, and the technology of war only later still, in WW II.

Civil War painting seems to my eye fatally caught between an attempt at classical old-world visual epic and the prosaic details of a struggle between masses of non-professional citizen-soldiers. The warriors slouch rather than march; their shapeless uniforms, when they have them, would be a disgrace in the stylish battles ofEurope. Much Civil War art is, frankly, corny. The closest that the visual representation of the Civil War comes to a coherent visual style was in newspaper cartoons, where an idea, however simple-minded, eliminates the irrelevant, masters the material and gives it shape and character. But the idea cannot fail to be belittling to its subject: the cartoon, after all, being a cartoon.

The very technology of war, the massed rifle volley and the artillery barrage, conspires against the heroic gesture. Even the new naval technology features ugly ironclads rather than the birdlike frigates and stately ships-of-the-line of the last age—as Melville points out in his elegiac poem about the British ship the Temeraire in J. M. W. Turner’s famous picture:

O, Titan Temeraire,

            Your stern-lights fade away;

Your bulwarks to the years must yield,

            And heart-of-oak decay.

A pigmy steam-tug tows you,

            Gigantic, to the shore—

Dismantled of your guns and spars,

            And sweeping wings of war.

A true citizen must be armed with foolproof weapons that do not need an aristocratic upbringing to master and do not show the grace of athletic training: democratic war-making is rendered ugly by its own free virtues.

It is, oddly, unfair that this war, whose moral and philosophical significance is so much greater than that of those old-world wars of dynastic ambition, self-serving ideology, greed, vanity and pique, should fall so short of the visual magnificence of David and the apocalyptic transcendence of Goya. Must true civic nobility and principled idealism come off as kitsch when represented by modern means? 

Well, could the poets do any better? This was the challenge that faced Melville and Whitman, as well as the other American poets of the time, such as John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Of the major poets only Melville and Whitman squarely faced up to the huge aesthetic challenge of the war. (It has to be said right away that the South did not produce poetry that can match that of the North: perhaps because its poets perished early in the huge carnage.) 

Whitman’s response to the war was always purely emotional, as was his wont. Few poets before or since have so lavishly and frankly explored the nuances of that emotion, but he largely evades the political, historical, philosophical and social issues that complicated the poet’s task in this war and caused many other poets, surprisingly, to ignore it as a subject. Whitman goes with his impressions, feelings and intuitions. At the opening of the war, he hears the drums and is totally caught up in the public passion:


Beat! Beat! Drums!-Blow! bugles! blow!

Through the windows-through doors-burst like a ruthless force, 

Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;

Into the school where the scholar is studying;

Leave not the bridegroom quiet-no happiness must have now with

his bride;

Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his


So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums-so shrill you bulges blow. 


But the moment he sees the heaps of shattered limbs that he encounters after Manassasin his search for his wounded brother George, his tone totally changes: he devotes himself, both as man and poet, to the human cost of the war. There is no analysis: he responds richly and immediately to the anguish of the wounded, the pathetic male beauty of the young soldiers, the grand landscapes of the beloved broken America, its firelit nights and fresh mornings, that form the backdrop of the scene:

A slight in camp in the day-break grey and dim, 

As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless, 

As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by the hospital 


Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there, untended


Over eachthe blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket, 

Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all. 

Curious, I halt, and silent stand;

Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest, the first, 

just life the blanket:

Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey'd hair, 

and flesh all sunken about the eyes?

Who are you, my dear comrade?


Then to the second I step-And who are you, my child and darling?

Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the thrid-a face nor child, nor old, very clam, as of

beautiful yellow-white ivory;

Young man, I think I know you-I think this face of yours is the face

of the Christ himself;

Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies. 


In his war poems, Whitman turns always to nature for poetic imagery. Unlike the poetry of his sunnier and celebratory side, where he is enjoyingAmericaand enjoying being Whitman, he does not celebrate technology, indeed he hardly mentions it, though it was so important a part of the war. Perhaps the issue of what technology can do when it is turned to war is just too intellectually distressing, like the politics of the conflict. In his great elegy for Lincoln, there is nothing of the tormented political struggle that caused his death;Lincolnhas become a sacrificed nature-god:


When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, 

I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.


O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;

Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.


Though Whitman deals with the intellectual problems of modern war poetry largely by evading them, he does manage something that none of the other poets achieved: to create a verbal music that can encompass the large sprawling reality of a continental democratic war. Whitman faces and solves the aesthetic problem, if not the philosophical one. He uses a long line, with an occasional epigrammatic short line to sum up, and combines two different metrical feet—the dactyl and the trochee—to make a sound that unites the long thunder of the Greek and Roman hexameter with the antiphonal oracular statement-and-response of the Bible. William Blake had found a similar form for the Prophetic Books. By not sounding like contemporary grandiose formal verse it avoids the bathos and unintentional mock-heroic anticlimax that are the pitfalls of much Civil War poetry. 

For Whitman’s purposes this scheme works brilliantly, but it is a dangerous weapon to put into the hands of lesser poets. Its irregularity can excuse and lead to a monstrous self-indulgent prolixity. When it is no longer new, it has an inflated grandiosity of its own. Its lack of constraint permits the poet to fall back into his own everyday mannerisms and hobbyhorses, and so lose the impersonality and universality of great art that T. S. Eliot celebrated in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Whitman is desperately easy to parody: one only has to list the contents of a Walmart or one’s own overstuffed garage in a breathless mooing reverent tone and the thing is done. These cavils aside (from a poet who has, I admit, his own fish to fry), Whitman’s war poetry is irreplaceable.

Unlike Whitman, Herman Melville takes the political, social and philosophical problems of Civil War poetry head on. In Battle-Pieces, his astonishing political clairvoyance enables him to avoid both the mindless enthusiasm of the jingoists and ideologues (especially those on his own, abolitionist, side) and the cynicism of later revisionists. Even before the War has begun he recognizes the fundamental paradox of the continental federal republic that the framers of the Constitution grappled with imperfectly and left for their successors to resolve:

Power unanointed may come-

Dominion (unsought by the free)

And the Iron Dome, 

Stronger for stress and strain, 

Fling her huge shadow athwart and main;

But the Founders' dream shall flee. 


The iron dome is Melville’s metaphor for the imperial State that he feared a Northern victory would usher in. During the Civil War, when Southern forces were within gunshot of the newly rebuilt Capitol, northern engineers built a huge iron dome to protect it from gunfire. The iron dome symbolizes, for Melville, the technology of northern capitalism, the ability of Americans, like Captain Ahab, to make of themselves a metal superman, impervious to feeling and tradition. It is a totalitarian unity of opinion that excludes or destroys dissent, an imperial charismatic presidency, a threat to the whole world and its ancient diverse cultures. It was a promise of naval (and later, aerial) power that can, today, pinpoint an enemy deep in a continental interior on the far side of the world, kill him and give him sea burial while his executioners are under the immediate eye of the President. Can we handle such power? Do the constraints we must put on our own differences send the dream of the Founders fleeing into exile? Will we become trivial cogs in an efficient impersonal machine? What anoints or sanctions such sovereignty?


Melville is no Luddite; he celebrates the mathematical precision and workmanship of modern victory:

 Hail to victory without the gaud

Of glory; zeal that needs no fans

Of banners; plain mechanic power

Plied congently in War now placed--

Where War belongs--

Among the trades and artisans. 

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. 


(“A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)

Instead of evading the clash of utilitarian modernity with traditional grace of poetic form (as Whitman does by choosing a still more ancient incantatory language), Melville invites it, as he says explicitly in the stanza previous to those just quoted:


Plain be the phrase, yet apt the verse, 

More ponderous than nimble;

For since grimed War here laid aside

His painted pomp, 'twould ill befit

Overmuch to ply

The rhyme's barbaric cymbal. 

Note that Melville in his words against rhyme very wittily rhymes “cymbal” with “nimble” as he concludes a stanza otherwise devoid of rhyme, and puns on the word “symbol.” His lines, while decrying ancient poetic pomp, use archaisms, inversions and poeticisms (“grimed War,” “Plain be the phrase,” “’twould ill befit”). He directly quotes the words of Shakespeare (“painted pomp”) from the Duke Senior’s speech in As You Like It about the joys of wilderness life as opposed to the corruptions of civilization. Melville is actually making the aesthetic problem of Civil War art into the subject of his art. The cymbal of rhyme is the symbol of an ancient glory that must be both repudiated and revived in a new form.

In his grand poem on Stonewall Jackson (set in the mouth of a Virginian patriot), Melville directly invokes the old battle of the Ancients and Moderns. He praises the enemy general and compares his virtues to those of Mucius Scaevola, the Roman hero who thrust his hand into the fire to prove to Tarquin that the sons of Republican Rome had as much courage to suffer as to do.


One man we claim of wrought renown

Which not the North shall care to slur;

A Modern lived who sleeps in death,

Calm as the marble Ancients are:

’Tis he whose life, though a vapor’s wreath,

Was charged with the lightning’s burning breath—

Stonewall, stormer of the war.


But who shall hymn the roman heart?

A stoic he, but even more:

The iron will and lion thew 

Were strong to inflict as to endure:

Who like him could stand, or pursue?

His fate the fatalist followed through;

In all his great soul found to do 

Stonewall followed his star.


Jacksonis here both an ancient Stoic and (in anticipation) a modern Nietzschean, embracing his fate and making it his will. When Melville published Battle-Pieces, Nietzsche was 22 years old. Melville has already thought through the issues in Also Sprach Zurathustra. Melville’s ability to empathize with the enemy is itself the sign of a special union of ancient virtue and modern dialectical sophistication, the qualities demanded by compromise and negotiation: qualities that failed in the lead-up to the war and that were desperately needed in the reconstruction after it. Melville is reaching for a higher aesthetics, that embraces the contradictions rather than gracefully aestheticizing them with poetic feeling. The awkward tension between his traditional metrics and the mundane practicalities of modern war is made to serve a difficult and higher purpose. Paradoxically, it is Melville’s classic meters that grapple with the tragic contradictions of modernity, and Whitman’s free verse that smoothes them over.

Melville, then, is making something like a poetic version of tragedy, in the sense that tragedy is the art of celebrating irreconcilable and catastrophic conflict between values and worldviews. Battle-Pieces was not a literary success—indeed, it was a flop at the time.America wanted hope and solutions and neat moral endings to the story. The wisest Americans, though, like Melville, Lee and Lincoln, recognized that the Civil War did not endAmerica’s problems but began them. But they knew that the problems were America’s destined and worthy problems, that nobody else had yet had the nerve to face them, that whatever destiny the human race could claim would have to include this tragedy as a key point in its history, and that if religion had any ethical content at all, this war and its causes must be part of it.

The dangerous paradox of government of the people, by the people, for the people—dangerous because it describes an open feedback process with no external controls—is at the heart of Melville’s tragic poetics. As I write this, demonstrations continue in Tahrir Square, in the heart of the world’s oldest literate civilization. We do not know how they will play out, for precisely the reasons that Melville, Lee and Lincoln understood: while we can predict the behavior of systems less complex than our own, we cannot predict that of something of which we ourselves are only a free and active part. Our very attempts at control and prediction create emergent properties that look like Fate orProvidence.

With this predicament we are all in the same boat. And, for Melville, the very sense of being caught up in a free process that we chose as citizens to participate in gives us a certain fellow-feeling or compassion, which transcends all defined issues of ethical duty and rightful justice, all neat and clean and unmessy principles. In his last poem of the war, “A Meditation,” Melville speaks of the comradeship between the soldiers of opposite sides that broke out at the least opportunity:


How often in the years that close,

When truce had stilled the sieging gun,

The soldiers, mounting on their works,

With mutual curious glance have run

From face to face along the fronting show, 

And kinsman spied, or friend—even in a foe.


What thoughts conflicting then were shared.

While sacred tenderness perforce

Welled from the heart and wet the eye;

And something of a strange remorse

Rebelled against the sanctioned sin of blood,

And Christian wars of natural brotherhood.


American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2011, Volume 28, Number 3