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Walt Whitman and Herman Melville were both affected by the Civil War to such a degree that they each published a volume of poetry concerning the conflict. Although both men confront similar issues and feelings, particular in their poems about death, they do so through means as significantly different as each man’s Civil War experience. Whitman spent a large part of the war visiting with wounded soldiers in Washington, witnessing their physical and emotional devastation and talking with them about their experiences. He wrote letters home on behalf of those who were unable, and sometimes even wrote to inform parents of their son’s death. Meanwhile, Melville, although emotionally involved throughout the conflict, waited until the war was in its final phases to begin gathering information, which was culled largely from newspaper accounts (Garner 388). Their different approaches, as well as the name of each author’s collection of Civil War poetry, are very indicative of what is printed within. Whitman’s Drum Taps, named after the tune played at military funerals, is largely concerned with the profound effects of the war on individuals, a technique made more powerful by the reader’s knowledge that each individual is representative of countless others who have been touched in similar ways. Melville’s Battle-Pieces, meanwhile, is a chronological volume that uses primarily historical events as a basis for understanding the emotions of war.
An ominous darkness permeates the setting in Whitman’s “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.” After marching past midnight through a murky forest, the battered troops come upon a church, dimly lit yet glimmering amid the surrounding blackness. Once inside this “impromptu hospital,” the dim lighting becomes more haunting, as it is just enough to illuminate “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” In between “Shadows of deepest, deepest black” and “clouds of smoke,” the speaker, engulfed in the odor of blood, witnesses a miserable assortment of “bloody forms,” some in “postures beyond description.” Amid the bloody disarray, one wounded soldier catches the speaker’s focused attention. The young man’s face, “lily white” from loss of blood, provides perhaps the boldest contrast to the poem’s overwhelming blackness. Unfortunately, this youth’s pure whiteness is only a precursor to his surrender to the shadows, as he peacefully drifts into death, freeing the speaker to “speed forth into the darkness.” This scene, so darkly mysterious and heart wrenching that the speaker struggles to describe it, is ultimately just one more brief stop on “the unknown road.”
While the speaker in “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown” surveys the carnage of both dead and living men and stays with one soldier as he passes from one to another, the speaker in “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” stays with his son after the boy has died. This poem is also characterized by darkness. On “the battlefield-dim,” the speaker returns to the spot where his friend was killed to see the dead soldier’s face illuminated only by starlight. He spends the entire night with his fallen son, recalling their last physical connection and the profound emotional one that the speaker believes will transcend death, stating, “I think we will surely meet again.” Besides the lack of light in the poem, there is also a lack of sound and movement. So still and contemplative is the speaker that he releases not even a tear or sigh, and explicitly notes his eventual change in posture from standing to reclining. The poem laments the bloodshed of war while praising the bravery of the soldiers and celebrating the transcendent power of love to overcome the most ruthless carnage. At the end of the poem, the sun is rising, symbolizing the new hope of the bereaved. The speaker stands up “as the day brighten’d,” ending the “mystical, immortal” hours of his vigil.
The idea of love conquering darkness is examined by Whitman once more in “Dirge for Two Veterans.” The poem is set as “the last sunbeam lightly falls,” and a beautiful but “ghastly, phantom moon” ascends. A funeral procession, or “dead-march,” approaches to lay a father and son into a double grave. Once all daylight is gone, the moon becomes brighter, taking on the aura of a mother’s face, “in heaven brighter growing,” almost watching over them as they begin new life in her celestial realm. As it provides light for the soldiers in an otherwise black night, it soothes the speaker, who passionately pledges his love to his fallen men.
Whitman deals not only with sorrowful scenes from the war zone, but the boundless emotional consequences of such incidents as their effects ripple throughout the country. The bucolic tranquility of the parent’s Ohio home in “Come Up From the Fields Father” stands in stark contrast to the bloody world of the soldiers in which death has become the new norm. The rhythms of nature are uninterrupted as the bountiful colors of fall frame the sweet smell of ripening apples and grapes, while bees peacefully flutter about the buckwheat. But this vibrant sensory stimulation quickly vanishes as a mother opens an envelope, grieving, “O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d.” Immediately sensing disaster, her vision “flashes with black” that obscures all but the letter’s main words. Despite the assurances of the letter and her daughter that her son will recover from his gunshot wound, the mother intuits that her son is dead. The poem drifts further into darkness as the mother dresses in black, and restlessly sleeping “In the midnight waking, weeping, longing” that she might leave this life, and join her beloved son for eternity.
The death of young men is also considered in the works of Melville. In one of the first Battle-Pieces, “The March into Virginia, Ending in the First Manassas. (July, 1861),” Melville marvels at the “trust and cheer” of the soldiers at the beginning of the war. Speaking in terms of “youth” rather than individual soldiers, he comments that wars are waged with the “ignorant impulse” of the young, which spurns “the warnings of the wise.” Their enthusiasm takes on an almost celebratory manner as “banners play and bugles call” beneath a lavishly blue sky. He compares their joy to that of picnicers or berry pickers tramping merrily into the woods. But this carefree atmosphere is suddenly darkened when the poet notes that some of the boys with this “blithe mood” will soon die. But only once the “vollied glare” has both physically and mentally enlightened them will they realize their misconception of war. It will be too late for those that have died, and survivors will feel only “shame” for outliving their dear friends. Although the speaker’s age allows him to see the young soldiers’ perceptual error, he does not chastise. He merely comments on the nature of youth and its unfornate end in the war, a feeling more clearly articulated in one of the final Battle-Pieces. In “On the Slain Collegians,” he writes, “North or South? / Each went forth with blessings given / By priests and mothers in the name of Heaven; / And honor in both was chief. / Warred one for Right, and one for Wrong? / So be it; but they both were young— / Each grape to his cluster clung, / All their elegies are sung.”
Even in the few poems in which Melville employs an “I” speaker, such as “Ball Bluff, A Reverie (October, 1861),” the observer concerns himself with general trends and realities. Almost everything the on which the speaker comments is in the plural, from soldiers, hearts and feet to flags, porches and cliffs. The first stanza, characterized by lusty marching and the fanfare of “ladies cheering royally” sharply contrasts with the third and final stanza with its uncertain and ultimately grim quiet as “Far footfalls died away till none were left.” The fading of footsteps mirrors the smothering of so much young life by the thieving war, an injustice that keeps the speaker from restful sleep.
Even though much of Battle-Pieces is composed of poems regarding historical incidents, in his poems about death in the war, Melville concerns himself not with a factual retelling but with a more transcendant emotional account of the plight of the soldiers. Although the sorrowful feelings of the speaker are evident in each of these poems, their generalities often result in loss of detail, something that is plentiful in each of Whitman’s poems, making them exceptionally poignant and touching. However, pitting the two volumes against each other is perhaps irrelevant, as each poet maps his own path to arrive at a sometimes familiar but ultimately singular destination.
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