SATURDAY | Yes, it’s McClellan poetry day. The first of many.
The striking thing about Civil War poetry is the ironclad will to rhyme coupled with frequent indifference to meter.
Most of the Civil War poems one sees, even in literary magazines like Harper’s, fit this inferior mode. In his landmark study of Civil War literature, Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson hardly bothers with pop poetry.
Here’s an example of failed verse:
Arouse! Fellow freemen, respond to the call.
And rescue our land from political slavery!
From “Straimonium” swindlers and rail-splitters tall.
From “wide awake” noodles and “higher law” knavery.
Come route the vile host, who now “rule the roost”;
And have wrought desolation from centre to coast,
Then all to the rescue our country to save,
From political panders and anarchy’s grave.
The author (“J.C.”) has lost his rhythm, offers no imagery, forces rhymes, and presents us no tricks of language or art. Any joy to be derived lies in the political references and in the rhymes.
Nevertheless, such popular poetry of the Rebellion period has many points of interest. Consider the political viewpoint being presented above and below:
Time was we had our free discussion,
With the press, the tongue, the pen,
Nor had we learned to ape the Russian
With his spies and dungeons then.
But now unless one sings the praises
Of the Lincoln-Stanton crew,
Some bastile yawns as quick as blazes,
And the poor soul is lost to view.
There is dreary liberty,
Our rights are all a sham;
Sure this must be a kingdom coming
In the days of Abraham.
Consider the vivid imagery:
.. the face of our country, neath the hot breath of battles,
Where our heroes have struggled is blistered to graves
Sometimes, a civic poem written for rhetorical effect can nevertheless deploy poetic arts for its purposes: think of Houseman or Kipling and look at the Kipling effect in these two stanzas:
McClellan Campaign Song
No jokes from his lips when our whole land is sodden
With blood that has burst from the hearts of our braves;
When the face of our country, neath the hot breath of battles,
Where our heroes have struggled is blistered to graves,
Then up with our banner! Emblazon upon it,
“We will give to our country the man that she craves.”
We don’t label him “honest” – experience teaches
That trumpeting trademarks but cover deceit.
No rebuke from his lips of his senseless detractors;
His glorious record all falsehood can meet,
Then up with the banner for George B. McClellan!
Our hopes and our honors we throw at his feet.
Overall, the effect is not sustained. The whole poem can be viewed here.
Thanks to a kind reader for sending me the link.
Next week: some exceptional McClellan verse from a lyricist.