SATURDAY | McClellan poetry returns as we revisit verse inspired by Ball's Bluff. This week, another New Englander considers the fate of "the Harvard Regiment" (Mass. 20th Vol. Inf.), none other than Herman Melville. Melville had not written in a decade, when the fall of Richmond inspired him to record his feelings in a series of sketches issued as Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. Edmund Wilson was quite hard on this collection in his survey of Civil War lit, Patriotic Gore - but then, Patriotic Gore was thesis-driven, the thesis being that the ACW produced little of literary merit.
Wilson especially mentioned the lack of system in these poems (there was no discernable method in the rhyme or meter), but given the experimentation of Dickinson and Whitman at this time, Melville can be excused for wanting to join the party.
We saw the defiant soldier's response to Ball's Bluff in Lander last week; we saw Dickinson's wonderful indirection and dreamy two-mindedness on Sunday (assuming her poem to be Ball's Bluff-inspired). Melville here stresses the experience of void very touchingly.
Ball's Bluff. A Reverie. (October, 1861)
One noonday, at my window in the town,
I saw a sight – saddest that eyes can see—
Young soldiers marching lustily
Unto the wars,
With fifes, and flags in mottoed pageantry;
While all the porches, walks, and doors
Were rich with ladies cheering royally.
They moved like Juny morning on the wave,
Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime
(It was the breezy summer time),
Life throbbed so strong,
How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime
Would come to thin their shining throng?
Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.
Weeks passed; and at my window, leaving bed,
By night I mused, of easeful sleep bereft,
On those brave boys (Ah War! thy theft);
Some marching feet
found pause at last by cliffs Potomac cleft;
Wakeful I mused, while in the street
Far footfalls died away till none were left.