Saturday, November 28, 2015

More on "the parting volley" in Sheridan at Cedar Creek as funeral volley

A recent melvilliana post went to some trouble trying to get at the pathos of the parting volley in Melville's Civil War poem "Sheridan at Cedar Creek." In the early eighties Bernard F. Engel made easy work of the main idea--in parentheses:
(The horse as well as the general is also heroic in Melville’s poem “Sheridan at Cedar Creek,” one of the few wartime pieces by Melville to gain even moderate public attention. But Melville ends his celebration with recognition of the anonymity of the dead. As the funeral volley is fired, the speaker reflects on “the pathos deep,” the fact that “There is glory for the brave” but “no knowledge in the grave / Where the nameless followers sleep.” Other poets often wrote of wartime death, of course. But they wrote to glorify. Few Americans wanted to hear the suggestion that glory is meaningless to the ordinary soldier, and even fewer wanted to be told that the dead know nothing.)   
--Lincoln, Twain, Certain Lesser Midwestern Poets, and the Civil WarGreat Lakes Review 8-9 (1982-1983), 43-4.
Now I see Aaron Shackelford also nailed it in his doctoral dissertation (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2012):
"A series of gunshots honor the fallen: "It is the parting volley, / It is the pathos deep." --Unfamiliar War: Literature & Trauma in the American Civil War
Here's the fuller reading of what Dr. Shackelford calls the "elegiac final stanza":
The final stanza of “Sheridan at Cedar Creek” attempts to shift from the heat of battle
into a more direct elegiac mode. “Shroud the horse in sable – / For the mounds they heap!” (31-32). Here, Rienzi does not have an empty saddle, but nonetheless takes on the representational task of mourning the fallen soldiers who have thus far remained effaced in favor of the patriotism of the moment. Cloaked in black, Rienzi is meant to stand in for the heaps of the dead, avoiding the gruesome details of their deaths in favor of the shrouded horse. A series of gunshots honor the fallen: “It is the parting volley, / It is the pathos deep” (34-35). These bullets, though, do not hit flesh. Instead they only evoke an emotional response of pathos that shapes how the men are remembered, rather than the effects of bullets during the battle itself. The memory of the battle – and its victims – that was created by the patriotic fervor of the previous three stanzas is the same as the comprehension of the battle created in this elegiac final stanza.  --Aaron Shackelford, Unfamiliar War
There's plenty of room for further discussion, obviously. We can argue all night about different critical angles and readings, reconsidering facts as well as rethinking conclusions. For instance, it's hard to believe Melville would presume to claim the dead know nothing. Nothing more of earthly strife, perhaps. But as the poet says in The Armies of the Wilderness, only the dead can learn anything more when it comes the "riddle of death, of which the slain / Sole solvers are." War heroes may get their share of glory but it's their knowledge that stops at the grave. They, we, don't even know the names of the persons buried there. To know what the nameless dead know, you have to go where they are. Moby-Dick offers the similar thought:
"the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it."
For all of that it's still nice to agree on a couple of basic ideas about what's happening in the last stanza of Melville's Sheridan poem in terms of mood (mournful) and setting (after the battle).

Funeral honors, from the Revised United States Army Regulations, of 1861:
293. After the funeral service is performed, and the coffin is lowered into the grave, the commander will order, 
1. Attention! 2. Shoulder—ARMS! 3. Load at Will. 4. LOAD! 
When three rounds of small arms will be fired by the escort, taking care to elevate the pieces.


Related melvilliana post:

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