Friday, December 21, 2012

dreadful glory

Isaac Watts from NPG

Glorious! to find poetry by Melville appreciatively discussed in so respectable a place as the NY Times Opnionator, in the recent online commentary by Cynthia Wachtell, "Melville's About-Face." Wachtell is doing something I love, comparing different versions of texts. John Bryant by the way wrote a great book about the pleasures of that enterprise, The Fluid Text, well deserving of wider readership. In her Opinionator piece, Wachtell essentially offers what Bryant would call a "revision narrative" to account for two small yet potentially significant changes Melville made (or rather tried to make before publication) to the text of his brief Civil War poem, "Inscription for the Slain at Fredericksburgh." As Wachtell explains, Melville wanted to change "Slain" in the title to "Dead," and "glory" to "dreadful glory." A third change, "Strown" to "Strewn" receives no comment. There we catch Melville regretting his grammar. To discuss that about-face gets you deep into the grammar of weak verbs with strong past participles. Yow! No wonder Watchell won't touch "strown" or "strewn." 

Let's just say Melville rejected "strown" as distractingly archaic, and let it go.

Wachtell unconvicingly treats "slain" and "dead" as synonyms with different connotations or associations, one ("slain") more romantic and one ("dead") more realistic. But wait, these words are not semantically the same, not quite. Slain means killed by someone, even murdered, violently--right? Slain conjures the slayer. Dead seems by contrast more neutral, concerned with the fact of death, not the manner. Melville's tribute memorializes the military dead as proactive heroes of their own lives. They acted bravely, performed a deed worthy of a song. Slain threatens to steal some of that hard-won glory from the patriot and give it to the rebel. Forget for now the Confederate slayers, this one is for the noble Union dead.

Wachtell reads the d-words "dead" and "dreadful" as attempts by Melville to modify a conventionally pious stance through the "starker" language of "nascent realism." This interpretation strangely conflates romanticism and reverence, regarded as equally quaint and delusional, apparently, to which Wachtell opposes realism, regarded it seems as a later, less embarrassing stage of human development. But who in the world, any world, wants realism on a memorial inscription to dead soldiers? But let that go, for now. I truly meant to consider "dreadful glory," the interesting change from this
A glory lights an earnest end;
to this:
A dreadful glory lights an earnest end;
Wachtell sees in "dreadful" a change of heart, Melville's "about-face" away from the familiarly worshipful "glory":
His insertion of “dreadful” to modify “glory,” like the substitution of “dead” for “slain,” subtly alters and challenges the otherwise reverential tone of the work.  (Melville's About-Face)
But here's the thing. The change to "dreadful glory" makes the tone more not less reverential. Whatever tension or conflict dreadful poses for glory is thoroughly traditional. The challenge perceived by Wachtell derives not from the dictionary of realism, but the dictionary of Protestant hymnody and theology. God's righteousness (glory) is conventionally placed alongside.the terror of God's (dreadful) wrath. Melville's change to "dreadful glory" echoes a number of Protestant hymns, most notably Psalm 65 in the verse translation by the "progenitor of the English congregational hymn" Isaac Watts. Watts's psalms in Melville's day were widely available, collected (and awaiting perusal at Google Books) for example in popular hymnbooks such as A Pastor's Selection of Hymns (Philadelphia, 1860).
With dreadful glory God fulfils
What his afflicted saints request;
And with almighty wrath reveals
His love, to give his churches rest. 
Then shall the flocking nations run
To Zion's hill, and own their Lord;
The rising and the setting sun
Shall see the Savior's name adored.
(Psalm 65, Isaac Watts)
We knew Melville liked to use (and abuse?) Watts. Hershel Parker has called attention to the borrowing from Watts in Moby-Dick:
The words to popular hymns were often composed by notable religious poets such as Isaac Watts and William Cowper. Melville makes his lank Bildad, for example, sing Watts’s “A Prospect of Heaven Makes Death Easy” as he pilots the Pequod out of Nantucket in chapter 22 of Moby-Dick. --Melville: The Making of the Poet
And we knew Melville made poetic use of other metrical adaptations from the Psalms, not only from Watts. Again in Moby-Dick, Father Mapple's hymn is reworked from Psalm 18 in the hymnal of the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church.
So rather than a jolt of "nascent realism," Melville's change to "dreadful" would have interposed the uncomfortable but nonetheless familiar Protestant view of God, or the divine, or divine dispensations, as terrifyingly awesome. This connection happens right away in the first line. Subsequent language similarly evokes Christian history and eschatology: a time of joyful restoration ("jubilee") when souls ("ghosts") are "transfigured." When are they transfigured?  The end time, raptured even to the "rapturous height" of, what, heaven?

No! The fallen at Fredericksburg are "transfigured" at the "rapturous height"
Of their passionate feat of arms.
Feat or defeat? Why "passionate"?
Melville again employs biblical language to honor the dead as, well, like Christ and Christ's passion in their ultimate self-sacrifice.

The parallel to Christ is reinforced in the closing line, as Jason Skonieczny nicely points out in a comment on Watchtell's Opinionator essay:
"Strown their vale of death with palms" renders the fallen into Christlike victims"
As Skonieczny observes, the effects of the parallel are arguable. This indeed is where all the argumentative fun properly starts. Did the dead patriots martyr themselves, rapture themselves, transfigure themselves by their dauntless, thoughtless courage? And the best line has to be the fifth:
 Death to the brave's a starry night,---
Wow! What could be finer than that? Melville liked it so well he ended "Chattanooga" with the same line, slightly revised, in Battle-Pieces.
But in the memorial poem for the fallen at Fredericksburgh, you need to get the allusion to Christ, and recognize some of the biblical terms and themes to begin to get what Melville was about.
Along with references to passion, palms, rapture and transfiguration, the nod to Watts in "dreadful glory" shows Melville aiming high, investing his brief "Inscription"with the hallmark of an old and much-beloved religious hymn.
Inscription For the Dead At Fredericksburgh
A dreadful glory lights an earnest end;
In jubilee the patriot ghosts ascend;
Transfigured at the rapturous height
    Of their passionate feat of arms,
Death to the brave's a starry night,---
    Strewn their vale of death with palms.
--Correspondence and Published Poems and Ishmailites
Van Gogh - Starry Night - Google Art Project


  1. Your analysis of religious language certainly helps us understand the poem's unity. But I believe that much of Wachtel's thrust is still valid. The "dreadful," as you note, adds an "uncomfortable" and "terrifying" dimension. The "glory" alone would have been a tepid beginning for a poem with powerful language. Even though the "dreadful glory" may have been a conventional Protestant view of an awesome God's judgement, the phrase has its own jarring effect in the poem's context--a realistic jolt that may go beyond the understanding of conventional devotion.

    1. Jolt feels right to me, but why and how "realistic"? Even better, lowell, you say "beyond the understanding of conventional devotion." Yes! Agreed, only I think we might enrich our understanding of the poem by considering the crazy way Melville uses, adapts traditional symbols and imagery of the Passion, what--narrative? drama? for uncomfortably unconventional effects.

      Neither version of Melville's inscription offers the slain/dead subjects a Sunday School heaven. The biblical-sounding language describes transcendent human actions. From any orthodox perspective then, Melville's take on their fate must seem (characteristically, right?) blasphemous. Glory does not signify heaven, glory means the earthly kind of immortality, the hero's proper and well-earned reward for valorous deeds. In their quest for earthly glory Melville's Union heroes figuratively re-enacted the Passion of Christ.

      They got the glory they sought. Dreadful is right, but the adjective reflects an emotional response anyhow I look at it.

      I had not thought much about unity, rather I was thinking how Melville's little poem breaks open the whole universe in the terrific line,

      "Death to the brave's a starry night,---"

      What does THAT mean? I'm still pondering--it reminds me of a line somewhere in Clarel, "There's something to look up to yet."

    2. Your analysis has certainly raised the stature of the poem in my eyes. However, there is one aspect that I find strained--the analysis of the elimination of "slain." Given the Passion imagery, why wouldn't "slain" be kept? It certainly ties in with the last line. I resist the idea that it necessarily focuses attention on the slayer; rather, to me it suggests martyrdom. I think Wachtel may be right that it seemed too stuffily archaic. I am a bit amused that one commenter said that because "slain" was omitted, "dreadful" had to be added. That seems convoluted: because one biblical reference is eliminated, another has to be added. Perhaps Melville felt that too much Passion reference would have weakened the final idea of transcendence within darkness.

      Yes, certainly the "starry night" is the most powerful image of the poem and the clearest image. The last line is simply appended to the poem with a dash. But maybe we are inclined to see the starry night too much through the eyes of Van Gogh; perhaps Melville's image was more reverential, a view of stars as martyrs, rather than Van Gogh's unfocused turbulence. Either way, it's a great line.