Saturday, December 12, 2015

Military Tropes in Pierre

Looking into Pierre for military figures of speech, I happened to notice that the narrator's flashback to the military funeral of  Pierre's grandfather (said to have died in 1812, like Melville's real grandfather Peter Gansevoort) includes this reference to the military salute often called "the parting volley":
"...ere wheeling to fire on the foe, his platoons fire over their old commander's grave."
--Pierre, or, The Ambiguities
So there's a prose example to go with two instances in Battle-Pieces where Melville alludes to the ceremonial final salute or "volley" in poems on McPherson and Sheridan.

Along with numerous literal references like that one--to historical Indian wars, to literal soldiers, troops, battles and bullets--Pierre (1852) features many images and figures of speech drawn from military life. Even literal references to military life may have more or less obvious symbolic applications. In depicting the material conditions of authorship, for example, Melville equips Pierre with a "powerfully symbolical" army cot, "the ancient and portable camp-bedstead of his grandfather" (Pierre, p367).

Image Credit: Henry Ford Museum
Writing is a kind of warfare. More specifically, Melville represents the act of writing as a revolutionary struggle, Pierre's own war for independence. Whatever else it means, the "symbolical" folding camp-bed is where Pierre sets his most important reference works, "the two or three books he may possibly have occasion to refer to" while writing (Pierre, p410). Another symbolic piece of inherited army gear is the
"old blue cloak, a military garment of the grandfather of Pierre"  --Pierre, 410
that Isabel and Lucy convert into a heating pad by folding in some hot bricks to warm Pierre's feet while he writes.

Regimental Uniform Coat of Colonel Peter Gansevoort, Jr.
Image Credit: Smithsonian
Below are additional examples from the text of Pierre that might be included in a more comprehensive index of military tropes in Melville's writings. Links with page numbers go to the cited page image in the first edition, digitized by Google Books and accessible in the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Pierre as soldier in the physical and moral Battle of Life: the grandson of two Generals a warrior too? Oh, not for naught, in the time of this seeming peace, are warrior grandsires given to Pierre! For Pierre is a warrior too; Life his campaign, and three fierce allies, Woe and Scorn and Want, his foes. The wide world is banded against him; for lo you! he holds up the standard of Right, and swears by the Eternal and True!  --Pierre, 367
A lover AND a fighter: Pierre as enthusiastic army recruit in the service of his beloved, Lucy Tartan:
""I must away now, Lucy; see! under these colors I march."
"Bravissimo! oh, my only recruit!"  --Pierre, 3
Pierre as figurative recruit gets figuratively "promoted," with literal foam-flakes imagined as shoulder-pieces (epaulettes) on the uniform of an army officer:
"Why, Pierre, they [Pierre's horses] have made an officer of you—look!" and she pointed to two foam-flakes epauletting his shoulders. "Bravissimo again! I called you my recruit, when you left my window this morning, and here you are promoted."
--Pierre, 28
When stirred by Nature, Pierre as excited war-horse:
She [Nature] blew her wind-clarion from the blue hills, and Pierre neighed out lyrical thoughts, as at the trumpet-blast, a war-horse paws himself into a lyric of foam. 
 --Pierre, 16
Pierre's ambitions as host of armored knights:
and forth at that glimpse of their divine Captain and Lord, ten thousand mailed thoughts of heroicness started up in Pierre's soul, and glared round for some insulted good cause to defend.  --Pierre, 16
William Turner, View of Ehrenbreitstein (1835)

Life's joys and griefs compared to Ehrenbereitstein:
As the vine flourishes, and the grape empurples close up to the very walls and muzzles of cannoned Ehrenbreitstein; so do the sweetest joys of life grow in the very jaws of its perils.  --Pierre, 92 
Men are muskets:
Ah, muskets the gods have made to carry infinite combustions, and yet made them of clay!  --Pierre, 145
Reality as a sniper:
All round and round does the world lie as in a sharp-shooter's ambush,to pick off the beautiful illusions of youth, by the pitiless cracking rifles of the realities of the age. --Pierre, 296
A Napoleon of letter-writing:
Nor did Glen rest here; but like Napoleon, now seemed bent upon gaining the battle by throwing all his regiments upon one point of attack, and gaining that point at all hazards. --Pierre, 299
Emotionally intense expression of ideas as minute-guns:
 ...ideas, then enunciated sharp and quick as minute-guns....  Pierre, 309
Wait, what are minute-guns? Again, Melville probably alludes to the formalities of military funerals.
Definition of MINUTE GUN
: a discharge of a cannon repeated at intervals of a minute usually in connection with the funeral of a general or flag officer  --Merriam-Webster
A gun fired every minute, as a signal of distress or mourning.  --Webster's International Dictionary
Although...I'm seeing that poets conventionally describe minute guns as "booming." Melville's "sharp and quick" more precisely describes rifle fire--as in the parting volley over the grave. And here without at all meaning to, I have managed to re-discover the mostly forgotten navy poet William Gibson. In his "Lines on the Death of Commander William Boerum, U. S. N.," Gibson compactly contrasts the different sounds of cannon and musketry:
Nor deep boom of the minute-gun,
Nor quick, sharp volleys o'er him fired,  --A Vision of Faery Land and Other Poems
Getting back to Melville and Pierre, bad road feels like riding over cannon-balls:
The coach seems rolling over cannon-balls of all calibers.  --Pierre, 312
Walk the walk to be like the army's main force (talk, Isabel says, is for impotent "skirmishers"):
"Well; all words are arrant skirmishers; deeds are the army's self! be it as thou sayest. I yet trust to thee.—Pierre." --Pierre, 454
Late in the novel, Pierre's weird, awful dream of Enceladus fuses martial tropes with geology and classical mythology. Grotesquely shaped rocks at the base and foothills of an imposing local mountain become the overreaching and defeated Titans of Greek myth. Melville develops the association of rocks and fallen heroes partly through military images and figures. Rocks as embattled Titans struggle to regroup and fight on like wounded but still-courageous troops:
"All round and round, the grim scarred rocks rallied and re-rallied themselves...." 
--Pierre, 469)
 but the mountain finally defeats
"the repulsed group of heaven-assaulters," --Pierre, 472
They're doomed despite the heroism of the American Enceladus their leader (favorably compared to
Marsy's Enceladus sculpture) who makes a "battering ram" of his chest as Melville extends the metaphor of military siege:
But no longer petrified in all their ignominious attitudes, the herded Titans now sprung to their feet; flung themselves up the slope; and anew battered at the precipice's unresounding wall. Foremost among them all, he saw a moss-turbaned, armless giant, who despairing of any other mode of wreaking his immitigable hate, turned his vast trunk into a battering-ram, and hurled his own arched-out ribs again and yet again against the invulnerable steep.  --Pierre, 472

The whole natural world seems at war in this section of the novel, as when Melville personifies the North Wind as a cruel warrior felling ("dismembering") trees "on their own chosen battle-ground," that is, in forests (Pierre, 469).

Mountain or mountain-base as war-ship:
 "...the efflorescent grasses rippled against it, as the efflorescent waves of some great swell or long rolling billow ripple against the water-line of a steep gigantic war-ship on the sea. --Pierre, 468
Hiker as soldier on the march; rocks as military "redoubt" or defensive fortification:
then suddenly you stood transfixed, as a marching soldier confounded at the sight of an impregnable redoubt,  --Pierre, 468
Image Credit: Berkshire Hiker

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