Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review of Battle-Pieces in the Sacramento Daily Union

The battle of Malvern Hill, Va. July 1st 1862 via Library of Congress
From the Sacramento Daily Union, October 10, 1866; found in the online Newspaper Archives at GenealogyBank:


BATTLE-PIECES AND ASPECTS OF THE WAR. By Herman Melville. Harper & Bros., New York. A. Roman & Co. and H. H. Bancroft & Co., San Francisco.
The author of "Omoo" and "Moby Dick," after a long silence, during which many of his admiring readers assumed that his literary career had closed, comes before the public again with a volume of lyrics. In his quiet retirement Melville was a sympathetic observer of the people's war for the salvation of the Union, but while the clash of arms continued his pen was idle. He tells us that the pieces in this volume "originated in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond," the crowning triumph of a long and sometimes doubtful struggle. He had no plan. "Yielding instinctively," he says, "one after another, to feelings not inspired from any one source exclusively, and undmindful, without purposing to be, of consistency, I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in the window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played upon the strings." These poems are of very unequal merit—several evincing the true feeling and rich imagination of a poet, while others seem to be the mere aimless and reinless rhyming of eccentricity. Excepting the occasional carelessness of rhyme, the following is an admirable treatment of the wonderful transition from apathy to enthusiasm in 1860-'61:
O the clammy cold November,
    And the Winter white and dead,
And the terror dumb with stupor,
    And the sky a sheet of lead;
And events that came resounding
    With the cry that all was lost,
Like the thunder-cracks of massy Ice
    In Intensity of frost—
Bursting one upon another
    Through the horror of the calm.
The paralysis of arm
    In the anguish of the heart;
And the hollowness and dearth.
   The appealings of the mother
To brother and to brother
    Not in hatred so to part—
And the fissure in the hearth
    Growing momently more wide.
Then the glances ’tween the Fates,
    And the doubt on every side,
And the patience under gloom
In the stoniness that waits
The finality of doom.
So the Winter died despairing,
   And the weary weeks of Lent;
And the ice-bound rivers melted,
   And the tomb of Faith was rent.
O, the rising of the People
   Came with springing of the grass,
They rebounded from dejection
   After Easter came to pass.
And the young were all elation
   Hearing Sumter’s cannon roar,
And they thought how tame the nation
    In the age that went before.
And Michael seemed gigantical,
    The Arch-fiend but a dwarf;
And at the towers of Erebus
    Our striplings flung the scoff.
But the elders with foreboding
    Mourned the days forever o’er,
And recalled the forest proverb,
    The Iroquois’ old saw:
Grief to every graybeard
    When young Indians lead the war.
And this stanza, from "Ball's Bluff," picturing the passage of the Union troops southward, is fresh and vivid;
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.
"Donelson," like some of Brownell's later war lyrics, has thrilling lines disfigured by such colloquial common-place as this:
“Ugh! ugh!
’Twill drag along—drag along,”
Growled a cross patriot in the throng,
His battered umbrella like an ambulance-cover
Riddled with bullet-holes, spattered all over.
“Hurrah for Grant!” cried a stripling shrill;
Three urchins joined him with a will,
And some of taller stature cheered.
Meantime a Copperhead passed; he sneered.
“Win or lose,” he pausing said,
Caps fly the same; all boys, mere boys;
Any thing to make a noise.
Like to see the list of the dead;
These ‘craven Southerners’ hold out;
Ay, ay, they’ll give you many a bout.”
“We’ll beat in the end, sir,”
Firmly said one in staid rebuke,
A solid merchant, square and stout.
“And do you think it? that way tend, sir?”
Asked the lean Copperhead, with a look
Of splenetic pity. “Yes, I do.”
His yellow death’s head the croaker shook:
“The country’s ruined, that I know.”
A shower of broken ice and snow,
In lieu of words, confuted him;
They saw him hustled round the corner go,
And each by-stander said—Well suited him.
"The Scout toward Aldie" has the distinction of being the longest effort in the volume. "Malvern Hill" is the finest in color, spirit and rhythm; this we quote:
Ye elms that wave on Malvern Hill
In prime of mom and May,
Recall ye how McClellan's men
Here stood at bay?
While deep within yon forest dim
Our rigid comrades lay —
Some with the cartridge in their mouth,
Others with fixed arms lifted South —
Invoking so
The cypress glades? Ah wilds of woe!

The spires of Richmond, late beheld
Through rifts in musket-haze,
Were closed from view in clouds of dust
On leaf-walled ways,
Where streamed our wagons in caravan;
And the Seven Nights and Days
Of march and fast, retreat and fight.
Pinched our grimed faces to ghastly plight —
Does the elm wood
Recall the haggard beards of blood?

The battle-smoked flag, with stars eclipsed,
We followed (it never fell!) —
In silence husbanded our strength —
Received their yell;
Till on this slope we patient turned
With cannon ordered well;
Reverse we proved was not defeat;
But ah, the sod what thousands meet! —
Does Malvern Wood
Bethink itself, and muse and brood?
We elms of Malvern Hill
    Remember everything;
But sap the twig will fill:
Wag the world how it will,
   Leaves must be green in Spring.
Sacramento Daily Union - October 10, 1866


  1. So now in 1866 he's "The author of ... 'Moby Dick'."

    1. Yes! here anyhow. Just did a quick search in GenealogyBank, all newspapers all states for the years 1845-1895.

      "author of Typee" = 606 hits
      "author of Moby Dick" = 2

      The two are 1) Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle, January 28, 1852--under heading "Fish Story" gives 1771 anecdote of Marshall Jenkins, swallowed alive by a sperm whale; and 2) New York Daily Graphic, January 4, 1876--alluding to Ishmael's urge to knock off people's hats, excusable as a fairly common kind of "insanity."