Tuesday, January 16, 2024

BATTLE-PIECES hated in Hamilton, Canada West

Herman Melville's book of Civil War poems Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was twice despised in the same Canadian newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator, in two caustic 1866 notices published on August 28 ("trash") and August 30 ("without sense or rhythm" and "incomprehensible"). Unheralded (never recorded?) in previous Melville scholarship, both items are transcribed herein. Neither is collected or listed in Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1995). The appearance of these reviews in August 1866 came remarkably early in the critical reception of Battle-Pieces, first published in New York on August 23rd. Of items collected in Contemporary Reviews, only the New York Times review on August 27th predates "Arms and the Man I Sing," as the first take on Battle-Pieces in the Hamilton Spectator was allusively and humorously titled.*

Hamilton.County Wentworth.1859

"C. W." on the masthead of the Hamilton Spectator stands for Canada West, a designation for Ontario province before Confederation in 1867 when 

"Canada East became the province of Quebec and Canada West became the province of Ontario." -- Canada West -The Canadian Encyclopedia

Described in A History of Canadian Journalism (Toronto, 1908) as "Conservative, but independent and progressive," The Hamilton Spectator was then conducted by the White brothers, Thomas and Richard. Journalist-politician Thomas White (1830-1888) had recently purchased the newspaper from William Gillespy (1824-1886), two years before the reviews of Battle-Pieces were published.

"Hon. Thomas White bought out William Gillespy in 1864 and was present to represent The Spectator at the festivities on July 1, 1867. In 1870 he turned his holdings over to his editor David McCulloch and left for Montreal and The Gazette."


Thomas White (1830-1888)

"White was an able journalist. He was unusually well informed, and blessed with a cool, transparent style devoid of affectation but lively and humorous. On the issue of confederation the Spectator was as close to Macdonald’s sentiments as any Conservative paper. It reflected his view that the principle of federation was a necessary but nevertheless dangerous American import...." 
-- P. B. Waite, Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Somebody who knows more about Thomas White and his writings may be able to tell if the "lively and humorous" style ascribed to him by Canadian historian P. B. Waite characteristically packs the sarcastic punch delivered in these delightfully negative notices of Melville's Civil War poems. After White's death, a column in the Liberal-leaning Toronto Globe duly memorialized that newspaper's former political rival as "essentially a party man and often a hard hitter," albeit one who "was seldom charged with exhibiting rancor or malice" ("The 'Globe's' Sympathy," reprinted in the Montreal Gazette on April 23, 1888).

Seldom was Tom White accused of being a great hater, but not never.

Whoever he was, the critic who tagged Melville as "the American Homer" (even  worse, "the New York Homer") in the Hamilton Spectator understood better than many friendlier commentators the classical background and epic scope of Battle-Pieces, features also evident a decade later in Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876).

28 Aug 1866, Tue The Hamilton Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) Newspapers.com

Transcribed below from the Hamilton Spectator, August 28, 1866, page 2:


Not the least among the many trials which the people of the United States have had to endure, not the least among the hideous calamities which war brought in its train was the swarm of halting, lame, and simply idiotic poets, who at the sound of the first cannon, poured forth from their hiding places, deluging every newspaper and magazine with their patriotic but puerile productions. Since the war ended the majority of these gentry have lapsed into silence, but some of them are evidently very hard to get rid of. For instance, one of them, ambitious of becoming the American Homer of the late contest, has been doing up the events of the war in rhyme. Homer was never appreciated until after his death, but we much question whether the New York Homer (for there can be no doubt, we believe, that that city has the honor of being his birthplace) will ever attain to immortal fame. Grant is the Agamemnon, the "King of men" whom his verse delights to honor, while Sherman occupies about the same position as that of Achilles in the  Grecian poet's verse. Grant's campaign in the Cumberland Valley is thus beautifully introduced:

"We learn that General Grant,
Marching from Henry overland,
And joined by a force up the Cumberland sent,
Some thirty thousand the command." etc.

* * * * * * * * *

When Grant has invested Fort Donaldson [Donelson], the "poet" sings,

Grant's investment's complete,
A semi-circular one,
Both wings of the Cumberland's margins meet, etc.

* * * * * * * * *

Whenever a victory is won he comes out in small capitals, and thus in the following patriotic but slightly ambiguous lines, he commemorates the capture of the fort:

   Glorious victory of the fleet!
Friday's great event!
   The enemy's water batteries beat ! ! 
We silenced every gun !
   The old commander's [Commodore's] compliments sent
Plump into Donaldson !

This is a fair specimen of the rest of the trash which we are told is elegantly bound in blue and gold by Harper & Brothers, and sold at a high figure in New York. 

Transcribed below from the Hamilton Spectator, August 30, 1866, page 1: 

BATTLE PIECES, by Herman Melville. Hamilton: George Barnes & Co; New York: Harper Brothers. -- We made some allusion to this work in yesterday's Spectator, [August 28, "Arms and the Man I Sing"] and have since received a copy of it from Messrs. Barnes & Co. We refrain from criticism, but give a few specimens of Mr. Melville's Battle Pieces. Possibly they may find some admirers. With reference to the surrender of Mason and Slidell, the American Homer says--

"The bitter cup
Of that hard countermand
Which gave the Envoys up
Still is wormwood in the mouth."

It is certain that Mr. Melville's "poetical honey" will not be sufficient to sweeten the nauseating draught.

Speaking of the "Stone Fleet" sunk before Charleston, this sweet songster says of one of them which had been a whaler--
"Her bones were sold (escheat),
Ah, Stone Fleet."

This is decidedly touching, and sufficient to bring tears to the eyes of old Farragut himself. The "Wreck of the Royal George" cannot certainly be compared with it. Still further he says, referring to the names of four of the scuttled vessels--

"Four were erst patrician keels,
(Names attest what families be)
The Kensington and Richmond too;
Leonidas and Lee:
                    But now they have their seat
                    With the old Stone Fleet."  
The poet fails to recognize the retributive justice here displayed. What business had the Republican marine with vessels rejoicing in such patrician names? But it is in the account of the Donelson Fight that Mr. Melville chiefly displays his peculiar talent for writing verses without sense or rythm [rhythm]. We are told among other extraordinary things, that the sole uniform worn by the Southern defenders of Donelson was
"A sort of patch or white badge (as you choose)
          Upon the arm." 
This is an even more abbreviated costume than that worn by the Arkansas gentleman, whose full dress consisted of a shirt collar with a pair of spurs. A soldier uniformed in a white patch on his arm would have a startling effect. Mr. Melville is evidently fond of bitter bowls, for here again, in this same poem of Donelson, we read that
"Next day brought a bitterer bowl."
The following is the commencement of what is called "a canticle expressive of national exaltation." The writer evidently thinks that the more incomprehensible he can be the better. The first stanza is certainly beyond our comprehension--

"Oh! the precipice Titanic
     Of the congregated Fall,
And the angle oceanic,
     Where the deepening thunders call,
And the gorge so grim,
And the firmamental rim." 
A long effusion entitled "The Scout Towards Aldie" is principally descriptive of the doings of Mosby. The following verse is a fair specimen. A U. S. officer frantically exclaims:
"Where's the advance? Cut off, by Heaven!
   Come, Surgeon, how with your wounded there?
The ambulance will carry all;
   We'll get them in, we go to camp;
   We'll get them in, we go to camp;
Seven prisoners gone, for the rest have care; 
Then to himself--
"This grief is gall;
That Mosby! I'll cast a silver ball!" 
He did cast a silver ball, but does not appear to have done much execution with it.  
It is unnecessary to make any more extracts: the above may be taken as a fair specimen of these "Battle Pieces."

* Early critical responses to Battle-Pieces discovered after the 1995 publication of Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews include 

  • "Books Received," New York Daily Tribune, August 23, 1866.
  • Boston Daily Advertiser, August 24, 1866. Brief notice with mention of Melville's prose Supplement as "a political essay"; cited by Hershel Parker in Herman Melville: A Biography Volume 2, 1851-1891 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) page 616. Now accessible on genealogybank.com.
  • Washington, D. C. Sunday Morning Chronicle, August 26, 1866. Discovered and transcribed by Richard E. Winslow III in "New Melville Reviews Surface," Melville Society Extracts 113 (June 1998) at page 11.
  • Philadelphia Press, August 27, 1866. First presented by Gary Scharnhorst in "More Uncollected Melville Reviews and Notices," Melville Society Extracts 106 (September 1996) pages 13-14. Digital image of the original notice is now accessible online via genealogybank.com
  • American Presbyterian (Philadelphia, PA) August 30, 1866. Found at newspaperarchive.com in December 2019 and transcribed on Melvilliana:
  • Boston Post, August 30, 1866. First inventoried and partly transcribed by Richard E. Winslow III in "Contemporary Notice of Melville at Home and Abroad," Melville Society Extracts 106 (September 1996) at page 10. Digital image is now accessible online via newspaperarchive.com.
  • Portland Daily Press (Portland, Maine) August 30, 1866. Discovered and transcribed by Richard E. Winslow III in "New Melville Reviews Surface," Melville Society Extracts 113 (June 1998) at page 11. Now accessible online via newspapers.com.


  1. "Arms and the man I sing" is a translation of the beginning oF Virgil's Aeneid; 'arma virumque cano.'