The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book III/Chapter II

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Chapter II: Poets of the Civil War I: The North[edit]

§ 1. The Mood of the North.[edit]

WITH the opening of the Civil War the people of the loyal states were stirred to a more intense realization of the high responsibilities of citizenship in a republic. At once the country was confronted by the gigantic task of feeding and clothing the men in the field, of caring for the sick and wounded, of raising the crops, and keeping the shops and factories going. Such a radical readjustment of forces called out powers hitherto unsuspected either in the nation or in its individual citizens. The great present seemed to engulf the petty troubles and ill feelings, social and political, of the past, and the people of the North found themselves moved by a national spirit which knew few of the bounds of the old provincialism. Like the shot at Lexington almost a hundred years before, the guns at Sumter struck the note of a new era. The country marched to war with the gay step of youth; it came back solemnly, as if tried by fire. As it went, the bands played Annie Laurie, and the men sang the sentimental songs of adolescent America; they returned chanting

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

§ 2. Effect upon the Poets.[edit]

Readers of poetry in the fifties had enjoyed the verse of Bryant[1] and Longfellow[2] and of others who modestly portrayed aspects of quiet nature, mildly moralized upon conduct, or willingly submitted to the spell of beauty. For not a few of the poets, poetry was something apart from the actuality of life, too often little more than commonplace sentiment inspired by earlier poets. It is interesting to find Longfellow writing in his diary in 1856:

Dined with Agassiz to meet Emerson and others. I was amused and annoyed to see how soon the conversation drifted off into politics. It was not until after in the library that we got upon anything really interesting.

Longfellow, Taylor, Story, and Stoddard (in his early days) were practitioners of the poetic art rather than workers in the real material of human experience. There were other singers, however, who, though surrounded by much that was crude and raw, petty and vulgar, still had visions and felt pulses throbbing beneath the rude exterior of American life. Of such were Lowell, Whittier, Whitman, and various more ephemeral writers who felt the stirring times. To them it was not satisfying merely to dream of the past or yearn for the land of the Lotos Eaters. As if called to a great service, they saw a work to be done and prepared for its doing. Stedman at twenty-eight could write:

I have cared nothing for politics—have been disgusted with American life and doings. Now for the first time I am proud of my country and my grand heroic brethren. The greatness of the crisis, the Homeric grandeur of the contest, surrounds and elevates us all…. Henceforth the sentimental and poetic will fuse with the intellectual to dignify and elevate the race.

Stedman[3] himself, brought up in an older school of lovers of beauty, turned to a more resonant lyre, and wrote such pieces as How Old Brown Took Harper's Ferry, Kearny at Seven Pines, Wanted—A Man, Gettysburg, and the stirring romance Alice of Monmouth—pieces full of metrical energy, strong, high spirit, and convinced devotion to the union. Stoddard,[4] writer of delicate “Melodies and Catches,” rose to the grave, noble tones of his Horatian ode Abraham Lincoln, among the finest of all the poems commemorative of the chief personage of the War. Lowell[5] wrote a second series of The Biglow Papers, confirming his right to be called the great American satirist in verse; and Whittier,[6] already, like Lowell, no uncertain voice speaking against slavery, almost forgot his Quaker traditions in the eager strophes with which he encouraged the fighters for freedom and exulted over the victory of their aims. Whitman,[7] already the prophet, though as yet hardly heard, of a mystical union of his people, composed, during the struggle to destroy the Union of the states, battle-pieces that are without rancour, and, after that Union had been assured, splendid hymns of triumph that contain no insults to the conquered, vying with Lowell for the honour of producing the loftiest and best Northern poetry of the War.

§ 3. H. H. Brownell.[edit]

The purpose of this chapter is to tell not of the major poets of the mid-century period, most of whom, in the intervals of full poetic careers traced elsewhere in this history, lent powerful voices to the cause of anti-slavery and union, but of some of the lesser figures whose best or most significant work deals almost wholly with the conflict. At least one of them has not received his due share of praise—Henry Howard Brownell (1820–1872), called by Holmes “Our Battle Laureate.” Born at Providence, he went with his family to Hartford, where he graduated from Trinity College in 1841. After a short season of teaching in Mobile, he returned to Hartford, was admitted to the bar, and began the practice of his profession, while also joining his brother in literary work. His early devotion to the sea, stimulated by frequent voyages, inspired him to sing of its awe and its beauty. Like his brother, who lost his life in 1859 exploring South America, he had the spirit of an adventurer, but, though his little volume of Poems (1847) had contained some lines of verse ringing with denunciation of ease and lazy comfort at a time when such a question as slavery was pressing for answer, he had dealt, for the most part not originally or strikingly, only with the eternal themes of minor poets—love, disappointments, passing beauty, the hard fate of the poetical tribe—and did not really find expression for himself until the Civil War. For a Hartford paper he composed a rhymed version of Farragut’s orders to his fleet before the attack upon New Orleans. The verses so pleased the Commodore that he wrote to Brownell in terms of hearty appreciation and afterwards made the poet his secretary. Brownell thus had an opportunity, in actual service, to become acquainted with the details of warfare. The best of his pieces, all included in Lyrics of a Day (1864) and War-Lyrics (1866), still deserve praise as strong as that pronounced by Lowell and Aldrich in Brownell’s own generation. His power lay in combining vivid detail with lyric exultation, accurate pictures of still life with fiery episodes of heroic action. No other Northern poet reported real warfare so accurately. Some of Brownell’s lines read like rhymed journalism, but he had everywhere such intensity of visualization, such fiery passion, and such natural, racy language dignified by sincerity that he rarely suffered any descent into prose, though he tended to longeurs. Energy and swift movement are not his only qualities. In the midst of The Bay Fight he does not forget the actual men engaged. He can pass from scenes of fighting to the calm, sad picture of Lincoln watching from on high the troops that have not returned for the Grand Review in Washington. Perhaps nothing in his verse seems more striking, in the twentieth century, than his terrific confidence in the cause of the Union and equally terrific condemnation of all Southern “traitors.” His moral energy is as much the secret of his power as are his poetical vigour and veracity.

§ 4. Boker; Bayard Taylor; Read.[edit]

Less important than Brownell as a war poet was George Henry Boker,[8] a native of Pennsylvania, who, though primarily a dramatist, was from 1861 to 1871 the efficient secretary of the Union League of Philadelphia, and prominent in patriotic activities throughout the struggle. His Poems of the War appeared in 1864. It contained a few pieces, some of them still remembered, which adequately represent the faith and deep feeling of that time. Most interesting are the Dirge for a Soldier, On Board the Cumberland, The Ballad of New Orleans, Upon the Hill before Centreville, The Black Regiment, The Battle of Lookout Mountain. Boker’s lyrics, however, lack the passionate truthfulness of Brownell’s, and play too much with allegory and ancient mythology for the best effect. The Dirge, called forth by the death of General Kearny, is spontaneous and haunting. Bayard Taylor,[9] a friend of Boker, while ardently sympathetic toward the Union cause, and a speaker in its behalf in America and England, shows a slighter imprint of the conflict in his verse. Even his National Ode, delivered on a great occasion in 1876, failed to rise to the dignity and power expected of it. It seems, for all its large weight of thought and knowledge, unimportant when compared with Lowell's Commemoration Ode. Still a third Pennsylvanian, Thomas Buchanan Read,[10] wrote, in Sheridan's Ride, one of the most rousing of all the martial ballads called forth by the war.

§ 5. Melville; Halpine.[edit]

Herman Melville,[11] who said in the preface to his Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) “I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in a window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played upon the strings,” suffered in his verse as in his minor romances from a fatal formlessness, but he had moments of contagious enthusiasm. He celebrated some of the most striking incidents of the war in The Victor of Antietam, The Cumberland, Running the Batteries, Sheridan at Cedar Creek, The Fall of Richmond, and The Surrender at Appomattox. Most intimately associated with hostilities of all was Charles Graham Halpine,[12] better known as Miles O’Reilly, who entered the Union army and became a brigadier-general. Although his verse lacks metrical skill, it is vigorous and full of feeling, generally free of animosities, and in the tone of the soldier rather than of the bitter poet who stays at home.

§ 6. The Events of the Conflict Traced in Contemporary Poems; John Brown; Secession; The Call to Arms.[edit]

To get a really vivid idea of the lyric expression of the time one should look less to individual writers or groups of writers than to the subjects which were most commonly their themes. The John Brown affair found many poets: Stedman in How Old Brown Took Harper’s Ferry, Brownell in The Battle of Charlestown, fiercely ironic, Whittier in Brown of Ossawatomie, and, above all, the anonymous author (he may have been Charles Sprague Hall) of John Brown's Body, which, set to the air of an old Methodist hymn, became the most popular marching song of the Union armies, and survived innumerable parodies and rival versions—to be sung not only by American but by British troops in the present war. The secession of South Carolina called forth the earnest, affectionate Brother Jonathan's Lament for Sister Caroline by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Stedman and Brownell were but two of the many stirred to verse by the attack on Sumter. The spirit of the volunteers was celebrated in A Call to True Men by Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Who's Ready? by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Heart of the War by J. G. Holland; Theodore Tilton published in The Independent for 18 April, 1861, his clanging and exciting tocsin The Great Bell Roland; even Bryant had a strange fire in Our Country's Call:

Lay down the axe; fling by the spade;
     Leave in its track the toiling plough;
          The rifle and the bayonet-blade
     For arms like yours were fitter now;
          And let the hands that ply the pen
     Quit the light task, and learn to wield
The horseman’s crooked brand, and rein
               The charger on the battle-field.

§ 7. The Earliest Fighting in Virginia.[edit]

Thereafter the passion of events is recorded in the poems of the war, North and South. Bayard Taylor’s Through Baltimore cried out against the opposition offered by Southern sympathizers to the passage through Baltimore streets of the Sixth Massachusetts. A. J. H. Duganne, in his impetuous Bethel, sang of the heroism but not the blunders of that battle, the chief victim of which, Theodore Winthrop,[13] was the subject of Thomas William Parsons’s lofty Dirge for One Who Fell in Battle. Bull Run, theme of many exultant Southern ballads and satires,[14] brought from Boker the impassioned Upon the Hill before Centreville. In the controversy with England which followed the seizure of Mason and Slidell, Lowell wrote his spirited and determined Jonathan to John, second in the new series of Biglow Papers. During September, 1861, Mrs. Ethelinda (Ethel Lynn) Beers wrote The Picket-Guard (attributed in the South to Lamar Fontaine or Thaddeus Oliver), a widely popular piece expressing sympathy with the minor and unnoted victims of the conflict. Also popular was the anonymous Tardy George, that is, General McClellan, of whom the North demanded more activity than he ever attained. In the same cause, though without the mention of names, was Wanted—A Man, by Stedman, who shortly after had to write another elegy, Kearny at Seven Pines, upon the gallant officer commemorated by Boker in the Dirge for a Soldier. Thomas Dunn English’s The Charge by the Ford and Melville’s Malvern Hill deal with the later events of McClellan’s first campaign. Lincoln’s call for new troops gave rise to the sentimental but immensely effective Three Hundred Thousand More by James Sloan Gibbons and to Bret Harte’s The Reveille (sometimes called The Drum), which is said to have played a large part in holding California loyal. The advance of Lee to Antietam, his repulse there, and his retreat found a record in Whittier’s Barbara Frietchie, Melville’s The Victor of Antietam, Boker’s The Crossing at Fredericksburg, John Boyle O’Reilly’s At Fredericksburg, and Aldrich’s exquisite sonnets Fredericksburg and By the Potomac.

§ 8. The War in the West; Willson.[edit]

Meanwhile the war in the West was not without its poet-annalists, of whom the most notable perhaps was Forceythe Willson (1837–67), a native of New York who lived in Indiana from 1852 to 1864 and wrote Union editorials for the Louisville Journal. During the first year of the war he began his sombre, disheartened In State, a poem which spoke of the Union as dead and lying on its bier:

The Sisterhood that was so sweet,
The Starry System sphered complete,
Which the mazed Orient used to greet,
The Four and Thirty fallen Stars glimmer and glitter at her feet.

The next year he wrote Boy Brittan to commemorate a seventeen-year-old lieutenant killed in the attack on Fort Henry, and the year after published his masterpiece, The Old Sergeant, which Holmes thought “the finest thing since the war began,”—the death-scene of a nameless soldier wounded at Shiloh. Richer in melody than Brownell, Willson was like him in directness and realism; his output, however, was very slight. The struggle for the possession of Missouri was recorded in Stoddard’s The Little Drummer, Henry Peterson’s The Death of Lyon, and Boker’s Zagonyi. During the Confederate attempt to recapture Corinth in October, 1862, the Eighth Wisconsin imaginatively carried, instead of a flag, a live eagle which circled over the battlefield and which gave Brownell his occasion for The Eagle of Corinth.

§ 9. The Cumberland and Merrimac; The Capture of New Orleans.[edit]

This same year on the sea the duel between the Merrimac and the Cumberland stirred the poets as did almost no other episode of the entire war. Thomas Buchanan Read wrote The Attack; Longfellow, The Cumberland; Boker, On Board the Cumberland; Melville, The Cumberland; Weir Mitchell, How the Cumberland Went Down,—all of them poems which, with a larger eloquence than then appeared, sounded the knell of the wooden battleship. As might have been expected, defeat had more poets than victory; Boker, however, wrote The Cruise of the Monitor, and Lucy Larcom The Sinking of the Merrimac. For the capture of New Orleans there were Boker’s The Ballad of New Orleans and The Varuna (the name of a Federal ship sunk during the action), while Brownell’s The River Fight was as triumphant as the attack.

Do you know of the dreary land,
If land such region may seem,
Where ’tis neither sea nor strand,
Ocean nor good dry land,
But the nightmare marsh of a dream—
Where the Mighty River his death-road takes,
’Mid pools, and windings that coil like snakes,
(A hundred leagues of bayous and lakes,)
To die in the great Gulf Stream?
… …
Would you hear of the River-Fight?
It was two, of a soft spring night—
God’s stars looked down on all,
And all was clear and bright
But the low fog’s clinging breath—
Up the River of Death
Sailed the Great Admiral.
On our high poop-deck he stood,
And round him ranged the men
Who have made their birthright good
Of manhood, once and agen—
Lords of helm and of sail,
Tried in tempest and gale,
Bronzed in battle and wreck—
Bell and Bailey grandly led
Each his Line of the Blue and Red—
Wainwright stood by our starboard rail;
Thornton fought the deck.
And I mind me of more than they,
Of the youthful, steadfast ones,
That have shown them worthy sons
Of the Seamen passed away—
(Tyson conned our helm, that day,
Watson stood by his guns.)
… …
Lord of mercy and frown,
Ruling o’er sea and shore,
Send us such scene once more!
All in Line of Battle
Where the black ships bear down
On tyrant fort and town,
’Mid cannon cloud and rattle—
And the great guns once more
Thunder back the roar
Of the traitor walls ashore,
And the traitor flags come down!

§ 10. Emancipation.[edit]

It was in New England that Emancipation was most eagerly acclaimed. Emerson’s Boston Hymn, written in honour of Lincoln’s Proclamation, can hardly be matched for pungency and pregnancy of matter by any other American poem for an occasion. Whittier, who had already hailed Frémont’s action in freeing the slaves of secessionists in Missouri in the poem To John C. Frémont, and the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in his hopeful Astraea at the Capital, hailed the actual Proclamation with passion, and, later, the passage of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery with the rapt exultation of Laus Deo. Stedman’s Treason's Last Device glowed with anger at a proposal made, as late as 1863, to bar New England from the Union because of an opposition to slavery that made that section very obnoxious to the South.

§ 11. Gettysburg.[edit]

Boker in the spring of 1863 greeted the news of the Federal advance with his Hooker's Across; and Chancellorsville, which called forth so many Confederate poems[15] on the death of Stonewall Jackson, led George Parsons Lathrop to write his dashing ballad, Keenan’s Charge. Perhaps it was again because poets sing best in defeat that no Union poem on Gettysburg quite equals Will Henry Thompson’s later High Tide (1888). Stedman, however, made a ringing ballad, Gettysburg, and Bret Harte preserved a real episode of the day in his John Burns of Gettysburg. Best of all, of course, was Lincoln’s famous address at the battle-field on 19 November, 1863, which lacks nothing of poetry but its outer forms.

§ 12. Grant and His Career; Black Soldiers.[edit]

As Grant rose to fame the poets kept pace with his deeds: Melville with Running the Batteries and Boker with Before Vicksburg dealt with the struggle to open the Mississippi. Lookout Mountain was commemorated by Boker—The Battle of Lookout Mountain—and William Dean Howells—The Battle in the Clouds. Two poems this year honoured the negro soldiers that the Union army had begun to use. Boker’s The Black Regiment concerns itself with the assault on Fort Hudson; Brownell’s Bury Them is a stern and terrible poem on the slaughter of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, with their Colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. The Confederates buried Shaw in a pit under a heap of his men, and Brownell thought of them as dragon’s teeth buried in “the sacred, strong Slave-Sod” only to rise—Southerners are supposed to be speaking—as sabres and bayonets:

And our hearts wax strange and chill,
  With an ominous shudder and thrill,
Even here, on the strong Slave-Sod,
        Lest, haply, we be found
(Ah, dread no brave hath drowned!)
        Fighting against Great God.

§ 13. Sherman; The Fall of Richmond.[edit]

In the fourth year of the war the note of triumph passed from the Southern to the Northern poets. S. H. M. Byers’s Sherman's March to the Sea and Halpine’s The Song of Sherman's Army are almost gay, and Henry Clay Work’s Marching Through Georgia if not gay is nothing else. Holmes’s Sherman's in Savannah rhymed the name of the fallen city with “banner.” Strangely haunting is Whitman’s Ethiopia Saluting the Colors. Also haunting, but sad, is Melville’s A Dirge for McPherson——

True fame is his, for life is o’er
Sarpedon of the mighty war——

while his Sheridan at Cedar Creek, The Fall of Richmond, and The Surrender at Appomattox, though never widely known, are full of that distinction which Melville, with all his irregularities, was never long without, in prose or verse. Thomas Buchanan Read’s famous Sheridan’s Ride is a better ballad than Melville’s piece on the same theme, but purely as poetry it is inferior. Henry Clay Work’s The Year of Jubilee, supposed to be written by a slave full of delight in the coming freedom, is too amusing and racy to need to have its poetical merits estimated. Read’s The Eagle and the Vulture and Weir Mitchell’s Kearsarge echoed the doom of the Alabama. Farragut was so fortunate as to have two poets among his officers at Mobile Bay: William Tuckey Meredith, who wrote Farragut——

Farragut, Farragut,
Old Heart of Oak,
Daring Dave Farragut,
Thunderbolt stroke——

and Brownell, whose The Bay Fight, though perhaps too long, can hardly be matched for martial energy.

§ 14. Songs of the Soldiers.[edit]

In the armies themselves the most popular verses were naturally less fine than those which have chiefly been remembered as the poetic fruits of the war. It was to furnish more worthy words to the tune of John Brown’s Body that Julia Ward Howe wrote her noble poem The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the words proved too fine to suit the soldiers, who would not sing of “grapes of wrath” or “the beauty of the lilies.” They preferred instead such pieces as Three Hundred Thousand More, Marching Through Georgia, and The Year of Jubilee, which have been already mentioned, the equally favoured The Battle Cry of Freedom, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, and Just Before the Battle, Mother, of George Frederick Root, and Walter Kittredge’s Tenting on the Old Camp Ground. Now forgotten, but famous in its day, was William B. Bradbury’s Marching Along, most frequently sung by soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. The song perhaps most frequently heard from soldiers of both sides in the conflict was When This Cruel War Is Over by C. C. Sawyer. In the Northern version “blue” rhymes with “true”; with cheerful unconcern for the rhyme, the Southerners substituted “gray.” This song was sentimental, without poetic merit or rhythm, without even a trick of melody to recommend it, but it voiced the eager longing for peace and was heard in every camp many times every day. Other popular songs were the Song of the Soldiers by Halpine and

I’d rather be a soldier,
A tramping, camping soldier
by John Savage.

§ 15. Civil Matters; Peace.[edit]

All these are primarily concerned with the military side of the conflict. Civil matters, too, found poetic voices: Bret Harte’s The Copperhead and The Copperhead Convention, and Thomas Clarke’s Sir Copp, stinging denunciations; F. W. Lander’s Rhode Island to the South, full of prophetic challenge; Richard Realf’s To Triumphe, hopeful and resolute; W. A. Devon’s Give Me Your Hand, Johnny Bull, a friendly, earnest bid for British sympathy. Still more interesting are the numerous pieces that reveal the feelings of sorrowing men and women at home, and of soldiers sick for home. Specially memorable are Lucy Larcom’s Waiting for News, Kate Putnam Osgood’s extraordinarily pathetic Driving Home the Cows, C. D. Shanly’s The Brier Wood Pipe, Augusta Cooper Bristol’s Term of Service Ended, Read’s The Brave at Home, The Drummer Boy's Burial (anonymous), and William Winter’s After All. From civil life came the tender and moving note of reconciliation in Francis Miles Finch’s The Blue and the Gray, written in 1867 when the news came that the women of Columbus, Mississippi, had decorated the graves both of Northern and Southern soldiers.

§ 16. Lincoln.[edit]

To civil life, too, belongs the supreme poetry that the war called forth, associated, for the most part, with the name of Lincoln. Stoddard’s Abraham Lincoln, Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed (not to be mentioned with the popular but less valuable O Captain! My Captain!), and Lowell’s Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration. Whitman had written not a few vivid descriptions of war scenes, and he stands alone among all the poets of his time in his noble freedom from partisanship, but his chanting was never elsewhere so rapt or melodious. Lowell, a fiery partisan, had in his second series of Biglow Papers applied his satirical powers to every step of the conflict, and had at times risen to thrilling elevation, as in Mr. Hosea Biglow to the Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, but in his Ode he outstripped himself and brought American civic poetry to its highest point. An intensely pacific people had the happiness to have poets who sang peace better than they had sung war, when they had won, even at the price of war, a peace which left them purged of slavery and still a nation.

Much of this verse has naturally lost its appeal, but its national and historical significance cannot be overlooked. As Stedman afterwards wrote:

One who underrates the significance of our literature, prose or verse, as both the expression and the stimulant of national feeling, as of import in the past and to the future of America, and therefore of the world, is deficient in that critical insight which can judge even of its own day unwarped by personal taste or deference to public impression. He shuts his eyes to the fact that at times, notably throughout the years resulting in the Civil War, this literature has been a “force.”

Notes[edit]

  1. See also Book II, Chap. V.
  2. See also Book II, Chap. XII.
  3. See also Book III, Chap. X.
  4. See ibid.
  5. See Book II, Chap. XXIV.
  6. See also Book II, Chap. XIII.
  7. See also Book III, Chap. I.
  8. See also Book II, Chap. II.
  9. See also Book III, Chap. X.
  10. See also Book III, Chap. X.
  11. See also Book II, Chap. VII.
  12. See also Book II, Chap. XIX.
  13. See also Book III, Chap. XI.
  14. See also Book III, Chap. III.
  15. See also Book III, Chap. III.