Reviews and Literary Notices
A review by William Dean Howells of Herman Melville's "Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War"
Mr. Melville's work possesses the negative virtues of originality in such degree that it not only reminds you of no poetry you have read, but of no life you have known. Is it possible—you ask yourself, after running over all these celebrative, inscriptive, and memorial verses—that there has really been a great war, with battles fought by men and bewailed by women? Or is it only that Mr. Melville's inner consciousness has been perturbed, and filled with the phantasms of enlistments, marches, fights in the air, parenthetic bulletin-boards, and tortured humanity shedding, not words and blood, but words alone?
Mr. Melville chooses you a simple and touching theme, like that of the young officer going from his bride to hunt Mosby in the forest, and being brought back to her with a guerilla's bullet in his heart,—a theme warm with human interests of love, war, and grief, and picturesque with greenwood lights and shadows,—and straight enchants it into a mystery of thirty - eight stanzas, each of which diligently repeats the name of Mosby, and deepens the spell, until you are lost to every sense of time or place, and become as callous at the end as the poet must have been at the beginning to all feeling involved, doubting that
"The living and the dead are but as pictures."
Here lies the fault. Mr. Melville's skill is so great that we fear he has not often felt the things of which he writes, since with all his skill he fails to move us. In some respects we find his poems admirable. He treats events as realistically as one can to whom they seem to have presented themselves as dreams; but at last they remain vagaries, and are none the more substantial because they have a modern speech and motion. We believe ghosts are not a whit more tangible now that they submit to be photographed in the sack-coats and hoop-skirts of this life, than before they left off winding-sheets, and disappeared if you spoke to them.
With certain moods or abstractions of the common mind during the war, Mr. Melville's faculty is well fitted to deal: the unrest, the strangeness and solitude, to which the first sense of the great danger reduced all souls, are reflected in his verse, and whatever purely mystic aspect occurrences had seems to have been felt by this poet, so little capable of giving their positive likeness.
The sentiment and character of the book are perhaps as well shown in its first poem as in any other part of it. Mr. Melville calls the verses "The Portent (1859) " ; but we imagine he sees the portent, as most portents are seen, after the event portended.
"Hanging from the beam.
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
"Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war."
There is not much of John Brown in this, but, as we intimated, a good deal of Mr. Melville's method, and some fine touches of picturesque poetry. Indeed, the book is full of pictures of many kinds,—often good,—though all with an heroic quality of remoteness, separating our weak human feelings from them by trackless distances. Take this of the death of General Lyon's horse a few moments before he was himself struck at Springfield,—a bit as far off from us as any of Ossian's, but undeniably noble :—
"There came a sound like the slitting of air By a swift sharp sword— A rush of the sound; and the sleek chest broad Of black Orion Heaved, and was fixed; the dead mane waved toward Lyon."
We have never seen anywhere so true and beautiful a picture as the following of that sublime and thrilling sight,—a great body of soldiers marching :—
"The bladed guns are gleaming—
Drift in lengthened trim,
Files on files for hazy miles
A tender and subtile music is felt in many of the verses, and the eccentric metres are gracefully managed. We received from the following lines a pleasure which may perhaps fail to reach the reader, taking them from their context in the description of a hunt fir guerillas, in the ballad already mentioned :—
"The morning-bugles lonely play,
Lonely the evening-bugle calls—
Unanswered voices in the wild;
The settled hush of birds in nest
Becharms, and all the wood enthralls:
Memory's self is so beguiled
That Mosby seems a satyr's child."
He does so; and the other persons in Mr. Melville's poetry seem as widely removed as he from our actual life. If all the Rebels were as pleasingly impalpable as those the poet portrays, we could forgive them without a pang, and admit them to Congress without a test-oath of any kind.