A CRITICAL journal of authority has pronounced the literary result of our Civil War unimportant and disappoint ing. And Mr. Stedman, in his very thorough review of American poetry, says : “ The late Civil War was not of itself an incentive to good poetry and art, nor directly productive of them. Such disorders seldom are ; action is a substitute for the ideal, and the thinker’s or dreamer’s life seems ignoble and repugnant.” This same thought, of the superiority of life to art, of the deed to the word which records it, in every period of intense historical activity, — in what Matthew Arnold has called an age of concentration as distinguished from an age of expansion, — has been always entertained by the thinker and the artist. “ The end of man,” says Carlyle, “ is an action, not a thought.”
But I could not both live and utter it,”
is Thoreau’s complaint. And Lowell begins his Commemoration Ode with a like confession : —
Nor aims at that clear-ethered height
Whither the brave deed climbs for light. 舡
As a poet just beginning to win the ear of the public when the war broke out, Mr. Stedman himself has felt the disturbing effect of which he speaks : “ The Civil War was a general absorbent at the crisis when a second group of poets began to form. Their generation pledged itself to the most heroic struggle of the century. The conflict not only checked the rise of a new school, but was followed by a time of languor in which the songs of Apollo seemed trivial to those who had listened to the shout of Mars.”
I once expressed my surprise to the veteran poet, Mr. R. H. Stoddard, at the slight impression made upon the general public by Mrs. Stoddard’s novel, The Morgesons, published in 1862. One seldom reads a novel twice. The Morgesons is not an easily forgettable book, yet I had read it at least four times and at intervals of years. But I had found few readers who knew it. Mr. Stoddard explained the fact by the date of its publication. The war monopolized attention so entirely that no mere fiction had a chance. The newspapers were more exciting than any romance. The Morgesons, after being out of print for years, was reissued in 1888, in a popular edition, and again this year. It has been publicly praised of late by Mr. Stedman as well as by Julian Hawthorne; but it has never recovered from the unfavorable circumstances of its first publication, nor overtaken that belated recognition which it missed a quarter century before. It finds a new school of fiction in possession of the field.
Indeed, in respect to fiction, the Civil War interposes a sort of crevasse between our earlier and our later literature. The spirit of the former age was lyrical, — dithyrambic almost, — and its expression was eloquence and poetry. The spirit of the present age is observant, social, dramatic, and its expression is the novel of real life, the short story, the dialect sketch. When Mr. James’s Passionate Pilgrim appeared, in 1870, in the Atlantic Monthly, the signal seemed to be given for a newer and finer art in American fiction. Here was a novel attitude toward life, cool, dispassionate, analytic, sensitive to the subtler shadings not only of character, but of manners and speech, and registering the most delicate impressions. A new style, too, studied in some points from Hawthorne’s, but less literary, more colloquial. The dialogue was not book talk, but the actual speech of men and women in society. No art can be more exquisite for its purposes than Hawthorne’s. But the persons of his romances are psychological constructions — types sometimes hardly removed from allegory — engaged in working out some problem of the conscience in an ideal world. His books are not novels in any proper sense.
As to the novels, properly so called, of ante-bellum days, how faulty they now appear in details, when put in comparison with the nicer workmanship of modern schools ! Uncle Tom’s Cabin, — how crude it is ! The Leather Stocking Tales, — how rough in parts, and in parts how stilted ! Judd’s Margaret, — how hopelessly imperfect as a work of art! Holmes’s Elsie Venner, — a delightful book, but quite impossible as a novel. Winthrop’s Cecil Dreeme, — poetic in conception, youthfully raw in execution. And yet all of these are works of undoubted talent.
The Civil War, in fact, wound up one literary era and set the seal to it. Our literature has since developed along different lines. It would be unphilosophical to consider the writings produced during the four years of actual fighting, or those that have since been produced relating to the war itself, apart from the work of the thirty years of agitation which led up to the open outbreak of hostilities between North and South. The first series of Biglow Papers, the speeches of Sumner and Phillips, belong as truly to the literature of the Civil War as do Barbara Frietchie and the Gettysburg address. And this is recognized by Mr. Stedman when, to the passage already quoted, he adds this saving clause : “ But we shall see that the moral and emotional conflicts preceding the war, and leading to it, were largely stimulating to poetic ardor ; they broke into expression, and buoyed with earnest and fervid sentiment our heroic verse.” And elsewhere, in writing of Whittier, he says: “ He was the singer of what was not an empty day, and of a section whose movement became that of a nation, and whose purpose in the end was grandly consummated. We already see, and the future will see it more clearly, that no party ever did a vaster work than his party ; that he, like Hampden and Milton, is a character not produced in common times; that no struggle was more momentous than that which produced our Civil War, no question ever affected the destinies of a great people more vitally than the antislavery issue as urged by its promoters. Neither Greece nor Rome, nor even England, the battleground of Anglo-Saxon liberty, has supplied a drama of more import than that in which the poets and other heroes of our Civil Reformation played their parts.”
If this be true, is it also likely to be true that such an occasion lacked its poet, — caret sacro vate ? Here was a conflict involving not merely material interests, but high questions of right and wrong, fought by an educated people, a nation of readers and speakers, among whom literary talent is not uncommon. Is it to be expected that such a war will be barren of literary fruit ? Or do we not instinctively listen, as the hosts draw near, for some echo of that
Of flutes and soft recorders ; such as raised
To height of noblest temper heroes old
Arming to battle ” ?
Instead of seeking a direct answer to the question, let us for a moment strike into “ the high priori road,” and inquire what additions to literature are to be reasonably anticipated from a civil war fought under modern conditions, and turning on such issues as negro slavery and the constitutional right of secession. Of war in general as literary material there is no need to speak. Fighting and love-making have furnished, between them, half the poetry of the world. Man is a fighting animal, and no arbitration treaties will ever eradicate the gaudium certaminis. It is the theme not only of the primitive epics, like the Iliad, the Nibelungenlied, the Chanson de Roland, but of the more modern and literary heroic poems which endeavor to reproduce the spirit of the ancient folk songs. It is the theme of the Æneid, the Orlando Furioso, the Gerusalemme Liberata, the Faerie Queene.
“ Fierce wars and faithful loves,” announces Spenser, following upon Virgil’s “ Anna virumque ” and Ariosto’s “ L’arme, gli amori.” Milton felt himself obliged to introduce a military element into his theological epic in battles between the hosts of Michael and Satan which do not altogether escape the grotesque. If Lowell’s saying is true, that the Odyssey is the only epic which is everywhere and always interesting, it is due to its exceptional character in this respect, and to the fact that the human mind does sometimes tire of fighting and desire something else. There is much killing in the Odyssey, but no pitched battle ; and there is a great deal more of sea wandering and of strange adventures among strange peoples, so that the poem is in effect, as has been said, a romance.
It is doubtful whether any modern war — any later than the crusades, for example — will lend itself to epic treatment. Certainly Tasso’s poem, which dealt with the capture of the holy city, was not quite a success, and Voltaire’s Henriade was a flat failure. Perhaps the epic, as. a literary species, is extinct, anyway, like the dodo and the mastodon. That legendary remoteness, that primitive and heroic state of manners, that anonymous character, that mixture of popular superstition, which distinguish the ancient epic and saga literature are no longer procurable. We know too much about modern wars. How can an epic be made out of a war in which we have the military history of every campaign and battle, —dispatches, bulletins, reports, statistics of killed, wounded, and captured, articles in the newspapers by special correspondents, strategical and tactical criticisms of operations by professional authorities ? A certain unfamiliarity is necessary for picturesque effect. The day is still distant when torpedo boats will seem to the poet as available properties as the galleys of Salamis, or bicycles and gun carriages as the chariots of Achilles and the car-borne heroes of Morven. I recall now a saying of one of my elders, when reading aloud from a newspaper report of one of the battles of our Civil War. He said it would be impossible for the future poet of the war to deal effectively with the names of our battlefields. “ What can he do with such names as Bull Run, Pig’s Point, Ball’s Bluff, Paddy’s Run, and the like ? ” Possibly the remark was trivial, possibly untrue. Thermopylae, after all, means nothing more than “ hot gates.” But the point illustrates the stubbornness of modern warfare as epic material.
If we may not expect, then, a great narrative poem founded on the events of the American war, may we not look with confidence for some historical novel, or a series of such, when time shall have given the required perspective, and the large, significant, dramatic aspects stand forth in outline, freed from prosaic circumstance ? The historical romance — an invention of Walter Scott — is perhaps the nearest modern equivalent of the ancient epic. The hand-to-hand combats of Homeric heroes, the encounters of mediaeval knights, are themes for the poet. The evolutions of modern armies find their more appropriate vehicle in prose. Macaulay pointed out the absurdity of most of the poems called forth by Marlborough’s victories, in which the English general was described in conventional epic language as overthrowing the enemy by the prowess of his single arm. And although he praised Addison for discarding this fiction in his Campaign, those who have read it know that Addison cannot be entirely acquitted of the same mistake. Thackeray had his laugh at Southey’s very uninspired verses on Waterloo ; and of the most famous passage in British poetry relating to that gigantic conflict, it is not the reflections of Childe Harold upon the battlefield itself, but the description of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball at Brussels, on the night before Quatre-Bras, that is famous. Indeed, the lyric rather than the epic mood would seem to be that in which the most successful war poetry of modern times has been conceived. Campbell’s Hohenlinden and Battle of the Baltic, Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, Browning’s Incident of the French Camp, and Thompson’s High Tide at Gettysburg do all, to be sure, tell a story ; but they are lyrical in form and spirit. While of narrative poems like Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, — in which the form of the popular minstrel ballad, partly lyric, partly epic, and partly even dramatic, is adopted, — it is to be observed that the kind of warfare which they describe is not modern, but ancient, Homeric in fact, the single combats of chieftains renowned for bodily strength and personal valor.
There are many spirited relations of battles, sieges, naval engagements, marches, and retreats, in historical fiction, such as Hugo’s Waterloo, Tolstoi’s Borodino and retreat from Moscow, and Zola’s Sedan ; while many pages in the historians, like Motley’s chapters on the siege of Antwerp and Froude’s on the defeat of the Armada, are as brilliant as anything in romance. On these frontiers history and fiction touch hands. The novelist has to get up his facts, the historian to exert his imagination ; and each must use his utmost art to paint a graphic scene. But in general I believe it to be true that battle descriptions are tedious. In reading Carlyle’s Frederick, it is gradually borne in upon one that war maps are a weariness to the flesh, and one battle is very like another. One of the most vivid impressions that I have received of Waterloo was derived from that old French novel, La Chartreuse de Parme. The author, De Stendhal (Henri Beyle), had the originality not to attempt a general view of the action. His hero, a young Italian noble, has run away from home, possessed with revolutionary enthusiasm and enamored of Napoleon’s glory. He arrives upon the field while the fight is going on, and hovers about the edge of it, trying to join some French regiment. At one time he comes within a few yards of Wellington and his staff. He never actually succeeds in getting into the battle, but his experiences and adventures upon the fringes of it convey an excellent notion of the vast confusion of the whole, together with near-at-hand glimpses of characteristic details : a wounded man dropping out and going to the rear ; an orderly with dispatches skirting the army of the allies ; a disemboweled horse in a furrow ; a peasant unconcernedly ploughing in the next field ; a squad of men on picket duty or waiting the signal to go in, and meanwhile— not being under fire — busy over a game of cards. It is a battle scene piecemeal and by sample. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage gives a remarkably realistic view of the circumstance as distinguished from the pride and pomp of glorious war, — our own war. It is the unheroic side of it, the side seen by the private soldier, very much disposed to grumble, and not seldom inclined to run away; unaware of the large movement of the battle, but intensely alive to the discomforts and risks of his own little corner of it. The narrative is as convincing as if it were the record of a personal experience, though the author was not born, I believe, until after the close of the Civil War.
It cannot be said that as yet the Scott or Tolstoi of the American Civil War has arrived. I have rummaged among shelves full of novels, more or less historical, dating from that period ; but, with here and there an exception like Major De Forest’s excellent Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, they are already obsolete. Has the reader of to-day ever chanced to hear of Bullet and Shell, for example ; or of George Ward Nichols’s story, entitled The Sanctuary ; or of Inside, a Chronicle of Secession, by W. P. Baker, a name not unknown to novelreaders ; 1 or of The Three Scouts, by J. T. Trowbridge, who is certainly not an obscure person ? Perhaps we are not yet far enough away from the war for the purposes of the historical novelist. He must wait till more atmosphere has accumulated between himself and his subject, and mellowed the sharp edges of fact ; till the disentangling process has gone farther, and the significant and dramatic features have been selected out by time. Already the process has begun. Certain leaders, turning points, battles, and localities, particular mottoes, sayings, catchwords, have impressed themselves upon the national memory. They have become salient, and the rest have receded into the background. Upon these points the imagination has fastened : tradition begins to crystallize about them ; in time they may grow almost legendary. Harper’s Ferry, the Shenandoah Valley, the prison pen at Andersonville, the death of Stonewall Jackson, Ellsworth, Winthrop, and Shaw, the battle of Gettysburg, the proclamation of emancipation, Sherman’s march to the sea, Sheridan at Winchester, the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac, the murder of Lincoln, — some quality of picturesqueness has attached itself to these, and to a number of other men, places, and incidents ; and it is such as these that will furnish material for the future poet or romancer.
In the recent revival of historical fiction the Civil War has had its share. The present year has witnessed three noteworthy additions to this department: Mr. Winston Churchill’s The Crisis, Mr. Owen Johnson’s Arrows of the Almighty, and Mr. George W. Cable’s The Cavalier. It is interesting to compare the first of these— the best selling novel of the season — with a book written so long ago as 1867. Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, whose author was an officer in the Union army, is an honest, solid, oldfashioned story ; a little encumbered in its movement, but veraciously reflecting the confusion and uncertainty of the time, and the clash of opposing principles and passions. Major De Forest was near to the events described, and was therefore under the necessity of being discreet. The time had not yet arrived for “ historical portraits.” General Butler looms dimly in the background. Some incidents of the Red River campaign are worked into the plot. The action oscillates between New Orleans and New Haven, but the latter place is thinly disguised under the pseudonym of New Boston, in the state of Barataria.
In The Crisis, on the other hand, the local color, which is laid on thick, is frankly of St. Louis. Full-length figures of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman occur, in accordance with the Waverley formula for the construction of historical romance ; and the censorious reader who knows the slang of the sixties can please himself with detecting anachronisms like “ nickel,” “ sand,” and “ What are you giving us ? ” These are trifles, but possibly the laudator temporis acti who declines to accept them will also refuse his assent to the saliences of Mr. Churchill’s Lincoln and Mr. Churchill’s Sherman.
To turn now from historical fiction to the distinct but kindred art of the historian, it is clearly too early for the final history of the war to be written, — that great Thucydidean work which we may with all confidence predict, at once an impartial narrative of events, a philosophical exposition of causes and results, and a piece of literary art. The generation that fought the war has not yet passed away, and every day it is recording its memories of the conflict. Beginnings have been made by writers like Greeley, Draper, Stephens, the Comte de Paris, and others, but their books are partial and premature, — little more than mémoires pour servir. Meanwhile material grows fast: in compilations like the eleven volumes of Frank Moore’s Rebellion Record ; in serials like the Century’s Battles and Leaders of the Civil War ; in countless regimental histories, military biographies, journals, letters, and reminiscences, by statesmen, ambassadors, generals, private soldiers, refugees, hospital nurses ; by Cabinet ministers, Federal and Confederate, who disclose the secret diplomacies and policies of innermost government circles ; by women who reveal the domestic economies of households in besieged cities and on impoverished plantations. 舠 The real war,” said Walt Whitman, “ will never get in the books.” He meant, of course, that no dignified, formal history, dealing with things in their ensemble, will ever give a notion of the details of private suffering, individual sacrifice, personal heroism, which are known only to eyewitnesses and participants. For perhaps the best way to study history is in the documents. Contemporary chroniclers, like Joinville, Villehardouin, and Froissart, have a secure advantage in point of vividness. But surely the American war is not unfurnished of such. And many of the actors in, many of the observers of it, were skillful writers, able to turn their impressions into literature. I may instance, in passing, such papers as Theodore Winthrop’s Washington as a Camp, Colonel Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, Dr. Holmes’s My Hunt after “ The Captain,” and Walt Whitman’s hurried but singularly picturesque jottings of camp and hospital life in Specimen Days and Democratic Vistas, particularly his description of the assassination of Lincoln.
As the war recedes farther into the past, we are enabled to see more clearly not only its political importance as a crisis in the history of popular government, but likewise its availability for poet, dramatist, and romancer. There were spectacular things in it, — the spectacle, for example, of the liberation of a race from bondage. A crusading spirit animated the Union armies.
Or read Whittier’s Laus Deo ! “ On
hearing the bells ring on the passage of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.”
God’s own voice is in that peal.
Lift the old exulting song ;
Sing with Miriam by the sea,
He has cast the mighty down ;
Horse and rider sink and drown ;
' He hath triumphed gloriously ! ’ ”
Again, what act upon the scene of history, what climax on the mimic stage, was ever more sublimely spectacular than the death of Lincoln ? “ Memora-
ble even beyond credit,” as Bacon said of the last fight of the Revenge, “ and to the height of some heroical fable.” Not Charles on the scaffold, not Bonaparte on his island, not Henry under the dagger of Ravaillac, enacted such a hightragedy end. Such a tragedy it was that not even its histrionic surroundings, nor the cheap melodramatic posturing of the vain mime who was the paltry occasion of it, had power to vulgarize its dignity. If a dramatic poet had composed the war, could he have imagined a more effective close than history did, when she set the seal of death on the work of her protagonist in his hour of triumph, and consecrated him forever with the halo of martyrdom ? It would be strange if the poets had missed this occasion, nor did they. Lowell, in his Commemoration Ode, has touched it nobly ; and Whitman, with a more intimate tenderness, in the only one of his poems which is really popular : —
Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths — for you the shores acrowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning ;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head !
It is some dream that on the deck
You ’ve fallen cold and dead.
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won ;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells !
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
But there is more to a war than fighting. In every great war certain leaders, civil and military, come forward on either side, certain imposing personalities, who embody and represent the ideals in conflict. Already these have emerged from the crowd, and our future poet or romancer will find them ready drawn to his hand. There is no need to attempt again the portrait of Lincoln. It has become a part of the national consciousness. But it is worth noticing that among the foremost contributors to the literature of the Civil War was the chief actor in it. The Gettysburg speech is now a classic, and is committed to memory by the children of our public schools. Hardly less classic are his numerous sayings, with their homely sagacity and their humor which endeared the President to a nation of humorists. Such phrases as “ government of the people, by the people, for the people,” are not more familiar than the caution not to swap horses while crossing a stream; or the maxim, “ You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time; ” and many others than which Bacon said nothing wiser and Sydney Smith nothing wittier. Even the rougher and more broadly comic facetiae of the war time — the fooleries of Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby, and Orpheus C. Kerr — are not without an historic value. We cannot quite consent to Matthew Arnold’s dictum that our humorists are a national calamity.
And this reminds me that the same fastidious critic, after reading Grant’s memoirs, found him lacking in distinction. Colonel Higginson says that Matthew Arnold never understood the Americans. Grant was unquestionably the second great personality on the Northern side developed by the Civil War ; and his book, the record of this personality, is one of its greatest literary monuments. Does it, or did the character of its author, lack distinction ? It is easy to see what the English scholar meant by his charge. But it is wrong to weigh such a work in mere aesthetic balances. More exclusively than Lincoln, Grant was the man of action, of executive genius. His fibre was less fine, his nature less various, and he had not in equal degree the gift of expression. To a man of scholarly pursuits, there might well seem a certain commonness about his tastes, his intellectual habits, his companionships. Yet in many ways it seems to me that Grant’s mind and character were of high distinction. The simplicity, the modesty, that were among his prominent traits are reflected in his book, and they always tend to make good writing. And whatever his want of aesthetic sensitiveness may have been, there was a moral delicacy which well supplied its place. One remembers the current anecdote concerning the officer who was about to tell a risky story because, as he said, there were no ladies present; and was stopped by the general’s quiet rebuke, “ But there are several gentlemen present.” As a mere writer he was far superior to Cromwell, with whom as a military leader he had some traits in common, such as tenacity, confidence and the power to inspire it in others, and a genius for wide combinations. Cromwell’s letters and speeches are confused almost to the point of being inarticulate ; and in spite of that powerful religious emotion which lifted his utterances high above commonness or middle-class Philistinism, his constant use of the Puritan verbiage leaves upon the modern reader a disagreeable impression of unctuousness. It is in better taste to do God’s will without an incessant reference in words of one’s every action to God.
Upon the Confederate side, the most striking personalities were, perhaps, Stonewall Jackson, a Southern Puritan, and Lee, who embodied very nobly the Virginian ideal, — the Cavalier tradition, — and who inherited those social graces denied to men of the people, like Lincoln and Grant, but which were naturally included in Mr. Arnold’s definition of “ distinction.” The President of the Confederacy, on the other hand, is not a sympathetic figure in the picture of the war. Mr. Davis was an upright and able man, but there was something rigid, narrow, and bitter about him. If the Confederacy had succeeded, he never could have become as dear to his people as Lincoln would have been to the North even in defeat.
Let us now put ourselves the question whether there was anything about the American conflict which would recommend it especially for poetic or literary handling. Not all wars are poetic. Apart from the pomp, pride, and circumstance which are the commonplaces of military life, apart from the dangers and chances of battle, and the opportunities for the display of individual daring and devotion, war is not always heroic. Wars of conquest or selfish aggression, like Frederick the Great’s and Napoleon’s; diplomatists’ wars, which are made by governments, and not by peoples; even popular wars, in which old national enmities and the mere brute fighting instincts are unchained, — like the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and the last French and German war, — these may be imposing by the scale of their operations or the generalship shown, but they have no message for the soul. They produce no precious and lasting literature. Surely pieces like Addison’s Campaign and Prior’s Ode on the Taking of Namur were a very paltry result of Marlborough’s brilliant victories. Southey’s little poem, The Battle of Blenheim, exposed the nothingness of it all.
but it meant nothing, it settled nothing. All Alexander’s conquests left no such mark on literature as the defensive stand of the Greeks at Thermopylæ and Marathon. The English invasions of France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are not responsible for much poetry. Shakespeare’s Henry V. and Drayton’s spirited ode on the battle of Agincourt are the best that the English have to show for that business. On the other hand, consider how the one heroic figure of those wars, the Maid of Orleans, whom the old chronicle play of Henry VI. treats with such coarse brutality, — consider how Joan of Arc has inspired, and is to-day inspiring, the poet, the painter, the sculptor, the romancer, the historian. I never could believe that Shakespeare wrote Henry VI., not only for other and critical reasons, but because, in spite of national prejudice, he never could have so missed a great dramatic opportunity.
Truly patriotic wars, wars for freedom, for national defense, such as was that war of the French against the foreign invader; such as was the Greek resistance to Persia; such as was the German war of liberation in which Theodore Körner fought and sung; such as were the wars of Wallace and the Bruce ; such as was our own Revolution and the wars
of the French Republic in its early days, when it stood on the defensive, and faced and beat Europe, — these are the stuff of which literature is made.
I have said that not all wars are poetic. Milton, who, like Heine, was a valiant soldier in the war for liberation, acknowledged this in his most martial sonnets.
he asks, and savs again, “ Peace hath her victories.” But Tennyson, in disgust at the frauds and corruptions of a stagnant peace, would fain persuade us that bloodletting is in itself a purge for the diseases of a selfish, commercial society : —
War with a thousand battles, and shaking a hundred thrones!
And the rushing battle-bolt sang from the three-decker out of the foam,
That the smooth - faced snub - nosed rogue would leap from his counter and till,
And strike, if he could, were it but with his cheating yardwand, home.”
And so he sends his young man in Maud off to the Crimea. Truly the charge at Balaklava was magnifique even though it was not la guerre ; but what inspiration could the poet find in such a cause ? The Crimean war was not a crusade, a holy war ; it was a most unholy war, a mistake, a mere struggle of material interests and political ambitions, — what I have called a diplomatists’ war.
Next to patriotic wars, wars for national independence or existence, those most fruitful in literature have been, in the wide sense of the word, Culturkämpfe: contests of religion or of opposed principles and ideas, such as the crusades, the long struggle between the Christians and Moors in Spain, the wars of the Protestant Reformation all over Europe, the conflict of democracy with feudalism which centred in the French Revolution. And this is also true — is especially true — of civil wars. We find a striking example of it in comparing tlie two great civil wars of English history: the York and Lancastrian feud of the fifteenth century, and the Great Rebellion — as Clarendon calls it — of the seventeenth. I call the former a feud, because it was, in fact, nothing but a gigantic family vendetta, a dynastic quarrel, in which no principle was at stake, and which involved, like all vendettas or domestic feuds, horrible treacheries and cruelties: stranglings in prison, murders of captives, wholesale proscriptions and forfeitures. The nobility was decimated, but the people cared nothing about the cause of the strife. “ A plague of both your houses ” doubtless expresses the popular attitude. What has all this contributed to literature ? Practically a single figure, Shakespeare’s Richard III., — a dramatic creation rather than an historical verity, embodying in himself the craft and bloodthirstiness of a whole epoch of turbulent, meaningless confusion. Does any one ever read Daniel’s long poem, The Civil Wars ? Or Bosworth Field, by Sir John Beaumont, a cousin of the dramatist ? Wordsworth, indeed, borrowed a line from Beaumont in his Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle, though it was to celebrate, not the martial exploits of the Cliffords, but the peaceful virtues of that “ good Lord Clifford ” who had been reared as a shepherd, and in whom, under the softening influences of nature,
Revenge, and all ferocious thoughts, were dead.
His daily teachers had been woods and rills,
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.”
No, the wars of York and Lancaster have no moral interest for us to-day : they are “ full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But because, by a lucky chance, the white and the red rose became the insignia of the hostile houses, some poetry has, in later times, attached itself, not to the dark struggle, but to its floral symbols ; and we have, for example, such a “ lily in the mouth of Tartarus ” as those famous stanzas on The White Rose sent by a Yorkist Lover to his Lancastrian Mistress.
Placed in thy bosom bare,
’T will blush to find itself less white
And turn Lancastrian there.”
This is pretty, but ce n’estpas la guerre. Colonel Deming, of the 12th Connecticut, who was military mayor of New Orleans under General Butler, used to deliver a lecture on The Passage of the Forts. His regiment went up the river on the transports which followed in Farragut’s wake, and was quartered for a few days in Fort Phillips. The fort had been knocked to pieces by Porter’s shells. In a fragment of one of these, which had partly buried itself in the earthworks, a wild pigeon had made its nest; and Colonel Deming suggested the incident to our Hartford poetess, Mrs. Sigourney, as a good subject for a poem. Mrs. Sigourney might have done something with it; or so might Longfellow, who was not above dealing with the rather obviously emblematic. But this is not what I mean by the poetry of war.
Take, now, by way of contrast to the Wars of the Roses, the English civil war of the seventeenth century, and think of what it has given and is still giving to literature : half of the Waverley Novels, with the songs of the Cavaliers — Lovelace, Suckling, Montrose — and of modern poets who have continued the vein, — Burns, Aytoun, Browning. This on the side of Church and King ; and on the Parliament side Milton, — a literature in himself, — to say nothing of Puritan poets such as Marvell and Wither, books like Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs of her husband, and modern things like Victor Hugo’s Cromwell. Why are these wars so perennially interesting to the human mind ? Not merely because of the political importance of the constitutional questions at issue between the Stuarts and their Parliaments. Poetry does not easily attach itself to questions of prerogative and privilege, to petitions of right, exclusion bills, and acts of uniformity. It is because this was not a mere struggle of factions, but a war of conscience, which aroused all that is deepest in man’s nature. It was the shock of opposed ideals, — ideals not only in government and religion, but in character, temperament, taste, social habit, and the conduct of life.
Dumb are those names erewhile in battle loud.”
Yes, dumb are the names, but the things subsist. There are Roundheads and Cavaliers to-day: there is room for them both in our now tolerant society, which allows a man to pursue his ideals in peace, but forbids him to impose them forcibly upon his neighbor.
Now apply these tests to our own Civil War. Was it, as Carlyle said, nothing but “ the burning of a dirty chimney,” or was it, as Carlyle came later to acknowledge, a crisis in the eternal warfare of right with wrong, of civilization with barbarism ? On each side was the grandeur of high convictions, and that emotional stress which finds its natural utterance in eloquence and song. To the South it appeared as a war of national defense, — a war in resentment of interference with local rights and social conditions. And this was the constant cry of the Southern writers during the war : “ Repel the invader. Clear the sacred soil of him. Let the North take its hands off us. Let it mind its own business.” On the Northern side the patriotic motive was the preservation of the Union ; and here the great speeches of Webster, the Reply to Hayne and the Seventh of March Speech, memorized and declaimed by thousands of schoolboys throughout the North, became influential against secession, and belong properly to the literature of the war.
But what supplied the fire to the Northern cause was the moral enthusiasm of the anti-slavery reformers. This underlay the constitutional question, just as the religious issue in the Cromwellian wars underlay the political issue. In each case the political issue was really subordinate. Charles would not have broken with Parliament if Laud had not tried to prelatize the Church and met resistance. South Carolina would not have seceded if she had not thought that slavery was threatened. In his addresses at Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Mr. Beecher was always trying to convince the British public that the war for the Union was, at bottom, a war for the abolition of slavery ; and he was right. Hence the solemn fervor, the religious zeal, the moral indignation, of our war poets and war orators ; their appeal to God, their Biblical speech, their Hebrew spirit. Whittier’s Voices of Freedom and poems In War Time are like the sound of the trumpet blown before the walls of Jericho, or the words of the prophets denouncing woe upon Amalek. Here are the Roundheads again, then, under new conditions ; here is the old Miltonic, the old Puritan strain once more. Once more here is the “ good, old cause,” and the sword of the Lord and of Gideon, and we seem to hear Cromwell exclaiming, as the fog rose on the “ armed mountains of Dunbar,” “ Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered ; like as the sun riseth, so shalt thou drive them away ! ” This Hebraic temper and this Scriptural phrase are a constant note in the war poetry of the North.
opens Mrs. Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, set to the Hallelujah chorus of the John Brown marching song. My fellow townsman, Henry Howard Brownell, who was private secretary to Commodore Farragut, on whose flagship, the Hartford, he was present during several great naval engagements, — Henry Brownell, I say, was by no means a Puritanical nor a theologically given person. He was, on the contrary, an easy-going gentleman, of liberal opinions and social, not unconvivial habits. But in his War Lyrics, when the old Free-Soil rage came upon him, he could be as apocalyptic in manner as Garrison or Whittier : —
That melt the ore of mortal kind ;
The mills of God are grinding slow,
But ah, how close they grind !
To-day the Dahlgren and the drum
Are dread apostles of his name ;
His kingdom here can only come
By chrism of blood and flame.”
And it is curious to see how this same exalted utterance, this same Biblical language, is caught by a Southern poet, when he confesses that the future belongs to the North, and that the Northern sword was the sword of the Lord and of Gideon. I allude to the Confederate soldier Will Thompson’s High Tide at Gettysburg, one of the best poems of the war: “ God lives ! He forged the iron will That clutched and held that trembling hill.”
In general, it is not unfair to say that the South was as badly overmatched at the lyre as at the sword. Timrod and Hayne may perhaps offset such poets as Brownell and Forceythe Willson and the author of The Blue and the Gray, but they are no names to put against Whittier and Lowell. Certain passages in Lowell’s Commemoration Ode are thus far the high-water mark of our war poetry, — the third strophe, “Many loved Truth,” etc., the close of the eighth strophe, and the passionate exordium : —
Smoothing thy gold of war-dishevelled hair
O’er such sweet brows as never other wore,
And letting thy set lips,
Freed from wrath’s pale eclipse,
The rosy edges of their smile lay bare,
What words divine of lover or of poet
Could tell our love and make thee know it,
Among the Nations bright beyond compare ?
What were our lives without thee ?
What all our lives to save thee ?
We reck not what we gave thee ;
We will not dare to doubt thee,
But ask whatever else, and we will dare ! ”
“A great literature,” says Walt Whitman, “ will yet arise out of the era of those four years, those scenes — eracompressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and death — an inexhaustible, mine for the histories, drama, romance, and even philosophy of peoples to come ; indeed, the vertebra of poetry and art (of personal character too) for all future America, far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s Siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakespeare.”
Henry A. Beers.
- See The New Timothy, His Majesty Myself, etc.↩