I paid most attention to the first part of this, which details Whitman's tending to wounded and sick soldiers during the Civil War. (It also begins, sI paid most attention to the first part of this, which details Whitman's tending to wounded and sick soldiers during the Civil War. (It also begins, strangely, with a genealogy of Whitman's family.) His observations are filled with compassion and an almost spiritual sense of connection with the men he visited, some of whom survived, many who did not. Not that he romanticizes the war or being a soldier - one of his first descriptions before even entering a hospital is seeing a pile of amputated feet, hands, arms, and legs.
The second half, which I more or less skimmed, recounts his meditations from 1875-76 while living in the woods of Camden, NJ after suffering a paralyzing stroke (he calls himself a "half-paralytic"). Most of these are beautiful, often poetic descriptions of his natural surroundings. He does not comment much on his condition. While interesting, this part was not as gripping as the first, and for the sake of time (read this for exams), I had to move on to another work....more
Melville, mostly known for novels such as Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Pierre, and The Confidence-Man, and his short fiction, such as Bartleby the ScrivenerMelville, mostly known for novels such as Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Pierre, and The Confidence-Man, and his short fiction, such as Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno, also wrote a fair amount of poetry, and devoted most of his later years, from the 1860s until his death in 1891, exclusively to verse. This collection, originally published to little critical fanfare in 1866, depicts often quite vivid scenes from the Civil War, meditating on many of the major battles and figures, while at the same time transcending pure historical narrative (though a few of the poems are quite long) with the metaphorical and metaphysical flourishes Melville was so found of.
While Melville clearly writes from a "Yankee" point of view, casting the war in terms of good vs. evil (the South's rebellion akin to Satan's uprising in Paradise Lost--with the enemy as perhaps noble and yet wrong and evil), he also takes pains neither to celebrate the war itself, nor the North's victory. He also often writes of respect for Southern soldiers, whose sacrifice and devotion should be admired even if they do it for a wrong cause, as long as they act honorably. (He takes the necessity of this up in the prose "Supplement" that follows the poems as well.) In fact, a number of pieces take on Confederate perspectives, and the second to last poem is "Lee in the Capitol," based on Lee asserting to Congress the dignity of the South, saying that although they admit defeat and will not allow any further insurrection, at the same time they will not grovel before the North, nor should the North rub their noses in the loss with too harsh punishments.
You won't find stern denouncements of slavery in these poems, even though they begin with "The Portent," which is about the hanging of John Brown. In fact, slavery and black people appear very little in the poems, although Melville touches on them more in the "Supplement." Melville's main focuses are on death and the horrors of war, for both sides, and the transgression of the South more as a kind of treason and lawlessness that has both literal and metaphysical dimensions.
Some of the most interesting moments depart from the more literal historical observations, and the more pathos-endowed passages. For example, in "Magnanimity Baffled," following the war, one soldier offers his hand in friendship to a soldier from the opposite side. Persistent after several attempts are met with silence, the soldier grabs the other's hand only to discover that his would-be friend is dead. This is a particular poignant moment, and while Melville often hints at the commonalities between North and South, with little scenes of kindness between them (as when Confederates help care for Union wounded during a harsh winter hard on both sides), he shows with "Magnanimity Baffled" that he was aware of how it would take more than overtones of good-will to deal with the aftermath of the war.
The most striking images, for me, were where the poems take an unexpected turn--panning out from simply observing the soldiers or looking through their perspectives, to wider views through women and civilians, animals, or nature, as when he closes "Malvern Hill" through the trees' refusal to either deny or be thwarted by battle: "We elms of Malvern Hill / Remember every thing; But sap the twig will fill: / Wag the world how it will, / Leaves must be green in Spring."
Cohen's 1963 edition--perhaps the first republished version of the book--includes a helpful (if probably somewhat outdated by 2016) introduction, extensive notes giving the historical background on many of the poems and their sources, and explaining some of the archaic references. as well as a number of sketches of the war by artists Alfred and William Waud, who followed Union soldiers and witnessed the scenes they drew first-hand. (These were not included in Melville's edition.) There are more drawings in the Notes section by other artists, some of which may have served as sources or inspiration for the poems.
Although this is an older edition that may be hard to find now (a friend happened to pick this up for me during a used book sale at my school), if you stumble across it, it's certainly worth a look....more