The wild tide of battle runs red, - dashes high, And blots out the splendour of earth and of sky; The blue air is heavy, and sul'phrous, and dun, And the breeze on its wings bears the boom of the gun. In faster and fiercer and deadlier shocks, The thunderous billows are hurled on the rocks; And our Valley becomes, amid Spring's softest breath, The valley, alas! of the shadow of death.
The background of Beechenbrook is even more fascinating than the work itself. The author, Margaret Junkin Preston, seemingly little-known now but highly regarded in her day, is an historical and literary figure who has intrigued me ever since I first read about her some years ago. She was the sister-in-law of Stonewall Jackson through his first wife, her sister Elinor Junkin. In 1857 Margaret married Major John T.L. Preston, one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute and a widower with seven children. She eventually had two children of her own. She witnessed the devastation of the Civil War firsthand, enduring the hardships of home-front life, the invasion of Virginia and the loss of two young stepsons. Although these experiences undoubtedly inspired the trials of the representative Southern family in her poem Beechenbrook, the woman who became known as the "Poetess of the Confederacy" suffered personal ambivalence and conflict before coming to fully identify with the Confederate cause. A native of Pennsylvania, she had family on the Northern side of the struggle as well.
Now, I'm no poetry critic. To me, there are two kinds of poetry: the kind that rhymes and the kind that doesn't. I like the kind that rhymes. I can't intelligently critique Beechenbrook in terms of poetry, but I can say that I enjoyed Preston's style. The language is direct, clear and sometimes surprisingly (for lack of a better word) modern, in contrast to the involved and flowery style one expects from Victorian-era literature. I was particularly impressed by how Preston used descriptions of the changing seasons and weather to highlight events in the narrative, by drawing either parallels or sharp contrasts.
The poem is the story of soldier's wife Alice Dunbar and her family as they experience the war from their Shenandoah Valley home—witnessing battles from afar, exchanging letters with an absent husband and father, caring for wounded soldiers and seeing the destruction of their home. Although the descriptions of impassioned patriotism and nobility may seem extravagant now, the emotion that inspired them is real and palpable; the most poignant moments all ring true. It would be very hard not to feel moved by the time one reaches the end of the book.
The story is also imbued with a strong Christian faith, increasingly emphasized as the one thing that sustains Alice throughout her trials. One particularly compelling scene portrays a service conducted by an army chaplain who exhorts his men to regard the spiritual battle as even more important than the physical.(less)