Who doesn’t now read the papers
More than ever he read before;
Eagerly watching the symptoms
Of our great political sore?
Some only to croak and grumble,
To sleep and loaf and chew,
Doing nothing to ease the smarting;
I wouldn’t do that — would you?
Harper’s Weekly’s. 23 August 1862
The Finished Faces
by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
My Triumph lasted till the Drums
Had left the Dead alone
And then I dropped my Victory
And chastened stole along
To where the finished Faces
Conclusion turned on me
And then I hated Glory
And wished myself were They.
What is to be is best descried
When it has also been —
Could Prospect taste of Retrospect
The tyrannies of Men
Were Tenderer — diviner
The Transitive toward.
A Bayonet’s contrition
Is nothing to the Dead.
It is not that poetry was not part of the Civil War experience. Poetry was widely published in weekly journals that were relied upon by millions for their news, but the poetry of this period feels stiff and formal in most instances to our ears today. Although we can look back at Emily Dickinson’s verse written during this period and hear something fresher, remember her words are out of place for those living in that period, as her poetry was not widely published until the mid 20th Century. Walt Whitman, who was deeply impacted emotionally by the war, was the one poet pushing the boundaries of how poetry could be both a shared confession and healing counsel during the war, while not confining himself to the conventions of rhyme and meter that served no purpose.
The poetry during the Civil War that was widely distributed on both sides, tried to lend some air of dignity to the carnage, tried to give the impossible losses some measure of honor, tried to inspire and console. Of course those words now feel inadequate mostly because they fail to convey the scope of the horror. The Civil War is a long drawn out story of loss; loss of life, loss of family, loss of home, loss of dignity, loss of capitol, loss of country, loss of ideals, loss of civility, loss of freedom. That we try even now to write about it in terms that paint the opposite, is why in part very little of the literature of the day feels relevant.
Many of the best poets of this period felt the conflict was beyond their ability to put in words. Keat’s is quoted as saying; “A fact is not a truth until you love it.” And if history is a series of “facts”, it is impossible in my opinion to love the Civil War. So how then does anyone write the history of that period or write the poetry of that period? Rhyming poetry by its nature generally can come across as sentimental, and sentiments of war are so visceral that poets not part of that experience generally fail to strike the proper notes in rhyme.
I can respect the sacrifice of the Civil War, I am grateful for the outcome, as the alternative is too horrible to contemplate, but I don’t have to love the culture of war and the culture of violence and guns that our founding fathers have passed down to us generation after generation, war after war. Memorial Day began as a Civil War holiday. Veteran’s day began as memorial to the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” But neither have remain tethered to their original purpose, as time marches on and there is always another war in our past and in our future that requires respect of the sacrifices made and inclusion in the bank holidays our managers bequeath. But it begs the question; for whom were those sacrifices made? The cloak of patriotism that politicians hide behind to foster their own agendas on both sides of the isle keep the industrial war complex on full tilt has motives far from the patriots that die in those wars. Just look at the infrastructure bill that was just passed, it includes plenty of money going to keep the coffers of new and better ways to wage war and make the men and women behind those schemes wealthy. When are we going to invest our human capitol in innovating peace at the same or greater rate of interest than we pay so dearly for innovating war?
The News of A Day
by Sarah T. Bolton (1814 – 1893)
She read the names of the missing and slain;
But one she read over and over again.
“Great battle! Great battle!” the news-boy cried,
But it scarcely rippled the living tide
That ebbed and flowed in the noisy street,
With its throbbing heart and busy feet,
Again through the hum of the city thrilled,
“Great battle! Great battle! Ten thousand killed!”
And the little carrier hurried away
With the sorrowful news of that summer day.
To a dreary room in an attic high
Trembled the words of that small, sharp cry;
And a lonely widow bowed her head,
And murmured, “Willie, my Willie, is dead.
O I feared it was not an idle dream
That led me last night to that dark, deep stream,
Where the ground was wet with a crimson rain,
And strewn all over with ghastly slain.
She read the names of the missing and slain;
But one she read over and over again;
And the sad, low words that her white lips said,
Were ‘Company C, William Warren dead.’
The world toiled on through the busy street,
With its aching heart and unresisting feet;
The night came down to her cold hearth-stone,
And still the words that her white lips said,
Were, ‘Company C, William Warren dead.’
The light of the morning chased the gloom
From the emberless hearth of that attic room,
And the city’s pulse throbbed again,
But the mother’s heart had forgotten its pain.
She had gone through the gates to the better land,
With that terrible list in her pale, cold hand,
With her white lips parted, as at last she said,
‘Company C, William Warren dead.’