Category Archives: Literary Criticism

The Literary Significance of American Civil War Poetry

The charge of the Irish Brigade, Fredericksburg

Note: I do not include my works cited page to impede plagiarism. Please inquire via email or the comments section for a detailed citation.

Image result for medieval The poetry of the American Civil War has long vexed and disappointed critical readers.The poetry of the period is often read as politically propagandist, or as Civil War poet Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt remarked on hearing the First Battle of Bull Run in her 1861 poem “Hearing the Battle,” as “fiery words of war” (Piatt 332). Given the Civil War’s persistence in the American national consciousness as debates over the causes and nature of the war continue, it is perhaps not surprising that the poetry of the period has traditionally been read as secondary or merely reflective of the climactic events that surrounded it. Yet, in the subjugation of the literary nature of American Civil War poetry to history has arisen the long-standing understanding that the poetry of the era is insufficient. In this post I want to delineate some of the work that I’ve been doing in highlighting the way American Civil War poet’s understood history not as a tool for political propagandism, but instead as a romantic, literary way to render their poetic projects in time. Specifically, Civil War poets consistently invoke Emersonian and Melvillian notions of ubiquity (that is, always existing) and poetic immortality (“ubiquity in time” as Melville calls it, or something that begins at a finite point and then endures forever) to understand their historical moment and their literary projects’ relationship to it.  

Let us first establish this notion found in the critical literature that Civil War poetry is historically subjugated and lacking in literary genius, influence, or innovation. Writing in 1962, critic Edmund Wilson remarked in his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War that Civil War poetry was, “versified journalism” (Wilson 479). For Wilson, the pain and violence in Civil War poetry served a fundamentally political purpose tied fatally to its historical moment. Both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, poets in his metaphor were mere reporters –removing fundamentally the poetic and literary nature of the writing of the period. Wilson’s derision is far from singular. Daniel Aaron, writing a decade later, suggested much the same, remarking that the poetry of the civil war revealed, “Nothing about the meaning of the war” and was “pure propaganda” (Aaron xxii). Even in the immediate aftermath of the war, high literary minds castigated the poetry of the period. William Dean Howells, a notable realist author, remarked in 1867 that, “Our war has not only left us a burden of a tremendous national debt, but has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely” (as cited in Aaron xix). Howell’s charge is subtly and importantly different from the 20th century critics cited above. For Howell, the failure of Civil War poetry was its failure to rise to the historical “charge” levied on his generation of authors, not that it was tied to history in the first place. As a foundational realist and author of canonical realist texts such as A Traveller from Altruria, Howell’s displeasure with American Civil War poetry is fundamentally a literary one. It was how Civil War poets interacted with their historical moment that made it insufficient for Howell, and this is a distinction worth considering further.

Howell’s displeasure with American Civil War poetry reflects an emergent historicist critique of the above cited critical notion of Civil War poetry’s insufficiency via its subjugation to history. In the preface to the 2005 anthology ‘Words for the Hour:’ A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry, critic Faith Barrett suggests that the distinction between history and literature that developed in the wake of New Criticism is anachronistically applied to 19th century literature. Barrett writes, “A nineteenth century reader would not have considered a politically engaged stance to be an artistic liability; indeed, both during and after the Civil War, poetry was seen as playing a central role in defining new versions of American identity” (Barrett 3). This notion is buttressed by the above quoted section from Howell; the collision of history and poetry was not the problem, it was the insufficiency of the Civil War poet’s response to history that rendered the poetry of the era inadequate. Yet Barrett does not include in her schema the notion that 19th century authors had profoundly different understandings on the relationship between history and poetry that could produce ultimately divergent notions of American identity. While literary movements are rightly rendered as retrospective by critics, it is in these disagreements where we find the substantiation for those literary movements. Howell’s realist project was one that was in opposition not only to Civil War poetry but also specifically to Civil War poet’s relationship with their historical “charge.” This is rooted, as I will argue, in the deeply romantic nature of Civil War poet’s understanding of their historical moment. In Howell’s disdain for Civil War poet’s rendering of history lies one key fissure between Romanticism and emergent Realism – a division many critics argue that the Civil War catalyzed. 


Emerson and Melville

The aspect of this division I will highlight is the Civil War poet’s use of romantic notions of ubiquity and immortality rooted in Emerson and found also in Melville’s canonical Moby-Dick. As the great American thinker of the first half of the 19th century, Emerson’s influence on American literatures of the mid to late 19th century is undeniable. It was Emerson who was read at the dedication of the Washington Monument, and Emerson who cast a shadow of explicitly mentioned influence in Thoreau and Whitman. With Coleridgian precedent, Emerson also sparked an interest in the oriental in American literature. In his own orientalist writings, Emerson discourses heavily with notions of spiritual ubiquity and poetic immortality. Specifically in his “Persian Poetry,” an interesting mix of orientalist poetry and literary criticism, Emerson accurately highlights his romantic understanding of the relationship between ubiquity and immortality that I will argue is inherited by the Civil War poets. Emerson writes,

Many qualities go to make a good telescope,—as the largeness of the field, facility of sweeping the meridian, achromatic purity of lenses, and so forth; but the one eminent value is the space-penetrating power; and there are many virtues in books, but the essential value is the adding of knowledge to our stock by the record of new facts, and, better, by the record of intuitions which distribute facts, and are the formulas which supersede all histories (Emerson).

Emerson begins this section by using the critical image of the looking glass that Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth all use to describe their romantic projects. For Blake, the telescope represented the physical limitations of reaching for ubiquitous truth, but for Emerson the telescope represents a trans-historical, “penetrating power.” Invoking a nearly areopagitic understanding of books, Emerson here suggests that his readings of the Persian poet Hafiz lead him to a transcendence (superseding, in his words) of history. Critically, Emerson renders knowledge and truth as ubiquitous, and “books” as their immortal messengers. Hafiz’ poetry represents “a record of intuitions” that allow Emerson to telescopically transcend history. This notion of an immortal record of a ubiquitous intuition is fundamentally romantic. Emerson’s orientalist, romantic project in “Persian Poetry” is thus one that goes to history to transcend it poetically. The Emersonian poet turns to history to magnify (to use his metaphor) the weight of his poetry and the idealized romantic poet, a process we will find in many Civil War poems. This is the dynamic Barrett was suggesting of 19th century at large (that poetry and history were not divergent), but one I argue that in Civil War poetry is specifically romantic in nature. This interest in ubiquity and immortality is not singular to Emerson, but can also be found in Herman Melville, our canonical, retrospective Civil War poet alongside Whitman.

Melville’s Moby-Dick is now unquestionably one of the most important works in American literature, yet his influence the Civil War poets was liminal. Yet the persistence of Emersonian notions of ubiquity and immortality in Melville’s Moby-Dick demonstrates the importance of the concept to the romantics. Written seven years before “Persian Poetry,” Melville places his authorial telescope upon the White Whale in the canonical Chapter 41 of Moby-Dick, remarking, “Forced into familiarity, then, with such prodigies as these –it cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time)” (Moby Dick 198). This notion of the immortal story (as told by mouth between the sailors) as ubiquitous truth “in time” is a predecessor to Emerson’s specifically historical notion highlighted above and it is critical in understanding this concept in the greater romantic movement. The ubiquitous truth of both Melville and Emerson stands outside of “time,” and is manifested in time and made immortal by either returning to or telling stories and poetry. For Melville as it was for Emerson, literature is the immortal messenger of ubiquitous truth.

Having unpacked this notion of ubiquity and immortality with regards to history as found in the American romantics, it is time to turn to the Civil War poetry itself to seek the influence these romantic notions had on Civil War poets both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I want to start with lesser-known poets, namely Julia Ward Howe, George Henry Boker, Alexander Meek, and William Cullen Bryant. After establishing the presence of romantic notions of ubiquity and immortality in poets outside the canon, I will turn at the end of the essay towards Melville and Whitman’s own use of ubiquity and immortality in their poetic projects. Placing the two canonical Civil War poets the end of an analysis on romantic influence in Civil War poetry serves a twofold purpose: to both justify Melville and Whitman as synthetic representations of the literature of the period and to highlight the literary quality of that literature that sits outside the canon.


Howe, Boker, and Bryant

It is apropos to begin an analysis of romantic influence on the literary culture of the Civil War with Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as much of the new criticism to emerge around Civil War poetry has been around reading poetry as popular song (Barrett and Miller). In this early (1862) poem that became a canonical song of the period and of the Union, we find notions of both the literary nature of the moment and the ubiquitous nature of the soldiers’ actions in Howe’s poetic diction. Howe ends the second stanza of the poem in the following manner: “I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps: / His day is marching on” (Howe 75). A stanza after a rousing, martial call for stomping on the grapes of wrath and unleashing the lightening of a vengeful God, Howe here turns to God’s literary presence in the circling camps of the Army of the Potomac outside Washington. In a beautiful poetic image, the soldiers read the righteous sentence of God by a dim light in an otherwise dark landscape. The suggestion is two-fold. Howe first suggests that by day the soldiers fight and by night they read God’s word, a provocative imagistic connection between the two actions. Howe also suggests here a national darkness illuminated by the literary practice of reading. The ending line of the stanza, different in each stanza, is also telling. God’s “day,” his specific moment and the poetic present moment, is described here in specifically literary terms. By a reading of the bible, the soldiers and the nation as Howe suggests, march on towards immortality and victory. In this way, the second stanza of the most famous Union song of the period is working along Emersonian lines with regards to literature and history.

Howe also brings in ubiquitous spiritual rhetoric a few stanzas later that permeates much of Civil War poetry. In perhaps the most rousing lines of the poem, Howe writes, “With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me: As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, / While God is marching on” (Howe 75). A spiritual ubiquity that has already been described in a keenly literary manner in the second stanza is here described as having a power to transfigure the poet and the soldier. Just as Howe had described biblical literature transfiguring the dim glow of national night, here Jesus transfigures soldier and poet towards an ambition for fulfilling a Christ-like task of defeating the Confederacy. Through a ubiquity of purpose from the most common (a soldier) to the most high (Christ), Howe radically suggests that soldiers killed in service to the Union will share a heavenly immortality. This notion that is repeated throughout Civil War poetry of immortality through service to a ubiquitous truth (liberty, God, etc.) is divergent from Emerson’s purely literary relationship, yet as we have seen in Howe notions of ubiquity are rooted consistently in literary, hermeneutical readings of the bible. To illustrate this dynamic further, the work of George Henry Boker, a democrat turned union supporter, can elucidate.

In Howe we have seen how biblical, ubiquitous rhetoric is used in the creation of a literary immortality and this dynamic is repeated in several poems by George Henry Boker that will be sampled briefly here. In an untitled sonnet, referred to generally as simply “Sonnet,” Boker writes, “What urged you? ‘Duty! Something more than life. / That which made Abraham bare the priestly knife, / and Isaac kneel, or that young Hebrew girl / Who sought her father coming from the strife” (Boker 144). In this highly romantic conclusion of the poem, Boker suggests that there is a ubiquitous impulse behind the actions of Abraham and the Union soldier. The same thing that drove these biblical characters to their actions drives the Union soldier now, and critically, these actions are for “something more than life,” i.e. immortality. Boker in his sonnet directly mirrors, along with Howe, the Emersonian depiction of ubiquity and immortality with regards to history. Boker goes to a ubiquitous biblical history to suggest that the present moment of the Civil War can be transcended (superseded, or transfigured, to use Emerson and Howe, respectively) through literary heritage and the act reading. For Boker, soldierly duty is manifested in an ambition for immortality based in a spiritual ubiquity of purpose which strongly mirrors the dynamic Emerson established in “Persian Poetry” and used by Howe in the famous “Battle Hymn.”

Stepping outside a purely Union poetic perspective, putting into opposition the poetry of Alexander Meek and William Cullen Bryant, a Confederate and Union poet respectively, elucidates the ubiquity of romantic influence in both literary cultures of the war. Through the strife of two states at war, the tendrils of literary influence manifest themselves in Meek’s romantic project to find immortality through spiritual ubiquity. Meek writes in his poem “Wouldst Thou Have me Love Thee,” “Should the God who smiles above thee, / Doom thee to a soldier’s grave, / Hearts will break, but fame will love thee, / Canonized among the brave- / Rather would I view thee lying / On the last red field of strife, / ‘Mid thy country’s heroes dying, / Than become a dastard’s wife” (Meek 115). We see in this section a very similar construction to the one I analyzed in Emerson, Howe, and Boker but with some key differences. Immortality in Meek’s construction is not that of Jesus but of a saint or perhaps more closely a classical hero. Fame will be the lot of the dead Confederate soldier, and as with many other Confederate poets we find chivalrous and misogynistic masculinity in place of high religious idealism. Still the fundamental relationship between immortality through spiritual ubiquity (denoted here by the “canonization” promised the dead) is shared with the Union poets. Death in battle for a Civil War soldier in the minds of both Confederate and Union poets was for “something beyond life,” (Boker) a space-penetrating view to ubiquitous truth (Emerson), a transfiguration of the human to the holy (Howe), and a canonization (Meek). The through line between all these notions is the romantic understanding of immortality and spiritual ubiquity.

William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Poet” continues many of these themes found in Howe, Boker, and Meek. Near the end of the poem, Bryant writes of the poet’s task, “Of tempests wouldst thou sing, / Or tell of battles –make thyself a part / Of the great tumult; cling / To the tossed wreck with terror in thy heart; / Scale, with the assaulting host, the rampart’s height, / And strike and struggle in the thickest fight. / So thou frame a lay / That haply may endure from age to age-“ (Bryant 27-8). This section highlights  with precision the notion Barrett put forth that history and poetry were not divergent things for the 19th century poet, but after having read the romantic influence in Civil War poetry we can expand Barrett’s assertion further. Bryant is presenting a specifically romantic relationship between history and poetry in this section that realist authors such as Howell would have found less useful, and New Critics in the 20th century would certainly find problematic. Bryant suggests that the poet’s task in an era such as the Civil War is to lay a “frame” around the struggle, to in fact enmesh one’s very poetic imagination into the battles that raged across the country. In doing so, Bryant invokes that Emersonian image of poetic immortality. Keenly, in this 1864 poem, the spiritually ubiquitous themes found particularly in Howe and Boker are missing. The only ever-present thing in this poem is battle, reflecting the conclusion of one Union soldier at Gettysburg who called his experience, “an awful universe of battle” (Haskell). This marks a key point of distinction in the development of Civil War Romanticism. While Bryant maintains the Emersonian relationship of going to history for poetic immortality, that history becomes increasingly less spiritual or idealistic in quality as the terrible year of 1864 continued. War is ubiquitous for Bryant in this poem, yet the process is the same as the one first highlighted in Emerson’s “Persian Poetry.” Bryant lays a “frame” where Emerson would look through his telescope to a ubiquitous truth that when relayed in text becomes immortal from “age to age.” Thus the conflation of history and poetry that has for so long been associated with Civil War poetry in a derisive manner is, as I have argued, tied to Civil War poetry’s deep relationship with Romanticism. In finally turning to Melville and Whitman, I suggest that much of what we have found in the lesser known poets is found in each poet’s Civil War poetry, including some of the divergences between spiritual and martial ubiquity highlighted here.

Whitman famously documented his experience as a nurse in Washington in “The Great Army of the Sick.”

Herman Melville’s now commonly read Battle Pieces had a very limited readership in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but this fact should not diminish the literary significance of the collection. Indeed, Melville’s reactions to the Civil War are keenly historical, and consistently reflect the romantic tension between ubiquity and immortality as found in his earlier work Moby-Dick. John McWilliams in an article on the differences between Melville and Whitman reiterates: “Herman Melville’s Battle Pieces contains an individual poem on nearly every significant historical event of the Civil War. Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps” lacks even one poem whose subject is historical fact” (McWilliams 181). One can trace and read the war through a progressive reading of Battle Pieces, and Melville’s preoccupation with the poetic significance of the events unfolding at specific points across the country speaks to the romantic dynamic between poetry and history outlined above. Yet what is ubiquitous in Melville’s poetry destabilizes (as Melville is wont to do) the more mainstream poets I have read thus far. Like in Bryant and as we will find in Whitman, the relatively stable, ubiquitous spirituality that was a font of literary immortality in Howe, Boker, and Meek is replaced by a ubiquitous war that has a violent momentum.

Tracing Melville’s use of ubiquity and immortality in his poetic interaction with history from the dawn of the war to its height is useful in highlighting Melville’s adherence to and divergence from the themes thus far outlined. In the aptly titled “The Portent,” Melville depicts the death of John Brown as a natural portent for the forthcoming conflict. Melville writes of the nation in the aftermath of the raid on Harper’s Ferry, “The cut is on the crown / (Lo, John Brown), / And the stabs shall heal no more” (“The Portent” 226). In the “loomings” created by Brown’s death, Melville weaves an image that makes important divergences from the spiritual ubiquity highlighted in Howe, Boker, and Meek. The crown, an image used so commonly in Civil War poetry as that which awaits the soldier after death, here is “cut” by the swinging body of John Brown. Mirroring strongly Melville’s destabilization of miltonic “holy light” and generally orthodox Christian renderings of life and purpose found in Moby-Dick, John Brown’s death and the ever-increasing threat of national self-destruction reaches out to impact an image of the holy. In Howe, Boker, and Meek, we find the holy stooping to the mortal to make it immortal; yet here in Melville’s unsettling revision, we find the mortal realm chipping the holy crown. This reversed relationship is continued into the next line, where Melville does not describe spiritual immortality that transcends battle injuries, but instead depicts a festering wound. John Brown’s execution by the government ensures that the national wounds of Bleeding Kansas and the strife of the 1850s will not heal and will instead portent a civil war. Thus we find a poetic message that is very much different from Howe, Boker, Meek, and even Bryant. Melville does not use ubiquity and immortality in ways similar to those authors, but the centrality of those concepts remains. The ubiquitous content behind Brown’s actions is left ambivalent by Melville in this short poem, yet his immortality resides in his catalytic function in the making of the war. Melville expands this concept of an immortal agonist in the closing lines of the poem.

As “The Portent” comes to a close, Melville’s depiction of Brown as a natural sign or symbol demonstrates further the centrality of romantic notions of ubiquity and immortality within the poem. Melville writes of Brown’s corpse, “Hidden in the cap / Is the anguish none can draw; / So your future veils its face, / Shenandoah! / But the streaming beard is shown / (Weird John Brown), / The meteor of the war” (“The Portent” 226). The opening two lines reflect a deeply Melvillian (Ishmaelian, specifically) anxiety over authorial ability to depict the anguish emblazoned on the brows of his characters. The ending section is imagistically dominated by deeply ambivalent images that all relate back to the actual physical remains of Brown’s body hanging on the tree from which he was hanged. The “future” of the nation is hidden like Brown’s face underneath a hat containing Brown’s inarticulable anguish, yet Brown’s beard shoots out from underneath: a “meteor of the war.” This deeply Ahabian physical dissection through imagery suggests the ubiquity thus far ambivalent and obfuscated in the poem. As Howe, Boker, and Meek had appealed to spiritual ubiquity to achieve literary immortality, Melville, like Bryant, makes the war itself the signified, ubiquitous principle made immortal by the poet and his subject. Thus Melville uses themes that held central interest to him in Moby-Dick (the “weird,” the unknowable, the symbol, etc.) to explore the question of ubiquity and immortality as war “loomed” on the American horizon. Melville, like Bryant, goes to historical ubiquity invoked by martial and physical imagery to suggest the immortality of Brown as an enduring symbol and agonist of the Civil War. As Battle Pieces progresses into the war, Melville shows an increasing interest in the power of literary agency in the making of history and immortality, which is worth considering further.

Melville’s description of the character of Stonewall Jackson (in the poem of the same name) recalls the literary nature of immortality first analyzed in Howe’s “Battle Hymn.” Melville ends his deeply ambiguous poem in the following matter: “O, much of doubt in after days / Shall cling, as now to the war; / Of the right and the wrong they’ll still debate / Puzzled by Stonewall’s star: ‘Fortune went with the North elate,’ / ‘Ay, but the south had Stonewall’s weight, / And he fell in the South’s great war” (“Stonewall Jackson” 273). As in “The Portent,” Melville brings doubt where Howe and others would bring certainty. Still, the general literary concern here is shared across divergent poetic trajectories. In this remarkably self-reflection passage, Melville considers that the poetry of his moment will decide the way the events are understood in the “hidden future” (“The Portent”). Stonewall, symbolized like Brown as a celestial object, will “puzzle” those future generations and the ultimate ubiquitous truth of his character and of the war (which Melville carefully avoids vanquishing in this passage) is hermeneutically blurred. For Melville in the midst of the war, the hermeneutical and physical conflict of the war will endure into the future via literature that considers the meteors and stars and the truth that they signified. The propaganda of other poets of the period is vanquished here by Melville’s interaction with romantic notions of literary immortality and ubiquitous truths behind the specifically historical figures of the war. Melville invokes deeply opposed figures in the war in  “The Portent” and “Stonewall Jackson” and unites them with romantic notions of ubiquity and immortality through the romantic literary engine of symbol and signified. Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” as remarked upon by McWilliams, is less specifically historical than the two poems read here from Melville, yet the ambiguity of the ubiquity of the war becomes more central and tense in Whitman’s project.

Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps” have been noted for their deep ambiguity, and a major facet of this ambiguity is the ubiquity of war in Whitman’s poetic project. Whitman in “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” like Bryant and Melville specifically in “The Portent,” makes war ubiquitous. The result in Whitman’s “Drum Taps” is not a ponderous anxiety over hermeneutical history (as in Melville’s “Stonewall”) but rather an unsettling depiction of a violent momentum that ultimately threatens to prevent the transcendence of the literature of the period. The opening lines of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” can elucidate: “Through the windows –through doors –burst like a ruthless force, / Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation, / Into the school where the scholar is studying; / Leave not the bridegroom quiet –no happiness must he have now with his bride, / Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain, / So fierce you whirr and pound you drums” (Whitman 239). The ubiquitous language Whitman associates with the war is obvious and it is again, as we saw in Bryant and Melville, deeply ambivalent. This force, rather than transfiguring the soldier from earthly to heavenly, demolishes the church and “scatters” the congregation. Further, where Melville leaves the future hidden under John Brown’s troubled brow, the ubiquitous drums of war are associated here with restrictive and final language: the bride and groom are forever denied their happiness, and the farmer is denied “any peace.” Importantly, the scholar studying in his school is not restricted in such a final way. This renders the position of Whitman’s poetic persona and his own ambition for his poetry in this era of war in a keenly ambivalent light. In Whitman’s post-war poetry we thus find a direct inverse of the Emersonian notion of going to history for literary immortality. Here we find history threatening literary and scholarly potential.

The ending lines of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” further illustrate this inverted use of ubiquity and immortality in Whitman’s “Drum Taps.” The poem concludes, “Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses, / So strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow” (Whitman 239). The centrality of noise in the poem that is reiterated here is important in understanding the tension highlighted above between literature and history. Just as Melville commonly uses language as a metaphor for specifically literary questions, Whitman here represents the suppression of the spoken word by the ever-increasing volume of the bugle and drum. Further, this sound interrupts and disturbs the very thing Howe, Boker, and Meek had put at the center of their romantic projects – the dead. The waiting dead are shaken by the ubiquitous force of war, reflecting further Whitman’s direct inversion of earlier romantic projects to render the dead as made immortal by ubiquitous spiritual principles. This stands in stark contrast to the 1855 sections of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which very much reflect the romanticism of Howe, Boker, Meek, and even Bryant; but such is the function of the Civil War on the literature of the era. In both Melville and Whitman we find complicated renderings of ubiquity and immortality from those found in Howe, Boker, Meek, and Bryant. Instead of a spiritually ubiquitous set of principles catalyzing a literary immortality for soldiers and poets alike, we find an ambivalent, ubiquitous war imperiling the immortal ambition of poetry in “The Portent,” “Stonewall Jackson,” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!.” The experience of the Civil War for our canonical poets of the era fundamentally altered their poetic projects in relation to romantic ubiquity and immortality, yet the core issues these terms represent endured and remained useful for both Melville and Whitman.

From Howe, Boker, Meek, and Bryant to Melville and Whitman, the prevalence of Emersonian notions of literary immortality through spiritual, and in the case of Bryant, Melville, and Whitman, martial ubiquity is significant. All the poets look through a literary seeing glass to ubiquitous truths (be they biblical or historical) and through their poetry attempt to make them immortal. Thus Howell and 20th century critic’s discomfort with American Civil War poetry is partly based in its specifically romantic literary project with regards to Civil War poet’s understanding of history, and not based in an unliterary propagandism, as Daniel Aaron and Edmund Wilson claimed. Poetry for the American Civil War poet was an avenue for understanding and distilling their historical moment in romantic terms, and was fundamentally not a favoring of politics or history over literary concerns. Instead, as I have suggested, Civil War poets pursued their romantic literary goals through and interaction with history. From Howe to Bryant, history is literary insofar as the poet approaches it with a romantic impulse for immortality through ubiquity. This dynamic is aptly summarizes and concluded with the most celebrated and recited quote from the era. Civil War poetry is indeed interested in the political concern of a “-government of the people, by the people, for the people” but it is also concerned with the romantic concern that this nation and its romantic poetic heritage “shall not perish from the earth” (Lincoln).


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John Donne, Erasmus, and Religious Warfare


he work of John Donne has traditionally been subdivided into that of “Jack” and “Doctor” Donne, based in the topical breach that occurs over Donne’s career from the bedroom to the pulpit. Yet as Richard Strier remarks in his article “Radical Donne: ‘Satire III,’” critics have recently sought to find the underlying themes that find vitality in Donne’s work from early to late. One such theme is religion and religious conflict. Donne’s conversion experience is the autobiographical catalyst in the distinction between Jack and Doctor Donne, yet critics such as Strier seek the shared anxiety, tension, and ambition in Donne’s religious thinking throughout his career. Strier makes a compelling case in “Radical Donne” that Donne’s early Satire III (composed at the end of the 16th century) shows a radical coexistence of Catholic and Protestant theology and scholarship. In this essay I want to suggest further that not only does “Satire III” show the marks of an author versed in both Erasmus and Luther as Strier suggests; it also shows a radical desire for peace on a continent fraying and eventually breaking at the seams over the course of Donne’s life, a peace evoked in “Satire III,” the Holy Sonnets, and the Meditations in opposition to the imagery of war. Thus, another critical facet of Donne’s “radicalism” is his desire for peace forged in dialogue with chivalric and classical militarism, Erasmus’ calls for peace, and contemporary martyrology. Donne argues throughout his poetry and satires for a  Christian valiance in opposition to bravery, war, and corrupt princes.

The nature of Donne’s radicalism as defined by Empson and Strier is worth considering further in the context of the language of war and peace in the Satire itself and Donne’s later poems and poetry. For Empson, Donne was a rung in the ladder up to modern political thought, an author that “-[gives] an inherent argument for freedom of conscience” (Empson). Strier is right to suggest that this concept alone was hardly radical for the time period, at least in itself; and Empson’s rendering does suggest a mechanistic view of the relationship between literary project and history that is less prevalent in contemporary criticism.  Empson’s argument is Strier’s springboard though, and the latter does base his own project on the general desire to read Donne as aspiring religiously and politically for a radical harmony between Protestant and Catholic. Strier elucidates, “Donne can be seen to have shown…the perhaps surprising compatibility of three of the most radical notions of the European sixteenth-century: Erasmus’ “Philosophy of Christ,” Castellio’s vindication of doubt, and Luther’s conception of conscience” (Strier 312-3). For Strier, Donne’s radicalism is markedly his own in that it is constructed of conflicting Catholic and Protestant theologies. Such tolerance was a radical notion in the period leading up to the Thirty Years War, an era historian C.V. Wedgewood described as “thick with the apprehension of conflict” (Wedgewood 12).  Strier convincingly makes the case that Donne seeks to synthesize these contradictions in the Satire. Yet there is some merit in Empson’s original critical project to seek not only the hermeneutical, epistemological, theological, and philosophical in Donne’s Satire but also the historical. The historical threat and reality of religious war emerges again and again in the text, making the conclusion of Donne’s Satire not only a call for theological and philosophical coexistence but also an anxious interaction with the threat of religious war.

From the very first lines of the Satire, Donne invokes the language of martial battle and then vanquishes its value with a rhetorical equivalency between Protestant and Catholic that Strier highlights. Donne begins, “Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids / Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids” (ll. 1-2) It is disquieting that we begin this Satire that so ardently argues for radical tolerance with imagery of paralysis. Pity chokes, while “brave” scorn forbids (like a King) tears to flow from his eyes. Catholic and Protestant talking points are immediately invoked in these opening lines. Donne summons the physical, the source of Protestant anxiety, and suggests that kind pity emerges from his body and mind (the spleen representing both) (Strier 286) as well as despair. Such a description complicates a more radical Protestant reading of the body as an instrument of declination and corruption, a complication the early Donne pursues in several of his love poems. With the next stroke of his pen, Donne rejects the notion that authority may assuage the moisture that rises to our eyes, a markedly Protestant critique of Catholic bureaucracy. Authority forbids us only from visibly crying and cannot vanquish the tears “which swell my eyelids.” This is much in line with Strier’s project to find coexistence in the Satire, but I think Donne’s use of the concept of bravery in these opening lines is also significant. Brave scorn, that which prevents us from “weep[ing] sins,” has decidedly martial social connotation to it. Bravery and honor, cornerstones of chivalric nationalism (and what Donne famously attacks in “Death Be Not Proud”), are what enable sin through “forbidding” the poet from ridding himself of that sin.

Only a few lines later, Donne pursues the inability of the martial to absolve sin and the theological differences of the day. Donne continues, “Is not our mistress, fair Religion, / As worth of all our souls’ devotion / As virtue was to the first blinded age? / Are not heaven’s joys as valiant to assuage / Lusts, as earth’s honor was to them” (ll. 5-9)? Donne asks a provocative question that seeks to challenge contemporary readers with a historical equivalency between the classical and the present. Strier is right to suggest that this is not a condemnation of the classical by Donne. Donne questions, as Strier states, how “faire religion” has failed to inspire similar devotion (Strier 288). Yet that very question as Donne has constructed it seeks to blend these eras and to see the tendrils of influence between them. What Donne invokes from the classical is markedly martial – bravery and virtue (the latter word rooted in the Latin vir, which Donne plays with in “Death Be Not Proud”). Donne offers an alternative to that bravery, virtue, and honor that defined the classics and that now prevent the poet from ridding himself of sin. He suggests that to seek the synthesized, general Christian project is true valiance, a surely martial concept. But the rhetorical necessity of the question denotes the anxiety that underlies much of the Satire. Donne desires a radical valiance for peace, but his era is steeped instead in the martial bravery and honor of the classical age. Both sides are accused in this opening section, the “Spanish fire,” and the “courage of straw” that serves as kindling. There is certainly a desire here for religious synthesis, but there is also a profound anxiety over the martial realities of these questions. When Donne writes lines later, “O, if thou dar’st, fear this; / This fear great courage and high valor is” (ll. 16), he is interacting with the martial reality of the day at the turn of the 17th century, where bravery and honor prevent reconciliation and actively push Protestants and Catholics towards war. For Donne, fear is the truly valorous and courageous act, fear of a culture of martial courage, and fear to follow “tyrannous rage” (ll. 105) towards disastrous ends.

The ending of the Satire incorporates much of this martial imagery and the nature of the ending in light of this imagery divides critics. Strier, for example, reads the end as a positively ambivalent one. Strier writes in the conclusion to his own piece, “The integral soul, standing still, refusing to be bound, waiting for a personal revelation that may or may not come, is the final positive image of Satire III” (Strier 312). For Strier, the poet is ultimately not tied down with “fetters,” and the end of the Satire expresses an ideology of coexistence. The martial imagery here, as it does in the opening sections, evokes an underlying anxiety that needs further exploration. In concluding, Donne writes,

“As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell / At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and prove well, / But having left their roots, and themselves given / To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven / Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost / Consumed in going, in the sea are lost. / So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust / Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust” (ll. 103-108).

Donne’s conclusion complements the poem’s opening emphasis on tears with Christian imagery of water. It is now tyrannous rage (instead of bravery or honor) that drives the water with haste away from less destructive paths. The image of consumption through a process of movement is undeniably militaristic. Like a war, the river courses through the countryside and destroys as it moves through. This destruction is tied on the sentence level to an abandonment of “roots” located in a “calmer” section, a section without tyrannous rage and “unjust Power.” I think Strier is right to suggest that these roots are not specifically Catholic (as could be inferred by an abandonment of tradition). Donne is instead suggesting a more general Christian ancestry, an ancestry he endeavors in the opening of the Satire to describe as valiant. But here as before in the face of that valiant cause is the threat of tyranny and incorrect choice. Donne’s inclusion of choice in these final lines complicates Strier’s claim that the ending optimistically looks to religious coexistence. Donne undeniably desires such an accomplishment amid the commingled worlds of religion and politics in the late sixteenth century, but the idea remains just that:  a desire. Like the kind pity and deeply felt sorrow of the introduction, this ultimate desire remains challenged by the threat of religious conflict rooted in classical notions of bravery, courage, and anti-tyrannical rebellion.

Before turning to Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Meditations, I want to explore further the nature of Donne’s peace and the intellectual influences and precedents for Donne’s interaction with the threat of religious warfare. Strier cogently argues that a main facet of the religious synthesis at the heart of Satire III, that I argue is put into crisis by the threat of war, is the work of  Erasmus. Erasmus, as critic Robert Allen suggests in his book The Better Part f Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vivies, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535, wrote at great length on what Strier terms “pacifism” (Strier 291). I will argue, though, that Donne’s utilization of Erasmus is not merely one that invokes Erasmus’ universal pacifism but rather a pointed political, historical critique of the religious warfare of the 16th and 17th century – a distinction that can be found in Erasmus’ own critique of corrupt government and chivalric courage. Erasmus’ philosophy of Christ is fundamentally a reaction to the secular, warring, and political machinations of the late Medieval church, and the dialectical and often directly involved shadow of the threat of war in Erasmus is reflected repeatedly in Donne’s Satires and later poetry. Adams describes Erasmus’ conception of war in the following terms, which is a useful entry point to the influence of Erasmus on Donne’s poetic depiction of peace: “His (Erasmus) practical proposal is that leaders on both sides, as rational men pursuing self-interest , should count in advance all war’s costs. When this is done, wisdom will dictate settling disputes quietly by arbitration… when full accounting is made of costs, all military triumphs turn out to be Cadmean: everyone suffers ruin” (Adams 101). Donne’s thesis in Satire III is markedly similar to Adam’s summation of Erasmus’ objection to war. Donne brings the cost of war repeatedly to the center of the Satire, and the central moment of contrast between mistress and faire religion relies on the imagery of chivalric idealism and religious persecution (the courage of straw and fires of spain, for example). While Erasmus, like Donne, ultimately does make a transcendent conclusion that war is anti-Christian and ruinous for all participants, the avenue through which Erasmus makes this meta-critique is specifically late Medieval and Renaissance religious strife. Like Donne, Erasmus aims not only at the abolition of all conflict but also a specific political and historical peace. Donne and Erasmus share a Humanist desire to reform the social and cultural ills (often associated with ignorance in Humanist discourses) towards the end of manifesting a more just society. The consummate Humanist, Erasmus spends much of Erasmus Against War making a an argument that relies on this rhetoric of moving from social ills to transcendent, spiritual solutions and conclusions.

Erasmus’ rhetorical structure in Erasmus Against War strongly mirrors Donne’s own in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations and it is a structure that suggests the connection between Erasmusian peace and the political origination of Donne’s own peace. In the opening argument of the treatise, Erasmus asserts the following about war, “War, what other thing is it than a common manslaughter of many men together, and a robbery, to which, the farther it sprawleth abroad, the more mischievous it is? But many gross gentlemen nowadays laugh merrily at these things, as though they were the dreams and dotings of schoolmen, the which, saving the shape, have no point of manhood, yet seem they in their own conceit to be Gods” (Erasmus 23-24). The last part of the quoted section strikingly mirrors the end of Satire III and Sonnet 10, and the general rhetorical thrust of Erasmus’ description demands further exploration. He begins with a general reflection on the sinful nature of killing, but then returns to the secular in the middle section with his allusion to the chivalric gentleman of the age before ultimately returning to the fact that war makes men conceive of themselves as God. This stop on the secular in the median of a rhetorical thrust towards transcendental synthesis is one that Donne will repeatedly do in his Holy Sonnets and Meditations, and it introduces an anxiety that I highlighted in Satire III and that is at play in Donne’s later work. Resting rhetorically between theological condemnations of religious violence is the anxious rendering (if only to attempt to vanquish the threat with a final, universal coup de grâce) of chivalric bravery and martial courage that Adams is right to suggest is the subject of many early 16th century humanist projects. Like Donne in Satire III, Erasmus must reckon the threat of secular, martial culture in his generalizing rhetoric against war. This rhetorical structure is the one I will highlight in Donne’s later work, and its a rhetorical structure that is for Donne further contextualized with the question of martyrdom in a period of religious war.

The concept of martyrdom for both Erasmus and Donne played a significant role in the way religious warfare was understood, and Donne’s specific interaction with the concept of martyrdom lends further context to the nature of peace in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations. Critic Susannah Monta in her article “When the Truth Hurts: Suffering and the Question of Religious Confidence” usefully places Donne in the environment of 16th and 17th century martyrology in response to religious persecution and war. Monta begins, “Donne’s preordination prose questions common martyrological assumptions, arguments, and rhetoric. His poetry explores the psychological effects of the notion that suffering could confer religious confidence, while his sermons postulate alternative, spiritualized forms of agonistic struggle that both honor intense spiritual quests and confer the benefits of religious confidence without the actual shedding of blood” (Monta 118). As I have argued before, Donne’s alternative agonists are not merely spiritual or escapist theology but rather a specifically political and historical reaction to religious war. Yet, Monta gives a provocative further vocabulary for Donne’s interaction with the threat of spilt blood. Religious confidence, a confidence in election in Monta’s argument, could be conferred without martial struggle. This is a passivity that we found in Erasmus and Donne’s rejection of men who would be gods. Donne’s opposition to Martyrdom, as Monta cogently summarizes, is one that opposes agonizing one’s own death. This is something Donne will satirize and interact with in Pseudo-Martyr and Biathanatos, and it is a central concern that finds life in Donne’s sonnets and meditations. War for Donne is institutionalized martyrdom, the replacement of a valiant faith with a courageous death – a break from providence towards grim, rushing waters.

Monta makes a second important distinction in Donne’s reaction to emergent martyrology. Donne, as the evasive rhetoric of Satire III suggests, is ultimately unwilling to ascribe himself to either Catholic or Protestant notions of martyrdom in the period. Monta writes, “But rather than simply celebrating Protestant and/or Foxean versions of martyrdom instead –  Donne often posits alternative forms of interior, spiritualized suffering and argues that those forms of suffering may confer all of martyrdom benefits – Donne’s persistent engagements with martyrdom undergird his reconciliation of his conformity to the Church of England with his family’s sufferings for Catholicism” (Monta 119). Donne rejects throughout his career the martyrdom of Foxe and Southwell, instead offering a nominally Protestant third partyism in opposition to martyrdom. Yet the autobiographical criticism often offered in response to Donne’s religious experience hampers our readings of Donne’s interaction with historical and political circumstance. Donne’s ambivalence towards martyrdom shares many of the themes outlined in Satire III in his critique of martial valor. Monta accurately suggests that Donne’s discomfort with martyrdom is rooted in his ambition to procure the benefits of martyrdom without violence – to, put differently, have a peaceful martyrdom. I argue that the ambivalence of Donne to Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, when rendered next to his invocation of Erasmus’ commentary on war, is rooted more significantly in a desire for peace between the two splitting religious factions rather than Donne’s personal experience with conversion. It is a hegemony of two currents that are undeniably connected in Donne’s thought, yet that former fear of religious war hampering transcendent peace is represented to a significant degree in the poetry and prose in Donne’s later work. In the Holy Sonnets and Meditations, we find a markedly similar rhetorical structure to that of Erasmus in response to war and Donne in response to martyrdom, and it is a rhetorical structure based not merely in the theological and autobiographical respectively, but also in the historical and political.

Donne’s tenth Holy Sonnet is perhaps his most canonical poem, and has long been read as a reflection on the temporary death associated with chivalric courage and the permanent life associated with “faire religion.” Yet Donne also implements a rhetorical structure found in Erasmus of interrupting a transcendent image with war and chivalric ideology, leading to an ultimate vanquishing of temporary martiality with transcendent spirituality at the end of the rhetorical arc. Donne begins the poem, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreaful, for thou art not so; / For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 1-4). The poem begins with a spondee (in opposition to its generally iambic form) that calls attention to the declarative nature of the poem, and the stresses then hit “proud”, “some”, and “call(éd),” all words that undermine the addressee. The metric form remains important in Donne’s effort to undermine death and establish a dichotomy in the poem between true religion and false “pictures” (ll. 5). Importantly, though, Donne begins with a general retort against death; one that seeks to vanquish the power of death just as Erasmus sought to diminish war to institutionalized petty crime (“manslaughter”). Like Erasmus in Erasmus Against War, the poet differentiates himself from those who would ascribe a greater meaning to death or war. Though others might “call” death powerful, he is not, and the main conceit of the poem is undermining death’s power in this way. Donne’s own rhetoric, though, continues to mirror Erasmus’ as the specter of those would “call” death powerful emerges to the narrative center of the poem.

In separating himself from those he is rhetorically opposing himself to, Donne invokes the threat of religious warfare in the minds of those who call death powerful, and like Erasmus, he must address this issue before getting to his transcendent anti-war conclusion. Donne reflects of the men who march off to war, as he once did, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 7-9). The stresses in this section are also critical, as Donne includes a spondaic section where “slave, fate, chance, kings, men, poison, war, and sickness” are all stressed. The section is not simply a rejection of martial courage or soldiers who go to war. Instead, Donne ambivalently suggests that England’s “best men” go off to war and are led astray and ultimately killed by the string of stressed syllables. Like it was for Erasmus, the problem for Donne is that class of “gentleman” who fancy themselves “to be gods” in “dreams and dotings” (Erasmus 24). The poem heavily mirrors Erasmus’ focus on the fraudulent narrative of death, and here, Donne movingly suggests the costs of that narrative. Poison, sickness, and war itself are all images associated with the religious conflict on the continent in the late 16th and early 17th century, as pestilence specifically killed thousands in armies made up frequently of men who were travelling for the first time (Wedgewood 28). Critically, Donne, like Erasmus, interrupts his narrative on the fraudulency of death to discourse with the very real allure of war to the “best men” of Europe. Led by corrupt princes, the topic of much of Erasmus’ writing, good men in Sonnet 10 could empower death to be that which Donne says it is not. It is a very real threat, represented in this section on the metrical and linguistic level. Donne interrupts his rhetorical thrust towards God with a narrative on those who would see themselves as God. This rhetorical construction is a direct mirror of Erasmus’ language in Erasmus Against War, and Donne’s synthetic and triumphant ending section strives for the same transcendent, though textured, peace Erasmus describes in that text.

Donne’s 10th Holy Sonnet ends in a provocative way that mirrors the rhetorical structure outlined in Erasmus. Donne concludes after his interaction with men who would be gods, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more Death, thou shalt die” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 13-14). Like Erasmus, Donne concludes by returning to divinity and a transcendent spirituality. The section, though, has divided critics. The nature of the inversion at the end does cast a shadow of ambivalence over the poem specifically in the context of the previously outlined passage on war. In the rhetoric of the poem, chivalric courage and corrupt kings empower death and in doing so die themselves. In the imagery, then, death and its earthly messengers (those kings and wars) are conflated. Thus, when Donne says “death, thou shalt die,” is the aim only the death he originally addressed himself to? Indeed, that original invocation of death is followed in the very opening couplet by those who would call it powerful. The ending puts into center view the crisis of the Humanist project for Erasmus, More, and Donne in this poem. Erasmus renders in Erasmus Against War that corrupt princes can lead men to disastrous ends, as Donne suggests in Sonnet 10, yet Erasmus spends much of the treatise suggesting ways to fix the problem. As with the issue of martyrdom, Donne remains evasive in the Sonnets and even in the Meditations as to what can catalyze the death of death. The necessity of the death of chivalric virtue and martyrdom was evident to Donne and Erasmus before him, yet at the turn of the 17th century the humanist project of More and Erasmus was becoming increasingly estranged from the reality of religious conflict. Certainly the difference can be attributed to genre (between treatise and poem), but in the ending of Sonnet 10 there is a peculiar ambivalence in subject and outcome. Donne movingly establishes the cost of war in that section that interrupts his rhetorical arc (the same rhetorical structure Erasmus uses in calling for peace), and knows it must end in peace, but is ultimately unsure as to how to secure it in this realm. He settles instead for supplicating such concerns to God, and not be a man who fancies himself as God. Yet, the poem is catalyzed by that section that opposes such a transcendental and spiritual conclusion to the very real secular threat of religious war.

The very next sonnet in the Holy Sonnet sequence deals intimately with the question of martyrdom, secular rule, and solutions. In the middle of Sonnet 11, Donne reflects of the crucifixion, “They killed once an inglorious man, but I / Crucify him daily, being now glorified. Oh let me then, his strange love still admire. / Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment” (“Sonnet 11” ll. 7-9). Donne’s description of Jesus as an “inglorious man” is telling to the countercultural persona at work in the Sonnets. Like the persona in Sonnet 10, Donne in Sonnet 11 opposes himself immediately to prevailing notions of “glory,” a central facet of contemporary martyrology. Donne establishes Jesus in this passage in opposition to those forces he had put in death’s party, and it is a distinction that is a very expected one coming after Sonner 10. Importantly for Monta’s context on Donne’s ambivalence to the question of both Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, Donne further enters into the question of kingly punishment. Very much in line with Erasmus’ description of those who seek war as men who think themselves God, Donne describes the pardoning of Kings as fraudulently conflated with true sacrifice. Donne undermines this notion by asserting instead that Jesus himself bore the punishment of mankind. This difference between active sacrifice and secular violence mirrors the distinction Donne drew between “brave men” and “kings” in Sonnet 10, and gives a provocative context to Donne’s views on martyrdom. As in Satire III, Donne evades a dogmatic condemnation of solely secular kingship or anti-tyrannical protestant martyrdom. Instead Donne suggests a third position, a position for political peace and spiritual supplication to providence.

Donne’s famous “Meditation 17,” written at the end of his life, is a suitable text to finish a discussion on the question of political and historical peace in Donne’s greater interaction with war on the continent. In it, many of the anxieties hitherto outlined come to the fore of Donne’s interaction with warfare. The question of Humanist potential to reform the chivalric, militaristic culture of the day that drove Europe actively to war as he wrote the Meditation is central, as is the general Erasmusian desire for peace in response to secular division. In perhaps his most famous written words, Donne urges the reader, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (“Meditation 17” 1305). As with the Sonnets and is Erasmus’ Erasmus Against War, Donne begins with a transcendent ambition and then interrupts it with this narrative on the threat of religious war. But the threat in the early 1620s, well into the crisis of the Holy Roman Empire that devolved into the Thirty Years War, is markedly less chivalric and classical (as it was in Satire III). Instead, we get a tenor that is thematically kindred with Erasmus in Erasmus Against War. Donne urges his reader, as Adams summarized of Erasmus, to consider the whole cost of war on estates personal and non. The lynch pin upon which he constructs this urge to reason is Europe itself, and provocatively, the water imagery of Satire III. Donne now does not address the general crisis of poor kingship and chivalric courage, but rather the immense human cost that began to soar as the 1620s advanced and Denmark and Sweden entered the war in Germany. Donne no longer wishes to differentiate himself from the militaristic other, he now writes for a radical peace begotten of a radical homogeneity amongst human beings. The influence of Erasmus on this most memorable of Donne’s passages cannot be overstated, and while the variables shift slightly away from a direct opposition to courage and war and towards a universal human kindred there is a shared rhetorical construct at play in the Meditation. Like in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets, Donne interrupts his narrative that seeks a transcendent spiritual peace with the very real threat of war. Erasmus had precedented the rhetorical move in his own treatise against war, and Donne reinvokes the rhetoric in Meditation 17 not only to argue ultimately for a transcendent spiritual supplication but also to render the very real and tragic nature of the wars in Europe as they unfolded. War had gone from a Dutch problem during the period of the Satire’s and Sonnet’s authorship to a generalized, destructive, and irresistible torrent over all of Central Europe. Donne interrupts his ambition in Meditation 17 with this mournful narrative, before ultimately framing his synthesis with the looming threat of war.

In the conclusion to the Meditation, Donne offers a provocative if/then statement on the ambition he has for the written word. Donne reflects, “-if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security” (“Meditation 17” 1306). I had suggested earlier that Donne is often evasive as to real solutions to the problem of war he so intimately deals with in the Satires and Sonnets, but here Donne reveals the fundamentally Humanist and Erasmusian ambition to fight war with rhetoric. Donne the Englishmen, a nation still only liminally involved in the war, urges his readers to partake in his process of reckoning the danger of others to proof against that danger spreading. I argue that we see this ideology at play in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets. Donne has an ambition for his poetry to interact with and counter war as it developed on the continent in the early 17th century. As before, Donne reckons a supplication as the only truly knowable solution to the problem. But as in the Satire and Sonnets, he comes to this conclusion after a rhetorical construction interrupted by religious warfare.

Following in Erasmus’ footsteps, Donne ultimately argues for political peace through a rhetorical trajectory that ends in religious transcendence. In Satire III there is a profound ambivalence at play over the question of religious war and its interference in the procurement of the religious synthesis Donne undeniably desires and as Strier highlights. In the Sonnets, I argue that this rhetoric is enacted, with inspiration from Erasmus, in the way Sonnets 10 and 11 are interrupted by the threat of  war before ultimately finishing with an ambivalent inversion of death. In “Meditation 17,” Donne is less ambivalent about his opposition to war through poetry, and specifically hopes in a Humanist fashion for the reason and reckoning of another’s grave, mortal danger to reform the world around him as it collapsed into war. Throughout Donne’s later work, though, I argue that the religious synthesis Strier is apt to highlight in Satire III is in every case placed consciously next to the threat of war by Donne. The synthesis is thus never truly complete for Donne in his poetry and prose. Donne and his poetry may very well declare that death will die, but Donne never forgets the “brave men” who perish by their thousands in following kings who may never take their own danger into contemplation.

*Note: I do not include works cited pages to impede academic plagiarism.  Let me know via email or a comment if you want the works cited entry for the articles and books cited here.

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Filed under Early Modern, John Donne, Literary Criticism, Literature, Thirty Years War, Uncategorized

On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Marxist needn’t spend much time in academic, literary circles before they receive an eye roll catalyzed by the usage of cobwebbed-covered terms such as “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” or perhaps, if the perpetrator is feeling daring, “class conflict.” Postmodern academia, like the Victorians to the Romantics, wants nothing more than to distance itself from “the red decades” where  the Frankfurt school, French philosophical and economic discourses, and the Communist Party Historians Group in the United Kingdom made significant advances in the fields of history and literary criticism.

It is a process with a historical precedent – we make the dominant discourses of the day concrete through an interaction with its negative; we mock the Romantics for their idealism, and we castigate the Victorians for their racism and imperialist attitudes. As the latter example proves, this process is not always in error. Dialectical advancement in thought is a necessary and often fruitful endeavor, but for this process to move forward beneficially, it must be based on accurate depictions and renderings. This, sadly, has not been the case for modern Marxist literary criticism, and the purveyors of a bastardized Marxism are diverse in politics and theory.

For too long have postmodern ideologies used Marxism as a crutch for their synthetic construction of antithetical ideologies. For example, Michael Foucault claimed proudly, “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else,” suggesting inexplicably that postmodern discourses are free from the chains of history. (4) Of all the anti-Marxist lingo that floated and floats around 20th and 21st century universities, this one is worth stopping upon as it is the root of many others. There is a deeply held belief that Marxism is “outdated.”This seems like a rather dubious accusation coming from departments still proudly teaching Russian Formalism and New-Criticism, two aged, if not sometimes useful, critical schools; and that is to say nothing of the present admiration of digging up obscure classical documents that our favorite early modern authors must certainly have read in Renaissance studies.

That’s not to say postmodern critics are the only ones castigating and co-opting Marxist literary theory. There is a distinct feeling on the left that theory, and even more so for literary theory, is for “academics.” Marxist literary critics are seen by many leftists as a bunch of less significant Althussers running around from journal to journal stringing five-dollar words together into a generally unintelligible mass of intellectual ego stroking. This is partly true, and party our fault. The pressures of making a living in academia are partly to blame, but that is the subject for an entirely different article. In this abbreviated medium, I want to explore the accusations that Marxism is outdated, historically dependent and abstract, and offer, with the help of Friedrich Engels (the first Marxist literary critic), some avenues for movement between abstract and real.

History and Propaganda:

The perceived crudeness and historical particularity of Marxism is a two-fold problem. For one, the idea supposes any ideology is not “crude” in terms of its relationship with the historical epoch in which it was created and resides. For another, many Marxist critics have indeed been crude in their analyses; seeking propaganda over truth, or, as critic Gaylord Leroy wrote, “seek(ing) songs of social significance” (3). The former can be unraveled by a peripheral study of history and theory, and the latter can be undone by an analysis of Marx and Engels’ very own vision of literature and criticism.

The postmodern love of accusing all other forms of literary criticism as being “outdated” or tied to limiting and historically specific metanarratives is one of the foundational aspects of their critical method. Lyotard, one of the first writers to identify “the postmodern condition,” elaborates: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language-” (8). Lyotard goes on in his canonical The Postmodern Condition to lump essentially all past human thought into the “metanarrative” camp. Marxism, a materialist strain, was particularly guilty. An ideology dependent on a progression towards communism, a conclusion based upon the implementation of the grand critical method of class struggle, was surely vanquished; dispersed into the netherworld of narrative and discourse.

We need only consider postmodernism’s own place in history to reject its authority on the issue of historical dependency. It’s quite peculiar that a critical method so vitriolically opposed to Marxism and even New-Historicism should suppose itself to be free of the chains of history. Indeed, a rejection of societal metanarratives is uniquely and keenly suited for our present historical epoch, sitting but a decade after “an age of extremes” as Hobsbawm would call it. The 20th century, and the modernist ideas that defined it, was a crucible of war, genocide, poverty, contradictory ideologies, states, and globalization. It is not so surprising that theorists would, in reaction to the tail-end of this age, reject the grand narratives of society. The very construction of postmodern thought, through its chief purveyors, was done through a specific rejection of not only Marxism but also the myths of bourgeois progress.

This inherently suggests that such ideology does indeed have fruitful uses, namely the rejection of capitalist notions of the individual and unlimited progress. We should read it as a reaction to the collapse of modernity and its ideology in the fires of the 20th century, just as we should also read Marxism as a reaction to the heightening of contradiction in emergent industrial capitalism in the 19th century. We should not think that since we have escaped the confines of a particular historical epoch that birthed both, for we are certainly no longer in the same historical conditions that procured Lytoard and Derrida, that the contributions of both schools are no longer valid.

In use, the contrary is true. It is a critical method’s interaction with its historical epoch that lends the most use-value to contemporary readers and practitioners. In seeing a theorist interact with his or her specific historical circumstances, we see his or her method in action. We are able to, as John Milton would say in his canonical Areopagitica, discourse with the author and their historical moment. We, perhaps most importantly, are able to substantively look at theory in relation to the material world, and judge freely on its merits and pitfalls in the divergent historical circumstances of today and tomorrow. It is the historical specificity of a critical method that lends the theory a long historical shadow. Ultimately, to tie history to a school of thought is to only add to its richness for contemporary readers. To strive for ahistorical thought as many postmodern critics have is to rob not only Marxism but also their very own critical method of much of its intellectual meat.

I haven’t forgotten those marxist critics that fail in this important task of presently implementing historically specific theory. For Freidrich Engels, the job of literature was to portray society, that is, a historically specific and identifiable one, realistically. Engels meant “real” denotatively; a Marxist novel portrayed the relations in society exactly as they existed. It was for this reason that Engels’ favorite author was Balzac, a political reactionary. For Engels, the Marxist seeks realism at all costs. Engels elaborates,

“I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under, our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.” (Engels, Engels to M. Kautsky)(2).

The author needn’t concern him or herself with “taking sides” or “serving” Marxist analysis on a platter to the reader. This is as true for critics as it is for authors. Marxist critics should avoid at all costs taking a critical stamp to every text or event, but seek instead to unravel the social reality of the text. We need, in short, to avoid propaganda and seek analysis. The previously quoted Gaylord Leroy elucidated a useful marxist analytic method along these lines: “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary” (3). Thus Marxist criticism must seek this second reality, one that is dialectically attached to our primary reality but fundamentally made different through individual synthesis and authorial creation. Attached to this is the foundationally Marxist concept that the individual, like the theory that sprouts from his hands, is historically specific.

In short, our job as critics and as authors is to seek the social realities of a text using the critical methods of Marxism and apply them sensitively to history, time and place. Engels reiterates:

“Failing to comprehend the ‘external circumstances’ and ‘class grounds’ for the development of the new, she (Kautsky) creates heroes that are ‘incarnations of a principle’… prepared models of ideal new people, standing outside society- Not analyzing the real live forces of social development Kautsky ardently strives for the ‘new’ principles my means of declarations, standarized propaganda.” (5)

We must analyse the “real live” forces at work within a text, and not bring into it fabricated notions and Marxist buzzwords and instead take the synthesized, historically specific method of Marx, Engels and others, and apply it to our specific historical moment or the specific historical moment of the text and the person who wrote it. Marxist literary criticism cannot be effective in using lazy analyses and crude class reductionism on texts that would be better served with an Engelsist elucidation of the real social relations at play within the text. We must stand inside of the society of the work and author, and in doing so, move from abstract to “real,” as defined by Engels.

From Abstract to Real:

Having considered postmodern critiques of Marxist literary theory and the school’s own faults, it’s high time we analyzed the notion that literary theory is a useless academic endeavor offering little to no value to a leftist movement. I will not argue, for reference, in defense of the liberal arts or humanities at large; as that is a job better left for an LAS administrator. I will, instead, argue for the relevancy of literary criticism in the collective consciousness of the left.

The notion that the study of literature is a “petty bourgeois” (who knew shop-keepers had such an interest in literature?) or “academic” endeavor that is largely useless to the left and working people is a prime example of the “crude Marxism” highlighted above. It supposes that the arts (of which literature is but one part) and criticism of the arts has no use to a working person, which is a ridiculous claim. Literature impacts the consciousness of those who read it, with very little doubt. On this issue, Engels agrees:

“The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.” (Engels, Engels to J. Bloch)(1).

As Mariela Castro, daughter of Vilma Espin and Raul Castro and member of the Cuban Communist Party said in a talk given in Havana in 2013, “-revolutions cannot transcend the minds of revolutionaries.” This, essentially, is the point Engels is making. A revolution is undoubtedly a class war, but a class war is fought by warriors – each with a consciousness interacting with varying discourses, religions, and politics (to use Engels’ examples). Literary theory is but a part of the consciousness of part of the revolutionaries, but the effect is substantive in both revolutionary movements and the establishment of revolutionary states. In Cuba, for example, Nicolas Guillen inspires an urban renewal project in the streets of Havana. Maxim Gorky’s socialist realism had material impacts on the Soviets’ conception of themselves and the ideal.

In summary,revolutions are indeed class wars, but they are fought by people influenced by their society. Engels castigated the bastardized Marxism that renders economics as the only catalyst in revolution in his letter to J. Bloch, writing,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase” (7).

Engels’ word choice is convenient (or manufactured?) for our point. When we reduce revolutions and the people who fight them to pawns in a game of class chess, we move from the real to the abstract. Literary theory practiced correctly and grounded in Marxist ideas of society and the real can and has had substantive effects on revolutionary societies. Thus, Marxist literary criticism is not abstract as many leftists suggest when partaken by a careful and sensitive practitioner, but the opposite. It is a catalyst of real thinking, an illuminator of those troublesome facets of the societies of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

When we truly look at Marxist literary criticism and its supposed weaknesses, its historical specificity as a weakness, its crudeness, and its supposed uselessness to leftist movements, we find the opposite is true in each case. We find instead historical specificity as a mark of effective criticism for modern implementation, its crudeness a product of bastardized and lazy readings, and its supposed uselessness a product of an incorrect rendering of true abstraction and revision.

As Marxist critics in a critical world that seeks to annihilate history and reduce texts to microcosms of the intellect of its author (or even its reader), the important task of finding Engels’ reality falls to us. To our various eras and literary movements we must seek that primary reality in the secondary reality of literature, avoiding with care a propagandist approach. Our job, as Engels suggests, is to find the tendrils connecting those primary and secondary realities and bring them to the fore; and in doing so, we proactively, if not explicitly, advocate for change in both.

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