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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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