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natural prayer

June 23, 2010, 8:45 pm

I had a vaguely negative impression (mainly received rather than first-hand) of Herman Melville’s abilities as a poet; but “Shiloh” is pretty strong.

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
    The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
    The forest-field of Shiloh —
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
    Around the church of Shiloh —
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
        And natural prayer
    Of dying foemen mingled there —
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve —
    Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
    But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
    And all is hushed at Shiloh.

A military sentimentality I can get behind. The density of rhyme is certainly artificial, and the specific rhymes could be criticized as “easy”; but they’re effective nonetheless. For example, in lone/one/groan, the weak word is “one”, but since it’s weak both semantically and phonetically, there’s a harmony to the choice; the result is almost as if the line division had fallen four syllables earlier. And I always appreciate a layered temporal perspective: the foreground, so to speak, is the present, with swallows in clouded days, and the background is the famous battle, but the focus of the poem is on a middle ground, the night after the battle, in which the foemen painfully died.

(I have no special occasion to post this — I happened on an old bookmark.)

UPDATE: Restored thanks to Eric’s quick warning and Google’s all-seeing cache.

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