Anti-War Essays

Anti-War Essays-73
As a subject for poetry, war has an immediate advantage over peace, because war entails action, whereas the experience of peace is an absence, not noticed until not there, like the absence of pain.War was the first subject to quicken the pen of an epic poet.

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Walt Whitman embodied in his verse -- and in the self that he fashioned – the American bard as Emerson had envisaged him in his essay “The Poet.” Walter Whitman, journeyman printer and sometime newspaperman, became in his poetry “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a cosmos,” who is as independent of the English verse-making tradition as of literary language altogether.

In the Civil War, Whitman worked as a nurse and solace-giver to soldiers, adopting the role of “Wound-Dresser” in his poetry.

/ Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.” [4] But the soldiers’ footfalls die away, and the war gives us the hush of a battlefield just after the battle (“Shiloh”) or the “Atheist roar of riot” when mobs in New York City protested the draft and lynched black men (“The House-Top”).

When we read Lincoln’s oratory we are lifted in spirit.

Though it has its war episodes – about, for example, John Paul Jones’s naval heroics or the battle of the Alamo -- “Song of Myself” is essentially a poem of peace, praising in its lists the occupations and daily rounds of men and women.

In his Civil War poems, such as the sublime “Reconciliation,” the relation between self and other is replicated between enemy soldiers. “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself as is dead, / I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near, / Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.” Of the poets loyal to the Confederacy, Henry Timrod makes the strongest claim on our sympathy.But the author of knew that the scenes of the Trojan hero Hector in battle with Patroclus and later with Achilles would not be so remarkable if there were not also a tender scene of Hector bidding farewell to Andromache, his wife, and their baby boy, who is scared of daddy’s helmet.Epic poets have followed Homer’s lead, widening the scope of war inevitably to include peace – whether peace be construed as the absence of hostilities or as something positive in its own right.“Charleston,” his ode to that city, depicts “her” as poised on the brink of battle: “in the temple of the Fates, / God has inscribed her doom; / And, all untroubled in her faith, she waits / The triumph or the tomb.” The poem is moving in its restraint, and one does not have to stretch far to see in the words a chilling premonition of disaster.For two or more years during the Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem every day – not programmatically but simply as the effect of an astonishing burst of creative power.: the title of Tolstoy’s massive novel of Napoleonic Europe trips off the tongue.Not so “peace and war”: the inversion of the customary word order represents a victory of hope over experience — or of the poetry of aspiration over the prose of sad actuality.When we read Melville on this bloodiest conflict in our history, we come face to face with the possibility that some cherished principles are merely coins with no gold backing them up.The notion that “Man is naturally good” does not survive long in Melville’s universe.Inevitably the three hundred men were killed, but their deaths accomplished more than the delay of the Persian invasion timetable.On a monument at the site this message appears: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, / that here obedient to their words we lie.”[5] Dickinson’s poem honors the spirit of sacrifice and duty, though she also raises the question of whether love rather than obedience to the law, “a Lure – a Longing,” motivated the unyielding soldiers of Sparta: “Go tell it” – What a Message – To whom – is specified – Not murmur – not endearment – But simply – we – obeyed— Obeyed – a Lure – a Longing?


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