This week we feature a well known author, Herman Melville, who after the success of Moby Dick, turned to war poetry, Shiloh, A Requiem.
Herman Melville is best known as the author of Moby Dick, but long after his career as a novelist had faded he produced some of his most important writing in the form of war poetry. In particular the collection Battle Pieces (1866) described the American Civil War in much the same way as poets would later write about World War 1.
The Civil War prefigured many of the techniques for killing that became staples of modern warfare and Melville was ahead of his time both in his sensibility as a poet and in his approach to the subject matter. The material for the poem Shiloh came from newspaper reports of the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, which took place on April 1, 1862, but Melville visited the front with his brother in 1864 and was deeply affected by what he saw there. Shiloh is one of the best known poems from Battle Pieces.
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.
Herman Melville, April 1862