What Like a Bullet Can Undeceive?
In the days after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, Robert Pinsky— the former poet laureate and creator of the “America’s Favorite Poems” project—appeared on television reading poems of consolation. This seemed to many people a natural thing to do, I’m sure. Art is commonly thought to have a redemptive task in difficult times. The poem that I will discuss here, Herman Melville’s “Shiloh,” was written in New York at a similar time of violent crisis. The poem clearly answers to the expectation of redemption through art. But consolation and redemption are precisely what I’d like to avoid here. What is most interesting about the poem to me is a paradox in its redemptive language—one that says much about how violence comes to be scandalous, about the traps of redemption, and about the dilemmas of liberal culture.
“Shiloh” refers to an 1862 battle in the Civil War, the first of the colossally destructive battles that stunned participants on both sides by the scale of mechanized killing. Melville probably wrote the poem in 1864 or shortly after and published it in 1866 in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his first and best book of poetry, written after his novelistic career had essentially ended in failure. It is an unaccountably beautiful poem, building up to an extraordinary single line, which it shudders away from and contains in parentheses: “(What like a bullet can undeceive!).”1
(April, 1862.) 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.
It is not hard to see why Melville might have felt the need for parentheses to cordon off the climactic burst of recognition. (In other ways the parentheses expand its resonance, as we will see.) The line looks forward to the prose “Supplement,” tucked in the back of Battle-Pieces after the notes; there, in convoluted and defensive language, Melville argues for amnesty in Reconstruction—a position that goes a long way toward explaining the dismal commercial failure of the book.2 (It sold 486 copies in its first eighteen months.) Like Walt Whitman, who published Drum-Taps in 1865, Melville clearly thought that a book of war poetry would feed some new public hunger in the war’s immediate aftermath. Battle- Pieces appeared amid Northern triumphalism, and many of its poems celebrate the causes of union and antislavery. Yet the climactic line of “Shiloh,” like other moments in the book, forswears any motivating structure for violence.
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- Herman Melville, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, ed. Sidney Kaplan (1866; Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars Facsimiles, 1960), 63.
- Robert J. Scholnick, “Politics and Poetics: The Reception of Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War,” American Literature 49 (1977): 422–30.