Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Polished and Precise Like the Brains Behind the Gun Should Be

I'm reading Battle-Pieces, Melville's collection of Civil War poems right now. Melville is not typically known as a poet--if you've read any of his verse, it's likely only "Billy in the Darbies," the brief poem that concludes Billy Budd, Sailor. And there's a reason for that: He's mostly hamfisted, although he's got a few lines of great power. (My favorite so far is "Storms are formed behind the storm we feel." I'm not sure what to make of it, but it sticks in my brain.)

One thing Melville repeatedly suggests is that war is a young man's game, fought and apparently controlled entirely by youth while the older, wiser, and more experienced men stand beside helplessly:
Grief to every graybeard
When young Indians lead the war ("Apathy and Enthusiasm" II.21, 22).
And, more to the point:
Youth must its ignorant impulse lend--
Age finds place in the rear.
All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys ("The March Into Virginia" 4-6).
I'm no Civil War scholar, but wasn't the war started by old men? Hasn't this been the case for wars all throughout history? Old men start the wars and then step aside to let young men fight them. That's certainly the rhetoric around our current war.

And so I wonder if Melville's condemnation isn't misplaced. The young fight the wars, but then, they're forced to. Theirs is the enthusiasm--the old men have the apathy, although it is only personal apathy. They're more than willing to take a vested political or economical interest in the war and then send the young men off to die for that interest.

Czeslaw Milosz seems to be much closer to the point in his beautiful, heartbreaking "Child of Europe," written in the immediate aftermath of World War II:
The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history. (5.7-8)
Milosz's sarcasm gets at the same idea as Melville but makes things clearer: It's not the young men's fault. It's the old men who behave as young men--the old men, who should know better but force themselves not to.

By the way, if anyone reading this knows more about the Civil War than I do and wants to correct my impressions, please do.


Meredith said...

I don't know much, but I like Milosz....

interesting post

slant-truth said...

I agree with your comment about age and war, and would add that the conflict can be analyzed across lines of class ("It's a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight," etc.). Seems that the rich men are usually also the old ones and the poor the young ones. Makes me think of Wilfred Owen's war poems. Have you read him?

Michial said...


Were you assigned Milosz in a class? How did you discover him? I don't know a lot of people who have read him.


I've not read anything by Owen other than "Dulce et Decorum est," but I liked it. Melville's poetry also reminds me of Stephen Crane's, although I'll argue that Crane's is better written.

distractedblues said...

Patricia Hampl wrote some pretty interesting things on Milosz. One of her books (A Romantic Education) involves stories of spending time in the Czech Republic trying to learn more about him. She also has an essay about him (as I recall) in I Could Tell You Stories.

u-g man said...

I'm with you in your reading of history, but not in your reading of Melville--

Youth must its ignorant impulse lend--
Age finds place in the rear.
All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys

So . . . You are right, as Melville suggests, that war is the creature of old men serving their institions, and ignited from the rear where "age finds place." Cozy "in the rear," old men serve "boyish," in more sinister terms faustian, impulses; and the young, inherently hapless in throwing their bodies into servicing those same impulses, effectively clueless to their origin, bleed eternally on that playground not of their own making.

Elsewhere we read,

Hail to victory without the gaud
Of glory; zeal that needs no fans
Of banners; plain mechanic power
Plied cogently in War now placed --
Where War belongs --
Among the trades and artisans.

Yet this was battle, and intense --
Beyond the strife of fleets heroic;
Deadlier, closer, calm 'mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank,
Pivot, and screw,
And calculations of caloric.

Here and elsewhere ("The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and "Bartleby the Scrivener") Melville "rage[s] against the machine," a prophet denouncing principalities and powers, no friend of the oligarchs--soldiers, mere boys in a sense, are likewise mere "accessories to the machinery," wheel and pawl, interchangeable parts expendable given the hoped-for shelf life.