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The Ethics of Postbellum Melancholy in the Poetry of Sarah Piatt
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Sarah Piatt composed a body of postbellum poetry profoundly volatized by the fault lines of American history. Born into a family of slaveholders in Lexington, Kentucky in 1836, Piatt moved north of the Mason-Dixon Line just months after the Civil War began, and never again returned to the South, memories of which defined her poetry in complex ways.1 Her starkly psychological work, the result of a melancholic relationship with losses that were both historical and personal, refused to offer formulaic moral conclusions to readers during the Reconstruction era. Eschewing the pedagogical, moral function common to late nineteenth-century American poetry, Piatt instead exposes her readers to a precarious ethical space, in which idealism and irony, nostalgia and skepticism continually co-exist in unsettling and unpredictable ways. Her unwillingness to assert rhetorical resolutions in the face of personal and political crisis defied the ideological stances and sympathetic identifications normally found in sentimental poetics. Indeed, this tendency in Piatt struck many contemporary readers by a radical ambivalence that was largely unfamiliar in poetry of the time. “Wayward, abrupt, enigmatic, and prolific in hints and innuendoes,” as one reviewer phrased it, Piatt’s poetry is riddled with “questions it neglects to answer.”2

Piatt’s unanswered questions resemble those that antebellum sentimental literature had usually responded to so directly and so emphatically. Whether navigating the grief that follows a child’s death or arguing for political reform in the public sphere, sentimental poets before the war had attempted to provide consolation, solidarity and inspiration to readers in the face of their most insoluble crises. Indeed, there had always been a morality and progressivism undergirding sentimental poetry, whose ultimate aim was to strengthen the fabric of communal life, whether at the level of family, village, or nation. What distinguishes Piatt’s postbellum revaluation of sentimentalism is her unwillingness to participate unequivocally in what Mary Louise Kete has called the “culture-building power of sentimental discourse.”3 While Piatt continued to use the generic styles, forms and idioms of that discourse, something prohibited her from asserting the conventional moral stances of antebellum sentimentalism, or from aspiring to the same socio-political goals that had provided the telos for many antebellum poets.

In this essay, I argue that this disjunction—between the means of sentimental poetics, which Piatt consistently deploys, and the ideological ends of sentimental poetics, which she persistently doubts—must be understood in terms of the irremediable melancholy that runs through her poetry. Following the war, this poet’s highly riven, melancholic constitution was so powerful and so pervasive that it often verged upon portraying a rather nihilistic attitude toward the future. As Nietzsche realized about nihilism, its “conviction of an absolute untenability of existence when it comes to the highest values one recognizes” does not constitute a teaching, but a fallen teaching.4 Indeed, Piatt’s flirtation with nihilism is particularly striking, given that the majority of her poems are mother-child dialogues dramatized within a domestic education setting, one context within which the transmission of moral lessons is usually to be found in sentimental literature. In many of these poems, however, Piatt introduces us to a space that has come perilously unmoored from the moral certainty of antebellum sentimentalism. Her remarkable ability to sustain herself as both parent and poet within this contradictory and ungrounded space leads to what I call the ethics of melancholy in her poetry. For Piatt bravely exposes us to a modern relationship with the loss of cultural value, that feeling of living en abyme, stripped of the bearings offered by a culture’s moral compass. Her poetry is ethical precisely because it so arduously attempts to confront a series of losses—in cultural value, in religious faith, in the sentimental ideology of a shared communal life—without shying away from the irresolvable ambivalences and contradictions that roil in its wake. Above all, it is the unrepressed melancholy of Piatt’s work that allows her poetry to reflect the deep paradoxes of the postbellum decades, when a rising tide of skepticism concerning sentimental values was accompanied by a persistent attachment to the forms and habits of sentimental discourse.

While melancholy has been recognized as a key...

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