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“Entangled Rhyme”: A Dialogic Reading of Melville’s Battle-Pieces DAVID DEVRIES Cornell University and HUGH EGAN Ithaca College H erman Melville’s agonized internal dialogues in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) recall Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the “relativizing of linguistic consciousness”—the play of multiple voices within a single text.1 Especially remarkable is the way that Melville’s collection refuses to capitulate to any easy emotional or intellectual reaction to the American Civil War. Throughout the work, a full range of rhetorical response to the conflict is on display. Melville’s collection not only resists reducing events to the limited views of partisan ideology, but it also engages readers in a confrontation with the problem of interpreting historical events, in particular the traumatic battles of the war. Although, as Melville makes clear in the supplementary essay he appended to the volume, he fervently desired that the country move beyond the violent polarizing of the war years, his skepticism did not allow him the luxury of a single-minded adherence to a particular set of political beliefs. Battle-Pieces is a history that resists the imperatives of most historiography: the tendency to allow a particular ideological pattern to determine the way that the events are written. Instead, the polyphony of voices in the poems subverts the totalizing gestures which partisan voices throughout the period so vociferously deployed in their attempts to wrest the meaning of events into their particular camps. Bakhtin defines such dialogic discourse as an exclusive property of the novel; poetry, by contrast, depends upon a univocal utterance of the author: In poetic genres, artistic consciousness—understood as a unity of all the author’s semantic and expressive intentions—fully realizes itself within its own language; in them alone is such consciousness fully immanent, expressing itself in it directly and without mediation, C  2007 The Authors Journal compilation C  2007 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 323. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 17 D E V R I E S A N D E G A N without conditions and without distance. The language of the poet is his language, he is utterly immersed in it, inseparable from it, he makes use of each form, each word, each expression according to its unmediated power to assign meaning (as it were “without quotation marks”), that is, as a pure and direct expression of his own intention. No matter what “agonies of the word” the poet endured in the process of creation, in the finished work language is an obedient organ, fully adequate to the author’s intention. (285-86, his emphasis) Bakhtin is writing conceptually rather than inclusively about poetry— Romantic and post-Romantic lyric poetry best fit this definition—and elsewhere admits that “in concrete examples of poetic works it is possible to find features fundamental to prose, and numerous hybrids of various generic types exist” (Bakhtin 287). Battle-Pieces is certainly one of these hybrids, but we cite Bakhtin at length because we believe Melville’s poetry resists his definition in every constituent part, and this resistance marks the poetry as distinctive. Unlike the poetry of most Romantic lyricists such as Keats or Whitman, Melville’s Civil War poems, read individually or collectively, do not appear to issue from a single lyric consciousness. Rather, Melville employs indirection, qualification, tonal disjunction, and spectatorial distance to upset familiar assumptions regarding author, speaker, and vision; his poetry thereby reflects an array of attitudes on the events which the poems are written to commemorate. The language is not always even his language, for certain poems in Battle-Pieces echo canonical texts, rely directly on journalistic accounts, or otherwise use explicit or implicit quotations. And perhaps most important, in terms of Bakhtin’s belief that the poet’s words are fully adequate to his intention, we believe that a great many of these poems are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 17-33
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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