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“They Answered Him Aloud”: Popular Voice and Nationalist Discourse in Melville’s Battle-Pieces FAITH BARRETT Lawrence University I n Battle-Pieces, Herman Melville examines the possibilities poetic voice offers for speaking to and for the divided nation. While scholars often approach the poems thematically, focusing on Melville’s engagement with post-war ideologies of reconciliation, I argue that Melville is as interested in the discursive functions and formal properties of poetry as he is in post-war debates about Unionism.1 The volume’s full title, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, already gestures toward the splitting of the nation, evoking a proliferation of vantage points or “aspects” on that conflict; scholars often comment on this restlessness of perspective, arguing that Melville’s speakers can find no stable position from which to observe the war.2 In choosing to write poetry, Melville turns to a form that allows him greater freedom than prose might: the freedom to explore multiple perspectives through a range of voice-effects, including the apostrophe, the exclamation, the refrain, dialogue, and the use of multiple speakers within one poem. These effects foreground the conceit of voice, the illusion that the poem is not a written text but rather a voice calling out. While scholars have remarked on the volume’s high-literary devices— its lofty apostrophes, elaborate metrical and rhyme patterns, or extensive network of classical allusions—I contend that Melville mixes high and popular C  2007 The Authors Journal compilation C  2007 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 For articles on Melville’s intervention in post-war debates about reconciliation, see Deak Nabers, “‘Victory of LAW’: Melville and Reconstruction,” American Literature 75 (2003): 1-30 and Paul Dowling, “Melville’s Quarrel with Poetry,” in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, ed. Richard H. Cox and Paul Dowling (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2001), 325-49. Timothy Sweet’s Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1990) focuses on representations of the pastoral in Whitman, Melville, and a group of Civil War photographers. Reading the poems in relation to Unionist ideology, Sweet argues that Melville’s Battle-Pieces is deeply skeptical of representations “that enlist nature in the service of legitimating [the war’s] violence” (7). My analysis of Battle-Pieces is indebted to Sweet’s insightful study. I would like to thank Melanie Boyd, Cristanne Miller, Samuel Otter, Elizabeth Renker, Monica Rico, and Douglas Robillard for their helpful responses to this essay. 2 Hsuan Hsu examines the decentering of the observer’s perspective and Melville’s engagement with painterly aesthetics in “War, Ekphrasis, and Elliptical Form in Melville’s Battle-Pieces,” Nineteenth-Century Studies 16 (2002): 51-71. 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 35 F A I T H B A R R E T T voice-effects not only to appeal to a broader audience but also because he is torn between a desire to critique nationalist poetry and a desire for the consolations that a nationalist poetry might offer.3 While New Criticism teaches us to value the syntactic compression and elliptical ambiguities of the most innovative of these poems (“The Portent,” for example, or “Shiloh”), it has also led scholars to neglect those poems that respond most directly to popular and nationalist strains in Civil War poetry. Yet the range of work in Battle-Pieces makes clear that Melville was keenly aware of the central role that poetry had played in war-time discourses and of the role it might continue to play in the war’s aftermath. Reading Melville’s transition from novelist to poet, Robert Milder argues that Melville shifted from “a popular, mimetic art (narrative) to a formal, largely private one (poetry).”4 I will counter that Melville is acutely aware that poetry is a popular and public art in the Civil War era. Thus, in shaping Battle-Pieces into what Milder calls “a vehicle for persuasion” (Milder 196), Melville enters into a lively debate about what...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 35-49
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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