Marrs's essay considers how Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) provides an immanent account, or inside narrative, of the author's transition from novelist to poet. Focusing on the relation between his figurations of time and the structures of his verse, Marrs argues that Melville's turn to poetry originates not in a politico-aesthetic reversal or withdrawal—as some critics have argued—but rather in a revised understanding of historical change. In his experience of the Civil War, Melville comes to perceive history as an agent of destructive repetition. This altered historical sensibility, Marrs demonstrates, not only leads him to conjoin the South's rebellion to an extended series of upheavals, from the bloody coups of ancient Rome to the peasant rebellions of medieval France, but also stimulates the very form of his poetry, in which damaged rhymes, broken meters, and twisted syntax attempt to carry the weight of the war and its chronopolitical meanings. In Battle-Pieces, the war's historical significance becomes a matter of intense formal interest, as Melville connects the mechanics of his verse to an idea of aesthetic time according to which poetry's aleatory and self-determined temporality exceeds or escapes the force of historical necessity. What Melville creates in Battle-Pieces through this fusion of politics and aesthetics is nothing less than a novel lyric form, one whose strange capaciousness has everything to do with its refractions and rearrangements of historical time.
Skip Nav Destination
Cody Marrs; A Wayward Art: Battle-Pieces and Melville's Poetic Turn. American Literature 1 March 2010; 82 (1): 91–119. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2009-070
Download citation file: