Both Walt Whitman and Herman Melville wrote poetry about the Civil War, and while Whitman's is better known, Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) remains an interesting experiment in improvisation, a kind of “blues” lament for a loss that could not be reconstructed. Melville pursues several key questions: Is art meaningful in the face of chaos? Can imagination counter traumatic events? Melville's poetry provides no sure answers and is therefore troubling, if not annihilating, to the concept of art as therapeutic. But the question of whether art is useful in times of conflict was one that long engaged Melville. Much could be said about Moby-Dick and irresponsible bloodshed. This essay revisits Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855), which anticipates the tenor, form, and loss of hope that comes to the fore in Battle-Pieces. I make this turn to the serial novel for several reasons. First, I will demonstrate that what some call Potter's incoherence is evidence of Melville's lost faith in narrative; second, Potter is about war and politics, as is the poetry; and third, I will show that it was not until Melville faced the Civil War in a poetic form of his own that he understood the Republic as lost.
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Stephanie A. Smith; Union Blues: Melville's Poetic In(ter)ventions. Genre 1 April 2014; 47 (1): 21–53. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-2392357
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