Tuesday, August 10, 2010

`A Small Increase of Right'

I sat beside an Army captain half my age on the flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C. He’s a Mexican-American born in Brownsville who joined ROTC at Texas A&M and has served two tours in Iraq. His desert-camouflage-covered day book is scorched on the back – by a Humvee’s muffler, he explained. He’s a polite, thoughtful, soft-spoken fellow, and he spent much of the flight writing e-mails on his laptop and processing a stack of invoices. We talked music – his iPod mostly holds Mozart and Miles Davis – and military history, and shook our heads over Burnside’s debacle at Fredericksburg.

I was on the aisle seat and the first landmark I recognized through the window as we descended into Washington was Arlington Cemetery and then, briefly, the Lincoln Memorial. For much of the flight I was reading Helen Pinkerton’s Taken in Faith: Poems, in particular the four dramatic monologues she devotes to the causes and legacies of the Civil War. From “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell,” I noted these lines, written in Melville’s voice about the dead on both sides:

“They felt their immortality beyond
The fame we try to give them with our words.”

Lincoln appears, though not by name, in “Lemuel Shaw’s Meditation.” Shaw (1781-1861) was Melville’s father-in-law and the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He opposed slavery but was compelled by the law in several cases to order the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Pinkerton’s poem is set in 1861 between Lincoln’s election as president and the start of the war on April 12. Shaw died on March 31. The poem weaves Shaw’s affection for Melville and admiration for his books with slavery, Lincoln and the looming war. Here is Shaw’s first mention of Lincoln:

“Then I recalled a speech made years ago,
A strong lyceum speech in Illinois
By a young Western lawyer, a Whig like me,
That made my point exactly: the risk we ran
In that mob-ridden time, prelude to this,
That some mad, towering genius, seeking glory,
Through antislavery or its opposite,
Might overturn our laws, for personal fame,
Might break the Union to enhance his name.
The lawyer urged obedience to law
Till laws, if bad, as slavery’s code, be changed.”

Near the end of the poem Lincoln reappears, this time as president. At least in Pinkerton’s retelling of history, Shaw has read Moby-Dick:

“If this young lawyer—no one-idea’d Ahab
Nor coward Starbuck he – can find his way
As President, during the coming conflict
To use his war powers, citing the Union’s need
In mortal danger, for black-soldier power,
Ending the nightmare slavery has been,
Though he’ll not change our human nature’s evil,
He might permit a lessening of the wrong,
A small increase of right.”

Pinkerton’s epigraph is from Chapter 132, “The Symphony,” one of Ahab’s great Lear-like rants in Moby-Dick:

“Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Wonderful excerpts of the Pinkerton poem. Beyond the character acuity and historical realism, they dramatize the conflict of being in the world but not of the world, how to endure moral wrongs with hope and forbearance, knowing that all political solutions are partial at best, false at worst.