Thursday, April 12, 2012

`Do Not Bring to Me Your Rage and Protest'

One hundred fifty-one years ago today, as Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906) was a student of the great Swiss-born zoologist Louis Agassiz in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard. Still a year away from graduating, Shaler resolved to continue his studies while preparing for war. He joined the university’s drill club, studied infantry tactics, read Jomini’s Traité de grande tactique and every weekend visited Fort Independence in Boston Harbor to learn about artillery.

After graduating summa cum laude in 1862, Shaler returned to his native Kentucky, where he was commissioned to raise the Fifth Kentucky Battery on the Union side, despite coming from a slave-owning family. He detested the Republican Party and many of his Kentucky friends had already joined the Confederate cause, but Shaler believed in the principle of the Union, which he called “a most useful convenience for uniting like states for protection and interchange.”
Shaler served for two years until illness forced his resignation. For almost forty years he taught geology and paleontology at Harvard, and late in life wrote the poems collected in From Old Fields: Poems of the Civil War. Shaler’s wife published the book shortly after his death in 1906. I’ve described my experience reading the volume’s first edition, but I suggest you find a copy of The Selected Civil War Poems of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (Scienter Press, 2004), edited by the poet, publisher and Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, R.L. Barth, who includes a useful introduction to Shaler’s life and work. He writes:
“Shaler was a Civil War combat veteran; he thought long and hard about combat, war, and soldiering; although a poetic amateur, he had certain poetic skills, chief among them narrative power, an ability to write fluid blank verse, and an eye for telling details, sharply perceived and rendered.”
Barth says Shaler’s best poems are “shrewdly observed and profoundly moving.” Among them is “The Way with Mutineers,” in which Barth says “Shaler rebukes contemporary readers—especially, one assumes, his overly liberal ones.” Here are the concluding lines:
“So do not bring
To me your rage and protest good the way
Our comrades use the water cure and else
Of shame on Filipinos; just as well
Complain that Tophet’s hot: that devils do
Their damndest in its circles.”
More than almost any other Civil War poetry (Melville’s being the sole exception), and more than any combat poetry written before World War I [save Homer's, as George notes in his comment below -- thanks, George], Shaler’s is, as Barth says, “tough-minded and faces facts unflinchingly.” Barth compares Shaler’s work to George Crabbe’s, saying:
“The virtues of this kind of poetry are clean narrative, simplicity of presentation, insight into character, experience of life. Everything else—the ego of the poet or verbal pyrotechnics, for instance—is subservient to subject and theme. It may well be that in the final analysis the point is this: Shaler, like Crabbe before him, had a subject other than his own ego, a real subject in the objective world realistically handled.”

1 comment:

George said...

'... more than any combat poetry written before World War I, Shaler’s is, as Barth says, “tough-minded and faces facts unflinchingly.”'

Are we counting The Iliad? The scholars says that Homer is weak on the details of tactics (chariot fighting) and weapons (shields of differing periods on the same field), but he is unsparing in his description of wounds, mostly fatal.