“Malvern elms, limbs sap-filled and leaves green,
Spring an easy consolation;
However, where may they turn, who’ve known a jungle
Blasted by defoliation?”
Barth writes as a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. He refers to the decade-long use by American forces of chemical defoliants, the most widely known being Agent Orange. The goal was to strip trees of foliage to prevent the enemy from concealing supplies and encampments. Traditionally, spring is a consolation for another winter endured, a rebirth of nature and hope, and green is its color, as in Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade.” Barth’s jungle is “blasted,” denuded, without “easy consolation.” He borrows the title from another poem from another war, Melville’s “Malvern Hill,” subtitled “(July, 1862).” Barth quotes Melville’s italicized envoi:
“We elms of Malvern Hill
Remember every thing;
But sap the twig will fill;
Wag the world how it will,
Leaves must be green in Spring.”
The Battle of Malvern Hill took place near Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, on July 1, 1862. It was the last of the Seven Days Battles in the Peninsula Campaign, and prompted Confederate General Daniel H. Hill to say: “It was not war -- it was murder.” Union artillery from its position on the hilltop slaughtered Lee’s troops. Confederate casualties in one day of fighting totaled some 5,550; Union, about 3,000. In a grim twist, McClellan and his forces, despite the victory, retreated to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, and Richmond remained securely behind Confederate lines until the war was nearly concluded.
In their notes to “Malvern Hill” in Published Poems (Northwestern University Press/The Newberry Library, 2009), the editors suggest Melville may have taken the elms and their stately indifference from an article in the Grenada (Mississippi) Appeal, a Memphis newspaper “which published in various places as it dodged battle zones during the war”:
“The house at Malvern Hill is a quaint old structure . . . . A fine grove of ancient elms embowers the lawn in a grateful shade, affording numberless vistas of far-off wheat-fields and little gleaming brooks of water, with the dark blue fringe of the primitive pines on the horizon. It seemed a bitter satire on the wickedness of man, this peaceful, serene, harmonious aspect of nature, and I turned from the joyous and quiet landscape to the mutilated victims around me with something like a malediction upon Seward and Lincoln and their participants in the crime of bringing on this accursed war.”
Melville’s poem is a dialogue between a Union soldier and the elms, notably unromantic and unconsoling: “Ah wilds of woe!” The speaker asks, “Does Malvern Wood / Bethink itself, and muse and brood?” The trees reply with the italicized stanza quoted above. Barth’s war, too, is without glamor or Hollywood’s version of valor, death and redemption. Like Martial, Swift and J.V. Cunningham, he has something to say and says it in the plain style. In another poem from Deeply Dug In, “A Letter to the Dead,” Barth salutes the poets of yet another war:
“The outpost trench is deep with mud tonight.
Cold with the mountain winds and two weeks' rain,
I watch the concertina. The starlight-
Scope hums, and rats assault the bunkers again.
“You watch with me: Owen, Blunden, Sassoon.
Through sentry duty, everything you meant
Thickens to fear of nights without a moon.
War's war. We are, my friends, no different.”