Monday, May 26, 2014

`The Glory of the War Falls Short of Its Pathos'

The epigraph Helen Pinkerton adds to “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002), a dramatic-monologue-turned-verse-letter, is a well-known phrase from Lucan’s Bellum Civile (I, 28): victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni. That is, “The winning cause pleased the gods, but the vanquished pleased Cato.” The poem concerns the Roman civil war (49-45 B.C.) between supporters of Julius Caesar and Pompey. In common parlance (if we can use that phrase in connection with anything written in Latin), Lucan’s tag is used to console supporters of a losing cause. 

In English, of course, Lucan’s epic can be titled The Civil War, which Pinkerton juxtaposes with the American Civil War, using Melville as her speaker. In 1866, he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, a collection of seventy-two poems. In poems like “Lee in the Capitol (April 1866),” the author of Moby-Dick expressed empathy for the defeated South and a hope for national reconciliation. Melville’s sentiments were not popular with all Northerners, many of whom sought revenge on their countrymen. In his prose “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces, Melville writes: “Noble was the gesture into which patriotic passion surprised the people in a utilitarian time and country; yet the glory of the war falls short of its pathos -- a pathos which now at last ought to disarm all animosity.” Late in his life (Pinkerton dates the letter 1888, three years before his death), Melville corresponded with Russell (1844-1911), a British novelist and historian. In this passage, Melville (via Pinkerton), the side of the soldiers, Union and Confederate, remain unidentified: 

“Boys in the wild wind fell
Like autumn leaves in a New England gale,
Or lay in swathes, blue as a Cape Cod pond,
Their fresh young flesh scythed down with ripened wheat
Or plucked unripe in orchards, berry patches,
Their bodies, under dying horses’ hooves,
Crushed like the late June clover their feet crushed
Hastening to Gettysburg.” 

Lucan’s phrase, victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni, is inscribed on the base of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

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