Monday, May 27, 2024

'The Brave Respect the Brave'

In observance of Memorial Day, R.L. Barth sent me a poem by Ambrose Bierce, one I had never read before, “To E.S. Salomon” (Black Beetles in Amber, 1892). Here is the memorably pertinent third stanza: 

“The brave respect the brave. The brave

Respect the dead; but you -- you draw

That ancient blade, the ass’s jaw,

And shake it o’er a hero’s grave.”


Bierce added a subtitle: “Who in a Memorial Day oration protested bitterly / against decorating the graves of Confederate dead.” The poem is addressed to Edward Selig Salomon (1836-1913), who emigrated from Germany in 1854, settled in Chicago, studied law and during the Civil War served as a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army. After the war, President Grant named him governor of the Washington Territories. In 1875 he resumed the practice of law in San Francisco, and became a state legislator and assistant district attorney. In other words, a politician.


In 1861, at age nineteen, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry. He fought at Shiloh and in June 1864, during the Battle of  Kennesaw Mountain, was severely wounded. Bierce was awarded the rank of brevet major before resigning from the Army in 1866. He condemns Salomon for failing to recognize the Confederate war dead as fellow Americans and soldiers worthy of respect. Bierce’s poem concludes:


“The wretch, whate’er his life and lot,

Who does not love the harmless dead

With all his heart and all his head --

May God forgive him, I shall not.


“When, Salomon, you come to quaff

The Darker Cup with meeker face,

I, loving you at last, shall trace

Upon your tomb this epitaph:


“Draw near, ye generous and brave --

Kneel round this monument and weep

For one who tried in vain to keep

A flower from a soldier’s grave.”


Thanks to the late poet and Civil War scholar Helen Pinkerton, I came to understand that Melville’s “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)” is probably the great poem of the Civil War. Part narrative, part interior and dramatic monologue, the poem is rooted in historical events: Confederate general Robert E. Lee appearing in the U.S. Congress on February 17, 1866, before the Joint Sub-Committee on Reconstruction. The committee convened to resolve antagonisms between the Radical Republicans in Congress and President Andrew Johnson over how reconstruction was to be carried out. In his poem, Melville crafts a fictional speech for Lee, in which the retired general holds both sides responsible for the war; in particular, the politicians (“intermeddlers”). The final lines of Melville’s poem, spoken not by Lee but the narrator, comment on the likely failure of politicians and others – the Radical Republicans, in particular -- to learn from history:


“But no. Brave though the Soldier [Lee], grave his plea--

Catching the light in the future’s skies,

Instinct disowns each darkening prophecy:

Faith in America never dies;

Heaven shall the end ordained fulfill,

We march with Providence cheery still.”


The poem is extraordinary because Melville, a strong Union supporter during the war, sympathetically projects himself into the voice of the great Confederate general and implicitly urges reconciliation. In the prose “Supplement” appended to Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), in which “Lee in the Capitol” was published, Melville urges the Radical Republicans to practice “prudence, not unaligned with entire magnanimity,” and wrote:


“Benevolence and policy—Christianity and Machiavelli—dissuade from penal severities toward the subdued . . .”


While Bierce, as a veteran, urges the nation to honor all of the American dead, North and South, Melville the civilian promotes a larger reconciliation between the former antagonists, with the goal of preserving the Union. Melville possessed the fiction writer’s essential gift of projecting himself empathetically into characters unlike himself. As Pinkerton writes in  “’Brave Though the Soldier, Grave His Plea,’ Melville and Robert E. Lee” (The Sewanee Review, Spring 2010), “One of the reasons Melville saw the war as a profound tragedy, when other notable Union poets did not, was that he saw it from more than one perspective.” Pinkerton adds another layer of historical resonance to our understanding of Melville and the Civil War. In her poem “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell” (Taken in Faith, 2002), she channels Melville’s voice much as Melville channels Lee’s. Near the poem’s conclusion, Helen has Melville refer to his poem “Lee in the Capitol”:


“You will remember, perhaps,

In my long poem dramatizing Lee

As spokesman for the South before the Senate,

I pled, with his imagined eloquence,

For reconcilement, magnanimity;

And in another, argued for charity,

As Grant showed Lee, which Lincoln meant to show,

Which truest soldiers felt for former foes,

Some of them men who fought and suffered most . . .”


Helen intensifies Melville’s plea for “benevolence and policy,” and his anguish, and concludes her poem:


“For the wound bleeds yet in my soul, divided

And suffering yet with them in spirit, but not,

Like them, endowed with holy faith. If I,

Remembering, honoring, suffering as I do,

See only a worldly end as their intention,

Share our time’s judgment of the Right made Law,

And its opinion that the Wrong put down

Validated all the blood, and fire, and hate,

Justified, too, the wrong we did our brothers,

Then I could not be true to those who lost,

To whose faith, I without faith, must return,

And in my meditations speak their names.”


In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defines “war” as “a by-product of the arts of peace. The most menacing political condition is a period of international amity.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

I'm partial to Melville's "Shiloh: a Requiem" with its devastating lines, speaking of the Union and Confederate dead:

Foemen at morn, but friends at eve -
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undecieve!)