Shiloh (Herman Melville poem) Background

Shiloh (Herman Melville poem) Background

In 1857, Herman Melville made one last attempt at attaining success as a novelist as writer far ahead of his time with the publication of The Confidence-Man. (Billy Budd would ultimately be his last novel to be published, but posthumously.) The failure to achieve his dream drove Melville to focus his writing energy on short stories and poetry and in 1866 the result of the latter was Battle-Pieces, a collection of verse inspired by the Civil War which had been ranging for most of the interim. Almost immediately, this collection lapsed into obscurity and, like Moby-Dick, seemed to become one of those hidden treasures of literature, worshipped by a small but obsessively devoted coterie of outliers.

The rescue of Moby-Dick from this unwarranted fate in the 20th century had the tangential effect of bringing to the fore this long-neglected poetic overview of the great mid-century American tragedy. What was once ignored is today considered by most scholars and critics as one of the five or ten greatest works of literature to result from the ravages of the Civil War.

One of the things which sets Battle-Pieces apart from most other highly regarded Civil War poetry is the concerted effort by Melville to seek reconciliation between the Union and Confederacy by situating the focus not on the relative arguments or causes of leading to the conflict, but the ravages of war itself. One of the most haunting poems in the collection was inspired by one of the costliest engagements in terms of the war’s cost on human life: the Battle of Shiloh. Melville’s elegy “Shiloh” stands apart from war poetry general and Civil War verse specifically on two accounts. One, the 19 lines all form a single, uninterrupted sentence. More striking is that this sentence focuses not on the battle itself nor does it divide the participants into one side pitted against an enemy. Melville’s account of Shiloh takes place when the battle is ended and the soldiers lie dying beneath the hazy cloud still lingering from the explosions of gunpowder. There are no good guys or bad guys among these casualties, who find common ground in the revelation that nothing quite penetrates through the deceptions one buys into quite like a bullet.

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