The Portent

The Portent Study Guide

"The Portent" is a poem by Herman Melville which describes the death of radical abolitionist John Brown. Brown was known for his murder of several slave owners at Pottowatomie Creek, Kansas and his failed raid on Harper's Ferry. The speaker describes Brown's actions (and martyrdom) as a harbinger for the central conflict of the Civil War. It was published in an 1866 collection titled Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. This particular work did not deal directly with scenes from the war itself, but instead sought to capture a major moment in its buildup. As its title implies, the poem is about premonitions of war.

The piece depicts the execution of John Brown, offering details about the appearance of his head and face. With specific details and recurring mentions of violence, Melville underscores the idea that this conflict will not end with Brown's death, but will only continue, and escalate, from this moment. Melville displays a mixture of respect for Brown's unwavering zeal and grim understanding of where this particular conflagration will lead. The text frames this scene as an omen, particularly in its final image of Brown's beard as a "meteor of the war."

The poem makes use of a parallel structure in its two septets. In the third line of both stanzas, the word "Shenandoah" is exclaimed, giving it a weighty resonance. Likewise, in the sixth line of both stanzas, there are two references to Brown's name ("Lo, John Brown" and "Weird John Brown"). Like the other poems in the collection, this selection focuses primarily on the roots of conflict, not offering much in the way of historical overview. The poem is concerned with how Brown's actions were directly related to the war as a whole and precipitated its eventual escalation.