By the outbreak of the Civil War, Herman Melville had already given up on his dream of making a living a living as a novelist, had published his most famous short stories and was on the verge of emotional and financial collapse. Despite the intervention of a father-in-law who had been Chief Justice the Massachusetts Supreme Court and neighbor who had served in both houses of Congress, newly sworn President Abraham Lincoln turned down his petition to be named US Consul to Florence. Always deeply devoted to the issue of oppressed cultures held in bondage and servitude to the domination of the white race, Melville was profoundly moved by the war. Within a year of the surrender of the rebels at Appomattox, Melville had already written 70 poems on various subject and events related to the carnage and in 1866 he published them in a collection titled Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War.
Although he had not made any public statement on the controversial issue of violent means by which John Brown seemed content to justify in his effort to bring about the abolition of slavery, Melville clearly admired his passion and recognized his essential place in the course of American history. Even more to the point, Melville apprehended the significance of the hanging of Brown after being captured followed the attack of him and his men at Harper’s Ferry. The execution was justifiable under the laws of Virginia, but Melville understood that the state and all slave-holding states were violating a much greater law which may not have been subject to the wheels of justice, but which had been inexorably leading to a legal reckoning since the founding of the country.
For Melville, John Brown’s violent attacks against slave-holder and the equally violent retribution against him was a recognizable portent of the bloodbath just around the corner. For this reason, “The Portent” not only opens Battle-Pieces, but is actually situated as a standalone poem before the table of contents. Like a meteor that flashes brightly across the sky, briefly illuminating everything hidden by the darkness of night below, John Brown becomes a metaphorical omen of doom after which everything that occurs can be in some way be traced back to.