“Weird John Brown”: The Meteor of the War
I number Herman Melville‘s 1866 volume, Battle-Pieces And Aspects of the War, among the best literary responses to the American Civil War. It’s of course a solid Unionist book, and an abolitionist one, too, as its dedication and contents make clear. Melville dedicates the book not to the 600,000 who died in the war, but “to the memory of the THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND who in the war for the maintenance of the Union fell devotedly under the flag of their fathers.” The colors are clear. Here, Melville is perhaps not quite so ecumenical as Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, and at Gettysburg. But he echoes Lincoln in the latter address by associating the Union dead with the “fathers,” to whose nation they gave what Lincoln calls a “second birth of freedom.” And yet, notwithstanding the Unionist-Abolitionist convictions that underlie the book—which speaks of America as “the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime“—Melville confesses to a certain bewilderment in the preface, which is at once strange and beautiful:
WITH few exceptions, the Pieces in this volume originated in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond. They were composed without reference to collective arrangement, but, being brought together in review, naturally fall into the order assumed. The events and incidents of the conflict making up a whole, in varied amplitude, corresponding with the geographical area covered by the war from these but a few themes have been taken, such as for any cause chanced to imprint themselves upon the mind. The aspects which the strife as a memory assumes are as manifold as are the moods of involuntary meditation—moods variable, and at times widely at variance. Yielding instinctively, one after another, to feelings not inspired from any one source exclusively, and unmindful, without purposing to be, of consistency, I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in a window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played upon the strings.
He speaks of the “impulsive” origins of the book, undertaken without reference to “collective arrangement,” but which “naturally” fell into order, as against artfully (he has no designs on his reader). Melville implies that this befits the war itself as an experienced thing, in all its amplitude and disarray, which nonetheless bent toward one consummation. Such themes as he touches on here, we note, are simply those that “chanced to imprint themselves upon the mind” (not “my” mind necessarily, but, it may be, some other, more abstractly conceived and widely dispersed intelligence). He “yields” to “moods of involuntary meditation—moods variable, and at times widely at variance.” He “yields” “instinctively” (as with the “impulse” already spoken of). He is “unmindful of consistency.” In fact, the book seems to have written itself: “I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in a window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played upon the strings.” Battle-Pieces, it turns out, is an exercise in “notation,” not composition. Notation of “contrasted airs” played by the wind, as on an Aeolian harp. Which is ironic, sadly so. Likely Melville has in mind (and expects his reader to have in mind) “that simplest lute” spoken of in Samuel Coleridge‘s “The Aeolian Harp,” though these harps are scattered all about in English Romantic poetry (I emphasize certain passages in italic type):
My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on my arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown
With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence. And that simplest Lute,
Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caressed,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing!
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so filled;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.
And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-closed eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,
And tranquil muse upon tranquility;
Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on the subject Lute!
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
Here we have our harp in erotic contexts (toward the opening) and quasi-Transcendental contexts (in the last five lines); and again, the yielding, the arrogation of lyricism to some larger compelling force over which one hasn’t control, but which one can note, even to the point of (tentatively) deriving a doctrine from it. Melville hangs his harp in the martial winds of the war, the better to “note,” or register, its “variable” moods, its vagaries, at once appalling, exhilarating, and awful.
But why this effort to suggest to the reader that Battle-Pieces is, in some sense, undesigned, or “authorized” by forces not entirely Melville’s own? I suspect that Melville finds in the war, as did many then and later, some inscrutable but clearly felt logic—some deeper order that gave meaning and purpose to the slaughter, but which he can only dimly discern, not “create.”
Lincoln was with him there, of course, as in that manuscript found among the president’s papers after his death, and now widely known as the “Meditation on the Divine Will”: “The will of God prevails—In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is somewhat different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect this.” These sentiments made their way into the Second Inaugural:
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
The war, which all knew that slavery “somehow” caused, becomes a terrible, inevitable admonition. Any nation that would build its wealth on the scarred backs of slaves must find itself “scourged.” Lincoln feels the fitness of the war, which, as he wonderfully puts it, simply “came,” like bad weather, like a plague. Much else might be said, as to Lincoln, and as to Coleridge’s Transcendental flight of fancy. But the point, coming back round to Melville, is that the war seemed to overtake his agency, his will, as a writer. He yielded to it, on some “impulse” occasioned by the “fall of Richmond” (which event was not so much coincident with the war’s end as typical of it). Melville is no Transcendentalist. On the contrary, as Battle-Pieces shows, he was our most articulate counter-Transcendentalist, as in such lines as these, from his poem on the New York City Draft riots, “The House-top: A Night Piece” (for a detailed discussion of which, within The Era of Casual Fridays, click here):
Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,
And ponderous drag that shakes the wall.
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin’s creed
And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parlies; and the Town redeemed,
Give thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied,
Which holds that Man is naturally good,
And—more—is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged.
Or as in these lines, from “Misgivings,” with their repudiation of the Emersonian “optative” mood, which regards Nature as having no “dark” side, and which thinks of evil not as a positive, active principle, but as mere “privation”:
When ocean-clouds over inland hills
Sweep storming in late autumn brown,
And horror the sodden valley fills,
And the spire falls crashing in the town,
I muse upon my country’s ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.
Nature’s dark side is heeded now—
(Ah! optimist-cheer disheartened flown)—
A child may read the moody brow
Of yon black mountain lone.
With shouts the torrents down the gorges go,
And storms are formed behind the storm we feel:
The hemlock shakes in the rafter, the oak in the driving keel.
I note a Lincolnian touch in the last line of the first stanza. America as the “best hope of earth,” as the President put it in a mid-war message to Congress (“We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth”). America as a nation “testing” not simply whether it alone can sustain a government “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as we read in the Gettysburg Address, but whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can. American democracy as a thing so rare in quality, so large in promise, that its failure may mark the perishing of “government by the people” not merely in North America, but from “the earth.” I find also an appalling grace in the idea of a “sodden valley” “filling” with “horror,” as though it were a vessel for the latter’s conveyance as the “spires” fall. I note also that the tempest is no mere tempest, but one of many “storms” that “form behind the storm we feel”: there is the storm that’s available to the senses, destructive, to be sure. But then there is the larger one back of it, behind it, authorizing it, bringing it on, as if for purposes unclear but fathomable nonetheless. Nature has its dark side. We can neither abstract ourselves from it nor abstract it from us. A mad wildness persists in, and pervades, even the architecture we set over against the bad weather. “The hemlock shakes in the rafter” we make of it; the wild “oak” shakes in the “driving keel” of our ship of state, as if Melville would revive, at a stroke, the allegory of Moby-Dick. It’s in us—this “foulest crime” of slavery, this sum of all villanies. It’s in the fabric of everything we’ve made of our New World. And now, there’s Hell to pay for it. The order, the logic, the justice of the war is there. Melville simply hangs out his harp and lets it be “noted.” For such reasons, I do not think the “storms that form behind the storm we feel” are simply more storms to follow. The behindness is graver in implication. Melville dates this poem 1860 (under the title), and the verbal details of the text place it in autumn, coincident with, or just after, the election of Lincoln. The storm behind the usual autumnal storms may merely be the oncoming war (Melville would have felt it even had he written the poem in the fall of 1860, though his preface gives us to understand that most of the poems in Battle-Pieces date in composition from 1865-66). But that larger “storm” “behind” the one we “feel,” bursting upon a guilty nation, as it does, from “the waste of Time,” must be some such awful compensation as Lincoln alludes to in the Second Inaugural. I have pointed out the counter-Transcendental element in Melville (a fact often enough noted anyway). But this is not to say he felt no self-executing, self-compensating justice at work in the war. He appears to in this poem.
And yet how far he remains from Emerson in “Compensations“: “The changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men are advertisements of a nature whose law is growth.” Or: “Nature hates monopolies and exceptions. The waves of the sea do not more speedily seek a level from their loftiest tossing, than the varieties of condition tend to equalize themselves. There is always some leveling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others.” And how very far, in this poem, Melville remains from Emerson in the “Divinity School Address,” which speaks of “the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise. Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real.” Here we find the “optimist cheer” that has “disheartened flown,” as Melville disdainfully puts it. Here we begin to feel, by contrast to that optimist cheer, the real force of John Brown‘s parting words, as he neared the scaffold on December 2, 1859, as if anticipating the subsequent autumn of Melville’s poem’s discontent: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
All of which brings me to the poem I wish mainly to discuss: “The Portent,” which immediately precedes “Misgivings,” and which, properly speaking, forms the epigraph to the volume as a whole.
Fitting that John Brown’s body should lie, or “sway,” at the head of the volume, precisely because it sways not the volume only but the nation also. I haven’t any good reason to suppose that Melville had in mind a passage from an old anti-slavery poem by James Russell Lowell called “The Present Crisis,” when he placed this poem as epigraph-epitaph to the volume (it remains typographically distinct, set off before the main body of the book). But if he did, nothing could be more fitting.
Backward look across the ages and the beacon-moments see,
That, like peaks of some sunk continent, jut through Oblivion’s sea;
Not an ear in court or market for the low foreboding cry
Of those Crises, God’s stern winnowers, from whose feet earth’s chaff must fly;
Never shows the choice momentous till the judgment hath passed by.
Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ’twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
W.E.B. DuBois would later choose the last five lines, re-cast in iambic tetrameter, as the epigraph for his essay on the Freedmen’s Bureau in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). I quote them here, perhaps for the nonce, because they involve what I have been trying to get at, in Lincoln and in the prefatory matter to Battle-Pieces: this sense of a self-executing justice at work, our will notwithstanding, to rectify “man’s foulest crime.” Anyway, there John Brown hangs, “slowly swaying,” at the portal to Melville’s great book. Let him “sway the future.” “Such the law,” Melville says in a parenthetical aside. I must hear that first as an aspersion, as a phrase uttered in contempt of the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which had duly tried and convicted Brown of inciting servile insurrection and of murder.
But then I hear in it something more—an allusion, it may be, by ironic contrast, to the “higher law” for which Brown made his sacrifice, and which was much spoken of in the 1850s, by such Republicans as William Seward. Seward rose to the Senate floor on March 11, 1850, and spoke as follows during the debates that led to the Compromise of that year, with its infamous Fugitive Slave Bill:
There is another aspect of the principle of compromise which deserves consideration. It assumes that slavery, if not the only institution in a slave state, is at least a ruling institution, and that this characteristic is recognized by the Constitution. But slavery is only one of many institutions there. Freedom is equally an institution there. Slavery is only a temporary, accidental, partial, and incongruous one. Freedom on the contrary, is a perpetual, organic, universal one, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States. The slaveholder himself stands under the protection of the latter, in common with all the free citizens of the state. But it is, moreover, an indispensable institution. You may separate slavery from South Carolina, and the state will still remain; but if you subvert freedom there, the state will cease to exist. But the principle of this compromise gives complete ascendancy in the slave states, and in the Constitution of the United States, to the subordinate, accidental, and incongruous institution, over its paramount antagonist. To reduce this claim of slavery to an absurdity, it is only necessary to add that there are only two states in which slaves are a majority, and not one in which the slaveholders are not a very disproportionate minority. But there is yet another aspect in which this principle must be examined. It regards the domain [i.e., the western territories obtained through the Mexican War] only as a possession, to be enjoyed either in common or by partition by the citizens of the old states. It is true, indeed, that the national domain is ours. It is true it was acquired by the valor and with the wealth of the whole nation. But we hold, nevertheless, no arbitrary power over it. We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully or seized by usurpation. The Congress regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defence, to welfare, and to liberty. But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part, no inconsiderable part, of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are his stewards, and must so discharge our trust as to secure in the highest attainable degree their happiness. How momentous that trust is, we may learn from the instructions of the founder of modern philosophy:
“No man,” says Bacon, “can by care-taking, as the Scripture saith, add a cubit to his stature in this little model of a man’s body; but, in the great frame of kingdoms and commonwealths, it is in the power of princes or estates to add amplitude and greatness to their kingdoms. For, by introducing such ordinances, constitutions, and customs, as are wise, they may sow greatness to their posterity and successors. But these things are commonly not observed, but left to take their chance.”
This is a state, and we are deliberating for it, just as our fathers deliberated in establishing the institutions we enjoy. Whatever superiority there is in our condition and hopes of those over any other “kingdom” or “estate,” is due to the fortunate circumstance that our ancestors did not leave things to “take their chance,” but that they “added amplitude and greatness” to our commonwealth “by introducing such ordinances, constitutions, and customs, as were wise.” We in our term have succeeded to the same responsibilities, and we cannot approach the duty before us wisely or justly, except we raise ourselves to the great consideration of how we can most certainly “sow greatness to our posterity and successors.” And now the simple, bold, and even awful question which presents itself to us is this: Shall we, who are founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions; shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just, and are free to choose them, and to reject the erroneous and the unjust; shall we establish human bondage, or permit it by our sufferance to be established? Sir, our forefathers would not have hesitated an hour. They found slavery existing here, and they left it only because they could not remove it. There is not only no free state which would now establish it, but there is no slave state, which, if it had had the free alternative as we now have, would have founded slavery. Indeed, our revolutionary predecessors had precisely the same question before them in establishing an organic law under which the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, have since come into the Union, and they solemnly repudiated and excluded slavery from those states forever. I confess that the most alarming evidence of our degeneracy which has yet been given is found in the fact that we even debate such a question.
That last phrase, the one I italicize, marks out the stream of thought into which Melville enters with “The Portent,” and, in fact, with the whole of the book over which it casts a shadow as preface-epitaph-epigraph. We have to do with the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, under which Brown was tried, convicted, and sentenced. Such the law. Then we have the law as embodied in the Constitution, which, as Seward rightly points out, nowhere frankly acknowledges the “right of property” in man because, at the time it was framed, no one dared speak of the matter frankly. “I deny that the Constitution recognizes property in man,” Seward argues. “I submit, on the other hand, most respectfully, that the Constitution not merely does not affirm that principle, but, on the contrary, altogether excludes it. The Constitution does not expressly affirm anything on the subject; all that it contains is two incidental allusions to slaves. These are, first, in the provision establishing a ratio of representation and taxation; and secondly, in the provision relating to fugitives from labor. In both cases, the Constitution designedly mentions slaves, not as slaves, much less as chattels, but as persons.”
Aye, there’s the rub. The Constitution dealt with the matter—and this “designedly”—in the cool euphemism typical of bureaucracy: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” And: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Such the law.
And next we have the Higher Law, of which Seward also speaks, against which such laws as the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 must necessarily be judged an outrage. As it was in much of the North. Because “lawlessness” was rather general in the Union in the 1850s, as weird John Brown well knew. The Fugitive Slave Bill was scoffed at and widely resisted in the North—even by force, and by what must be called acts of “higher-law vigilantism”—in such epochal events in the history of abolitionism as the famed Jerry Rescue on October 1, 1851, in New York State, near the site where the anti-slavery Liberty Party was then holding its convention. Or as in the violent upheaval—a U.S. Marshall was killed—in Boston surrounding the case of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in May 1854. Such the law (insofar as it was recognized in Massachusetts and central New York State).
And finally we have the law known to us as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise, established the principle of popular sovereignty as to the slave question in western territories petitioning for admission to the Union, destabilized American politics in such a way that only war could redress the matter, and led to the outbreak of guerrilla warfare in Bleeding Kansas, so-called, which lasted from 1854 to 1860 and the very eve of the Civil War. It was here that John Brown became notorious for taking the “law” into his hands and, with a band including his own sons, killing seven pro-slavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. Such the law!
Brown, of course, had developed a theory according to which slavery was, prima facie, a state of warfare of one part of the population (white) against another (black). Which fact, as he saw it, justified, necessitated, violent intervention. Such the martial law. As when Brown undertook his raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, with the hope of inciting a local slave insurrection, arming the slaves, retreating to the Appalachian Mountains, and, from that redoubt, menacing local slave-holders, and thereby slavery itself. The whole point was to make “property in men” insecure.
So much anyway for the manifold “legal-theoretical” contexts that may hang about, and inform, Melville’s scornful parenthesis: “such the law.” There are laws, and then there are laws, and then there is lawlessness. Who shall execute the executioners of the laws that placed John Brown on that “beam,” “slowly swaying” the future as its portent? Brown himself had made his “cut” on their “crown,” and, as Melville says, the “stabs shall heal no more.” Here “crown” means both “the sovereignty, authority, or dominion of which a crown is the symbol; the rule, position, or empire of a monarch” (OED sense 3), and “the top part of the skull; the vertex” (OED sense IV, 17). Abolitionists of Brown’s stripe regarded bond-slavery as a vestige of the “feudal” “Old” World, intolerable as a presence in the New. Cotton, of course, was “King”. One finds monarchical metaphors used everywhere in abolitionist writings about slavery. Abolitionists deployed these quite deliberately to point up the scandal of what they saw in our “feudal” institutions, here, flourishing in an ostensibly “republican” New World. As for the crown of the head, well, Brown was injured in the fighting at Harpers Ferry, would never recover, insofar as capital punishment saw to the matter; and ten of his men had been killed, including two of his sons. Whether Melville wishes us to find their blood also issuing from those stabs that “shall heal no more” is a minor controversy, as to the text of the poem. But that the bloodshed Brown and his men initiated (and shared in) at Harpers Ferry would not end for six years;—this fact is beyond doubt. The cut was on the crown.
And from the execution of the law on December 2, 1859, with respect to Brown, would follow that period of lawlessness we call the American Civil War, for in large part his act led Southern states to organize and refine their militias. These became the army that General Robert E. Lee—who, as a Colonel in the United States Army, subdued and captured Brown and his raiders at Harpers Ferry—would command in the field against the Union. One hesitates to accord any man undue “sway” over what follows from the execution of his acts. But it is as if Brown summoned up from the vasty deep precisely that malign spirit that would make war on the Union, and whose defeat (after Richmond fell) would bring down slavery.
I might mention, by the way, one among the many harmonizing ironies—or should we speak of “unities” instead?—of the Civil War. John Wilkes Booth—who was present for the Second Inauguration of Lincoln, whose most cherished character as an actor was the assassin Brutus, and who some weeks after the second inauguration conspired to murder Lincoln, William Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson—had been in rehearsal for a play at the Richmond Theater when, on hearing the news of Brown’s death-sentence, he joined a militia called the Richmond Grays. He accompanied them to Charles Town to witness the hanging, and—as he supposed, with typical grandiosity—to forestall any effort by abolitionists to attempt a second “Jerry Rescue” as Brown neared the gallows.
The “law” that Brown’s “gaunt shadow” somehow comprehends—as it falls on the green grasses of the Shenandoah Valley, where he was hanged at Charles Town—is terrible in its judgments. Lincoln speaks of the same law in the Second Inaugural: “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” “That man” means, in this fresh context, both the slaveholder and the American citizen as such, for the latter had countenanced, ignored, failed adequately to rebuke, and had neither ended nor resolved, the slaveholders’ peculiar institution. Hence the “degeneracy” into which the nation had fallen, as Seward puts it.
But what of the second stanza of “The Portent”? Of course, the sense already present in the title is clarified in the last line of the poem. Brown was “the meteor of the war.” Ancient lore held meteors to be “portents,” omens—almost always of evil tendency, and very often associated with war. Examples abound. Here are two from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. The first passage opens the play, and is spoken by Henry IV himself, in reference to the Civil Wars of his own day.
So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces: those opposed eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred and allies:
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master.
The second occurs at the start of Act V, as the Battle of Shrewsbury is about to commence. Here, as before, the King himself speaks, this time in parley with the man who now makes war on him, the Earl of Worcester.
How now, my Lord of Worcester! ’tis not well
That you and I should meet upon such terms
As now we meet. You have deceived our trust,
And made us doff our easy robes of peace,
To crush our old limbs in ungentle steel:
This is not well, my lord, this is not well.
What say you to it? will you again unknit
This curlish knot of all-abhorred war?
And move in that obedient orb again
Where you did give a fair and natural light,
And be no more an exhaled meteor,
A prodigy of fear and a portent
Of broached mischief to the unborn times?
The contexts make clear enough what meteors meant, and why. They moved in an otherwise unmoving and fixed firmament; such movements, under the old dispensation of Ptolemaic astronomy, were always looked on with awe, as aberrant, disturbing, contrary to the order of nature. So Worcester is likened to a disobedient orb, a prodigy of fear, and a portent of broached mischief (where “prodigy” means, in OED senses 1 and 2, “An extraordinary thing or occurrence regarded as an omen; a sign, a portent,” and “An unusual or extraordinary thing or occurrence; an anomaly; something abnormal or unnatural”). Melville had his Shakespeare near to heart, as any good reader of him knows. He may well expect his reader to feel, back of “The Portent,” these distant echoes of other meteors, other portents, other “intestine shocks” and “civil butcheries.” Just as he doubtless wants us to feel in that wonderful word “weird” a dark restoration of its Medieval, and its 16th and 17th century senses; for which, again, we have fine precedent in Shakespeare. OED sense 1 gives for “weird” (adj.) this meaning: “Having the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, etc.; later, claiming the supernatural power of dealing with fate or destiny.” And then the OED cites, immediately, what all readers of Macbeth remember: the “weird sisters,” the three witches, who stand at the threshold of the play, and who, by their uncanny agency—like the Norns and Fates of Norse and Greek mythology—conduct, arrange, predict all of our affairs, which, in the play at hand here, both begin and end in war.
Here, Lady Macbeth and her husband converse after the appalling scene in which the ghost of murdered Banquo had made himself visible to the King, though to none other.
Macbeth. It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood:
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood. What is the night?
Lady Macbeth. Almost at odds with morning, which is which.
Macbeth. How say’st thou, that Macduff denies his person / At our great bidding?
Lady Macbeth. Did you send to him, sir?
Macbeth. I hear it by the way; but I will send:
There’s not a one of them but in his house
I keep a servant fee’d. I will to-morrow,
And betimes I will, to the weird sisters:
More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d.
Lady Macbeth. You lack the season of all natures, sleep.
Macbeth. Come, we’ll to sleep. My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use:
We are yet but young in deed.
The allusion to Macduff occasions Macbeth’s admission that every servant in his house is a “fee’d” or paid informant, a spy. We stand here at the heart of a play and of a kingdom beset by paranoia, fear, bloodshed, and terror. We stand at the moment when night and day are at odds as to which has government. We may as well be in America on the eve of the Civil War. We may as well be watching the body of John Brown “hanging from the beam,” “swaying slowly (such the law).” (“Fair is foul and foul is fair,” as the “weird sisters” say in scene one of the play.) As for that word “crown,” as we encounter it in “The Portent,” we might recall, also, Macbeth’s words after the ghost of Banquo first appears:
Blood hath been shed ere now, i’ the olden time,
Ere human statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been perform’d
Too terrible for the ear: the times have been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools: this is more strange
Than such a murder is.
Yes, the cut is on the crown and the stabs shall heal no more.
Weird John Brown, then: the adjective traces its meaning (and etymology), as Melville would have known, not merely back through Shakespeare, but, as the OED has it, through the Old English word “wyrd” to an earlier word in Old Norse. As the OED explains, as a noun (i.e., the “weird” or “wyrd”), the word at every point along its career into and through English (even into the 19th century) bore this meaning: “The principle, power, or agency by which events are predetermined; fate, destiny.” And so Melville would have us see Brown in relation to the American Civil War, to which the whole of Battle-Pieces is devoted.
And now we have our second stanza, complete in its implications. The faces and heads of the condemned at hangings were typically covered by a cap, the better to hide that flash of death-anguish. Brown’s face was veiled. And Melville avails himself of a visual detail to make vividly concrete that metaphor of the meteor. At this point in his life, Brown bore a long beard (as in the photograph given above). So we find it, here, “streaming” out of the cap, like the fiery tail of a meteor over the Shenandoah, foretelling, in its weird way, the bloodshed that would follow there, as Confederate General Stonewall Jackson menaced Union Cavalry units. Many towns in the valley would change hands several times during the course of the war, until Union General Philip Sheridan, at the head of the Army of the Shenandoah, laid waste to it, and to all remnants of Confederate resistance there, in his devastating raid of September 1864. In hiding the face of Brown, in turning from “the anguish none can draw”—which would include the anguish of the slave and of slavery—the Commonwealth of Virginia, the whole of the slave power, and the whole of America, insofar as slavery had by this point become all but nationalized in principle (following the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857);—everyone hid from themselves the meaning of Brown’s actions at Harpers Ferry, and in Kansas, and hid from the nation also the awful, and prophetic, significance of Brown’s last words, which, though given above, bear repeating by way of conclusion to this entry on “The Portent” in The Era of Casual Fridays: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” And, as Lincoln put it, the war came.
N.B. For a clip from Roman Polanski’s screen adaptation of Macbeth depicting the Weird Sisters, click here. For the scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears in the same film, click here. For the text of Battle-Pieces at the Internet Archive, click here, where you will find a digitally scanned copy of the 1866 edition.