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“The grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied, which holds that Man is naturally good…”

October 16, 2009
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From the first edition.

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From the first edition.

Following is Melville’s note to the line, “And man rebounds whole æons back in nature”: “’I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities committed,’ says Froissart, in alluding to the remarkable sedition in France during his time. The like may be hinted of some proceedings of the draft-rioters.” The allusion in the last two lines is to Acts 22: 25-28: “And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman. Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea. And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born.”

The arrow indicates the position of Sirius.

Sirius“—whose influence presides, so to speak, over the city, and attends the “baleful arson” that had set the city ablaze—is of course the Dog Star. Our Wikipedians offer this gloss on the star: “The Ancient Greeks believed that the appearance of Sirius heralded the hot and dry summer, and feared its effects on making plants wilt, men weaken and women become aroused. Due to its brightness, Sirius would have been noted to twinkle more in the unsettled weather conditions of early summer. To Greek observers, this signified certain emanations which caused its malign influence. People suffering its effects were said to be astroboletos/αστροβολητος or ‘star-struck.’ It was described as ‘burning’ or ‘flaming’ in literature. The season following the star’s appearance came to be known as the Dog Days of summer.” (Melville, of course, was well aware of the ethno-astronomical & literary histories of Sirius.)

Interested readers will find a digitally scanned copy of the first edition of the book in which “The House-top” appears, Battle-Pieces and Other Aspects of the War (1866), here, at the Internet Archive. (The pages reproduced above are taken from that source, a copy of the book now held in the University of California library system.)  A brief history of the New York City Draft Riots of July 13-16, 1863 is given here, in Wikipedia. Another account, with links to reports of the riots submitted by Union Army officers who took part in suppressing it, is here. More than 100 persons (the precise figure is unknown) were killed in the riots, which was largely a white working-class response to the Conscription Act of 1863. Principal targets of the rioters were African-Americans, many of whom were lynched; Republican Party offices; and the Colored Orphans Asylum, which was set ablaze and destroyed. Units only recently involved in the battle at Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) were called in to suppress the riot.

Union General George Meade and his opponent at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee.

In his New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford, 1990), Iver Bernstein here offers a concise account of the larger political complications, and of Melville’s location in them as a “Radical” Republican (i.e., an abolitionist & firm supporter of the Union war effort, which the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, had transformed: “Among the middle and upper classes, the draft riots disclosed contrary notions of legitimate federal power, relations with the poor, and between the races. Conservatives hoped to keep federal martial law armies at bay, tolerated or even supported the early phase of the revolt, and approached the more insurrectionary rioters with a mixture of force and conciliation. While they negotiated with white rioters, they ignored black victims. Radicals were quick to summon the full power of the federal government against treason and social disorder and were hostile toward the riot in all its phases. They advocated draconian measures against the white rioters and their sympathizers and campaigned for the relief of the black community. In his poem ‘The House-top: A Night Piece,’ New Yorker Herman Melville wrote approvingly of the riot’s bloody finish: ‘Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll / Of black artillery …. ‘ But as Melville’s Draco attempted to restore order, he displayed two very different tempers to the city.”

New York City Mayor George Opdyke, photograph by Matthew Brady. Opdyke was in office from 1862-1863.

“By late Monday, July 13,” Bernstein continues, “the draft riots had exposed a deep fault in the metropolitan political order, as conservative and radical wings of the middle and upper classes debated how best to bring peace to the city. At this moment of extreme political and social polarization, it became necessary to resolve some of the questions posed by the insurrection. All leaders were interested in the protection of private property, and most did not want to endanger the momentum of the Northern war effort. The Lincoln administration along with local allies such as Mayor Opdyke decided to forgo a declaration of martial law in order to secure a measure of cooperation from city conservatives. Lincoln and Stanton decided that a moderate solution in New York City, though it conceded the ambitions of local Republicans, would most quickly restore quiet to the nation’s economic capital at a critical juncture in the war. The draft was eventually enforced in New York, but as part of the conservatives’ program.”

As for the poem itself, the form is blank verse (with such occasional variations against iambic pentameter as are common to the tradition). Notice that Melville skillfully varies relation of sentence to line, as for example in lines 1-6, into which he lays four sentences, ranging in length from two words (“No sleep”) to twenty eight (“The sultriness…”). These lines relocate New York City, so to speak, at once in the jungles of southeast Asia and in the deserts of northern Africa. Later he will relocate the rioters of New York in Time: “whole æons back in nature.” And the rioters are, in some sense, representative of “man” in their capacity for sheer “animal” violence, as they “vex” their blood and “make apt for ravage,” as do Melville’s “tawny tigers.”

Melville, at about the time the war began.

The point of all this is clear enough. Let us suppose that there are two competing views of mankind: the Rousseauian/Romantic one that men are born naturally good and are deformed by social institutions; and the Freudian/Calvinist/Burkean view that man is born depraved and must be socialized into civility. Obviously, Melville takes the second view: our “natural” capacity for “ravage” must be contained by the “civil charms” of the State and the “priestly spells” of such institutions as the Church. Men are charmed and bewitched into civil behavior; otherwise they rebound back “whole æons” into sheer savagery. What Melville witnesses, what we all witness in such events as the Draft Riots, “corroborates Calvin’s creed,” which is, of course, that man is “innately depraved.” Even “honest kings”—for that matter, even “cynic tyrannies”—are to be preferred to an unhindered “sway of self.”

"First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln," Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1830-1900).

Here, Melville takes the occasion of the Draft Riots to mark out a sharp boundary between himself and the New England Transcendentalists, whose monistic optimism (like Hawthorne) he’d never shared. Behind this poem, and repudiated by it, are such claims as this one, from Emerson’s great paean to “sway of self,” to “intuition” as against the “tuition” of “civil charms” and “priestly spells”: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,— ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’ I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.’ No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.

Such arguments as these Melville regards, with some justice, as the “Republic’s faith,” which “holds that Man is naturally good,” that Man is, in fact “Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged.” (Cf. the passage from Acts quoted above for the Biblical source of these lines.) No, says Melville: Man is precisely the kind of animal who must be “scourged,” “charmed,” and “bewitched” into civility—and if by Draconian means, well, so be it. Elsewhere in the book, in a poem titled “Misgivings,” Meliville writes: “Nature’s dark side is heeded now— / (Ah! optimist-cheer disheartened flown)….”

In his favor, as he makes these arguments, Melville has, of course, the great fact of the Civil War, in relation to which, for sheer savagery, the Draft Riots were merely incidental. And what was the cause of that war? The immense and savage crime of hereditary bond slavery, which was the basis for (by some measures) 60% of the nation’s revenues from exports at the time the war began. This fact likely explains why Melville dedicates Battle-Pieces not to the 600,000 Americans who died in the Civil War, but instead to the “300,000” who died “for the maintenance of the Union,” and, moreover, by 1863, for the extirpation of slavery. And so I conclude this entry with one more poem from Battle-Pieces:

Formerly a Slave

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2009 10:05 PM

    Not for nothing is it said that American English speech falls naturally into iambic pentameter. Fine examples — and what work and patience went into them.

    • October 17, 2009 10:52 PM

      Well, many thanks for the observation. I hope you’ll scroll down to the entry of the way sentences are “laid into” lines & stanza, w/ examples from Frost & Longfellow.


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