Anti-War Essays

Anti-War Essays-5
Though it has its war episodes – about, for example, John Paul Jones’s naval heroics or the battle of the Alamo -- “Song of Myself” is essentially a poem of peace, praising in its lists the occupations and daily rounds of men and women.In his Civil War poems, such as the sublime “Reconciliation,” the relation between self and other is replicated between enemy soldiers. “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself as is dead, / I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near, / Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.” Of the poets loyal to the Confederacy, Henry Timrod makes the strongest claim on our sympathy.

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Most of her poems lack the specificity of content that steps to the fore in Timrod or in Melville, but there are some in which her exploration of the boundary between life and death has a direct application to the war raging several hundred miles to her south as she wrote.

One poem begins: “It feels a shame to be Alive -- / When Men so brave – are dead.” To this reader, the Dickinson poem about war that distinguishes itself most has to do with an ancient battle, that of Thermopylae, where three hundred brave Spartans commanded by the general Leonidas held a narrow pass between mountain and sea, fending off the advance of the massive armies under the command of the Persian king Xerxes.

Inevitably the three hundred men were killed, but their deaths accomplished more than the delay of the Persian invasion timetable.

On a monument at the site this message appears: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, / that here obedient to their words we lie.”[5] Dickinson’s poem honors the spirit of sacrifice and duty, though she also raises the question of whether love rather than obedience to the law, “a Lure – a Longing,” motivated the unyielding soldiers of Sparta: “Go tell it” – What a Message – To whom – is specified – Not murmur – not endearment – But simply – we – obeyed— Obeyed – a Lure – a Longing?

Just as Lincoln intended his speeches to salve wounds, so did Whitman, most sublimely in his elegy for the fallen leader, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” proof that it is possible to write great poetry under the pressure of a public occasion.

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman celebrated the self even as he described its dissolution and reconstitution in the other.

On the shield of Achilles, as Auden pictures it in 1952, are “an unintelligible multitude,” a disembodied voice proving “by statistics that some cause was just,” a martyrdom enclosed in barbed wire, a thug wielding a weapon: A ragged urchin, aimless and alone, Loitered about that vacancy; a bird Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone: That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third, Were axioms to him, who’d never heard Of any world where promises were kept Or one could weep because another wept. In his elegy for William Butler Yeats (1939), Auden declared that “poetry makes nothing happen.” The assertion is debatable; exceptions come to mind. Art and even love are powerless against the ruthless use of superior force.

Indifference “is the least / We have to fear from man or beast.” [1] A spirited rendition of Beethoven’s fourth Piano Concerto will not stop the wars, make the old young again, or lower the price of bread.

As a subject for poetry, war has an immediate advantage over peace, because war entails action, whereas the experience of peace is an absence, not noticed until not there, like the absence of pain.

War was the first subject to quicken the pen of an epic poet.


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