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A Look at Two Versions of A Melville Poem

By Harriet Staff

12-21-12_Melville

Check out this article at at the NY Times Opinionator blog.

It begins:

Early in 1864 Herman Melville was one of a number of Northern writers solicited to contribute works to “Autograph Leaves of Our Country’s Authors,” a volume of literary works intended to raise funds for the United States Sanitary Commission. Obligingly, Melville sent in a short poem, “Inscription for the Slain at Fredericksburgh.” But he soon regretted it.

As he explained in a letter to the volume’s compiler, Lt. Col. Alexander Bliss, “In the hurry of despatching my Contribution the other day, I now find that I enclosed to you an uncorrected draught — in fact, the wrong sheet.” In his letter, Melville included a new “right” version of the poem and asked Bliss to publish it instead of the draft he had sent earlier. “Or, if that be too late,” he wrote, “may I beg of you, by all means, to suppress the one you have.”

Whether Melville actually sent the rough draft in error, or simply had second thoughts about his poem and invented an excuse to submit a revised version, he clearly was worried. If the poem could not be published in its “right” form, then he preferred that it not be published at all.

But his letter to Bliss was to no avail. The “wrong” draft of Melville’s poem was published.

In fact, the poem appears in “Autograph Leaves of Our Country’s Authors” in Melville’s own handwriting, with his autograph beneath it. That’s because the key selling point of “Autograph Leaves” was that it was a “fac-simile” volume. As the book’s preface explains, “Here will be found pleasant specimens of Our Country’s Authors generously and carefully furnished by themselves in the autograph manuscript of each.” Each contribution – including Abraham Lincoln’s “Address delivered at the dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg” – appears in a clear facsimile of the author’s handwritten draft. (Suffice it to say that, for sheer legibility, Lincoln’s lines far surpass those of almost all other contributors.)

Then, later:

What about this version of the poem did Melville find so “wrong” that he wished it suppressed? The changes between this “uncorrected draught” and the “right” draft involve only a couple of words and a few details of punctuation and indentation. Why did Melville attach such great importance to these changes?

Before considering the specific changes or attempting an answer to this question, it is helpful to compare Melville’s lines about Fredericksburg with those written by another poet, Walt Whitman. Melville never visited Fredericksburg. In fact, he made his sole visit to the front in the spring of 1864. Whitman, however, saw the dead at the Battle of Fredericksburg firsthand — and what terrible sights he saw.

The battle had been a resounding loss for the North. At least 12,500 Union fighters were wounded or killed. Many died outright during a long series of attacks across an open field against entrenched Confederate forces. An untold number more were wounded and froze to death on the bitterly cold night of Dec. 13.

Whitman arrived at Fredericksburg soon after the battle, and in his diary he recorded his shocked horror. In the lines of a long poem he titled “A Battle,” he wrote:

The positions of the dead, some with arms raised, poised in the air,
Some lying curl’d on the ground — the dead in every position . . .
(Some of the dead, how soon they turn black in the face and swollen!)

Whitman’s lines reflect the raw reality of the war. But when he published the poem from his diary in his 1865 book “Drum-Taps,” under the new title “The Veteran’s Vision,” he completely excised these lines about the war dead.

Melville and Whitman both belonged to an era that preferred in literature comforting romanticism to discomforting realism. Writing in the privacy of his journal, Whitman recorded scenes of graphic horror; writing for a public audience, he was far more guarded.

Whitman’s about-face sheds light on why Melville was so concerned about a couple of word changes to his own poem. The first change appears in the title. The “uncorrected” version of the poem bears the title, “Inscription for the Slain at Fredericksburg.” In the revised version, the word “Slain” is replaced with “Dead,” ever so subtly changing the poem’s tone and meaning. “Slain” is borrowed from the flowery lexicon of popular Civil War writers. “Dead,” by contrast, is stark and factual. (Even so, the dead men in Melville’s poem lack any physicality or bloated corporality. They are presented simply as “patriot ghosts.”)

The second alteration is deceptively simple. Melville added a single word to the poem’s first line. “A glory lights an earnest end” becomes, “A dreadful glory lights an earnest end.” His insertion of “dreadful” to modify “glory,” like the substitution of “dead” for “slain,” subtly alters and challenges the otherwise reverential tone of the work.

Full article here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, December 21st, 2012 by Harriet Staff.