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A “Poetry-Fueled War”

During the Civil War, poetry didn’t just respond to events; it shaped them.

When Edmund Wilson dismissed the poetry of the Civil War as “versified journalism” in 1962, he summed up a common set of critiques: American poetry of the era is mostly nationalist doggerel, with little in the way of formal innovation. On the contrary, argues scholar Faith Barrett. In her new book, To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave, Barrett contends that a broad range of 19th-century writers used verse during the Civil War to negotiate complicated territory, both personal and public. Taking its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, Barrett’s book also argues that Civil War poetry was much more formally destabilizing than scholars have traditionally acknowledged.

The book explores work by Northern writers such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and black abolitionist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, along with amateur “soldier-poets” and several Southern poets, including the so-called poet laureate of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod. Barrett devotes a chapter to Herman Melville’s little-read postwar collection Battle-Pieces, and another to the close connection between poetry and songs during the war.

Barrett co-edited a 2005 anthology of Civil War poetry called Words for the Hour, and her own published poetry includes a 2001 chapbook, Invisible Axis. She spoke with the Poetry Foundation from Appleton, Wisconsin, where she teaches English and creative writing at Lawrence University.

You write that the Civil War was a “poetry-fueled war.” What do you mean by that?

Poetry in mid-19th-century America was ubiquitous in a way that it just isn’t now. It was everywhere in newspapers and magazines, children were learning it in school…. Americans were encountering poetry on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis, in the Civil War era, and that’s a profound difference from contemporary poetry and its place in our culture.

There are so many accounts in newspapers of soldiers dying with a poem in their pockets, poems written on a scrap of paper folded up inside a book; so many accounts of songs or poems being sung or read to political leaders at particular moments. For example, after Lincoln announced the second call for a draft ... James Sloan Gibbons wrote this song poem called “Three Hundred Thousand More,” which he supposedly sang to Lincoln in his office one day. So there’s a kind of immediacy of impact, that poetry is actually, I suggest, shaping events, not just responding or reflecting on them.

How did these poems reach the general public? They must have traveled somewhat quickly since they’re responding to political events.

The technological development of the railroad and then also the increasingly affordable technologies of printing and reproduction had the result of dramatically increasing the speed with which poetry could move around. ... Harper’s [Weekly] featured poetry pretty regularly. It’s the equivalent of readers seeing poetry in a magazine like Newsweek or Time, or maybe even People magazine. ... Then also it’s a shorter genre, it can be more quickly written; it can be written in response to immediate events….

You say that it’s hard to find poetry arguing against the war; why?

There was very strong support for the war from both North and South. ... You do see, starting in 1863 and of course continuing through the last year and a half of the war, poems where people register horror and shock at the vast numbers of soldiers that are dying. Dickinson and Melville both register that shock in their poetry. But writers who were well known didn’t want to attach their names to work that was anti-war.

If we think of “Civil War poetry” as a genre, what did it look like formally?

There’s a lot of variety and a lot of range. One of the reasons why this body of work has been neglected by scholars until fairly recently is there was this assumption that the work is all formally so regular as to be monotonous: singsong, rocking-horse rhythms. Regularity of meter makes this work more difficult for us to approach.

But one thing I’ve noticed in my years of working on Civil War poetry is that there’s just phenomenal formal range. There’s lots of experimentation; there’s lots of variety in terms of the formal commitments the poets are working with. So you have lots of ballads, not surprisingly, lots of story poems, poems written with traditional commitments to the ballad form, and also elegies. You have poets experimenting with pushing beyond rhythmic and metrical patterns that are formal. ... I would actually say that maybe half the poets writing in this era are doing interesting and unexpected things with form even though they’re not yet writing free verse.

My friend and coeditor [of Words for the Hour] Cristanne Miller has a wonderful new book called Reading in Time that analyzes Dickinson’s formal commitments by resituating Dickinson in her 19th-century context. Cris argues very persuasively that there’s far more formal experimentation happening in mid-19th-century poetry than we have previously acknowledged. … Cris cites Longfellow as one of the great formal innovators of this period, and in addition to Longfellow, I would also mention [John Greenleaf] Whittier, Herman Melville, George Moses Horton, George Henry Boker, Lucy Larcom, and Ethelinda Beers. These are all poets who are writing rhymed, metrical verse, but who are experimenting within that framework.

Do you see wildly different things coming from Northern and Southern poets?

The similarities between Northern and Southern poems far outweigh the differences. ... Both sides are arguing that God is on their side. Both sides—and this is particularly startling to us as 21st-century readers—are arguing they’re fighting for independence, although obviously they’re using that word quite differently with quite different meanings.

You write that popular song and poetry became closely connected in a new way during the war years. Are poets writing specifically with the idea that their poems would quickly be turned into songs?

It goes both ways. In some cases you have composers taking up poems and saying, “I like this a lot—let me set it to music.” And then in other cases, as in Julia Ward Howe’s case [with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”], you have a poet saying, “This ‘John Brown’s Body,’ that’s an interesting poem. Let me see if I could do a different kind of approach to it in my lyrics.” And it’s clear that Howe hoped that her lyrics would be sung, but also that she intended to circulate it as a poem. So its first appearance is in the Atlantic Monthly, where it appears on the page as a poem, but then it’s quickly put into sheet music so people can play it at home and soldiers can sing it.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is such a fascinating case, because it’s still ubiquitous. How did that particular poem become the most lasting anthem of the Civil War?

Yes, it still has this huge cultural pull. Think about all the ceremonies after 9/11 where “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was performed. It’s a song that has extraordinary cultural staying power. ...

First of all, the song that she’s imitating, “John Brown’s Body,” is a very interesting song in which you have soldiers basically performing their bravado about how many of them will die in battle, and that’s all right. So the refrain of that song is “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.”

So it’s a very typical kind of marching song for soldiers, saying, “Many of us are going to die, and we don’t care!” Howe takes that tune and lifts the lyrics up to a more lofty, less graphic tone. ... [But] the overwhelming argument of that song, verse after verse, is that God supports our violent actions. That’s why I find it so deeply disturbing culturally that it’s in such wide use now.

You’ve talked about how lots of Civil War poetry is unfairly dismissed as overly conventional, but in contrast to that, you actually see Emily Dickinson as more traditional in some ways than her critical reputation suggests. Can you explain that?

The first scholars to approach Dickinson potentially as being a war poet—I’m thinking of the ’80s and ’90s—tended to read Dickinson as a poet who’s deeply skeptical about nationalistic ideologies and deeply skeptical about the rise of militarism and patriotic rhetoric in the Union. ...

I’m of the opinion that she does both things: that she thinks skeptically and quizzically about the war, the nationalist rhetoric and patriotic fervor that sort of drove the nation to war; but I think she also writes poems of grief and mourning that suggest that death in battlefield is a noble and good thing. In this sense I think she really belongs to her community of Amherst. She writes to and from that community, and these poems of grief and mourning that are supposed to offer consolation to herself, to her family, to others, not surprisingly share in some of the sentiments of that community. But it’s an unusual reading of Dickinson to suggest she’s participating in that kind of sentimental rhetoric.

Dickinson and Whitman are sometimes taken as the only “interesting” poets of the war years. Is the broad range of Civil War poetry underappreciated by contemporary scholars?

Edmund Wilson was very influential in dismissing this work as “versified journalism.” ... It’s also the case that scholars were reluctant to approach this body of work because the “But is it any good?” question persists much more strongly with poetry than it does with prose texts. If we pick up the dime novels that were written in the Civil War era, the political thrillers about female spies, we don’t expect those works to have the kind of narrative or linguistic complexity of Moby-Dick, but we still find them interesting and worthy of study.

You propose that mid-19th-century poets—beyond Dickinson and Whitman—influenced modernist preferences for things like skepticism, introspection, and fragmentation. But that influence, too, has gone mostly unacknowledged.

Another feature of Civil War–era poetry that has made scholars very uncomfortable in approaching it is all those national commitments writ large in the poetry. The fact that people took up their cause and proclaimed for it is something that has made critical approaches to the work more challenging, more difficult. ...

Undergraduates often find it very moving and powerful. They don’t have the whole trained scholarly apparatus to think, “Well, this is boring and uninteresting because of its formal regularity.” Instead, they read the poems on their own terms on the page and still find a kind of power in them that 19th-century readers found in them.

Do you see a way for poetry to get back to that point of engaging directly with political issues of the day, and being heard when it does so?

I don’t think that contemporary poets are disengaged politically. On the contrary. ... The issue is that the cultural position of poetry is quite dramatically changed. In a way, the readership of poetry is a much narrower segment of the reading population. These days I think we think—not me as part of that “we,” but a lot of people—if you asked people, “In what literary genre do you think the most important philosophical questions of the 21st century are being debated?,” people would say right away, “The novel. You have to go to that weighty, hefty, complex genre to really grapple with important political issues.” I don’t think that’s true at all. ... Myung Mi Kim is [a] poet I would cite as someone who is really thinking about global identity, about the political legacies of violence and nationalism, as an ongoing preoccupation for her in her work.

If you were tasked with naming an official national poet for our current political season, someone for every American to read, whom would you pick?

George Moses Horton. First, his life story is just so fascinating. The idea that someone who was an enslaved African American could have made a living [as a poet]—and that is what Horton did, made a living for himself a poet while still enslaved.

And then the work is just astonishing. Horton’s work has been unfairly dismissed as being imitative, as being facile. He does do all sorts of things stylistically. So he imitates Romantic poetry in some cases, he imitates neoclassical poetry in other cases. As a young man, he supports himself by writing love poems made to order for young white male students at the University of North Carolina.

I think the work holds up very well for contemporary readers. There’s such a mix of ideas and commitments. There’s this poem “Weep,” which is lamenting the downfall of the South, the devastation of the South, but it’s also just lamenting how deeply divided the nation has become, and the devastation of war. This is a poem that I think about in relation to our contemporary political context, where we have such deep divisions and so much anger on both sides, and so little common ground, seemingly, between the right and the left.


A “Poetry-Fueled War”

During the Civil War, poetry didn’t just respond to events; it shaped them.

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