Two Poems by Herman Melville

Portrait of Melville by Joseph Oriel Eaton, oils on canvas, 1870

While participating in a memorial ceremony this weekend for the Union dead from Missouri units at the battle of Shiloh, I heard an orator read the first of two poems below written by Herman Melville (1819-1891), perhaps most famous for his epic novel Moby-Dick. It struck me how his famous tale of the obsessive hunt for Captain Ahab’s whale likely more often than not overshadows Melville’s skills as a poet and his chronological place among his contemporaries. His talent is demonstrated in the two selections included below.

Shiloh: A Requiem (April 1862)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
     The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
      The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
     Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
          And natural prayer
     Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
     Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
     But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
     And all is hushed at Shiloh.

Sheridan at Cedar Creek (October 1864)

Shoe the steed with silver
     That bore him to the fray,
When he heard the guns at dawning—
               Miles away;
When he heard them calling, calling—
          Mount! nor stay:
               Quick, or all is lost;
               They’ve surprised and stormed the post,
               They push your routed host—
     Gallop! retrieve the day!
House the horse in ermine—
     For the foam-flake blew
White through the red October;
     He thundered into view;
They cheered him in the looming;
     Horseman and horse they knew.
               The turn of the tide began,
               The rally of bugles ran,
               He swung his hat in the van;
     The electric hoof-spark flew.
Wreathe the steed and lead him—
     For the charge he led
Touched and turned the cypress
     Into amaranths for the head
Of Philip, king of riders,
     Who raised them from the dead.
               The camp (at dawning lost)
               By eve recovered—forced,
               Rang with laughter of the host
      At belated Early fled.
Shroud the horse in sable—
     For the mounds they heap!
There is firing in the Valley,
     And yet no strife they keep;
It is the parting volley,
     It is the pathos deep.
               There is glory for the brave
               Who lead, and nobly save,
               But no knowledge in the grave
     Where the nameless followers sleep.

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