When you think about poetry and the Civil War, Herman Melville is probably not the first person who comes to mind. Yet, with some serious hindsight, Melville has turned out to be one of the major poets of the Civil War. As readers of Moby Dick, White-Jacket, and “the Bell Tower” know, Melville had a longstanding interest in technology, science, and the mechanization of society. This made Melville especially attuned the effects of technology on war, and on the role of soldiers in war.
This week’s Sunday Science Poem is “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight.” The Monitor was the first Federal armored “ironclad” warship. On March 8, 1862, the Monitor and the Confederate Virginia (previously known as the Merrimac when it was a Federal ship) battled to a draw in the world’s first battle between armored warships – an ominous milestone that Melville explores in this poem. This was a battle of “no passion; all went by on crank, pivot, and screw, and calculations of caloric.” It was not a glorious fight of heroes, but a professional battle of technical “operatives.” Today, the operatives can control unmanned, mechanical weapons without even being present on the battlefield.
If you thought Moby Dick was tough reading, you’re not going to find relief in Melville’s poetry, but you will be rewarded. Melville was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and by the big 17th century prose stylists like Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. When you read the poem below, get ready to go with Melville into an older mode of expression, with his antique sentence structure and archaic word choice. But don’t be fooled, this is a very modern poem.
A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight Plain be the phrase, yet apt the verse, More ponderous than nimble; For since grimed War here laid aside His painted pomp, 'twould ill befit Overmuch to ply The rhyme's barbaric cymbal. Hail to victory without the gaud Of glory; zeal that needs no fans Of banners; plain mechanic power Plied cogently in War now placed -- Where War belongs -- Among the trades and artisans. Yet this was battle, and intense -- Beyond the strife of fleets heroic; Deadlier, closer, calm 'mid storm; No passion; all went on by crank, Pivot, and screw, And calculations of caloric. Needless to dwell; the story's known. The ringing of those plates on plates Still ringeth round the world -- The clangor of the blacksmiths' fray. The anvil-din Resounds this message from the Fates: War shall yet be, and to the end; But war-paint shows the streaks of weather; War yet shall be, but the warriors Are now but operatives; War's made Less grand than Peace, And a singe runs through lace and feather.
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