Sunday, 25 October 2009

Herman Melville: 'Shiloh'

The Battle of Shiloh, in Tennessee, took place on 6-7 April 1862. Casualty levels were unprecedented: the 3500 men who died there amounted to more than the United States had lost in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War combined.

As befits its subtitle, Herman Melville's 'requiem' is remarkably non-partisan. Both sides seem to have been deceived; how modern that parenthetical line sounds, both in tone and sentiment. Melville gives the fatally wounded the opportunity to overcome their enmity. Americans all, they live as foe and die as friends: the schisms of civil war are healed in deaths which transform churchyard into graveyard. That the battlefield should have been a site of Christian worship emphasises the appalling costs of this fratricide as well as the possibilities for its redress.

A Requiem

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.


  1. "What like a bullet can undeceive..." or bombs going off today in Bagdad, for that matter. As brilliant Brit guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson puts it, well aware of the pun, "'Dad's gonna kill me!" Meanwhile, over here in the States, there's a familiar folk-song titled "Hills of Shiloh" (I think), with rhythm quite similar to Melville's poem, and a line, post battle, about "walking the bloody hills of Shiloh." That grim, sort-of pun is likely accidental...

  2. Just shared a bit of this on Facebook from your post. Then noticed you are the Tim Kendall whose Frost book I just read! Excellent book.