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The March into Virginia

Did all the lets and bars appear
          To every just or larger end,
Whence should come the trust and cheer?
          Youth must its ignorant impulse lend--
Age finds place in the rear.
          All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,
The champions and enthusiasts of the state:
          Turbid ardors and vain joys
                    Not barrenly abate--
Stimulants to the power mature,
          Preparatives of fate.

Who here forecasteth the event?
What heart but spurns at precedent
And warnings of the wise,
Contemned foreclosures of surprise?
The banners play, the bugles call,
The air is blue and prodigal.
          No berrying party, pleasure-wooed,
No picnic party in the May
Ever went less loth than they
          Into that leafy neighborhood.
In Bacchic glee they file toward fate,
Moloch uninitiate;
Expectancy, and glad surmise
Of battle's unknown mysteries.

All they feel is this: 'tis glory,
A rapture sharp, though transitory,
Yet lasting in belaureled story.
So they gayly go to fight,
Chatting left and laughing right.

But some who this blithe mood present,
          As on in lightsome files they fare,
Shall die experienced ere three days are spent--
          Perish, enlightened by the vollied glare;
Or shame survive, and, like to adamant,
          The throe of Second Manassas share.

—Herman Melville

Rosanna Warren reads Herman Melville’s “The March into Virginia”

Transcription of Commentary

I am Rosanna Warren. I am reading the poem, “The March into Virginia Ending in the First Manassas” by Herman Melville.

This poem appeared in Melville’s collection of poetry Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, which he published in August 1866 at the end of the Civil War. It’s a poem much concerned with identity: North or South? Youth or age? What is it to be an American? What is it to be living? What is it to be dead? What is it to be ignorant? What is it to be (as the poem says) “enlightened?” The Battle of Bull Run, also called First Manassas, was fought on July 20th and 21 in 1861—one of the first major battles of the war—and in it the Union army of the North commanded by General McDowell was 35,000 men strong and marched out from Washington to meet the Confederates on the field at Manassas Junction, Virginia, just 20 miles away from Washington, D.C. The Union forces were so convinced of their superiority that they treated it like a picnic, or as Melville says, a “berrying party”— not b-u-r-y-i-n-g, which is the pun hidden there, but “berrying”—as in collecting b-e-r-r-i-e-s: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries. And so convinced was the North of its victory that civilians went out from Washington in their carriages and on horseback with picnic baskets and bottles of wine as if it were a sporting event they were going to witness and cheer on. What happened was a furious, bloody battle and a humiliating defeat for the North. There was revealed the military genius of the Southern commander who became known as Stonewall Jackson because in this battle he stood, as they said, like a stone wall and repulsed the Northern troops. So even though the Confederate army of 31,000 there under General Beauregard was smaller than the Union, they outfought them and outwitted them. The best description of the humiliation of the Northern army is by Walt Whitman, who wasn’t present at the battle, but was in Washington at the time and described the return of the defeated soldiers in his book, Specimen Days.

Here’s Whitman:

The defeated troops commenced pouring into Washington over the Long Bridge at daylight on Monday, 22d—day drizzling all through with rain. The Saturday and Sunday of the battle (20th, 21st,) had been parch’d and hot to an extreme—the dust, the grime and smoke, in layers, sweated in, follow’d by other layers again sweated in, absorb’d by those excited souls—their clothes all saturated with the clay-powder filling the air—stirr’d up everywhere on the dry roads and trodden fields by the regiments, swarming wagons, artillery, &c.—all the men with this coating of murk and sweat and rain, now recoiling back, pouring over the Long Bridge—a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck. Where are the vaunts, and the proud boasts with which you went forth? Where are your banners, and your bands of music, and your ropes to bring back your prisoners? Well, there isn’t a band playing—and there isn’t a flag but clings ashamed and lank to its staff.

Melville’s focus in his poem is on the boys, on the youth of the soldiers; as he says, “All wars are boyish and are fought by boys.” And, master poet that he is, he understands that meaning is carried by sound patterning in poetry. He gives us a very powerful patterning with the sound of “b”; we’ve already had the cue that “b” is associated with the boys—“all wars are boyish”—so we get these other “b” words like the sexual energy of the boys in the phrase “turbid ardors,” “Not barrenly abate,” with “banners,” “bugles,” “berrying party,” the air is “blue.” And the “b”s reach their height, their intensity, in the god Bacchus, in “Bacchic glee they file toward fate.” Bacchus, the god of wine, the god of freedom, the god of wild celebration. This is the boys’ ignorance, this “Bacchic glee,” they think it will be a wild party, this battle. In the very next line they are delivered to a very different god, Moloch. Moloch, the god, the Ammonite god of the ancient Near East, worshipped by the Canaanites and the Phoenicians through child sacrifice. This poem shows us that Melville regarded the Civil War as, among other things, child sacrifice. And part of the, I’d say, moral wisdom of this poem and its drama of identity and of Melville’s whole book Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War is that he didn’t finally take sides as so many of the other contemporary poems did at the time, either pro-North or pro-South. Melville was a Northerner. He hated slavery. There was no question about his allegiance in this war, but his contemplation of the larger tragedy of the war went far beyond partisanship. He saw it as a dreadful, fratricidal killing of the children and killing of certain democratic possibilities in order to make possible other democratic possibilities, which he held sacred, as did Lincoln.

Other points to make about this poem: the somewhat irregular pattern of the metrics; it veers between four-beat lines, three-beat lines, sometimes goes out to authoritative five-beat line as in “all wars are boyish, and are fought by boys.” And the pattern of light and dark, so that, in the early part of the poem, the boys are marching out to war in lightsome files, that means they’re in a kind of radiant light of hope and youthful ignorance, but what they experience, ironically, some of them by dying, is enlightenment as Melville says, “Perish, enlightened by the vollied glare;” that is the blaze of the rifle fire and the canon shot. “What good is it to be enlightened if you are dead?” the poem seems to ask us.

This poem is in the public domain.

Rosanna Warren

Rosanna Warren

Read “Fire” by Rosanna Warren

Rosanna Warren (1953- ) was born in Connecticut and educated at Yale University and Johns Hopkins University. She is a professor at the University of Chicago, an editor, a literary translator, and has published four books of poetry. Her work Stained Glass (1993) was named the Lamont Poetry Selection by the Academy of American Poets. Warren served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005. Photo credit: Joel E. Cohen.

Learn more about Rosanna Warren at The Poetry Foundation

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Herman Melville (1819-1891) was born in New York and educated at the Albany Academy. He is the author of three poetry collections, more than 10 novels, multiple essays, and short stories. Though unappreciated in his own lifetime, his masterpiece Moby Dick (1850) went on to become celebrated as one of the foundations of the American literary canon.

Learn more about Herman Melville at The Poetry Foundation