Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beware the People Weeping. . .

For whatever reason, while watching The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth the other night, I couldn't help but think about a course I took eight years ago during my final semester at Kutztown University. It was an elective for me, an English/Literature course, titled "The Times of Melville and Whitman," which focused on the golden age of American literature (circa 1840-1870). We analyzed the works of Poe, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and, yes, Walt Witman and Herman Melville all in an effort to understand their various styles and, more importantly to me, their lives and times.
During one particular class session, we looked at some of the poetry that came out in the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination. Walt Whitman's pieces, i.e. Oh! Captain, My Captain, and When the Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, are the most famous these works, but so drawn was I to a post-assassination poem penned by Herman Melville, that I used it as a basis for my required, ten-page essay due at the end of the semester. No other poem, at least as far as I was concerned, captured the sentiment of the American people better in the immediate wake of Lincoln's murder than The Martyr, which had as its subtitle, "Indicative of the Passion of the People on the 15th Day of April, 1865." In this poem Melville draws parallels between Lincoln and Christ, and makes it clear that he, as well as most in the North, considered Lincoln's killing to be the work not of one man, but of the Confederate States government. In it, Melville seems unable to control his anger and also hints at his hope that stern measures be taken by "The Avenger" (read Andrew Johnson) to punish the South, not only for the murder of Lincoln, but for the devastation and destruction caused by their rebellion.
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The Martyr
By Herman Melville

Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm--
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.


There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

He lieth in his blood--
The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver--
The Avenger takes his place,
The Avenger wisely stern,
Who in righteousness shall do
What the heavens call him to,
And the parricides remand;
For they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And his blood is on their hand.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

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