The Library of America recently published "Poets of the Civil War," edited by J. D. McClatchy. In an excellent introduction, McClatchy points...

Share story

The Library of America recently published “Poets of the Civil War,” edited by J.D. McClatchy. In an excellent introduction, McClatchy points out that our greatest and most violent national cataclysm produced “no one great sweeping poem — no American ‘Iliad.’ ” Novelists like Henry James and Mark Twain, he notes, also avoided the subject of the war. Photography and prose, in elegies like Lincoln’s second inaugural or Whitman’s “Specimen Days,” were the arts that dealt most memorably with the great, terrible subject.

McClatchy goes on to suggest that poems like those he collects, considered together, may be the closest we can come to an epic of the Civil War. In the anthology’s mosaic, poets of varying skills appear along with Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow, Whitman and Dickinson. Northerners and Southerners, propagandists and apologists, patriots of conflicting views — all add their voices. This collection offers another way to think about the relation between art and politics, with specific examples.

It is striking to read abolitionist poems alongside the impassioned, rhetorically elevated verses of Confederate poets like Henry Timrod (1828-1867), whose “Carolina” begins:

The despot treads thy sacred sands,

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Thy pines give shelter to his bands,

Thy sons stand by with idle hand,

Carolina!

He breathes at ease thy airs of balm,

He scorns the lances of thy palm,

Oh! Who shall break thy craven calm,

Carolina!

The lines make me think of the poet George Moses Horton (1797-1883), who lived most of his life as a slave in North Carolina. In “Division of an Estate,” Horton describes what happens to a farm and its livestock when the owner dies and the heirs take over — like countless, cool stars when the great sun goes down, he suggests. He closes with a description of the slaves contemplating the auction platform:

But O! the state,

The dark suspense in which poor vassals stand

Each mind upon the spire of chance hangs fluctuant;

The day of separation is at hand;

Imagination lifts her gloomy curtains,

Like ev’ning’s mantle at the flight of day,

Thro’ which the trembling pinnacle we spy,

On which we soon must stand with hopeful smiles,

Or apprehending frowns; to tumble on

The right or left forever.

In such lines, and in “Poets of the Civil War,” imagination lifts its immeasurably somber curtain on the great national division. McClatchy’s anthology is significant as more evidence in the great, continuing project of the Americans to become one people.

Henry Timrod’s poem “Carolina” can be found in “Poets of the Civil War,” edited by J.D. McClatchy. Library of America. Copyright 2005 by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. George Moses Horton’s poem “Division of an Estate” can be found in “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature,” edited by Henry Louis Gates. Copyright 1997 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.