“Shiloh: A Requiem” by Herman Melville

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.

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Herman Melville’s poem “Shiloh: A Requiem” blinked back at me from the brightly lit screen of my MacBook Pro and caught my attention for one reason, and one reason only.  It was not the sorrowful narrative or dramatic images that intrigued me.  Instead, it was the simple subject matter.  As an American History major who sets a portion of each summer aside to visit a Civil War battlefield or two, I love the Civil War and all of the romantic and tragic stories it has to offer.

The word “Shiloh” has complicated origins and meaning, which underline the irony of Melville’s poem.  “Shiloh” is mentioned as a city in the Bible and also refers to the Messiah, meaning the “peaceful one.”  The Shiloh Meeting House is both a site of religious significance and the first battle of the Civil War, which resulted in staggering casualties.  Melville orchestrates this irony to anchor the emotional depth of the poem as a place of both peace and loss.

Born in 1819, Melville explored careers as a sailor and a teacher before settling into his career as a writer.  The Civil War made a deep impression on Melville and became the principal subject of his verse.  Because many family members participated in various aspects of the war, Melville found himself intimately connected to these events and sought out conflict for himself.  Melville’s first book of poems was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, published in 1866.  This poem was first published in this collection.  The volume is regarded by many critics as a work as ambitious and rich as any of his novels.  Unfortunately, Melville remains relatively unrecognized as a poet.

Melville died of a heart attack in 1891.  He died almost completely forgotten by the literary world.  His name resumed its place amongst famous authors of literature during the 1920’s.