A “Poetry-Fueled War”
When Edmund Wilson dismissed the poetry of the Civil War as “versified journalism” in 1962, he summed up a common set of critiques: American poetry of the era is mostly nationalist doggerel, with little in the way of formal innovation. On the contrary, argues scholar Faith Barrett. In her new book, To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave,Barrett contends that a broad range of 19th-century writers used verse during the Civil War to negotiate complicated territory, both personal and public. Taking its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, Barrett’s book also argues that Civil War poetry was much more formally destabilizing than scholars have traditionally acknowledged.
The book explores work by Northern writers such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and black abolitionist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, along with amateur “soldier-poets” and several Southern poets, including the so-called poet laureate of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod. Barrett devotes a chapter to Herman Melville’s little-read postwar collection Battle-Pieces, and another to the close connection between poetry and songs during the war.
Barrett co-edited a 2005 anthology of Civil War poetry called Words for the Hour, and her own published poetry includes a 2001 chapbook, Invisible Axis. She spoke with the Poetry Foundation from Appleton, Wisconsin, where she teaches English and creative writing at Lawrence University.
You write that the Civil War was a “poetry-fueled war.” What do you mean by that?
Poetry in mid-19th-century America was ubiquitous in a way that it just isn’t now. It was everywhere in newspapers and magazines, children were learning it in school…. Americans were encountering poetry on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis, in the Civil War era, and that’s a profound difference from contemporary poetry and its place in our culture.
There are so many accounts in newspapers of soldiers dying with a poem in their pockets, poems written on a scrap of paper folded up inside a book; so many accounts of songs or poems being sung or read to political leaders at particular moments. For example, after Lincoln announced the second call for a draft … James Sloan Gibbons wrote this song poem called “Three Hundred Thousand More,” which he supposedly sang to Lincoln in his office one day. So there’s a kind of immediacy of impact, that poetry is actually, I suggest, shaping events, not just responding or reflecting on them