Thursday, 14 March 2013

I wanted to give them "Lee in the Mountains" - but had to settle for "Oh Captain! My Captain!"

Robert E. Lee
I wanted to read a poem from or about the American Civil War (The War Between the States, The War of Northern Aggression etc.) at our local Pass On A Poem meeting in Chiswick tonight, mainly because I’ve been reading a lot about the conflict  recently, as well as working my way through Ken Burns’s vast nine-part 1991 TV documentary series about the conflict.

I did my very best not to choose Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “Oh Captain! My Captain!”, (a) because it’s such an obvious choice, (b) because I don’t want to piss off E.F. Bartlam, whose Flimsy Cups blog has enabled me to look at the conflict in a new light, (c) it featured in Dead Poets Society, a film with an extremely dubious moral message, and (d) while I’ve loved the poem since first reading it, it’s very un-Whitman-like, in that it rhymes and scans just like a conventional poem (which may account for a couple of awkward inversions – this poet is evidently not entirely at home with such an orthodox format), and I cherish Whitman for his idiosyncracies.
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead. 
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
O captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead. 
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
I could have read Whitman’s other love-letter to Lincoln, “When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed”, which is even more heart-rending:
When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,        
And thought of him I love.
But it’s far too long, and, besides, contains the unfortunate phrase “shuddering organs”, which I’d never get away with here in England, a land where every ear is attuned to the  double entendre.

To be honest, I was hoping to find a suitable poem about Robert E. Lee. There’s been a tad too much Lincoln worship recently, what with the release of the Spielberg film. Besides, I don’t think you need to be a Southerner to realise that Robert E. Lee was a quite extraordinary human being. He was evidently a military commander of rare – possibly unsurpassed - genius, as well as being a thoroughly decent, brave and honourable man, who, despite being against secession and despite believing that the “peculiar institution” of slavery was in any case doomed, chose out of love and duty to fight for his state, Virginia, rather than take up a senior position with the Union Army. (Who knows how quickly the war might have been over had he not chosen as he did.)

To my surprise, I found a quite superb poem by the Southern Agrarian writer, essayist, poet and lecturer, Donald Davidson, called “Lee in the Mountains”, published in 1938. But, as with “Lilacs”, it’s long, and complex, and would have required too much explanation to be graspable by an English audience on first hearing. It deals with the period after the war, when Lee was president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, where – fittingly - many of the students were veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee - very typically - chose not to write his own memoirs, opting instead to spend several years editing a new edition of Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, an account of the War of Independence written by his father – a hero of that conflict – while banged up in prison for debt.

So, for those reasons, I opted for “Oh Captain! My Captain”, and contented myself with mentioning the Flimsy Cups blog, the greatness of Lee, and the fact that Southerners tend to view Abraham Lincoln as a war criminal responsible for illegally invading the Confederacy, which had seceded from the Union, as was their legal right under the Constitution. Several members of the audience looked taken aback (they assume all is sweetness and light now between the Northern and Southern states), but, pleasingly,  the manager of the Oxfam Bookshop where these events are held told the gathering that, while visiting Virginia last year, she'd been surprised to learn that Honest Abe was indeed anything but a hero to the people in those parts.

Whatever, “Lee in the Mountains” is rich and knotty and surprising and wistful and intelligent and sad - in other words, one hell of a good poem:
Walking into the shadows, walking alone
Where the sun falls through the ruined boughs of locust
Up to the president's office. . . . 
                                Hearing the voices 
Whisper, Hush, it is General Lee! And strangely
Hearing my own voice say, Good morning, boys.
(Don't get up. You are early. It is long
Before the bell. You will have long to wait
On these cold steps. . . .) 
                           The young have time to wait 
But soldiers' faces under their tossing flags
Lift no more by any road or field,
And I am spent with old wars and new sorrow.
Walking the rocky path, where steps decay
And the paint cracks and grass eats on the stone.
It is not General Lee, young men. . .
It is Robert Lee in a dark civilian suit who walks,
An outlaw fumbling for the latch, a voice
Commanding in a dream where no flag flies. 
My father's house is taken and his hearth
Left to the candle-drippings where the ashes
Whirl at a chimney-breath on the cold stone.
I can hardly remember my father's look, I cannot
Answer his voice as he calls farewell in the misty
Mounting where riders gather at gates.
He was old then--I was a child--his hand
Held out for mine, some daybreak snatched away,
And he rode out, a broken man. Now let
His lone grave keep, surer than cypress roots,
The vow I made beside him. God too late
Unseals to certain eyes the drift
Of time and the hopes of men and a sacred cause.
The fortune of the Lees goes with the land
Whose sons will keep it still. My mother
Told me much. She sat among the candles,
Fingering the Memoirs, now so long unread.
And as my pen moves on across the page
Her voice comes back, a murmuring distillation
Of old Virginia times now faint and gone,
The hurt of all that was and cannot be. 
Why did my father write? I know he saw
History clutched as a wraith out of blowing mist
Where tongues are loud, and a glut of little souls
Laps at the too much blood and the burning house.
He would have his say, but I shall not have mine.
What I do is only a son's devoir
To a lost father. Let him only speak.
The rest must pass to men who never knew
(But on a written page) the strike of armies,
And never heard the long Confederate cry
Charge through the muzzling smoke or saw the bright
Eyes of the beardless boys go up to death.
It is Robert Lee who writes with his father's hand--
The rest must go unsaid and the lips be locked. 
If all were told, as it cannot be told--
If all the dread opinion of the heart
Now could speak, now in the shame and torment
Lashing the bound and trampled States-- 
If a word were said, as it cannot be said--
I see clear waters run in Virginia's Valley
And in the house the weeping of young women
Rises no more. The waves of grain begin.
The Shenandoah is golden with a new grain.
The Blue Ridge, crowned with a haze of light,
Thunders no more. The horse is at plough. The rifle
Returns to the chimney crotch and the hunter's hand.
And nothing else than this? Was it for this
That on an April day we stacked our arms
Obedient to a soldier's trust? To lie
Ground by heels of little men, 
Forever maimed, defeated, lost, impugned?
And was I then betrayed? Did I betray?
If it were said, as it still might be said--
If it were said, and a word should run like fire,
Like living fire into the roots of grass,
The sunken flag would kindle on wild hills,
The brooding hearts would waken, and the dream
Stir like a crippled phantom under the pines,
And this torn earth would quicken into shouting
Beneath the feet of the ragged bands-- 
                                                  The pen 
Turns to the waiting page, the sword
Bows to the rust that cankers and the silence. 
Among these boys whose eyes lift up to mine
Within gray walls where droning wasps repeat
A hollow reveille, I still must face,
Day after day, the courier with his summons
Once more to surrender, now to surrender all.
Without arms or men I stand, but with knowledge only
I face what long I saw, before others knew,
When Pickett's men streamed back, and I heard the tangled
Cry of the Wilderness wounded, bloody with doom. 
The mountains, once I said, in the little room
At Richmond, by the huddled fire, but still
The President shook his head. The mountains wait,
I said, in the long beat and rattle of siege
At cratered Petersbyrg. Too late
We sought the mountains and those people came.
And Lee is in the mountains now, beyond Appomatox,
Listening long for voices that will never speak
Again; hearing the hoofbeats that come and go and fade
Without a stop, without a brown hand lifting
The tent-flap, or a bugle call at dawn,
Or ever on the long white road the flag
Of Jackson's quick brigades. I am alone,
Trapped, consenting, taken at last in mountains. 
It is not the bugle now, or the long roll beating.
The simple stroke of a chapel bell forbids
The hurtling dream, recalls the lonely mind.
Young men, the God of your fathers is a just
And merciful God Who in this blood once shed
On your green altars measures out all days,
And measures out the grace
Whereby alone we live;
And in His might He waits,
Brooding within the certitude of time,
To bring this lost forsaken valor
And the fierce faith undying
And the love quenchless
To flower among the hills to which we cleave,
To fruit upon the mountains whither we flee,
Never forsaking, never denying
His children and His children's children forever
Unto all generations of the faithful heart. 
If you want to learn more about Donald Davidson's life (he's not to be confused with the American philosopher of the same name), start here; his poltical and social views are sympathetically appraised here.


  1. Much enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    If you haven't seen, there are two interesting portrayals of General Lee in the Ted Turner-financed films "Gettysburg" [1993] and "Gods and Generals" [2003]. In the first, he is played by Martin Sheen and in the second by Robert Duvall [who is a direct descendant of the great man] and which also contains a good performance by Robert Lang as "Stonewall" Jackson.

    I am glad that you share my enthusiasm for Ken Burns who is a great documentary film-maker. We are spared silly re-enactments or English celebrity academics wandering around with their strangulated vowels and irritating hand movements getting in the way of the narrative. Instead we are given highly authoritative and quietly informative figures like Shelby Foote [if time was on your side I would recommend you read his 3-part, 3000+ page magnum opus on the Civil War. It is a very good work of history].

    Oddly, as I was reading your post I had just started a new book on the CW ["April 1865" by Jay Winik]. I have a feeling it is going to make me sad.

    1. I'm still working my way through the Ken Burns series, but I find the post-Gettysburg part of the story, the decline of the Confederacy's fortunes, very hard to sit through - I keep hoping for a different result, just as I did when we studied the Civil war at school 43 years ago. But I'll certainly look out for Gods and Generals, being a great admirer of Robert Duvall - I'm not sure I could take arch-liberal Martin Sheen as Lee.

  2. If these Northerners up in Virginia have trouble making their readers understand the war, suggest everyone reads deep south Faulkner's The Unvanquished, also 1938, like Donald Davidson's poem.

    1. Okay, dammit - I'll give Faulkner one more go!

  3. I was thrilled to see Donald Davidson when I pulled up this post. He is one the most important Southern thinkers...and criminally ignored. He's made a lot appearances over at Flimsy Cups.

    I think he's essential for understanding the conflict that still exists in this country from a pure Southern point of that rejects outright that America is the norm. He's untouchable writer, caustic when it's necessary and always funny.

    Still Rebels, Still Yankees (a collection of essays and critiques) should be on the shelf of every Southerner...and anyone else that's interested in The South.

    Mr. Cash and the Proto-Dorian South is what post-colonialism should have been....decades before Edward Said was a gleam in his Daddy's eye. It's a classic of critique that's never been part because Cash killed himself soon after The Southern Mind was published and because of the usual reasons.

    Davidson tells a story that illustrates our position, since 1865, better than any other anecdote I've heard. Just before he, and his fellow soldiers all from Tennessee, Georgia, etc...were to ship out for the First World War, they were treated to a pep talk from a Yankee veteran of Lincoln's War. He told these sons of Confederacy that they would mow down the Germans just like he and his soldiers had mowed down the Rebels near the very spot where they sat. According to Davis, the speech was met with silence.

    1. Given the quality of his poetry - and the examples of his prose writings available online - I'm very much looking forward to reading "Still Rebels, Still Yankees".

      I hope you don't mind, but I thought I'd cut and paste your General Richard Taylor story, as it's instructive: "General Richard Taylor, in one of the best Confederate memoirs, Destruction and Reconstruction, related what happened as he surrendered the last Confederate troops east of the Mississippi in 1865. A German, wearing the uniform of a Yankee general and speaking in heavily accented English, lectured him that now that the war was over, Southerners would be taught "the true American principles." Taylor replied, sardonically, that he regretted that his grandfather, an officer in the Revolution, and his father, President of the United States, had not passed on to him true American principles. Yankeeism was triumphant."

  4. Mind?
    Hell that's a story that can't be told enough. The quote is actually an abbreviated version of the conversation. The full passage from Taylor's memoir is even get the full power of Taylor's mind and wit and younger a glimpse of a minor (though more important than is realized I think) element of the conflict...British Southerners v Germanish Yankees.