1 - The Portent
Melville Electronic Library
The Portent.In mid-October 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) led a raid on the US arsenal at Harpers Ferry, VA, in order to instigate a slave insurrection; he was captured, tried, and convicted of treason, and hanged a month later on December 2.
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crownIn his attack on Harpers Ferry, Brown received a cut on his head from the sword of one of his own men. See also a Shakespearean echo: "It is no English treason to cut French crowns" (Henry V, 4.i. 245).
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the capThe cap is a covering to conceal Brown's head during execution. He wore a long beard at the time, and images of him on the gallows featured his beard showing out from beneath the cap covering his head, also alluded to by Melville in "streaming beard" below.
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),Not weird as in "strange" or "uncanny" so much as "prophetic" and suggestive of control over human destiny (OED). Also echoed are Shakespeare's "weird sisters" or witches who predict Macbeth's demise.
The meteor of the war.The "Great Meteor" of 20 July 1860—now called an "Earth-grazing meteor procession"—was witnessed across several states, as were other massive meteors that summer. Frederic Church depicted the event in his painting "Meteor of 1860." Whitman, who witnessed Brown's execution, included him and other momentous events and luminaries in his poem "Year of Meteors. (1859-60.); see https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1867/poems/187"