3 - The Conflict of Convictions*
First American edition of Battle-Pieces.
Melville's c copy of Battle-Pieces, which includes his post-publication revisions.
The Conflict of Convictions.a
On starry heights
A bugle wails the long recall;
Derision stirs the deep abyss,
Heaven's ominous silence over all.
Return, return, O eager Hope,
And face man's latter fall.
Events, they make the dreamers quail;
Satan's old age is strong and hale,
A disciplined captain, gray in skill,
And Raphael a white enthusiast still;
Dashed aims, at whichREVISION NARRATIVE: In his copy of bound sheets for Battle-Pieces, Melville deleted "at which" in pencil, inserted a caret in front of the words, and added "whereat" in the left margin. See corresponding thumbnail to view the revision site. Christ's martyrs pale,
Shall MammonA loan word from Greek and Latin into Aramaic and the New Testament, meaning money or wealth. See also: "No man can serve two masters: ... Ye cannot serve God and mammon." Matthew 6:24's slaves fulfill?
(Dismantle the fort,
Cut down the fleet—
Battle no more shall be!
While the fields for fight in æons to come
Congeal beneath the sea.)
The terrors of truth and dart of death
To faith alike are vain;
Though comets, gone a thousand years,
Patient she stands—she can no more—
And waits, nor heeds she waxes hoar.
(At a stony gate,
A statue of stone,
Long 'twill wait!)
But God his former mind retains,
Confirms his old decree;
The generations are inured to pains,
And strong Necessity
Surges, and heaps Time's strand with wrecks.
The People spread like a weedy grass,
The thing they will they bring to pass,
And prosper to the apoplex.
The rout it herds around the heart,
The ghost is yielded in the gloom;
Kings wag their heads—Now save thyself
Who wouldst rebuild the world in bloom.
And top of the ages' strife,
Verge where they called the world to come,
The last advance of life—
Ha ha, the rust on the Iron Dome!)
Nay, but revere the hid event;
In the cloud a sword is girded on,
I mark a twinkling in the tent
Of Michael the warrior one.
Senior wisdom suits not now,
The light is on the youthful brow.
(Ay, in caves the miner see:
His forehead bears a blinking light;REVISION NARRATIVE: In his copy of bound sheets for Battle-Pieces, Melville deleted "a blinking light" in pencil, inserted a caret before the deletion with a line connecting it to "a taper dim," inscribed in the right margin. See corresponding thumbnail to view this and related revision sites in this stanza.
Darkness so he feebly braves—
A meagre wight!REVISION NARRATIVE: At the same time he revised the second line of this stanza, Melville revised the fourth. He used pencil to delete the dash at the end of the third line and in one stroke deleted "A meagre wight!"; he then inscribed "which foldeth him!" in the right margin, completing the rhyme with "a taper dim."
But He who rules is old—is old;
Ah! faith is warm, but heaven with age is cold.
(Ho ho, ho ho,
The cloistered doubt
Of olden times
Is blurted out!)
The Ancient of DaysIn early Hebrew and Christian traditions, the Ancient of Days represents the eternity of God as well as the coming of the messiah. It is also associated with the Archangel St. Michael, who leads the battle against the forces of Satan, and with the biblical prophetic mode, as is evident in scripture: "I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire" (Book of Daniel 7:9; see also NN Published Poems 626). Melville opens his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man with the appearance of a prophet-like man dressed in white, and would compose a poem titled "The New Ancient of Days" that was not published in his lifetime. Battle-Pieces is also replete with references to the Archangel Michael.
forever is young,
Forever the scheme of Nature thrives;
I know a wind in purpose strong—
It spins against the way it drives.
What if the gulfs their slimed foundations bare?
So deep must the stones be hurled
Whereon the throes of ages rear
The final empire and the happier world.
(The poor old Past,
The Future's slave,
She drudged through pain and crime
To bring about the blissful Prime,
Then—perished. There's a grave!)
Power unanointed may come—
Dominion (unsought by the free)
And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
But the Founders' dream shall flee.
Age after age shall be
As age after age has been,
(From man's changeless heart their way they win);
And death be busy with all who strive—
Death, with silent negative.
Yea and Nay—
Each hath his say;
But God He keeps the middle way.
None was by
When he spread the sky;
Wisdom is vain, and prophesy.
[Melville's] Note a, page 14.
The gloomy lull of the early part of the winter of 1860-1, seeming big with final disaster to our institutions, affected some minds that believed them to constitute one of the great hopes of mankind, much as the eclipse which came over the promise of the first French Revolution affected kindred natures, throwing them for the time into doubts and misgivings universal.