16 - The Battle for the Mississippi
The Battle for the Mississippi.
When Israel camped by MigdolMelville’s opening stanza draws upon Exodus 14-15. While camped between the “hoar” (i.e. ancient) fortress Migdol and the Red Sea, Moses receives instructions from the Lord: He will part the Red Sea and lead the Israelites safely to freedom, then drown Pharaoh’s pursuing charioteers. In the aftermath, the prophetess Miriam dances with timbrels (tambourine) while Moses begins his triumphal song with: “The LORD is a man of war” (Ex. 15.2), as quoted in line 6. A shawm (line 2) is a medieval precursor of the modern double-reed oboe and does not appear in the KJV of the Bible; however, the word appears once in the Geneva Bible (a mainstay of Melville’s mother’s Dutch Reformed Church) in Jeremiah 48.36: "Therefore mine heart shall sound for Moab like a shawm, and mine heart shall sound like a shawm for the men of Kir Heres, because the riches that he hath gotten is perished." hoar,
Down at her feet her shawm she threw,
But Moses sung and timbrels rung
For Pharaoh's stranded crew.
So God appears in apt events—
The Lord is a man of war!
So the strong wing to the muse is given
In victory's roar.
Deep be the ode that hymns the fleet—
The fight by night—the fray
Which bore our Flag against the powerful stream,
And led it up to day.
Dully through din of larger strife
Shall bay that warring gun;
But none the less to us who live
It peals—an echoing one.
The shock of ships, the jar of walls,
The rush through thick and thin—
The flaring fire-rafts, glare and gloom—
Eddies, and shells that spin—
The boom-chain burst, the hulks dislodged,
The jam of gun-boats driven,
Or fired, or sunk—made up a war
Like Michael's waged with leven.
The manned Varuna stemmed and quelled
The odds which hard beset;
The oaken flag-ship, half ablaze,
Passed on and thundered yet;
While foundering, gloomed in grimy flame,
The Ram Manassas—hark the yell!—
Plunged, and was gone; in joy or fright,
The River gave a startled swell.
They fought through lurid dark till dawn;
The war-smoke rolled away
With clouds of night, and showed the fleet
In scarred yet firm array,
Above the forts, above the drift
Of wrecks which strife had made;
And Farragut sailed up to the town
And anchored—sheathed the blade.
The moody broadsides, brooding deep,
Hold the lewd mob at bay,
While o'er the armed decks' solemn aisles
The meek church-pennons play;
By shotted guns the sailors stand,
With foreheads bound or bare;
The captains and the conquering crews
Humble their pride in prayer.
They pray; and after victory, prayer
Is meet for men who mourn their slain;
The living shall unmoor and sail,
But Death's dark anchor secret deeps detain.
Yet Glory slants her shaft of rays
Far through the undisturbed abyss;
There must be other, nobler worlds for them
Who nobly yield their lives in this.