24 - The House-top*
The House-topThe poem recounts the New York Draft Riots on 11 July, 1863..
A Night Piece.
No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya"As barren / As banks [i.e. the desert] of Libya" (Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida I.3.327-8.). All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.
Yonder, where parching SiriusAlso known as The Dog Star, Sirius (from the Greek meaning hot) is the brightest summer star in the northern hemisphere. set in drought,
Balefully glares red Arson—there—and there.
The Town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And rats of the wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole æons back in nature.i
Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,
And ponderous drag that shakesIn his bound sheets of Batlle-Pieces (Copy C), Melville underlined "shakes" in pencil and inscribed "jars" in the right margin. the wall.
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin's creed
And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parlies; and the Town, redeemed,
Gives thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic's faith implied,
Which holds that Man is naturally good,
And—more—is Nature's Roman, never to be scourgedActs 16:37-38 and 22:25-29 relate how Paul invoked his exemption as a Roman citizen from scourging. In White-Jacket, Ch. 34, Melville quotes Acts 22 to make his case against flogging: "'Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman?' asks the intrepid Apostle, well knowing, as a Roman citizen, that it was not. And now, eighteen hundred years after, is it lawful for you, my countrymen, to scourge a man that is an American?" (See Cohen, 241).
[Melville's] Note i, page 86.
"I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities committed," says Froissart, in alluding to the remarkable sedition in France during his time. The like may be hinted of some proceedings of the draft-rioters.