29 - The Swamp Angel
The Swamp Angel.
Melville’s likely source is the anonymous poem “The Swamp Angel” by “T.N.J.” printed in The Rebellion Record, vol. 8 (NN Published Poems 650).
There is a coal-black Angel
With a thick Afric lip,
And he dwells (like the hunted and harried)
In a swamp where the green frogs dip.
But his face is against a City
Which is over a bay of the sea,
And he breathes with a breath that is blastment,
And dooms by a far decree.
By night there is fear in the City,
Through the darkness a star soareth on;
There's a scream that screams up to the zenith,
Then the poise of a meteor lone—
Lighting far the pale fright of the faces,
And downward the coming is seen;
Then the rush, and the burst, and the havoc,
And wails and shrieks between.
It comes like the thief in the gloaming;
It comes, and none may foretell
The place of the coming—the glaring;
They live in a sleepless spell
That wizens, and withers, and whitens;
It ages the young, and the bloom
Of the maiden is ashes of roses—
The Swamp Angel broods in his gloom.
Swift is his messengers' going,
But slowly he saps their halls,
As if by delay deluding.
They move from their crumbling walls
Farther and farther away;
But the Angel sends after and after,
By night with the flame of his ray—
By night with the voice of his screaming—
Sends after them, stone by stone,
And farther walls fall, farther portals,
And weed follows weed through the Town.
Is this the proud CityMelville draws upon Milton to compare the conflict between North and South, white and black, Charleston and Babylon. In the prophetic mode of Book 12 of Paradise Lost, the warrior Archangel Michael is situated “Betwixt the world destroyed and world restored” (line 3), and Satan’s crumbling “proud city” (l. 342) is figured as the fall of Babylon. In his Note K for the poem, Melville flatly observes the irony that Charleston’s main church is named for St. Michael.? the scorner
Which never would yield the ground?
Which mocked at the coal-black Angel?
The cup of despair goes round.
Vainly she calls upon Michael
(The white man's seraph was he),
For Michael has fled from his tower
To the Angel over the sea.
Who weeps for the woeful City
Let him weep for our guilty kind;
Who joys at her wild despairing—
Christ, the Forgiver, convert his mind.
[Melville's] Note k, page 107.
The great Parrott gun, planted in the marshes of James Island, and employed in the prolonged, though at times intermitted bombardment of Charleston, was known among our soldiers as the Swamp Angel.St. Michael's, characterized by its venerable tower, was the historic and aristocratic church of the town.