32 - In the Prison Pen
In the Prison Pen.Melville drew upon documents in The Rebellion Record (vol. 8) reporting on conditions in prisoner of war camps holding Union captives.
Listless he eyes the palisades
And sentries in the glare;
'Tis barren as a pelican-beachFor Melville's odd reference, see Psalm 102: "I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert." Melville marked the verse that follows in his Bible: "I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top." (NN Published Poems 653). The marked line resonates with "lonely watcher" in "Aurora-Borealis" and, of course, "The House-top."—
But his world is ended there.
Nothing to do; and vacant hands
Bring on the idiot-pain;
He tries to think—to recollect,
But the blur is on his brain.
Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
Like those on Virgil's shoreIn the Aeneid, Virgil describes "the unsanctified dead who plead with Charon to be carried across the River Styx" (6.297-316; Cohen 253)—
A wilderness of faces dim,
And pale ones gashed and hoar.
A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;
He totters to his lair—
A denAugustus C. Hamlin describes the earthen dens of Georgia's Andersonville prison in his 1866 Martyria (56). that sick hands dug in earth
Ere famine wasted there,
Or, dropping in his place, he swoons,
Walled in by throngs that press,
Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead—
Dead in his meagreness.