"The Mourner's Song is a well-integrated and wonderfully written set of reflections on the role of the poetic, architectural, and visual arts in the remembrance of war dead and…of killing in war.…Illuminating and written with a lively and engaging style."—Jonathan Shay, Bryn Mawr Classical Review
"Tatum refuses to let us delude ourselves. The poetry of war for western civilization has always been in the killing."—Thomas G. Palaima, Times Higher Education Supplement
"[Tatum] gives us a sequence of elegant, thoughtful and moving essays on aspects of war as the Iliad suggests them."—Tom Payne, The Daily Telegraph
"An eloquent and moving study of the memorialization of death in war, showing how the forms and processes of art convert mourning into memorial."—History Today
[In The Mourner's Song] a Dartmouth classics professor delivers his shrewd, highly reportorial meditation on monuments and memorials to war dead.—Read Sun Tzu and Tatum together. Better, reverse the course of life and read Tatum first. Suddenly, Sun seems to stand still, as the voices rise silently behind him."—Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer Books
"The classicist James Tatum has taken two numinous texts, Homer's Iliad and Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, and studied them in their various dimensions along with other voices like Robert Lowell and General Grant, creating something new out of man's obsession with war and memory that roves back—like the rose—through so many wild centuries to our origins and the titanic wrath of Achilles before the walls of Troy."—Gore Vidal
An excerpt from
The Words of the Sea
And in a moment they heard the soldiers shouting, "The Sea! The Sea!" and passing the word along. Then all the troops of the rearguard likewise broke into a run, and the pack animals began racing ahead and the horses. And when all had reached the summit, they indeed fell to embracing one another, and generals and captains as well, with tears in their eyes.
Marathon and Gettysburg are battlefields that have endured far longer than the soldiers who fought on them. In sea warfare and in the air, by contrast, no visible trace remains of the spaces that men fight and die for, and we think of this vanishing as a matter of course. Yet the same thing can happen on land, and for the poets of war this kind of obliteration has proven anything but a matter of course. The evanescence of the Iliad's landscape of war is foretold at the end of the first day of battle following Achilles' withdrawal (book 7). The Greeks' situation at this moment seems bad enough, but it will prove to be the easiest day of all. The site of these epic struggles will disappear as surely as the men who fought on them.
Such oblivion in the face of nature is not easy to comprehend when the subject obliterated is, for example, you. Hector, ever observant of the conventions of war, trusts in the burial sign of the hero's tomb (sema) to cover a hero's body (soma), and make it a thing of wonder for men of the future. The man who dies by Hector's hand has much to look forward to.
If I kill him, if Apollo gives me that glory,
Hector's fame does not die, but survives because of Homer's immortal song, not because of any material relic. The irony is as blatant as it is sad. In this sense the battlefield of the Trojan War represents the eventual fate of all battlefields. Something like the Iliad's totally obliterated space confronts us in the empty sea at Morris Island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. This site of a famous battle in 1863 for the Confederate Battery Wagner is now completely submerged in the Atlantic. Never is the need for poetic witness more evident than when the landscapes of war themselves vanish.
The Tomb and the Wall
When the war at Troy reaches its final year, the Greeks build a wall to defend themselves against the Trojan assault after Achilles' withdrawal. The wall becomes the focal point for most of the fighting in the poem. Like all battlefield sites, the Achaean wall is part of nature and destined to change. But the Iliad accelerates and compresses events; the telescoping experience of war is carried to its extreme here, as we learn something neither Greek nor Trojan can know. After Troy falls and the Greeks sail away, Poseidon and Apollo will level all their works, and it will be as if their battles had never taken place.
At the end of the first day of battle in the Iliad, the Achaeans are driven back to their ships by the Trojans and Hector. As he so often does throughout the poem, their elder statesman, Nestor, tells the Greeks what they must do next.
And let us heap a single great barrow over the pyre,
For practical and humane reasons the dead must be removed from the field and buried. A truce enables this to happen.
And hard as it was to recognize each man, each body,
So the wall is built, but imperfectly. The Greeks forget to sacrifice to the gods. Why? The press of the moment? Carelessness? Poseidon is angry because they will have created something intended to last forever and make them forget the gods' due. Zeus assures him he will destroy it, robbing the men who build the wall of their glory.
Come then! After once more the flowing-haired Achaeans
This exchange frames the battles that resume in book 8. At this point, Zeus's promise is an assurance made by one Olympian god to another. The warriors can know nothing of what we and the gods know. All the war crafts of human beings will come to naught, and their war effort, like the city itself, will be obliterated, and the place where the wall was and the fighting around it will be smoothed away, as if the war and the wall had never been.
In book 12, after Achilles has refused to rejoin the battle and the Greeks have resumed fighting, their leaders are wounded and drop out of the battle one by one. At this point, the poet returns to the promise Zeus made to Poseidon and looks past the present battle to the time when Hector is dead and Achilles' rage is ended:
So long as Hector was still alive, and Achilles was angry,
Then the battle comes to this same wall, and its assault and its defense are the center of action until Patroclus and Achilles appear. And yet its impermanence is what is fixed before these actions resume.
This is a future we can apprehend only through the song of the Muses. Not even this race of almost godlike men can elude oblivion. As E. T. Owen puts it,
Our attention is fixed on the wall as the center of interest by the account of its subsequent destruction at the hands of Poseidon and Apollo, in accordance with the promise of Zeus to Poseidon at 7.459-463. Thus casually the poet wakens again the feeling that the earlier passage in its context aroused—the sense of the transitoriness of the interests for which men strive with such intensity—and its presence gives an ironic colouring at the outset to the picture of Hector's triumphs, which supports and enhances the note of menace running throughout the book.
The Achaean wall is the counterpart of the walls of Troy itself. Walls are the sturdier, more literal realizations of the borders that mark off one side from another, one enemy from another, one nation from another.
The story of the Achaean wall shows that those who fight in wars always have a third opponent, one that deals with both sides with equal impartiality: the passing of time. The battlefield becomes a figurative ground for imagining mortality. Keith Stanley reads these walls as expressions of the folly of war: "The fortified city and the fortified camp are now immured equally in their delusions. . . . The Greek wall is thus a climactic symbol of the mutual self-confinement, stalemate, and futility that the poet sees at the heart of the ten-year war." This is a seductive and Olympian view of the subject; Stanley shows how Homer's poetry carries us away from the present moment, to a remote time no actual mortal in war can know. The Greeks and Trojans may well be locked in a futile struggle, but they cannot know this; and even if they could, how could they act on it?
The same limitations can be charged to any mortal beings engaged in war, not least those who fought at Battery Wagner. Battery Wagner itself is now nothing but a memory whose actual site has ceased to exist. The wall of the Achaeans and Battery Wagner mark a change in the landscape of war, an obliteration by nature, that mirrors the obliteration of those who died there. Through poets and historians and artists we can only imagine men fighting and dying there, in the fiercest struggles. The Iliad's warriors and the soldiers of 1863 fought against the same fate, each of them vanishing into the elemental emptiness to live only in history and poetry.
Such are the shining consolations of the muses of which Octavio Paz speaks in The Bow and the Lyre:
We are nothing in relation to so much existence turned in on itself. And from this feeling that we are nothing we proceed, if contemplation is prolonged and panic does not overtake us, to the opposite state: the rhythm of the sea keeps time with that of our blood; the silence of the rocks is our own silence; to walk among the sands is to walk through the span of our consciousness, as boundless as they; the forest murmurs allude to us. We are part of all. Being emerges from nothing. The same rhythm moves us, the same silence surrounds us. . . .
One of Homer's most famous traditional verses plays upon the sounds of poetry that Paz would have us evoke: para thina poluphloisboio thalasses, "along the shore of the loud-crashing sea." Out of the barrenness of the most deserted shore comes poetry to oppose that nothingness.
The Battlefield Vanishes
We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on that account, the reflection of what our soul has projected onto them; we are disillusioned when we find that they are in reality devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas.
Since records of tourism began, ambitious men have gone to Troy to measure themselves by its heroic landscape. There is nothing like having the Iliad on your mind and brooding about your destiny while looking out over the landscapes of the Troad, to the south of the Dardanelles and the Hellespont. Alexander the Great is said to have taken Achilles as his personal model and made the Iliad his bible on the art of war. According to ancient legend, his only regret was that he didn't have a Homer to celebrate his deeds. A use of Homer more to modern scholarly tastes is the one Heinrich Schliemann made in the 1870s. He turned the Iliad in the opposite direction from Alexander and other ambitious kings, reading it not as a prophetic poem of an ambitious man's future but as a historical record of a genuine past. He thereby began modern Homeric archaeology with his first excavations at Troy.
Thus arose the modern historical and archaeological impulse that links Homeric texts with sites. This scientific curiosity is so natural to us that we forget how misguided it can be for the reading of poetry. Much of what we readers of Homer want to see on the shores at Troy, the Iliad warns us, has long ceased to exist. Only the song endures. Reducing the landscape of war to the seashore, sand, sky, and ocean is to bring it to such an elemental level that one could as well be on any seashore anywhere. The poetry points us to that place, and then beyond it; it uses the obliterated landscape as a figurative comment on the evanescence of the warriors who fought long ago.
If it is essential for historians to go to whatever site is in question, in poetry, today, something like the opposite may be the case. It becomes important that we not go to the actual site of Troy, that we make no attempt to mesh its landscape with the one that the poem gives us. It becomes essential to avoid reading Homer's verse against its actual settings. There can be field trips for students of poetry and art—think of the cottage industries that surround the home turf of such poets and writers as Wordsworth, Proust, Frost, and Tolstoy. War poetry takes us in another direction entirely, to other wars, other seashores. This is a redirection of the documentary impulse, a personal inspection not to uncover something in the past, but to find something in the present already envisioned in the poetry of the past. This is a search for the sacred ground of a battlefield that has ceased to exist, unlike the experience that Edward Linenthal describes in his book on patriotic American landscapes, Sacred Ground: "Conspicuous by their presence on the martial landscape are battlefields, prime examples of sacred patriotic space where memories of the transformative power of war and the sacrificial heroism of the warrior are preserved. These sites, symbolically transformed by the events that took place there, are visited by those who seek environmental intimacy in order to experience patriotic inspiration."
In itself, the empty sea at Morris Island says nothing about the historical significance of the battle of 1863. What the site does is enforce a gap between our desire to remember Battery Wagner and our realization of the terrible impersonality and indifference of passing time. The site of Battery Wagner is as different from the sites of Gettysburg and Vicksburg as can be imagined. Vast military parks meticulously document every stage of the decisive battle in Pennsylvania and siege in Mississippi; here, nothing remains but the vestige of Morris Island, and the sea. History and poetry have to supply what landscape cannot.
The Union's grand assault of July 18, 1863, followed many hours of bombardment from both land and sea, beginning at 7:45 p.m. and ending at 1:00 a.m. The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment of 650 men led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw bore the brunt of the casualties; one of its members, Sergeant William C. Carney, wounded four times, was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor. The effect of the concentrated artillery and musket fire on assault forces converging into such a confined space was devastating, as a contemporary chronicler, Robert C. Gilchrist, observed following the battle: "blood, mud, water, brains and human hair melted together; men lying in every possible attitude, with every conceivable expression on their countenances; their limbs bent into unnatural shapes by the fall of twenty or more feet; the fingers rigid and outstretched, as if they had clutched at the earth to save themselves; pale beseeching faces, looking out from among the ghastly corpses with moans and cries for help and water, and dying gasps and death struggles."
The burial of Robert Shaw and his men may not have been so brutal as the Northern press made it out to be. John T. Luck, a Federal assistant surgeon who had been captured by the rebels and helped tend to the wounded after the battle, spoke with the commanding Confederate general Hagood about Shaw's body. Because Shaw had commanded black troops, Hagood said, "I shall bury him in the common grave with the Negroes that fell with him." In the Northern press this decorous sentence became "I buried him with his niggers." The Confederate commander of the Charleston defenses, P. G. T. Beauregard, had ordered the same care for black and white wounded, and there was no discrimination in death. The bodies of other white officers were returned; Shaw's was not. Shaw's family thought it the most glorious interment possible. According to Colonel George P. Harrison Jr., of the Georgia Thirty-second, "Shaw's body was laid 'without roughness and with respect"'; then the burial detail "placed on his body 20 of the dead Blacks whom he had commanded."
In the confusion of command, supporting columns that were supposed to follow the initial assault of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth failed to attack, so the lives of Shaw and his men seemed at first wasted. But the assault electrified the North and earned Wagner as much fame as battles many times larger, with many more casualties. The Union nurse Clara Barton had watched Shaw's assault and the ensuing slaughter. In a letter from December 1863, some months after the campaign had moved on from Morris Island, she captures what the deaths and sacrifices she would later commemorate had already become, at the battle site itself. "We have captured one fort—Gregg—and one charnel house—Wagner—and we have built one cemetery, Morris Island. The thousand little sand-hills that in the pale moonlight are a thousand headstones, and the restless ocean waves that roll and break up on the whitened beach sing an eternal requiem to the toll-worn gallant dead who sleep below."
The Poseidon of Morris Island
There were sound reasons in geology and engineering for the disappearance of Battery Wagner. It did not vanish because of the inadvertent omission of duties owed to any particular gods, but neither were the reasons for Wagner's disappearance mundane. To the extent that there was a god of commerce in nineteenth-century America, one might say that Battery Wagner was sacrificed on that god's altar.
The federal engineer Quincey A. Gillmore was the Poseidon of Morris Island. He had been part of the Union forces besieging Charleston during the war and was by a twist of fate one of the engineers most responsible for Charleston's revival as a port following the war. He was in charge of coastal defenses from Cape Fear to St. Augustine, but worked in the New York City office of the Corps of Engineers. In November 1875 he drew up plans for the improvement of Charleston Harbor, with the aid of South Carolina's congressional delegation, and received a two-hundred-thousand-dollar appropriation from Washington. Gillmore's plan proposed to use the scouring power of the ebb tides to keep open a twenty-one-foot channel. The problem was an intricate one, as summarized in the official Corps of Engineers's modern history of the project:
The problem was getting exactly the right tidal flow. If too much water were directed outward through a new channel, a new bar would form farther out from the entrance. If the flow of the flood tide were directed, both its scouring power and the movement of sand into the inner harbor would be increased. Extreme care had to be taken lest the prevailing northeast to southwest movement of sand on the Charleston bar cause a piling up in the new channel. Finally, the peculiar feature of Charleston Harbor required expert evaluation. The funnellike configuration of the Sullivan's and Morris Islands' shorelines forced the flood tides to pile up near the shore and then find their way into the harbor over the whole length of the bar in a quite even flow. What Gillmore had to do was to figure out how to harness and direct the natural flow of the ebb tide to a degree sufficient to maintain a channel of the desired depth while neither moving the Charleston bar nor interfering with the flow of the flood tide into the harbor.
Gilmore turned natural forces to his own designs, just as Poseidon and Apollo devised a way to wreck the great war works the Greeks left behind at Troy. Homer's technological details are formidable, fully as intricate as Gillmore's calculations for his jetties. To resume the story where we broke off above, which is where those modern readers who have little taste for technical descriptions in Homer also tend to stop:
Then at last Poseidon and Apollo took counsel
Of the many differences that one could draw between Quincey Gillmore and Poseidon and Apollo, perhaps not the least important is that Gillmore had a genuine desire to improve his former enemies' lives by reshaping the seashore and the approaches to Charleston Harbor.
For the Union Dead
Stoic and resolute, the men march forward to the beat of a drummer boy in front. Their uniforms do not have the emblematic neatness a lesser sculptor might have given them. They are rumpled and creased, each in a different way, which goes with the individuation of the men's faces. They are not cogs in a machine but citizen soldiers, volunteers with free will—an essential part of the sculptor's message, reflecting the inscription on the Shaw Memorial that "they gave proof that Americans of African descent possess the pride, devotion and courage of the patriot soldier." The visual rhythm of the column is given by the barrels of the rifles carried at the slope, which divide the space vertically; and by the six spiral ends of the blanket rolls and the disks of the water bottles, which meter it horizontally. Every small form plays its part. This is the most intensely felt image of military commemoration made by an American.
By the time Hughes was writing, the Shaw Memorial had been rescued for at least the time being from the terrible vulnerability of monuments. It had not always been so well read and valued. Robert Lowell's poem about the fate of this monument, "For the Union Dead," was composed in the 1950s and 1960s era of civil rights battles, at a point when construction of a new aquarium and a parking garage in the Boston Common required that the Shaw Memorial be temporarily removed and stored in a crate. Lowell's focus on a moment of memorialization is far less consoling than his friend and mentor Allen Tate's earlier "Ode to the Confederate Dead." It is that ode in part which Lowell is answering.
In his poem from the 1930s, Allen Tate contemplates the graves of the dead soldiers, not just of a losing side in a war, but of a doomed slave society. At the end of his elegy he foresees much the same thing for the living who see the graves of the dead, as for the war dead themselves:
What shall we say who have knowledge
It is a poem about the inability of the poet to perform the traditional poet's task of memorializing the war dead. Later poetry, and history, have a way of intruding on poets who are more optimistic. Tate, one of the southern Fugitive Poets and a biographer of both Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, entertained little optimism for the lost cause of the Confederacy.
Lowell unravels the threads that Tate was weaving and draws nearer to what Homer shows us at the end of the Iliad. In contrast to Tate's "Ode," "For the Union Dead" meets the challenge of history by working with it rather than turning away in resignation. Forged out of two earlier poems, "The Old Aquarium" and "One Gallant Rush: The Death of Colonel Shaw," "For the Union Dead" fuses the poet's memory of the old aquarium on Boston Common with his personal memory and researches into the history of Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth. Its images evoke the era of the rising battle for civil rights, inspired not just by Saint-Gaudens's memorial, but also by its dismantling while the Commons underground parking garage was being built.
Lowell had already visited Morris Island and seen the sand and dunes of the barrier islands where the battle over Charleston was waged, and he had seen for himself the obliteration of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth's battlefield. "For the Union Dead" also can be read as an answer to such earlier poems explicitly on Shaw and his men as the one by Lowell's nineteenth-century relation, James Russell Lowell, who also composed lines for the Shaw Memorial:
He leads for aye the advance,
The Union dead here are not only the whites who fought the Confederate dead, but also the blacks for whom that war was fought. Unlike the elegiac Tate, Lowell is not generic and nameless in his treatment of this scene—a stance that is sometimes thought of as unpolitical—but goes after the city that was the heart of the abolitionist movement as well as the recruiting ground for Shaw. He is quite specific in naming the war dead, quoting but changing the lapidary Latin of the monument. As Helen Vendler observes, Saint-Gaudens had incised the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati about one man's valor in war, "He left behind everything to save the Republic" (Relinquit Omnia Servare Rem Publicam), but Lowell made the verb plural, Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam ("They leave behind everything to save the Republic"), so that the memorial now applies to all the men of the Fifty-fourth Regiment, not just Shaw.
Two months after marching through Boston,
Lowell recalls that Shaw's own father wanted him buried in the ditch where the Confederates had thrown him, to be with his "niggers." He then leaps from that moment in 1863 to a present world that is become indistinguishable from the ditch into which the Confederates threw Shaw's body:
The ditch is nearer.
It is not only Lowell's sense of history and his outrage at its neglect that saves the story of Battery Wagner and its dead. As Helen Vendler puts it, "For the Union Dead" is "a resurrection rite intending to resuscitate both Shaw and his monument." And it does this for a world where Madison Avenue turns the atomic bombing at Hiroshima into a manufacturer's warranty test of the Mosler safe.
Sand and sea and sky are the same for the Greeks' wall and Battery Wagner. Saint-Gaudens's memorial would seem the first line of defense against this fate. It is far removed from the actual battle site, as such memorials often are. But as Lowell suggests, this reliance on the durability of meaning in a monument is a delusion. Not only was Saint-Gaudens's monument itself exposed to a literal, if temporary, dislocation. One hundred years after the battle at Battery Wagner, with the March on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech, "I have a dream," the cause for which Shaw and his men died was as unrealized as ever. Lowell's poem gives us an eternal meantime, where we can return to the battle for Battery Wagner and bring the memory of Colonel Shaw and his men once again to life, just as we return to the men fighting before the Achaean Walls at Troy, forever alive in Homer's poetry, and to the words of the loud-crashing sea.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 81-95 of The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam by James Tatum, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the author.