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Comment 1 of 45, added on January 1st, 2006 at 1:35 AM.
For writers and poets of Herman Melville's era, the Civil War was a
momentous event, and they often wrote about it. Walt Whitman's poem, Oh
Captain, My Captain, written as a response to the death of Lincoln, is only
one of many examples.
In the poem Gettysburg, Melville comments on Pickett's charge at the
Battle of Gettysburg, which many say was the turning point in the war, and
signaled the end for the Confederacy. In the opening lines, Melville refers
to Dagon, who was a ancient god of the Philistines. His statue, according
to a story in the Bible, was mysteriously prostrated before the Ark, which
held the Ten Commandments. Since he was a Pagan god, Melville uses Dagon to
represent the South, and the forces of Christianity and God, to represent
A reference to an ancient pagan god may seem obscure to us, but for
Melville's generation the Bible was a well read book, and the war was seen
by many as a titanic struggle of biblical scope. Listen to the words of the
Battle Hymn of the Republic, with it's reference to God's "terrible swift
sword", and you will see what I mean. And even today we have Raiders of the
Melville than says how God "walled" Dagon's power. And when the charge
fails at last Melville says, "And Right is a strong-hold yet." This poem,
like Melville's most famous novel, Moby Dick, is an
"allegory"; a story with a hidden meaning or moral lesson. A religous
undertone is common to much of Melville's work, and the work many other
writers of early Protestant New England. Another example is Nathaniel
Hawthorne's "Scarlett Letter". Melville is here using the solely historical
event of Gettysburg to comment on universal biblical concepts like the
struggle between Good and Evil. Awareness of this strong religous influence
can help to make poems like this more understandable.
Clinton Tillman from United States
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