Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh –
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh –
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there –
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve –
Fame or country least their care
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.
I have several poems in my half-full blank book of treasured poems that deal with war. None of them are the trimphal, go-get-’em kind of poems, but poems like this, which speak of the agony and heartbreak of warfare. This is the earliest of them, being written about the American Civil War. Part of what makes this war interesting is that it is the preview, so to speak, of the First World War. Almost all of the technological advances which made that war such a total horror were first deployed in the Civil War: trench warfare, chemical weapons, early machine guns. However, since the war was a local struggle in the still provincial United States, these changes went largely unnoticed and unanalyzed by the European authorities. Here, however, is an example of the kind of poem that would become associated with World War I, and the Lost Generation.
The poem is still a very American work. Shiloh is a “forest-field,” a piece of land cleared so recently that it is still trying to return to its previous state. The church is “log-built,” architecture specifically associated with the American frontier. The church is also “lone,” isolated from any other buildings, farms, or traces of civilization. Like America was largely left alone during its bitter struggle, the church and those who suffered there are profoundly isolated inside the now-silent church.
The poem begins and ends with the image of swallows flying through the sky. The dipping, circling motion of their flight is evoked in the first line by words ending in “ing:” “skimming,” “wheeling.” The birds are silent in their flight. There is no bird song or bird calls. This silence is part of the great stillness that lies over the entire poem, the silence of death. The only sound mentioned is a “parting groan.” There is no movement apart from the motion of the birds. While the people mentioned might have been once “stretched in pain,” they now “lie low,” utterly motionless as the birds fly above them.
This is not a poem about a glorious victory. There is nothing within the poem itself to indicate whether Melville (more famous for his seldom-read classic Moby Dick) found himself on the side of the North or the South. It finds nothing beautiful in war. The serenity of the battleground afterwards is an ironic contrast to the misery of those who died there. The battle itself is a pointless episode, a fight between men who were “foemen at morn, but friends at eve.” Their mutual suffering has brought them to realize the pointlessness of their combat. This is followed by one of my favorite lines: “What like a bullet can undeceive?” When confronted with the real results of their action, they are no longer to regard the other side as really their enemy.
The poem is profoundly sorrowful, and perhaps a touch angry. This suffering, it seems to say, was needless. In the end, the swallows still fly over the place where men died for nothing, only realizing their common brotherhood when it was too late.