The Portent and Shiloh

Attached is my response to a question from the 2 attached PDFs. Below, is a follow up to that response. Please answer the BOLD question. Answer does not need to be more than a paragraph or 2.”For my comments I want to focus on this statement of yours:“‘The Portent’ and ‘Shiloh’ help to capture the trials as well as tribulations of slavery and are captured based on cultural memories as poetic metaphors and narratives that articulate and transmit the people’s experiences and worldviews.” I think you’re saying quite a lot in comparatively few words, so I want to take a little time to unpack some of it. You speak of (1) “cultural memories” that can be used to (2) “articulate and transmit” (3) “people’s experiences and worldviews.” I want to take these one at a time (and maybe in your response you can let me know where I’m understanding you right and where I’m understanding you wrong).(1) Cultural memories: Here I think you’re referring to things like “Shenandoah” that would have had widely shared meanings for Melville’s American readers. These are *cultural* memories rather than *individual*, that is, they are widely shared throughout the culture. They’re public, not private. And in American culture, the Shenandoah region of Virginia has long been associated with the natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, and also with nostalgia — as in the famous folk song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khxx3sCVhtE). (I’m not 100 percent sure whether readers in Melville’s time would have been familiar with this song, or whether they would have associated it with Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Shenandoah.)The song is about someone far away from home in the West (about to cross the Missouri River) who longs to be back home in the East, in Shenandoah. The singer is about to take a step that, in Melville’s time, was a step from the known into the unknown (“I’m bound away, across the wide Missouri”). This seems appropriate to a poem written on the brink of a major war. And the singer is conflicted in a way that would have felt familiar to a lot of Americans: he’s moving west toward the frontier even as he misses the home he has left behind. When Melville uses “Shenandoah” in his poem, he transports something of that particular conflict into our understanding of the conflict over slavery.Also, of course, Shenandoah represents the South, which is a beautiful place but now overshadowed by the “gaunt” prospect of war. As it turned out, most of the Civil War was fought in southern territory, so it was indeed the South that was devastated by the war (though I don’t know if we can credit Melville with know this before the fact). Anyway, the point is that the word “Shenandoah” might have vrought up a lot of cultural “memories” for Melville’s American readers, and those memories help deepen the basic meaning of the poem.— Articulate and transmit: Yes, and yes. The imagery of these poems serve to *articulate* meaning to the reader, that is, they “speak” the meaning in the present, at the moment the poem is being read, but in doing so they also *transmit* those meanings to the future. The poems use memories that already exist in the culture, and in doing so they also keep the memories alive in the culture, helping to pass them on to future generations of readers.— People’s experiences and worldviews: What I find most interesting in the way you have yoked these two together is that they are (as we academics say) “co-constitutive.” That is, they shape each other. Our experiences shape our worldviews, even as our worldviews shape our experiences. The first of these is perhaps more obvious, but the second is equally true. People with different worldviews can experience the exact same event quite differently. To give just one example, consider how three different people in, let’s say, the 1870s, might experience the unveiling of a statue of Robert E. Lee: a former abolitionist, a white southerner whose plantation was burned down during the war, and a former slave. Each of these would experience the unveiling quite differently, and they would also presumably experience Melville’s poems quite differently.To give another example, consider how Amasa Delano’s racial assumptions (part of his worldview) influence his experience of events aboard the San Dominick.Anyway, the idea that there are such things as “cultural memories” seems to me to be closely related to the idea of “cultural literacy.” For your followup, let me ask you to read up a bit on cultural literacy (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_literacy) and then let me know what you think of the idea, especially as it relates to our ability to appreciate literature in general and “Shiloh” and “The Portent” in particular.”
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In the years leading up to Melville’s writing of “The Portent,” there was a growing sense that
America’s days of peace were numbered. (Of course, for millions of slaves there had been no
genuine peace for generations.) But presumably few if any truly foresaw the tremendous carnage-as many as 600,000 dead–that lay in the nation’s immediate future.
This essay should somehow address the enormity of both the crime of slavery and the horrific
slaughter of the Civil War–as well as the question of what might constitute a morally and
emotionally adequate artistic response to crimes and catastrophes of that magnitude. (Similar
questions have been asked about WWI as well as the Holocaust.)
As an example of what does not constitute a morally and emotionally adequate artistic response to
slavery and the Civil War, I would offer the film Gone with the Wind. (Many of course would
argue that GWTW is not a genuine response to slavery and the Civil War at all, but merely uses
these calamities as a backdrop for a love story.)
Anyway, a “portent” is a sign of things to come, and a “requiem” is an act of remembrance, in
particular a religious ritual for the repose of the dead. In this essay, please respond to one or more
of these questions: What do you think of “The Portent” and “Shiloh” as premonition of and a
response to the enormity of the Civil War? In terms of what they evoke in us, are they adequate
to that enormity? (By “us” I mean careful readers, willing to take our time with the poems and
unpack their layers of meaning.) Do you see anything in the poems that seems to grow out of
Melville’s treatment of Babo and his rebellion in “Benito Cereno”? Whatever your answer, can
you support it in terms of Melville’s poetic technique, his precise use of language in the poems?
The Horrors of Slavery
The legacy of slavery in the U.S. started at the beginning of the 17th century. The stage
had however been set as early as the 14th century following Portugal’s and Spain’s capture of
Africans for enslavement. The practice of slavery was brought to the New World including the
West Indies and the Caribbean following their capture by Portugal, Spain, among other
European nations in the late sixteenth century before expanding to the North.
“The Portent” and “Shiloh” help to capture the trials as well as tribulations of slavery and are
captured based on cultural memories as poetic metaphors and narratives that articulate and
transmit the people’s experiences and worldviews. They, therefore, appear like the
premonition and response to the way Americans have remembered slavery and the Civil War,
which also is an act of articulating their stories and relationships to the country. These
narratives are adequate in the way they help to capture the way their stories are related to
each other, as well as the continuation of interpretations of their past.
A casual analysis of “The Portent” by Herman Melville shows it is about the gruesome death of
John Brown, the famous abolitionist. However, unpacking its hidden meaning shows it means
more than meets the eye. The meaning of the word portent as used in the title signifies a bad
omen and this is what Melville portrays in the poem. This is exemplified in the way the poet
and many others thought of or saw John Brown being the Civil War’s portent.
In understanding why Melville’s novella seems to grow out of his treatment of Babo as well as
rebellion in Benito Cereno, it is only fair to start by asking why it was written and specifically
what is its significance to his American audience. His intentions in Benito Cereno are first to
show how fictional narratives may be used as effectively as nonfiction by way of its influence,
if and illumination of the complex realities in his society. This is what he explores in the
character of Babo by investigating the temporal dimensions in a plot whose dramatic tensions
and logic revolve around his character that is constantly moving in and out of the various
states of rebellion, captivity, and fugitiveness.
The line explored by rebellion is based on the assumption that the Spanish had taken control
which would see the slaves in the ship subdued. However, this never happened as they took it
over and the subsequent mutiny was a way of implementing the temporary status of freedom
as the slaves subdued the Spanish and they gave themselves freedom albeit temporal. A
reversal of the roles has the Spanish as well as Delano’s men recapturing the ship, enslaving
Babo and the other rebellious slaves. Therefore, the inspiration behind Melville’s poems
significantly gives rise to his treatment of Babo in the narrative given the fact that the 1850
Fugitive Slave Law and Compromise had been enacted just five years before the publication
of Benito Cereno.
In poetry, language is used in emphasizing the role of the reader in bringing out a work’s
meaning. This is one of the poetic devices that Melville uses developed partly as a response to
what could be termed as the uncritical use of expressive lyrical words. Melville’s inspiration in
the narrative is evident through the choice of expressive words which helps to show his
opposition to slavery through the perception of Americans on the issue which was mixed then.
This is echoed in the character of Babo whose utterances and treatment are used in
reinforcing the evils of slavery as well as tempt the American public, which appears racially
blind.
1
1856
BENITO CERENO
Herman Melville
Melville, Herman (1819-1891) – An American author who used his
experiences at sea as the basis for his writings. Melville received
little literary attention during his career, and it was not until thirty
years after his death that he began to be recognized as one of
America’s greatest writers. Benito Cereno (1856) – The story of an
African slaver, generally thought to be the best of Melville’s shorter
works. It is a parable of slavery, written at the dawn of the civil
war, about a black crew’s desire for freedom.
2
BENITO CERENO
IN THE year 1799, Captain Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, in
Massachusetts, commanding a large sealer and general trader, lay
at anchor, with a valuable cargo, in the harbour of St. Maria- a
small, desert, uninhabited island towards the southern extremity of
the long coast of Chili. There he had touched for water.
On the second day, not long after dawn, while lying in his berth,
his mate came below, informing him that a strange sail was coming
into the bay. Ships were then not so plenty in those waters as now.
He rose, dressed, and went on deck.
The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute
and calm; everything grey. The sea, though undulated into long
roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like
waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky
seemed a grey mantle. Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin
with flights of troubled grey vapours among which they were
mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over
meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper
shadows to come.
To Captain Delano’s surprise, the stranger, viewed through the
glass, showed no colours; though to do so upon entering a haven,
however uninhabited in its shores, where but a single other ship
might be lying, was the custom among peaceful seamen of all
nations. Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the
spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas,
Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some
uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful
good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated
excitement, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any
way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in
view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with
a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of
intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.
But whatever misgivings might have obtruded on first seeing the
stranger would almost, in any seaman’s mind, have been
dissipated by observing that the ship, in navigating into the
harbour, was drawing too near the land, for her own safety’s sake,
owing to a sunken reef making out off her bow. This seemed to
prove her a stranger, indeed, not only to the sealer, but the island;
3
consequently, she could be no wonted freebooter on that ocean.
With no small interest, Captain Delano continued to watch her- a
proceeding not much facilitated by the vapours partly mantling the
hull, through which the far matin light from her cabin streamed
equivocally enough; much like the sun- by this time crescented on
the rim of the horizon, and apparently, in company with the
strange ship, entering the harbour- which, wimpled by the same
low, creeping clouds, showed not unlike a Lima intriguante’s one
sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loophole of
her dusk saya-y-manta.
It might have been but a deception of the vapours, but, the longer
the stranger was watched, the more singular appeared her
manoeuvres. Ere long it seemed hard to decide whether she meant
to come in or no- what she wanted, or what she was about. The
wind, which had breezed up a little during the night, was now
extremely light and baffling, which the more increased the
apparent uncertainty of her movements.
Surmising, at last, that it might be a ship in distress, Captain
Delano ordered his whale-boat to be dropped, and, much to the
wary opposition of his mate, prepared to board her, and, at the
least, pilot her in. On the night previous, a fishingparty of the
seamen had gone a long distance to some detached rocks out of
sight from the sealer, and, an hour or two before day-break, had
returned, having met with no small success. Presuming that the
stranger might have been long off soundings, the good captain put
several baskets of the fish, for presents, into his boat, and so pulled
away. From her continuing too near the sunken reef, deeming her
in danger, calling to his men, he made all haste to apprise those on
board of their situation. But, some time ere the boat came up, the
wind, light though it was, having shifted, had headed the vessel
off, as well as partly broken the vapours from about her.
Upon gaining a less remote view, the ship, when made signally
visible on the verge of the leaden-hued swells, with the shreds of
fog here and there raggedly furring her, appeared like a
whitewashed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon
some dun cliff among the Pyrenees. But it was no purely fanciful
resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led Captain Delano to
think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him.
Peering over the bulwarks were what really seemed, in the hazy
distance, throngs of dark cowls; while, fitfully revealed through
4
the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly
descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters.
Upon a still nigher approach, this appearance was modified, and
the true character of the vessel was plain- a Spanish merchantman
of the first class; carrying Negro slaves, amongst other valuable
freight, from one colonial port to another. A very large, and, in its
time, a very fine vessel, such as in those days were at intervals
encountered along that main; sometimes superseded Acapulco
treasure-ships, or retired frigates of the Spanish king’s navy,
which, like superannuated Italian palaces, still, under a decline of
masters, preserved signs of former state.
As the whale-boat drew more and more nigh, the cause of the
peculiar pipeclayed aspect of the stranger was seen in the slovenly
neglect pervading her. The spars, ropes, and great part of the
bulwarks looked woolly, from long unacquaintance with the
scraper, tar, and the brush. Her keel seemed laid, her ribs put
together, and she launched, from Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones.
In the present business in which she was engaged, the ship’s
general model and rig appeared to have undergone no material
change from their original warlike and Froissart pattern. However,
no guns were seen.
The tops were large, and were railed about with what had once
been octagonal net-work, all now in sad disrepair. These tops hung
overhead like three ruinous
aviaries, in one of which was seen perched, on a ratlin, a white
noddy, a strange fowl, so called from its lethargic somnambulistic
character, being frequently caught by hand at sea. Battered and
mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret, long
ago taken by assault, and then left to decay. Towards the stern, two
high-raised quarter galleries- the balustrades here and there
covered with dry, tindery sea-moss- opening out from the
unoccupied state-cabin, whose dead lights, for all the mild
weather, were hermetically closed and caulked- these tenantless
balconies hung over the sea as if it were the grand Venetian canal.
But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the
shield-like sternpiece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile
and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or
symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark
satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing
figure, likewise masked.
5
Whether the ship had a figure-head, or only a plain beak, was not
quite certain, owing to canvas wrapped about that part, either to
protect it while undergoing a refurbishing, or else decently to hide
its decay. Rudely painted or chalked, as in a sailor freak, along the
forward side of a sort of pedestal below the canvas, was the
sentence, “Seguid vuestro jefe” (follow your leader); while upon
the tarnished head-boards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals,
once gilt, the ship’s name, “SAN DOMINICK,” each letter
streakingly corroded with tricklings of copper-spike rust; while,
like mourning weeds, dark festoons of sea-grass slimily swept to
and fro over the name, with every hearse-like roll of the hull.
As at last the boat was hooked from the bow along toward the
gangway amidship, its keel, while yet some inches separated from
the hull, harshly grated as on a sunken coral reef. It proved a huge
bunch of conglobated barnacles adhering below the water to the
side like a wen; a token of baffling airs and long calms passed
somewhere in those seas.
Climbing the side, the visitor was at once surrounded by a
clamorous throng of whites and blacks, but the latter
outnumbering the former more than could have been expected,
Negro transportation-ship as the stranger in port was. But, in one
language, and as with one voice, all poured out a common tale of
suffering; in which the Negresses, of whom there were not a few,
exceeded the others in their dolorous vehemence. The scurvy,
together with a fever, had swept off a great part of their number,
more especially the Spaniards. Off Cape Horn, they had narrowly
escaped shipwreck; then, for days together, they had lain tranced
without wind; their provisions were low; their water next to none;
their lips that moment were baked.
While Captain Delano was thus made the mark of all eager
tongues, his one eager glance took in all the faces, with every other
object about him.
Always upon first boarding a large and populous ship at sea,
especially a foreign one, with a nondescript crew such as Lascars or
Manilla men, the impression varies in a peculiar way from that
produced by first entering a strange house with strange inmates in
a strange land. Both house and ship, the one by its walls and
blinds, the other by its high bulwarks like ramparts, hoard from
view their interiors till the last moment; but in the case of the ship there is this
addition: that the living spectacle it contains, upon its sudden and
6
complete disclosure, has, in contrast with the blank ocean which
zones it, something of the effect of enchantment.
The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces,
but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly
must receive back what it gave.
Perhaps it was some such influence as above is attempted to be
described which, in Captain Delano’s mind, heightened whatever,
upon a staid scrutiny, might have seemed unusual; especially the
conspicuous figures of four elderly grizzled Negroes, their heads
like black, doddered willow tops, who, in venerable contrast to the
tumult below them, were couched sphynx-like, one on the
starboard cat-head, another on the larboard, and the remaining
pair face to face on the opposite bulwarks above the main-chains.
They each had bits of unstranded old junk in their hands, and,
with a sort of stoical self-content, were picking the junk into
oakum, a small heap of which lay by their sides. They
accompanied the task with a continuous, low, monotonous chant;
droning and drooling away like so many grey-headed bag-pipers
playing a funeral march.
The quarter-deck rose into an ample elevated poop, upon the
forward verge of which, lifted, like the oakum-pickers, some eight
feet above the general throng, sat along in a row, separated by
regular spaces, the cross-legged figures of six other blacks; each
with a rusty hatchet in his hand, which, with a bit of brick and a
rag, he was engaged like a scullion in scouring; while between
each two was a
small stack of hatchets, their rusted edges turned forward awaiting
a like operation. Though occasionally the four oakum-pickers
would briefly address some person or persons in the crowd below,
yet the six hatchet-polishers neither spoke to others, nor breathed a
whisper among themselves, but sat intent upon their task, except at
intervals, when, with the peculiar love in Negroes of uniting
industry with pastime, two-and-two they sideways clashed their
hatchets together, like cymbals, with a barbarous din. All six,
unlike the generality, had the raw aspect of unsophisticated
Africans.
But the first comprehensive glance which took in those ten figures,
with scores less conspicuous, rested but an instant upon them, as,
impatient of the hubbub of voices, the visitor turned in quest of
whomsoever it might be that commanded the ship.
7
But as if not unwilling to let nature make known her own case
among his suffering charge, or else in despair of restraining it for
the time, the Spanish captain, a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and
rather young man to a stranger’s eye, dressed with singular
richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and
disquietudes, stood passively by, leaning against the main-mast, at
one moment casting a dreary, spiritless look upon his excited
people, at the next an unhappy glance toward his visitor. By his
side stood a black of small stature, in whose rude face, as
occasionally, like a shepherd’s dog, he mutely turned it up into the
Spaniard’s, sorrow and affection were equally blended.
Struggling through the throng, the American advanced to the
Spaniard, assuring him of his sympathies, and offering to render
whatever assistance might be in his power. To which the Spaniard
returned, for the present, but grave and ceremonious
acknowledgments, his national formality dusked by the saturnine
mood of ill health.
But losing no time in mere compliments, Captain Delano returning
to the gangway, had his baskets of fish brought up; and as the
wind still continued light, so that some hours at least must elapse
ere the ship could be brought to the anchorage, he bade his men
return to the sealer, and fetch back as much water as the whaleboat
could carry, with whatever soft bread the steward might have, all
the remaining pumpkins on board, with a box of sugar, and a
dozen of his private bottles of cider.
Not many minutes after the boat’s pushing off, to the vexation of
all, the wind entirely died away, and the tide turning, began
drifting back the ship helplessly seaward. But trusting this would
not last, Captain Delano sought with good hopes to cheer up the
strangers, …
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