Yet another post about allusion – last one, I promise. But this is an interesting one, because despite the poem’s length (14 lines) a lot of reading is required in order to get any context of this poem much like all of Melville’s work. Moby Dick (a very long novel) is a good example – you would have to read the bible, the works of the patriarchs of the church (Augustine et al), a book on ship building in the 19th century and the history and practice of whaling just to glean the bare minimum of understanding of that novel. I got as far as the 20th chapter and turned back. They hadn’t even started their voyage yet. (Though I just got to the meeting of Ahab.)
There’s a lot going on in his deceptively simple work.
In this small poem, there are some very powerful assertions and a LOT of American history. The poem speaks about the actions of John Brown. For those who are ignorant of the details of the American Civil War (as I was), John Brown, in essence, started the American Civil War. He’s also a complicated character – also proof that the abolition of slavery was a complicated matter and the abolitionist were not always the heroes of the tale. John Brown advocated an armed response to the matter. He was a critic against pacifisim and said that what this issue needed was not talk but action!
He caused an insurrection at Pottawotomie (a city in Kansas) which killed several pro-slavery supporters and was later labeled the Pottawotomie Massacre. Intent on arming the slaves, he lead a raid on an armory at Harper’s Ferry which was next to both the Pottawotomie and Shenandoah Rivers (which were a main thoroughfare for the South) in which he was captured, then tried and hanged. Some people called him a savior others called him a terrorist, but whichever way people felt it caused a rift in the nation – his actions were deeply felt and once done seemed to make Civil War inevitable.
The Portent written after John Brown was hanged is an illustration of that feeling of inevitability – and the fear and loathing that this issue caused.
by Herman Melville
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown)
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.