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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

To the first son of Abraham about whom an angel of God proclaimed, "he shall be a wild ass of a man."








Old Men in New York
Herman Melville's "The House-top. A Night Piece."


I can’t get over the first two words of the poem: no sleep. No sleep. That's how Herman Melville began his poem, which is called "The House-top. A Night Piece." It was written in July of 1863. America was in the midst of the Civil War — really in the thick of it. 

In July of 1863 the action was in New York City. That's where the Draft Riots took place. For those who like to think of the story of the Civil War as roughly a story in which Right vanquishes Wrong, the Draft Riots are a troubling episode. The people of 1863 New York City were not happy with the Civil War and they didn't much want to fight in it. Many were particularly displeased by the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln had announced earlier that year. A new round of the military draft was begun in July. Violence erupted quickly. And the violence was directed (also very quickly) at the free Black population of New York City. Black men and women who were captured by the marauding bands of rioters were beaten to death, tortured, set on fire. For a few days, the city descended into a nightmare. Melville describes it like this:
All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole æons back in nature.
Melville was always interested in the ways that man rebounds whole aeons back in nature. A biblical man and a fully contemporary man live simultaneously within the souls of the otherwise selfsame characters Melville created in his greatest literary works. "Call me Ishmael," says Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick. That opening line is so stark, so bold that it can hold its own against any literary work of the 20th or 21st century. There is nothing old fashioned about it. And yet, Ishmael wants his name to resonate back to the Old Testament, to the first son of Abraham about whom an angel of God proclaimed, "he shall be a wild ass of a man."

Melville performs the same trick of merging stark, proto-Modernist language with distinctly pre-modern ideas in his poem about the Draft Riots. "No sleep," he writes, and we are right there with him looking out over the rooftops of the buildings of New York City as the mobs set fires down in the streets below. It could be a Beat poem, or something written by a poet of today, up all night with insomnia on the Lower East Side. But then, look again at how Melville sees those rooftops and the modern city they represent.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.
We are back in the Old Testament again. New York City is but another landscape in the vicinity of Palestine, Assyria, Babylon. Later in the poem, Melville hears the rumble of the artillery coming into the city. Federal troops are going to clear the streets at gunpoint. The Town, Melville notes, is redeemed. And yet, a "grimy slur" remains. A stubborn fact refuses to go away. The claim of the Republic, the claim "that Man is naturally good," has been refuted once again in the events of the days that have just gone by. The New Man is the Old Man.

Melville included a footnote to his poem. "'I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities committed', says Froissart, in alluding to the remarkable sedition in France during his time. The like may be hinted of some proceedings of the draft-rioters." This fact, the human capacity to do what is horrible and inconceivable, was no surprise to Herman Melville, an Old Testament man through and through. Nevertheless, he couldn't sleep.
 “The House-Top. A Night Piece” (July 1863)

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And blinds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.
Yonder, where parching Sirius set in drought,
Balefully glares red Arson—there—and there.
The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And rats of the wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.
Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,
And ponderous drag that jars the wall.
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin's creed
And cynic tyrranies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parlies; and the Town, redeeemed,
Gives thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic's faith implied,
Which holds that man is naturally good,
And—more—is Nature's Roman, never to be scourged.
 • 2 June 2011




Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. Hehas written for The BelieverHarper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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