The selected poem for this week is “In the Prison Pen” written by Herman Melville.
In the Prison Pen
Listless he eyes the palisades
The guards standing in the bright light;
It is as desolate as a beach inhabited by pelicans.
However, his world comes to an end at that point.
There are no tasks to be done and my hands are empty.
Welcome the foolish suffering.
to make a mental effort
He attempts to remember, to exert mental energy in recalling.
However, his mind is fuzzy.
The lamenting spirits gather around him.
that tartar old
Similar to the ones on Virgil’s beach, that ancient barbarian
med by the murk
The obscurity caused a dimness over the multitude of faces in the wilderness.
Reworded: The pale ones were slashed and gray.
The blazing sun. No shelter, no foliage.
“He staggered back to his den.”
He stumbled to his hiding place.
A burrow that diseased hands excavated in the ground.
During the time of famine, farming was hindered.
Or, dropping by his place, he swoons,
Surrounded by large crowds that push and shove,
Until they carry him away from the crowds, lifeless —
Deceased due to his lack of resources.
This week’s featured poem comes from a unique debut collection titled “Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War,” written by Herman Melville (1819-1891). Published in 1866, the book is a compilation of Melville’s personal reflections on the American Civil War. Despite achieving great success with his first novel “Typee,” Melville struggled to find commercial success and eventually took on a job as a customs inspector in New York. In the 1860s, he turned his focus to poetry.
In three introductory paragraphs, Melville comments on the “Battle-Pieces” by stating that the memories of conflict can take on various forms, reflecting the unpredictable and varying moods of involuntary contemplation. The emotions expressed in these poems do not stem from a single source and are not concerned with consistency. Instead, they resemble a harp placed in a window, capturing the contrasting melodies that the unpredictable elements have played upon its strings.
It is possible that these words suggest a conflicted reaction to the genre itself. Melville’s Aeolian harp metaphor may indicate his acknowledgement of Romantic influences. It could also imply that the poem, and even the poetry collection, is more spontaneous and less meticulously planned compared to his novels. The comments appear to reflect a desire to maintain political distance and reject the common perception of Civil War poetry. As Vanessa Meikle Schulman argues convincingly here, Melville’s main concern is the impact of war on the physical and mental well-being of soldiers. These concerns lead him towards experimentation in his poetry, though not to the same extent as Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.
The ballad “Prison Pen” follows a traditional structure, but its language is strikingly straightforward and consistently emphasizes the prisoner’s misery. The reader is immediately transported inside the prison camp, where the guards blend into the fence in the bright light of day and the prisoner’s thoughts are blurred. Words like “pen,” “lair,” and “den” highlight his degradation from human to beast.
The comparison in the third line requires a footnote that I am unable to provide. What does the term “pelican-beach” mean? I could not find it in a glossary of old nautical terms. If the beach is empty and devoid of life, it could suggest the aftermath of a conflict between fishermen and the competitive birds they view as rivals. The fact that “pelican” may come from the Greek word for “axe” (pelekys) and refers to the birds’ significantly long beaks, which allow them to hunt not just fish but also other bird species, further supports the idea of a “battle.” The remnants of this fierce struggle linger in the air. It is a powerful metaphor for the desolate and exposed nature of a prisoner-of-war camp.
In the following paragraph, Melville expands on the prisoner’s emotional state with a sense of dread through his use of concise language. He also illustrates how one’s mental state can deteriorate into another. His term, “idiot-pain,” combines the sensations of pain at both dull and intense levels. This pain could possibly be from a wound sustained in war. It is referred to as “idiot” because it consumes the individual entirely, serving no purpose other than being the consequence of being captured and humiliated.
In images like these, Melville’s poem reaches beyond moments of literary value, such as Virgil’s description of “plaining ghosts” and the inversion of “dim faces” in the third verse. The use of well-chosen adjectives, however, redeems this verse when the faces are depicted as “gashed and hoar”. The heightened language, often consisting of monosyllabic words, continues until the final verse, which is powerful in its brevity. In the sixth verse, the prisoner finds himself in another hell, “his place”, where he is surrounded by “throngs” of fellow prisoners who have walled him in. The repetition of “throngs” emphasizes their large numbers and the impossibility of escape.
Even in death, the prisoner is completely diminished. Separated only by a line break, the term “dead” echoes like a drumbeat. He is described as “dead in his meagreness,” without any hint of dignity or remorse, only emphasizing his worthlessness. The poem reaches a mournful peak at this point.