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War Bards

June 2024
1min read

The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry From Whitman to Walcott

edited by Richard Marius, Columbia University Press, 543 pages.

Richard Marius, a fine novelist and essayist, has drawn on both those skills to assemble this uncommonly good—and uncommonly good-looking—anthology. The poems, by writers ranging from John Greenleaf Whittier to John Updike, have clearly been assembled by a good storyteller; there is an actual narrative momentum to the book, although it also rewards the reader who wishes to sample it at random. Walt Whitman is here, of course, represented perhaps most strikingly by “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” of which Marius says, “Probably no better description of combat emerged from the Civil War.” Ambrose Bierce, who was in the grimmest of the fighting, writes in a moving combination of bitterness and respect on the death of Ulysses Grant; Innes Randolph muses on the three hundred thousand Federal soldiers killed: “They died of Southern fever/And Southern steel and shot;/I wish it was three millions/Instead of what we got.”

The poems are complemented with a wellchosen selection of contemporary photographs and annotations that are succinct, illuminating, and tough-minded. Of a Melville ode on Lincoln’s death, for instance, Marius writes: “A poem promising vengeance against the South. Southern apologists later made much of such sentiments. In reality the South was treated as leniently as any conquered people had been treated in the history of the world.”

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