Herman Melville’s “The House-top. A Night Piece.”

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_01 Jun. 15 19.54 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.”

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