Melville’s “The March into Virginia” and “The College Colonel”: The Broken Youth.
Melville’s “The March into Virginia” and “The College Colonel”: The Broken Youth.
March into Virginia” and “The College Colonel”: The Broken Youth.
For thousands years, there has been
a fight on our planet. This fight was born with a human civilization; it is on
now, and it will never end. This is a battle between youth and war: a struggle
in which youth has no chance to survive. “All wars are boyish, and are fought
by boys,” Melville writes (“The March into Virginia”, line 6), but the youth of
soldiers on a front line is very short. It will be finished as soon as the boys
are “enlightened by a vollied glare” (34). After this “enlightening”, a social
status, a level of education, and a chronological age disappear. There are no
more farmers, workers, students, or clerks; there are only soldiers: brothers
in arms. The war makes men equal; it equally mutilates their souls. Do not
expect your son or husband to come back from the front. Even if he survives and
returns, it will be a stranger: a man forever transformed by the war. Let us
analyze Melville’s “The March into Virginia” and “The College Colonel”: two
poems where the writer shows this transformation.
In the poem “The March into
Virginia”, the author describes a regiment of young Union soldiers marching
into their first battle. The poem is written, probably, from the point of view
of a man recollecting the event. This is a recollection because the narrator
knows the future fate of the soldiers. He knows, for example, that many of them
will be dead within three days. He also knows that the survivors of the battle
will face another catastrophic defeat in less than a year (33- 36). The
narrator seems to be older and wiser then most of the troops, and he feels
sorry for young, ignorant soldiers. He can be a senior officer watching his
marching troops, or just an ordinary spectator.
The first stanza describes a
naïve enthusiasm of the first days of the war. “Did all the lets and bars
appear/ To every just or larger end,/ Whence should come the trust and cheer”?
Melville asks (1-3). Indeed, where does the enthusiasm and cheerfulness come
from if all “lets and bars” that could stop the war “appear to [the] end”
(1-2)? The war that brings nothing but death and pain is about to begin; should
it not be the saddest time for the nation? No! In such moments the country
always appeals to the youth: “the champions and enthusiasts of the state,” and
“the youth [lends] its ignorant impulse” to the rest of the population (4).
Everybody is young again, and the entire country starts living only by
emotions. Nobody cares about precautions of older and experienced people, and
“age finds place in the rear” (5).
The second stanza describes the
young soldiers and their feelings before the combat. Nobody can [forecast]
anything bad, and the troops are gaily marching toward their “fate”. It is a
beautiful day when “the air is blue and prodigal,” and a picture of a moving
army must be very spectacular (17). “The banners play, the bugles call,”
Melville writes (16). It looks more like a military exercise than a real war.
There is a sad irony in this situation. On a beautiful day, thousands of
strong, young people go towards their death, and do not even realize it. The
soldiers go to a battle, like to a “picnic party” (19). “In Bacchic glee” their
files entered a deadly forest that seems to be a “leafy neighborhood” for them
(21-22). They do not think about a possible ambush, injuries and death. The
young troops are uninformed like those children that were sacrificed to Moloch
(23). The soldiers look forward to a battle because “all they feel is this:
‘tis glory,/ a rapture sharp, though transitory,/ yet lasting in belaureled
story” (26-28). That is why “ they gaily go to fight/ chatting left and
laughing right” (30).
In the third stanza, the author
describes the “fate” of the soldiers, “[…] Some who this blithe mood
present/[…] shall die […]/ perish, enlightened by the vollied glare” (32- 34).
What is the “[enlightening] by the vollied glare”? I think that each soldier
has his own “ enlightening”. This “enlightening” is a mixture of fear and pain.
This is the first death of a comrade or the first killing. This “enlightening”
is an experience that permanently changes a soldier’s perception of the world.
People who were “enlightened by the vollied glare” have their personal
understanding of good and evil, and live by their own laws. Many of them will
never fit into the society again.
Such people are described in “The
College Colonel”. In this poem, Melville shows a return of soldiers from the
front to a hometown. Again, the poem is told by a spectator watching marching
troops. This time, however, there is no doubt that this man is a soldier
himself. It seems that the narrator knows all thoughts and feelings of the
returning men. He even could be a former member of this regiment who for some
reasons retuned home earlier. Moreover, this man knows many details from the
life of the colonel, a center figure of this poem. It is possible that the
narrator is a friend of the colonel and former officer of that unit. The man
probably was wounded and had to leave his troops. Now, he is standing in the
crowd and watching the return of his comrades.
It can be the same regiment that is
described in “ The March into Virginia”, but the people have changed. There is
neither boyish gaiety nor enthusiasm in their files anymore. They are
“half-tattered, and battered, and worn/ like castaway sailors […]” (7-8).
Nothing romantic is left in their appearance. The comparison between soldiers
and castaway sailors is interesting. This is how Melville describes sailors
from a sunken ship trying to reach a coast: “ Their mates dragged back and seen
no more-/again and again breast the surge,/ and at last crawl, spent to shore”
(10- 12). The war has become a storming sea for a soldier. It has lost any
political meaning; now, the war is just a dark power trying to take his life. A
defeat or victory are nothing but worthless words for him. A soldier is not
interested in war’s outcome; he is interested only in its end. He does not
fight for a country or a noble idea; he fights only for his own life and the
lives of men from his unit. He does not care about the rest of the world
because it does not exist for him. The rest of the world has become that
storming sea that is trying to kill him. Like a castaway sailor, a soldier sees
his comrades “dragged back” to disappear forever. Like a castaway sailor, he
“at last [crawls], spent […]” to safety (12). Like a castaway sailor, a soldier
found himself in a strange place. The civilized world has become a foreign and
hostile land for a veteran where he must struggle to find his place. Suddenly,
some of the soldiers realize that the war, that they hated so much, has become
a part of their lives, and they cannot normally exist without it.
A young colonel, the hero of the
poem, represents all veterans of the war. “He has brought his regiment home”,
and rides in front of his men (5). A gay crowd has gathered to celebrate the
return of the soldiers. “There are welcoming shouts, and flags” (18). These
people are still enthusiastic because they were not “enlightened by the vollied
glare”, but the colonel does not pay any attention to them. “An Indian
aloofness lones his brow” (14). He knows something that most of these people do
not. Although “Old men” still consider him “the Boy”, the colonel has no age
(19). He is much more experienced than anyone of them. The colonel fought only
for “two years” but “a thousand years […] of battle’s pains and prayers” were
compressed in this short period (15- 16). Somewhere, in “the Seven Days’
Fight”, or “in the wilderness grim”, or “in the field hospital tent”, or “in
Petersburg crater” he found his “truth” (27- 31).
Melville does not tell what this
“truth” is, and it, probably, cannot be explained. The soldier’s “truth” might
be an understanding of meaning of life and death. A veteran of the war can be
compared to a man who saw the hell and returned back. There, he has found the
“truth” or the ultimate knowledge, but he exchanged it for his health and
youth. Do not ask a soldier what this “truth” means. Even if he wants to
explain, you will never understand a man who saw the hell.
In conclusion, I would like to
remember Melville phrase “all wars are boyish, and are fought by boys”. I
slightly disagree with it. I would say that all wars are started by boys,
because by the end of the war there are no boys in the army. A returning
twenty- year- old veteran is not young; his youth was mutilated by the war. He
has lived as Melville says,”for a thousand years”. Youth is the best part of
our life. Our youth are a future of our nation. War is a cancer that threatens
to eat this future up. It should not be allowed.