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In the years leading up to Melville’s writing of “The Portent,” there was a growing sense that America’s days of peace were numbered. (Of course, for millions of slaves there had been no genuine peace for generations.) But presumably few if any truly foresaw the tremendous carnage–as many as 600,000 dead–that lay in the nation’s immediate future.
This essay should somehow address the enormity of both the crime of slavery and the horrific slaughter of the Civil War–as well as the question of what might constitute a morally and emotionally adequate artistic response to crimes and catastrophes of that magnitude. (Similar questions have been asked about WWI as well as the Holocaust.)
As an example of what does not constitute a morally and emotionally adequate artistic response to slavery and the Civil War, I would offer the film Gone with the Wind. (Many of course would argue that GWTW is not a genuine response to slavery and the Civil War at all, but merely uses these calamities as a backdrop for a love story.)
Anyway, a “portent” is a sign of things to come, and a “requiem” is an act of remembrance, in particular a religious ritual for the repose of the dead. In this essay, please respond to one or more of these questions: What do you think of “The Portent” and “Shiloh” as premonition of and a response to the enormity of the Civil War? In terms of what they evoke in us, are they adequate to that enormity? (By “us” I mean careful readers, willing to take our time with the poems and unpack their layers of meaning.) Do you see anything in the poems that seems to grow out of Melville’s treatment of Babo and his rebellion in “Benito Cereno”? Whatever your answer, can you support it in terms of Melville’s poetic technique, his precise use of language in the poems?
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