Currently in the links to Versions of Battle-Pieces below, readers can compare, side-by-side and poem-by-poem, two copies (A & C) of Battle-Pieces, each with Melville’s penciled revisions. They can also inspect MEL’s contextual annotations of the poems in Juxta Editions, which includes TextLab transcriptions of Melville’s handwritten revisions in print and revision narratives. For an explanation of the versions, continue reading below the links.
When fully realized, MEL’s edition of Battle-Pieces will include magazine, manuscript, and revisions to print versions of the poems as well as reprints in anthologies.
Though Melville had begun writing poetry early in life—and evidence suggests that poetry, not prose, was the form he aspired to—the writer began in the late-1850s to re-tool himself as a serious poet and to compose poems for publication. By 1860, he had enough roughage for a collection titled Poems, but abandoned the project after his submission to Harpers was rejected.
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) is the first of Melville’s four published volumes of poetry. The 72 poems treat events leading to and following the war, dated battles throughout the war, over a dozen “Inscriptions” of a memorial nature, and a prose Supplement arguing for acceptance. Several poems include prose endnotes, similar to the prose headnotes Melville would include in later poetic works, found in John Marr, the unpublished Weeds & Wildings, and the Billy Budd manuscript.
“With few exceptions,” the bulk of the Battle-Pieces poems were written, according to Melville’s preface, “in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond,” on 3 April 1865. Taking him at his word, we can imagine the writer spending the following eighteen months researching, composing, revising, discarding, and sorting out the order of the poems that survived his creative process. Among the source books available to him for his research were Robert Tomes The War with the South (1865), Evert Duyckinck’s National History of the War for the Union (1862-1865), Putnam’s Rebellion Record (1862-1868)—a monthly compilation of documents also collected in annual volumes—and illustrated coverage of the war in Harper’s Weekly Magazine.
Some indication that Melville had secured Harpers as a publisher for Battle-Pieces is that, during this period of productivity, Melville published five of his Civil War poems in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (one in each month from February to July 1866), before the publication of Battle-Pieces in Fall 1866.
A sixth Civil War poem—“Inscription for the Slain [Dead] at Fredericksburgh”—appeared two years earlier in Alexander Bliss and John P. Kennedy’s 1864 benefit anthology Autograph Leaves from Our Country’s Authors. However, Melville did not include this piece among his other memorial verse in Battle-Pieces. The only known Battle-Pieces manuscript is a fair-copy transcription of “Philip” that retains that title but also contains wording that appears in the book version of the poem, re-titled “Sheridan at Cedar Creek.” These details suggest that the manuscript is an “intermediate” version of the text, between magazine and book publication (NN Published Poems 583).
An inveterate reviser, Melville tinkered with some of his Battle-Pieces poems in proofs before the volume’s Fall 1866 publication and tinkered again after they were published in his personal copy of Battle-Pieces. Evidence of these pencil revisions appear in two physical versions of Battle-Pieces, both located at Harvard's Houghton Library and designated Copy A and Copy C. The personal, Copy A of the book has several checkmarks in the table of contents and three revisions, on pages 23, 27, and 129. Copy C is a bound set of page proofs, or as Melville's wife put it in her inscription on the front binder's leaf: "'Revised' sheets—with / Herman's corrections." According the NN edition of Melville's Published Poems, these pages contain changes at 49 points in the book (584).
Other post-publication versions of selected poems may not have involved Melville’s input, but they are concrete evidence of Melville’s reception as a poet and of what 19th-century publishers chose to select from his work for consumption by differing readerships within a culture. Melville’s “Sheridan” poem is one of a handful of Melville poems that was reprinted in numerous newspapers under various titles (e.g. “Sheridan’s Ride”) and, more tellingly, in at least three anthologies during his lifetime (NN Published Poems 585). Poems included in these compilations are
Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America, ed. R. H. Stoddard (1873)
George Cary Eggleston’s American War Ballads and Lyrics (1889)
E. C. Stedman and Ellen Mackay Hutchinson’s Library of American Literature (1888-90)
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