Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


War Time: Temporality in Henry Timrods and Herman Melvilles Civil War Verse


English Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Arts and Humanities


In Civil War Time, historian Cheryl A. Wells argues, the Civil War years complicated and temporarily altered how Americans understood and used time, as battlefield events overrode antebellum conceptions of time to create new temporal parameters within which Americans functioned (ix). The emergent temporality that Wells terms battle time affected not only Americans everyday experience on and off the battlefield, but also the prosody of American poets writing about the war. Battle time simultaneously provoked nostalgia and prophecy, retrospection and prospection. Combining these conflicting temporal orientations in one poem stimulated astonishing metrical innovation in many Civil War poets. In this paper, I compare Henry Timrods poems of Confederate nationalism, such as The Cotton Boll, and Herman Melvilles Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. Timrods Confederate nationalist poems are metrically experimental, suggesting the need to craft novel verse forms to bridge the temporal gulf between nostalgically celebrating the Souths past and imagining a new Confederate future. By contrast, his elegies for fallen soldiers and for vanishing ideals of Southern life even early in the war, before a Union victory seemed likely follow standard metrical forms, as their retrospective outlook does not require the metrical ingenuity of his nationalist poems. The organizational framework of Melvilles 1866 volume, in which poems treating individual Civil War battles and key figures are arranged chronologically, presents the war as a completed event, preparing the reader for a retrospective orientation. Yet the battles of Battle-Pieces seem to be still in progress, the future uncertain. Melvilles idiosyncratic prosody keeps the poems events radically present, contemporaneous with the reader, rather than permitting a historical sense of conclusion. For both poets, the unfamiliar temporality of battle time prompted new ways of keeping poetic time.

Conference Name

War and American Literature Symposium

Conference Location

New Orleans, LA

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