Home > Uncategorized > Herman Melville: War-pits and rattraps. Soldier sold to the army as Faust sold himself to the devil.

Herman Melville: War-pits and rattraps. Soldier sold to the army as Faust sold himself to the devil.

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

Herman Melville: Trophies of Peace

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Herman Melville
From Redburn (1849)

220px-Herman_Melville

In the British armed marine, in time of peace, they do not ship men for the general service, as in the American navy; but for particular ships, going upon particular cruises. Thus, the frigate Thetis may be announced as about to sail under the command of that fine old sailor, and noble father to his crew, Lord George Flagstaff.

Similar announcements may be seen upon the walls concerning enlistments in the army. And never did auctioneer dilate with more rapture upon the charms of some country-seat put up for sale, than the authors of these placards do, upon the beauty and salubrity of the distant climes, for which the regiments wanting recruits are about to sail. Bright lawns, vine-clad hills, endless meadows of verdure, here make up the landscape; and adventurous young gentlemen, fond of travel, are informed, that here is a chance for them to see the world at their leisure, and be paid for enjoying themselves into the bargain. The regiments for India are promised plantations among valleys of palms; while to those destined for New Holland, a novel sphere of life and activity is opened; and the companies bound to Canada and Nova Scotia are lured by tales of summer suns, that ripen grapes in December. No word of war is breathed; hushed is the clang of arms in these announcements; and the sanguine recruit is almost tempted to expect that pruning-hooks, instead of swords, will be the weapons he will wield.

Alas! is not this the cruel stratagem of Bruce at Bannockburn, who decoyed to his war-pits by covering them over with green boughs? For instead of a farm at the blue base of the Himalayas, the Indian recruit encounters the keen saber of the Sikh; and instead of basking in sunny bowers, the Canadian soldier stands a shivering sentry upon the bleak ramparts of Quebec, a lofty mark for the bitter blasts from Baffin’s Bay and Labrador. There, as his eye sweeps down the St. Lawrence, whose every billow is bound for the main that laves the shore of Old England; as he thinks of his long term of enlistment, which sells him to the army as Doctor Faust sold himself to the devil; how the poor fellow must groan in his grief, and call to mind the church-yard stile, and his Mary.

These army announcements are well fitted to draw recruits in Liverpool. Among the vast number of emigrants, who daily arrive from all parts of Britain to embark for the United States or the colonies, there are many young men, who, upon arriving at Liverpool, find themselves next to penniless; or, at least, with only enough money to carry them over the sea, without providing for future contingencies. How easily and naturally, then, may such youths be induced to enter upon the military life, which promises them a free passage to the most distant and flourishing colonies, and certain pay for doing nothing; besides holding out hopes of vineyards and farms, to be verified in the fullness of time. For in a moneyless youth, the decision to leave home at all, and embark upon a long voyage to reside in a remote clime, is a piece of adventurousness only one removed from the spirit that prompts the army recruit to enlist.

I never passed these advertisements, surrounded by crowds of gaping emigrants, without thinking of rattraps.

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And though Tiberius came in the succession of the Caesars, and though unmatchable Tacitus has embalmed his carrion, yet do I account this Yankee Jackson full as dignified a personage as he, and as well meriting his lofty gallows in history; even though he was a nameless vagabond without an epitaph, and none, but I, narrate what he was. For there is no dignity in wickedness, whether in purple or rags; and hell is a democracy of devils, where all are equals. There, Nero howls side by side with his own malefactors. If Napoleon were truly but a martial murderer, I pay him no more homage than I would a felon. Though Milton’s Satan dilutes our abhorrence with admiration, it is only because he is not a genuine being, but something altered from a genuine original. We gather not from the four gospels alone, any high-raised fancies concerning this Satan; we only know him from thence as the personification of the essence of evil, which, who but pickpockets and burglars will admire? But this takes not from the merit of our high-priest of poetry; it only enhances it, that with such unmitigated evil for his material, he should build up his most goodly structure. But in historically canonizing on earth the condemned below, and lifting up and lauding the illustrious damned, we do but make examples of wickedness; and call upon ambition to do some great iniquity, and be sure of fame.

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We talk of the Turks, and abhor the cannibals; but may not some of them, go to heaven, before some of us? We may have civilized bodies and yet barbarous souls. We are blind to the real sights of this world; deaf to its voice; and dead to its death. And not till we know, that one grief outweighs ten thousand joys, will we become what Christianity is striving to make us.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 22, 2015 at 10:58 am

    I again appreciate your efforts in extracting antiwar sentiments from prominent writers of the past. Melville, one of the most admired authors, shows his vehement distaste for the promoters of war. I feel he is a brother in arms (of peace promotion) who recognizes the ego-expanding duplicity of those who care not the consequences of the youth they help to maim and destroy.

  2. August 22, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    This helps explain why a college English professor met years ago, when asked his favorite book he answered “Moby Dick”… And still haven’t read it. Amazing final thoughts by Mr. Melville.

    • richardrozoff
      August 23, 2015 at 9:58 am

      Redburn was the first of the “maritime” books by Melville (White-Jacket was the second) leading up to Moby Dick. It’s an easy read compared to the last-named.
      See also the remarkable novel The Confidence Man, Melville’s last novel (1857), an extended allegory occurring on board a steamboat on the Mississippi.
      It can be read online.

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