Melville’s “The 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.