The visual imagery present in this composition is very detailed and conceals hidden messages through metaphors, that in general are negative a nd nihilistic. The speaker also utilizes personification and other forms of figurative language to display the grim reality of impermanence.
In the wake of this idea of impermanence the speak er emphasizes the frivolity Of human affiliations through the impermanence and insignificance 0 these associations. This poem possesses inherent themes of existential nihilism, im permanence and frivolity that can be paralleled to the human condition, which in turn engende rs feelings of hopelessness, depression terror, and universal awareness. The title of the poem, Shiloh: A Requiem, is a reference to the Battle of Shiloh, waged in 1862. 3,000 men died that day at Pittsburgh Landing and it was the beginnin g of the shift in the civil war’s public opinion(Shi10h, Lines 36, 81). Herman Melville was one of the first poets to write about the pains, effects, and aftermath of these battles. This is one of th central reasons why he is considered one of the first modern poets. Melville’s verses are very reminiscent of modern social protest compositions. He never outright condemned the war, b ut wrote from personal experience and documented in vivid detail how the horrors of war h ad touched all facets of society.
This particular poem is a requiem or a composition in memory oft he recently deceased. As expected the poem has a negative connotation. The speaker ex udes a depressed attitude during the poem. Melville opens the poem, with quite a bit of visual imagery, that persists for the first five lines. ” Skimming lightly, wheeling still,The swallows fly lowOver the field in clouded days, The forestfield of Shiloh. ” Melville uses the “swallows” as representation for life on earth in its entirety. The line “Skimming lightly,” is us ed asa description of life on earth as graceful and in balance.
The line “Wheeling Still, ” simply means that this life still persists. So the overall meaning of the first three lines is that life on earth persists coasting gracefully through troubled times. The swallows flying low o ver the forest fields of shiloh in the third through fifth line is foreshadowing the loss of life i n the forest fields f Shiloh(Adams, 15). The use of the swallows as the representation for life on earth is curious. The swallow is a small bird, tiny and insignificant in comparison to the world it inhabits.
By application of analogy, I couldn’t help, but draw the conclusion that Melville in tended for the reader to see life on earth as small and insignificant compared to the universe that it exists in. This introduces the reader to feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and de spair that can be ascribed to the terror of existential nihilism(the belief that existence or life ha s no purpose, objective meaning, or even intrinsic value) Building on the inherent existential nihilism in the poem. The next few lines fo cus more on individual impermanence. The church so lone, the log built one, that echo ed to many a parting groan And natural prayer Of dying foemen mingled there. ” The imme diate and shallow interpretation is the “dying foemen,” that by itself is a show of imper manence. The terror of all that is existential forced the creation of the institution of the chur ch as suggested by the interpretation of these lines, “The church so lone, the log built one, that e choed to many a parting groan. ” The key word is “echoed,” this suggests that the dying foemen’ final prayers were echoed instead of heard(Shiloh, 913).
By extension the church is nothing , but a hollow shell that only exists to provide false security, which ultimately reinforces the philosophies of existential nihilism deepening grave feelings of hopelessness, depression, an d terror, as the reader becomes more aware of the world for what it is. A dynamic shift can be seen in the poem three fourths through. The shift is fr om a solemn depressed attitude to one that is carefree and sardonic. “Foemen at morn, bu t friends at eve Fame or country least their care (What like a bullet can undeceive! ,” The moo changes as if the speaker is now aware of fate, but has embraced it and is now free from th e burden of existence even if it is for only a fleeting moment. The dying foemen have give n up their affiliations, because the end existence as they now it is near. Gravity, however, brings the speaker back down to earth. The poem returns t o its original somber form and ends with visual imagery similar to the first few lines. ” But now they lie low, While over them the swallows skim, And all is hushed at Shiloh,” The swallow s skimming over the dead men suggests that life goes on despite their massive losses.