How to Tell a True War Poem

Richard Johnston

If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.
Tim O’Brien

(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
Herman Melville

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.
Tim O’Brien


How to Tell a True War Poem

I. Introduction

In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O’Brien’s narrator – a veteran, like the author, of the conflict in Vietnam – interrogates the conventions of the war story genre while attempting to tell his own stories, and also while reflecting on his attempts – never completely successful – to tell them. O’Brien’s work is thus a fascinating blend of short story, fictional personal essay, and literary criticism. The narrative component principally concerns a soldier named Rat Kiley who is stricken with grief following the death of his friend and fellow soldier Curt Lemon. The narrator frames this story with observations about the unusual forms assumed by Rat’s grief and their implications for the narrator’s task. At the end of the work, the narrator describes with consternation some of the responses by his audiences to Rat’s story – responses that suggest they haven’t been listening to him at all, or that they didn’t wish to.

The components of “How to Tell a True War Story” can be difficult to isolate, since the narrator frequently interleaves story, commentary, and personal reflection. They can also be hard to reconcile, since they occasionally contradict each other or even themselves. For example, an axiom about the war story genre might contradict a broader claim by the narrator that the genre cannot be fenced in by conventions or rules.

These contradictions at the structural level of O’Brien’s work permeate the text as a whole, appearing frequently in the narrator’s descriptions of war. Consider this passage from the end of the work: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead” (80). Here the narrator depicts war as a veritable siege of contraries. The contradictions at every level of O’Brien’s work, from the level of structure to the level of language, point to deep anxieties about the war story genre – anxieties about what the genre wants its practitioners to do, and particularly about what readers and audiences expect them to create.

This paper emerges from a question I initially posed to my students more than three years ago when I taught at West Point, the United States Military Academy. (I now teach at the U.S. Air Force Academy.) What are the implications of “How to Tell a True War Story” for war poems? If O’Brien were a poet and had written an essay entitled “How to Tell a True War Poem,” what claims might he have made concerning the genre? What poems might he have singled out as examples of true or untrue war poems, and why?

These questions generated rich classroom discussion about O’Brien’s work and war poetry, and some enterprising students decided to adapt the questions to investigate war novels or war films. A few even worked to apply O’Brien’s work to entirely different genres. One paper by a student named Greg examined how Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the Oscar-winning film directed by Ethan and Joel Coen resists conventions of the Western tale. It remains one of the best literature papers an undergraduate has composed for me in a teaching career spanning more than a decade.

However, I have never been able to persuade anyone to tackle the war poem. I suspect this has to do with the alien quality that undergraduates often perceive in poetry, despite my concerted efforts to convince them that composing 140-character messages for Twitter involves a kind of verbal craftsmanship that is not altogether different from the kind of work that poets specialize in. In any case, at some point I decided just to try and write the essay myself.

When I began gathering my thoughts for this essay, my initial hypothesis was that finding a war poem that embodied O’Brien’s conception of truth would be a hard task due to the unique formal and stylistic characteristics of the lyric poem. These include its suggestive quality, its brevity, its conciseness, its linguistic precision, and its oftentimes astonishing degree of metrical, aural, and thematic patterning. There was also the fact that so many of my favorite war poems – and the ones I most frequently taught – clearly took an oppositional stance against the martial enterprise: poems like Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Philip Larkin’s “MCMXIV,” Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Howard Nemerov’s “The War in the Air,” and W. S. Merwin’s “The Asians Dying.” If there is one adjective that cannot be applied to “How to Tell a True War Story,” it is “anti-war.”

The purpose of this essay has been to test my hypothesis, and, like many experiments, it has not evolved quite as I imagined. One turning point in my thinking came when I realized that O’Brien’s narrator is considerably less interested in telling writers how they ought to narrate their war stories than in helping readers learn to identify the false ones and to understand the dangerous intellectual and cultural work such stories perform. The first two times O’Brien uses the verb “tell,” it doesn’t mean to write or compose; it means to discern, to identify, or to recognize (69). [1]

Noticing this appeared to make my task less daunting. The lyric poem in general is one of my areas of expertise, but war poetry and war literature are not. To write the essay I was envisioning, though, I wouldn’t need to become an expert in war poetry overnight. Instead, I could focus on a single war poem and use O’Brien’s work as an analytical toolkit to try to understand how the poet was or was not attempting to write about war. My work did not need to be prescriptive; it could, like O’Brien’s, explore, ask questions, and hopefully begin a conversation.

Another turning point in my thinking came when I noticed an important feature of the task of discernment at the heart of O’Brien’s work. I am referring to the narrator’s misgivings about the power that genre exerts on storytellers, their creations, and their readers or audiences. While genre is clearly one of the narrator’s primary thematic preoccupations, he rarely speaks of it directly. I am quite sure O’Brien never actually uses the term in his work. Why, I have sometimes wondered, doesn’t his narrator simply give readers a concise watch list of the most problematic conventions of war stories, rather than merely gesturing toward them in occasional aphoristic passages? The reason, I think, is that deep down we already know what these conventions are.

Genre, I often try to explain to students, is to our experience of a work of art what the atmosphere is to our experience of life. We live in it. We breathe it. It is everywhere. It is the power of genre that drives us to a movie theater because we want a temporary emotional uplift, but then to leave the theater in a huff when the guy in the romantic comedy fails to get the girl – perhaps because he dies in a house fire while trying to rescue her ex’s cat. [2] Crucially, the climax of “How to Tell a True War Story” involves an attempt by the narrator to reassign Rat Kiley’s story, which he has just finished telling to an audience in a public setting, to an entirely different genre: the love story. What this suggests is that noticing when a war story is bigger than the War Story – when it sets down roots in other genres, other patterns of experience – is absolutely crucial to the task of discernment that the narrator advocates and attempts to model. Is this also true for true war poems?

To test this hypothesis, I decided to focus on Herman Melville’s Civil War poem “Shiloh,” initially published in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866. This book was neglected in Melville’s own time but has received considerable critical attention in recent years. I chose this poem mainly because it struck me as such a difficult test case. Melville was a firm supporter of the Union cause and dedicated his book to the Union dead. (The dedication doesn’t mention the Confederate dead.) Would Melville’s personal allegiances prove an insuperable barrier to truth? Then there is the fact that “Shiloh” contains one of Melville’s most famous poetic lines – a line that, furthermore, happens to have a strong anti-war ring: “(What like a bullet can undeceive!)” (16). It would be hard not to forgive a reader for hearing in this line the didactic tone that O’Brien’s narrator would frown upon.

“Shiloh,” one of the shortest poems in Battle-Pieces, also exhibits an astonishing degree of metrical, aural, and thematic patterning and linguistic virtuosity. Like every poem in Battle-Pieces, “Shiloh” has a unique form and structure. It is also, frankly, beautiful – something that cannot be said of many poems in the volume, whose unevenness many readers and critics have pointed out. Would O’Brien’s narrator approve such artifice and such beauty? I believe so, because another of the poem’s most salient formal features – the one I will argue brings it nearest to the form of truth that “How to Tell a True War Story” models – is its rich blend of generic allegiances and affiliations.

In the first part of this essay, I will discuss “How to Tell a True War Story,” focusing on the narrator’s discomfort with the power of the war story genre. In the second part, I will offer a formal and thematic analysis of “Shiloh,” concentrating on its interesting generic diversity. In the final part, I will bring both works together in order to consider a major problem that literary works encounter when they attempt to defy the power of genre: inattention or silence.


II. Tim O’Brien, War Stories, and the Problem of Genre

The principal concern of Tim O’Brien’s narrator in “How to Tell a True War Story” is genre, that is to say, the set of conventions that attempts to govern what authors telling a particular kind of story say whilst simultaneously shaping what readers or audiences expect and want to read or hear. O’Brien’s narrator suggests that anyone who wishes to tell a true war story must cut the negative feedback loop created by these twin pressures. Similarly, readers or audiences who do not wish to be deceived by false stories must be wary of and learn to identify narratives whose plotlines run according to the way they believe sequences of events in the real world ought to run.

Three moments in “How to Tell a True War Story” dramatically underscore the power that genre exerts on authors and their readers or audiences. [3] The first concerns the attempt by Rat Kiley to write a letter of condolence to the sister of Curt Lemon, who died after stepping on a land mine. “How to Tell a True War Story” begins with this anecdote, and it concludes with the narrator’s own attempt to relate the circumstances of Curt’s death and its effects on Rat to a less-than-receptive audience. That is the third moment. The second moment involves a provocative thought experiment conducted by the narrator, who investigates the heroic quality of typical war stories and tampers with a stock event to examine its effects on a hypothetical audience. I will discuss this moment first before moving to the public reading, taking up Rat’s letter in the last part of my paper when I address the silence that true war stories frequently encounter.

The narrator’s thought experiment imagines the reactions of readers to two versions of a stereotypical war story that begin the same way but have different endings. The narrator’s basic claim is that the truth of either version has less to do with what really happened than with whether its events align with the expectations and wishes of readers. “[W]e’ve all heard this one,” the narrator quips, hinting that this is the false version of the story, or at least the version that the war story genre typically supplies: “Four guys go down a trail,” the narrator says. “A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies” (83).

In the second version, the narrator renders the soldier’s self-sacrificing action not only useless but also comical:

Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, ‘The fuck you do that for?’ and the jumper says, ‘Story of my life, man’ and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead. (83-4)

After giving readers this second version, the narrator cryptically remarks, “That’s a true story that never happened” (84).

The stylistic differences between the two versions are almost as striking as the differences between their outcomes. The first is pure plot; only a single act of profound courage distinguishes the four characters. In the second, the characters of two of the soldiers begin to emerge. It is, in this sense, more realistic. One soldier makes a wisecrack about the comical futility of the jumper’s actions. The “jumper” replies in kind, suggesting that his life has been one long series of comical futilities (83-4). [4] In this version, the narrator has developed two of his characters by illuminating a facet of the dark humor that has undoubtedly helped them cope with their experiences in Vietnam. When O’Brien’s narrator calls this a “true” story, however, he is not referring to what one might call its slightly elevated literary realism.

The narrator sets up his thought experiment with a proposition or hypothesis. “You can tell a true war story,” he says, “by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, ‘Is it true?’ and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer” (83). In the narrator’s view, the main problem with the first version is that “[y]ou’d feel cheated if it never happened” – cheated, that is to say, if someone related the story and then confessed that he or she had simply made it up. O’Brien’s use of the word “cheated” is deliberate and significant, because when individuals say that they have been “cheated,” they are claiming that someone or something (a person, a business, or perhaps life itself) has denied them something that is rightfully theirs.

Now, a person might cheat us by refusing to pay for a service we have rendered, but how can a story – how can art – cheat us? By not giving us, the narrator implies, the version of the story we want to hear, think we are entitled to hear, and may have paid good money for, too.

This is the thrust of the narrator’s reference to Hollywood in his trenchant criticism of the first version of the story. “Without the grounding reality,” he says – without, in other words, an assurance from the author that this version of events actually occurred – “it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue” (83). The phrase “pure Hollywood” evokes the rutted plotlines of blockbuster films we pay to see so we can be entertained, thrilled, uplifted, or moved at a time and place of our choosing. Films in which good triumphs over evil, the guy gets the girl, and, in the case of war films, the selfless actions of a brave young soldier, engaged in a conflict with clear enemies with whom it is utterly impossible to sympathize, lead to their desired outcomes.

But then the narrator says something quite astonishing. Still speaking of the first version of the hand grenade story, he adds:

Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story doesn’t depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may happen and be truer than the truth. (83)

According to the narrator, it isn’t just fictional stories with conventional plotlines that are untrue. Real events that happen to follow these plotlines are also untrue, because they reinforce the plotlines and strengthen the vice-grip of genre. In other words, even if the first version were “based on a true story,” as a book or film might claim, it would be untrue because it was what the audience wanted to see and what the artist – Tim O’Brien’s anti-narrator or anti-producer – dutifully supplied. We want to believe that, in war, one can find acts of extraordinary courage, bravery, sacrifice, and heroism. We want to hear about them or see them. We also want to believe that such acts, especially ones that result in death, are meaningful. That they save lives, for instance – at least the lives that matter.

Thus, we can deduce that the second version of the story is “true” because it is the one we don’t want to see. It is the version that, like life itself in most instances, doesn’t quite go according to plan or align with the relationship between action and reaction we would like to see in our own lives. When the narrator calls the second version “a true war story that never happened” (84), what he is suggesting is that readers who encountered it would simply refuse it – would deny it a place in their particular reality. They would close their eyes and say, “No.” “Give me,” they would say, “a story that goes according to how I want things to go, especially in circumstances as violent and terrible and inexplicable as war.” In retrospect, it is easy to see that when the narrator tells us his first story is one “we’ve all heard before,” he is saying it is not only the one we have always wanted to hear but also the one we are used to hearing (83).

To summarize what I have said thus far, a major issue O’Brien’s narrator has with genre is that it conceals reality by ordering events into conventional patterns. Of course, this is not to say that genre is completely divorced from reality. In life, good men and women really do on occasion bring about their downfall while trying to do what they believe is right. They really do manage to negotiate the hazards of social life, fall in love, and get married. Such patterns of life are the basis for tragedy and comedy, respectively. In other words, what genre provides is a template for events loosely anchored in perceptions about how life unfolds – or about how it might unfold if we were not careful, as cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz notes in his penetrating remarks on tragedy in his famous essay on the Balinese cockfight (443-53). After enough authors have obediently fleshed this template out, readers learn to accept the stories as the truth – as reality – as an image of how life really is or ought to be. At some point, they begin to demand more stories of this sort and are only satisfied with stories that meet their demands. Such demands are altogether forgiveable; the world is a cruel place, its cruelty is random, and the human mind is hard-wired to construct heuristics to simplify the noise of experience. Yet a result of this, to repeat an image that I used earlier, is a negative feedback loop that further strengthens genre.

At the climax of “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien’s narrator discloses a second, potentially deeper problem with genre. This problem arises when a genre has become so ossified that it begins to exclude all other potential generic affiliations and allegiances. Such exclusion also leads to untruth, because it paves over or ignores the contradictions of human experience.

Earlier, I described “How to Tell a True War Story” as a short story, a fictional personal essay, and a piece of literary criticism. I also mentioned that the main narrative component focuses on the grief of Rat Kiley following the death of Curt Lemon. In the second half of O’Brien’s work, the narrator relates in horrifying detail one of the physical and emotional manifestations of this grief. It is an act of nearly unfathomable violence, cruelty, and evil – the slaughter of a baby water buffalo. And this, we learn at the end of the work, is a story that the narrator has tried on many occasions to tell audiences, producing only puzzlement and sadness.

It isn’t difficult, reading just the first half of the anecdote, to understand why the narrator’s audiences haven’t been receptive to it. After telling how Curt Lemon died, he describes climbing into a tree to scrape Curt’s remains off its branches. He goes on:

Later, higher in the mountains, we came across a baby VC water buffalo. What it was doing there I don’t know—no farms or paddies—but we chased it down and got a rope around it and led it along to a deserted village where we set up for the night. After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose.

He opened up a can of C rations, pork and beans, but the baby water buffalo wasn’t interested.

Rat shrugged.

He stepped back and shot it though the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Curt Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. (78-9)

I will stop here, emphasizing that this is just the first half of the account of the animal’s torture and execution, which goes on for another page.

In the final pages of O’Brien’s work, the narrator reflects on occasions he has told this story publicly. A typical response from a typical audience member triggers the narrator’s most insightful and incisive remarks about genre. “Now and then,” he says, “someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman,” he emphasizes – a misogynistic remark that stems less from a measured stance on women than a kind of narrative solidarity with Rat, author of the unacknowledged letter of condolence that I will discuss later. The narrator continues:

Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and the gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, they’ll say, it put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell. (85)

As we read this account, it is hard not to suspect that the woman’s concession – the fact that she liked this particular war story despite hating them as a rule – is just gilding on an implicit message that she hopes never to hear such a story again. O’Brien’s prose style enacts this interpretation; notice how the author has cordoned off the woman’s approbation, positioning it between her dislike of war stories in the general and the distress she says the water buffalo’s execution caused her.

Then the woman’s dislike of war stories “as a rule” sharpens into something more personal. She says “she can’t understand why people,” meaning the narrator and other storytellers like him, “want to wallow in all the blood and gore.” She and other auditors like her – notice the shift in the passage quoted above to the third person plural – urge the narrator to “put it all behind [him]” and “find new stories to tell” (85). Stories, in other words, that they might enjoy listening to, and that would conform to a world they want to believe in – a world that excludes, among other people, grief-stricken nineteen-year-old soldiers exacting vengeance for dead friends by shooting bullets into the bodies of animals.

“Find new stories to tell.” This advice is surely well-intentioned, but it clearly hits the narrator hard, because he responds to it with profound contempt. While he graciously conceals his contempt from the woman, he paints it for his readers in vivid colors: “I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze” (85). The narrator has italicized the last three words because they were the words Rat used when Curt Lemon’s sister failed or neglected to respond to his letter. Undergirding the misogyny of the narrator’s crude remark is deep frustration at the woman’s failure to sympathize with his character and his story.

Crucially, however, the narrator is less upset by the woman’s condescending words or her dismissive attitude to the story than by the fact that she completely misread it – that she didn’t even correctly identify its primary generic allegiance. “[S]he wasn’t listening,” the narrator complains. What he says next is both surprising and enlightening: “It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story” (85). It was love, the narrator tells us, that triggered the killing of the water buffalo – an act of love, anger, cruelty, vengeance, justice, and grief utterly incomprehensible outside the theater of war, perhaps even outside the individual experience of a character in a story named Rat Kiley.

More than any other moment in O’Brien’s work, the narrator’s reassignment of Rat’s story from the war story genre to the love story genre expresses his deep misgivings about the nature, power, and influence of genre. For what genre attempts to do – and what it achieves in the hands of unskilled, uncourageous, or uninventive artists – is to superimpose patterns of human experience on the complex terrain of that experience, thereby flattening it. The narrator’s “love story” cannot possibly be conceived as such because it involves a soldier being blasted into a tree by a mine and then another soldier slaughtering an animal. For this reason, one can read the narrator’s attempt to reassign Rat’s story as the ultimate indictment of genre: of the pressures it imposes on authors, and of the expectations it creates and reinforces in readers. Indeed, the narrator almost seems to be suggesting that one can “tell” or ascertain whether a particular war story is true by determining the extent to which it shows other generic affiliations. This idea may sound like a paradox, but it reflects the complexities of human experience more accurately than the well-demarcated paths of genre.

Appropriately, paradox and contradiction permeate the parts of O’Brien’s work that one might classify as literary-critical. In the closing paragraph, the narrator says:

In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen. (85)

A true war story, the narrator concludes, inhabits a space structurally and stylistically detached from the requirements of genre and the expectations of an author’s audience. Paradoxically, in writing a true war story, the author un-writes it, consigning it to a place where it will not easily be recognized as such – if indeed it is ever read or ultimately attended to. This is a problem I will consider in the final part of my essay, because Melville’s poem “Shiloh,” the subject of the next section, has a curiously unattended quality to it as well.


III. How to Tell a True War Poem

Turning now to “Shiloh,” I intend to argue, using O’Brien’s work as my model and guide, that Melville’s nineteen-line lyric about the Battle of Shiloh meets the criteria of a true war poem. This is not because the Battle of Shiloh or any of events imagined by the speaker actually occurred – for O’Brien’s narrator, “absolute occurrence is irrelevant” (83) – but due to the way Melville’s poem essentially un-writes itself as a war poem by establishing a complex set of generic affiliations and allegiances. The unique formal structure and style of Melville’s poem complement its generic complexity. In the final part of my essay, I will discuss something else the poem has in common with O’Brien’s work: a tragically unattended quality resulting in silence.

“Shiloh,” which Melville subtitled “A Requiem” and dated “(April, 1862),” concerns an especially bloody battle near the outset of the American Civil War – the bloodiest the young nation had seen up until that time, with over twenty thousand soldiers wounded or killed in just two days. The poem consists of a single, syntactically complex sentence that meanders through nineteen lines (mostly, but not all, iambic trimeters and tetrameters) marked by an intricate but irregular rhyme scheme. The poem conveniently divides into three sections, forming a kind of vertical triptych whose top and bottom panels depict peaceful images of swallows flying in the sky above the battlefield at some indeterminate time after the battle has taken place, and whose central panel depicts the immediate aftermath of the battle, when wounded Union and Confederate soldiers lay waiting for death. The triptych is nearly but not quite perfectly symmetrical, with the famous line “(What like a bullet can undeceive!)” shortening the bottom panel by one line. Because the poem is brief, it is worth pausing to read it. Here is a link to a digital text of the poem on the website of the Poetry Foundation.

We can label the three parts of Melville’s poem “Swallows I,” “Battlefield,” and “Swallows II,” but the formal structure of the poem is considerably more complicated than this. In the pages that follow, I have decided to combine formal analysis with analysis of the poem’s content, but it is worth pausing now to point out a few of the poem’s most salient formal features. Reading the entire poem, one immediately becomes aware of the predominant long “o” sound. This occurs no fewer than fifteen times, including in five line endings, greatly contributing to the poem’s overarching tone of melancholy rumination. The poem has a simple beginning, with Melville adopting a modified ballad stanza for “Swallows I.” “Battlefield” also begins simply, with two couplets, but the thematic aim of these lines is to complicate, not to reconcile, and they precede the poem’s most formally complex lines. In “Swallows II,” the poet repeats, but with crucial differences, the peaceful imagery of the first four lines. This panel is immediately preceded by the famous sixteenth line, analysis of which will prove crucial to my interpretation of the poem. Perhaps the most important feature of Melville’s war poem to point out is the humble, log-built church at its geometric center.

As this brief description shows us, “Shiloh” announces itself as a war poem but begins as something else entirely – a nature poem:

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh— (1-4)

Nature is the subject of these lines, but this not the salubrious, restorative nature one might find in, say, a poem by Wordsworth. Note the predominance of the long “o” sound, which appears not only in “low” and “Shiloh” but also, internally, in “low” and “over.” The melancholy tone established by this sound is reinforced spatially by the adverb “low” and temporally by the image of “clouded days.” The central panel accounts for this tone when it reveals what the swallows are flying over: rain-soaked earth where soldiers once suffered an agonizing death. These soldiers are the referents of the pronouns “they” and “them” in the last three lines of the poem: “But now they lie low, / While over them the swallows skim, / And all is hushed at Shiloh” (17-19). I will attend to the important differences between “Swallows I” and “Swallows II” momentarily.

The images of the swallows serve several purposes in the poem. First of all, they establish the setting of the poem. Swallows are aerial feeders most often seen at the end of the day, when it is cooler. Hence, this is an evening poem, adding to the poem’s melancholy mood. But the speaker is not imagining a particular evening. The phrase “clouded days” suggests an indeterminate succession of evenings, thus creating a temporal gap between the immediate aftermath of the battle (depicted in the poem’s central panel) and the poetical present. The adverb “still” in line 1 reinforces this while also suggesting that the image of the swallows is one the speaker has ruminated on frequently.

The swallows, with their “wheeling” motions, also evoke the larger cycles of nature that human life affixes itself to for a time and, in its inexorable movement from the spring of childhood to the winter of old age, mirrors. Compared to nature’s cycles, of course, this human time is brief. But it is especially brief – abbreviated, in fact – for the soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of Shiloh. And while, as the final lines of the poem suggest, the soldiers may still be a part of nature’s cycles, in the sense that they have returned to dust, they no longer inhabit it: “But now they lie low, / While over them the swallows skim, /And all is hushed at Shiloh” (17-19). These lines create a physical separation between the swallows and the dead soldiers; they “lie low,” that is to say, on or in the ground, and the swallows skim “over” or above them. As if to emphasize this rupture, the poet has transferred the adverb “low” from the motion of the swallows to the final resting places of soldiers.

Perhaps even more significant is a subtle variation in the poet’s use of the verb “skim.” At the beginning of the poem, “skimming” and “wheeling” describe how the swallows move through the air (1). At the end of the poem, however, the swallows are skimming “over” the soldiers (18). Since this image of skimming immediately follows the epiphany in line 16 and the idea “epiphany” evokes of intense, concentrated awareness, readers may be excused for picturing another kind of skimming – one that glosses over surfaces or texts. If there are human shapes on the ground visible to the swallows, they don’t attend to them – a natural prefiguring of the ultimate insignificance of the dead soldiers’ efforts and ambitions.

In “Shiloh,” the primary function of the top and bottom panels is to draw attention to a split between man and nature, and the primary function of the central panel is to show what has caused this grievous rupture – war. Just as we have seen the story of Rat Kiley oscillating in O’Brien’s work between the war story and love story genres, one can see in “Shiloh” a curious tension between two subgenres of the lyric poem – the nature poem and the war poem. And just as in O’Brien’s work, the relationship of Melville’s poem to these two generic allegiances is quite difficult to reconcile. While the flight of the swallows reassures us that the cycles of nature will continue, the central panel suggests that the rupture in human culture caused by war has carried over into nature as well.

Melville uses anaphora to finesse the transition between top and central panels. This formal choice strikes me as ironic, because the transition is anything but smooth. Lines 3-9 read:

Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh— (5-9)

Some strange things are happening in these lines, both stylistically and thematically. “April rain” is without a doubt the archetypal image in English literature of spring, rebirth, rejuvenation, and life. About half a century after Melville composed “Shiloh,” T. S. Eliot would attempt to subvert this image, parodying in The Waste Land the opening lines of Chaucer’s General Prologue. Melville doesn’t call April the “cruelest month” (1), but the irony of lines 5-6 is perhaps even more trenchant than Eliot’s cynical allusion to the Canterbury Tales. For in Melville’s poem, spring rain merely provides temporary “solace” to the “parched” throats of soldiers lying “stretched in pain” on the wet earth and about to become one with it after an agonizing death.

Lines 5-9 are also peculiar formally. As I mentioned earlier, the central panel begins, like the top one, quite simply, with a pair of couplets. Usually, in poems that make sparing use of couplets, their purpose is to a place a kind of thematic or emotional keystone on a passage. But the couplets in lines 5-8 disrupt the sad but relatively stable and peaceful image that precedes them. “Over the field where April rain / Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain” (5-6) introduces the idea of extreme physical pain and discomfort. The long “a” sound in “April,” “rain,” and “pain” aurally enacts this pain, intensifying the tone of the poem.

The second couplet announces the poem’s primary war-theme and ushers in a host of formal irregularities. Because each line in the first couplet contains an anacrusis, or an inversion in the first iambic foot, readers expect to hear one in line 7. This poem disappoints this expectation; rather than settling down into the poem’s irregular but reliable iambic rhythm, line 7 resolves itself into an oddly truncated trochaic trimeter line. Line 8 reverts to the iambic rhythm, but here, too, the poet does something unexpected, substituting an anapest for the second iambic foot. The metrical jaggedness of lines 5-8 reflects and enacts their thematic content, embodying the disruption that the fighting soldiers have introduced to a natural scene as well as to their own mortal lives.

“Disruptions” might be equally suitable as “Battlefield” as a title for the central panel. Indeed, this panel speaks to profound social and cultural disruptions as well as the rupture in nature. Two of the most striking aspects of the Battle of Shiloh, revealed in lines 8-9, are that it took place on a Sunday, and that it occurred in a place whose most salient topographical feature was a church:

     [T]he church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!) (9-16)

In the Christian tradition, Sunday is reserved for rest, not for fighting. But on this Sunday in April 1862, a church in Shiloh, Tennessee “echoed to many” individuals present not Christian hymns but the “groan[s]” and “natural prayer[s]” of dying men.

The mainspring of these dying prayers is closely related to something else that impending death has engendered: the sublime undeception imagined and rehearsed in the famous sixteenth line. Notions and ideas like “fame or country” (15) that once led these soldier into battle have vanished in the time it takes a ball of lead to compromise the human frame. Here we begin to see that “Shiloh” is not only a war poem and a nature poem but also a religion poem and a politics poem. What may not be clear yet, however, is just how tangled these lyrical sub-genres really are.

The church at the geometric center of Melville’s poem serves two purposes. One, of course, is to highlight something salient in the topography of the battlefield, giving the poem an element of realism. The other, subtler purpose is to underscore the monstrous and perverse proximity between war and religion that the battlefield embodies. Melville’s strategic decision to use slant rhyme in lines 10 and 11 enacts this cultural dissonance. Indeed, the “groan[s]” of wounded and dying men heard in line 11 chime uneasily with the pronoun “one” in line 10, whose referent is the church.

Nature, war, religion, politics… If one can tell a true war story by finding within it a knotted mess of themes and sentiments – a mess that formally embodies all the contradictions that compose the human experience of war – then Melville’s brief, beautifully, and carefully composed lyric about the Battle of Shiloh is a viable candidate for what O’Brien might call a true war poem.

Before moving to the final part of my essay, I’d like to mention a lingering question I still have about this poem, which I have studied and taught now for many years. The question is this: Why does Melville refer to the church as “the log-built one” at the end of line 10? Typographically, this is one of the most salient parts of the poem – the noun phrase occurs at the end of the central line. Presumably the description is significant, too. Was there another church, made of something else, near the Shiloh Battlefield? No, there wasn’t. So why the additional phrase?

Perhaps Melville described the church as “log-built” to connect it to the “forest-field” that presumably provided the materials for its construction, and to the “natural prayer[s]” of the dying men. Men and women have often gone to battle, as Dylan’s song goes, “with God on [their] side” (4), and many soldiers in the Civil War held this sentiment. So, while the church in the battleground really was built out of wood (and didn’t survive the battle; the one in Shiloh National Military Park is a reconstruction), its humble structure served Melville’s artistic ends as an appropriate receptacle for the prayers of suffering men – men disabused by their impending death of romantic notions of “fame or country” (15) and thus compelled to sympathize with their enemies. It is worth noting that the alliterative line “Foemen at morn, but friends is eve” is not a metaphor; many men who literally began the day shooting at one another had, by the end of the same day, found themselves united by “natural prayer” (14, 13).

But the design behind line 10 may run even deeper than this. What follows is a hypothesis that I cannot yet substantiate with definitive evidence. Given, however, Melville’s well-documented interest in and knowledge of geology, I have decided to air it. Crucial, I suspect, to a complete understanding of Melville’s poem is the curious geological and historical fact that a certain kind of limestone called Tennessee Marble – found in eastern Tennessee in what geologists now call the Holston Formation – was highly sought-after by architects and engineers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, when extensive quarrying began in 1838, it was for use in the construction of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. [5]

Could Melville have specified that the church of Shiloh was “log-built” so readers would not have assumed it was made of Tennessee Marble, and if so, why? I doubt Melville expected readers to be familiar with the geography and geology of Eastern Tennessee, but he may have assumed readers were aware the Capitol had been constructed using Southern stone. Needless to say, the source of the stone was a profound architectural irony, since it was the South that was attempting to split the young nation in two. In any event, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to suggest that Melville specified that the Shiloh church was “log-built” in order to isolate it from the political, religious, and cultural ideals and institutions to which Confederate and Union soldiers pledged their allegiances as they prepared to take each other’s lives. After all, these are precisely the ideals and institutions subject to the sublime undeception that the speaker imagines transpiring in the minds of the dying soldiers.

I don’t wish to get too caught up in this hypothesis concerning Tennessee marble, however, because I have yet to attend to the poem’s most puzzling feature. I am referring to the parentheses that surround the epiphany in line 16 and the undeception it briefly allows us to glimpse. Turning to this puzzle will allow us to deal with something that both texts treated in this essay have in common: the peculiar silence that the telling of a true war story can generate.

IV. Melville, O’Brien, and the Unheard

“(What like a bullet can undeceive!)” (16). This line, which enacts the emotional climax of “Shiloh,” may pose the strongest challenge to a claim that the poem achieves the kind of “truth” that O’Brien’s narrator seeks in the literature of war, since it seems to provide such clear insight into the author’s personal attitudes toward war. Indeed, one might regard it as the “moral” of the poem and restate it as follows: “On the battlefield, a mortal wound tragically exposes as falsehoods all the notions and ideals that lie beneath a person’s decision to go to war – notions and ideals happily and deceitfully supplied by the war-making powers that stand to benefit from them. Proximity to death brings the soldier face to face with the old, terrible lie.” But is this what Melville’s speaker is really saying?

Perhaps better questions to ask are how Melville’s speaker delivers this line and why, because as we analyze the end of the poem, it is essential to remember that the clarity the speaker imagines in line 16 occupies a curiously liminal space. Indeed, what I have referred to in this paper as the “sublime undeception” only occurs after the battle – after a bullet has hit home – as death begins its final approach toward the wounded soldier. It is worth quoting again the second half of the poem, beginning where Melville’s speaker focuses on:

     the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve,
Fame or country least their care
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh. (9-19)

The end of the poem raises some deeply vexing questions. How can an epiphany be parenthetical? Parenthetical to what? Parenthetical to whom? A set of parentheses often denotes what playwrights would call an “aside.” Who is speaking this one? Who, if anyone, is privy to it? And how do our answers to all these questions affect our sense of whether “Shiloh” qualifies as a true war poem?

One way of reading the parenthetical sixteenth line would be to say that it permits the reader access to an epiphany that transpires in the minds of all the “dying foemen.” O’Brien might be amenable to this interpretation, given his narrator’s insistence in “How to Tell a True War Story” that war can only truly be understood by those who have experienced it. Thus, in the penultimate paragraph of O’Brien’s work, the narrator imagines a storytelling voyage with no end in sight. Realizing that he could never possibly explain to the woman that the story of Rat Kiley and the baby water buffalo was actually a love story, he says to the reader: “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth… You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it” (85). Reading these lines, one almost imagines a version of Coleridge’s ancient mariner walking out of the forests of Vietnam, doomed to tell his tale but equally doomed to leave his audiences “sadder” but not any “wiser” (625).

But can Melville or his speaker give readers access to a dying soldier’s epiphany? Unlike O’Brien’s narrator, whose personal experiences in Vietnam authorize his narrative endeavors (while also, paradoxically, dooming them to failure, at least in the ears of individuals who haven’t shared his experiences), there is no evidence in Melville’s poem to suggest that his speaker is or was a soldier. If the poem grants insight into the minds of soldiers, it is only thanks to a profoundly sympathetic act of the creative imagination. In other words, the most one can really call line 16 is an imagined or projected epiphany. This may be one reason Melville chose to isolate it from the rest of the text. Indeed, the parentheses may suggest a degree of uncertainty concerning the extent of the epiphany’s reach. After all, plenty of human beings die with their prejudices intact and their hostilities ablaze. Regarded in this way, line 16 merely represents the sublime undeception that Melville’s speaker hopes will occur. This seems problematic, for isn’t undeception of this sort precisely what an anti-war story might strive to cultivate? At the same time, however, if one reads line 16 as an imagined or projected epiphany, the effect of this could also be to isolate it from the realm of reality, or what O’Brien’s narrator would call “absolute occurrence.” The epiphany might have come to some minds but not to others. This would appear to strengthen the poem’s claims to the kind of truth O’Brien seeks.

The parentheses may also reflect a bit of skepticism about the durability of the epiphany. Will a soldier merely grazed by a bullet – shocked by this brush with death into a momentary clarity of vision resembling the sublime undeception – choose in the aftermath of this vision to lay down his arms and forget his grievances, or will he rally around one flag or another when the next order to charge is issued? (How about the sympathetic reader, vicariously shocked for a moment by Melville’s powerful lyric or by some other war story? Will he or she put down the war drum for good?) With the durability of the epiphany in question, the wheeling and skimming swallows that bookend the poem assume a disturbing shape. Perhaps, this image means to suggest, we are all part of an enormous, stupid, and blind carrying on – a hideous mirroring of the cyclical quality of nature embodied by the swallows. If this is so, then Melville’s poem concludes on a very bitter note. The dead “lie low,” and a single, nineteen-line sentence is all that separates the speaker and his imagined epiphany from oblivion.

A more optimistic reading of the poem would be to regard it as a kind of intellectual bullet that can nurture the kind of sublime undeception that a ball of lead might if it didn’t kill its victim. But again, the poem’s final line poses a formidable challenge to this reading. When the speaker says that “all is hushed at Shiloh” (19), it is difficult not to sense that the poem itself is becoming a part of the silence that Melville imagines. Perhaps a poet or reader can achieve the sublime undeception through an act of the sympathetic imagination. However, the juxtaposition of the parenthetical epiphany with the discarded notions of “fame and country” (15) in the previous line suggest one important place where the epiphany will not reach: the marbled palaces where these notions and ideas are propagated, harnessed, and utilized. And here the full gravity of the great, Larkinesque adjective “undeceived” is felt. It suggests that, while a dying soldier may achieve undeception, many of us remain in a state of deception that only a bullet would cure.

As I grapple with these various and competing interpretations, I find myself drawn back to the idea that the parenthetical nature of the epiphany suggests it is fundamentally inaccessible to anyone but the dying soldier. Can it be an accident, in a poem as carefully composed as “Shiloh,” that the odd verb “undeceive” in line 16 rhymes with “eve” in line 14? If it is not an accident, then how might one account for this particular formal choice? Perhaps one could argue that the rhyme anchors the sublime undeception in a specific time and place – in the minds of a particular group of soldiers on a particular night. The parentheses further isolate the epiphany, making it something very different from a lesson that a didactic poet might ask a reader to take away from a different kind of war poem. What like a bullet can undeceive? Well, nothing.

Such a reading, of course, would doom the poem to the silence it imagines in the closing three lines. This very silence, though, may give the poem its strongest claim to the kind of truth that O’Brien’s narrator describes and tries to achieve. After all, like Melville’s “Shiloh,” “How to Tell a True War Story” is also bookended by silence. Earlier, I discussed the failure of understanding that O’Brien’s narrator describes at the end of his work. I want to close my essay by considering the silence that greets a war story at the beginning.

“This is true,” the narrator says in the first line of the work. He tells the reader about Rat’s effort to write a letter of condolence to Curt Lemon’s sister. “So what happens?” the narrator asks after describing the contents of the letter in vivid detail. “Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never writes back” (67-8). Rat is deeply wounded by the sister’s failure to respond. “Listen to Rat Kiley,” the speaker says, faithfully recording his friend’s crude language to underscore the gravity of his pain:

Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He’s nineteen years old—it’s too much for him—so he looks at you with those big sad gentle killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it’s so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back. (69)

Few readers will be surprised by this outcome. After all, the letter Rat composed didn’t exactly conform to the conventions of the letter of condolence genre. Granted, someone who has not read or ever had to compose such a letter before might find it hard to articulate its generic requirements. Nevertheless, a reasonably sympathetic imagination could likely detect when such a letter was failing to do the kind of work its genre expected it to perform. This is the way it is with genre; I likened it earlier to a kind of cultural atmosphere. And as I also mentioned earlier, students who have never heard the word genre or thought about generic conventions can still tell you why the end of a particular movie made them so upset. [6]

The narrator’s oxymoronic description of Rat’s face, with those “big sad gentle killer eyes,” captures in miniature all the formal and stylistic problems with Rat’s letter. He began by telling the sister about “what a great brother she had, how tough the guy was, a number one pal and comrade. A real soldier’s soldier” (67). So far, so good. But one can only imagine how the sister would have responded to the examples of toughness selected by Rat to “make the point” (67). Curt, Rat wrote,

would always volunteer for stuff nobody else would volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff, like doing recon or going out on these badass night patrols. Stainless steel balls. The guy was a little crazy for sure, but crazy in a good way, a real daredevil, because he liked the challenge of it, he liked testing himself, just man against gook. A great, great guy. (67)

A great guy, perhaps, but would his sister have wanted to know all this? Could it have triggered a suspicion that her brother could have avoided death just by showing just a little more good sense? It seems plausible to suggest that a reader who hadn’t experienced the same physical and psychological stressors that O’Brien’s characters faced might be quicker to repeat the old adage about the fine line between bravery and recklessness.

But if O’Brien’s narrator sees things in this way, he refuses to let on. Instead, he proceeds to describe Rat’s letter as “a terrific letter, very personal and touching” and remarks how Rat “almost bawl[ed] writing it” (67). Then he tells the reader a few more anecdotes Rat chose to impress upon Curt’s sister the extent to which he was “a real soldier’s soldier.” Curt “made the war seem almost fun,” Rat tells her, “always raising hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way.” Paying tribute to Curt’s “great sense of humor,” he tells her about “the time at this river when he went fishing with a whole damn crate of hand grenades. Probably the funniest thing in world history… all that gore, about twenty zillion dead gook fish.” He tells her about the time he went trick-or-treating one Hallowe’en in a nearby village, carrying an M-16 and wearing nothing but boots, body paint, and a mask (68). Again, these are anecdotes that a fellow soldier, such as the narrator, might appreciate, but which one can reasonably assume the sister did not. Furthermore, they are anecdotes that most readers, regardless of their familiarity with the letter of condolence genre, would likely have advised Rat to omit. Such is the influence and the reach of genre. And this, to O’Brien, is exactly what makes genre so insidious.

At the end of his letter, Rat falls back in line with the conventions of the genre. For “then,” the narrator says after relating the crazy anecdotes, “the letter gets very sad and serious. Rat pours his heart out. He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world” (68). Crucially, this abrupt emotional departure prefigures the narrator’s astonishing claim, at the end of the work, that his story about Rat and the water buffalo was not a war story but a love story (85). However, this return to convention apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy Curt’s sister or, in her mind, to warrant a reply. Like the narrator’s own story, Rat’s letter encounters miscomprehension and baffled silence.

I suggested earlier that the narrator’s description of Rat’s eyes mirror the rich, complicated, and contradictory tapestry of sentiments in his letters. The narrator’s first set of axioms concerning war stories also mirrors this contradictoriness. “A true war story is never moral,” the narrator says.

It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. (68-9)

The phrase “a very old and terrible lie,” almost certainly an allusion to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” refers to any war story that has been emplotted to allow readers to carry away a simple, single-faceted impression or idea, such as a moral or lesson or some kind of emotional or intellectual consolation. Of course, to state that a war story “does not instruct” is itself a kind of instruction. In moments such as these, the narrator almost appears to be relishing duplicity.

It is interesting to me that O’Brien’s narrator, who over the course of his story shows deep sensitivity regarding the nature and power of genre, neglects or declines to consider the possibility that, at least in the instance of the letter of condolence, there might have been a good argument for adhering more strictly to generic conventions and the recipient’s expectations. After all, it isn’t clear that Rat, the narrator, or anyone else knew anything about the sister or Curt’s relationship with her. If this is a shortcoming, however, one way to excuse it is by remembering that the narrator’s primary aim is not to create a set of instructions for composing or rehearsing a true war story (or a letter of condolence, for that matter), but to give the reader a set of tools for discerning a false one.

Here it is worth emphasizing a point I made at the beginning of this essay, namely, that the verb “tell” in the title of “How to Tell a True War Story” has much more to do with discernment than with narration. The narrator’s “first rule of thumb” is that a reader “can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (69). “Tell” in this sentence means to identify, and it carries the same meaning a paragraph later, when the narrator says, “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for truth, watch how you vote” (69).

Rat Kiley’s letter of condolence says things that many people, especially Curt Lemon’s sister, would probably never want to hear. Her silence can be regarded as an emblem of our own when encountering stories that don’t resonate with our own expectations concerning how war – or, for that matter, how human life – ought to be lived, conducted, or related. Something the narrator says midway through O’Brien’s works seems relevant here: “[I]n the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh’” (77).

But this reveals a problem at the very heart of the storytelling or poem-uttering enterprise. If works of literature don’t do what their readers and audiences expect them to do – if they remain, as it were, unheard, and if their only result is a bewildered reply – then what exactly are they doing? For isn’t the very point of stories to share, connect, and to relate? Isn’t this, in a very real sense, what it means to be human? I wonder how O’Brien would respond to the increasingly popular idea in the cognitive sciences that the penchant for storytelling is essential to our human-ness. Maybe, he would say, the stories we tell actually tell us less about what it means to be human, and more about what we believe or want to believe that being human actually means.

Perhaps, then, one could argue that the underlying message or moral of O’Brien’s work is that authors must vigorously resist the power of genre and cut through the negative feedback loop that involves authors and their readers or audiences in a narrative conspiracy whose outcome is just another version of an old lie. Of course, such an argument would contradict the narrator’s assertion that a true war story never has a moral. On a deeper level, it would also contradict his sense that some true war stories are simply “beyond telling” (71). Maybe Rat Kiley should never have written that letter. Maybe someone should have told him to revise it – to bring it in line with convention. But when is silence or compromise acceptable? When is it unacceptable? And who’s to say?

This is a puzzle that O’Brien’s work poses, but which the narrator doesn’t attempt to solve. I’m not sure that O’Brien wants us to try to solve this puzzle, either, for solving is, fundamentally, what genre does. I think Tim O’Brien wants readers to acknowledge and accept the puzzle and, as John Keats might say, quoting William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” to actively embrace the “burden of the mystery” (38).

Applying the same kind of reasoning to Herman Melville’s “Shiloh,” perhaps one could say that the principal achievement of the poem’s parenthetical epiphany is precisely its ambiguous place relative to the rest of the poetic utterance. What like a bullet can undeceive? Maybe this isn’t a rhetorical question after all. Maybe art can undeceive. Maybe even a poem can. Then again, we have fought a lot of wars since the American Civil War ended in 1865. We are still fighting lots of wars. And regardless of whether we personally have fought, how many of us walk through life each day heedless of our mortal nature, and thus heedless of the sublime undeception that mortal awareness could potentially bring us, leading to a profound reshuffling of allegiances and priorities in our own brief lives? This is a question worth thinking about, because death will come to all of us, later if not sooner – and if not in the form of a bullet then as something else. Of course, the “parenthetical” nature of such speculation – detached as it is from the realm and the business of the living – also calls its efficacy into question.




Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.

Dylan, Bob. Lyrics. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Knopf, 2008. Print.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Collected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1991. Print.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Print.

Melville, Herman. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. New York: Da Capo, 1995. Print.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Print.

Vendler, Helen. Poems, Poets, Poetry. 3rd edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.




1. I will discuss this moment in the text more detail toward the end of the essay.

2. Incidentally, that is the hypothetical example of “the romantic comedy that defies its genre” that I often tell students. Needless to say, students tend to suspect they wouldn’t like this film.

3. In this essay, I will use “readers” to refer to readers of O’Brien’s story (or any printed work). I will use “audience” to refer to the individuals to whom O’Brien’s narrator, at the end of the work, reveals he has been telling his story, presumably at a public reading or other literary function.

4. Notice how the narrator’s language reflects the soldiers’ darkly comic humor. Indeed, “jumper” is an epithet more typically applied to a certain kind of suicide.

5. I remember learning this in the eighth grade, when my social studies class took a trip to Washington, D.C. I checked my recollection by visiting a few government websites, particularly ones about the U.S. Capitol Building and the U.S. Geological Survey.

6. In her recent book This Republic of Suffering, historian Drew Gilpin Faust has described in fascinating detail the ways in which the forms of death encountered during the American Civil War exerted pressure upon the letter of condolence genre.