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The Portent

HANGING from the beam,

Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on the green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap

Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

It was disappointing to read that American sailor, author and customs inspector Herman Melville was not very successful as a novelist because his work went largely unread until 30 years after his death in 1891. Disheartened by so so sales he stuck primarily to writing poetry after 1857 and The Portentpublished in 1859 is one of his best known. This is about the abolitionist John Brown and his attack on the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. The relationship to Shenandoah is Brown was tried and executed in Charlestown, at the time a part of Virginia but now in West Virginia.

In this poem Melville uses meteoric streaming of John Brown's beard as well as his execution as a foreshadowing or portent to the Civil War. Meville may have had the portentous meteor in mind that is said to have appeared above Rome before the assassination of Julius Caesar.

John Brown's execution was December 2,1859-- Melville's portrait of the hanging, with Brown's long beard streaming out of the hood that covered his head, was too grisly to be popular at the time, however the anonymous song that begins "John Brown's body is mouldering in the grave" was commonly liked around then.


Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

Raid at Harper's Ferry:

CST Approved

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