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Poems

Battle-Pieces and Others Aspects of War

The House Top. A Night Piece.

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain-a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.
Yonder, where parching Sirius set in drought,
Balefully glares red Arson-there-and there.
The Town is taken by its rats-ship-rats.
And rats of the wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe-
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole æons back in nature.*
Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,
And ponderous drag that shakes the wall.
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin's creed
And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parlies; and the Town redeemed,
Give thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic's faith implied,
Which holds that Man is naturally good,
And-more-is Nature's Roman, never to be scourged.

 

Title: In July, 1863, New York City was wracked by several days of extremely violent riots, in which mobs of mostly Irish immigrants, incensed over the draft laws that would require many of them to go into the army, destroyed the property of free Blacks and tortured and murdered many of them.

l. 9: Sirius. The dog star, which is associated with the so-called "dog days" of summer, when the riot took place.

*[Melville's note] "I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities committed," says Froissart, in alluding to the remarkable sedition in France during his time. The like may be hinted of some proceedings of the draft-rioters.

l. 20: Draco. Refers to Draco of Athens, who established the legal code with which his name is identified in 621 or 622 BC. Because these laws were particularly harsh, the adjective draconian was derived from his name.

l. 22: Calvin. Refers to John Calvin (1509-64), a French Protestant theologian whose system of belief, known as Calvinism, formed the basis for Puritan theology. One the principal of these concepts is the doctrine of Original Sin.

l. 28: Alludes to Acts 22.25: "And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?