Subscribe to Christianity Today
To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave: American Poetry and the Civil War
University of Massachusetts Press, 2012
328 pp., $28.95
Fighting for a Voice
Several decades before the Civil War, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz asserted, in his influential treatise On War, that "war is merely politics continued by other means." In 1832, Clausewitz's dictum was meant to clarify the political purpose of war as an expression of national will, but latent within it is a biting implication regarding the military effects of political disunity. In To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave, Faith Barrett's book on American poetry and the Civil War, Clausewitz's famous formula could easily be adapted to read, "poetry is merely politics continued by other means," with commensurate impact on the aesthetic effects of poems created in its chaotic ferment. Such a substitution of terms drives home two points, neither apparent to contemporary readers accustomed to viewing poetry as either a quaint or obscurantist occupation engaged in by disaffected iconoclasts and marginalized, self-appointed prophets. First, poetry in the 19th century was experienced by most readers as a unifying and universal language of the human spirit, with aesthetic techniques and forms appropriate to its broad cultural appeal; and second, advances in publishing and disseminating poetry in the mid-19th century radically democratized and atomized poetry's universal claims and audiences. Poetry and the moral insight and aesthetic relief it offers to the public sphere haven't been the same since.
The conflation of civil war and poetry in Barrett's nuanced and rewarding To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave reveals how the practices of both strain toward politically unifying ends even as they fracture along isolating and individualized responses to grief and violence. That the Civil War inspired partisan and heartfelt poetry from a broad spectrum of society North and South is not news, but Barrett—taking a fresh look at poems and songs previously discounted for their conventional forms and sentiments—elucidates the ambivalence and emotional complexity of poets ...