Anyway, one student had been out sick when I assigned the poems so she asked me the other day – April 14 - for a Melville poem. I looked for something that would be about the right length and hit upon “The Martyr – Indicative of the Passion of the People on the 15th of April 1865”. The coincidence of dates made the timing seem right but I didn’t know how right until I read the N.Y. Times on line and learned that the 14th was the 150 anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, and that he had – coincidentally – been murdered on Good Friday.
The whole poem is at http://www.poetry-archive.com/m/the_martyr.html but what struck me as most coincidental for our time and place were these lines:
They have killed him, the Forgiver . . .
The Avenger takes his place,
The Avenger wisely stern,
Who in righteousness shall do
What the Heavens call him to,
And the parricides remand;
For they killed him in his kindness
In their madness and their blindness,
And his blood is on their hand.
There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People in their weeping
When they bare the iron hand.
Read in the context of the occasion on which it was written, the poem’s last two lines appear to be a warning to Lincoln’s killers, the rebellious South, to beware of the bared iron hand of the weeping People of the Union. But if we read it in the light of the history that followed the assassination, the vengeful humiliation of the South during Reconstruction and all of the terrible consequences it provoked, then the audience for the warning widens out to include us all. The People who have been the victims of violence, and who are thus justified in baring the iron hand are what we must all beware of, for they will go on to create more victims of violence, who will, in turn, feel justified in replacing the Forgiver with the Avenger. . .
One hundred and fifty years later, Melville’s poem still speaks to a world fraught with the desire for religiously or politically justified vengeance. If Lincoln was indeed the Forgiver, and if we truly wish to honor his memory, then the People must look for ways to re-clothe the iron hand before it is raised in vengeance.