George Henry Boker, having lived through the American Civil War, wrote a book full of poetry that depicts the effects the war had on the American people. This untitled poem, in particular, paints a vivid picture of the physical results of war, but also of the spiritual and emotional effects.
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Analysis of (Untitled Poem)
Blood, blood! The lines of every printed sheet
Through their dark arteries reek with running gore;
At hearth, at board, before the household door,
‘T is the sole subject with which neighbors meet.
The opening of this untitled poem is meant to shock the readers, as it offers no gentle introduction to the horrors of war. Rather, the speaker immediately begins to paint a picture for the audience by graphic descriptions and imagery of what he has seen in the war. He describes however “printed sheet” or newspaper, letter, or any type of paper that could be found anywhere, was covered in blood. He then describes the victims of war in great detail so that the readers can picture men, infected even “through their dark arteries” so that they “reek” and are filled with “running gore”. Most of the soldiers of the civil war suffered from gangrene and dysentery, and this speaker describes the way such afflicted soldiers appeared. In line three, the tone is fearful, and the speaker manages to convey to the audience the feelings that are associated with war at home. He implies that this war is not simply a war fought in a far away land that is not affecting the civilians at home. Rather, it is right at home. This is what the speaker means to convey when he says, “at hearth, at board, before the household door”. And because the war is at home, on the land of his own country, he sees the horrors of it first hand. In the last line, he reveals that the war is so consuming, that the people of America could not even talk of anything else. The war was the “sole subject” of all conversations between neighbors and friends. It could not be forgotten, even for a moment, because it was happening on their doorsteps.
Girls at the feast, and children in the street,
Prattle of horrors; flash their little store
Of simple jests against the cannon’s roar,
As if mere slaughter kept existence sweet.
In these lines of the untitled poem, the speaker paints a picture of what civilian life looked like during war time. People tried to create a sense of normalcy by having parties or making “simple jests”. The speaker has already mentioned, however, that the subject of war cannot be avoided, and so the little jokes cannot stand up against the roar of the cannon, to drown it out. There is a shift in tone with line eight. The speaker suggests that “slaughter kept existence sweet”. In the midst of so much death, perhaps people valued their own existence just a little bit more. When nearly every American lost someone dear, existence seemed sweeter. It was no longer taken for granted. People realized just how short life can be, and they began to view existence something precious.
O, heaven, I quail at the familiar way
This fool, the world, disports his jingling cap;
Murdering or dying with one grin agap!
There is yet another shift in tone with these three lines, as the speaker begins to describe a different kind of person. The speaker reveals that the horrors of war had different effects on different people. The previous lines described people who reacted to the horrors of war by placing more value on life. These lines describe the soldier who, perhaps, has seen so much that he places little to no value on his own life anymore. This is the man who can murder or die with a grin on his face. The world can have little effect on him. The speaker, however, makes it very clear that he views this kind of man as a “fool” and even compares him to a court jester with a “jingling cap”.
Our very Love comes draggled from the fray,
Smiling at victory, scowling at mishap,
With gory Death companioned and at play.
In these last lines, the speaker brings all kinds of people together under one universal effect of the war. He claims that for all Americans, the civil war meant that “Death” had become a “companion”. The word “Death” here, is capitalized because the speaker means to personify Death as the “gory…companion” that it is. To the American people during the civil war, Death had become a familiar face. The speaker reveals that the war did not kill love. In fact, Love is also capitalized in line twelve. It is personified as a being who made it back from the war, alive but “draggled from the fray”. Love itself was “smiling at victory” and “scowling at mishap”. However, Love did not make it back to the people of America alone. Rather, Death was as near a companion as Love. Death became as familiar to the American people as Love. And it seemed that Death and Love were “companioned and at play”.
Conclusion to this Untitled Poem
This untitled poem by Boker reveals the horrors of the American Civil War, and the aftermath of these horrors. It also reveals the strength of the American people, to hold on to love even in the midst of death and horror and gore. Boker reveals the different ways in which people responded to the war, and he praised those who held on to their humanity in the midst of so much agony. These words paint a picture for the readers of the horrible imagery of war at the doorstep of home. It reveals the way that it changed people and the painful loss that came with it. The ending of the poem suggests that even though Love survived the way, it was accompanied by Death, and the American people, though they pulled through, would never be the same.
George Henry Boker Background
George Henry Boker was born in Philadelphia in 1823 to a wealthy family, and his upbringing is described as one with “ease and refinement”. So it is no surprise that the Civil War should have had such a drastic effect upon him. He was plunged from wealth and ease, into the horrors of war and sickness and death.