‘Hearing the Battle.—July 21, 1861’ by Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt is a seven stanza Sapphic poem, meaning that it is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a consistent rhyme pattern. The second and fourth lines of every stanza rhyme, while the first and third do not.
The poet, Piatt, has also made use of rhyme at the beginning of a few stanzas. For example, the end words in the first lines of stanzas one, two, three, and four each end in with the sound, “-er.”
Before reading ‘Hearing the Battle.—July 21, 1861′ it is important to note the historical context from which it was formed. It details the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas which took place in July of 1861. It was the first major land battle of the Civil War and ended with a Confederate victory that shocked the Northern troops who had believed the war would be easily won. The battle took place in Manassas Junction, Virginia. Piatt was living near the site at the time this piece was written.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that it is was on a “dreamy summer” day that she first heard words of war. She knew that something was coming, but she wasn’t sure what that “something” would be. The speaker and those around her cast out their thoughts about the battle that they are sure is raging nearby. They are consumed by feelings of “coldness and pallor.”
In the second half of the poem the speaker wonders about those who are fighting in this battle. She imagines them spending everyday engaged with one another.
In the final lines, she speaks directly to her listener and tells her/him to venture out into the battlefield and tell her how it is people are suffering. She needs to know the truth of the war.
Analysis of Hearing the Battle.—July 21, 1861
One day in the dreamy summer,
On the Sabbath hills, from afar
We heard the solemn echoes
Of the first fierce words of war.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker addresses her listeners with the opening of a narrative detailing the First Battle of Bull Run which was fought in July of 1861 in Virginia. She speaks of the times before the battle as being normal “dreamy summer” days. There was nothing to set them apart from any preceding ones.
It is on one of these summer days that on the “Sabbath hills” the speaker and those around her, “heard” the first “echoes” of war. It does not come through clearly at first. The speaker is not entirely sure what is happening when she hears the first “fierce words of war,” but she will soon learn more.
Ah, tell me, thou veilèd Watcher
Of the storm and the calm to come,
How long by the sun or shadow
Till these noises again are dumb.
In an effort to elucidate the rumors she has been hearing, the speaker turns to a “veilèd Watcher,” and asks about the “storm and the calm to come.” This is a reference to God to whom she prays when she is desperate for answers. She needs to know what to expect from this coming war or battle and hopes that he will be able to give her an answer.
She asks him how long it will be, how many days, and how many nights, until the noises she’s hearing, those “fierce words of war” will be “dumb” or silent again.
And soon in a hush and glimmer
We thought of the dark, strange fight,
Whose close in a ghastly quiet
Lay dim in the beautiful night.
In the third stanza, the narrator returns to speaking about those she is with and how they are reacting to the news. Everyone appears to be gathered together, either physically or emotionally. They think of the “dark, strange fight” which is going on somewhere in the distance. Although it is not far, everything is “ghastly quiet.” There are no clues to tell them how it is progressing or if they are in danger where they are.
Then we talk’d of coldness and pallor,
And of things with blinded eyes
That stared at the golden stillness
Of the moon in those lighted skies;
In the fourth stanza of ‘Hearing the Battle.—July 21, 1861′, the speaker describes what it is that the groups speak of to pass the time. They do not attempt to cheer one another at this point, but instead confess their worst fears and thoughts about what could be occurring.
They speak of “coldness and pallor.” The poet does not define these things further as they apply to all aspects of her speaker’s life. Everything is cold and sick.
They also think about general darkness, and “things with blinded eyes” that are entranced by the “moon” in the “lighted skies.” This is a description of what it is like to live blindly, or ignorantly, and still seek out goodness, light, and hope in the sky.
And of souls, at morning wrestling
In the dust with passion and moan,
So far away at evening
In the silence of worlds unknown.
In the fifth quatrain, the speaker turns to discuss those who are in the midst of the battle. She does not seem to have any greater knowledge of who the soldiers are than she does of exactly where the battle is occurring. She speaks of the soldiers as being engaged in battle throughout the entire day.
In the morning they are “wrestling / In the dust,” but still they are “far away” in the evening. The speaker has no clear idea what the fighting is like. It is a world “unknown.”
But a delicate wind beside us
Was rustling the dusky hours,
As it gather’d the dewy odors
Of the snowy jessamine-flowers.
In the second to last stanza the speaker returns to the world she does know and in specific detail, contrasts it with what might be occurring in the near distance. She describes how where “we” are there is a “delicate wind” that rustles in the “dusky hours.” The end of one day is as peaceful as the next. Then the following morning comes with “dewy odors” of jessamine-flowers.
These are the elements by which her world is defined. She can guess, but she has no real idea what is happening elsewhere.
And I gave you a spray of the blossoms,
And said: “I shall never know
How the hearts in the land are breaking,
My dearest, unless you go.”
In the final stanza, the speaker refers directly to the listener for the first time. She hands her listener a “spray” or bouquet of “blossoms,” and tells him/her to “go” and see how the “hearts in the land are breaking.” It is unclear who this person is or what their relationship is to the speaker.
He/she could be a lover, friend, or acquaintance who is going to venture out to the battlefield. Perhaps this person is receiving flowers as a send-off, or with the express purpose of delivering them to the bereaved the speaker assumes are suffering in Manassas.