Youth and Mortality in Herman Melville’s “On the Slain Collegians”

The winds of war strike all, and just as spring blossoms are blown from the trees falling white to the ground, young men are killed in their prime by war before they are able to bear the fruit of knowledge. Herman Melville observed the pre-war attitudes of the young men and their relations, and crafted a poem, “On the Slain Collegians”, on the futility of intentions in wake of a greater force. Herman Melville uses allusions, word choice and structure to convey the power of nature, the importance of knowledge, and how the folly of youth and culture does not stand immortal in the test of war.

The poem’s title is indicative of the subject of the poem, which is the death of many young men in the war who would have been in college. There is a footnote reference after the poem title that includes a note written by Melville about the poem:

The records of Northern colleges attest what numbers of our noblest youth went from them to the battlefield. Southern members of the same classes arrayed themselves on the side of Secession, while Southern seminaries controlled large quotas. Of all these, what numbers marched who never returned except on the shield.

Melville’s comparison of college enrollment numbers to war deaths inspires the subject of the poem and sets up the theme of education versus cultural ideals and the folly of youth. The comparison between education and cultural ideals begins in the second stanza. Melville describes the positive influence of college in lines 11-13: “The liberal arts and nurture sweet/ Which give his gentleness to man-/ Train him to honor, lend him grace”. Liberal arts are studied in universities, and its influence is described as nurture sweet. The use of the words “nurture” and “sweet” are usually used in positive contexts, as are “gentleness”, “honor”, and “grace”.

This description of education is contrasted with culture, described in lines 15-20:

That culture which makes never wan

With underminings deep, but holds

The surface still, its fitting place,

And so gives sunniness to the face

And bravery to the heart; what troops

Of generous boys in happiness thus bred-

Culture is described as having “underminings deep”. The undermining is being done by culture to education by giving boys the premise that war is a noble cause. Culture is also described as holding “the surface still”, and giving “sunniness to the face” of war. The word “gives” is important because it signifies that culture actively altered “the face”, and is creating a biased perception. One reading of these lines could be that cultural concepts such as heroism and romanticism of war are superficial(“holds the surface still”) and give the wrong impression(“gives sunniness to the face”). The boys were bred in happiness in regards to war, which is not the most appropriate attitude one should have when marching to their death on a “bloody bed”(24).

Melville uses nature imagery to emphasize the age of the men going to war. The first mention of nature occurs in lines 8-10. “Who can aloof remain/ That shares youth’s ardor, uncooled by the snow/ Of wisdom or sordid gain?” Snow and winter are common analogies for old age, and in this line the snow has not cooled youth. Nature imagery also appears in the third stanza. “And who felt life’s spring in time/ And were swept by the wind of their place and time-“(27-28) These lines refer to the disappearance of young men by being represented as spring, and are being swept by the winds of war. The idea of spring is also used later in the poem, where the most prominent use of natural imagery occurs in the last stanza. “Each bloomed and died an unabated Boy;”(54) This line emphasizes that the men died young. In line 54, the word “bloomed” is used rather than saying each was born. The use of blooming connects this part of the poem to previous parts describing the young men as spring. The word “Boy” is also capitalized in line 54. This is a stylistic use of capitalization, as the word is not at the beginning of the line, and it is not a proper noun. The use of capitalization in this instance emphasizes the youthfulness of the men along with the use of “bloomed” in the same line.

The last lines of the poem also contain nature imagery. “Like plants that flower ere the leaf-/ Which storms lay low in kindly doom, and kill them in their flush of bloom”(58-60). Some plants, such as certain trees, flower before leaves grow because wind pollination wouldn’t work well if the tree had leaves. However, flowers are also delicate, and if there is a heavy storm or strong wind the blossoms could be destroyed. The reference to wind was used earlier in the poem in the third stanza and relates to the end of the poem, so the storm and winds of war killed the blossoming young men.

There are also several mythology, history, and religion references throughout the poem, which are products of culture. The first reference is a biblical allusion in line six ,”(Though made the mask of Cain)”. The preceding and following lines give several motives for young men to go to war, and one motive is duty. This line immediately follows “duty shows” in the previous line and motives continue in the line after it, so “the mask of Cain” must refer to duty. Cain did not perform his duties to God because he did not give his best and did not have a good attitude. Performing duty may be argued to be a cultural value, and in the eyes of the speaker, is not a worthy cause for going to war.

A reference to Greek history occurs in the second stanza. “Saturnians through life’s tempe led”(21). Tempe is a valley in Greece that is historically significant because many battles have been fought there over time. It was also used as a main passageway for travel. Knowing the history of Tempe, an interpretation of line 21 could be that the men thought they would be passing through life as travelers passed through Tempe, but it became their final resting place. A reference to Greek mythology occurs in the third stanza. “Apollo-Like in pride,/ Each would slay his Python-caught”(33-34). Apollo sought to kill Python to avenge his mother, and it is clear in the myth that Apollo is the good character and Python is evil. Also, Apollo is the hero in the myth, and the young men desire to be a hero, which may be why their pride is described as Apollo-like. However, war is not so straightforward, as lines 35-40 describe.

A reference to religion occurs in the fourth stanza. “Each went forth with blessings given/ By priests and mothers in the name of Heaven”(42-43). Both North and South thought that God was on their side, but as suggested later in the stanza, the war may not have been right against wrong. Even prayers to God could not prevent the destruction caused by the war.

The empty universities post-civil war signify more than the loss of many lives, but the loss of intelligent beings. Among the dead may have been the next Aristotle, whose intelligence perished before it had the chance to come to fruition. Each man had the chance to become a leader, artist or scholar, but their ambitions were caught up in the fury of youth and perceptions of war. Herman Melville captured these sentiments in his poem, “On the Slain Collegians”, by using allusions, word choice and structure to convey the power of nature, importance of knowledge, and how the folly of youth and culture does not stand immortal in the test of war. This poem is an elegy to these young men who perished chasing their futures.

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