The year 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As a man who loves the state of Maine and American history, I want you to know of two stirring poems by Eli Siegel about the Civil War, and an historic commentary by editor Ellen Reiss from issue 803 of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known. The first poem, “The Waiting Maine Man, Dead at Little Round Top, Near Gettysburg, July 1863,” is, Ms. Reiss explains, about the ethical meaning of “waiting,” and encourages us to think about and ask, What was this pivotal event—the Civil War—really about? The second poem, “Thoughts in 1960 on the Civil War, 1861-1865,” continues that idea, telling us that the meaning of this war is still with us and should be seen truly. What the Civil War was really about is described by Ms. Reiss in this landmark commentary. She writes:
The following poems are about the Civil War; which, Eli Siegel showed, contrary to some historians, was fought over one thing: slavery. Slavery was behind the so-called economic causes of the war and the insistence on “states’ rights.” Mr. Siegel was passionate in saying that what the South nostalgically called “the lost cause” was the horrible ability to own black human beings. And when one sees how much America tried not to make the decision that slavery had to end, and how the years of compromising on the subject—the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act—culminated with the Civil War, one sees that ethics cannot be compromised with or put aside. The ethics “waiting and charging” in 1863 was about—in Eli Siegel’s kind words—“what does a person deserve by being alive?” The same ethics is insisting now.
Eli Siegel tells of this, first in free verse lines about a soldier, whose depths he is so fair to; then in eight rhymed lines about four battles of the Civil War. In both poems, so different, the music is beautiful: a oneness of the definite, the insisting, and the delicate, lingering, deep—both of which are justice.
The Waiting Maine Man, Dead at Little Round Top,
————Near Gettysburg, July 1863
While waiting drearily on a dark, windy, cold afternoon in 1960 in a
———post office on Christopher Street, New York,
For something I did not believe in too much,
I thought—minglingly—of how some Maine man, rather unknown,
Waited in early July 1863, at Little Round Top, near Gettysburg,
Waited and died; and so changed to another kind of waiting.
He waits, as we all do.
Waiting is so much.
Before 1863 there was waiting and since 1863 there has been
It is so necessary to know what the waiting is all about.
It may be said here that some of the Maine man’s Maine friends
———(the man I have written of) later charged.
Waiting and perhaps charging!—so much of that was around.
1863 is still waiting, and in its way is charging: for a year charges;
Little Round Top is busy.
The Maine man and his regimental friends are busy.
So often being busy looks like waiting.
We have been waiting to find out what the being busy in 1863
We are busy.
We shall find out.
Meaning, too, has been waiting and charging.
The ethics of 1863 has been insistent and will be found.
(Much of ethics-and-beauty’s power consists in the insisting on
Hail, O Maine man, at Little Round Top in early July 1863; we, too,
———like waiting and charging in behalf of the ethics that was
Even as Lee retreated, with the Maine man dead, and Lee’s army
———quite safe, though distressfully travelling.