Forward the Link

You want to share the page? Add your friend's email below.

Martyr

By Herman Melville

Introduction

Introduction

Novelist and poet Herman Melville (181991) published this poem a year after Lincoln’s assassination. Melville included the poem in a collection on the Civil War, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, and introduced it as “indicative of the Passion of the People on the 15th of April, 1865.”

How does this poem differ from the other poetic tributes to Lincoln? Who is the “they” that “killed him in his pity,” and what “Passion of the People” do they unleash? Throughout the poem, Lincoln is identified with Christ, but does his martyrdom bring salvation? Who is the “Avenger”? How does Melville predict the Avenger will respond to Lincoln’s assassination?

Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm—
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness, in their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.

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 weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

He lieth in his blood—
The father in his face;
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 weeping
When they bare the iron hand.


Return to The Meaning of Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday.

2 Discussions Posted

Post a Comment

  1. Giselle Martinez on September 3, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Reply

    I found this poem because of an assignment my English teacher gave me. But i can’t shake off my head the wondering of “iron hand”. The war was over and another did not start after this incident, what i believe is a good thing. But i still don’t know how to make sense of it. Could it have something to do with the persistent chase after John Wilkes Booth?

    1. Bradley L Vaught on November 28, 2017 at 3:15 am | Reply

      The “iron hand” refers to the historical “iron hand of vengeance” or stern punishment that many sought to impose upon the South following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had been adamant when campaigning on his desires to bring the South back into the Union as peacefully and amicably as possible. Melville’s warning: “Beware the People weeping/When they bare the iron hand” is a warning to the Secessionists that post-assassination Reconstruction would now see their fate left into the hand’s of mourning and vengeful Unionist’s (Melville’s Avenger), rather than the “kind and forgiving” Lincoln.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *