The Civil War was fought at the beginning of an age in which memorizing and declaiming popular poetry was fashionable among even those with minimal educations.
This was, after all, a time of limited entertainment when, as an ancestor of mine once wrote, he would walk a mile to hear a good whistler.
Thus, two poets, the Irishman Charles Wolfe (1791-1823) and the Britisher Thomas Babbington Macauley (1800-1859) and a few verses of their respective poems The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna and Ivry are recalled by two of the novel’s characters.
My fictional Unionist widow Parthenia Leila Ellis speaks of her friend Sue Boyd, (the real sister of the famous Rebel spy Belle Boyd), recalling (slightly incorrectly) others declaiming the last line of Wolfe’s poem over the grave of Sue’s beloved Union Gen. William P. Sanders: “We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone, But left him alone with his glory.”
And my fictional Private Romy Lowe of the Thirteenth Mississippi Infantry Regiment, himself recites these lines of Macauley’s:
“A thousand spurs are striking deep, a thousand spears in rest, A thousand knights are pressing close behind the snow-white crest; And in they burst, and on they rushed, while, like a guiding star, Amidst the thickest carnage blazed the helmet of Navarre.”
Although our multiple choices of entertainment might have overwhelmed Americans of 1863 (as they do some of us from time to time) some people still champion memorization of what we can quickly read off a screen, if for no other reason than personal enrichment.
“If we do not learn by heart,” writes Catherine Robson in her 2012 book Heart Beats: Everyday Life and The Memorized Poem, “the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
But not even Robson expects the old fashion to ever come again.