The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

II. Poets of the Civil War I

§ 3. H. H. Brownell

The purpose of this chapter is to tell not of the major poets of the mid-century period, most of whom, in the intervals of full poetic careers traced elsewhere in this history, lent powerful voices to the cause of anti-slavery and union, but of some of the lesser figures whose best or most significant work deals almost wholly with the conflict. At least one of them has not received his due share of praise—Henry Howard Brownell (1820–1872), called by Holmes “Our Battle Laureate.” Born at Providence, he went with his family to Hartford, where he graduated from Trinity College in 1841. After a short season of teaching in Mobile, he returned to Hartford, was admitted to the bar, and began the practice of his profession, while also joining his brother in literary work. His early devotion to the sea, stimulated by frequent voyages, inspired him to sing of its awe and its beauty. Like his brother, who lost his life in 1859 exploring South America, he had the spirit of an adventurer, but, though his little volume of Poems (1847) had contained some lines of verse ringing with denunciation of ease and lazy comfort at a time when such a question as slavery was pressing for answer, he had dealt, for the most part not originally or strikingly, only with the eternal themes of minor poets—love, disappointments, passing beauty, the hard fate of the poetical tribe—and did not really find expression for himself until the Civil War. For a Hartford paper he composed a rhymed version of Farragut’s orders to his fleet before the attack upon New Orleans. The verses so pleased the Commodore that he wrote to Brownell in terms of hearty appreciation and afterwards made the poet his secretary. Brownell thus had an opportunity, in actual service, to become acquainted with the details of warfare. The best of his pieces, all included in Lyrics of a Day (1864) and War-Lyrics (1866), still deserve praise as strong as that pronounced by Lowell and Aldrich in Brownell’s own generation. His power lay in combining vivid detail with lyric exultation, accurate pictures of still life with fiery episodes of heroic action. No other Northern poet reported real warfare so accurately. Some of Brownell’s lines read like rhymed journalism, but he had everywhere such intensity of visualization, such fiery passion, and such natural, racy language dignified by sincerity that he rarely suffered any descent into prose, though he tended to longeurs. Energy and swift movement are not his only qualities. In the midst of The Bay Fight he does not forget the actual men engaged. He can pass from scenes of fighting to the calm, sad picture of Lincoln watching from on high the troops that have not returned for the Grand Review in Washington. Perhaps nothing in his verse seems more striking, in the twentieth century, than his terrific confidence in the cause of the Union and equally terrific condemnation of all Southern “traitors.” His moral energy is as much the secret of his power as are his poetical vigour and veracity.