The Corner


Herman Melville wrote “The Housetop” during the Draft Riots of 1863. (In Gangs of New York they gave the line about rats taking the town to a flustered Horace Greeley)

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air

And binds the brain -a dense oppression, such

As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,

Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.

Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads

Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.

Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf

Of muffled sound, the atheist roar of riot.

Yonder, where parching Sirius set in drought

Balefully glares red Arson -there -and there.

The town is taken by its rats -ship-rats

And rats of the wharves. All civil charms

And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe –

Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway

Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,

And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.

Hail to the low dull rumble, dull and dead,

And ponderous drag that shakes the wall.

Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll

Of black artillery; he comes, though late;

In code corroborating Calvin’s creed

And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;

He comes, nor parleys; and the town, redeemed,

Gives thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds

The grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied,

Which holds that Man is naturally good,

And -more -is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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