Saturday, December 08, 2018

Herman Melville as Poet

Herman Melville: Complete Poems (2019)

Complete Poems: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War / Clarel / John Marr and Other Sailors / Timoleon / Posthumous & Unpublished. 1866, 1876, 1888 & 1891. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 4. Ed. Hershel Parker. The Library of America, 320. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2019.

I remember remarking to a fellow Melvillian (or Melville-omaniac, if you prefer), A/Prof Alex Calder of the University of Auckland, how great it would be if the Library of America decided to follow up their three-volume set of all his prose works with an equally complete edition of his poetry. He agreed, but clearly thought it unlikely ever to happen.

  1. Typee, Omoo, Mardi. 1846, 1847, 1849. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 1. Ed. G. Thomas Tanselle. The Library of America, 1. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1982.

  2. Redburn, White Jacket, Moby-Dick. 1849, 1850, 1851. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 2. Ed. G. Thomas Tanselle. The Library of America, 9. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983.

  3. Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Tales & Billy Budd. 1852, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1922 & 1924. Library of America Herman Melville Edition, 3. Ed. Harrison Hayford. The Library of America, 24. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1985.

It's with a certain satisfaction, then, that I've just seen on a pre-announcement of just such a volume. Mind you, the timing of it is not exactly a surprise. Even by the somewhat lax standards of other magisterial editions of American writers, the completion of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's complete works has been a long time coming: almost fifty years, in fact.

  1. Melville, Herman. Published Poems: Battle Pieces; John Marr; Timoleon. 1866, 1888 & 1891. Ed. Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising & G. Thomas Tanselle. Historical Note by Hershel Parker. The Writings of Herman Melville: the Northwestern–Newberry Edition, vol. 11. Evanston & Chicago: Northwestern University Press & The Newberry Library, 2009.

  2. Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. 1876. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Hershel Parker & G. Thomas Tanselle. The Writings of Herman Melville: the Northwestern–Newberry Edition, vol. 12. Evanston & Chicago: Northwestern University Press & The Newberry Library, 1991.

  3. Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings: Billy Budd, Sailor; Weeds and Wildlings; Parthenope; Uncollected Prose; Uncollected Poetry. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Robert A. Sandberg & G. Thomas Tanselle. Historical Note by Hershel Parker. The Writings of Herman Melville: the Northwestern–Newberry Edition, vol. 13. Evanston & Chicago: Northwestern University Press & The Newberry Library, 2017.

It all started with a hiss and a roar in the mid-1960s. The first volume appeared in 1968, with a vague estimate that the whole project might take five years or so. As you can see from the dates listed above, it took a bit longer than that: the final volume devoted to Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings finally appeared last year, in 2017.

Admittedly it was volume 13, which might be thought to predispose it to bad luck, and the trawl through the archives for unpublished and uncollected material always takes longer than editing the works that appeared in an author's own lifetime. (If you're curious, you can find Meaghan Fritz's account of the whole strange saga here, on the Northwestern University Press website.)

Herman Melville: Collected Poems (1947)

Melville, Herman. Collected Poems. Ed. Howard P. Vincent. Chicago: Packard and Company / Hendricks House, 1947.

Until that monstrous feat of scholarship was complete, however, it was no good even thinking of a new edition of Melville's Complete Poems to replace Howard P. Vincent's pioneering Collected Poems. Probably the best that could be done was the volume below, a collection of all three of the books of poems published during Melville's lifetime, with a few selections from Clarel to give an idea of its scope and complexity:

Douglas Robillard, ed.: The Poems of Herman Melville (1976)

Melville, Herman. The Poems of Herman Melville: Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War; John Marr and Other Sailors; Timoleon. 1866, 1888 & 1891. Ed. Douglas Robillard. 1976. Kent, Ohio & London: Kent State University Press, 2000.

As America's Civil War obsession grew and grew - especially after the success of Ken Burn's 1990 documentary TV series - more attention came to be focussed on Melville's 1866 book Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, probably the only collection of its kind which can stand comparison with Whitman's Drum-taps (1865). Facsimile and other separate editions of that began to appear, also:

Melville, Herman. Battle-Pieces: The Civil War Poems. 1866. Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2000.

At this point a little-known critic named Jack Ross decided to weigh in with his own opinions. This is what he had to say on the subject on in 2005 (underneath Douglas Robillard's 1976 edition of The Poetry of Herman Melville, pictured above):
J. Ross:
4.0 out of 5 stars
Is Melville's poetry really worth reading?
October 22, 2005
Format: Paperback

If the difficulty of getting hold of it is any indication, then most people think Melville's poetry isn't worth it. I've been waiting for years for the poetry volume of the Northwestern-Newberry edition to appear (it was promised for 2002, but still shows no signs of coming out). That will be the ultimate answer, as it'll include all the materials, commentaries, etc. that one could desire.

In the meantime, it makes a lot of sense to collect Melville's own three published volumes of verse in this beautifully compact book. This may not represent his poetic legacy as a whole, but it shows (at any rate) his public face as a poet.

And a very odd poet he is indeed. He has a lot in common with Thomas Hardy, I think: both are addicted to convoluted diction, impossibly complex and confining stanza forms and metrical schemes, a general sense of labouring over every line and of lack of music and ease.

Hardy is, nevertheless, a great poet. When the occasion demands it - "The Convergence of the Twain" about the Titanic disaster, the superb poems of 1912 about his dead wife - there's a kind of clumsy power about him which overpowers any reservations.

Melville's technical shortcomings are - if anything - even greater. The chains of rhyme and metre chafe him more than virtually any other nineteenth-century poet I can think of. He seems to have almost no natural facility for verse.

And yet (as all readers of his prose are aware) he is a genius. His prose-poetry in Moby-Dick, "Benito Cereno" and "Las Encantadas" is incomparable. And every now and then it glimmers out in the midst of the most clotted poems. There are certain lines from his Civil War poems included in Ken Burns' PBS documentary series which seem almost to beat Whitman at his own game:
In glades they meet skull after skull
Where pine-cones lay ...
... Some start as in dreams,
And comrades lost bemoan:
By the edge of those wilds Stonewall had charged -
But the Year and the Man were gone. [102]
The equation between the skulls and the pine-cones is haunting, yet unobtrusive, and the invocation of Stonewall as a kind of force of nature works brilliantly. There's a mythic force in some of these Civil War poems which is unsurpassed.

Once you get over the surface defects, then, there's a lot encoded in the depths of Melville's verse - a submerged continent of perceptions every bit as vivid as his fiction. The wait continues for the definitive edition, but for now I'm just grateful to have this one. It seems somehow characteristic that he should have to wait so long for the critical establishment to do justice to his talents in this field -- Herman Melville (both as a man and a writer), was, it seems, born to be overlooked.

Certainly that bit about my long wait for the poetry volume of the Northwestern-Newberry edition rings true - I didn't then realise that there would be two: one for the poetry published during his lifetime, and another for his posthumous and uncollected work. I already had a copy of their edition of Clarel, which was some comfort, at least.

I see from their site that I first ordered books from in 1997, and virtually the first things I went after were Melville's Poetry (Northwestern-Newberry edition) and the Complete Poems of W. H. Auden (a two-volume edition, edited by Edward Mendelson, then promised for 1998). I 'pre-ordered' both, only to endure years of delays and excuses and finally their complete disappearance from the site.

The Melville project has now - almost - cranked to a close, awaiting just that last Library of America volume to complete the tally. Auden's Complete Works, however, took a long detour through six volumes of his collected prose, on top of two of his plays and libretti, and so, twenty years later, I'm still waiting for those poems. Never say die, though: I'm sure that when they do eventually appear, they'll be very thoroughly collated and annotated.

W. H. Auden: Prose (Volume 1: 1997)

So do I have much to add now to the rather self-assured remarks I made in 2005? I read somewhere recently that America's three greatest nineteenth-century poets were Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson - and Herman Melville. That does indeed seem to be the view which has become prevalent, judging at any rate by the amount of critical prose spewed out on each of them.

Certainly it's a shift from Emerson, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Whittier and all those other Boston Brahmins who seemed to have the field sewn up at the time, in the late 1800s. Poe is still in the running in either schema, I suppose.

These new "big three" do indeed have a lot going for them - if contemporary obscurity can be seen as the most reliable gauge of merit. Dickinson was almost invisible till well after her death. Melville's early vogue as a writer of sea-going romances did not translate into a scintilla of interest in his later poetry. Whitman was visible: but more as a figure of fun or opprobrium than someone to be taken seriously except by a few disciples and true believers.

More to the point, perhaps, all three are strange: their poetics defy the conventional practice of the time, and yet have gone on to have an immense influence on the writing of the twentieth century (in particular).

In Harold Bloom's terms (The Western Canon) they are canonical because otherwise unassimilable: they simply can't be pigeonholed beside anyone else - even each other. I do think this Library of America volume will be timely for Melville enthusiasts to try to substantiate their claims, therefore. It's not much use calling him one of America's greatest poets if readers can't get proper access to his work.

It'll always be a tough nut to swallow: harder even than Dickinson and Whitman, given his more earnest attempts to accommodate himself to conventional nineteenth-century prosody - but I think, in the end, there's no point in trying to overlook it any more. If Moby-Dick - then Clarel. The latter is not that much more difficult than the former. He is weird, though: best to bear that in mind from the start.

Here's "The Portent," his poem about the "martyr" John Brown:
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
"Lo, John Brown", eh? ... Law / more / war and Shenandoah as rhymes ... You see what I mean about the strange clumsiness of his proceedings? There's generally something to it, though - his choice of words ("weird John Brown" / "the meteor of the war") repays scrutiny.

In any case, here are some more samples from my own Melvilliana:

John J. Healey: Emily & Herman: A Literary Romance (2013)

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

  1. Melville, Herman. Romances: Typee; Omoo; Mardi; Moby-Dick; White-Jacket; Israel Potter; Redburn. 1846, 1847, 1849, 1851, 1850, 1855 & 1849. N.p.: N.p., n.d.

  2. Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. Ed. Harold Beaver. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

  3. Melville, Herman. Pierre, or The Ambiguities: The Kraken Edition. 1852. Ed. Hershel Parker. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

  4. Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. An Authoritative Text / Backgrounds and Sources / Reviews / Criticism / An Annotated Bibliography. 1857. Ed. Hershel Parker. A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.

  5. Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative). Edited from the Manuscript with Introduction and Notes. 1891 & 1924. Ed. Harrison Hayford & Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1962. A Phoenix Book. Chicago & London: The University Of Chicago Press, 1970.

  6. Leyda, Jay, ed. The Portable Melville. 1952. The Viking Portable Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  7. Branch, Watson G., ed. Melville: The Critical Heritage. 1974. The Critical Heritage Series. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1985.

  8. Parker, Hershel, & Harrison Hayford, ed. Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts (1851-1970). A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970.

Patrick Arrasmith: Herman Melville (2013)

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Breaking the Million-Hit Barrier


I definitely feel like breaking out the champagne today. One million hits on my blog! That seems like quite a lot to me.

It all started in 2010, when they introduced a new feature on blogspot which made it possible to access easily a range of vital statistics about your site/s. As well as the basic count of how many hits each blogpost achieved, you could study your main sources of traffic, the ways in which visitors accessed your site, and other intriguing pieces of trivia.

Pageviews 2010-18

I started The Imaginary Museum back in 2006, so I'm not sure if those earlier posts (half of the 462 to date) are included in the tally. Whether they are or not, though, I find it rather amazing that this most self-indulgent of websites, dedicated to so many subjects which I suspect I'm quite unusual in finding fascinating - bibliography, ghosts, poetry, the 1001 Nights, poetry readings and book-launches - should have clocked up so many individual hits over the past eight years.

Top-earning posts

Mind you, I do understand what a blunt instrument such counters can be. There's nothing qualitative about this data. A long read of a post will show up just the same as a momentary glance at a headline or an image.

They're not all from me, either. There's a little link you can click on to make sure that your own pageviews don't get counted in the total, otherwise it would all seem a bit incestuous.

Pageviews by countries

And as for the countries the hits are coming from, why so many from Russia, for instance? Why more from Belgium than from Australia? It's hard to reach clear conclusions about such matters, beyond noting the bare facts.

More to the point, though, I recently conducted a census of all the various websites I operate (you can find a complete list of them here, if you're curious). The nearest contender to The Imaginary Museum was my book collection site, A Gentle Madness, which has reached 276,970 pageviews. Most of the others were considerably less than that - though I was pleased to see that my Leicester Kyle site had clocked up more than 50,000 hits.

In total, they came to more than 3,000,000 pageviews, so I'd have to say that this long experiment on online writing / publishing must be seen as a success. I don't see how I could ever reached anything like that number of people by conventional means.

No doubt Whale Oil and the Daily Blog get more than that number every hour, but then they are targetting a rather different audience.

Pageviews today

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Jack's Beijing Adventure (4): To Peking University

Ariva Hotel, Haidian Road South, Beijing

So, if you imagine us taking a walk through the streets of Beijing towards Peking University, this is our starting point: the massive Ariva Hotel.

A somewhat Edward Hopper-esque window view

From there you can take either of two routes. Either the subway:

Or else the half-hour walk along Suzhou Street, through all the traffic and noise:


looking north

Haidian Bridge, facing west

In any case, eventually you have to go in by one of the gates, showing your ID to get in. This is the West Gate:

West Gate

And here's the main administration building (no less a personage than Mao Tse-Tung himself was once the librarian at Peking University, but that was when it was still located near the centre of the city):

Administration Building

stone lion outside the Administration Building

It really is quite a spectacular campus. The most beautiful part of it is undoubtedly Weiming Lake:

map of Weiming Lake

Weiming Lake



stones from the old Summer Palace

The ruins of the old Summer Palace are a little way north of the campus. They were destroyed by barbarian invaders - i.e. us - in 1860 during the second Opium War. The rebuilt palace is some distance away, and is a celebrated beauty spot (I didn't get the chance to go there, unfortunately).


memorial for Edgar Snow

Here's another interesting sight: a memorial to Edgar Snow, author of Red Star over China (1937), the first comprehensive account of Mao Tse-Tung, the Long March, and other historic details of the Chinese communist party's rise to power.

pond beside the New Zealand Centre

The NZ Centre is fortunate to be housed in a building so near the most beautiful part of the university. My friend Xiaotong told me that all through his childhood he had dreamed of walking by the Weiming Lake as a student of Peking University. Now that he'd achieved that ambition, he felt a little lost.

the pagoda

towards the East Gate

l-to-r: Professor Lui Shushen, me, A/ Prof Liu Hongzhong & A/Prof Mei Shenyou

My hosts were kind enough to invite me to dinner at a very famous restaurant, Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant, to sample the celebrated delicacy ("you can't go home without trying it"). It was certainly very tasty, though a trifle complicated to eat.

Discussion time after my second lecture, with Hongzhong & me
& some visiting Kiwi students from Canterbury (28/11/18)

So there you are. It was certainly a great experience. I hope the rest of the course goes well - I've already sent in my exam questions for the students, so now it's all up to Hongzhong and the others. I did get lost once - on the way back from the university, the first time I went there, but luckily a kind English-speaking passerby took pity on me, and gave me directions back to the hotel.

Haidian Road South & the Ariva Hotel (21/11/18)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Jack's Beijing Adventure (3): The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (27/11/18)

Here I am, just along from that classic view of Mao's portrait, about to enter the Forbidden City: the emperor's private domain, reserved solely for the royal family and their courtiers.

some indication of the sheer scale of the place

"The Emperor — so they say — has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his death bed and whispered the message to him. He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who have come to witness his death — all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs — in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally did burst through the outermost door — but that can never, never happen — the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream to yourself of that message when evening comes."
- Franz Kafka, "The Great Wall of China" (1917)

My guide, Zhang Xiaotong

Xiaotong again

Here's my guide, the intrepid Xiaotong, a student at Peking University who offered to show me around in exchange for the chance to practise his English a bit. Without him, I wouldn't have got very far!



more dragons


Contemplation Studio

ceiling of contemplation studio



bronze vessels



"That's not interesting," said Xiaotong, as I took yet another picture of a sign. He wanted me to photograph useful things such as gold thrones and doors with 81 nails on them (9 x 9 - the imperial number). I just love stuff like that "Book - Cultural and Creative" inscription, though.


Tiananmen Square (facing East)

But wait, there's more. Outside the gates of the Forbidden City, all the rest of the massive central area of Beijing lies spread before you.

Tiananmen Square (facing West)

Tiananmen Square (facing South)

Tiananmen Square (North-east)


national theatre

national theatre (detail)

Apparently they call this immense structure "the egg" - because it looks like an egg that's been left in the middle of a pond. It's pretty striking, though.

stuff not to do

All in, Xiaotong and I must have walked for hours. After we'd got out the back entrance to the Forbidden City, we had to trek all the way round again to the front, and that took ages.

the way out