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Complete Poems: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War / Clarel / John Marr and Other Sailors / Timoleon / Posthumous & Unpublished. 1866, 1876, 1888 & 1891.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.
Library of American Herman Melville edition (3 vols: 1982, 1983, 1985)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Amazon.com 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.
The Writings of Herman Melville: Northwestern-Newberry edition (15 vols: 1968-2017)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Amazon.com 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
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 skullThe 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.
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. 
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 Amazon.com 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,"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.
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.
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)
- Melville, Herman. Romances: Typee; Omoo; Mardi; Moby-Dick; White-Jacket; Israel Potter; Redburn. 1846, 1847, 1849, 1851, 1850, 1855 & 1849. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1931.
- Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. Ed. Harold Beaver. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
- Melville, Herman. Pierre, or The Ambiguities: The Kraken Edition. 1852. Ed. Hershel Parker. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
- 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.
- 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.
- Leyda, Jay, ed. The Portable Melville. 1952. The Viking Portable Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
- Branch, Watson G., ed. Melville: The Critical Heritage. 1974. The Critical Heritage Series. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1985.
- 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)