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Complete Poems: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War / Clarel / John Marr and Other Sailors / Timoleon / Posthumous & Unpublished. 1866, 1876, 1888 & 1891.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. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1931.

  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)


Richard said...

Interesting. Melville (and Dickinson perhaps for other reasons than Melville, strange as they both were) not much recognized in his life. And so long to get the complete works out. Dickinson I have only recently only come to be more interested in after reading a book about her work. I have a bio of her which is interesting. I struggled to get into Moby Dick. But once I did get going I slowly read my way through and for me it was like reading a huge, strange poem. Melville went to sea but unlike say Conrad's storm etc in say 'The Nigger of the Narcissus' which is superbly described (and it is also a great book); unlike that, and despite Melville's being at sea (and I have never really 'been to sea'); despite that the book isn't really about the sea. It is "about" a whale and a kind of Captain Hook man. Or is it about evil, or about writing itself and human consciousness? The sea becomes something infinitely mysterious. At one stage it is fields, huge fields, and there are pages on and on about whether a whale is a fish, or the ways of processing a whale, and other meditations. Billy Budd (an opera by Benjamin Britain) and his strange story 'Bartleby' which Russell Haley liked (so I read it recently)...are some of what I have read. I knew of that long poem. I haven't read any of his poems. Have you got Olson's book about Melville, 'Call Me Ishmael'?

I believe Wystan Curnow did a thesis on Melville. I suppose there are a lot. I read somewhere a critical discussion of M's poems etc but never got to read any.

Whitman I recall reading as a teenager: there was something also strange and immense (again) about his work. But I left it and came back later. Whitman is important.

But then I suppose Emerson is as he read the first draft of Whitman's long poem. You'll be doing a spiel about Emerson next, or Hawthorne! Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' I suppose many have read...Pound neglected the poetry and prose of his own country except political writings if they could be called such...Poe's poetry seemed only good to the French. Is this true? He affected (mostly French) the symbolists I think and surrealists...Swinburne, Wilde (and Baudelaire among others?)liked Whitman.

All of these were as strange or stranger perhaps than Dickinson, Melville (the pine cones - skulls thing is good) and Whitman. But Hawthorne and Poe also. Longfellow is probably stranger than he seems...

I got to Hawthorne from Kathy Acker's 'Blood and Guts...' which talks about 'The Scarlet Letter', another strange story. There is a connection someone made between 'Ethan Frome' by Edith Wharton to a story ('Ethan Brand') by Hawthorne (which someone on a Blog linked to that and to a story by either Poe or Wilde*)...all this interested me via reading essays by Lorna Sage ('Moments of Truth: 12 Twentieth-Century Women Writers') which also got me reading some of Christina Stead's work. Ethan Frome is brilliant, but it is very dark, not very uplifting to read if one is a little depressed as I was at the time! I know that is a contradiction in a sense but the ending is like a nightmare...

Richard said...

Back to Melville I had heard in essays that Melville's poems of the Civil War were very good. Hardy, another rather (pessimistic? Schopenhaurian?) writer; is considered by some a better poet than a novelist.

I think I was reading Harold Bloom's intro to 'The Body Electric'(2000) an anthology of US and poetry published in the American Poetry Review: here he rages against 'Queer Theory', about Whitman of course, but makes a great intro to the book whose title is from a poem by Whitman or a phrase. Grumpy and controversial, H. Bloom is still really interesting on many writers. His passion for literature is infectious. As long as no one tries to read his entire Canon as prescribed!! But Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens (his lines about the flaming beard of Whitman etc) and Melville are big for the old chap. But Emerson is the man of significance introducing Whitman to the world. (All this as NZ's Michael Steven reminded me of Ted Berrigan's famous sonnets, some of which I found in that book among other things...).

Re the stats of your site: I think it shows people are still deeply interested in serious writing and reading whether it be in books per se or e-books is irrelevant as long as the books can be enjoyed and are stimulating. Movies and television series help. Also, great images of China. I read Kafka's amazing Great Wall of China again when I saw your quote of that.

*It was to 'William Wilson' by Poe.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

I have to confess, to my shame, that I haven't actually read Ethan Frome - I've never been that much of a fan of Edith Wharton. I have read Hawthorne, though - 'Earth's Holocaust' is a great story, and some of the others are excellent, too: 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'The Great Stone Face' are two that come to mind.

And yes, I have Olson's book on Melville, too. Longfellow might make an interesting subject for a post. I used to read him obsessively when I was a teenager. He wrote fiction as well as poetry, though was (of course) far more successful in the latter pursuit.

Richard said...

I saw a movie based on The Age of Innocence (I just realized how I could never do well on The Chaser as altho I knew that it took several seconds to recall it: either old age or is it because I mix it with something else, I also keep forgetting her name but there is another Wharton). I cant recall the movie much but the atmosphere of it I found very interesting. Just the atmosphere of those early 20th Century perhaps Jamesian (!) times. In any case it inspired a poem I called 'The Innocent Age' which I think is one of the best things I did...I read an essay by Edmund Wilson ('The Wound and the Bow') and Wilson considered her later works lacked inspiration. I don't know about her earlier books.

Ethan Frome is apparently, according to Lorna Sage, unusual and strong. She focused more on 'ordinary people'. It is intense. But it is dark not like Hawthorne or even Poe (who is in a different category to Hawthorne). But I read it in a bad week. That is a question. Why are we reading literature if, despite we can admire Hawthorne (and I like his stories I want to re-read The Minister;s Veil and Goodman Browne (which has an atmosphere of a certain kind of terror and a sense of evil as if evil were an actuality. The Minister's Black Veil (whose side is the minister on?!); why if it seems not cogent or leaves us feeling depressed? Of course this is not always the case. [I know you mentioned The Stone Face once in something you wrote, but it is LACKING in the vols. I have of Hawthorne. Bother!] Like Clive James who thought he had read all of Philip Larken several times he found some he hadn't and even though he is nearing his end he is increasing his book library! Hence, he got some one to do some magic [on a machine he knows nothing about we might call a computer] and get a COMPLETE. There is always those volumes which say complete but are not: I know as my complete of Shaw's plays is NOT...

Longfellow's 'The Village Blacksmith'* is good in the way Gray's 'Elegy...' is good. In fact, for me, that is superb. Gray's 'Elegy...' is a favourite poem. But I have a few books of Longfellow's including a vol. of Evangeline (1983) which has what is virtually a bio of him inside (but it is a bit hard for me to read as the font is quite small). He knew a lot of languages and traveled a lot. Another well known but underestimated writer?

*I only know this poem as my mother used to do the cryptic and other crosswords each day and one clue started with the opening lines. When I saw it later I connected it up. But despite studying lit., at the time, I didn't know it.