Herman Melville (1819 - 1891)

Life and Works


Everyone is aware that Herman Melville (1819-91), author of Moby Dick (1851), "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853), "Benito Cereno" (1855), "Billy Budd, Sailor" (c. 1891) and so many other well-known novels and tales, was one of the most important and influential fiction writers of the 19th century. Fewer readers are aware, however, that Melville also wrote poetry. It wasn't a lot. And it wasn't nearly as interesting, as daring and innovative, or as emotionally and intellectually profound as his better fiction. It did not determine, to a large degree, the later direction of American poetry as did the work of his exact contemporary, Walt Whitman. In fact, it can more credibly be argued that it had no effect at all on later poets. But this relatively small body of poems deserves our attention for several reasons: 1) because it was written by one of acknowledged giants of American literature; 2) because it therefore reflects on the life and the accomplishment of that great figure; 3) because Melville's first collection, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) constituted, along with Whitman's Drum-Taps, the most important response in verse to the American Civil War; and 4) because this poetry can be illustrative of what happens when a talent for prose fiction is applied to poetry.

Melville started writing poetry relatively late in his life, in the middle to late 1850s, undoubtedly as part of his complex response to the disillusionment he suffered from the deeply disappointing reception of his masterpiece, Moby Dick. His first reaction to the public's inability to understand or appreciate that novel was to abandon the format of the adventure story, which had formally brought him both fame and fortune, and quickly produce a feverish sentimental love story, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). This heavy-handed and heavily allegorical attempt to investigate the social and psychological condition underpinning the unhappy life of a failed writer was resoundingly unsuccessful with the public and critics alike.

In a certain sense, we should be glad of Melville's failure with these two novels at the beginning of the 50s. In addition to the disenchantment he felt with the fruits of his art, he also needed to maintain his income. And for those two reasons he turned his hand to writing short stories for the two monthly journals being published at the time, Harper's and Putnam's. The stories in these journals were published anonymously, and any deeper messages they might contain (and Melville, of course, could not bring himself to write anything without a profound message) had to be hidden beneath a bland and accessible surfacethat would appeal to the upper-middle-class readership. For this reason, these slyly constructed stories became a model for the encoded texts of the 20th-century Modernists.

Many of them were collected and published as The Piazza Tales in 1856.

It is speculated that Melville began to write poetry about this time, during a trip he made from October, 1856 to May, 1857 to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. And he probably continued to do so during the next two and a half years, when he was principally engaged as a singularly unsuccessful public lecturer. It is known that he had prepared a volume of poems for publication in 1860, although this projected book never saw the light of day and many of the poems it contained may have been destroyed.

From this moment on, Melville's public voice fell silent for the duration of the Civil War. However, as his first published volume of poetry makes clear, the events leading up to and surrounding that conflict impressed him very deeply. The 72 poems in Battle-Pieces and Other Aspects of the War provide a kind of running commentary by a profoundly engaged observer, beginning with the earliest military foreshadowing of the hostilities (John Brown's raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia), reporting on many of the major (and some minor) battles and other incidents, including Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Lincoln, and ending with some reflections on the political and psychological consequences of that national cataclysm.

Shortly after the publication of this book, Melville was given a job in the Custom House in New York City. With a now regular income, he appeared to have given up his writing career. However, during the following years he continued working on a highly ambitious narrative in verse, based loosely on his travels in Europe and the Middle East, and investigating that fundamental 19th-century conflict between religious belief and scientific doubt.

What is perhaps one of the oddest of American books in a century rich in literary eccentricity, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, was published in 1876. Melville's uncle, Peter Gansevoort, subsidized the publication in two volumes of this 18,000-line-long philosophical-religious allegory. The plot concerns the emotional and intellectual development of Clarel, who travels through the Holy Land in search of some kind of religious meaning. "What Melville did in Clarel," Andrew Delbanco has written, "was to distribute himself among a range of characters - seekers, cynics, pilgrims looking for respite, proselytizers, looking for converts, men broken by grief - and by personifying his own shifting moods in these characters perform a kind of exorcism on himself." In Jerusalem, Clarel falls in love with Ruth, the daughter of a Puritan agnostic who has converted to Judaism. However, she dies before they can be married. Whatever he may have learnt from his travels - and that is quite unclear - this loss overshadows everything and leaves him emotionally devastated.

Melville himself described Clarel as "a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or chat not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted fro unpopularity". Considering the form, length, complexity, apparent incoherence and pessimistic tone of Clarel, it is no surprise that it is virtually unknown beyond the circle of academics and critics who specialize in Melville studies.

In the last years of his life, Melville published two more volumes of poetry. Both of them were privately printed editions of only twenty-five copies. The first is John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and the second is Timoleon, etc. (1891). It is clear that the cool critical and public reception of Moby Dick was a turning-point in his life. From that moment on, he gradually became more pessimistic with age. These poems of his last years, most of them looking back on life and life's many losses, reflect Melville's late, predominantly grim or melancholy brooding. One critic called it Melville's "retrospective imagination". Most of these poems offer sad reassessments of loved ones, and friends ("To Ned", "Monody", "Venice", "In a Bye-Canal", "Immolated") and memories of experiences that had left deep impressions in his mind . But perhaps the major theme running through them, especially in Timoleon, is Melville's lifelong struggle with the drive to create art. ("The Ravaged Villa", "Lone Founts", "Art", "In a Church of Padua").

Robert Penn Warren has written that "If we are completely to understand Melville's poetry, we must see it against the backdrop of his defeat as a writer". When Melville died on September 28, 1891, he was almost completely forgotten. One notice of his death in the New York Times referred to him as "Henry Melville". Even when the public stopped listening, Melville never ceased to be what he had to be, an artist whose task was to plumb the darkest depths of the human mind. His final poems are the traces of that vital necessity.