Herman Melville

Comments & Themes


  1. Compare Melville's poems on the Civil War with Walt Whitman's, from Drum-Taps. Consider such aspects as form (or poetic technique), tone, perspective of observation and emotional distance. Which one do you think are more successful, and why?

  2. Melville's poem "The Portent" suggests parallels between John Brown and Jesus Christ. This image echoes a view of Brown held by many anti-slavery Northerners of the time. Brown's previous "military" actions in Kansas, however, were tantamount to a form of terrorism. What could this tell us about the contemporary of international terrorism, the so-called "war on terrorism and the West's involvement in these complex phenomena?

  3. What do you think Melville was saying about the newly-emerging mechanized warfare of the 19th century in "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight"?

  4. Would you say that "The Maldive Shark" is only a poem of acute observation of phenomena of the natural world, or that the shark and the pilot fish might represent some deeper ideas? If the latter, then what do you think Melville may be trying to say?

  5. In what ways does "The Ravaged Villa" offer a negative opinion of the American culture of Melville's time?

  6. Can you find any similarities of parallels between the messages Melville suggests in "Lone Founts" and "The Ravaged Villa"?

  7. How does "Venice" comment on the possible relatedness between natural forces and human creativity? Compare this poem with Ralph Waldo Emerson's treatment of the same theme in "The Problem".

  8. "In a Bye-Canal" takes place on a gondola in Venice. This setting inevitably brings to mind Melville's many adventures at sea during his youth. What is it that he finds more frightening in a Venice canal than all the dangers of the ocean? And why?

  9. Explain how, or why, "In a Church in Padua" is not about religion. Note especially the final stanza.