Everett Collection

Terence Stamp in Peter Ustinov’s film adaptation of Billy Budd, 1962

When Herman Melville died at seventy-two, in September 1891, he had been out of public view for so long that The New York Times identified him as Henry Melville. An obituary writer expressed surprise that the author best known for Typee—his first novel, set in the South Seas, notorious for its Gauguin-like sexual exploits with native women—had not died much earlier. Melville had outlived his two sons: one killed himself with a gunshot to the head, the other survived shipwreck and other mishaps to die, a feckless wanderer, of tuberculosis.

Melville had outlived his reputation as well. After the hostile reception of Moby-Dick (1851) and his gothic romance Pierre (1852), he spent nearly twenty years of his remaining life—years in which he seemed, in his raging moods, increasingly unhinged to his relatives—patrolling the docks for the Custom House of Lower Manhattan and trying to convert himself from a failed prose writer into a poet. “You need not tell anyone,” his wife, Elizabeth, wrote to her mother of this embarrassing development, “for you know how such things get around.”

At his death, Melville’s unpublished manuscripts were consigned to a metal breadbox, where they lay, undisturbed as the grave, for nearly thirty years. When the unassuming receptacle, “hardly larger than a miniature suitcase,” was finally opened by the Melville biographer Raymond Weaver in 1919, just in time to help fuel the great Melville revival of the 1920s, it was found to contain a considerable amount of miscellaneous material, which Elizabeth Melville had painstakingly tied “with pink tape into orderly bundles.” The contents of the bundles are now handsomely housed in the fifteenth and final volume of the majestic Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Melville’s writings, a project begun in 1965 and completed to coincide with the bicentennial in 2019 of Melville’s birth.

Much of the salvaged material, not surprisingly, turned out to be short poems in the traditional forms—rhymed couplets, quatrains, and the like—that Melville had been working to master since his turn to poetry during the late 1850s. There is a cluster of floral poems under the provisional title “Weeds and Wildings”:

Beneath yon Larkspur’s azure bells,
That sun their bees in balmy air,
In mould no more the Blue-Bird dwells
Though late he found internment there.

More challenging, for writer and reader, are various experimental hybrids of verse and prose, among which is a prose headnote, followed by a poem, called “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac.” Melville evidently saw himself—perhaps because of his twenty years of somnolent seclusion at the Custom House—as a latter-day “tattered Rip himself in his picturesque resurrection,” and his poems as Rip’s “slatternly” house, “fatally arrested in course of completion.”

There was something far more substantial lurking in the breadbox, however. One of the pink-taped bundles was found to consist of some 340 sheets of yellowing paper, approximately seven by six inches each, covered with crabbed handwriting and with additions pinned or pasted to the pages. This turned out to be the much worked-over manuscript of a hitherto unknown short novel by Melville titled Billy Budd, Sailor. This, too, was something of a verse-prose hybrid, indeed, the culmination of such experiments, since subsequent research revealed that Billy Budd had originated as the prose headnote to a ballad, the same ballad that, in the final form of the novel, concludes its last chapter.

The Northwestern-Newberry volume is oddly bifurcated. The seventy-two pages of Billy Budd are unblemished by scholarly intrusion—no brackets or footnotes or marginal codes. In successive sections, each poem, however slight, is accorded a page of its own, again with no intrusive apparatus. What follows this pristine presentation, however, is more than seven hundred pages of detailed commentary: a historical note by the leading Melville scholar Hershel Parker, a general statement on editorial procedure, and specific notes on every editorial decision, no matter how slight. We are informed, moreover, that the unimpeded presentation of the text is an illusion. The word “uncompleted” in the title of the volume, as opposed to a merely descriptive adjective such as “late,” carries a polemical weight. As Parker notes, it is meant “to call attention to the incomplete, provisional state of most of the material in this volume.”

Billy Budd in particular, Parker maintains, “continues to be labeled erroneously as a manuscript Melville left ready for publication and to be criticized as if it were a finished work of art.” In the second volume of his biography of Melville (2002), Parker goes further, referring to Billy Budd as “the largest of the fragments on his writing desk” and remarking (in a sentence repeated in the new edition), “We do not honor Melville by pretending that Billy Budd is complete and perfect: to close our eyes to the relation between artistic imperfection and failing health is to dehumanize the creative process and the created product.”


Despite such alleged shortcomings, Billy Budd has, over the years, attracted an extraordinary coterie of admirers. Albert Camus thought it a masterpiece of the absurd. Thomas Mann called it “the most beautiful story in the world”; thinking perhaps of the homoerotic themes of his own Death in Venice, which echoes aspects of Billy Budd, he told friends that he wished he had written it himself. E.M. Forster wrote a libretto for Benjamin Britten’s operatic version. Hannah Arendt compared Billy Budd to Ivan’s parable in The Brothers Karamazov, as two attempts to apply Christian concepts of perfection to contemporary life. She thought Melville’s the more profound treatment because it was based on “a much richer range of political experience.” The Italian poet Eugenio Montale, in his eloquent introduction to the novella, marveled at its fusion of genres, from the adventure tale to the epic poem to the critical essay.

It turns out that what troubles Parker in Billy Budd is less the fragmentary nature of the manuscript than something deeper in the narrative itself, namely, the characterization of one of its three central characters, Edward Vere, captain of the Bellipotent, who sentences Billy Budd to hang for striking an officer. According to Parker, Melville died leaving “clues as to how to read Vere’s behavior…going in two (or more than two) directions.” Indeed he did, and the whole meaning of this deeply ambiguous story turns, among other things, on which of those directions we adopt in “reading” Captain Vere.

The bare plot of Billy Budd is simple enough. A handsome young sailor named Billy Budd is serving aboard the British merchant ship the Rights-of-Man when he is forcibly drafted, or “impressed,” into the British navy. As Melville writes, with accelerating aplomb: “Plump upon Billy at first sight in the gangway the boarding officer Lieutenant Ratcliffe pounced.” The year is 1797, “in the time before steamships.” Amid British unease about the advance of Napoleon’s armies, there is escalating paranoia about mutinous unrest among its naval crews, made up as they are “of such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would have fitted them to be marched up…before the bar of the first French Assembly as Representatives of the Human Race.”

The sinister master-at-arms on the British warship Bellipotent, John Claggart, takes an immediate dislike to Billy, and soon accuses him of fomenting mutiny. His superior, Captain Vere, is skeptical, and brings the accuser face to face with the accused, unaware that Billy suffers from a speech impediment. Confronted with the outrageous charge, Billy, tongue-tied, responds by striking Claggart in the forehead, killing him. A court-martial is hastily convened, and the sentence, according to the military code that decrees death for any soldier striking an officer for whatever reason, is carried out the following dawn. The reader is invited to render judgment. Was Vere—in his peremptory and legalistic decision, refusing any consideration of intent and fearing unrest in his crew—guilty of blurring the distinction between perpetrator and victim? Was Billy, in using his fists instead of his words, guilty of a misdeed recognizable even by kindergarteners?

Melville surrounds all three of his principal characters with an air of mystery. Socially, Billy Budd and John Claggart come “from nowhere,” as Arendt noted. Asked who his father was, Billy responds, in one of his characteristically artless answers that seem to carry a further shade of meaning, “God knows, Sir.” As a baby, he “was found in a pretty silk-lined basket hanging one morning from the knocker of a good man’s door in Bristol.”

Herman Melville
Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine

As for Claggart, he speaks with the hint of an accent and may, among other darkly hidden episodes, have come to the warship directly from jail, a practice the narrator learns of from a “Baltimore negro” in Greenwich. When we are informed that the master-at-arm’s expression would sometimes have “a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban,” we may feel—as many readers have felt over the years—that Claggart’s secret, as a self-loathing gay man, is easily guessed. Even Vere, nicknamed “Starry Vere” by a relative, has an inscrutable inner life, and from these starry-eyed reveries his seemingly incomprehensible decisions spring. Of all these men it may be said, according to one of the narrator’s stray remarks: “Yes, X——is a nut not to be cracked by the tap of a lady’s fan.”

Melville calls his tale “an inside narrative,” a phrase that, like so much else in the story, seems to invite multiple interpretations. Does he mean that he is revealing the inner workings of a warship in wartime? Is Billy Budd an inside narrative as opposed to “official” accounts in which, as Melville notes, disturbing events such as mutinies are disguised or expunged from the historical record? “Like some other events in every age befalling states everywhere including America the Great Mutiny was of such character that national pride along with views of policy would fain shade it off into the historical background.” Or is Melville promising inside views of his puzzling characters, details of temperament or biography that might explain why they behave as they do?


Complicating any attempt to arrive at the “true” meaning of Billy Budd is the deliberately open-ended and equivocal manner in which the story is told. Too little attention has been given, over the decades in which debate over Billy Budd has raged, to the narrator—surely the fourth of the crucial characters in the narrative—who “speaks alternately,” as Roger Shattuck once noted, “as a keen witness (who nevertheless misses many of the crucial scenes) and as a singularly obtuse and tendentious commentator on the events.” Much of the fun of the novel—and for such grim material the book has an almost effervescent sprightliness of verbal play—comes from the garrulous narrator. Critics of a Flaubertian or Jamesian bent, mistakenly equating him with Melville, have complained, as Edmund Wilson did, of the tale’s “clottedly dense” prose, or of what Newton Arvin called “the torpidity of the movement, the excess of commentary.” The truth is that Billy Budd, in large measure, is its commentary.

Often the narrator seems to have unimpeded access to the hidden thoughts of characters, offering inside views, for example, of Vere’s attempts to decipher precisely what Claggart is up to. But then, abruptly, we are closed out of the proceedings just when we are most eager for a view, as when Vere has his final conversation with Billy Budd offstage, before the execution is carried out. If we expect any guidance from the narrator in making sense of Vere’s rash, perhaps “unhinged” decision to bring Billy Budd to trial immediately and carry out the sentence without delay, we are disappointed: “Whether Captain Vere…was really the sudden victim of any degree of aberration, every one must determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford.”

Further encouraging the reader to judge for himself, much is made in Billy Budd of how specific words or actions are to be “taken.” Billy’s very first words, when he is enlisted by force, reek of double meaning. “And good bye to you too, old Rights of Man,” he says. This remark his new officer “took as meant to convey a covert sally…a sly slur,” an indication from Billy that on the great issue of the day—whether the French Revolution was, as Edmund Burke had argued, a disaster for the institutions on which society rested or, as Thomas Paine, in his famous rejoinder, had argued, a great boon for all liberty-loving peoples—he sided with the insurgents. Melville’s cagey narrator doesn’t deny the possible validity of such an interpretation but suggests, mildly, that “more likely…it was hardly so by intention” since “to deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature.”

And yet it is Billy’s strange fate to say and do things that invite such competing interpretations. Just as his first words seem a “sly slur,” his last words, “God bless Captain Vere,” may seem to carry an ironic tinge, a covert curse. It may be tempting to believe that the story ends, as Andrew Delbanco put it in his admirable 2005 biography of Melville, with “two human beings who, just as they are being swept apart by the forces of history, experience a private moment of redemptive love.” But why would Melville so carefully exclude us from their final meeting if not to encourage an alternate, and darker, interpretation of what transpired between them?

And then there is the sustained attention given in the story to “the affair of the spilled soup,” when Billy drops his bowl just as Claggart happens to be passing by:

Now when the Master-at-arms noticed whence came that greasy fluid streaming before his feet, he must have taken it—to some extent willfully, perhaps—not for the mere accident it assuredly was, but for the sly escape of a spontaneous feeling on Billy’s part.

There is that telltale word “sly” again, denoting what we would now call a Freudian slip. The narrator’s phrasing is again equivocal: “he must have taken it”; “to some extent willfully, perhaps”; “the mere accident it assuredly was.” We are invited to entertain the notion that Billy Budd may not be quite as innocent as he appears to be.

It is with great books as with rivers: we never step into the same one twice. This is especially the case with a book like Billy Budd, which trails previous interpretations like a stream of spilled soup. Spotless Billy is a Christ figure, we remember from high school, an innocent crucified on the yardarm. The proper historical “context” is—take your pick—the rise of American empire during the 1890s; the debate, around the same time, about the death penalty; the lynching of African-Americans; factory strikes.

The tale offers support for all of these readings, including the interesting suggestion, based on archival research, that Melville may have considered making Billy Budd black.* (The first “Handsome Sailor” we meet in the book, in the opening paragraph, is a “native African” of “symmetric figure” much admired by his mates.) Recent history draws other aspects of the story to the fore: the targeting of “aliens,” government surveillance, the Patriot Act; accusations of fake news; extrajudicial proceedings; the militarization of society. When Melville alludes to “those wars which like a flight of harpies rose shrieking from the din and dust of the fallen Bastile,” it is difficult not to think of the endless wars inspired by the din and dust of the fallen World Trade Center towers.

Yet another interpretive clue might be drawn from the tale’s peculiar origins in poetry, as a headnote to a poem titled “Billy in the Darbies.” In the original poem, Billy in handcuffs (or darbies) confronts his fate. Again, his words traffic in double meanings: “O ’tis me, not the sentence they’ll suspend./Ay, Ay, all is up; and I must up too/Early in the morning.” Other aspects of Billy Budd had their origins in poetry as well. The entire complex character of Captain Vere seems to have arisen from a single quatrain in Andrew Marvell’s country-house poem “Upon Appleton House,” quoted in the tale:

This ’tis to have been from the first
In a domestic heaven nursed,
Under the discipline severe
Of Fairfax and the starry Vere.

Melville wants the words “discipline severe,” applied in the poem to a girl laying out her garden, to remain in the reader’s memory, as the severity of Billy’s sentence is weighed. Vere’s mind, we are told, is incapable of nuance, resembling “a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.” Vere’s “starriness,” associated with wide reading but narrow pedantry, exhibits “nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle”—in other words, a taste for poetry. And if Billy, the Handsome Sailor of a “less prosaic time,” speaks for poetry—speaks, in the final section of Billy Budd, in poetry—prosaic Vere speaks for prose. Melville, the prose-writer turned poet, leaves little doubt where his own sympathies lie.

There is, in the end, something lingeringly poetic about the whole strange tale of the survival of Billy Budd. Lovingly preserved in a breadbox, its pages tied with pink tape into orderly bundles, Billy Budd was itself a foundling. Its hero was a foundling as well, found hanging from a knocker in a pretty silk-lined basket. And as Melville tells it, in this late masterpiece, the basis for the narrative was also something of a foundling, a lucky find for an aging poet-novelist.

In the final pages of Billy Budd, the narrator treats the story of the Handsome Sailor as though he had chanced upon it from stray conversations with old seafarers, supplemented by an old poem, a “rude utterance…rudely printed,” and a mendacious newspaper report, in which Claggart is praised for his “strong patriotic impulse” while Billy Budd—shades of our own dark era—is suspected of being “no Englishman, but one of those aliens adopting English cognomens whom the present extraordinary necessities of the service have caused to be admitted into it in considerable numbers.” “Sentry, are you there?” Billy asks in his final moments in the closing poem, as though consigning his poignant story to the waves:

Just ease these darbies at the wrist,
And roll me over fair.
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.