Herman Melville
Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine

When he was twenty-six, Herman Melville published a lightly fictionalized account of his adventures in the South Seas as a young crewmember of a New England whaling ship. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life became a sensational best seller in England and the United States. Between that prosperous beginning and the end of his career as a novelist eleven years later, he published Omoo (further tales of the South Seas), Mardi (an unwieldy allegory), Redburn (based on his youth), White-Jacket (drawing on his experience on a Navy frigate), Moby-Dick (an encyclopedic novel of whaling), Pierre (a darkly Gothic family saga), Israel Potter (a picaresque novel of Revolutionary times), and The Confidence-Man (a sardonic satire). As his audience dwindled, his career slid steadily downward until he made “not a penny” (according to his editors) from the London and New York editions of the final novel.

With a wife and four children to support, Melville determined to transform himself into a poet, having in mind the financial success of Scott, Byron, Browning, and Longfellow. His 1866 volume of poetry about the Civil War—Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War—was his only book of verse to see commercial publication. An earlier collection (to be called simply Poems) was rejected in manuscript in 1860 by two publishers. In a furiously disappointed midlife self-rescue, while employed from 1866 as a customs inspector on the New York docks, Melville spent four years writing a long, skeptical, and relativistic philosophical tetrameter treatise of “about 18,000 lines” (say the editors) called Clarel. His uncle paid for its publication in 1876, but it sold so badly that, with Melville’s permission, the publisher had the remaining copies pulped in 1879. By the end of his life, Melville was reduced to piteously paying a New York printer to issue, in two tiny editions of twenty-five copies each, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse (1891).

Of our chief nineteenth-century poets—among them Whitman and Dickinson—Melville is the least taught, the least known, the least quoted. His poems have languished outside the canon of American classics, a disregard now repaired by the handsome reproduction, by the Library of America, of his Complete Poems, with indispensable notes by both Melville himself and his eminent biographer and editor Hershel Parker. (This volume is one result of the magnificent fifteen-volume Northwestern-Newberry Library scholarly edition of Melville’s Writings, completed two years ago.)

Those knowing Melville only from his novels and tales will be puzzled by the poems, not only because they embody nineteenth-century historical fact and intense religious dispute but also because they quarrel with our reduced idea of acceptable subjects for lyric verse. At full strength, Melville is a poet of dangerous social and political observation. Here he is on the aesthetic and “moral” hideousness of a predator, the Maldive shark, who is guided through the perilous seas by his awful sycophants, the little “pilot-fish” who remain unharmed because they are useful to him, nimble and alert and wary in sea-depths as he is not. (Melville is drawing on the folk-etymology of “pilot-fish”: the shark actually tolerates pilot-fish because they clean parasites from his skin.) The poem is initially shocking because it has been cast into waltz rhythms that seem wholly incongruous with the ponderous shark, but the reader comes to realize that the pilot-fish not only constitute the eyes of the shark but also govern his lunge toward the kill with their own wily quick-wittedness; they are the brain behind the bulk:

The Maldive Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!

They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat—
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

The poet’s ironic use of “friends” and “treat” (ostentatiously rhymed with “meat”) are signals, through the tripping rhythms, of the perversion of language attending evil. In every malevolent leader with his cluster of clever aides, Melville’s allegorical shark reappears. What makes the allegory convincing is the poet’s punctilious inventory of the physical malice of the predator, rising to lurid detail in his investigation of the “saw-pit of mouth,” the “charnel of maw,” and its lethal weapon of destruction, his menacing jaw and his threatening teeth. The raw imaginative energy of the poem—with its phlegmatic “dotard lethargic and dull” androgynously inseparable from the feminized, slim, and sleek pilot-fish agents—pulses unstoppably from its brief sixteen lines.


Melville was always ready to contemplate any topic emanating from the sea, and he was more sharply drawn, even in Battle-Pieces, to naval battles than to those on land. However, the rest of his title—Aspects of the War—points to the more meditative poems of the second part of that volume. The huge war—costing the United States more in casualties than any other—would hardly seem compassable in verse: as Whitman wrote in Specimen Days, “The real war will never get in the books.” The many sociological “aspects of the war”—political, regional, military, and marine—are all touched on by Melville, but given the brevity of most of the poems, it at first seems strange that Melville’s digressive energies, so powerful in Moby-Dick, do not overcome his themes. His inclination to digress is countered, in his lyrics, by his equally strong impulse to encapsulate “aspects” of life in tragic aphorism or lucid epigram:

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

The least successful poems in Battle-Pieces are the ones wholly given over to storytelling. Descendants of the British ballads, they sometimes spin out their tales to undue length, and the longest of them, “The Scout toward Aldie” (inspired by Melville’s actual trip in 1864 to an area of guerrilla warfare), occupies no less than twenty-three pages in this edition. The tale is slowed down by its ungainly seven-line stanza (in contrast to the usual ballad’s tense four-line one), and since events are few, a great deal of filler appears, in part because Melville understandably tried to meet public taste with what he thought would sell.

To be fair to him as a poet, he was also conducting for himself experiments in conveying real-life war in the stylized forms of lyric verse. Rhymes—yes or no? Tempo—the leisurely pentameter or quick anapests? A backward look at past events or a present-tense resurrection of their terrors? An objective speaker or a soldier-participant? And, centrally, in what language can patriotism speak in a country divided by “The Conflict of Convictions” (as Melville titled one poem)? Or is patriotism impossible in “The fair, false, Circe light of cruel War” (as he writes in “Running the Batteries”)?

Melville’s uneven stylistic choices are visible on every page. “Donelson” asserts the “objectivity” of its narrator by his quoting, from a bulletin-board read by a crowd, successive printed news dispatches from the battlefield (some with rhyming headlines!). Another poem, “The House-top”—a considered one in blank verse—concerns the bloody draft riots in New York City. Still others are feebly imitative of the British ballad, especially ones that mistakenly attempt an impossible refrain. In one such refrain, the embarrassing rhymes honoring Nathaniel Lyon (the first Union general to die in combat in the war) include “fly on,” “fie on,” “scion,” “Orion” (thrice), “die on” (twice), “iron” (twice), “sigh on,” “Tryon,” and “Zion.” Critics mocked Melville’s deficiencies of diction and rhyme.

Of all the critical remarks, the smoothest but most dismissive was written by William Dean Howells in The Atlantic Monthly: disturbed, perhaps, by the retrospective and unsentimental nature of this postwar book, he wrote:

Mr. Melville’s work…not only reminds you of no poetry you have read, but of no life you have known. Is it possible—you ask yourself, after running over all these celebrative, inscriptive, and memorial verses—that there has really been a great war, with battles fought by men and bewailed by women? Or is it only that Mr. Melville’s inner consciousness has been perturbed, and filled with the phantasms of enlistments, marches, fights in the air, parenthetic bulletin-boards, and tortured humanity shedding, not words and blood, but words alone?

But Melville was after bigger game than lyric euphony and narrative grace. Two things distinguish his best poems: an original way of beginning them, and his own frequent, if tacit, adoption of God’s omniscience—seeing all, judging much. Conventional lyrics tend to open with a narrative and close with a decisive judgment, and that model—the indefinite leading to the definite—mimics the normal course of life, in which something is first experienced and then evaluated. Melville has been less appreciated as a poet than his contemporaries Whitman and Dickinson in part because his poems so often begin not “naturally” with an experience, but rather “unnaturally” with a conclusion. “The March into Virginia” begins inscrutably, opening not with a story but with a philosophical question:

Did all the lets [hindrances] and bars appear
To every just or larger end,
Whence should come the trust and cheer?
Youth must its ignorant impulse lend—
Age finds place in the rear.

Melville briefly repeats that judgment colloquially, in the deservedly famous line—“All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys”—but he as quickly subsides into a second universal generalization:


All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,
The champions and enthusiasts of the state:
Turbid ardors and vain joys
Not barrenly abate—
Stimulants to the power mature,
Preparatives of fate.

The reader halts to decode Melville’s complex summary: even though youth’s “turbid [obscurely disruptive] ardors” and “vain [futile] joys” in the expectation of victory unhappily expire in defeat, they nonetheless are fruitful in the long run, both as inspirations for better military strategies and as preparations for the fated end. Only after fifteen lines of such harsh abstractions does the poem begin its narrative:

The banners play, the bugles call,
The air is blue and prodigal.

“The March into Virginia” closes as unexpectedly as it began, with a catastrophic forked ending arriving at two kinds of knowledge. Initially it grieves for the soldiers who died in the first battle of Manassas Junction, also known as the First Battle of Bull Run, the boys who—although they entered the battle in “blithe mood” and walked in “lightsome files”—discover hideously, and almost immediately, the swift annihilation of gunfire. In Melville’s bitter pun, some among the “lightsome” files are, in a single moment, “enlightened”:

But some, who this blithe mood present,
As on in lightsome files they fare,
Shall die experienced ere three days are spent—
Perish, enlightened by the vollied glare;

—and then, after the pause inflicted by the semicolon, Melville adds his second, even more tragic, ending, not that of the destruction of bodies but rather that of the scarring of minds. Not all the soldiers die in the unspeakable witnessing of their comrades’ deaths; those who have endured the carnage—hardened by the shame of error and the searing knowledge of what war is—must go on to their worse defeat in the following encounter: “and, like to adamant,/Thy after shock, Manassas, share.” Petrified by trauma, the defeated have surrendered flesh for stone, as he writes elsewhere, for “the stoniness that waits/The finality of doom.”

Melville’s conclusion to “The March into Virginia” contains no forecast of later victory, no religious consolation. In its alternative results—an excruciating moment of dying knowledge or a future of grisly stoicism—it is among his best poems, not only for its mid-moment “boyishness,” but for bracketing that fleeting insouciance with an initial judgment evoking the boys’ ardent folly and a final discrimination of two distinct species of knowledge, one instantaneous, the other prophetic.

Melville opens another “battle-piece” just as abstrusely, this time positing a strangely distant aesthetic principle:

In time and measure perfect moves
All Art whose aim is sure;
Evolving rhyme and stars divine
Have rules, and they endure.

The modern “proof” of Melville’s godlike declaration that the whole universe, from stars to poetry, has canonical rules, is that Samuel Francis Du Pont’s victorious fleet in his “round fight” sailed in a crescent formation:

Nor less the Fleet that warred for Right,
And warring so, prevailed,
In geometric beauty curved,
And in an orbit sailed.

Melville’s universal judgments (like this one) declare his two founding beliefs—that all history is mere iteration (“Age after age shall be/As age after age has been”) and that the historically memorable inevitably fades into the symbolically vague (“In legend all shall end”). Melville deliberately validates his assertion by the inclusion of “end” in “legend.” Were the poet to begin “naturally” with narrative (as he sometimes does), he would be assuming the position of the ignorant spectator, watching the battle unroll, episode by episode; by beginning with judgment, or iteration, or principle, he extends to his readers the courtesy of placing them among the elect who have already absorbed these impregnable axioms.

Soldiers from the 22nd New York State Militia near Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 1862

Mathew Brady/Library of Congress

Soldiers from the 22nd New York State Militia near Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 1862

When Melville takes on the sibylline role of the prophet foretelling the future, he could assume instant understanding from his original readers: as they read the following short poem, for instance, they would have known that the saber-wounded John Brown, after his failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry in Virginia (now West Virginia, near the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers), had been hanged, wearing the white muslin death-hood that (as photographs show) covered the face but not the beard below. Brown’s 1859 rebellion seems, in hindsight, to be indeed a portent of the war that was to begin in 1861. But what, without notes, would the modern reader make of the second stanza or the refrain of this mysteriously titled and italicized poem, “The Portent,” that prefaces Battle-Pieces?

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.

Melville’s successes, when they occur, are moving precisely because one has to track, as in this example, the motions of a compressed intellectual, historical, and pictorial argument. The notes in this Library of America edition allow some ease of entrance to Melville’s historical and political and biblical references, but even so, contemporary readers may need to look for ampler accounts of Civil War battles.

Although war poems usually take place on land, and lament the death of human beings, Melville also wrote—as one might have guessed—elegies for ships. He watches, sometimes in partisan disgust, as the modern technology of cannon and ironclads replaces the fledged arrows and suits of armor of the past, as mechanical “operatives” replace aristocrats in lace-trimmed garments. What makes one poem linger in the mind is the eerily disabling “singe” making its sinister way through archaic accoutrements of battle:

War yet shall be, but warriors
Are now but operatives; War’s made
Less grand than Peace,
And a singe runs through lace and feather.

So concludes “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight,” in which Melville laments the disappearance of the handsome ships of the line in favor of inhuman inventions like the ironclads. But aesthetic nostalgia is too easy a mood for Melville: for him the poetry of war requires something rougher, like the lightning bolts that armed Michael in his fight with Satan, in “The Battle for the Mississippi”:

The shock of ships, the jar of walls,
The rush through thick and thin—
The flaring fire-rafts, glare and gloom—
Eddies, and shells that spin—
The boom-chain burst, the hulks dislodged,
The jam of gun-boats driven,
Or fired, or sunk—made up a war
Like Michael’s waged with leven.

There are finer tones in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War than this aggressively warlike one, among them memories of the deaths of comrades in “Malvern Hill”—when, as in Brady’s photographs of unburied corpses, rigor mortis stiffened soldiers’ bodies after they fell, their paper gunpowder-cartridges at their teeth about to be torn open, and fixed bayonets still aimed at the enemy:

…Deep within yon forest dim
Our rigid comrades lay—
Some with the cartridge in their mouth,
Others with fixed arms lifted South—…
Does the elm wood
Recall the haggard beards of blood?

The arresting lines that flash through Battle-Pieces are the fruit of steady thought, sometimes aphoristic, sometimes frighteningly metaphorical, sometimes proposing a steely apprehension of the worst. Even in the moment of commemorating a naval victory, the experienced sailor, remembering his companions killed by lurking sharks, trembles:

Elate he never can be;
He feels that spirits which glad had hailed his worth,
Sleep in oblivion.—The shark
Glides white through the phosphorus sea.

In the extended poem Clarel, Melville intended something like The Canterbury Tales, in which a group of pilgrims converse during multiple encounters on the road. But Melville’s pilgrims don’t have tales to tell, as Chaucer’s so brilliantly do; instead, the dialogues in Clarel generate personal reminiscence or religious debates. Clarel is a young American theological student visiting the Holy Land (as Melville had done years earlier), and the poem can be thought of as Clarel’s intellectual initiation, not only into the beliefs of his fellow Americans but also into those of members of the innumerable sects and races present in the Holy Land. After the scholarly investigations (notably by David Strauss and Ernest Renan) questioning the literal truth of Bible stories, including those relating to the life of Jesus, almost any reflective mind would confront those doubts.

Discussing Cicero, one of Clarel’s companions reiterates the sameness of all historical cultures in their rejection of superstitious beliefs; intellectuals disbelieved, but the populace still wished to have prophets foretell the future:

His age was much like ours: doubt ran,
Faith flagged; negations which sufficed
Lawyer, priest, statesman, gentleman,
Not yet being popularly prized,
The augurs hence retained some state—
Which served for the illiterate.
Still, the decline so swiftly ran
From stage to stage, that
To Believe,
Except for slave or artisan,
Seemed heresy. Even doubts which met
Horror at first, grew obsolete,
And in a decade.

Clarel, in his own reiteration of historical analogy, goes back further, citing Job as the archetype of the pain attending doubt. Still later, in the midst of a Whitsuntide celebration in Jerusalem, Clarel appears for the last time, declaring that with the astounding rise of science, as in the transatlantic cable, Jesus no longer rises from his stone-sealed tomb, and utters no message to the pilgrim:

But, lagging after, who is he
Called early every hope to test….
Wending, he murmurs in low tone:
“They wire the world—far under sea
They talk; but never comes to me
A message from beneath the stone.”

Melville appends a philosophical epilogue to his poem, contrasting Luther’s religion and the science of evolution: “If Luther’s day expand to Darwin’s year,/Shall that exclude the hope—foreclose the fear?” Yet at the end, he turns to address his double, Clarel, in equivocal terms reassuring him of possible immortality: “Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,/And prove that death but routs life into victory.”

Melville is an American Victorian, and in seeing Clarel’s unresolved doubts we can be reminded of the stresses of Hopkins’s conversion, Carlyle’s spiritual passage from the Everlasting No to the Everlasting Yea, Gosse’s Father and Son (pitting the religious scientist-father against his skeptical son), or Tennyson’s uncertainties about immortality pervading “In Memoriam.” Clarel embodies the anguish of Matthew Arnold’s fellow post-Christian agnostics, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.”

The personages of Clarel are mostly stereotypical (the atheist geologist, the superficial Protestant minister), except for the mysterious pilgrim Vine (who resembles Hawthorne, once Melville’s intimate friend). But their language—Melville’s language—displays a spectrum of responses to the Holy Land: grandeur and resentment, deliberate frivolity and harrowing anxiety, misgivings about salvation, aspiring attempts to imagine in Jesus a believable and sympathetic historical exemplar.

Throughout Clarel’s desert journey, as well as in Battle-Pieces, Melville consistently creates temporal double-exposures, in which a historical comparison is adduced to illuminate a contemporary scene. But in Clarel the remoteness of the allusion is often confounding:

Vine’s brow shot up with crimson lights
As may the North on frosty nights
Over Dilston Hall and his low state—
The fair young Earl whose bloody end
Those red rays do commemorate.

Where is Dilston Hall? Who was “the fair young Earl”? In such a passage, Melville thinks nothing of conjoining, via the Northern Lights, Clarel’s fellow pilgrim Vine and a young English earl—heir to the tower-castle Dilston Hall—who was executed as a Jacobite in 1716. (The editorial note here adds that the execution coincided “with especially brilliant Northern Lights,” but could Melville have expected his readers to know this?) Melville in Clarel does not care whether his putative readers can follow his allusions: sitting above the material world, contemplating the grand panorama of time and space, he could survey history with a sweeping authority. Melville, a lifelong autodidact, has only to find a historical parallel to guarantee his “correct” view of the present.

Both BattlePieces and Clarel, like Moby-Dick, exhibit a presiding masculinity in a closed system: a war, a pilgrimage, a whaling ship. But in an undated and undervalued poem called “After the Pleasure-Party,” Melville adopts, in an unusual move, the voice of a learned and sexually frustrated young woman astronomer, Urania, still a virgin, and unhappily so. During the earlier “pleasure-party,” the young man for whom Urania yearned had rejected her in favor of a more conventionally beautiful but empty-headed girl:

O, dreams he, can he dream that one
Because not roseate feels no sun?
The plain lone bramble thrills with Spring
As much as vines that grapes shall bring.

Me now fair studies charm no more.
Shall great thoughts writ, or high themes sung
Damask wan cheeks—unlock his arm
About some radiant ninny flung?

(It is pleasant to see, from the notes in the scholarly Northwestern-Newberry edition, that it took Melville four tries at alternative phrases before he settled on the precise “radiant ninny.”)

Of course, Urania’s loneliness is drawn from Melville’s own; he could acquire no missing half matching his unique self.2 Urania borrows from Plato’s Symposium Aristophanes’ myth of the origin of the sexually various human quests for a beloved: we were created as two integrated hemispheres, some male-male, some female-female, some male-female, but Fate cleft our original spheres in two, and we must vainly seek the half we lost. Urania, in the heart of the poem, cries out against the Nature that has left both sexes equally bereft:

Why hast thou made us but in halves—
Co-relatives? This makes us slaves.
If these co-relatives never meet
Selfhood itself seems incomplete….
What Cosmic jest or Anarch blunder
The human integral clove asunder
And shied the fractions through life’s gate?

In the end, Urania (“enlightened, undeceived”) repudiates the Virgin Mary as patroness in favor of the virgin Athena, but her prayer to be made “self-reliant, strong and free” remains unanswered, and the narrator comments, “Nothing may help or heal/While Amor incensed remembers wrong.” Melville had met Maria Mitchell, an astronomer, and she may have been the model for Urania, but we know nothing of the composition or date of the poem.

The Library of America’s Complete Poems, almost a thousand pages long, though uneven, rewards the reader with its flashing observations—sometimes in a short passage, sometimes in an entire lyric, sometimes in a long passage from Clarel. That diary-like pilgrimage-poem should really be read over four years, bit by bit, as the poet wrote it. With its 18,000 lines, it is impossible to absorb on a first reading when one is still trying to sort out the characters, the pilgrimage path, and the historical allusions. In my own experience, by the second reading the staging of the narrative opens itself up, and the difficulty in understanding has disappeared; and by the third time, one can relish the poem in itself.