‘No Poetry You Have Read’

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…

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