“At Melville’s Tomb” is the poem that caused Poetry editor Harriet Monroe such trouble in interpretation and called forth Crane’s famous reply in which he expounded his theory of composition. The sixteen-line poem pays homage to the nineteenth century American novelist Herman Melville. In the manner of many poems by young writers addressing their forebears, it manages both to praise the older writer and to suggest that he shares the younger writer’s outlook.
Crane pictures Melville as meditating on one of Crane’s favored themes, the dual nature of the sea, beginning the lyric with the imaginative depiction of the novelist watching breakers roll onto a beach. Certainly Melville, a sailor, wrote knowingly about the sea, but his major novel, Moby Dick (1851), to which Crane alludes, is little concerned with this topic and centers on fraternal and hierarchical relations in a small community of men on a whaling ship.
As Crane depicts the ocean that Melville is observing, it is a place both of death and of eventual resurrection as men overcome their fears and create a faith in something higher. Water has traditionally been viewed as connected to rebirth in baptism and other rituals. As Melville looks into the surf, he sees “the dice of drowned men’s bones” and thinks of the wrecks and lost lives in the depths. His thought rises up, though, to a vision of men at sea finding a spiritual solace in the sky as...
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