Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

If there is a single theme to a poetic experience as rich and complex as the one “At Melville’s Tomb” provides, it is that there are limits to human knowledge, yet that does not mean that there are limits to human vision. The poet warns one not to expect the typical from his poetry while nevertheless allowing one to imagine that there is some overriding and predictable formal order to the poem. To some degree, that is the message of the poem as well.

The more deeply one looks into things, the more obscure and confused one’s vision becomes; however, the instant one casts one’s eyes into the most expansive of vistas, one recognizes some overriding structure to time and space and eternity—even if one finds it impossible to say or to measure what that structure may be.

By avoiding the present tense, Crane pushes the reader into an epistemological quagmire. What one knows and how one knows it are revealed to be worthless pieces of information in comparison with the ultimate mystery: the momentary existence of the universe itself. In the process of resurrecting Melville and his vision, for example, the poet nevertheless keeps his reader mindful of the pastness of the present that Melville occupied, just as the “he” of the poem is examining information whose living, or useful, significance lies in the past.

The danger is in thinking that Crane is saying that one must therefore “know” nothing. By poem’s end, Crane allows one to imagine only some future epiphany that may not even wake one. What is clearly absent is a knowable present, and that, for the living, feeling mind, is the biggest problem. If we can realize, however, as the poem suggests, that all one’s so-called knowledge is in fact berthed in one’s very unknowing—that it is, in very real terms, one’s confusions and uncertainties that cause one to raise eyes and lift altars—then one can understand why the stars, even in their silence, offer something “fabulous.” Their very silence tells a far more profound tale than the worldly detritus on the shores of human knowledge can ever repeat.