Though a few of Herman Melville’s short poems have been reprinted in anthologies of American literature, he is known almost exclusively for his prose fiction. The Melville biographers and critics who mention the poetry usually pass quickly over it, often giving the impression that it may interest some curious readers but that it has no great importance as compared with his novels and stories. In recent years, however, considerable interest has been shown in Melville as a poet.
Most of Melville’s poetry was published during his lifetime, but it drew little attention, partly because the last two volumes were published in editions of only twenty-five copies each. A number of previously unpublished poems did not appear until 1924 in the final volume of the Standard Edition of Melville’s works. A critical edition of the poems (not including the lengthy CLAREL, which occupies two volumes in the Standard Edition) was published in 1947 with explanatory notes and textual notes by Howard P. Vincent. A similar edition of CLAREL, with a critical analytical introduction by Walter E. Bezanson, came out in 1961. Nearly a century after its original publication, Melville’s BATTLE-PIECES AND ASPECTS OF THE WAR was re-issued in 1963 as THE BATTLE-PIECES OF HERMAN MELVILLE in a handsomely printed and profusely illustrated edition with an introduction and extensive notes by Hennig Cohen. The following year Mr. Cohen brought out a volume of SELECTED POEMS OF HERMAN MELVILLE, which contains, in addition to many of the poems in Vincent’s edition, several passages from CLAREL and over eighty pages of comment by the editor on individual poems. Cohen quotes many of Melville’s notes to the poems and frequently draws attention to the relationship between certain poems and Melville’s various works of fiction.
Melville’s first published volume of verse did not appear until 1866, and most of his extant verse was written in the last thirty-five years of his life. But his symbolic novel MARDI, published in 1849, contains some romantic effusions by the poet Yoomy and several other brief poems. In 1860, when Melville sailed for San Francisco on his brother’s ship, he left with his wife a manuscript volume of poems for which she was to find a publisher if possible. No publisher was found, but many of the poems in TIMOLEON, which came out in the year of Melville’s death, may be among those in the earlier unpublished book.
A number of critics and biographers have called attention to the difficulties which face the beginning reader of Melville’s verse. Newton Arvin has observed that Melville the poet seems to be a prose writer working with verse. Robert Penn Warren has found the seemingly inept distortions and wrenchings in many lines to represent a possible attempt to develop a style fitted to a man of Melville’s masculine temperament. Laurence Barrett sees the violences and wrenchings as often effective, especially upon rereading, and as conscious technical devices being used sometimes awkwardly but occasionally with marked success.
Melville explains in a prefatory note to BATTLE-PIECES AND ASPECTS OF THE WAR that most of the poems in the volume were the result of an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond in 1865. The arrangement is generally chronological but not strictly so. The first poem, “The Portent,” concerns the hanging of John Brown on December 2, 1859, and most of the poems at the end of the volume relate to events of 1864 and 1865, though several return to earlier years of the war. Among the best poems are “The Portent,” “The Conflict of Convictions,” “The March into Virginia,” “The Temeraire,” “Malvern Hill,” and “The Martyr.”
In “The Portent” the body of John Brown hangs swaying from the scaffold beam, throwing a symbolic shadow on the green of the Shenandoah Valley which will be stained later with so much red. As the hangman’s cap covers Brown’s face, so the future is veiled, but the streaming beard of “Weird John Brown” ominously forecasts the “meteor of the war.”
“The Conflict of Convictions,” with its obvious allusions to the war in Heaven in PARADISE LOST, shows an indifferent God who will not stop men when they make their choices: “The People spread like a weedy grass, / The thing they will they bring to pass.” The boyish soldiers in “The March into Virginia” proceed into the “leafy neighborhood” near Manassas with the lightsome joyousness of picnickers. But, says Melville, some in the next three days will “Perish, enlightened by the volied glare,” and others will survive to endure the shame of a second defeat in the same area a few weeks later. In “The Temeraire” an old Englishman fondly and sadly recalls the passing away forever of the glorious oldtime sea battles of the great wooden sailing ships, while he muses on the fight between the small and unromantic ironclads MONITOR and MERRIMAC.
“Shiloh” is a brief and beautiful requiem for the soldiers who fell there and who lie now “While over them the swallows skim, / And all is hushed at Shiloh.” As the swallows in this poem symbolize the indifference of nature to man’s bloody conflicts, so do the...
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