illustrated portrait of American author Herman Melville

Herman Melville

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Herman Melville Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3190

As he does in his novels, Herman Melville, in his poems, pursues his personal struggle to discover some degree of certainty in a world in which such a task was becoming increasingly difficult. For the Deists of the eighteenth century, God had receded to the role of watchmaker who, after the machine-like world was constructed, left it to run its course. In the nineteenth century, with the impact of historical criticism of the Bible and of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, God seemed to have disappeared altogether. Such awareness, however, was confined to the most perceptive thinkers; the masses of people put off such challenges for a later day. Melville was one of those thinkers who refused to put off an intellectual or spiritual challenge that came his way. He was for his time a seer, a prophet. It is probably for this reason that Melville, while speaking with an ever clearer voice today, found himself misunderstood and finally unheard in his own time. Melville’s personal struggle has become that of our time.

Melville sought to reconcile the antinomies of existence. Since the advent of the Christian era, the most serious of these contraries, life and death, could easily be reconciled by the promise of eternal happiness—for the faithful, that is, although one of eternal torture and hellfire for unbelievers. By Melville’s time, the promise of an afterlife had become less certain, and, to some, improbable and even naïve. This is the kind of conflict that preoccupied Melville, and that he confronted with courage and commitment.

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

Melville’s first book of poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, was harshly criticized for its unconventional metrics. One reviewer, writing for The Round Table on September 15, 1866, asserted that the poet displayed a “disregard of the laws of verse” and that he “ha[d] but little sense of melody, and almost no sense of proportion.” Educated readers of the mid-nineteenth century still expected both to see and to hear regular patterns of rhyme and rhythm—not the irregular, experimental patterns of Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville. As in the better poetry of Whitman and Dickinson, however, irregularities of rhythm and rhyme, when they occur in Melville’s better poems, do indeed “seem an echo to the sense” (Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, 1711). Perhaps what is true of Melville’s ideas is true of his sound patterns; just as twentieth century minds are required to grasp Melville’s penetrating analysis of human estrangement from time-honored but time-worn ideas of God, so modern ears are necessary to connect sound with sense in his poetry.

“Misgivings”

The second poem of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, “Misgivings,” embodies most of Melville’s major themes, as well as displays his formal innovations. The poem, fourteen lines long, suggests the sonnet form; but it exhibits several radical departures from traditional sonnet structure. Instead of fourteen lines of fairly regular iambic pentameter, Melville has two seven-line stanzas. The first five lines of the first stanza are in iambic tetrameter with only one anapest to vary the pattern; line six adopts the familiar iambic pentameter of the sonnet. The final line of the first stanza, however, contains two anapests and two amphimacers, so six lines of the first stanza retain a four-stress rhythm. The second stanza is another matter. Only the first three lines are iambic tetrameter, with a trochee, two spondees, and an anapest for variation. The fourth line is composed in iambic trimeter with a spondee, but the next two lines expand swiftly, by use of monosyllabic and disyllabic words, into perfectly regular iambic pentameters, leading to the slower concluding Alexandrine (iambic hexameter), which contains three anapests. The rhyme scheme is ababacc for each stanza, except for the fifth line of stanza 2, which does not rhyme with any other line in the poem.

Although Melville’s formal innovations struck many of his readers as disagreeable, unpoetic, even clumsy, they are strictly functional. The sound pattern in “Misgivings” complements, with consummate artistry, the poem’s meaning. The poem opens as “ocean-clouds” are observed sweeping over “inland hills” during “late autumn brown”; these clouds of huge expanse bring with them destructive storms that fill “the sodden valley” with “horror.” The pathetic fallacy developed in the first three lines, that an inanimate valley may be filled with terror, prepares the reader for the fourth line’s arresting observation, as well as for its abstract significance. The destructive storm, which comes in dreary autumn, is to be followed by the frozen, paralyzing (even deadly) winter, striking terror in the hearts of the valley’s inhabitants, even causing “the spire” to fall “crashing in the town.”

That very concrete image, a crashing spire, may first suggest the destruction of a church or of religion. The spire crashes in a town, however, suggesting a further association of the spire with societal order. The poet seems to suggest, then, that the very fabric of his country’s civilization is vulnerable to the destructiveness of this storm. The splitting of the Union in 1860 seemed to promise just such destruction. The poet next laments that such promised devastation may be explained metaphorically as “The tempest bursting from the waste of Time/ On the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.”

This couplet echoes Melville’s reading of at least two of William Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth (pr. 1606) and The Tempest (pr. 1611). The action of The Tempest comes bursting on the stage as the play opens with a storm of its own, the result of a waste of Time. Prospero, denied his rightful dukedom of Milan for twelve years, has eked out a meager existence on a remote Mediterranean island far from Milan; seizing the opportunity that fate has suddenly provided him, he manages to reassemble the offending parties by having his servant Ariel create the illusion of a storm; he finally attains the justice denied him during these twelve years, this great waste of Time. The second line of the couplet recalls the “fair is foul and foul is fair” motif in Macbeth. That which seems fair, Macbeth’s hospitality toward King Duncan, is in fact most foul, for Macbeth plots and carries out Duncan’s murder. In Melville’s poem, “the world’s fairest hope,” the United States, the modern world’s first experiment in democracy, has actively legitimized, from its birth, “man’s foulest crime,” slavery. For the eighty-four years since Independence, Americans have squandered time by committing a crime they have declared, in principle at least, to be barbarous and unspeakably cruel. The land of the free has enforced and even legislated slavery, freedom’s exact opposite.

The metrical architecture of this crucial “Time-crime” couplet is astonishing. The first five lines establish the mood and set the scene for disaster. Religion, civilization, and even nature herself, as in Macbeth and The Tempest, all seem to herald the speed of doom. The swift pace of these five lines is slowed, however, first by the increase of an extra foot in the “Time” line and then by a much more complicated process in the final line of the stanza. Such a slowing is indeed appropriate, for the poet has commented that this scene moves him to “muse upon my country’s ills.” Although the sixth line contains fivefeet and the seventh only four, the last line is lengthened by two anapests that introduce two amphimacers, in each of which the first and last syllables receive primary stress: “fairest hope” and “foulest crime.” So the four-foot line actually contains six primary stresses, creating an effect of gravity. Indeed, the poems’ subject is most grave. Finally, the precision of “Time-crime” need only be stated, for surely slavery has been Time’s crime.

The poem’s suggestion that Nature herself also participates in this crime is now stated in the first line of the next stanza: “Nature’s dark side is heeded now.” Recognizing Melville’s dependence on Calvinism’s claim that all people are innately depraved (“In Adam’s fall/ We sinned all”), one is led to conclude that the “Nature” that Melville names here is that of humankind’s essential depravity, although Melville did not restrict himself to metaphors drawn from Christianity. He drew on other religious traditions as well, particularly on Zoroastrianism, a Near Eastern faith that posits the existence of a good god of light, Ahura Mazda, and one of evil darkness, Ahriman (Angra Mainyu), who struggle for the souls of men. Melville introduced Zoroastrianism into his works when in Moby Dick he made Ahab’s mysterious servant Fedallah a Parsee, a term then used for an adherent of Zoroastrianism. The line “Nature’s dark side is heeded now” may just as likely suggest the cosmic struggle between the gods of light and darkness in which the god of darkness now has the upper hand. Certainly the participation of nature in the storm indicates that the struggle here is one of cosmic or exterior proportions and not merely one of interior conscience.

In the following line Melville observes parenthetically “(Ah! optimist—cheer disheartened flown).” In The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857-1891 (1972), William H. Shurr calls this line “an unequivocal statement of Melville’s . . . antitranscendentalist polemic.” Certainly in a world that heeds “Nature’s dark side,” there can be little room for transcendental optimism, and the spondee that opens the line would seem to place emphasis on that optimism. The line concludes, however, with the phrase “disheartened flown.” The next two lines, made up of monosyllabics and disyllabics, now move swiftly toward the conclusion. The first of these two lines maintains the tetrameter rhythm of the stanza’s initial two lines; the next, or fourth, line, however, has four primary stresses but only three feet.

This tetrameter line followed by a trimeter seems to mock first the adults in the town and then those of the country for not having foreseen the inevitable doom of death and destruction: “A child may read the moody brow/ Of yon black mountain lone.” The image of a “black mountain” could refer, as some have suggested, to the black race preparing both to liberate themselves and to be liberated. Considering Melville’s use of Zoroastrianism, however, the phrase seems to duplicate the terrible evil suggested in the first line of the stanza by the spondaic phrase, “dark side.” Something else a bit more subtle is happening here, however, and this subtlety shows Melville at his best as a sound-technician.

The diphthong in “mountain” and the voiced vowel in “lone” set up a pattern that carries over into the following, regularly pentameter line: “With shouts the torrents down the gorges go.” While the diphthong of “mountain” appears again in “shouts” and “down,” the voiced vowel of “lone” recurs in “torrents,” “gorges,” and finally in the nonrhyming verb “go.” This line is the only one of the poem that does not rhyme; it is lengthened by a foot; and it assonates with the preceding line. All these factors bring emphasis to bear on this line. The next line gives a clue why: “And storms are formed behind the storm we feel.” Note the continued assonance of the voiced vowel in “lone” now appearing in “storms,” “formed,” and “storm.” Melville also skillfully retains the liquid r in five of these “lone” assonating syllables: “torrents,” “gorges,” “storms,” “formed,” and “storm.”

Recalling the sweeping storm that opens the poem, the emphasis called for here is very artfully accomplished and should now become apparent. The “storm” is not merely a metaphor from Nature that “we feel”; it has now become an actual storm stirred by men. The storm’s metaphorical torrents are, in fact, the shouts of real men, and the poem moves to this apocalyptic conclusion: “The hemlock shakes in the rafter, the oak in the driving keel.”

Now since the poison of the hemlock has finally done its work on the rafters of the human soul, the very oak or strength of the steering body, the ship of state, trembles at the horror of the storm. As was suggested in the image of the town’s crashing spire, the very fabric of civilization shakes at the discovery of its own evil. This sonnet, then, draws a picture that is perfectly consistent with Melville’s worldview in his novels and in many other poems. Melville feels the responsibility to admonish the world of its threatened doom. When the world of “seem” is the exact opposite of the way people perceive it, then their continued existence is indeed imperiled.

“Shiloh, a Requiem”

“Shiloh, a Requiem” relates some of the results of the country’s disgorging. The poem is a lament for the shocking loss of life (and “the waste of Time”) that one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War has brought on the country. The poem opens on a cloudy day following the battle of April 6 and 7, 1862. The bursts of cannon and tortured shouts are completely absent now as “Skimming lightly, wheeling still,/ The swallows fly low/ Over the field.” As in “Misgivings,” Melville is here an artist of sound; for the light skimming and wheeling of the birds echo the passage of bullets through the unresisting air. “Skimming lightly, wheeling still,” Melville had said; the echoes of the bullets continue to remain haunting visitors to this battlefield that is a national monument. Ironically the poet notes that the men who died here were “Foemen at morn, but friends at eve,” and he continues with this succinct observation: “What like a bullet can undeceive!” Such a warning speaks to any culture of any time.

Clarel

Clarel, his long narrative of a spiritual journey, has no images as immediate as those of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War’s sweeping storms and dying foemen; rather, in the ten years separating the two works Melville has become more philosophical and contemplative. This tone certainly prevails in Clarel’s “Epilogue,” as the poem’s opening lines indicate. The poet asks in a brief question of sweeping scope: “If Luther’s day expand to Darwin’s year,/ Shall that exclude the hope—foreclose the fear?” Expressing some measure of impatience with the debate suggested by such a question, the poet asserts: “The running battle of the star and clod/ Shall run forever—if there be no God.” Finally he advises Clarel to “keep thy heart yet but ill resigned/ . . . thy heart, the issues there but mind.”

In the final analysis, Melville seems to be saying, the heart offers the greatest certainty in an uncertain world; indeed, even “Science the feud can only aggravate.” If one relies on the heart, however, “Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,/ And prove that death but routs life into victory.” These are noble lines. Robert Penn Warren labels them an affirmation. One must note carefully, however, that the statement is conditional: “Emerge thou mayst.” Melville is still unwilling to subscribe to any dogma, whether religious or scientific (whether of Luther or of Darwin), but he can find solace in his knowledge of the human heart and in the power of human feeling. As for the certainty for which Clarel has made his pilgrimage, the poet’s position appears to be finally that of an optimistic agnostic. In other words, Melville seems not to have excluded the hope (to paraphrase from the opening couplet) for some sort of benevolent release from pain and realization of a glorious afterlife, but, at the same time, neither has he embraced such a hope as an absolute certainty.

“The Aeolian Harp”

A later poem from John Marr and Other Sailors recaptures some of the skepticism of Clarel, as well as the pessimism of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. “The Aeolian Harp” relates how the haunting tones of a wind harp cause the poet to conjure up “A picture stamped in memory’s mint” of a dismasted, waterlogged wreck that floats aimlessly about but that consequently drifts “Torpid in dumb ambuscade” as a constant threat to the destruction of another unprepared vessel. What is of particular interest here is not the symbolism of Melville’s indifferent and unfeeling demon of disaster (another Moby Dick?) but the poet’s allusion once again to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He compares the vision evoked by the wind harp’s “wailing” with the sort of illusions Ariel creates in the play. The wind harp’s illusion is “. . . less a strain ideal/ Than Ariel’s rendering of the Real.” This reference to Ariel is particularly apropos in this poem, for the storm that Shakespeare’s Ariel brews forces Ferdinand, Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio, and others to Prospero’s island domain and is replete with terrifying corposants, thunderclaps, and trembling waves. So convincing is Ariel’s play that these Neapolitans abandon ship and swim to Prospero’s island for safety. The illusion recalled in Melville’s poem promises no safety for the hapless victims of this ship, which crashes heedlessly into any unfortunate enough to cross its treacherous course.

Finally, the poet concludes: “Well the harp of Ariel wails/ Thoughts that tongue can tell no word of!” So horrible is this “picture stamped in memory’s mint” that the relating of it requires the impetus of the haunting wind harp, now become wholly Ariel’s harp. Thus Melville reveals the power of the poet’s imagination. Perhaps because his century viewed humankind’s relationship to God and the world in harsher terms, he demanded a poetic world more austere and even more forbidding than the world of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Hope, humor, and art

Melville is not, however, always so severe. The later poems of Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, for example, are enthusiastically patriotic and finally positive. The poem “Malvern Hill,” celebrating the victory of Union forces at Malvern Hill in Virginia on July 1, 1862, concludes with these hopeful lines: “Wag the world how it will,/ Leaves must be green in Spring.” His poem “Falstaff’s Lament over Prince Hal Become Henry V” is a delightfully humorous portrait of Shakespeare’s rejected father-figure, Sir John Falstaff. The discarded old man drowns his sorrow in sack or wine: “Come drawer [tapster], more sack here!” The comic old gentleman shrewdly observes, however, that “now intuitions/ Shall wither to codes.” Prince Hal, now become King Henry V, tosses aside the virtues of spontaneity for the rules and responsibilities of a crown.

Melville’s predicament as a poet is something like that of the English prince; having come to be a full-fledged poet in his middle age, surely he came to the genre carrying few illusions about the vicissitudes of a world where Darwinism and critical analysis of traditional Christianity challenged established faith. Melville’s poetry is inevitably sobering and grave, yet his quest for some degree of certainty, to reconcile a world of opposites, led him to write poetry that is vibrant, sensitive, and sonorous. In one of his last poems, “Art,” Melville emphatically declares that, in the poet’s poem, opposites “must mate,/ And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart/ To wrestle with the angel—Art.”

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