At Melville's Tomb

by Hart Crane

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

“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.

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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.

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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 “silent answers crept across the stars.”

The poem is written in four-line stanzas in iambic pentameter. The strict meter and stanzaic form play against an irregular rhyme scheme that is used to reinforce the argument. The only heroic couplet (consecutive rhyming lines), for example, occurs in the climactic lines at the end of the third stanza, where Melville finds metaphysical rest.

The terrific condensation of image and argument make the poem difficult to read easily, and this difficulty starts with the title. “At Melville’s Tomb” suggests that the piece to be presented will describe the poet pondering the novelist’s tombstone. Yet from the first line, setting the poem on a deserted beach, it becomes evident that the “tomb” denoted by the title is not one in which Melville is buried but the place where many of his characters, such as the crew of the Pequod in Moby Dick, are buried—that is, the bottom of the sea. This redirection of the reader from an individual grave to broader resting place can be seen as symbolizing the way an artist redirects a reader’s gaze from his or her own personal problems to the universality of the human condition.

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Themes