The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

“At Melville’s Tomb” is written in four four-line stanzas that follow an irregular rhyme scheme. The reader is placed at the gravesite of the noted nineteenth century American novelist, Herman Melville, whose tales of the sea—most notably Moby Dick (1851)—are generally regarded as commentaries on humans coping with one another and nature in a vast, often inimical, and ultimately destructive universe. The speaker, while he may be inspired by Melville, shares with the reader his own personal feelings and observations as he stands “at Melville’s tomb.”

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There is not the expected use of the first person. Rather, one is told what Melville, identified only by the third-person pronoun “he,” must have felt and observed when he had stood apparently at the same spot where he is now buried—“wide from this ledge”—and, considering the flotsam and jetsam washing up onto the Atlantic shore, had reflected on the relationship not only between man and the sea but also between man and eternity.

The images are difficult, but not impenetrable. The reader is told that amid the wreckage, and hence the apparent waste, that the sea washes up exist records of human passings, “The dice of drowned men’s bones bequeath[ing]/ An embassy”—that is, imparting some message from the past. What are ostensibly tokens of destruction and loss can in fact be constructive elements if one can read them effectively.

Melville, too, is a messenger from the past, known now only in his works; the poem, except for the final stanza, is written in the past tense. Any record is only a remnant of some greater and more actual whole, after all, so the “numbers” (not simply the dice, but those messages and meaning the past might hold) are “obscured.” In the middle two stanzas, one is thrust from the safety of the shore into a confused and nightmarish world wherein the sea becomes a whirlpool, the whirlpool a seashell, and the seashell “one vast coil,” until in a turmoil of language and image one’s vision is swept downward into an incredible sinkhole of misguided or mistaken information—“A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyphs,/portent”—and in desperation one raises “Frosted eyes” to see on “lifted altarssilent answers [creep] across the stars.”

This movement from tumult to silence, from a barrage of sensations to a single, quiescent image, may be welcome, but it is less than rewarding. Unlike the certain, but obscured messages that the sea offers, whatever is revealed by the stars comes without the benefit of words or images and therefore perhaps comes without meaning.

Instead, in the fourth and final stanza, which has the poem’s only present-tense verb, “contrive,” the reader is told that all human knowing is in a sense a contrivance. Human instruments are limited in their ability to discern the actual meaning that the sea or the universe holds. This is true not only of those instruments that nature provided, but also of the instruments that humans make. Thus, “Compass, quadrant and sextant [can] contrive/ No farther tides,” simply because they are man-made measures only of what one needs to know in practical terms, not of what is there to be known.

When it comes to that vision found “High in the azure steeps,” from which one would hope for more timeless messages, one is left, if not confused, at least asleep—“Monody shall not wake the mariner.” The sea to which Melville, for one, had looked for an answer to the ageless human dilemmas of sorrow and death can offer only the “fabulous shadow,” or distant reflection, of that higher and more enduring truth that the stars hold.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

An examination of something as simple as Hart...

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