Friday, March 10, 2006

Aside from Moby Dick, "Bartleby the Scrivener" (that staple of American Literature Survey courses), and Billy Budd, the works of Herman Melville are largely ignored. He was probably the most profound fiction writer of the American Romantic movement. His writing career began with the bestselling adventure novels Typee, Omoo, and Mardi. After the huge success of these, he began to delve deeper into philosophical treatments of American ideals, policies, culture, and lifestyles through a series of bildungsroman novels. Of his first three "deep" novels, Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick, only the latter remains widely studied outside of literary circles, a true shame, because the other two, aside from being more readable, are equally valuable as literary texts. Ironically, while we remember Melville most as the author of Moby-Dick, it was a miserable failure in his lifetime.

Another fact about Melville that I can't understand is that almost nobody studies his poetry anymore. In my thinking, the man was truly a finer poet than many of his more well-known contemporaries, especially Edgar Allan Poe, whose maudlin maunderings are reminiscent of an adolescent hooked on nursery rhymes. Below, I've posted a few of his better poems, and I hope you can appreciate them:
The Maldive Shark (from Sea Pieces)

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive Sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread.
But liquidly glide on his ghostly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a leaven when peril's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat -
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

The College Colonel (From Battle Pieces - a collection of Civil War poems)

He rides at their head;
A crutch by his saddle just slants in view,
One slung arm is in splints, you see,
Yet he guides his strong steed - how coldly too.

He brings his regiment home -
Not as they filed two years before,
But a remnant half-tattered, and battered, and worn,
Like castaway sailors, who - stunned
By the surf's loud roar,
Their mates dragged back and seen no more -
Again and again breast the surge,
And at last crawl, spent, to shore.

A still rigidity and pale -
An Indian aloofness lones his brow;
He has lived a thousand years
Compressed in battle's pains and prayers,
Marches and watches slow.

There are welcoming shouts, and flags;
Old men off hat to the Boy,
Wreaths from gay balconies fall at his feet,
But to him - there comes alloy.

It is not that a leg is lost,
It is not that an arm is maimed,
It is not that the fever has racked -
Self he has long disclaimed.

But all through the Seven Days' Fight,
And deep in the Wilderness grim,
And in the field-hospital tent,
And Petersburg crater, and dim
Lean brooding in Libby, there came -
Ah heaven! - what truth to him.
Enjoy them.

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