American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

JOHN MARR AND OTHER SAILORS WITH SOME SEA PIECES (1888). This collection of nineteen poems, written and privately published in twenty-five copies by Herman Melville* (1819-1891), is made up of four disparate parts, all linked by the sea. Following an “Inscription Epistolary” to W. Clark Russell, the British sea-fiction writer, the book proper begins with “John Marr,” preceded by a prose introduction and followed by three poems named for, as well as spoken by or addressed to, other individual sailors. The next section, “Sea-Pieces,” is the shortest, consisting only of “The Haglets” (pub. 1885 in Boston and New York newspapers in a shorter version as “The Admiral of the White”) and “The Aeolian Harp.” “Minor Sea-Pieces,” the third section, contains twelve poems, most notably “The Tuft of Kelp,” “The Maldive Shark,” and “The Berg.” The book ends with seven brief, numbered stanzas under the title “Pebbles.”

John Marr is heavily autobiographical, alluding repeatedly to Melville’s days as a sailor in the era before steamships, as it does, for example, in “To Ned,” an allusion to Toby Greene of Melville’s first book Typee* (1846). It suggests Melville’s current life in “Bridegroom Dick,” whose relationship with his wife of many years reflects in some ways that of Melville with his wife, Elizabeth. John Marr is, clearly, a version of Melville himself, a bereaved, lonely man whose neighbors know little of the sea and care even less. The anthropomorphized “Tuft of Kelp,” cast ashore by a “lonely” sea, may, paradoxically, be both purer and more bitter for the experience of sea and shore.

Poetic art and philosophical musings are other contexts. “The Aeolian Harp” wails as sea winds pass across its strings, its sound like Ariel’s versions of reality in The Tempest (1623). The poem goes on to compare this artistic rendering with reality itself, a ship’s sighting of a wreck: a drifting, waterlogged lumber schooner, which while it cannot sink, is a perpetually shifting danger to all others. The wailing harp expresses, as language cannot, the awful thoughts evoked by this symbol. As seen in a dream in “The Berg,” a vessel of war, as if deliberately steered, crashes headlong into an iceberg and immediately sinks. This disaster, apparently caused by human irrationality, has hardly the slightest effect on the cold iceberg, a symbol of natural and perhaps metaphysical indifference to human events, as is “The Maldive Shark.” That poem implies the speaker’s horror at instinctual voraciousness, embodied in the ravening white shark.

The seven parts of “Pebbles,” evoking the questions and speculations with which Melville was concerned throughout his career, may be John Marr’s coming to terms with paradoxicality. It praises the pitiless, implacable, inhuman sea, while finding in the seashore rosemary a symbol of healing. “Pebbles” ends a book that expresses in fewer than fifty pages of mature poetry the results of Melville’s lifelong engagement with the sea. [See also MELVILLE’S POETRY OF THE SEA]

Haskell Springer