MELVILLE’S POETRY OF THE SEA - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MELVILLE’S POETRY OF THE SEA. Although he spent only a short period of his life at sea, Herman Melville* (1819-1891) was deeply affected by his maritime experiences and made use of them in his fiction, sketches, and poetry. Poems about the sea appeared early in his work, in the novel Mardi* (1849) as short lyrics that celebrated such subjects as “A Paddle- Chant,” a “Battle-Chant of Narvi,” and “The Maiden under the Sea.” In Moby-Dick* (1851), he adapted a hymn of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church to sing “The ribs and terrors in the whale,/Arched over me a dismal gloom” (ch. 9).

Strongly moved by his experience of the Civil War, he wrote his first volume of poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). A number of the best poems in the volume were about the sea, war maneuvers, and battles. “The Stone Fleet” told of the whaling ships scuttled in Charleston Harbor by Northern forces to block it as a route for Southern forces. Several poems expressed an elegiac regret for the technological changes in modern warfare and the loss of the old wooden ships: “In the Turret” describes the Monitor,* an ironclad ship of war, and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight” emphasizes this new warfare where “all went by crank,/ Pivot, and screw,/ And calculations of caloric.” “The Temeraire” puts the narrator in mind of the great days of war before the ironclads. “Battle of Stone River, Tennessee,” “Running the Batteries,” and “The Battle for the Bay” describe specific naval engagements. The poem “Commemorative of a Naval Victory” depicts the sailor in heroic terms and dwells upon the darker side of war in a powerful image in which “The shark/ Glides white through the phosphorus sea.”

Although the long, narrative poem that Melville next published, Clarel (1876), has notable imagery of the sea, it is essentially a land-bound narrative, finding its landscapes in the desert and worn-out stony scenes of Palestine. But the volume that followed, John Marr and Other Sailors with Some Sea-Pieces* (1888), brought the poet back to his beloved element. In varied poetic forms, the book as a whole tells a gripping story of an aged sailor, retired from the sea, who is landlocked and exiled from his dearest experiences. He resorts to memory and, in the introductory piece titled “John Marr,” “invokes these visionary ones,” calling up the friends he had known and recalling some he had not known to give a picture of more than a century of oceanic experience. There are poems about people like “Tom Deadlight,” an ancient sailor dying aboard a British warship in 1810; “Bridegroom Dick,” who muses over his past in 1876; and “Jack Roy,” a heroic figure who appears in more than one of Melville’s works. “The Haglets” and “The Berg” recall the role that fate plays in the destruction of ships and their crews. The power and harshness of the alien sea are invoked in poems where shipwrecks* and rafts are emptied of their human freight. A brief quatrain, “The Tuft of Kelp,” summarizes both aspects of the ocean: “All dripping in tangles green,/ Cast up by a lonely sea/ If purer for that, O Weed,/ Bitterer, too, are ye?” The sea allows only a bitter catharsis, but even that is balm to the wounded soul of John Marr, for he can sing, in a brief poem at the end of the book: “Healed of my hurt, I laud the inhuman Sea—/ Yea, bless the Angels Four that there convene;/ For healed am I even by their pitiless breath/Distilled in wholesome dew named rosmarine.” Evoking the sea in all its power, inhumanity, and “otherness,” John Marr, the sailor/poet, finds comfort and respite from his life ashore.

The last volume that Melville saw through the press, only months before his death, is Timoleon, Etc. (1891), a collection more miscellaneous than John Marr, but it does contain poems that recall the sea. “Off Cape Colonna” directs attention to the remains of a Greek temple on the foreland of the peninsula, as seen from a passing ship. “The Archipelago” is all about islands, chains, and groups of islands. The title word, as Melville knew, stands for the Aegean Sea, the site of Greek islands, and the poem roves through the archipelagoes of the Sporades and Cyclades, the Polynesian isles and the Marquesan group. All these islands, as he says in the poem, “retain in outline true/ Their grace of form when earth was new/ And primal.”

Although Melville left unpublished poems at his death, they contain little about the sea, but one, “The Old Shipmaster and His Crazy Barn” (19221924), is about another ancient mariner on land who finds his barn to be like a ship at sea: “In March winds it creaks/Each gaunt timber shrieks like ribs of a craft off Cape Horn.”* As Melville found the best subjects for his fiction in the sea, he also found much of his poetic inspiration in it. The poems, much less read than the fiction, display the development of the aging writer’s response to the world about him, and these poems of the sea offer a fair, open space for further study of the novelist who became a poet.

FURTHER READING: Robillard, Douglas, ed. Poems of Herman Melville. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2000; Shurr, William H. The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857-1891. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1972; Stein, William Bysshe. The Poetry of Melville’s Late Years: Time, History, Myth and Religion. Albany: SUNY P, 1970; Vincent, Howard P., ed. The Collected Poems of Herman Melville. Chicago: Hendricks House, 1947.

Douglas Robillard