Is Melville's poetry really worth reading? (2005)

Is Melville's poetry really worth reading?

Douglas Robillard, ed.: The Poems of Herman Melville (2000)

If the difficulty of getting hold of it is any indication, then most people think Melville's poetry isn't worth it. I've been waiting for years for the poetry volume of the Northwestern-Newberry edition to appear (it was promised for 2002, but still shows no signs of coming out). That will be the ultimate answer, as it'll include all the materials, commentaries, etc. that one could desire.

In the meantime, it makes a lot of sense to collect Melville's own three published volumes of verse in this beautifully compact book. This may not represent his poetic legacy as a whole, but it shows (at any rate) his public face as a poet.

And a very odd poet he is indeed. He has a lot in common with Thomas Hardy, I think: both are addicted to convoluted diction, impossibly complex and confining stanza forms and metrical schemes, a general sense of labouring over every line and of lack of music and ease.

Hardy is, nevertheless, a great poet. When the occasion demands it - "The Convergence of the Twain" about the Titanic disaster, the superb poems of 1912 about his dead wife - there's a kind of clumsy power about him which overpowers any reservations.

Melville's technical shortcomings are - if anything - even greater. The chains of rhyme and metre chafe him more than virtually any other nineteenth-century poet I can think of. He seems to have almost no natural facility for verse.

And yet (as all readers of his prose are aware) he is a genius. His prose-poetry in Moby-Dick, "Benito Cereno" and "Las Encantadas" is incomparable. And very now and then it glimmers out in the midst of the most clotted poems. There are certain lines from his Civil War poems included in Ken Burns' PBS documnentary series which seem almost to beat Whitman at his own game:
In glades they meet skull after skull
Where pine-cones lay ...
... Some start as in dreams,
And comrades lost bemoan:
By the edge of those wilds Stonewall had charged -
But the Year and the Man were gone. [102]

The equation between the skulls and the pine-cones is haunting, yet unobtrusive, and the invocation of Stonewall as a kind of force of nature works brilliantly. There's a mythic force in some of these Civil War poems which is unsurpassed.

Once you get over the surface defects, then, there's a lot encoded in the depths of Melville's verse - a submerged continent of perceptions every bit as vivid as his fiction. The wait continues for the definitive edition, but for now I'm just grateful to have this one. It seems somehow characteristic that he should have to wait so long for the critical establishment to do justice to his talents in this field - Herman Melville (both as a man and a writer), was, it seems, born to be overlooked.

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