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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

J. C. Squire on Melville's verse

Sir John Collings Squire
Bassano Ltd via National Portrait Gallery
Melville's verse has always been neglected. The historians have commonly dismissed it in a few words; often enough, I daresay, they have been content to repeat each other's comments without reading the verse. --J. C. Squire, London Observer, April 1, 1923.
Sun, Apr 1, 1923 – 4 · The Observer (London, Greater London, England) · Newspapers.com

Books of the Day.

MELVILLE'S VERSE.

"John Marr and Other Poems." By Herman Melville, with an Introductory Note by Henry Chapin. (Princeton University Press.) 
(By J. C. Squire.)
There is a companion volume to this, a volume including prose pieces by Melville hitherto unprinted. This I may neglect, as not long ago I wrote in this place about Melville's prose. If more were to be said about that prose the desirable thing is that attention should be given, not yet to Melville's scattered writings, but to some of his major books. When his centenary occurred critics devoted themselves almost entirely to "Moby Dick." They had reason. "Moby Dick" has been, except spasmodically neglected; it is certainly Melville's finest book; it is the greatest prose work that has ever come out of America, and one of the greatest prose fictions ever written. Yet a concentration on the glories of that book tended to give the false impression that the rest of Melville's books might safely be neglected. It is not true of any of them, and emphatically, of the earlier ones. "White Jacket," "Omoo," and "Typee" might have given him a considerable reputation had he written nothing else. "Typee" especially is a book to be read over and over again. Long before the Gaugins and the Tusitalas, Melville got into that book all the beauty and romance and brutality of the South Seas. It still remains unequalled as a picture of the islands, a book exquisitely and yet racily written, admirably shaped, full of blue waters and waving trees, foaming waterfalls and graceful brown bodies, sharp fights and long languors. Let us, however, for the moment pass over his prose, on which his claim to fame is based, and regard his verse.
* * * 
Melville's verse has always been neglected. The historians have commonly dismissed it in a few words; often enough, I daresay, they have been content to repeat each other's comments without reading the verse. Nobody has greatly liked it: the American anthologists have thought only one or two pieces worth reprinting; for many years the editions of the poems have been out of print. The principal volume was a sizeable book "Battle Pieces," published by Putnams in 1866; the others were privately printed late in their author's life. Mr. Chapin has now made a selection from them all. He prefaces his selection with the statement that Melville's poetry "taken as a whole, is of an amateurish and uneven quality." He nevertheless thinks it worth while reprinting. He qualifies this statement by others. Melville's personality, he says, is everywhere in evidence. "It is clear that he did not set himself to master the poet's art, yet, through the mask of conventional verse which often falls into doggerel, the voice of a true poet is heard." I think myself that he might have put this far more strongly. Hardly one of Melville's poems is perfect. He refused to be the artist he might have been. There is an air of improvisation about it all. But there is a natural genius, a natural poetic genius, apparent behind all the roughness and awkwardness, and I find it impossible to avoid thinking that there was a great poet buried in the author of "Moby Dick," which is a great prose poem in itself. He did nothing in verse faultlessly. Yet his faulty rhymes not only show undeveloped poetic powers, but very varied poetic powers.
* * * 
Melville's completest achievement in verse is of this narrative kind. "Bridegroom Dick," a long poem, is doggerel, but the most magnificent doggerel ever written. A combination of Captain Marryat and Mr. Masefield may give the idea. An old sailor goes over his reminiscences. It opens with fine preparatory vigour:—
Sunning ourselves in October on a day
Balmy as spring, though the year was in decay,
I lading my pipe, she stirring the [her] tea,
My old woman she says to me,
"Feel ye, old man, how the season mellows?"
And why should I not, blessed heart alive,
Here mellowing myself, past sixty-five,
To think o' the May-time o' pennoned young fellows
This stripped old hulk here for years may survive.
He thinks of all his old comrades, with acutely vivid memories of each, vignettes of battles and carouses, dances and death beds. His catalogue of the dead must surely, rhythm and language, have been the inspiration of the fine end of Mr. Vachel Lindsay's "Bryan, Bryan":—
Where's Commander All-a-Tanto?
Where's Orlop Bob singing up from below?
Where's Rhyming Ned? has he spun his last canto?
Where's Jewsharp Jim? Where's Rigadoon Joe?
Ah, for the music over and done.
The band all dismissed save the droned trombone!
Where's Glenn o' the gun-room, who loved Hot-Scotch—
Glen, prompt and cool in a perilous watch. . .
There are other sea-pieces, more in the "Moby Dick" manner, marked by Melville's extraordinary grip both on physical reality and spiritual forces lying beneath appearance. His mood shifts constantly. He can turn from a contemplation of the infinite to a regret for the passage of the three-decker. This regret appears continually and, a generation before Sir Henry Newbolt, he found a symbol of the process in Turner's "Temeraire."
But Trafalgar is over now,
   The quarter-deck undone;
The carved and castled navies fire
   Their evening-gun.
O, Titan Temeraire,
   Your stern-lights fade away;
Your bulwarks to the years must yield,
   And heart-of-oak decay.
A pigmy steam-tug tows you,
   Gigantic, to the shore—
Dismantled of your guns and spars,
   And sweeping wings of war.
The rivets clinch the ironclads,
   Men learn a deadlier lore;
But Fame has nailed your battle-flags—
   Your ghost it sails before:
O, the navies old and oaken,
   O, the Temeraire no more!
The same lament over the transformation of war into an "operatives" occupation runs through the naval pieces written during the Civil War. But there is much more than that in those war-poems. America produced much civil war verse, but, except Whitman, no poet wrote a series on the war which for beauty and strength can compare with Herman Melville's, fragmentary and rough as they are. His compassion was as great as Whitman's; but the livelier moments appealed to him more than they did to Whitman. He could share in the intoxication of a charge and a cheer and a victory; yet no man was more afflicted by the tragedy of that mutual massacre, no Northerner more greatly admired the heroism of the South, no statesman spoke wiser or more sympathetic words when the period of "Reconstruction" came. "Sheridan at Cedar Creek" and "The College Colonel" are sometimes to be found in anthologies; but "Malvern Hill," "The Conflict of Convictions," and "A Meditation" should go with them. His steadfast judgment is reflected in the lines:—
"The South's the sinner!" Well, so let it be;
But shall the North sin worse, And stand the Pharisee?
* * * 
High spirits like Peacock's are shown in some of the poems from "Mardi," particularly "Pipe Song":—
Care is all stuff:—
       Puff! Puff!
To puff is enough:—
       Puff! Puff!
More musky than snuff
And warm is a puff:—
       Puff! Puff!
Here we sit mid our puffs,
Like old lords in their ruffs,
Snug as bears in their muffs:—
       Puff! Puff!
Then puff, puff, puff,
For care is all stuff,
Puffed off in a puff—
       Puff! Puff!
The more indolent and sensuous songs which might have been expected from the author of "Typee" are few. "Crossing the Tropics" is a beautiful thing; the poem which comes most nearly to the best Polynesian pages is "Marlena":—
Far off in the sea is Marlena,
A land of shades and streams. . . .
'Tis aye afternoon of the full, full moon,
And ever the season of fruit,
And ever the hour of flowers,
And never the time of rains and gales,
All in and about Marlena.
Soft sigh the boughs in the stilly air,
Soft lap the beach the billows there;
And in the woods or by the streams,
You needs must nod in the Land of Dreams.
Melville, unhappily, was never encouraged to write this or any other kind of verse.
* * * 
Mr. Chapin has made his selection well. There are just a few poems which he might have added; the omissions are especially to be regretted, as the American editions (there were no English editions) of Melville's poems are all extremely rare. An extract at least might have been included from "The Armies of the Wilderness," a powerful wide-sweeping poem with brooding commentary:—
The tribes swarm up to war
   As in ages long ago,
Ere the palm of promise leaved
   And the lily of Christ did blow.
There is something to be said for "Battle of Stone River, Tennessee":—
With Tewkesbury and Barnet Heath
   In days to come the field shall blend,
The story dim and date obscure;
   In legend all shall end.
Even now, involved in forest shade
   A Druid-dream the strife appears,
The fray of yesterday assumes
   The haziness of years.
Phrases, perhaps, do not redeem the "Battle for the Mississippi" and "The Fall of Richmond," but there are good phrases in them:—
A city in flags for a city in flames,
Richmond goes Babylon's way.
The first line is very compact; the second could only have been written by a man who saw all life poetically. The Epitaph on Sherman's Men who fell at Kennesaw certainly ought to have been here with the other inscriptions. Glory, romance, chivalry are dead, men say, but:—
Perils the mailed ones never knew
Are lightly braved by the ragged coats of blue,
And gentler hearts are bared to deadlier war.
The last line embodies the whole irony of modern history. Above all, I miss "A Canticle" in which Melville, witnessing the national exaltation at the close of the war compared the State to the fixed waterfall whose rushing waters perpetually change. It begins tumultuously:—
O the precipice Titanic
   Of the congregated Fall,
And the angle oceanic
   Where the deepening thunders call—
          And the Gorge so grim,
          And the Firmamental rim!
Multitudinously thronging,
   The waters all converge,
Then they sweep adown in sloping
   Solidity of surge.
The whole poem seems written in a frenzy; and patently, I think, with the majestic image of Niagara in mind. In the worst of Melville's war poems as in the best, and as in the fine prose supplement he added to them, there are evident both profound wisdom and noble generosity.
Mr. Chapin's edition is very well produced. The printing, which is charming, shows the influence of Mr. Bruce Rogers, one of the soundest printers alive.


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1 comment:

  1. Oh, Magnificent Scott Norsworthy, Intrepid Explorer, Lavish Benefactor! Thank you again.

    ReplyDelete