Edited by F. O. Matthiessen for "The Poets of the Year" series (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1944), Herman Melville: Selected Poems is a slim but significant collection of Melville's poetry, one of the first after the 1924 Constable edition of Melville's Poems. (Before that there was the 1922 anthology from Princeton University Press titled John Marr and Other Poems.) Not counting the 1922 Princeton and 1924 Constable volumes, the only collection of Melville's poems before Matthiessen's is Selected Poems of Herman Melville (London: The Hogarth Press, 1943) edited by William Plomer. Today more critics know about Matthiessen's unwitting riff in American Renaissance on "soiled fish" (he didn't realize it was only a twentieth-century typo for "coiled fish") than this landmark volume of Melville's poetry. Here is the introductory essay by Francis Otto Matthiessen from his 1944 edition of Selected Poems, now accessible via the Internet Archive:
Throughout the last half of his life, over a span of thirty-five years, Melville, who, in Moby Dick, had reached levels of imaginative writing unsurpassed by any other American, wrote little more prose. When he had finished The Confidence Man in 1856, he had produced ten books in less than a dozen years and had had his bellyful of trying unsuccessfully to gain a comprehending audience and to support himself by his pen. But he had not lost his interest in self-expression, and, turning to verse, he had, by the spring of 1860, a volume ready for publication. This was to find no publisher, and not until the year after the end of the Civil War did he at last make his appearance as a poet. The book then issued was Battle-Pieces, a series of seventy poems that form a running commentary on the course of the war, though most of them were inspired, retrospectively, by the fall of Richmond. The book had slight critical success, and from that time forward Melville, who had failed in various applications for a consular appointment, was employed for twenty years as a customs inspector in New York, and possessed only intermittent time for writing. But he managed to bring to completion Clarel, a narrative poem of several thousand lines, which grew out of the meditative pilgrimage he had made to the Holy Land during the year after the career as a writer of fiction had seemed to him finally unreal. Clarel, as Melville himself noted, was "immensely adapted for unpopularity," and could be printed in 1876 only as the result of a gift f[r]om a Gansevoort uncle. After his release from the customhouse at the end of 1885, Melville felt a resurgence of his creative energies, and made one major return to fiction in Billy Budd. But this story was still in manuscript at his death, and his final efforts to publish were two small volumes of verse, each privately printed in twenty-five copies, John Marr and Other Sailors, 1888, and Timoleon, 1891. One section of the latter, "Fruits of Travel Long Ago," would seem to be at least part of what he had designed as his first book of verse three decades before. Left among his papers at his death were more than seventy further poems, in addition to fragments of varying length.
All the above poetry, with the exception of a few of the manuscripts, comprises three volumes of Melville's collected works. But since that edition appeared in England twenty years ago, was limited to 750 copies, and is long since out of print, the range of Melville's verse is virtually unavailable for the common reader. The selection here presented tries to take advantage of all the various interests attaching to any part of Melville's work. Some poems have been chosen because they embody the same recurrent symbols that give an absorbing unity to his prose. These symbols appear most often in his reminiscences of the sea: "To Ned" shows that he kept through life the image of Typee, of primitive existence unspoiled by civilization; "The Berg" presents a variant of the terrifying white death of Moby Dick; the "maldive shark" glides also through the lines "Commemorative of a Naval Victory." Other poems serve to light up facets of Melville's mind as it developed in the years after his great creative period: "Greek Architecture" indicates his understanding of a balanced form far different from any he had struggled to master: "Art"— whose lines are scratched out and rewritten with many changes in the manuscript— tells how painfully he understood the tensions of the struggle for the union of opposites. Few of his poems reveal anything like the mastery of organic rhythm to be found in his best prose. He had become an apprentice too late to a new craft. Although he tried his hand at a variety of metrical forms, he seldom progressed beyond an acquired skill. He was capable of such lyric patterns as "Shiloh" or "Monody," but he could often be stiff and clumsy. Yet what he had to convey is very impressive. I have included enough of Battle-Pieces to show the depth of his concern with the problems of war. Whole-hearted in his devotion to the Union's cause, what he urged at the close was forbearance and charity on the part of the North as the chief guide to reconstruction; and he prayed "that the terrible historic tragedy of our time may not have been enacted without instructing our whole beloved country through terror and pity. . . ."
Clarel took his thought into some of the problems of his society's future and of our present. It falls into the tradition of those poetic debates of the mind which formed so much of the substance of Clough and Arnold and Tennyson. Since its characters voice a bewildering variety of creeds, and since Clarel, the disillusioned young divinity student is about the most shadowy in the group, it is impossible to determine from the poem exactly what Melville believed. The passages selected are among those where he persevered farthest from the beaten tracks of his day, where he doubted the value for the world of the dominance of Anglo-Saxon industrialists, where he foresaw class wars, and where, with the decay of Protestantism, he also foresaw a grim duel between "Rome and the Atheist." To put the gloom of some of these conjectures into its proper context, we should remember his reaction to Thomson's City of Dreadful Night: "As to the pessimism, although neither pessimist nor optimist myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse, if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a bluster in these days." We should also remember that the "Epilogue" to Clarel dwells upon Christian hope, and that "The Lake," the most sustained poem left by Melville in manuscript, celebrates the theme of seasonal death and rebirth. And to counteract his forebodings of the possible degradation of democracy, we should recall his celebration of the heroic possibilities of the common man—one of the most recurrent themes of his fiction, from Jack Chase to Billy Budd. A reward that awaits the reader who follows these selections on to Melville's collected works is the frequency with which his mediocre poems are illuminated by passages where the poet is in supreme control. That being the case I have not scrupled in three instances beyond Clarel ("Sheridan at Cedar Creek," "On the Slain Collegians," "Commemorative of a Naval Victory") to release such passages from their hampering surroundings. One further such passage, the concluding quatrain to " 'The Coming Storm'," an otherwise undistinguished reaction to a painting by Sandford Gifford, is perhaps the best poetry Melville wrote. Indeed, as I have said elsewhere, these lines constitute one of the most profound recognitions of the value of tragedy ever to have been made:
No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakespeare's core;
That which we seek and shun is there—
Man's final lore.
Such lines suggest Melville's master preoccupation, in verse no less than in prose. If it would not have risked confusion, I should have called this selection by the subtitle of Battle-Pieces: Aspects of the War. That would have suggested Melville's continuing concern with the unending struggle, with the tensions between good and evil: within the mind and in the state, political, social, and religious.
F. O. Matthiessen