Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Edward Dahlberg on Melville

Photo: New Directions
Herman Melville could not spell very well, and even in modern Moby-Dick texts the helmet of Mambrino is wrongly lettered; and in the Encantadas, that widowed lament of the soul which has already become a waste island for huge turtles and potherbs, he has failed to meet the dictionary requirements in the way he has shaped the word Gallapagos. The Billy Budd Mss. was a grammar and punctuation bedlam also; but it is easy to find a page-proof reader to mend some of Melville’s syntax, but where is there another man to write Moby-Dick?   --Edward Dahlberg, "How Do You Spell Fool?"
Dahlberg must have been thinking of Clarel, specifically Clarel 2.20 where Margoth the irreligious geologist speaks of "Malbrino's helmet." These days "Malbrino's" is more often emended to "Mambrino's," thus:
"Mambrino's helmet is sublime--
The barber's basin may be vile:
Whether this basin is that helm
To vast debate has given rise--
Question profound for blinking eyes;
But common sense throughout her realm
Has settled it." --Clarel Part 2 Canto 20
But the 1924 Constable edition (reprinted by Russell & Russell in the 1963 Standard Edition) of Clarel preserves Melville's original 1876 spelling, "Malbrino's."

And potherbs looks like a typo for potsherds. Ha! here I am trying to mend questionable mistakes and illustrating Dahlberg's point in the process.
"Edward Dahlberg was a difficult character, a perennial misfit and a touchy misanthrope." --Carl Bankston
What's not to love?

Helmet of Mambrino design for cover of  Clarence King Memoirs
h/t : drizzz


  1. Have you read "The Helmet of Mambrino" by the real life geologist Clarence King? Just a coinky dink or a case of life imitating art or the other way around? Here's a link:

    1. Never before, thanks! I see Melville's friend EC Stedman has a chapter in the memorial volume. King and HM must have had other mutual friends, in and out of the Century Club. As a fan of Quixote King seems unlike Margoth, more sincerely (flamboyantly?) romantic I mean. Maybe a different sort of eccentric. His Helmet story appeared in the Century magazine in 1886, 10 years after Clarel.

  2. The Malbrino/Mambrino confusion has a worthy phonetic/orthographic pedigree. In the old Spanish children's song "Mambru se fue a la guerra" (Mambru went off to war), the name Mambru (with an accent on the "u") is a corruption of Malbru, in turn a phonetic simplification of Marlborough - alluding to John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough, in the War of the Spanish Succession. I believe the Spanish song is an adaptation of a French original.

  3. Until delving into Moby Dick (a chore long neglected, and having begun it I was immediately surprised to find was no chore at all but rather an enchanted voyage) I had not realized how large the voice of Melville looms in Dahlberg's style.