"Ye Gods! What a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster."
--Herman Melville, Letter to Evert A. Duyckinck - November 1851; transcribed in Melville's Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth (Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1993) page 209.
Manuscripts and Archives Division,
The New York Public Library. "1850-1851"
The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
1850 - 1851.
TYPEE: OR A PEEP AT POLYNESIAN LIFE (1846)
All this was accompanied by a running commentary of signs and gestures which it was impossible not to comprehend.
As he continued his harangue, however, Kory-Kory, in emulation of our more polished orators, began to launch out rather diffusely into other branches of his subject, enlarging probably upon the moral reflections it suggested; and proceeded in such a strain of unintelligible and stunning gibberish, that he actually gave me the headache for the rest of the day. --Typee, chapter 13 - Eloquence of Kory-Kory
In Melville's first two books of South Sea adventure, humorous "commentary" and "comments" accompany or follow oratory. The context of commentary in Typee
is oral discourse, although in the example above from Typee
, Kory-Kory employs "signs and gestures" as a physical "commentary" on his own speech or "harrangue." In both of these early works, Melville's narrator also reports spoken "comments" offered in reply to some formal or mock-formal speech by another person, a sailor or officer.
Many, and fierce, too, were the speeches delivered, and uproarious the comments of the sailors. --Omoo, chapter 20 - The Round Robin
MARDI: AND A VOYAGE THITHER (1849)
Melville's whale-commentator makes his first appearance in Mardi
, years before the Ann Alexander whale that Melville would identify both as "Commentator" and "Moby Dick himself." In chapter 104 (Wherein Babbalanja broaches a diabolical theory
...) a "fiery fin-back whale" disrupts "that mad prince, Tribonnora," interrupting his aggressively fast and unfriendly sailing with "a high fountain of foam."
Tribonnora's sport interrupts Babbalanja in mid-sentence. What eventually enables Babbalanja to resume talking is the whale's dramatic intervention, succinctly described by Melville's narrator as "Comments" (on Tribonnora's mean speeding):
Comments over; "Babbalanja, you were going to quote," said Media. "Proceed."
--Mardi: And a Voyage Thither - volume 1, chapter 104.
Explicit invocations of commentators
(1849) occur in the second volume. Here Melville associates "commentary" with writing as well as talking. Two usages deal with reception of the supposed philosophical writings of Bardianna; one reference designates future critics of "Mardi" (the imagined archipelago or the book itself, or both), to whom the narrator leaves the decision of a difficult authorship question.
"A good commentary on old Bardianna, Yoomy," said Babbalanja....
--Mardi - Wherein Babbalanja bows thrice
But learning who he was, one of that old Ponderer's commentators....
--Mardi - They go down into the catacombs
So, each charged the other with its authorship; and there was no finding out, whether, indeed, either knew aught of its origin.... Indeed, the settlement of this question must be left to the commentators on Mardi, some four or five hundred centuries hence.
--Mardi - They hearken unto a voice from the gods
REDBURN: HIS FIRST VOYAGE (1849)
Our entrance excited little or no notice; for every body present seemed exceedingly animated about concerns of their own; and a large group was gathered around one tall, military looking gentleman, who was reading some India war-news from the Times, and commenting on it, in a very loud voice, condemning, in toto, the entire campaign.
--Redburn, chapter 46 - A Mysterious Night in London
In passing, Melville cites imposing legal, philosophical, and medical commentaries: by Blackstone (chapter 35, "Flogging Not Lawful"); and Simplicius on Aristotle on the heavens (chapter 38, "The Chaplain and Chapel..."); and "Bell on Bones."
"Surgeon Wedge," said Cuticle, looking round severely, "we will
dispense with your commentaries, if you please, at present. --White-Jacket, chapter 63 - The Operation.
Melville specifically links "commentators" with German criticism and with Shakespeare.
Such are the principal divisions into which a man-of-war's crew is
divided; but the inferior allotments of duties are endless, and would
require a German commentator to chronicle. --White-Jacket, chapter 3, A glance at the principal divisions...
In chapter 41 on "A Man-of-War Library," Melville represents "the commentators" figuratively as a plague of locusts. Projected into a hypothetical future, Melville's dreadful swarm of locust-commentators would eat all of Shakespeare's "sacred" writings "clean up."
Then there was Walpole's Letters—very witty, pert, and polite —and some odd volumes of plays, each of which was a precious casket of jewels of good things, shaming the trash nowadays passed off for dramas, containing 'The Jew of Malta,' 'Old Fortunatus,' 'The City Madam,' 'Volpone,' 'The Alchemist,' and other glorious old dramas of the age of Marlowe and Jonson, and that literary Damon and Pythias, the magnificent, mellow old Beaumont and Fletcher, who have sent the long shadow of their reputation, side by side with Shakespeare's, far down the endless vale of posterity. And may that shadow never be less! but as for St. Shakespeare, may his never be more, lest the commentators arise, and settling upon his sacred text, like unto locusts, devour it clean up, leaving never a dot over an I. --White-Jacket, chapter 41 - A Man-of-War Library
HAWTHORNE AND HIS MOSSES (1850)
Again in 1850 Melville links Shakespeare with his commentators.
And so, much of the blind, unbridled admiration that has been heaped upon Shakspeare, has been lavished upon the least part of him. And few of his endless commentators and critics seem to have remembered, or even perceived, that the immediate products of a great mind are not so great as that undeveloped and sometimes undevelopable yet dimly-discernible greatness, to which those immediate products are but the infallible indices. In Shakspeare's tomb lies infinitely more than Shakspeare ever wrote. And if I magnify Shakspeare, it is not so much for what he did do as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing. For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakspeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth,—even though it be covertly and by snatches.
--The Literary World - August 17, 1850
MOBY-DICK; OR, THE WHALE (1851)
In the vein of Irving on Diedrich Knickerbocker
, Melville's unnamed narrator identifies himself at the start of Moby-Dick
as a sympathetic "commentator" on the "Sub-Sub Librarian" and his miscellaneous "Extracts" of whales and whaling.
So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am.--Moby-Dick, Extracts
In chapter 83 (Jonah Historically Regarded
) Melville paraphrases a "German exegetist," then "other continental commentators" on the book of Jonah:
Besides, it has been
divined by other continental commentators, that when Jonah was thrown
overboard from the Joppa ship, he straightway effected his escape to
another vessel near by, some vessel with a whale for a figure-head; and, I
would add, possibly called “The Whale,” as some craft are nowadays
christened the “Shark,” the “Gull,” the “Eagle.”
The best lawyers and lawbooks have upheld the rights of royalty to the whale, once caught.
Says Plowden, the whale so caught belongs to the King and Queen, "because of its superior excellence." And by the soundest commentators this has ever been held a cogent argument in such matters. --Moby-Dick, chapter 90 - Heads or Tails
At sea, however, disputes about "Fast-fish and Loose-fish
" like other controversies may be settled by spoken words, backed up with physical force, regardless of written "commentaries."
These are scientific commentaries; but the commentaries of the whalemen themselves sometimes consist in hard words and harder knocks—the Coke-upon-Littleton of the fist.
What a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster. --Letter to Evert A. Duyckinck, November 1851.
PIERRE; OR, THE AMBIGUITIES (1852)
Pierre avoids unnecessary "commentary" on his break-up with Lucy Tartan when writing ahead to his cousin Glen Stanley. After moving to the city with Isabel, now posing as his wife, the struggling hero wants to re-read the transcendentalist pamphlet on "Chronometrics," with the help of "commentary" in the form of the author's "mystic-mild face" which Pierre has glimpsed through a tower window.
Again he tried his best to procure the pamphlet, to read it now by the commentary of the mystic-mild face; again he searched through the pockets of his clothes for the stage-coach copy, but in vain. --Pierre; Or, The Ambiguities - page 400
Plotinus Plinlimmon may look harmless but the commentary of his face as Pierre reads it is brutal:
Vain! vain! vain! said the face to him. Fool! fool! fool! said the face
to him. Quit! quit! quit! said the face to him.
ISRAEL POTTER (1855)
The war hero of Melville's Israel Potter
, originally serialized in Putnam's magazine, has troubles enough, without ever being bothered by "commentators" as such.
THE PIAZZA TALES (1856)
Three of the four "comments" in Melville's 1856 collection The Piazza Tales
occur in one story, Benito Cereno
. First published in Putnam's Monthly
, "Benito Cereno" features three usages of the word comment
, singular. Each "comment" is described by a different adjective: "ominous": "dusky"; and "chalky." The different "comments" are all provided by Africans. All three are expressed in figures rather than words, and all of them seem menacing from the perspective of Captain Delano. The repeated clang of hatchets makes an audible commentary on Delano's private musings:
By a curious coincidence, as each point was recalled, the black wizards of Ashantee would strike up with their hatchets, as in ominous comment on the white stranger's thoughts. Pressed by such enigmas and portents, it would have been almost against nature, had not, even into the least distrustful heart, some ugly misgivings obtruded.
As observed by Delano, the mannered silence of Babo complements and paradoxically comments on the "hollow," theatrical performance of Benito Cereno:
To Captain Delano's imagination, now again not wholly at rest, there was something so hollow in the Spaniard's manner, with apparently some reciprocal hollowness in the servant's dusky comment of silence, that the idea flashed across him, that possibly master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the very tremor of Don Benito's limbs, some juggling play before him.
The figure-head of the San Dominick
is alleged to be the skeleton of the murdered slaveholder, Don Alexandro Aranda. Melville dramatically presents what is supposedly the skeleton of Aranda as a "chalky comment" on the inscribed comment, "Follow your leader," complicating the usual association of comments with words only. With the reveal at the end, figure now comments on text, and vice-versa.
... But by this time the cable of the San
Dominick had been cut; and the fag-end, in
lashing out, whipped away the canvas shroud
about the beak, suddenly revealing, as the
bleached hull swung round towards the open
ocean, death for the figure-head, in a human
skeleton; chalky comment on the chalked
words below, "Follow your leader."
The only other instance of the word comment
in The Piazza Tales
occurs in "The Encantadas," in the story of Hunilla originally published in Putnam's
magazine as the eighth sketch in the series, mislabeled "Sketch Ninth" and titled Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow
. Again the comment is a visual one, here expressed in the "features" of Hunilla rather than her plain words. And the visual comment still requires a sympathetic reading to be rightly understood.
It needs not to be said what nameless misery now wrapped the lonely widow. In telling her own story she passed this almost entirely over, simply recounting the event. Construe the comment of her features as you might, from her mere words little would you have weened that Hunilla was herself the heroine of her tale. But not thus did she defraud us of our tears. All hearts bled that grief could be so brave. --Putnam's Monthly Magazine - April 1854
THE CONFIDENCE-MAN: HIS MASQUERADE (1857)
Chapter 2 of The Confidence-Man
opens somewhat in the manner of the Extracts in Moby-Dick
, with "epitaphic comments
, conflictingly spoken or thought, of a miscellaneous company." Diverse comments are provoked by the appearance and behavior of a "man in cream-colours," the mute and apparently deaf stranger who brandishes a slate and writes out lines from 1 Corinthians 13, on the true meaning of Love. In contrast to the three figural "comments" in "Benito Cereno," and one non-verbal "comment" in the Hunilla sketch, usages of comment
and related words in the Confidence-Man
are literal and occasionally bookish, appearing in more traditional and self-consciously literary contexts. Much as he would like to, the herb-doctor cannot regard autobiographical testimony by the unfortunate "cripple" Thomas Fry as a helpful "commentary" on real life.
The herb-doctor was silent for a time, buried in thought. At last, raising his head, he said: "I have considered your whole story, my friend, and strove to consider it in the light of a commentary on what I believe to be the system of things; but it so jars with all, is so incompatible with all, that you must pardon me, if I honestly tell you, I cannot believe it." --The Confidence-Man, chapter 19 - A Soldier of Fortune
Similarly, when the merchant Mr. Roberts sympathetically describes the sufferings of fellow travelers on board the riverboat Fidèle,
another confidence man (transfer agent for the Black Rapids Coal Company) cheerily responds with a line from Shakespeare:
"Nature, he added, in Shakespeare's words, had meal and
bran; and, rightly regarded, the bran in its way was
not to be condemned." --Chapter 11, quoting Belarius in Cymbeline, Act 4, scene 2: "Nature hath meal and bran, contempt and grace."
Considering the source in Shakespeare, the merchant feels bound to endorse the metaphor of meal and bran, but not the transfer-agent's dubious interpretation:
The other was not disposed to question the justice of Shakespeare's thought, but would hardly admit the propriety of the application in this instance, much less of the comment. --The Confidence-Man, chapter 11 - Only a page or so
Two of the four occurrences of words related to comment
in the Confidence-Man
refer explicitly to Shakespeare. In conversation with the polished "Cosmopolitan" Frank Goodman, the con man Charlie Noble criticizes the advice of Polonius to Laertes in Hamlet
as "false, fatal, and calumnious."
"I believe you, my dear Charlie. And yet, I repeat, by your commentaries on Polonius you have, I know not how, unsettled me; so that now I don't exactly see how Shakespeare meant the words he puts in Polonius' mouth." --chapter 30, Opening with a poetical eulogy of the press
Comments abound in Clarel
. It's all commentary--all comments, all the way down. Like Melville his pilgrims live for endless dialogue, not only on insoluble theological problems but also questions of history, art, geology, political economy, sex, love, and friendship. What Hawthorne said:
It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before —in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sandhills amidst which we were sitting. --Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife
Forms of the word comment
occur 21 times in Clarel
(only once as a verb, when Rolfe "comments" on the "knightly hammer" of Margoth the geologist, picturing him as a modern Ivanhoe or Siegfried, the dragon-slayer:
"Yon knightly hammer. 'Tis with that
He stuns, and would exterminate
Your creeds as dragons." --Clarel Part 2 - Canto 23 By the Jordan
Two of the twenty-one instances describe marginalia that Clarel discovers in books left behind by "B. L." the "fair young Englishman" once connected with St. Mary's Hall, University of Oxford. Marginal comments (not necessarily by B. L.?) undermine the "High Church" arguments of one book, and in another, express profound anguish ("More dole than e'en dissent") over the mythologizing and historicizing of sacred texts by the writer--evidently one of the Higher Critics
, like David Friedrich Strauss only more revolutionary, more like Ludwig Feuerbach.
Of the twenty-one occurrences of comment
and related forms, one denotes "commentators" and one identifies a particular "commentator." The context for the plural "commentators" is fascinating. At the Dead Sea, Rolfe flashes back to Lot and his daughters in the glare of Sodom, burning, while Derwent blithely reads a modern guidebook. Derwent defends the helpfulness of "book-comment"; but Rolfe urges deeper meanings screaming for attention in nature, there in front of them in their present campground by the Dead Sea. Nature now is like Shakespeare in White-Jacket
and the "Mosses" essay: closely identified with truth and truth-seeking, uncomprehended by mere "commentators":
"But How if nature vetoes all
Part 4 Canto 12
Her commentators? Disenthrall
Thy heart. Look round. Are not here met
Books and that truth no type shall set?" --Clarel Part 2 - Canto 32 The Encampment
(Of Pope and Turk) gives dialogue between two unidentified speakers, overheard at breakfast by Rolfe. One stranger makes respectful references to David Urquhart as a notable "commentator
on the East" who "stands for God." The other guy (a materialist resolved to "stand by fact") thinks Urquhart a vain and "eccentric ideologist."
For Melville, as the multi-sided view of Urquhart shows, a commentator can be "obsolete" and appealing at the same time.
WEEDS AND WILDINGS
As described in the prose headnote, Melville conceives "Profundity and Levity" as the lyrical "comment" of an old and most professorial owl on the lark and its carefree song. You can see this piece and all of "Weeds and Wildings" in manuscript in the Melville Electronic Library
. My transcription below of "Levity and Profundity" follows the text as printed in Collected Poems of Herman Melville
, edited by Howard P. Vincent (Hendricks House, 1947), pages 274-5. Now available also, hurrah! in Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings
, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Robert A. Sandberg, and G. Thomas Tanselle, Historical Note by Hershel Parker (Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 2017), page 99.
An owl in his wonted day-long retirement ruffled by the meadow-lark curvetting and caroling in the morning sun high over the pastures and woods, comments upon that rollicker, and in so doing lets out the meditation engrossing him when thus molested. But the weightiness of the wisdom ill agrees with the somewhat trilling expression; an incongruity attributable doubtless to the contagious inﬂuence of the reprehended malapert’s overruling song :—
So frolic, so ﬂighty,
Leaving wisdom behind;
Lark, little you ween
Of the progress of mind.
While fantastic you’re winging,
Up-curving and singing,
A skylarking dot in the sun;
Under eaves here in wood
My wits am I giving
To this latest theme:
Life blinks at strong light,
Life wanders in night like a dream—
Is then life worth living?
-- Collected Poems of Herman Melville
As shown above, Melville repeatedly associated commentators with Shakespeare during the period between White-Jacket
(1850) and The Confidence-Man
(1857). In the margins of Timon of Athens
. (4.3) Melville crossed out one footnote to the First Thief's line at 4.3.511
First Thief. Let us first see peace in Athens; there is no time so miserable but a man may be true. --Timon of Athens - Act 4, scene 3
"There is no hour in a man's life so wretched, but he always has it in his power to become true, i.e., honest."
Exasperated after a string of such notes, explicating the obvious, Melville finally told him to shut up. You can see the marginal outburst courtesy of Melville's Marginalia Online
, in Volume 5 of Melville's set of The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare
"Peace, peace! Thou ass of a commentator!"
Some people just don't know when to quit.