Saturday, June 18, 2022


Ulysses defying the Cyclops
via The New York Public Library Digital Collections

In White-Jacket (1850) and the poem In a Bye-Canal, Melville refers to Homer's Odysseus as Ulysses. In choosing to call him Ulysses, Melville was guided by then-standard English translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. In his own copy of Chapman's Homer (Sealts number 277), a gift from George Duyckinck in 1858, Melville's annotation to The Iliads of Homer Book 3 (page 69, lines 230-232) reads

"Ulysses sat tall."

-- Melville's Marginalia Online  

In March 1849 Melville bought the three-volume set of Alexander Pope's Homer in the Harpers Classical Library (Sealts number 275c). Melville's set is lost, but that Odyssey was also all about Ulysses, as Pope makes clear in his plot summary: 

"Ulysses also, after innumerable troubles by sea and land, at last returned to safety in Ithaca, which is the subject of Homer's Odyssey." 

Thanks in part to influential verse translations in English (by William Cowper, too, along with Pope and Chapman) Melville and his contemporaries knew Odysseus, the ingenious hero of Greek story and myth, as Ulysses.

More generally, William Cullen Bryant explained his use of Latin-based names as best practice when translating Greek into English:

I make no apology for employing in my version the names Jupiter, Juno, Venus, and others of Latin origin, for Zeus, Here, Aphrodite, and other Greek names of the deities of whom Homer speaks. The names which I have adopted have been naturalized in our language for centuries, and some of them, as Mercury, Vulcan, and Dian, have even been provided with English terminations. I was translating from Greek into English, and I therefore translated the names of the gods, as well as the other parts of the poem.  -- Preface, The Iliad of Homer, translated into English blank verse (Boston, 1870).
Academicians howled, apparently, but the old poet stuck to his guns

"The names of Latin origin are naturalized; the others are aliens and strangers."

and Homer's hero remains Ulysses all through Bryant's translation of The Odyssey.

Early in White-Jacket (1850), Ulysses is named with other exemplary heroes of literature familiar to Jack Chase, Melville's great-hearted captain of the maintop: 

Jack had read all the verses of Byron, and all the romances of Scott. He talked of Rob Roy, Don Juan, and Pelham; Macbeth and Ulysses; but, above all things, was an ardent admirer of Camoens. Parts of the Lusiad, he could recite in the original. -- White-Jacket chapter 4, Jack Chase 

In this initial survey of Jack Chase's impressive reading, Ulysses ranks with other leading literary characters whom Jack Chase knows familiarly, well enough to talk about as fellow men. Melville biographer Leon Howard definitely grasped that Melville here meant to designate men as much or more than the titles of works in which they appear:

"... [Melville's Jack Chase] was a master of languages who could recite long passages from Camoëns' sailors' epic, The Lusiad, in the original Portuguese, and talk in English of Rob Roy and Don Juan, Macbeth and Ulysses, and Bulwer's Pelham." -- Herman Melville: A Biography (University of California Press, 1951) page 74.

Howard's careful paraphrase of the passage from chapter 4 of White-Jacket gives only The Lusiad in italics. "Ulysses" to Howard plainly denotes the hero of Homer's Odyssey. Confirmed by looking for "Homer" in the Index:

"Homer, Odysseus, 74."

Paraphrasing the same passage as Howard, John Bryant wrongly puts Macbeth in italics and Ulysses in quotes to reinforce his bad take through punctuation. 

Melville describes Jack Chase as having read all of Byron, Scott, and Camoens's Lusiad (which he recites in the original Portuguese) as well as Macbeth and "Ulysses." Chase's recital of the last work is impossible because Tennyson's 1842 "Ulysses" had only just been published." -- Herman Melville: A Half Known Life volume 2 (Wiley Blackwell, 2021) page 1057.

Fear not! If you made the same mistake by reading the name "Ulysses" as Melville's ineptly managed reference to Tennyson's poem Ulysses, just keep reading. Our matchless Jack will set you straight in chapter 65, A Man-of-War Race

How many great men have been sailors, White Jacket! They say Homer himself was once a tar, even as his hero, Ulysses, was both a sailor and a shipwright. I'll swear Shakespeare was once a captain of the forecastle. Do you mind the first scene in The Tempest, White Jacket?  

Ulysses is Homer's hero. According to Jack Chase anyway, who thus rescues Melville from the false charge of perpetrating an anachronism with an "impossible" reference to Tennyson's version of the archetypal wanderer.

Not that you absolutely have to stay with Homer. Sympathetic readers (for whom Ulysses lives) might freely associate Jack Chase's Homeric hero with Virgil's, or Dante's, or Shakespeare's or Tennyson's or Joyce's version of Ulysses. Unlikely as it sounds, I'm convinced that at least one reference to Ulysses in White-Jacket alludes to George Clooney

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