Sunday, March 3, 2024

Meagerness on a pelican-beach

the matter and sources of Melville's
"In a Prison Pen (1864)"


Meager were his looks;
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones.
--Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet - Act 5 scene 1 
... like lean rows of broken-hearted pelicans on a beach; their pockets loose, hanging down and flabby, like the pelican's pouches when fish are hard to be caught.  --Herman Melville, Pierre or The Ambiguities (1852) page 362.
A penitential bird indeed, fitly haunting the shores of the clinkered Encantadas, whereon tormented Job himself might have well sat down and scraped himself with potsherds. --Melville, The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles - Sketch Third, Rock Rodondo in Putnam's Monthly March 1854; reprinted in The Piazza Tales (1856) at page 309.
Wie kann es sein, dass Gefangene überhaupt hungerten, und warum zieht man den, von dem hier die Rede ist, zum Skelett abgemagert aus der Menge, als ob sie ihn zerdrückt hätte?  
--B. S. Orthau und B. Oskars, „In the Prison Pen“: ein Gedicht und sein Hintergrund in Essay, 30 June 2021

Carol Rumens, award-winning poet and Bangor University Professor, has lately showcased Melville's heartbreakingly bleak Civil War poem In the Prison Pen as her Guardian Poem of the week. Besides attending to the form of the poem (ballad stanza) and its point of view, her reading nicely highlights Melville's deployment (deemed mostly effective) of poetic language and devices including strategic use of monosyllables, vivid diction ("gashed and hoar" prisoners, looking like ghosts), inversion (the old literary trick of putting adjective after noun, as in "faces dim"), bestial imagery (the words pen and lair and den signifying the captive soldier's "reduction from human to animal") and repetition (chiefly of throngs and dead in the final stanza). 

'Tis barren as a pelican-beach.

Professor Rumens does not fail to address the pelican in the first stanza, where Melville or his speaker compares the desolate place of the prisoner's confinement to the "barren" emptiness of a pelican-beach, whatever that is. 

"The third-line simile needs a footnote I’m unable to supply. What is a pelican-beach?"

Wondering the same, I thought it might prove useful to investigate and attempt an answer. In a footnote, ideally, to be constructed after I get over the mild shock of discovering that somebody wanted one. Let me begin by observing that a pretty good footnote--or end-note, technically speaking--already exists in the 2009 Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Published Poems (Volume 11 in The Writings of Herman Melville) edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising, and G. Thomas Tanselle. 

In this the most scholarly edition of Melville's Battle-Pieces to date, the relevant editorial note to "IN THE PRISON PEN" appears on page 653 (of 940) citing a biblical example of Melville's figurative pelican:

DISCUSSIONS. 86.3 barren as a pelican-beach] Psalm 102: 'I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert." Melville marked the next verse "I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house-top") in one of his Bibles (see the discussion at 64.0 above).

You can't blame Carol Rumens or The Guardian for ignoring it, not when Hershel Parker, General Editor of Published Poems, did likewise. Ever keen to break new ground, Parker chose not to bother about "pelican-beach" in his end-note to "In a Prison Pen" for the 2019 Library of America edition Herman Melville: Complete Poems, pages 944-945, and thus removed any temptation to cross-reference Psalm 102. To the same effect, the "sparrow alone upon the house top" cited in the longer Northwestern-Newberry discussion of "The House-top, another poem in Battle-Pieces, has flown. Alas! no feather of a sparrow, pelican, owl, or any other trace of Psalm 102:6 made it into Parker's generally excellent end-notes for the LOA edition

Nevertheless, the dropped cross-reference to Psalm 102, verse 6 "I am like a pelican of the wilderness" pointed up a biblical text that is and always will be rich with significance for a sympathetic reading of "In the Prison Pen." Conventionally presented in KJV chapter headings as "A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed," the whole of Psalm 102 could be seen to address and resonate with the sorrowful plight of severely maltreated prisoners. 

"It is calculated for an afflicted state, and is intended for the use of others that may be in the like distress." -- Matthew Henry,  An Exposition of the Book of Psalms (London, 1853).

Also by way of allusion, this time unmistakable, the Psalms of David come into play again in the fourth stanza of Melville's poem. As there shown with blunt clarity and precision, no divine protection from the "smiting sun" like that promised to the righteous in Psalm 121:6 ("The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.") is available to the poor soldier confined in Melville's shelterless and godforsaken prison pen. 

Pelicans elsewhere in Melville's writings are almost always portrayed as sad, pitiable creatures whose angular forms and typically empty pouches make them look eternally lean and hungry. Repeatedly, Melville labels the pelican lugubrious which according to Webster's 1848 American Dictionary means "Mournful; indicating sorrow." Usual associations for Melville include food or the lack of it, poverty, hunger, remote island habitats, desolation, ordered rows, especially of soldiers or monks, penance, endurance of Job-like suffering, Hell. 

In Pierre (1852) Melville likened undernourished philosophers and would-be social reformers living cheaply in the "Church of the Apostles" to 
"lean rows of broken-hearted pelicans on a beach."
Melville's figuration of pelicans as mournful objects of condemnation and punishment is most overt in the following passage from The Encantadas, Sketch Third, Rock Rodondo:
But look, what are yon wobegone regiments drawn up on the next shelf above? what rank and file of large strange fowl? what sea Friars of Orders Gray? Pelicans. Their elongated bills, and heavy leathern pouches suspended thereto, give them the most lugubrious expression. A pensive race, they stand for hours together without motion. Their dull, ashy plumage imparts an aspect as if they had been powdered over with cinders. A penitential bird indeed, fitly haunting the shores of the clinkered Encantadas, whereon tormented Job himself might have well sat down and scraped himself with potsherds.

Thus represented in military and monastic metaphors as "wobegone regiments" of sad-looking creatures arranged in "rank and file," Melville's battle-worn and scourged penitents of pelicans seem the very emblem of captivity and suffering in a southern prison, or any such godforsaken place. Here then and without meaning to we have stumbled upon the perfect footnote to pelican-beach, already provided by Melville himself in "The Encantadas." A pelican-beach might be any blank shore unprotected from the elements where rows of mournfully sad, perpetually lean and hungry-looking creatures have been condemned to stand, endure inexplicable punishment and inevitably die. 

Allusion to the afflicted supplicant as "a pelican of the wilderness" in Psalm 102.6 would complement Melville's more private symbolism, although elements of Melville's favored pelican cluster can also be found in other works, notably The Pelican Island (1827) by James Montgomery and Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), both quoted in Moby-Dick (1851). Closer to home lurks a possible local allusion. The "sandy, barren" Belle Isle as depicted in the 1864 Narrative of Privations and Sufferings may have reminded Melville of "Barren Island," mostly "a sand-bank known as Pelican beach." So described in multiple editions of Appleton's Dictionary of New York and Its Vicinity.

As developed in Pierre and The Encantadas and adapted to "In the Prison Pen," Melville's pelican is an image of the starving prisoner. In Psalm 102, the emaciated body of the supplicant similarly matches the shocking physical condition of released Union prisoners from Belle Isle, pictured in words and engraved images as "living skeletons" in the 1864 report by the U. S. Sanitary Commission, Narrative of Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers and Soldiers while Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Rebel Authorities.
Narrative of Privations and Sufferings 
U. S. Sanitary Commission, 1864 via Library of Congress

As I write 160 years later, multiple copies of the 1864 volume edited by Valentine Mott et al. are being offered by antiquarian booksellers via The most valuable ones still have the original four illustrations of emaciated men, formerly prisoners-of-war. These engraved images were all made from photographs now accessible online via the Library of Congress.

Mathew Henry, again, on the extremely gaunt figure of the psalmist in Psalm 102:

"His body was macerated and emaciated, and he was become a perfect skeleton, nothing but skin and bones."

As pointed out in the aforementioned editorial notes to "Prison Pen" in the back of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Published Poems, Melville's go-to source for other poems in Battle-Pieces reprinted lengthy and frequently horrifying testimony before the U. S. Senate on "The Returned Prisoners"; available to Melville in the Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events volume 8, edited by Frank Moore, Document 2, pages 80-98. While these first-hand accounts in the Rebellion Record are obviously relevant to the hellish experience Melville poetically depicts, the 1864 Narrative of Privations and Sufferings will be shown to exhibit more and better verbal correspondences to "In the Prison Pen."

The official report by the U. S. Sanitary Commission, reprinted in major newspapers and magazines, documented and condemned the severe maltreatment of Union soldiers in Rebel prisons, most notoriously Belle Isle in Virginia and Andersonville in Georgia. Littell's Living Age no. 1066 (November 5, 1864) contains the main report; two weeks later (November 19, 1864) Littell's gave the Appendix supplemented by the Deposition of Private Tracy and other new information about the "Sufferings of the Prisoners at Andersonville, GA." Substantial excerpts were also available in major U.S. newspapers including the New York Times on September 5, 1864 and New York Tribune, in the semi-weekly edition of November 8, 1864. In Battle-Pieces Melville has assigned "In the Prison Pen" to 1864 and arranged it to appear between Sheridan at Cedar Creek dated "October 1864" and The College Colonel, about a wounded officer and former POW who had experienced "lean brooding at Libby" prison in Richmond, Virginia. Before composing "In the Prison Pen" Melville evidently had read some version of the 1864 Narrative of Privations and Sufferings, as indicated by correspondences of language and imagery in each of its five stanzas.  

In the Prison Pen


LISTLESS he eyes the palisades
     And sentries in the glare;
’Tis barren as a pelican-beach —
     But his world is ended there.

Nothing to do; and vacant hands
     Bring on the idiot-pain;
He tries to think—to recollect,
     But the blur is on his brain.

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
     Like those on Virgil’s shore—
A wilderness of faces dim,
     And pale ones gashed and hoar.

A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;
     He totters to his lair —
A den that sick hands dug in earth
     Ere famine wasted there,

Or, dropping in his place, he swoons,
     Walled in by throngs that press,
Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead —
     Dead in his meagerness.
Text via Poetry Foundation:
B. S. Orthau and B. Oskars understand Melville's "pelican beach" as a possible allusion to Belle Isle Prison at Richmond, Virginia. Along with a verse translation of "In the Prison Pen" in German, their recent essay „In the Prison Pen“: ein Gedicht und sein Hintergrund introduces historical context needed just to begin to comprehend the suffering that Melville has poetically depicted. In the hosts of "plaining ghosts" surrounding the prisoner in Melville's third stanza, Orthau and Oskar find allusion to Dante's Inferno as well as Virgil's Aeneid. Their essay in German indiscriminately treats conditions in Northern and Southern prisons as essentially the same, without reference to the 1864 investigation and report by the U. S. Sanitary Commission. Nevertheless, Orthau and Oskar boldly stated what I take herein to be the main question posed at the close of Melville's poem:
How can it be that prisoners were starving at all, and why is the person in question pulled out of the crowd, emaciated to a skeleton, as if they had crushed him?  -- +Google Translate
Directly addressing the issue of starvation in southern prisons, Martin Griffin in Ashes of the Mind: War and Memory in Northern Literature, 1865-1900 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) thoughtfully treats the human subject of "In the Prison Pen" as an "emaciated and mentally devastated prisoner in the hands of a regime that does not care about the condition or fate of those under its control." Being crucial to the setting and theme of Melville's poem, Griffin’s insights about the atrocities at Andersonville and "death-in-life" as "the dominating motif" merit wider attention:
The poem reflects the situation that obtained in the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville in Georgia, a site of starvation and disease that cost the lives of over twelve thousand Union soldiers....The possibility of a kind of death-in-life, of life as a death-in-waiting, becomes the dominating motif of "In the Prison Pen (1864.)" 
--Martin Griffin, Ashes of the Mind, page 88.

After the war, Henry Wirz, "keeper of the Andersonville rebel prison pen" was hanged "for inhuman treatment, resulting in numberless deaths, of the captives in his charge" as reported in the New York Daily Herald on November 11, 1865.

The fourth stanza of "In the Prison Pen" calls attention to the attenuated physical forms of men kept in outdoor prison-pens like Belle Isle and Andersonville. Melville's representative soldier is pictured as the victim of unrelieved "famine" that has "wasted" his body, along with disease and extremes of temperature. Formerly, when he was only sick from the filth of his environment, and not yet too weak, too hungry, and too brain-damaged to move, the prisoner could at least dig a hole in the ground for some protection from the elements. These and other key details poetically mirror the accounts of maltreatment in the 1864 Narrative of Privations and Sufferings. Specific parallels to the language and imagery of Melville's poem in the 1864 report by the U. S. Sanitary Commission are shown below, with links to digital versions of cited passages, accessible online via Google Books, HathiTrust Digital Library, and the Internet Archive. Words shared between the 1864 Narrative and Melville's "Prison Pen" include forms of idiot, sun, shed, tree, totter, dug, faces, famine, and the phrase throng that pressed, echoed in Melville's phrase throngs that press


LISTLESS he eyes the palisades
And sentries in the glare;


This prison is an open space, sloping on both sides, originally seventeen acres, now twenty-five acres, in the shape of a parallelogram, without trees or shelter of any kind. The soil is sand over a bottom of clay. The fence is made of upright trunks of trees, about twenty feet high, near the top of which are small platforms, where the guards are stationed. Twenty feet inside and parallel to the fence is a light railing, forming the "dead line," beyond which the projection of a foot or finger is sure to bring the deadly bullet of the sentinel.... 
-- Deposition of Private Tracy, Supplement in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings, page 260; reprinted in Littell's Living Age page 410.


Nothing to do; and vacant hands
     Bring on the idiot-pain;


Many had lost their reason, and were in all stages of idiocy and imbecility.  -- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 58; Littell's Living Age page 301.
The mental condition of a large portion of the men was melancholy, beginning in despondency, and tending to a kind of stolid and idiotic indifference. Many spent much time in arousing and encouraging their fellows, but hundreds were lying about motionless, or stalking vacantly to and fro, quite beyond any help which could be given them within their prison walls. These cases were frequent among those who had been imprisoned but a short time. There were those who were captured at the first Bull Run, July, 1861, and had known Belle Isle from the first, yet had preserved their physical and mental health to a wonderful degree. Many were wise and resolute enough to keep themselves occupied—some in cutting bone and wood ornaments, making their knives out of iron hoops-others in manufacturing ink from the rust from these same hoops, and with rude pens sketching or imitating bank notes or any sample that would involve long and patient execution. -- Deposition of Private Tracy, Supplement in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 265; Littell's Living Age v.83 page 414.


He tries to think—to recollect,
     But the blur is on his brain.


Many of them had partially lost their reason, forgetting even the date of their capture and every thing connected with their antecedent history. They resemble, in many respects, patients laboring under cretinism.
-- Testimony of Surgeon De Witt C. Peters, Supplement in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 179; Littell's Living Age v.83 page 387.


Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
     Like those on Virgil’s shore—


"They were constantly complaining of hunger; there was a sad, and insatiable expression of face impossible to describe."

-- Libby Prison described by Surgeon Nelson D. Ferguson in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 41; Littell's Living Age page 383.

On entering the Stockade Prison, we found it crowded with twenty-eight thousand of our fellow-soldiers. By crowded, I mean that it was difficult to move in any direction without jostling and being jostled.

-- Deposition of Private Tracy, Supplement in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 260; Littell's Living Age page 410.

The new-comers, on reaching this, would exclaim: "Is this hell?" yet they soon would become callous, and enter unmoved the horrible rottenness.

-- Deposition of Private Tracy, Supplement in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 263; Littell's Living Age page 413. 


A wilderness of faces dim,
     And pale ones gashed and hoar.


The photographs of these diseased and emaciated men, since so widely circulated, painful as they are, do not, in many respects, adequately represent the sufferers as they then appeared.
The best picture cannot convey the reality, nor create that startling and sickening sensation which is felt at the sight of a human skeleton, with the skin drawn tightly over its skull, and ribs, and limbs, weakly turning and moving itself, as if still a living man! And this was the reality.
The same spectacle was often repeated as the visitors went from bed to bed, from ward to ward, and from tent to tent. The bony faces stared out above the counterpanes, watching the passerby dreamily and indifferently. Here and there lay one, half over upon his face, with his bed clothing only partially dragged over him, deep in sleep or stupor. It was strange to find a Hercules in bones; to see the immense hands and feet of a young giant pendant from limbs thinner than a child's, and that could be spanned with the thumb and finger! 
... But however unlike and various the cases were, there was one singular element shared by all, and which seemed to refer them to one thing as the common cause and origin of their suffering. It was the peculiar look in every face. The man in Baltimore looked like the man just left in Annapolis. Perhaps it was partly the shaven head, the sunken eyes, the drawn mouth, the pinched and pallid features-partly, doubtless, the grayish, blighted skin, rough to the touch as the skin of a shark. But there was something else: an expression in the eyes and countenance of utter desolateness, a look of settled melancholy, as if they had passed through a period of physical and mental agony which had driven the smile from their faces forever. All had it: the man that was met on the grounds, and the man that could not yet raise his head from the pillow.

It was this which arrested the attention of some of the party quite as much as the remarkable phenomenon of so many emaciated and singularly diseased men being gathered together, all, with few exceptions, having been brought from the same prisons in the South.

-- "Living Skeletons" described in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings pages 25-26; Littell's Living Age page 293. 


A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;


But the portion on which the prisoners are confined, is low, sandy, and barren, without a tree to cast a shadow, and poured upon by the burning rays of a Southern sun.

-- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings, page 45; Littell's Living Age page 298.

But thousands had no tents, and no shelter of any kind. Nothing was provided for their accommodation....not a cabin or shed was built.
-- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings, pages 46-7; Littell's Living Age page 298.


   He totters to his lair —


Many were so weak that they had to be carried ashore on stretchers, and died in the brief transit. Others tottered to the hospital, with the little strength they had remaining, only to die in a few hours. Some of them were found covered with bad and extensive sores, caused by lying on the sand. Many had lost their reason, and were in all stages of idiocy and imbecility. One had become incurably insane in his joy at being delivered.

-- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 58; Littell's Living Age page 301.  


A den that sick hands dug in earth


Some of the men dug holes in the sand in which to take refuge.

-- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 48; Littell's Living Age page 299.


Ere famine wasted there,


It will be enough for most people that the captives were hungry day and night, and suffered the gnawing pains of famine, with its dreams and delusions. It will be enough that they became weak and emaciated to the degree in which they were found when exchanged. It will be enough that they were poisoned by foul air and over-crowding; and that they were exposed in the depth of winter, to the cold, without shelter and without covering. It will be enough that thousands of them became hideously diseased, and that most of them miserably perished.

-- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 63; Littell's Living Age page 303.

The proportion of deaths from starvation, not including those consequent on the diseases originating in the character and limited quantity of food, such as diarrhea, dysentery and scurvy, I cannot state; but, to the best of my knowledge, information and belief, there were scores every month. We could, at any time, point out many for whom such a fate was inevitable, as they lay or feebly walked, mere skeletons, whose emaciation exceeded the examples given in Leslie's Illustrated for June 18, 1864.

--Deposition of Private Tracy in Supplement, Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 267; Littell's Living Age page 414.


Walled in by throngs that press,


We were struck by the assured yet affable air with which General Schöpf moved through the dense throng that pressed to look at the visitors. 
-- tour of United States Prison at Fort Delaware described in Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 81; Littell's Living Age page 307.

The last-listed item above demonstrates a close verbal match to Melville's "throngs that press" in the "dense throng that pressed" to view the "assured yet affable" General Albin Francisco Schoepf or Schöpf as he led visiting inspectors from the Sanitary Commission on a tour of Fort Delaware. As described in the 1864 Narrative of Privations and Sufferings, this "throng" of curious Rebels had enjoyed decent and humane treatment as prisoners-of-war at Fort Delaware, unlike the cruelly abused Union soldiers at Belle Isle and Andersonville. So far, the verbal correspondence in the cited passage to Melville's "throngs that press" in the final stanza of "In the Prison Pen" is the only one I have found that refers to Confederate prisoners-of-war being held in a Union facility. 

Harper's Weekly v8 page 385 - June 18, 1864

Engraved pictures of emaciated soldiers appeared in Harper's Weekly for June 18, 1864, presented there to illustrate "the effect of rebel cruelty to our prisoners" in Belle Isle and other southern prisons. Importantly I think for a better understanding of what Melville means by meagerness in the last line of "In the Prison Pen," the Harper's editors described these and other such images of "Our Starved Soldiers" as "photographs from life, or rather from death in life." 


THE pictures which we publish to-day of the effect of rebel cruelty to our prisoners are fearful to look upon; but they are not fancy sketches from descriptions; they are photographs from life, or rather from death in life, and a thousand-fold more impressively than any description they tell the terrible truth. It is not the effect of disease that we see in these pictures; it is the consequence of starvation. It is the work of desperate and infuriated men whose human instincts have become imbruted by the constant habit of outraging humanity. There is no civilized nation in the world with which we could be at war which would suffer the prisoners in its hand to receive such treatment as our men get from the rebels; and the reason is, that none of them are slaveholding nations, for now where are human life and human nature so cheap as among those who treat human beings like cattle.... -- Harper's Weekly for June 18, 1864 page 387.

Later in the same year Harper's Weekly endorsed the Sanitary Commission report:

"It exposes the treatment of all Union prisoners from the moment of their capture to their exchange, especially in the Lib[b]y Prison and on Belle Isle at Richmond. The narrative is derived from the testimony of prisoners themselves, substantiated by the medical investigations of scientific experts; and such a hideous and revolting tale was never told. It's value is completed by an equally careful report of the condition and treatment of rebel prisoners in Union hands at Fort Delaware, Point Lookout, and elsewhere. The verbal testimony of the Union sufferers is appended to the report."  -- Harper's Weekly, October 29, 1864, page 691.

However, while approving the veracity and noble aims of the 1864 volume, the editors at Harper's now regarded the testimony therein as too gruesome and graphic to reprint in a family magazine:

 "The harrowing and sickening details we cannot reproduce."

Melville, likewise, would not tell all, even if he could. His poetic recreation of an outdoor "Prison Pen" in Battle-Pieces is suitably restrained, leaving just enough clues to the suffering experienced therein to invite empathy for the lone sufferer he has chosen to depict. This typically is Melville's way of transforming source-material. As exemplified in "Benito Cereno," "The Encantadas," and Israel Potter, Melville's re-writes characteristically individualize and ennoble their human subjects. Respecting "In the Prison Pen," I like how the late John P. McWilliams Jr put it, long ago:

Melville looks sympathetically and directly at the human individual, Northerner or Southerner, trapped in an historical disaster over which he has no control. A listless, crazed prisoner drops dead under the barren glare of the sun ("In the Prison Pen")....

Possibly he anticipated some 21st century commentators by missing the significance of Melville's word meagerness in the last line. Nonetheless, McWilliams gets the main effect of it all which (as I take it) is to soften like a desert flower the heartbreak and desolation experienced either in the natural world or Melville's aesthetic approximation thereof, through Pity:

"At such moments, epic inflation dissolves into pity for the suffering individual."

McWilliams, John P. “‘Drum Taps’ and Battle-Pieces: The Blossom of War.” American Quarterly 23 no. 2 (May 1971) pages 181–201 at 188.

Belle Isle they say held 10,000 prisoners at one time; Andersonville 35,000. At Belle Isle, as testified by Dorothea Lynde Dix, "about twenty-five died daily." At Andersonville, according to the deposition of Prescott Tracy the number of daily deaths rose from 30-40 a day to over 130 a day. Somehow the one Melville has imagined must do for a representative sufferer. The one is enough or ought to be given that, as Melville believed with Madame de Staël,

"A man, regarded in a religious light, is as much as the entire human race."

Marked and inscribed with an erased annotation in Melville's copy of Germany (New York, 1859) volume 2; images are accessible online courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University:

  • Persistent Link
  • Description Staël, Madame de (Anne-Louise-Germaine), 1766-1817. Germany. New York, Derby & Jackson, 1859. Herman Melville copy. AC85 M4977 Zz859s2 vol.2. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.Pt. IV. Chapter IX. Of the contemplation of nature.
  • Page p.348: Markings in pencil (seq. 353)
  • Repository Houghton Library
  • Institution Harvard University
  • Accessed 28 February 2024
Melville's recovered comment in the second volume of Germany is transcribed in American Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1941) by F. O. Matthiessen who pertinently observes Melville's "continued assertion of the nobility, not of nobles but of man" on page 443.

Probably the freest expression of radically democratic bias appears in Melville's "ludicrous" but true claim that 
"a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington."

-- Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, May 1851 

What matters in this view is inner dignity, however hidden or obscured by worldly misfortune. One person with a soul to save may inspire focused literary devotion, never a mob. 

As poet Carol Rumens explained it in the Guardian, Melville's repetition of the word dead in the closing lines of "In the Prison Pen" beats like a drum, pounding home the "insignificance" of the deceased prisoner.

He is “dead in his meagreness” with no trace of honour or regret, only a reiteration of his insignificance. 

To be honest I'm not sure how to understand the prisoner's alleged insignificance. Is the assertion of "his insignificance" supposed to be the poet's? Hopefully not, since dead or alive his experience is significantly the main focus of "In the Prison Pen." I guess we might take "insignificance" to reflect the callous indifference of prison keepers to one man's fate, and by implication the cosmic indifference of the universe to human existence, suffering, and death. The end in this view recalls the close of Moby-Dick. Ahab perished chasing the White Whale, and all but one of his crew drowned with the sinking of his ship the Pequod, but "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." As appreciated by Rumens in her reading of "In the Prison Pen," Melville's poetic expression of something reaches the mark of "tragic utterance" in the end. 

Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead—
Dead in his meagerness. -- "In the Prison Pen" via Poetry Foundation
Melville's last word is not "insignificance" but meagerness. It might be we need a better dictionary to comprehend it. For most of the 19th century, the word meagerness primarily denoted "Leanness; want of flesh."

Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language  
(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1848)
MEAGER, MEAGRE a. [Fr. maigre; Sp., It. magro; L. macer.] 
1. Destitute of flesh; or having little flesh....

SYN. Thin ; lean ; lank ; gaunt ; starved ; hungry ; poor ; emaciated ; scanty ; barren.
MEAGERNESS, n. 1. Leanness; want of flesh. 2. Poorness; barrenness; want of fertility or richness. 3. Scantiness; barrenness.

The first five synonyms given for the root word meager in Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, Mass., 1865) page 821 are lean, lank, gaunt, starved, and hungry. Seventh (after poor) is emaciated

Let's look again at the way Melville ends "In the Prison Pen." Possibly "Dead" in the final line of verse does not only or merely repeat like a drumbeat "dead" in the line before. Unexpectedly, rather, the second "Dead" introduces new information, qualifying or modifying or in some way explicating the meaning of "dead" in the previous line. As represented at the start of this fifth and final stanza, the prisoner has fainted and collapsed on the ground. The reason he fell was elliptically and perhaps allusively given in the stanza before: "famine" had "wasted there" in the open-air stockade, recalling the journey of Shelley's furies from "cities famine-wasted" to torture the hero ("nailed" to the mountain-wall) in the first act of Prometheus Unbound

After Melville's prisoner drops, presumably debilitated through long starvation, he is carried away "dead," out of the "throngs" inside the prison pen. But here comes the twister.

Narrative of privations and sufferings of United States 
officers & soldiers while prisoners of war (1864)

 Defining and elaborating "dead" the final line informs, "in his meagerness."

Dead in his meagerness.

Which is to say, dead in his leanness; dead in his having so little flesh. Dead, in other words, in his being and looking morbidly lean, lank, gaunt, starved, emaciated. Thus interpreted as modifying "dead," the phrase in his meagerness implies the prisoner might be alive, albeit barely. 

It was their invariable reply in answer to the question, "What was the matter?"

"That they had been starved, exposed, and neglected on Belle Isle."  

-- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 59.

In this light, Melville's achievement of "tragic utterance" at the end of "In the Prison Pen" lies not in his insisting on the insignificance of one dead prisoner-of-war, or the sad fact of his demise--conceivably a mercy, bringing relief from earthly suffering--but rather, in Melville's confronting the shockingly emaciated form in which the prisoner could have survived. Many did. Pictures of emaciated soldiers made after their release from Belle Isle and other southern prisons circulated in popular newspapers and magazines like Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, as well as in the widely available Narrative of Privations and Sufferings

Collection of the Historical Society of Western Virginia
and the Roanoke History Museum, 2020.01.34.

Doubtless Melville had seen one or more of these illustrations, engraved from photographs, before he composed "In a Prison Pen." Investigators found some POW's released in the 1864 exchange barely alive, in worse condition than those pictured. Close to death from "starvation," as reported in the deposition of Prescott Tracy, their

"fate was inevitable, as they lay or feebly walked, mere skeletons, whose emaciation exceeded the examples given in Leslie's Illustrated for June 18, 1864. -- in Supplement, Narrative of Privations and Sufferings page 267; Littell's Living Age page 414.
Thinking it through again, the turn to the image of death-in-leanness or want-of-flesh at the end of "In the Prison Pen" may be said to dramatize published testimony by surgeons and other caregivers on the U. S. Sanitary Commission, frequently describing the appearance of released POW's as that of "living skeletons":
The photographs of these diseased and emaciated men, since so widely circulated, painful as they are, do not, in many respects, adequately represent the sufferers as they then appeared.

The best picture cannot convey the reality, nor create that startling and sickening sensation which is felt at the sight of a human skeleton, with the skin drawn tightly over its skull, and ribs, and limbs, weakly turning and moving itself, as if still a living man! And this was the reality.

The same spectacle was often repeated as the visitors went from bed to bed, from ward to ward, and from tent to tent. The bony faces stared out above the counterpanes, watching the passerby dreamily and indifferently. Here and there lay one, half over upon his face, with his bed clothing only partially dragged over him, deep in sleep or stupor. It was strange to find a Hercules in bones; to see the immense hands and feet of a young giant pendant from limbs thinner than a child's, and that could be spanned with the thumb and finger! Equally strange and horrible was it to come upon a man, in one part shrivelled to nothing but skin and bone, and in another swollen and misshapen with dropsy or scurvy; or further on, when the surgeon lifted the covering from a poor half-unconscious creature, to see the stomach fallen in, deep as a basin, and the bone protruding through a blood-red hole on the hip.
Of course these were the worst cases among those that still survived. Hundreds like them, and worse even than they, had been already laid in their graves.

-- Narrative of Privations and Sufferings, "Living Skeletons" page 25.

Along with the figurative "pelican-beach" that is replete with symbolic meaning in the first stanza, Melville's image of death-in-meagerness in the fifth poetically represents the startling effects of starvation experienced by prisoners-of-war in open-air stockades, particularly Belle Isle and Andersonville. 

THE pictures which we publish to-day of the effect of rebel cruelty to our prisoners are fearful to look upon; but they are not fancy sketches from descriptions; they are photographs from life, or rather from death in life, and a thousand-fold more impressively than any description they tell the terrible truth. It is not the effect of disease that we see in these pictures; it is the consequence of starvation.
Like the images of emaciated soldiers in Harper's Weekly and elsewhere, Melville's verse pictures "death in life" in the wasted form of one "Dead in his meagerness." In poetry Melville tells "the terrible truth" about his and their suffering, and in some measure, through pity, redeems and softens it.

Former prisoner-of-war Morgan E. Dowling, a Civil War veteran who had served with the 17th Michigan Infantry Regiment, approved. Dowling quoted the whole of Melville's poem "In the Prison Pen" as a fitting conclusion to the narrative of his experiences at Belle Isle in Southern Prisons: Or, Josie, the Heroine of Florence (Detroit, 1870): 
"And in concluding my account of what we underwent at Belle Island, I subjoin the following stanzas by Herman Mellville, which so beautifully portray the feelings of the soldier...."

If in Money We Trust

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Abridged "Admiral of the White" in the St. Paul SUNDAY PIONEER PRESS

Following up on my discovery that Allen Thorndike Rice arranged for the simultaneous publication of Melville's poem "The Admiral of the White" in multiple U. S. newspapers including the Cincinnati Times-Star, I confirmed this morning that an abridged version of Melville's poem did in fact appear on May 17, 1885 in the Sunday edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Minnesota Historical Society's Gale Family Library has the relevant issue on microfilm. Parking at the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul (across from our magnificent Cathedral) is still free for library users--but not for long, they tell me. With a reserved reader/printer and kind help from library staff I was able to find and view the right reel during my visit earlier today. 

Many thanks to all at the Gale Family Library, and to John Gretchko for prodding me to go. The long version of Melville's 1885 poem "The Admiral of the White" was later collected in John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), slightly revised and re-titled The Haglets. The Minnesota abridgment of Melville's poem appears on page 17 of the Sunday Pioneer Press along with two prose articles, "Letters of Marque" by Gail Hamilton (the pseudonym of Mary Abigail Dodge) and a tribute to Kingsley by Frederic William Farrar. While I expected to find some version of "The Admiral of the White," I was surprised and of course delighted by the high praise extended in the header, by way of introducing "A Striking Tale in Verse from the Pen of Herman Melville." True, the editor in his enthusiasm does not seem to know or care about Battle-Pieces (1866) and Clarel (1876) and appears to mistake "White" for the name of the doomed ship, but what of that. It's always good to find Melville highly placed in "A Galaxy of Genius," ranking first among other "Eminent Authors."

Sunday Pioneer Press - St. Paul, MN
May 17, 1885
Our shortened St. Paul version of "The Admiral of the White" omits many lines of verse including all of the first two stanzas and part of the third, lines 1-18 of "The Haglets" as printed on pages 218-225 in the 2009 Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Published Poems, edited by Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising and G. Thomas Tanselle. Who supplied the three prose transitions, highlighted in my transcription below, added to fill gaps in the story resulting from editorial deletions? Allen Thorndike Rice? Chief editor Joseph Albert Wheelock himself, or an assistant in the literary department? Probably not the poet, I suppose. None of these clever connectors appears in the differently abridged version printed on the same Sunday in the New York Daily Tribune

From the St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press of May 17, 1885, page 17:



A Striking Tale in Verse from the Pen of Herman Melville—In "Letters of Marque" Gail Hamilton Discusses in Her Own Characteristically Breezy and Independent Fashion a Number of Questions Concerning the Modern Young —Rev. Canon Farrar Contributes an Appreciative Tribute to the Memory of the Late Charles Kingsley.


[Copyright, 1885, by Thorndyke Rice. All rights reserved.]

The famous author of "Omoo," "Typee" and other widely known books has dropped into poetry, and in this domain of literature displays the same breeziness, the same dash and spirit that characterized his former works. He tells the story of the fate of the gallant crew of the White, wrecked and lost in Southern seas. The admiral has just fought the "arm'd Plate Fleet whose sinking flagship's colors fell," and is now crowding sail ahead to carry the news of his victory.

The eddying waters whirl astern,
The prow, a seedsman, sows the spray;
With bellying sails and buckling spars
The black hull leaves a Milky Way;
Her timbers thrill, her batteries roll,
She reveling speeds exulting with pennon at pole.
But ah, for standards captive trailed
For all their scutcheoned castles’ pride—
Castilian towers that dominate Spain,
Naples, and either Ind beside;
Those haughty towers, armorial ones,
Rue the salute from the admiral’s dens of guns.

* * * * * * * [omitting "Ensigns and arms...conflict sped," lines 31-42]

But out from cloistral gallery dim,
In early night his glance is thrown;
He marks the vague reserve of heaven,
He feels the touch of ocean lone;
Then turns, in frame part undermined,
Nor notes the shadowing wings that fan behind.

There, peaked and gray, three haglets fly,
And follow, follow fast in wake
Where slides the cabin-luster shy,
And sharks from man a glamour take.
Seething along the line of light,
In lane that endless rules the war-ship’s flight.

The storm increases in a terrific furry [fury] and the good ship narrowly escaped being driven on land. 

[omitting "The sea fowl here..."luminous antlers vast," lines 55-90]

In trim betimes they turn from land,
Some shivered sails and spars they stow;
One watch, dismissed, they troll the can.
While loud the billow thumps the bow—
Vies with the fist that smites the board,
Obstreperous at each reveller’s jovial word.
Of royal oak by storms confirmed,
The tested hull her lineage shows;
Vainly the plungings whelm her prow—
She rallies, rears, she sturdier grows.
Each shot-hole plugged, each storm-sail home,
With batteries housed she rams the watery dome.

* * * * * * * [omitting "Dim seen adrift...eager neighborhood," lines 103-114]

Plumed with a smoke, a confluent sea,
Heaved in a combing pyramid full,
Spent at its climax, in collapse
Down headlong thundering stuns the hull:
The trophy drops; but, reared again,
Shows Mars’ high-altar and contemns the main.

It is midnight of the Old Year. "The Old Year fades, the Old Year dies at sea." During a lull the sailors 

[keeping line 138 but omitting everything else from "Rebuilt it stands..." to "Laced Sleeves round the board," lines 121-137 and 139- 153]
Draw near in heart to keep them warm:
"Sweethearts and wives!" clink, clink, they meet,
And, quaffing, dip in wine their beards of sleet.

"Ay, let the star-light stay withdrawn,
So here her hearth-light memory fling,
So in this wine-light cheer be born,
And honor’s fellowship weld our ring—
Honor, our Admiral’s aim foretold;
A tomb or a trophy,, and lo, ’t is a trophy and gold!"
But he, a unit, sole in rank,
Apart needs keep his lonely state,
The sentry at his guarded door
Mute as by vault the sculptured Fate;
Belted he sits in drowsy light,
And hatted nods—the Admiral of the White.

He dozes on, unmindful of the present, dreaming of old victories and of rich armadas that he has captured. But the end is at hand.

 [omitting "He dozes, aged with watches...old Armadas drowned," lines 169-192] 
Ha—yonder! are they Northern Lights?
Or signals flashed to warn or ward?
Yes, signals lanced in breakers high;
But doom on warning follows hard;
While yet they veer in hope to shun,
They strike! and thumps of hull and heart are one.
 [omitting "But beating hearts ... lit the magnet's case," lines 199- 210]

Ah, what may live, who mighty swim,
Or boat-crew reach that shore forbid,
Or cable span? Must victors drown—
Perish, even as the vanquished did?
Man keeps from man the stifled moan,
They shouldering stand, yet each in heart how lone.
Some heaven invoke; but rings of reefs
Prayer and despair alike deride
In dance of breakers forked or peaked.
Pale maniacs of the maddened tide;
While, strenuous yet some end to earn,
The haglets spin; though now no more astern.
Like shuttles hurrying in the looms
Aloft through rigging frayed they ply—
Cross and recross—weave and inweave,
Then lock the web with clinching cry
Over the seas on seas that clasp
The weltering wreck where gurgling ends the gasp.

Ah, for the Plate-Fleet trophy now,
The victor’s voucher, flags and arms;
Never they’ll hang in Abbey old
And take Time’s dust with holier palms;
Nor less content, in liquid night,
Their captor sleeps—the Admiral of the White.

Imbedded deep with shells
And drifted treasure deep,
Forever he sinks deeper in
Unfathomable sleep—
His cannon round him thrown,
His sailors at his feet,
The wizard sea enchanting them
Where never haglets beat.
On nights when meteors play
And light the breakers dance,
The Oreads from the caves
With silvery elves advance;
And up from ocean stream,
And down from heaven far,
The rays that blend in dream
The abysm and the star.

Of the seven scheduled appearances of "The Admiral of the White" announced as forthcoming in the Cincinnati Times-Star for May 14, 1885, three have yet to be verified: 

  1. New York Tribune ✅
  2. Boston Herald ✅
  3. Philadelphia Press
  4. Detroit Post
  5. St. Paul Pioneer-Press ✅ 
  6. Chicago Times
  7. Cincinnati Times-Star  ✅

Still looking to confirm printings of Melville's poem in the Philadelphia Press, Detroit Post, and Chicago Times on or about May 17, 1885.

Related posts:

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

1885 check "endorsed by Herman Melville for deposit"

As previously shown on Melvilliana 
Herman Melville's 1885 poem The Admiral of the White, later printed in John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) as "The Haglets," was syndicated by Allen Thorndike Rice for publication in more newspapers than we knew, including the Cincinnati Times-StarAdmiral of the White appeared in the weekly edition of the Cincinnati Times-Star on May 21, 1885, "Copyrighted by Allen Thorndike Rice."

Today (Happy Mardi Gras y'all 🎉🎉🎉) I stumbled on a documentary record of what might well have been Melville's payment for the poem in the form of a check from "A. Rice" dated May 2, 1885 and "endorsed by Herman Melville for deposit." Said check (no longer extant?) was included as a signed Melville item with "Literary Letters and Manuscripts" in the auction catalog of Anderson Galleries for Sale Number 2298. A brief description appears on page 89 of the Anderson Galleries catalog, Autograph Collection of a Late American Author (New York, 1928). Listed as item #658, the check with Melville's signature was offered in the Third Session on December 4, 1928:

658 MELVILLE (HERMAN). Printed and written D. s., 1 p., oblong 8vo. New York. May 2, 1885. Check by A. Rice endorsed by Herman Melville for deposit.

Less than two years later, the check resurfaced in the Plaza Art Galleries, Inc. catalog of Noted American and English authors of the last 150 years, in first editions from the library of Philo C. Calhoun. Evidently Bridgeport, Connecticut lawyer and book collector Philo Clarke Calhoun (1889-1964) had acquired the May 2, 1885 letter (at the 1928 Anderson auction?) and stuck it in the front of his highly collectible 1st edition of Moby-Dick, "Rare in any form, and particularly so in BLUE cloth."

Calhoun's first American edition of Moby-Dick is listed #320 in the Plaza Art Galleries catalog for "Public Sale No. 776," held on March 20 and 21, 1930. According to the description on page 44, the date of the attached cheque with Melville's signature is May 2, 1885, same as the date of the check described in the 1928 Anderson Galleries catalog.
"... Affixed to the inner front cover is a cheque dated May 2, 1885; bearing MELVILLE"S SIGNATURE as an endorsement. Melville autograph material is seldom met with."
The 1930 Plaza Art Galleries catalog does not name the issuer of the "cheque" that Melville endorsed, but it bears the identical date and thus would appear to be the same "check" from "A. Rice" described in the 1928 Anderson Galleries catalog. This "A. Rice" I take to be Allen Thorndike Rice who had arranged for the newspaper syndication of Melville's poem "The Admiral of the White" later on in May 1885. 

Allen Thorndike Rice was still paying authors by check in November. On November 29, 1885 Rice wrote a check for 120 dollars to author Harriet Prescott Spofford. Signed "A. T. Rice" and endorsed by Spofford on the back, this item is now in the Abernethy collection at Middlebury College Special Collections & Archives.

So now we at least have some reason to believe Rice paid Melville, and a better idea of when. Who knows how much? Or what happened to the physical check from Rice that Melville endorsed? If you now have or ever happen to see a 1st American edition of Moby-Dick in blue, take a look. 

Related post: