Musing on Melville’s Poetry


Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

Robert Pinsky, in Slate Magazine, commenting on the poem, noted,

“…the poem in an irrational or subliminal way associates them with meat for the consuming “charnel of maw” in the shark’s “Gorgonian head.” I find an appealingly aggressive, tough quality to the poem, almost as though the poet is thinking about more sentimental, cloying approaches to this same material, such as symbiosis, or the grace of fish. Like Melville’s prose, “The Maldive Shark” has the conviction of its dark, fortissimo manner.

Christopher Nields, writing in The Epoch Times in 2010, said,

Who could forget the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws, where a lone swimmer is dragged beneath the waves to John Williams’s spine-chilling musical score? Yet when Melville takes us down to the bottom of the sea to view this monster from the safety of our imagination, we see something quite different. To our surprise, the lean, mean killing machine turns out to be a “phlegmatical,” “pale sot.”

Nields asks whether there’s something deeper in the poem, but answers his own question:

Readers have found profound symbolic significance in Captain Ahab’s hunt for Moby Dick, so does “The Maldive Shark” contain a hidden meaning as well? I’m not sure if there’s any need to dive any deeper than Melville’s genius for description: the rich muscularity of the language, the brilliant colors, the sense of movement and the shiver of the unknown. When we say the words aloud, we can just taste that “horrible meat”…

William Dean Howells. writing a review of Melville’s Civil War poems, wrote in The Atlantic,

Mr. Melville’s work possesses the negative virtues of originality in such degree that it not only reminds you of no poetry you have read, but of no life you have known…

Mr. Melville’s skill is so great that we fear he has not often felt the things of which he writes, since with all his skill he fails to move us. In some respects we find his poems admirable. He treats events as realistically as one can to whom they seem to have presented themselves as dreams; but at last they remain vagaries, and are none the more substantial because they have a modern speech and motion.

That somewhat complements what I felt when reading the poem above. Looking through the collected works, I find a mix of styles, some of which strike me as ponderous and strained, yet others are so different they are light a flash of lightning in a summer’s night. For example, this sharp piece called Buddha:


Swooning swim to less and less,
Aspirant to nothingness!
Sobs of the worlds, and dole of kinds
That dumb endurers be—
Nirvana! absorb us in your skies,
Annul us into thee.

And this little gem called A Reasonable Constitution:

What though Reason forged your scheme?
‘Twas Reason dreamed the Utopia’s dream:
‘Tis dream to think that Reason can
Govern the reasoning creature, man.

And then In The Pauper’s Turnip-Field, he reminds me of Wallace Stevens:

Crow, in pulpit lone and tall
Of yon charred hemlock, grimly dead,
Why on me in preachment call—
Me, by nearer preachment led
Here in homily of my hoe.
The hoe, the hoe,
My heavy hoe
That earthward bows me to foreshow
A mattock heavier than the hoe.

Most of Melville’s poems are much longer than these, however. Not all move me; some seem like the author strained to express himself, and the poems feel like wading through tar. Others contain witty, illuminative lines that deserve remembrance and repeating. Like this from Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac:

“Ay,—no!—My brain is addled yet;
With last night’s flagons—full I forget.

Or this from Shiloh: A Requiem (the final line of this quote is so sharp is almost cuts the reader):

Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)

I can’t say Melville’s entire canon moves me equally, but from an early exploration, I am impressed and intrigued. I must read more.


* The book I found the poem in is The Best Poems of the English Language by Harold Bloom. As much as I respect and admire Bloom, his choices are personal and sometimes idiosyncratic, and one can always argue for poems not included, and against some of his choices. What Bloom offers is not simply a collection of poetry, but brief introductions to both the authors’ lives and the selected poems themselves.

Bloom, in his introduction, quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay, The Poets:

The poets are thus liberating gods. The ancient British bards had for the title of their order, “Those who are free throughout the World.” They are free, and they make free. An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary.

This is but one of several collections of poetry on my bookshelves. The Columbia University Press anthology, The Top 500 Poems, does not include any by Melville.The Oxford Book of American Verse has a very small selection of five poems, while The Norton Anthology of Poetry (3rd edn) has seven. The collection World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse From Antiquity to Our Time has but one.


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