Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review of "Published Poems" volume of the Northwestern-Newberry Complete Melville

Melville's age was the age of the romantic. Born into the waning years of Goethe and Wordsworth and coming of age in Longfellow's shadow, Melville's first writings bear the stamp of gloriously beautifully insipid and derivative romanticism, spiced up with a bit of rebelliousness against the vaunted civilization that colonized and enslaved, a bit of play with his form, and a mere hint of things to come. Melville was devoured by readers eager for the entertainment, and his language was praised repeatedly by critics as "poetic". His first books were a not inconsequential bit of fun, with a few interesting ruminations and unrevealed inside jokes for foreshadowing. But then he and his audience awoke, and the man wanted something more than a light diet of nuts, berries and the occasional missionary, and the previously entertained but now bored and overburdened reader called for another yarn and a song. And, yes, as his novels began to be weighted down by his seriousness, as they turned more intellectual and modern, he took the praises of those fawning early critics seriously, and began, of all things, not just to write but to publish poetry.

A war comes. Melville's novels end and his publication of poetry begins. After the 1850s, and for the next forty years, there will be no more prose offered from the great master, but instead a single volume of poetry each decade, each issued to general disclaim from the critics, who despised their oddness and complications.

The best of Melville's poetry has a contemporary, almost conversational, feel. From an early (1863) poem: "No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air/ And binds the brain - a dense oppression ...” At the same time, he can fall in love with a facile rhythm, almost hypnotized by a fuggy rolling sea: "I yearn, I yearn, reverting turn, / My heart it streams in wake astern". He trys to employ such rhythmic candy as refrains and punctuations, obviously smitten by them, but it’s clear the restraint is hard on him. When Melville gets to his mostly unread poetic masterpiece, the epic Clarel, he will have fully embraced that nauseated sea rhythm, and will be trying to master its battering forces and wrest from it something of worth - but that is rarely his focus in this volume. This volume, which excludes Clarel, holds all of his other published poems and includes what are often generally brief, short and idiosyncratic struggles with an idea and a form, with an occasional longer narrative thrown in that seems to struggle to move away from Longfellow and on to Eliot with sometimes provocatively mixed success.

Melville's thoughts are often turgid, passionate, and full of ambiguity (a favorite word of his and ours). He writes about John Brown, beginning "The Portent" with: "Hanging from the beam, / Slowing swaying (such the law), / Gaunt the shadow on your green, / Shenandoah! / The cut is on the crown / (Lo, John Brown), / And the stabs shall heal no more." He introduces the poem with a line-to-line tension many of his peers of the time would hold in reserve. Neat sonnets with a prescribed twist do not fit Melville: his poems turn and twist throughout, slowing swaying, full of play on inherited forms and given preconceptions.

In contrast to his "war" and "event" poems, many of his sea poems are models of simplicity, with a single image dominating the setting, speaking for itself. His poem “The Enviable Isles”, imagines a bucolic tropical atoll and contrasts it to the rolling and dangerous sea: “Sweet-fern and moss in many a glade are here, / Where, strown in flocks, what cheek-flushed myriads lie / Dimpling in dream, unconscious slumberers mere, / While billows endless round the beaches die.”

Like the other volumes of the Newberry/Northwestern Scholarly edition of the complete Melville, this volume has a variety of generally very helpful notes and somewhat less helpful commentary. The volume’s editors, meticulous and precise throughout, tend to focus on the biographical and the trivial rather than the critical. However, they carefully gather an enormous volume of information and material, some of it quite relevant, and for this we should be most grateful. It’s presentation is lucid and well-organized, and its perusal provides an often rewarding break from the intensity of the poetry.

Melville speaks of an increasingly uncomfortable world. Like many a veteran of the period (and Melville was not a veteran), he returns to the old world, marveling at its incongruity and incivility, revisiting the dark images tatooed across the land. Like many a "Gen-Xer" of today, he is unable to speak without irony, he is always the detached and bemused mate with a critical witticism. As much as his prose fiction portrays individuals struggling with cosmic forces, his poetry embraces contemporary politics and events head on, serving as a sort of record of the emerging and deeply conflicted American colossus. He bares in his poetry an intellectualism that is often at odds with his great champions, including his editors here, who love nothing more than to romanticize this odd duck of a man who led a deeply strained life full of tragedy, but who does not dwell on that wild and unstable life but on the broader thoughts and events of his times.

Along the way, through the years, Melville has become recognized as a great poet of the Civil War(1), particularly with his first volume of poetry, Battle Pieces, and as a fun writer of sea chants. With the full volume, including commentary and perspective, we can see how his poetry transcends those genres, exploring the world with a force of passion and a love of philosophy which is hard to find outside of Russian literature, and providing an often difficult voice from the era between the romantics and the moderns that is yet neither, a voice that has its challenges still. When the whole set of work is laid out, a full half century of poetry from the beginning to the end, Melville's only constant is that hint and foreshadowing from the beginning: one identifies the civilized only by their barbarism.

(1) "Second to Whitman", footnotes each critic.

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