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A Late 20th – Early 21st Century Melville Revival?

Is a second Melville revival underway? In her fascinating study of the writers, artists, scholars, and editors who took part in the first Melville revival—Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival—Clare Spark uses the term “phase” when discussing the different types of critical and editorial work done from 1919 to 1953 to bring the forgotten and unknown Melville and his writings to light.1 Following Spark we might accurately and effectively describe the recent fast growing interest in Melville the poet and his poetry as yet another, late phase of the first Melville revival.

But many of the essays, books, and conference panels focusing on Melville and his poetry provide compelling evidence for radically redefining how we understand Melville’s life and work. Some Melville scholars now see Melville as a life-long poet who, for various reasons, chose to begin his career writing prose fiction, rather than as a prose fiction writer who, as a sort of after-thought, and in a state of despair, took to writing verse for the last three decades of his life. William C. Spengemann, in his 1999 essay, “Melville the Poet,” 2 works with the premise that poetry can in part be defined as what poets do and suggests that to understand and appreciate Melville’s poetry we need to reconsider or revise our understanding of Melville himself:

To think of [Melville’s] verse as poetry, we would first have to think of him as a poet, one like A. C. Swinburne or Thomas Hardy, who wrote some novels, rather than as a novelist, like William Makepeace Thackeray or George Meredith, who tried with indifferent success to write some poems. The received opinion of Melville’s poetry, in other words, may well have its primary cause not in the poetry itself but in the reigning conception of the thing called “Melville.”

So perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to call the acceleration of interest in Melville the poet and his poetry a second Melville revival. Because this second revival will likely modify in important, significant, and as yet unforeseen ways how we read and understand the prose masterpieces so prized and valued in the course of the first Melville revival, the second Melville revival may prove to be more profound and exciting than the first.

During the three decades immediately following Melville’s death in 1891, most of his writings lay unread, unappreciated, and largely unknown, not only because they were out of print or seldom written or talked about, but also because some—Billy Budd, Weeds and Wildings, The Burgundy Club—had never been transcribed or published in the first place. But he was not completely forgotten: a small group of admirers in both Britain and the United States continued to read him and recommend their favorite novels to others. In 1917, one of his American admirers, Carl Van Doren, published four chapters discussing Melville’s life and four of his novels, Typee, Omoo, Mardi, and Moby-Dick, in volume 15 of the Cambridge History of American Literature. And in 1924, D. H. Lawrence published a book of essays he had begun writing around August 1917, Studies in Classic American Literature, 3 containing two chapters on Typee, Omoo, and Moby-Dick. Looking back, critics, readers, biographers, scholars, and editors came to see the years 1917 to 1924 as the crucial beginning years of what later came to be known as the Melville revival.4

Following Van Doren, in 1919, Melville’s birth centennial, Raymond M. Weaver not only wrote an article about Melville for the New York Nation, he also introduced himself to Melville’s granddaughter, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, and, with her help, advice, and the access she provided to the bread box containing the manuscripts Melville left behind at his death, Weaver published the first major biographical study of Melville’s life and writings, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (1921).5By the end of the decade John Freeman (1926) 6 and Lewis Mumford (1929) 7 had published two additional critical and biographical studies, both titled Herman Melville. The 1930 publication of the Lakeside Press Edition of Moby-Dick, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, might be seen as not only the culminating event of the first Melville revival, but as proof that Melville’s reputation and place among the greats of literary tradition was finally and forever secure.

Interest in Melville’s poetry is of course not new. In 1936 Charles Paul Hettinger wrote his A.M. thesis on the poetry, “Herman Melville’s Poetry.” 8 In 1956 Dan Vogel wrote his Ph.D. thesis—”Melville’s Shorter Published Poetry: A Critical Study of the Lyrics in Mardi, of Battle-Pieces, John Marr, and Timoleon“—on selected poems and three of the published volumes of poetry.9Between 1970 and 1972 William Bysshe Stein,10 Aaron Kramer,11 and William Shurr 12 published book-length studies of the poetry. Marian Conner’s 1979 Ph.D. dissertation—”The Abysm and the Star: A Study of the Poetry of Herman Melville”—focused on the poetry.13 From the late 1970s until the early years of this century, there was a lull in the publication of book-length studies, however during that same period, critics and editors interested in Melville’s poems continued to publish essays, articles, book reviews, and notes related to Melville’s verse writings.14

If we do come to refer to the recent growth of interest in Melville’s poetry as a second Melville revival, we might see it as having begun with the 1991 publication of the Northwestern-Newberry standard critical edition of Clarel. Since the 1991 publication of Clarel, critics, readers, editors, and Melville scholars have published many important essays, articles, chapters, and books with substantive and sustained close readings and analyses of individual poems and series of poems contained in the four volumes of poetry he was able to publish before his death in 1891. More close readings, biographical and literary source studies, as well as historical and literary context analyses are needed to bring out the unique qualities of not only the poems in the four volumes of verse Melville published during his lifetime–Battle-Pieces, Clarel, John Marr and Other Sailors, and Timoleon—but also the poems and prose-and-verse pieces contained in the two volumes of poetry and prose-and-verse pieces—Weeds and Wildings, Chiefly; With a Rose or Two and The Burgundy Club—that he left lying among the other manuscripts he was still working on in the final months of his life.

A brief summary of some of the important critical and editorial work published since the turn of the century may suggest what types of critical and editorial work on Melville’s poetry we might expect to see in the coming decades. In 1999, 2002, and 2006, the ALA hosted three panels—”Melville as Poet,” “Why is Melville a Good Poet,” and “Who Speaks in Melville’s Poems”—that discussed and analyzed not only the poetry but also the need to see Melville as someone who concentrated on writing and publishing poetry for more than three times the eleven years he spent writing prose fiction. John Bryant’s 2002 anthology, Tales, Poems, and Other Writings, includes much of the poetry, including a section on Melville’s prose-and-verse writings: “John Marr,” “Rammon,” “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac,” “Under the Rose,” Billy Budd, and The Burgundy Club.  In 2006 Douglas Robillard published a facsimile edition of John Marr and Other Sailors. Large sections of two other books published in 2006, Robert Milder’s Exiled Royalties and Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, give extended discussions of Melville’s poetry. Brian Yother’s The Romance of American Travel Writing published in 2007 contains a 12,000 word chapter devoted to Clarel. The entire October 2007 issue of Leviathan, “Melville the Poet,” was devoted to Melville’s poetry. In 2007, preeminent Melville scholar and biographer, Hershel Parker, published Melville: The Making of the Poet, a detailed analysis and discussion of Melville’s life-long involvement with poetry and books about poetry and poets. And, most recently, Wyn Kelley devoted two chapters of Herman Melville: An Introduction to the poetry, one on Battle-Pieces and Clarel, the other on the volumes of poems Melville published or was preparing to publish during the last three or four years of his life.

Readers, critics, and scholars interested in Melville’s poetry have been waiting decades for standard critical editions. The increasing number of anthologized poems and selections of poems have no doubt raised hopes that these standard, critical editions may finally be at hand. Much as the revival of Melville’s prose was confirmed by the publication of the sixteen volume Constable edition,15 the burgeoning interest in and revival of attention to Melville’s poetry will likely soon be confirmed by the availability of standard, critical editions of his poetry. The Northwestern University Press’s recent August 2008 reprinting of the 1991 Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel, with a new forward by Hershel Parker, will likely heighten the already intense interest in the forthcoming publication of the final two Northwestern-Newberry volumes that will contain, respectively, Melville’s published and unpublished poems.

The Northwestern-Newberry “published poems” volume that will contain three of the four volumes of verse Melville published during his lifetime is the next volume scheduled for publication (as noted above, the Northwestern-Newberry Clarel has already been published as a separate volume). The editors of the Northwestern-Newberry edition expect that that within another two years after the publication of the Published Poems volume, the final volume, Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Late Manuscripts, will follow. That final volume will contain a slightly corrected version of the Hayford-Sealts text of Billy Budd—one benefiting from a fresh conservation of the manuscript—and texts of all the other uncompleted projects such as the near-final Weeds and Wildings and the early poems and latish prose pieces of The Burgundy Club that Melville tried, repeatedly, to get into shape for publication.

The second Melville revival will be completely congruent with the first if the publication of an illustrated edition of one of the poetry volumes—comparable to the 1930 Lakeside Edition of Moby-Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent—would coincide with or follow soon after the publication of the final volume of the Northwestern-Newberry Series of the Writings of Herman Melville. Surely an artist fit to rank with Rockwell Kent, Gustave Doré, Maurice Sendak, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, or Edward Gorey will someday be inspired to illustrate one or more volumes of the poetry of Herman Melville.


1 Clare Spark, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001).

2 William C. Spengemann, “Melville the Poet,” American Literary History 11.4 (1999): 571-609.

3 D. H. Lawrence,  Studies in Classic American Literature (The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey, John Worthen. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) xiv, xxiii, xxx.

4 There are many accounts, summaries, and discussions of the “Melville Revival.” One of most useful is Watson G. Branch’s summary comprising section IX of the introduction to his Melville, the Critical Heritage (The Critical Heritage Series. London; Boston: Routledge, 1974).

5 Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic (New York: George H. Doran, 1921).

6 John Freeman, Herman Melville (English Men of Letters. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1926).

7 Lewis Mumford. Herman Melville (New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1929).

8Charles Paul Hettinger, Herman Melville’s Poetry (Durham, N.C., 1936. Thesis (A.M.) Duke University, 1937, 1936).

9 Dan Vogel, “Melville’s Shorter Published Poetry: A Critical Study of the Lyrics in Mardi, of Battle-Pieces, John Marr, and Timoleon” (Ph.D. Dissertation. New York University, 1956).

10 William Bysshe Stein, The Poetry of Melville’s Late Years Time, History, Myth, and Religion (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1970).

11 Aaron Kramer, Melville’s Poetry: Toward the Enlarged Heart; a Thematic Study of Three Ignored Major Poems (Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1972).

12 William H. Shurr,The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857-1891 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972).

13 Marian Connor, “The Abysm and the Star A Study of the Poetry of Herman Melville” (Thesis (Ph. D.) Boston University, 1977).

14 See the bibliographies on this site for complete listings through August 2008—organized by author as well as year.

15 Herman Melville,The Works of Herman Melville, ed. Michael Sadleir (London: Constable, 1922-1924).

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