Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and “he was not ashamed of that ecstasy.” — , The Brothers Karamazov VII.4
NYRB Review: Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet and Robert Milder’s Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine
Both Hershel Parker and Robert Milder have written in-depth studies of the last three decades of Melville’s life when he concentrated on writing and publishing poetry. Parker does so in the second volume of his Herman Melville: A Biography as well as in his recent Melville: The Making of the Poet. Milder has written of the second half of Melville’s career in various works, most notably for his anthology, Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales, and, more recently, in several of his essays collected in Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine. Generally speaking Parker and Milder take different critical approaches in their studies of the older Melville, his poetry, and the 30 years during which it occupied most of his creative energy and time. But read together Parker and Milder complement one another and give us a comprehensive appreciation and understanding of not only Melville the poet but of his poems as well.
In the June 26, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, reviews both Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet and Robert Milder’s Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine. The opening of Benfey’s review, “Melville’s Second Act,” excerpted on the NYRB website, shows us Melville on a voyage in the summer of 1860, the summer he unsuccessfully attempted to publish his first volume of poetry:
On August 1, 1860, Herman Melville’s forty-first birthday, he was aboard the clipper ship Meteor, captained by his younger brother Thomas, as it made the hazardous passage around Cape Horn bound for San Francisco. A gale arose that day and lasted, as Melville noted in his diary, for three brutal days of ‘snow, rain, hail, sleet, mist, fog, squalls, head-winds, refractory stove, smoky cabin, drunken ship &c &c &c.’ A week later, as strong winds continued unabated, a young sailor from Nantucket was blown from the rigging to the deck and was killed instantly. After the funeral service, presided over by Tom, the body was tipped into the ocean and the blood washed from the deck. ‘All goes on as usual,’ Melville reported, ‘as if nothing had happened—as if I did not know that death is indeed the King of Terrors.’
If you can not find the June 26, 2008 NYRB Review at your bookstore or library, you can click here to read an online version.
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.
Anyone wanting to know Herman Melville the poet and how much poetry meant to him all of his life would do well to start with Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet. This book will surely prove foundational in the coming years and decades as Melville enthusiasts and scholars come to enjoy easy access to Melville’s poetry — many for the first time — as it becomes readily available in the forthcoming final two volumes of the Northwestern-Newberry series, The Writings of Herman Melville. Parker intentionally does not excerpt or quote much of Melville’s poetry, nor does he offer extended discussions concerning Melville’s status as a poet. However he does suggest that Melville’s poetry might be favorably ranked with the poetry of Dickinson, Whitman, the Brownings, and Tennyson. Parker is not alone in suggesting and arguing for the worth of Melville’s poetry. Many poets, readers, and critics have praised Melville’s poetic writings — Robert Penn Warren, Muriel Rukeyser (The Life of Poetry), and, more recently, Helen Vendler (Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology), to name just a few.
What Parker does do in Melville: The Making of the Poet is cite, document, and discuss thoroughly the evidence related to Melville’s reading and study of poetry from his earliest years that renders obsolete and unsustainable the unfounded, inaccurate view that poetry for Melville was a sideline, an afterthought, a way to escape the disappointing contemporary reception and poor sales of prose masterworks like Moby-Dick. In following Melville’s reading and book buying, Parker shows us glimpses of him finding, reading, and purchasing works (e.g., purchasing on October 27, 1861 Henry Taylor’s Notes from Life in Seven Essays that encouraged him to assume the identity of a poet and pursue the sort of life best suited to the writing of poetry.
Finally, perhaps not the least of the facts you will learn when reading Melville: The Making of the Poet, are those related to Parker’s re-telling and re-documenting (the evidence has been lying in plain site for decades) Melville’s failed, but very real, attempt to publish in 1860 what would have been his first published volume of poetry, titled simply, by Melville himself, Poems.
If you want to understand and appreciate Melville the poet and the poetry he wrote, this is an essential, foundational book to add to your reading library.