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.