Candid eyes in open faces
Clear, not keen, no narrowing line:Hither turn your favoring graces
Now the cloth is drawn for wine.
(Melville, “Hostelry” and “Bomba”7)
That's the Marquis of Grandvin talking at the opening of “At the Hostelry,” which is to say, it's the wine talking. The Marquis is, typically, one of Melville's not completely reliable narrators. Melville himself was in favor of the narrowing line of careful, open-minded scrutiny. But he was also in favor of the wine. I like to think of him as the lone toper in the upper room at Delmonico's in “At the Hostelry,” summoning up the shades of bygone painters and sculptors of different times and places, letting them expound and argue. I cannot offer you any wine, but wine or not, our conference, too, is a kind of symposium.
Like the artists in the upper room, we have a shared subject. Theirs was the picturesque, ours is Melville. And like them, we inevitably and rightly infuse our chosen subjects with other concerns: ideological, religious, ethical, philosophical, philological, political. The subject underlying the debate on the picturesque was political power—its uses and abuses—and the role of the artist in society and in relation to the “power structure,” as we called it in Berkeley in the 1960s.
Like the artists in the upper room, we are from many different countries, and we have all imbibed deeply from Melville's texts. The community of scholars to which we belong goes beyond those physically present here. It includes those who could not come and those whose flickering presence can be made possible by the modern miracle of skype. It even extends to those who have passed on but whose company we still keep; our thoughts in this moment go especially to Walter Bezanson. And, like the lone toper, our heads are filled with characters: each of us has his or her own evocation of Herman Melville, and along with him, there are our Billy Budds, our Ahabs, our Redburns, Jack Gentians, Captain Veres, Jack Chases, Dr. Cadwallader Cuticles, Clarels, and all the other shades who inhabit our fantasies. And we have come to Melville from different directions and for different reasons.
Sometimes geography is destiny. Naples brought me to Melville. I drove into Naples in early September, 1957, on my 125cc German DKW motorcycle on which, incredibile dictu, I had crossed the Alps. I landed in the middle of the Festa di Piedigrotta, which was a big folk holiday in Naples back then. Only I, in my naiveté, did not know it was the Festa di Piedigrotta. I had been told that Neapolitans were—how to say—a bit over the top. So I assumed that they always behaved that way, playing barbarous (so to speak) instruments, singing, dancing in the streets, eating, drinking, making merry. Coming from Puritanical New England, I did not really know what the expression “making merry” meant, a linguistic leftover from “merry old England,” until I came to Naples. While merry was being made, donkeys were braying, horses were neighing, carts with enormous wheels were clattering over the basalt paving stones. What a place! As Jack Gentian naively put it, before he savvied up:
True freedom is to be care-free!
And care-free seem the people here,
A truce indeed they seem to keep,
Gay truce to care and all her brood. (Melville, “Hostelry” and “Bomba” 47)
I have quoted from “Naples in the Time of Bomba,” but in 1957 I had never heard of this poem. (Unlike Woody Allen's Zelig, I actually had read Moby-Dick.) But at the time I did not know that Herman Melville had come to Naples one hundred years before me, in 1857, in the midst of Carnival. Unlike me, he knew it was a holiday.
After I started teaching English and American literature at the Istituto Universitario Orientale eighteen years later, in 1975, I found in our office library Melville's journal of his 1856–1857 trip, edited by Howard C. Horsford, another departed Melvillean who is certainly very present with us during this conference. Of course, I gave special attention to the pages on Melville's visit to Naples. And this scrutiny brought me to the poem “Naples in the Time of Bomba” and to the Archivi Nazionali, where I found a register into which the police had entered the names and other information relative to foreign visitors to the city in the 1850s. There I found Melville's name and was able to make a reasonable surmise as to why a police official, “a jabbering man with a document,” as Melville put it in his journal, had looked him up at his hotel (NN Journals 102). Melville had inadvertently given the police on board his steamer, anchored in the harbor of Naples, inaccurate information as to what hotel he would be staying at. This story became the basis of my first article on Melville, which to my great satisfaction Donald Yannella published in the Melville Society Extracts in 1986.
Thus encouraged, my next sortie was my edition of “At the Hostelry” and “Naples in the Time of Bomba” in 1988. This labor, which took me on a sabbatical to New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, gave me the extraordinary experience of handling Melville's manuscripts. Close study allowed me to make several corrections to the texts as edited by Raymond Weaver in 1924, Howard Vincent in 1947, and Aaron Kramer in 1972. Moreover, I was able to prove, to my satisfaction at least, that Robert Ryan in 1971 and Kramer in 1972 were right about the poem “Pausilippo,” published in Timoleon, etc.: it had indeed been extrapolated from “Bomba,” where it had originally been section V.
If making an edition brings you closer to the poet and populates your mind with critics and characters, there is nothing that creates more intimacy with an author than translating him. You are truly able to see how you sometimes did not understand certain words or passages that you thought you did when you first read them. More generally, you are forced to a closer reading of the text, during which you are painstakingly attentive to denotation and connotation, beyond the sensitivity you could muster while reading without having to translate. At least, that's the way it is for me.
Let me give you an example. Take this passage from “Pausilippo.”1 After enumerating the mendicant Silvio's woes, the compassionate observer concludes: “All this, / With pity for impoverishment / And blight forestalling age's wane” (“Hostelry” and “Bomba” 88). Until I came to translate this poem, I had never dwelt on the last phrase. How could blight forestall age's wane? One would think that blight would hasten wane, rather than forestall it. For a moment, the unworthy thought crossed my mind that maybe Melville had messed up, but I had long learned humbly to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then I had the happy idea of looking up in my 1854 unabridged Webster's dictionary, which I had brought across the Atlantic with me in my great-grandfather's trunk at a time when only rich folks travelled by air. The first dictionary meaning of “forestall” a century and a half ago was not about hindering, thwarting, or putting something off but just the opposite: to “anticipate.” And there was a quote from Milton: “Why need a man forestall his date of grief / And run to meet what he would most avoid?” Had I not been doing the close reading imposed by translation, I might well not have checked out the meaning of “forestall” in Melville's time.
Translating, in my experience, implies two phases: a preparatory period of research and study of the text, followed by the actual rendering into the second language, which in my case is English or Italian. In the first phase, your activity can properly be considered scholarly, but when you actually translate, you doff your curial robes, as Machiavelli called them, and in the case of poetry become a poet yourself. Or half a poet at least. By half a poet, I mean that you obviously have no responsibility for the overall conception and design of the work, nor for the subject matter, the genre, the tone, or the structure (at least in part), since these matters belong to the original author. However, he can no longer speak to the new audience or readership with his own voice, so you have to do that for him, as faithfully as you can. What constitutes faithfulness in a translation is a thorny, moot question I will not pursue here. I will say, though, that when you are in the second phase, when you are schizophrenically transforming into Italian the English that comes into your ear through your eye, you have to put scholarship aside, because the intrusion of scholarly concerns and doubts would bring your poetry stumbling to a halt.
If you don't mind my making a roundabout comparison, I used to play billiards, a particular three-ball game that in Italian has the kinetically expressive name of carambola, whence the English word “carom.” Although I never became an expert, I learned something during the years spent or misspent in the smoky billiard parlors of my magic city. First, you have to choose and conceive your shot. In this rational phase, your cue is usually vertical. Then you lay the cue out and start sighting and aligning until you come to a mental mock-up of how your cue-ball must move in order to touch the other two balls to score a point. You single out a spot either on a ball or a cushion. You decide how to hit that spot, with what spin and what force. Then you lay rationality aside and enter into another dimension, the moment when you try to do what you set out to do: you strike. At this point, strange psychological things can happen that make you botch the shot, assuming that you had planned it correctly. Maybe just as you pull back and strike, you get a regurgitation of rationality, second thoughts, and change something. As if your elbow, figuratively speaking, had been nudged by a gremlin, what Neapolitans call ’nu munaciello. Remember that Paul Newman movie, The Hustler? It is one of my cult movies.
Translating poetry is like shooting pool. (Actually, in my family “shooting pool” is an expression we are not fond of, for obvious reasons.) After the research and study, you enter the poetic dimension, and you just do it, but with an important difference. A billiard shot is a one-time deal, like a bottle of wine that changes with age but can only be opened once. In the case of translation, you can do labor limae. Douglas Robillard has rightly stressed that Melville was an assiduous practitioner of labor limae, continually revising and polishing, going over his texts to mend slips, even marking corrections on his published editions (Melville, Poems 46–47). The impression Melville's narrator, Jack Gentian, conveys at the end of “Bomba” that he is a casual dauber is a pose, in tune with the carnival atmosphere, serving a poetical purpose in the text but not reflective of Melville's poetical practice:
And here this draught at hazard drawn,
Like squares of fresco newly dashed,
Cools, hardens, nor will more receive,
Scarce even the touch that mends a slip (“Hostelry” and “Bomba” 68)
Let me give a quick example of what I mean by the two phases in translating. When I set about doing “Bomba,” I essayed to render Melville's tetrameters in what I initially assumed would be a faithful way, as ottonari, eight-syllable lines. I quickly realized, as a translating poet, that this was not working and opted for the hendecasyllable, the eleven-syllable line, just as Ruggero Bianchi would do in his fine translation of Clarel. Only later, reflecting on the differences between English as a stress-timed language with lots of monosyllables and Italian as a syllabo-accentuative language mostly polysyllabic, as well as on Melville's penchant for a sort of crabbed concision (phrases like “to feet I spring”), did I come to a rational explanation of why the eight-syllable lines were a failure. At the time though, I just switched to the noble hendecasyllable with no further second thoughts.
Let's go back to the first phase though, when you prepare for translating by doing your study and research on the texts. One aspect of this, of course, is to read critical studies. Your own work, whether as critic or translator, makes you a participant in that community of scholars I mentioned at the beginning, both the quick and the dead, with whom you have various degrees of agreement and congeniality. You let them argue among themselves, often vehemently, like the artists in the upper room at Delmonico's in “At the Hostelry.”
But first comes your own work on the texts. In the case of Melville, this critical endeavor can be challenging. He is, together with Whitman and Dickinson, each in his and her own way, an innovator in nineteenth-century poetic diction. Melville generally prefers the rugged tetrameter to the more leisurely pentameter with its metrically imposed pause at the end of every line. In the interest of a concision that he seems to be especially desirous of achieving, his verses often seem to contend with metrical constraints. This, and a certain abrasive way he often has with idiom and syntax, is what has caused many Melville scholars, especially in the past, to consider him an awkward, unskilled versifier. But he is not. Hershel Parker, in Melville: The Making of the Poet, has abundantly documented the seriousness with which Melville studied his art; and I concur with Parker's evaluation of Melville's rank among the three major United States poets of the nineteenth century. At one point in “Bomba,” Melville expresses his poetics succinctly while talking about Virgil, “Rome's laureate in Rome's balmy time”:
Nor less whose epic's undertone
In volumed numbers rolling bland,
Chafing against the metric bound,
Plains like the South Sea ground-swell heaved
Against the palm-isle's halcyon strand. (“Hostelry” and “Bomba” 53)
The phrase I find especially pertinent for Melville's poetics is “Chafing against the metric bound.” He is a poet who delights in loading language with more than one meaning. I prefer this way of describing his poetic practice to talking about ambiguity. I do not see his works as ambiguous or him as ambiguous in his thought processes and ideas. When language, poetic language in particular, is laden with more than one meaning, the translator's job becomes doubly difficult, just as it does when word play has to be rendered.
An extreme example of such difficulty is afforded by a poem in Timoleon,“The Attic Landscape,” one I of course have not translated for my book of Melville's poems on Italy. It was, surprisingly enough, included in the Oxford Book of American Light Verse (1979). (I guess it depends on what you mean by “light.”) Here is the poem:
Tourist, spare the avid glance
That greedy roves the sights to see:Little here of “Old Romance.”
Or Picturesque of Tivoli.
No flushful tint the sense to warm—
Pure outline pale, a linear charm.
The clear-cut hills carved temples face,
Respond, and share their sculptural grace.
’Tis Art and Nature lodged together,
Sister by sister, cheek to cheek;
Such Art, such Nature, and such weather
The All-in-All seems here a Greek. (NN Poems 300) 2
The first and third strophes present their problems of interpretation, certainly. The critical reader has to investigate the origins of the expression “Old Romance,” enclosed in quotation marks, and recall that Tivoli, which Melville visited on a day-trip from Rome, was the picturesque per eccellenza. Then, in the third strophe, we need to understand that Platonic “All-in-All” and to recall that a variant deleted in manuscript is “God.” These are the usual sorts of problems we face with Melville's poetry, which often makes references that today are arcane and may have been so even in his own time.
However, on a more restrictedly textual level, I wonder about the grammar of the second strophe. Douglas Robillard feels that “temples” is the subject of the three verbs “face,”“respond,” and “share” (Melville, Poems 343). If so, the strophe could be paraphrased as follows: The temples face the hills, respond, and share their sculptural grace. This arrangement sounds straightforward, until one wonders about the meaning of “share” and what the pronoun “their” refers to. “Share” has two meanings. Is it the temples that share, in the sense of lend their sculptural grace to the hills? Or do they share, in the sense of partake in the sculptural grace of the hills? In the first case “their” refers to the temples; in the second it refers to the hills. Double meanings like this make translation difficult.
Another possibility is that “hills,” instead of “temples,” is the subject of “face,”“respond” and “share.” If so, one could read as follows: The hills face the temples, respond, and share their grace. As before, “share” could mean either lend or partake in; the hills could either lend their sculptural grace to the temples or partake in the temples’ sculptural grace.
A third possibility, again with “hills” as the subject, could be that “the temples face” is a restrictive subordinate clause. If so, one could read as follows: The hills that the temples face respond and share their grace, with the same uncertainty about the meaning of “share” and, consequently, “their.”
So the translator confronts six possible interpretations of the strophe, with varying degrees of plausibility.
Given the lack of serious attention towards Melville's poetry in the past, with certain notable exceptions (and again we think especially of the late Walter Bezanson), an interpretive problem of the sort I have set out would have scarcely been posed until recently, and maybe some will be reluctant to take my exegetical doubts seriously. It was too easy to assume that Melville was an inept poet, as Alfred Kazin believed. But Parker has pointed out that Melville spent only twelve years on his major prose works, from 1844 to 1856, and wrote little prose after that, whereas he spent well over thirty years on his poetry, without counting the verses in Mardi. He worked on the unpublished Burgundy Club Sketches almost up to the time of his death. Poetry was a major concern for him.
Given the various possible interpretations of the passage I have set out, some perhaps more probable than others, readers can, if they wish, opt for a single reading, guided by individual sensitivity for Melville's language. If this were prose, I might go along with this strategy. But this is poetry, and my experience is that when dealing with poetry and finding themselves faced with multiple meanings, readers and translators need to take them all into consideration. In this case, rather than attribute them to authorial carelessness, I would give Melville, at least tentatively, the benefit of the doubt. I would make a leap of faith and accept the idea that the apparent multiplicity of meanings, if not exactly intentional (in the sense of purposely and a bit perversely contrived), was at least accepted by the poet, when he reviewed what he had written, as fitting with the poem's message. I want to accept all the meanings.
If you are willing to run with this idea, if only to try it out, we may notice that in the third and final stanza “Art” and “Nature” are intimately, almost inextricably joined, “lodged together, / Sister by sister, cheek to cheek” (NN Poems 300). Each gives to the other. Nature is not the Emersonian Not-Me; man—the architect, the poet, the artist—is radically in nature, as are his works, his labor, his techne, his art. Furthermore, “Art” and “Nature” in Attic Greece are enhanced by a third natural element, “weather,” forming a sort of trinity, a three-in-one, an All-in-All, where atmosphere is the more spiritual element that laves and joins the other two.3 Perhaps the multiplicity of meanings, no one of which need be taken as the dominant meaning, expresses this fusion.
Put yourself now in the translator's boots, a translator who has made up his mind that the syntactical polysignification present in the text was intentional on the poet's part, or in any case is there and ought to be preserved in translation. As you can readily imagine, carrying all this over into a foreign language would be a challenge. As I have said, since the poem is about Greece and not Italy, I did not have to translate it. And maybe that is just as well.
Another part of the research and study of the poems is using references from one Melville work to solve cruxes in another. In “Bomba,” a handsome songster at a vintner's shop sings a song. Jack Gentian finds the lad attractive but prudently resists temptation: “Tarnished Apollo!—But let pass. / Best here be heedful, yes and chary, / Sentiment nowadays waxeth wary, / And idle the ever-cooked Alas!” (“Hostelry” and “Bomba” 51). Here is the boy's song:
“Name me, do, that dulcet Donna
Whose perennial gifts engaging
Win the world to dote upon her,
In meridian never aging!
“Look, in climes beyond the palms
Younger sisters bare young charms –
She the mellower graces!
Ripened heart maturely kind,
St. Martin's summer of the mind,
And pathos of the years behind –
More than empty faces!” (“Hostelry” and “Bomba” 51).
Working on “Bomba,” I realized that this was a riddle song. I tentatively assumed the “dulcet Donna” was Naples. However, when I read Clarel, some years later, I saw that the singer in “Bomba” recalls the French Jew from Lyon, to whom Melville devotes three important cantos late in the poem (4.26-28). Walter Bezanson comments: “The Lyonese also represents SENSUALITY: he is introduced by the narrator with a ‘satyr's chord’ (4.25.59) and stirs Derwent to a rhapsody (4.27) on ‘the sweet shape’ (line 24) of this beguiling young Bacchus. Clarel is deeply disturbed by his feminine beauty, which the narrator likens to ‘a Polynesian girl's’ (4.26.249)” (Bezanson 625). Bezanson writes in his notes to Clarel that the Lyonese is “somewhat prodigal in his sexuality,” expressing bisexual appreciation of Jewish women and a male comrade, Don Rovenna, with whom he was “Locked friends” (NN Clarel 833-34). When Clarel that night dreams of “clasping arms” holding him back from a desert of ascetic renunciation, Bezanson feels it is unclear whether they are Ruth's or the Lyonese's. Either way, contact with the Lyonese brought on the dream.
Identification of the “dulcet Donna” is advanced by comparing the lines from “Bomba” with a passage from Clarel. The Lyonese “Prodigal,” ultimately riding off in a group of pilgrims, brings up the rear of the cavalcade while singing the following ditty:
“Rules, who rules?
Fools the wise, makes wise the fools—
Every ruling overrules?
Who the dame that keeps the house,
Provides the diet, and oh, so quiet,
Brings all to pass, the slyest mouse?
Tell, tell it me:Signora Nature, who but she!” (NN Clarel 4.26.324-31)
The similarities between the episode in “Bomba” and this one in Clarel are striking. In both cases, a sojourner is sexually tempted by a young, sensual man, a songster, whose carpe diem attitude contrasts with the intellectual brooding of his observer. In both cases the attraction is homosexual, and in both it is unfulfilled. Both songs are riddle songs; the difference between them is that in the Lyonese Prodigal's song, the solution to the riddle is given: the dame who rules is “Signora Nature.” The use of the Italian word “Signora” rather than a French equivalent, as the Lyonese might be expected to use, strengthens the association to the “Bomba” passage, where the singer is a Neapolitan. Even the epithet of “dulcet Donna,” interpreted etymologically, may suggest a further likeness between the two passages: in modern Italian donna means simply “woman,” but it derives from domina, and originally indicated the authoritative role of the courtly lady, one who rules.4 She is “dulcet,” like “Signora Nature” in the Lyonese's song, who so quietly brings all to pass. So maybe the “dulcet Donna” is indeed Mother Nature herself.
The hardest poem for me to translate was “After the Pleasure Party,” one of Melville's best but most difficult poems. It had been translated into Italian by Alfredo Rizzardi, a member of the Associazione Italiana di Studi Nord-Americani (AISNA), whom I knew, having met him on several occasions. Differently from Rizzardi, I have chosen to render the poem metrically, not simply to furnish a prose translation. The other poems based on the poet's travels through Italy were somewhat easier for me to translate, although Melville is never easy. Let me say that I am not complaining; to translate Melville's poems into Italian has been an intense, time-consuming, but joyful experience, one that has allowed me to learn more about both Melville and poetic translation.
I would like to close by reading “In a Bye Canal,” a short poem from the section of Timoleon, etc. titled “Poems of Travel of Long Ago.” Then I will read my translation to convey the sonority in Italian.5 The poem reflects an experience Melville had in Venice that he alludes to in his journal. The dynamic of sexual temptation and flight reflects other Melvillean loci, for example, in “Bomba” and Clarel, as discussed above. In the sixth line of the first strophe, he uses the word “wiled,” which means beguiled, tricked. It was an uncommon word even in his time, and he probably learned it from Spenser. The “wiled one” is Sisera whose head a seemingly hospitable Jael cleverly nails to the floor of her tent, an edifying tale you can read in the Book of Judges, chapter 4. The third strophe has a bouncy, dactylic rhythm that I found hard to render in Italian, which, being a syllabically timed rather than a stress-timed language, is not bouncy. The last strophe contains a humorous Byronic rhyme—“deadly misses” with “divine Ulysses”—that I have sought to emulate in translation with some silly internal rhyming. In the first line of the second strophe of the Italian version, you will find the expression “vogando in tagio,” which will not be familiar even to all Italian speakers. It is Venetian gondolier lingo, a technical term for holding the oar loosely and rowing without forcing the stroke.
One final remark: Melville the poet, in this playful lyric, is attentive to the sound of language, much more so than, say, Emily Dickinson, whose poetical strategy was much more centered on meaning than on sound. To better appreciate this, we need to read Melville's poems aloud, and the translator must strive to render their sonority. Reader and translator are challenged by the conceptual and even, as we have seen above in “The Attic Landscape,” the syntactical convolutions of Melville's style, and they are challenged as well by his word choice, his archaisms, his love of distilling meaning, sometimes multiple meanings, into a concise language, an attar that stands in marked contrast to the flowering of his prose. The challenge cannot be evaded, for it is at the heart of Melville's poetics. His love of meter and rhyme is not a yielding to tradition, least of all to the ear-friendly mellifluousness of Brahmin late romanticism, but a witting acceptance of constriction as the bound against which his poetics can chafe, often more gratingly than harmoniously. He is an experimenter and an innovator, a major nineteenth-century master, whose poetical works are still now only gradually finding their readership.