Melville Among the Poets
Chair: Christopher N. Phillips, Lafayette College
Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
© 2012 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 124–129, March 2012
How to Cite
(2012), Melville Among the Poets. Leviathan, 14: 124–129. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-1849.2011.01552.x
- Issue published online: 27 MAR 2012
- Article first published online: 27 MAR 2012
With the rise of new formalism and historical poetics, Melville's poetry has received increasing critical attention in recent years. But the nagging question of whether Melville has received his due as a poet, or whether Melville can achieve wider recognition as a major poet, hovers in the background of the new work on Melville's considerable poetic corpus. The dense, allusive style of Melville's poetry does not yield its secrets easily, and such complexity often led earlier critics—influenced by New Critical investments in what Virginia Jackson calls “lyric reading”—to dismiss or downgrade Melville's poetic achievement. Two panels at ALA in May 2011 shared the theme of “Melville Among the Poets,” building from the notion that finding effective ways to appreciate and contextualize Melville's poetry entails a consideration of the company that Melville keeps in his own reading, in his reception, in his historical moment, and beyond. As it turns out, there is considerable interest in placing Melville among writers of his past, present, and future, and the scholarship now being undertaken on this question is marked by a wide range of critical methods and consistently high quality. What began as a vision for a single panel grew into a pair of panels dealing with Melville's later works and Battle-Pieces, respectively.
Clarel and Beyond
As in his fiction, Melville was a continual experimenter with form in his poetry, and that aspect of his career was a focal point in this panel. Through methods of close reading, textual scholarship, influence studies, and genre criticism, the papers dealing with Melville's later works and influence generated a lively discussion about the interactions between prose and verse in Melville's writing, his relationship to the work of Emily Dickinson, and the culture of experimentation that in many ways defined nineteenth-century poetry on both sides of the Atlantic. Together, these papers demonstrated that there is still considerable “sea-room” for scholarship on Melville's poetry, and that the range of poets who play a role in interpreting that poetry—from Dante to Bayard Taylor to Robert Penn Warren—shows that Melville-as-poet keeps good company indeed.
“Melville, Dante, and the End of the Poem”
The University of Texas at Austin
Melville has long been understood as a writer who engaged deeply with those he considered major authors, often in the form of annotated copies of influential works. Dante is just such a major author for Melville, and particularly for his poetry. After acquiring the Cary translation of the Divine Comedy in 1848, Melville read his Dante repeatedly and actively, marking the poem even more than his copy of Milton. While critics have noted the influence of Dante in Melville's fiction, the Divine Comedy arguably served as a structural model for Clarel, particularly in the way that both poems resist a final ending and thematize their own impossibility. Indeed, the Paradiso is about its own impossibility, as it breaks through barriers of time and space. The claustrophobia of Clarel's poetics—the short tetrameter lines, the heavy use of enjambment and caesura to create the sense of the Holy Land's walls and cliffs—dominates the first canto and continues throughout the poem. The “Epilogue,” however, largely dispenses with enjambment and caesura and expands the lines into heroic couplets, giving a sense of relief and freedom even as the hope those lines convey is ultimately conditional. Indeed, the hope that the narrator holds out to Clarel waits beyond the end of the line, waiting for the impossible to manifest itself.
“Melville, Milton, and the Footnotes”
University of New Haven
[Prof. Robillard was unable to attend the conference.]
“Melville's American Poetic Contemporaries”
Saint Joseph's University
While Melville is often seen as a poet largely influenced by the work of earlier and overseas poets, he read Bryant and Emerson, and even in his lifetime was compared to contemporaries such as R. H. Stoddard, Bayard Taylor, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In particular, Melville interacted with Taylor and George William Curtis, both of whom established their careers through travel writing, as Melville did. Taylor's travels in the Holy Land and other Eastern locations provided material for travelogues, poetry, and lectures, a model that Melville would likely have had in mind as he made his own tour of the eastern Mediterranean in 1857. Following his lecture on “The Statues of Rome,” Melville evidently was studying material related to “At the Hostelry” and “Naples at the Time of Bomba” in 1859, suggesting that these poems would have been meant for inclusion in his lost 1860 volume of poetry. The development of prose prefaces for these and other of the “Burgundy Club” sketches amounts to a variation on cross-genre practices by Taylor and Curtis, and this experimentation with blending prose and poetic forms came from Melville's desire to reach a wider audience with his dense, allusive poetry.
“Melville, Warren, and the Making of American Poetry”
Western Kentucky University
Robert Penn Warren was one of the early champions of Melville's poetry, and he continually returned to Melville at crucial moments in the development of his own career as a poet, starting with his first encounters with Moby-Dick as a Rhodes Scholar—first in film and soon thereafter in book form. Warren's famous essay on Melville's poetry showed his growth as a critic, as it moves from the close reading typical of the New Criticism espoused by his mentor, John Crowe Ransom, to larger concerns with the tension between form and theme in Melville's work. This tension inspired Warren's own experimentations with form, particularly his use of sequences of poems reminiscent of Battle-Pieces in works such as Audubon: A Vision (1972), which Warren wrote while working on his edition of Melville's poems. As the only writer to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry, Warren also combined prose and poetry later in his career, likely with Battle-Pieces and “The Burgundy Club” sketches in mind. From the start of his career to its end, Melville was crucial for the “making of American poetry” for Warren, both in retrospect and in the new work the later poet generated himself.
Why a separate panel just for Battle-Pieces? Several topical reasons seem to have attracted interest in Melville's first published collection of poetry; the traumas of America's current wars and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War were both cited during the panel as inspirations. At the same time, more enduring questions of treating poems as sequences rather than lyric wholes, the interplay between “popular” and “high” poetic styles, and the importance of trauma theory to the study of poetry brought the study of Battle-Pieces into some of the debates central to the field of historical poetics. As with the “Clarel and Beyond” panel, the range of methods was considerable on this panel, including source criticism, trauma studies, sister-arts theory, and media studies. The joint Melville-Whitman conference in 2013 was announced at the start of the panel, and this year's Battle-Pieces panel offered a generous foretaste of the new critical work on Melville as a Civil War writer and as a poet.
“National Amputation: Melville's Literary Production in an Age of Civil War”
California Polytechnic University, Pomona
Akey reason for William Dean Howells's condemnation of Battle-Pieces as a book of poems that did not represent the war was the radical epistemology toward the experience of war that Melville espoused in his collection. As the loss of limbs became a representative mark of the violence and horror of the war, Melville appropriated amputation as a way of knowing, turning knowledge of the war into a kind of “forbidden fruit” that could only be gained through suffering deep physical and psychological wounds, even death, as in the famous line from Shiloh: “(What like a bullet can undeceive?).” This technique aligns Melville with two of his contemporaries. Like Whitman, Melville uses the figure of the veteran in “The College Colonel” and “The Scout Toward Aldie” to establish his authenticity as a poet of the war. At the same time, his embrace of poetic ideology in praising the heroism of the combatants jars with his experiments with poetic form, not unlike Dickinson's disruptive use of hymn form. Melville's efforts to locate the veteran's voice in the language of suffering and amputation, both personal and national, offers an important model for our own processing of the nation's current wars.
“Wordsworth's The Excursion and Melville's ‘The House-Top’”
Christopher M. Ohge
Editorial Institute, Boston University
The discovery and digitization of Melville's copy of Wordsworth's poems has opened up new avenues for understanding Melville's relation to the poet that Hershel Parker has argued was Melville's choice for the most important poet in the 1850s and 1860s. Several of the images and ideas about democracy that appear in “The House-Top,” one of the most famous poems in Battle-Pieces, are traceable to The Excursion and Robert Southey's The Curse of Kehama, particularly in light of the cryptic “186 / & / 186” marginalia in Wordsworth's Excursion, which point to Melville's reading the poem repeatedly during the 1860s (the dates were partially mutilated when the book was rebound and trimmed). Identifying these sources calls into question the topicality and national specificity of Melville's poem, as he incorporated European responses to the experiment of democracy and the horror of wartime violence as a way of making sense of the American Civil War.
Melville Among the Newspapers:
Popular Wartime Poetry and Battle-Pieces
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
While Melville's Battle-Pieces has often been understood as being crafted in opposition to the popular poetry written and consumed during the Civil War, Melville's use of patriotic newspaper material that he found in the Rebellion Record and other sources influenced his poetic form as well as provided him with information about the war's events. One case in point is “Sheridan at Cedar Creek,” which shares many characteristics with the widely popular poem “Sheridan's Ride” by Thomas Buchanan Read. Celebrating General Sheridan's twelve-mile ride from Winchester to Cedar Creek to turn a Union retreat into a decisive victory for his army, “Sheridan's Ride” focuses on the patriotic efforts of Sheridan's horse, Rienzi, who serves as the ideal model for a patriotic soldier: while he does not understand the larger issues of the battle or the war, he instinctively feels his rider's urgency and performs heroic feats in carrying him into battle. The violence of the battle is ignored in favor of Rienzi's zeal and the glory of the victory it inspires; as in much popular poetry of the war, mimetic representation is not nearly as important as the building of patriotic feelings that could sustain bravery in the field and support at home. Melville also conflates the heroism of the horse and the rider while glossing over the violence of a costly battle, a technique that both Read and Melville likely inherited from the bracketing of the Battle of Concord in Longfellow's “Paul Revere's Ride.” As much as Melville may have disagreed with the political boosterism of popular war poetry, he strongly felt the influence of poetry's role in sustaining patriotic feeling.
“Union Blues: Call and Response in Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces”
Stephanie A. Smith
University of Florida at Gainesville
One of the reasons that Battle-Pieces has not been widely recognized as a major work is that Melville's collection resists the idea that art is redemptive, an idea as dear to readers during and following the war as it continues to be. How, then, can we make the case for the importance of Battle-Pieces to Melville's career and to the history of poetry? First, Battle-Pieces is a collection arranged carefully in sequences that cannot be separated or anthologized without damaging the collective power of the lyrics, such as the linked meditations on technology and aesthetics in the sequence from “Dupont's Round Fight” to “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight.” Second, the call-and-response structure of many of the poems, both internally and across poems, suggests a kind of pre-blues rhythm to the collection. Melville is clearly engaged in musical matters when he subtitles “Shiloh” as “A Requiem,” for instance, and the call-and-response structure places the collection much more deeply within the nation's musical and religious consciousness than has previously been acknowledged. This intricate structure amounts to an attempted re-membering of America through reconstructing the ideals and bonds that the war had severed.