Expansive Poetics – ( Herman Melville)

AG: Then, another heroic precursor, nineteenth-century, is Herman Melville, as a poet. How many here have run across Melville as a poet? Yeah. Has anybody here read Melville as a prose writer? – Moby Dick?  That’s much more common. And how many have seen his poetry again [show of hands] – Yeah – I think he’s one of the four great poets of the nineteenth-century – (Emily) Dickinson, (Herman) Melville, (Edgar Allan) Poe (and) (Walt) Whitman. His work in poetry isn’t as well known, but it’s great. And he’s got a big thick book. Robert Penn Warren did a selection of them back in 1967, and then a guy called Howard P Vincent did a Collected Melville – (a) thick volume, about eight-hundred pages (five-, six-, seven-hundred pages)). University of Nebraska, back in the (19)40’s. His poetry is almost Shakesperean in some ways. Let’s see what we’ve got here.

Peter Orlovsky: Did he read a lot of (William) Shakespeare?

AG: He read a lot of Shakespeare, yeah – Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Browne, and the great English prose writers

Sir Thomas Browne 1605-1682

There are a  few poems by Melville that I’ll bring up. How many have read “Billy Budd” – the handsome sailor?. There’s a poem at the end of “Billy Budd” that’s very beautiful, that has a Shakespearean ending, actually. Billy is a handsome boy who is attacked by some evil, covetous, first-mate, who loves him in secret and so contends with him, and puts him up-tight, and lies about it, and says that Billy is trying to start a revolution, a mutiny – and Billy is so outraged by this when he finally hears about it, and confronts.. Innocent Billy is so outraged that he stammers, and suddenly strikes out, and with one blow kills Claggart, the evil guy. And then Captain Vere, who has to judge in this situation, says, “Well, you’ve got to die for it. You broke the law. You “fought the law and the law won” – So this is Billy’s “I Fought The Law and The Law Won” – Billy is tied up [Allen begins reading Melville’s poem] – “Good of the chaplain to enter Lone Bay/And down on his narrowbones here and pray/ For the likes just o’ me, Billy Budd..but look -/Through the port comes the moonshine astray”..”..me they’ll lash me in hammock, drop me deep/Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I’ll dream fast asleep./I feel it stealing now, Sentry, are you there?/ Just ease this darbies at the wrist, and roll me over fair,/I am sleepy and the oozy weeds about me twist” – So the thing with him (as with Moby Dick) there’s that vowelic melody – “I am sleepy and the oozy weeds about me twist” – Like the last line ending his great prose-poem, Pierre – “and her long hair fell over him and arbored him in ebon vines” -” And her long hair fell over him and arbored him in ebon vines” – that’s the line of a novel, Pierre.

Billy Budd (1962)

Terence Stamp (Billy) and Robert Ryan (Claggart) in the 1962 screen adaptation of Billy Budd

And so there’s a kind of power-sound he gets – There’s a famous poem called “The House-top”, from New York, July 1863, when there were Draft Riots. He went upon the roof of his house on Twenty-third  Street and heard the noise of people screaming, and shots. This is when (President Abraham) Lincoln I think, ordered troops to fire on the draft rioters.

So, it’s called “The House-top – A Night Piece” – Now, “Draco” – who knows..? – Draco? – you know the term “Draconian laws”?

New York City Draft Riots 1863 – contemporaneous image from The Illustrated London News

Student: Sure

AG: Draco was an Emperor, a Roman Emperor, who came and gave… Roman? What?

Student: It’s Greek.

AG: Greek?

Student: Spartan

AG: Spartan, yeah – What’s the story of Draco and his harsh laws?

Studen: I think he was an Archon, who, during a time of trouble, set up some laws to stabilize the state

AG: Yeah, and the phrase (adjective) “Draconian laws” means really tough, tough laws – chop your hands off for stealing a pea!

And “Calvin’s creed measured” here is the creed that, if you are prosperous, you’ll be prosperous. And if you’re pre-destined to be damned, you can see it by the weak look on your face, and the fact that you ain’t got no money in your pocket, and you’re going around asking for spare change” – [Allen then begins reading “The House-top – A Night Piece”] – “No sleep, the sultriness pervades the air/And binds the brain – a dense oppression such/As tawny tigers feel in matted shades/ Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage” – that’s very Shakespearean – “Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage./ Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads/Vacant as Libya..” – That’s a real Kerouac-ian line – and Shakespearean – “Beneath the stars” – This is New York City, Manhattan – Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads/Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by./Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf/Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot/ Yonder, where parching Sirious..” – the star – [Allen continues, reading the poem] – “..set in drought,/Balefully glares red arson..”…. “The grimy slur on the Republic’s faith implied/Which holds that Man is naturally good,/ And – more – is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged”.. – Are you (were you) able to follow? – Well, (so), he’s up on the roof. There’s a vast solitude of roofy desert, “vacant as Libya”, everything is hushed, but from down on around Wall Street, Twenty-third (Street) to Wall Street, he hears a rioting, the roar of the draft riot….[Allen continues] – “Yonder where the dog star Sirius, is setting..” – Downtown, I guess. In the south, that would be – Where does Sirius set in the sky?

Student: In the north?

Student: Isn’t there some relationship to the Big Dipper?

AG: Does anybody know?

Student: It’s part of  Canis Major

AG: So if you were in Manhattan, looking at Sirius, what direction would that be? Uptown? Downtown?

Student: (Well, it would depend what time of the year it was)

AG: Well this is July. Anybody know astronomy..?

Student: Nobody can see the stars in Manhattan anyway!

AG: Anyway, whatever direction Sirius is, there are burning buildings…”Balefully glares red arson” – Arson is the burning up of buildings. All the hippies, and draft-rioters, and Yippies, and Dippies, are out making riots – “The town is taken by its rats – ship-rats/ And rats of the wharves” – All the conventions, or “civil charms” (“All civil charms/And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe..”), or agreements (social agreements) that kept order so nobody was sticking each other in the teeth….

to be continued – see here 


  1. Melville was for a while crazy about Sir Thomas Browne's writings, enough to describe him as a 'cracked archangel'. He also drew inspiration from his reading of Browne's description of a beached spermaceti whale for 'Moby Dick.

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