It was Walt Whitman’s bicentennial back in May, we’re celebrating the Herman Melville bicentennial today. And our focus is on a perhaps less-fully acknowledged quality of his genius (eclipsed by the towering stature of his prose), Melville as a poet.
Allen, in 1976 – “I think, in the Nineteenth Century, I would esteem Melville, Dickinson, Poe, Whitman, as being the four poet-poets, and then maybe Emerson and Thoreau, and other people, but I think Melville is up there with Poe certainly.”
and, again , in a class in 1981 – “I think he’s one of the four great poets [American poets (sic)] 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…His poetry is almost Shakesperean in some ways”…He read a lot of Shakespeare, yeah – Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Browne, and the great English prose writers..”
Allen elsewhere speaks of his (Melville’s) “basic dramatic Shakespearean intelligence” (as something immediate and obvious) – ” He was the American with a totally Shakespearean tongue, as you can see in Moby Dick, but it’s in his poetry too.”
More interesting, perhaps, is his appreciation of something else, what he describes at one point as Melville’s “very cranky weird language” (“the same ungainly phrasing”, he notes, as can be found in the poems of, say, Thomas Hardy). He singles out, in particular, Melville’s poem, “The Swamp Angel” – (“There is a coal black Angel/ With a thick Afric lip.”), as having an influence, not only on him, but on Jack Kerouac’s “adjective and rhetoric” – “I liked the way he said “Afric” (he cut the adjective, instead of “African” – “Afric) ”… “I’m interested in his rhythm and his sound”…”the physical mouthing of the language is what gives the power, I think – the realization of the hollow vowels, the hollow-ness of the vowels.”
Another favorite line of Allen’s (from “The House Top – A Night Piece”) – “Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll/Of black artillery”
And this (from his poem “America”) – ” So foul a dream upon so fair a face/And the dreamer lying in that starry shroud”
“There’s a tiny short poem that’s equal to some of the more delicate poems of William Butler Yeats on the subject of the cycles of time and civilization. It’s called “The Ravaged Villa” – just eight lines.”
“Open (up) Melville (almost) anywhere.. There’s always some good phrase(s) in any poem.”
These citations above are taken from a class in 1981 at Naropa – see here and here (also an earlier one from 1976 – see here). Allen’s engagement with and appreciation of Melville’s writing, of course, goes way back – to Columbia days – He famously studied at Columbia with Raymond Weaver, the man who wrote the first biography of Melville, Mariner and Mystic and discovered the manuscript of “Billy Budd” – “The man who discovered posthumous manuscripts of Melville”, Allen enthusiastically declared, “That’s really a professor!”
“There’s a great poem at the end of his short story, Billy Budd”, Allen tells his students. Here’s that poem in its entirety:
Good of the Chaplain to enter Lone Bay
And down on his marrow-bones here and pray
For the likes just o’ me, Billy Budd.–But look:
Through the port comes the moonshine astray!
It tips the guard’s cutlas and silvers this nook;
But ’twill die in the dawning of Billy’s last day.
A jewel-block they’ll make of me tomorrow,
Pendant pearl from the yard-arm-end
Like the ear-drop I gave to Bristol Molly–
O, ’tis me, not the sentence they’ll suspend.
Ay, Ay, all is up; and I must up too
Early in the morning, aloft from alow.
On an empty stomache, now, never it would do.
They’ll give me a nibble–bit o’ biscuit ere I go.
Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup;
But, turning heads away from the hoist and the belay,
Heaven knows who will have the running of me up!
No pipe to those halyards.–But aren’t it all sham?
A blur’s in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am.
A hatchet to my hawser? all adrift to go?
The drum roll to grog, and Billy never know?
But Donald he has promised to stand by the plank;
So I’ll shake a friendly hand ere I sink.
But–no! It is dead then I’ll be, come to think.–
I remember Taff the Welshman when he sank.
And his cheek it was like the budding pink.
But 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.