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A new wave

Melville The Making of the Poet; Hershel Parker; Northwestern University Press: 240 pp., $32.95

January 13, 2008|Robert Faggen | Robert Faggen is writing a biography of Ken Kesey. He is the editor of "Selected Poems of Herman Melville" and is the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College.

Everyone knows that Herman Melville was a great poet. When gripped by what he called "the blasts resistless," Melville's prose rose quickly and powerfully to the status of music. Even when readers feel lost in the symbolic labyrinth of "Moby-Dick" or the mad psychological oscillations of "Pierre, or the Ambiguities," rhythms worthy of concertos, symphonies and grand opera bear them along. Who could write a grander sentence than this (about Ahab): "All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." Windup. Pitch. Home run.

Hershel Parker, who has given the world some of the most vital Melville scholarship, including a monumental two-volume biography, now argues in "Melville: The Making of the Poet" that he was once and always a poet. Of course, it all depends on what one means by "poet." From the first reviews of his prose, critics were equally swift to deride Melville's thinking and to praise his "poetical" expression. But Parker's aim is to lay the foundation for a sea change in thinking about Melville that has been a long time coming.

Parker argues that Melville's verse, which he almost certainly attempted to publish first in 1860 and on which he focused until his death in 1891, was neither a minor nor casual effort for him. The published volumes in his lifetime include "Battle-Pieces," "John Marr," the epic pilgrimage "Clarel" and "Timoleon"; "Weeds and Wildings" was left unpublished at his death. Taking on a long line of Melville critics and scholars -- beginning with Raymond Weaver in the 1920s and going on to Nina Baym, Richard Brodhead and Andrew Delbanco -- Parker aims at a representative comment made by Alfred Kazin in 1997: "You have to remember that poetry was just a sideline with Melville; it was never important to him and he was never good at it." Many if not most appreciative critics of Melville have blithely accepted this thinking. Parker wants it eradicated.

He effectively demolishes the first part of Kazin's assertion that "poetry was just a sideline . . . it was never important to him." He points out that Melville spent at least three decades writing only in verse, much more time than he ever spent writing prose-fiction. Parker does painstaking work to show just how immersed Melville was in reading and writing verse from as early as the 1850s. The great trail Melville left behind is not so much his letters as his remarkable marginalia. NYU film scholar Jay Leyda did a great service by publishing "The Melville Log," a kind of sourcebook of Melville's life; a graduate dissertation at Harvard also undertook a full accounting of Melville's known marginalia.

In the last two decades, important books he owned have turned up in trunks and other dusty places -- editions of Vasari and, perhaps most important, Milton. Parker provides a detailed, sometimes speculative reconstruction of Melville's book purchases and follows him through his likely readings of major and minor poets as well as essayists about poets and poetry. For Melville, a purchase of a multivolume edition of Matthew Arnold or Browning was a significant and joyous thing.

Parker, however, tends to treat Melville's reading as though it had been a hunt for "an aesthetic credo" and that Melville eventually developed one. We don't really get a firm sense of what Melville's "aesthetic credo" was from the marginalia, and one should be suspicious of Melville's marginal notes alone as evidence for his "poetics." From what Parker presents, Melville had contradictory views on a variety of poets; largely missing from this study, however, are Melville's immensely complex annotations to Milton's poetry (those have been transcribed and published in a volume by Robin Grey). Given Melville's obvious obsession with theodicy in "Moby-Dick" and later in "Clarel" and "Billy Budd," and his profound focus on the Civil War in "Battle Pieces," Melville's notes on Milton are crucial to understanding his development as a thinker and a poet.

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