Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Herman Melville - poet

The author dedicates 'Moby Dick or, The Whale', the classic novel as follows:
In token of my admiration for his genius, This Book is Inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The work begins with an 'Etymology' supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School. It begins:
[The pale Usher - threadbare in coat, heart, body and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embelished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.]
The Etymology, such as it is, is followed by a more comprehensive sub-chapter headed 'Extracts'. This section consists purely of quotes and rhymes of which the following is a small selection:
The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seethe like boiling pan. Lord Bacon's Version of the Psalms
The mighty whales which swim in a sea of water, and have a sea of oil swimming in them. Fuller's Profane and Holy State
'And pray, sir, what in the world is equal to it?' Edmund Burke's the Nantucket Whale Fishery
The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge...Paley's Theology

Whale Song

Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale
In his ocean home will be
A giant in might, where might is right,
And King of the boundless sea'

Following the telling of the tale, some 650 pages and 135 chapters later, are several illustrations - A Map showing the Cruise of The Pequod, the Rigging and Cross-Section of a Whaler, Implements Belonging to a Whaleboat and so on. There's also a Glossary of Nautical Terms. All very useful.

But there's more to Herman Melville than books like 'Moby Dick' and 'Billy Budd, Sailor'. There's another side. His poetry. Poet-in-Residence was recently surprised to find the following poem from Melville in the book '101 Poems Against War' (faber and faber). It tells of one battle in the American Civil War. The poem is a requiem for 24,000 troops who died at Shiloh, Tennessee in 1862. Unbelievable it may seem today, but the events at Shiloh took place 11 years after the publication of Moby Dick.


Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh -
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh -
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there -
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve -
Fame or country least their care:
(what like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

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