The words are Yvor Winters’ and, like a surgeon general’s warning, might be stamped on the cover of Moby-Dick. Readers who bemoan the cetological longeurs and metaphysical speculations, the prose of Brownean density and even Ishmael’s scatology, are warned not to project their personal failings on Melville’s masterpiece and to maintain a sense of humor. In connection with Moby-Dick, I’m reminded of the observation made by the psychoanalyst in Kingsley Amis’ Stanley and the Women (1984): “The rewards for being sane may not be very many but knowing what’s funny is one of them. And that’s an end of the matter.” A lightly expurgated, three-volume first edition of Melville’s book titled The Whale was published on this date, Oct. 18, in 1851, by Richard Bentley of London. Four weeks later, on Nov. 14, Harper and Brothers of New York City published the one-volume first American edition, retitled Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.
“The book is less a novel than an epic poem. The plot is too immediately interpenetrated with idea to lend itself easily to the manner of the novelist. The language in which it is written is closer to the poetry of Paradise Lost or of Hamlet than it is to the prose of the realistic novelist. The extremes of prosaic and of poetic language, each at a high level of excellence, might be illustrated by the prose of The Age of Innocence, on the one hand, and by one of the best sonnets of Shakespeare on the other: the extreme of prose is the recounting of individual facts; the extreme of poetry is the lyrical, in the best sense; that is, the expository concentration of a motivating concept, in language such that motivating concept and motivated feeling are expressed simultaneously and in brief space.”
In his edition of The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000), R.L. Barth includes my favorite photo of the poet-critic. He’s seated behind a desk, wearing a suit and tie, pen clipped in the jacket pocket, left arm in his lap, right slung over the back of his wooden chair. On the desk are two ashtrays, papers and a stack of books, including a fat edition of Moby-Dick and what appears to be a dictionary. Winters makes no concessions to congeniality or public relations. (The photo is credited to the “News and Publications Service, Stanford University.”) He looks impatient and refuses to “sell” himself. His demeanor is the opposite of that found in most contemporary author photographs, all teeth and sincerity. He is “unmoved by praise or scorn! [see below]”
“In the prose of Moby Dick, this difference in texture is carried a little farther, but only a very little. The prose, of Moby Dick, though mechanically it is prose and not verse except for those passages where it occasionally falls fragmentarily into iambic pentameter is by virtue of its elaborate rhythms and heightened rhetoric closer in its aesthetic result to the poetry of Paradise Lost than to the prose of Mrs. Wharton. The instrument, as an invention, and even when we are familiar with the great prose of the seventeenth century as its background, is essentially as original and powerful an invention as the blank verse of Milton. On the whole, we may fairly regard the work as essentially a poetic performance.”
Today, when a critic speaks of the prose in a novel being “poetic,” he usually means pretty and detached from the business at hand, veneer pasted on the particle board below. Moby-Dick is first-cousin to King Lear. Winters, who was born on yesterday’s date, Oct. 17, in 1900, also wrote “To a Portrait of Melville in My Library”:
“O face reserved, unmoved by praise or scorn!
O dreadful heart that won Socratic peace!
What was the purchase-price of thy release
What life was buried, ere thou rose reborn?
Rest here in quiet, now. Our strength is shorn.
Honor my books! Preserve this room from wrack!
Plato and Aristotle at thy back,
Above thy head this ancient powder-horn.
“The lids droop coldly, and the face is still:
Wisdom and wilderness are here at poise,
Ocean and forest are the mind’s device,
But still I feel the presence of thy will:
The midnight trembles when I hear thy voice,
The moon’s immobile when I meet thine eyes.”
The quoted prose passages above are drawn from Winters’ “Herman Melville or the Problems of Moral Navigation” in Maule’s Curse (1938), republished in In Defense of Reason (1947).