Wednesday, June 11, 2014

`Such Hearts Can Antedate'

Soon after President Lincoln’s assassination, Herman Melville attended an exhibition of paintings at the National Academy in Manhattan. There he saw A Coming Storm, a landscape painted in 1863 by Sanford R. Gifford (1823-1880). The scene is Lake George in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. The time is autumn. Sunlight brightly illuminates a section of the lakeshore -- boulders, a fisherman, orange and yellow foliage. An ominous arch of black and gray clouds overhead frames the scene. The painting moved Melville to write a poem about it, to which he appended a note: “A picture by S. R. Gifford, and owned by E. B. Included in the N. A. Exhibition, April, 1865.” Here is “The Coming Storm” (Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866): 

“All feeling hearts must feel for him
     Who felt this picture. Presage dim—
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere
     Fixed him and fascinated here. 

“A demon-cloud like the mountain one
     Burst on a spirit as mild
As this urned lake, the home of shades.
     But Shakspeare’s pensive child 

“Never the lines had lightly scanned,
     Steeped in fable, steeped in fate;
The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware,
     Such hearts can antedate. 

“No utter surprise can come to him
     Who reaches Shakspeare’s core;
That which we seek and shun is there—
          Man’s final lore.” 

When Melville saw A Coming Storm, it was owned by Edwin Booth (“E.B.”), the Shakespearean actor and brother to John Wilkes Booth, the president’s assassin. Booth was the most famous American actor of his day, and Hamlet was his signature role. After Lincoln’s murder and news of his brother’s involvement, Booth retired from the stage but returned in 1866, when his first role was as Hamlet. 

In the first two lines of the poem, the antecedent of “him” could be Gifford or Booth. Melville suggests a monstrous act of prescience in the “demon-cloud.” Painter or actor may have glimpsed the future, “Dim inklings.” The poet changes the title, removing the indefinite article and replacing it with the definite. The storm coming is not the war, which had already been underway for two years in 1863, but the murder of the president and, perhaps, the trials of Reconstruction and restoration of the Union. Melville had already seen Gifford’s painting in Albany in 1864 (Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: 1851-1891, 2002) but remained unmoved by it prior to Lincoln’s assassination. Starting in 1861, Gifford had served as a corporal in the 7th Regiment of the New York Militia. The final stanza distills what Melville had already written more than a decade earlier while working on Moby-Dick: 

“There are minds that have gone as far as Shakespeare into the universe. And hardly a mortal man, who, at some time or other, has not felt as great thoughts in him as any you will find in Hamlet.” 

At the National Academy exhibition, Melville saw another painting, Elihu Vedder’s “Jane Jackson, Formerly a Slave,” that moved him to write a poem, “Formerly a Slave,” also included in Battle-Pieces. Melville dedicated his final book, Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse, issued in an edition of twenty-five copies, to Vedder, and published it in 1891, the year of his death.

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