Much mythology has been made of Melville’s reputed decline and eclipse, inspirationally redeemed by the heroic final gasp of Billy Budd. For writers it’s a flattering fiction, soothing the treasured conviction that their work is neglected and unappreciated. That Melville worked for twenty years as a customs inspector in New York City is routinely cited as conclusive proof of American philistinism. No one should feel sorry for the writer who gave us Moby-Dick. Nothing else Melville wrote approaches its raggedly sublime glory. (In this, Melville resembles Ralph Ellison, who wrote a masterpiece, Invisible Man, and was nagged by himself and others for the rest of his life for his inability to do it again.) We read Melville’s other titles with such devotion only in the reflected light of his masterpiece. Am I alone in finding Billy Budd almost unreadable? Yet Melville, with Shakespeare, is one of only two writers whose I have ever read entirely and chronologically, Typee to Timoleon, and every few years I reread Moby-Dick and a few other works (“Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno,” Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War).
The American-born, Montreal-based poet and novelist Norm Sibum contributes posts to the Ephemeris blog at Encore Magazine. Norm writes in the spirit of Sterne, forever digressing within every digression. In 2011, Norm read Moby-Dick and worked fleeting references to it into his postings. The passage quoted at the top is drawn from one, as is this:
“As I read Moby Dick bits at a time, as I take its digressions manfully in stride (for instance, the nation-state that produced the best likenessess of whales, the sperm whale in particular, was France, country that had the least to do with whale hunting); as I wonder to what extent Melville was consciously punning when he hit on the notion of Ahab giving out with a stump-speech, I always have it in mind that Melville was essentially a pessimist at a time when America was expanding, not a little drunk on its possibilities, civil war or no.”
Few writers are more pessimistic than Melville. Norm is a devotee of Leopardi’s prose Leviathan, Zibaldone. Perhaps he already knows the Italian poet makes a cameo appearance in Melville’s other Leviathan, the 18,000-line Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876). In Part I, Section 14, “In the Glen,” Melville writes:
“If Savonarola’s zeal devout
But with the fagot’s flame died out;
If Leopardi, stoned by Grief,
A young St. Stephen of the Doubt
Might merit well the martyr’s leaf.”
The editors of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Clarel, published in 1991, report that Melville, on a visit to Florence in 1857, purchased a copy of Antoine Valery’s Historical, Literary, and Artistical Travels in Italy (1852). In it he marked two references to Leopardi, including “died at Naples of the cholera, on the 28th of June 1837, aged forty years.” The editors note that the final three words were underlined by Melville, who at the time he purchased the book was thirty-seven. More than thirty years later, in an 1888 copy of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, marked a passage by Leopardi’s philosophical cousin: “theme is everywhere the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. . .”
Norm has sent me four of his poetry collections -- Girls and Handsome Dogs (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2002), Intimations of a Realm in Jeopardy (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2004), Smoke and Lilacs (Carcanet, 2009) and Sub Divo (Biblioasis, 2012) – as well as his novel The Traymore Rooms (Biblioasis, 2013). I haven’t had time to read any of them sequentially, and have merely grazed among the green pastures, but 2016 already looks promising.