Wednesday, November 09, 2016

`A Philosophical Pessimist About Human Nature'

As the epigraph to Chap. 14 of American Ulysses: The Life of Ulysses S. Grant (Random House, 2016), Ronald C. White uses the final six lines of “Shiloh: A Requiem (April 1862)” by Herman Melville:

“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.”

The two days at Shiloh, April 6-7, left more than 23,000 casualties. It was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that time, and nominally judged a tactical victory for the North. Five months later, the casualty count at Antietam would surpass Shiloh’s. Melville’s tone in “Shiloh” is not rancorous or vulgarly celebrative. All of the dead are Americans, whether Union or Confederate. Only in death is there reconciliation (“Foemen at morn, but friends at eve”). Melville fervently supported the Union cause but melancholy permeates his Civil War poems. His gracious “Lee in the Capitol (April, 1866)” is the great poem of the Civil War, urging not revenge but reconciliation. It was included in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, published in 1866 by Harper and Brothers, the New York house that published Moby-Dick fifteen years earlier. The collection was never reprinted during Melville’s life.

In 1943, little more than twenty years into the Melville Revival, William Plomer edited Selected Poems of Herman Melville for the Hogarth Press. It’s a slender volume, fifty-two pages, and includes only four poems from Battle-Pieces. Plomer takes his texts from the sixteen-volume Works of Herman Melville, published in London by Constable and Co. (1922-24). Otherwise, Selected Poems is the first time his verse was available to readers in England. Plomer includes brief excerpts from Melville's book-length Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), which he calls “a remarkable curiosity” and “a labour to read.” It “lacks variety, and trundles along in low gear,” he writes. True enough, but Clarel remains neglected and necessary, a mountain studded with occasional gems. Plomer quotes it winningly:

“The world is portioned out, believe:
The good have but a patch at best,
The wise their corner; for the rest—
Malice divides with ignorance.”   

Today, alongside Henry James and Willa Cather, Melville occupies the highest perch in the sparsely furnished American Pantheon. More surprising to casual readers and academics alike, Melville, with Dickinson, ranks as the foremost American poet of the nineteenth century. In his introduction, Plomer mentions the overrated Billy Budd but not Moby-Dick. Melville’s verse, he says with some justice, is “full of the faults of the period—trite poeticisms and mythological formulae, rhetorical questions and so on.” In short, Melville the poet was a late Romantic and a dead-on Victorian, roles he fairly often transcended. He often reminds us of Leopardi, a poet he mentions with approval in Clarel (“If Leopardi, stoned by Grief, / A young St. Stephen of the Doubt”). Plomer writes in his introduction:

“Melville did not look to progress, science, democracy or a new or old religion for salvation and certainty. He did not share the confidence and optimism of his age, which were so enthusiastically sublimated by his contemporary, Walt Whitman. He believed in fate, not free-will; maintained skepticism; and honoured simple people, sensual pleasures, and works of art—wisdom hammered or visions won from joy and suffering. He did not look to a rosy future for mankind: ignorance and unreason, war and greed were bound to postpone if not to prevent that.”

An Englishman, Plomer mostly “gets” the quintessentially American Melville and reads him sympathetically, but underestimates his true power. He nearly turns the author of Moby-Dick into an exotic or noble savage. He even quotes D.H. Lawrence, always a symptom of critical foolishness and desperation. Here’s something the poet Helen Pinkerton, author of Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s (Archon Books, 1987) and Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South (University of Tennessee Press, 2009), wrote to me in 2011:

“Melville’s mind I found almost endlessly fascinating, and reading about the period made it even more so. Today, we think we have political problems. We should try dealing with an issue of the magnitude of slavery. Melville grew intellectually enormously in pondering the problem. He also grew into a philosophical pessimist about human nature and a political conservative, which the current PC Melvillians refuse to recognize.”

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