Monday, May 7, 2018

Wayne F. Burke writes


was a queer fish

who flopped around the house

and got on his wife's nerves; 

he went to church but

only because she wanted him to,

he did not believe or


he was a fence-sitter,

nominally Unitarian,

who floundered around in Schopenhauer

and Omar Khayyam;

his poetry was cut-topaz,

shining but


easy to admire

impossible to love,

he sacrificed two sons

to the devil of Calvin,

one a suicide

the other a bum;

he died an ancient Mariner

in the cold bosom
of his wife's love.
 Image result for melora walters herman melville  paintings
 In Honor of Herman Melville -- Melora Walters


  1. Writing did not come easily to Herman Melville, as he remarked: "Taking a book off the brain is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole business in order to get at it with safety." When Herman Melvill was sent to school his father described him as "very backwards in speech & somewhat slow in comprehension.” But, impoverished, he died when Herman was 11 and already finished with his formal schooling. By the time he adopted the “Melville” spelling of his name he went to sea in 1839 aboard a merchantman and took his 1st whaling voyage 2 years later, but in July 1842 he jumped ship on Nuku Hiva in the Te Henua Kenana “The Land of Men), an island group 1,371 km (852 mi) northeast of Tahiti, at about the time France claimed the archipelago as the Îles Marquise. A month later he boarded another ship, and in Tahiti was jailed for joining a mutiny. After esacaping, he fled 17 km (11 mi) to 'Aimeho (modern Mo'ore'a) and spent a month as a vagrant (“omoo” in Tahitian); a few years earlier Charles Darwin, seeing the island from Tahiti, was inspired to develop his theory on coral formation. On his way back home he was a seaman in the US navy until discharged in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1844. His brother published his 1st book “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life” in London, and it was then published in New York a month later. It was Melville’s most successful book and the one he was remembered for, as the “man who lived among the cannibals,” when he died in 1891. Its success led to a sequel “Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas” in 1847. His financial success allowed him to marry Elizabeth Knapp Shaw, the daughter of the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (an old friend of the Melville family who would have married Herman’s aunt if she had not died young). In his 1st full-length work of fiction “Mardi, and a Voyage Thither” Melville resumed his role as South Pacific travel narrator but began to explore philosophical themes; it was a critical and financial failure and was followed by “Redburn: His First Voyage” in 1849 and “White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War” in 1850, popular fictional sea narratives. In the spring of 1850 he began work on “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.” It took a year and a half to complete and was a commercial failure that destroyed his literary career, although he continued for a time to write land-bound novels and short stories that were largely ignored when not derided.

  2. By 1857 he was finished as a prose writer, though he turned to poetry; he submitted a volume to a publisher in 1860, but it was not accepted. In 1866, the year his in-laws found him a job as customs inspector for the City of New York, Harper & Bros. published “Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War” but only sold 525 copies over the next decade. He also wrote the longest poem in American literature, ”Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land,” an epic travelogue of 18,000 lines, which was published in 1876. He privately printed 2 collections of poetry “John Marr and Other Poems” (1888) and “Timoleon” (1891), each in editions of 25 copies. Meanwhile, his boss, future president Chester A. Arthur, kept him on the job at the customs house because he admired his writings and his reputation as the institution’s only honest employee. His friend Nathaniel Hawthorne said that Melville “informed me that he had pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other." When he died in 1891 he left behind another volume of poems, “Weeds and Wildings, with a Rose or Two” and an unfinished novella, “Billy Budd, Sailor,” which he was developing from "Billy in the Darbies," one of the “John Marr” poems; it was finally published in London in 1924, but significant, and significantly different editions, appeared in 1948 and 1962.

    The Land of Love
    Hail! voyagers, hail!
    Whence e'er ye come, where'er ye rove,
    No calmer strand,
    No sweeter land,
    Will e'er ye view, than the Land of Love!

    Hail! voyagers, hail!
    To these, our shores, soft gales invite:
    The palm plumes wave,
    The billows lave,
    And hither point fix'd stars of light!

    Hail! voyagers, hail!
    Think not our groves wide brood with gloom;
    In this, our isle,
    Bright flowers smile:
    Full urns, rose-heaped, these valleys bloom.

    Hail! voyagers, hail!
    Be not deceived; renounce vain things;
    Ye may not find
    A tranquil mind,
    Though hence ye sail with swiftest wings.

    Hail! voyagers, hail!
    Time flies full fast; life soon is o'er;
    And ye may mourn,
    That hither borne,
    Ye left behind our pleasant shore.

  3. Arthur Schopenhauer developed an atheistic metaphysical and ethical system in which the phenomenal world is characterized as the product of a blind, insatiable metaphysical will. Like Melville and the other American Transcendentalists he derived his ideas from Immanuel Kant, whose teaching, according to Schopenhauer, "produces in the mind of everyone who has comprehended it a fundamental change which is so great that it may be regarded as an intellectual new-birth. It alone is able really to remove the inborn realism which proceeds from the original character of the intellect.... Kant goes into the particular ... in a way ... which has quite a peculiar, and, we might say, immediate effect upon the mind in consequence of which it undergoes a complete undeception, and forthwith looks at all things in another light." The materialistic pessimism of his philosophy pervades much of Melville's work, especially "Moby Dick;" though his books were not translated into English until 1883, Melville may have become acquainted with his ideas as early as 1849 when he traveled in Europe with George Adler, a New York University professor who was an enthusiastic student of German philosophy. In his last years many of the philosopher's books and made extensive markings and annotations in them.

    Jean Calvin was a radical Protestant theologian in the 16th century. His followers generally call their churches "Reformed." Among his tenets are the notion that are humans are sinful by nature and thus deserve to go to hell; that since before the beginning of time God has "predestined" a select few to be spared from this fate, and that this grace is beyond the scope of any human will or action. The Puritans were English Calvinists who settled the Boston, Massachusetts, area in the early 1600s and dominated New England culture for nearly 2 centuries. In the late 18th century Bostonian preachers broke with Calvinist orthodoxy to found Unitarianism, which is strictly monotheistic (rather than trinitarian) and rejects many of the traditional Christian beliefs including the doctrines of original sin, predestination, the infallibility of the Bible, and eternal punishment in Hell.


  4. Omar Khayyam was a 12th-century Persian poet whose work was made popular through the 1853 "translation" by Edward FitzGerald. Melville owned at least 3 copies of the poems by "the sublime old infidel" and marked 5 passages of the 1st American edition (1878) with checkmarks and underlinings on 12 of the poems, 3 of which dealt with an unknowable or unseen deity and 7 with death. He also checked FitzGerald's introductory comments on the structure of the poems "where the penultimate line seems to lift and suspend the wave that falls over in the last." The influence of the verses seems most apparent in the "Rose Poems dedicated to his wife in the unpublished "Weeds and Wildings."

    I saw an Angel with a Rose
    Come out of Morning’s garden-gate,
    And lamp-like hold the Rose aloft,
    He entered a sepulchral Strait.
    I followed. And I saw the Rose
    Shed dappled down upon the dead;
    The shrouds and mort-cloths all were lit
    To plaids and chequered tartans red.
    --from "Rose Window"


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