A POEM IS NOT ALWAYS POETRY: MELVILLE’S MONODY

There are some noted writers who, to be quite blunt, were better at other kinds of writing than at poetry.  Thoreau is one of these, as is the fellow I want to discuss today, Herman Melville, the author of the awesome and dark Moby-Dick.

Herman Melville, American author. Reproduction...
Herman Melville

Melville was hindered in his poetry by the style so prevalent in the 19th century, which was overly florid in the manner we describe as “Victorian.”  The poets we generally remember from this time are those that broke free of that style to a considerable extent, notably Walt Whitman.

That Melville was not one of these poetic escapees is seen in Monody, his ode of lamentation:

To have known him, to have loved him
   After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
   And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
   The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
   Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
   That hid the shyest grape. 

Quite honestly, if this had not been written by Herman Melville, it would probably today be completely forgotten.

What is it about?  Obviously his affection for another man.  I will not go into the nature of that affection, but we can see it was deep enough to move him to write the poem.  Just who was the man?  Scholars speculate that it was likely Nathaniel Hawthorne, a good-looking and talented fellow.  Those who want to look into this possibility might like to go to this site:

http://www.steamthing.com/2010/08/melvilles-monody-probably-for-hawthorne.html

If the object of Melville’s affection was Hawthorne, that makes the poem even more of historical interest, though it does nothing to improve it as poetry, and that is my real subject now.

 After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
   And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

What we can determine from the poem itself is that Melville had long been lonely, then met a fellow he really liked, someone who eased his loneliness.  But they seem to have had a falling out, for which Melville gives each party equal responsibility.  And the death of the other man makes any reconciliation impossible.  Death, here personified, has closed the matter, has “set his seal.”  Melville is very saddened by all of this, which is why he hopes that writing this poem will help to ease the pain; and so he cries, “Ease me, a little ease, my song!

This first part of the poem is autobiographical, while the second part is mostly descriptive:

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
   The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
   Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
   That hid the shyest grape.

Melville uses Victorian funeral language.  The grave of the man is presented as isolated, a “hermit-mound” that is “draped” — ornamented and covered by snow drifts, as a coffin or a tomb might be draped with cloths at a funeral.  There the snow-bird flits “houseless” (how else, we might ask, was a snow-bird to flit?), “beneath the fir-tree’s crape.”  By his use of crape, more commonly spelled crepe, Melville refers to the dark cloths used not only in funeral wreaths but also for women’s dresses worn to funerals and for mourning, as well as the black crepe ribbons worn on arms and on men’s hats as a sign of mourning, and the crepe ribbon placed upon the outside of a door to indicate that someone dear to those within had died.  That is why even today, people who are gloomy and always predicting the worst are termed “crepe hangers.”  So here the grave of the dead is draped with snowdrifts and the dark boughs of the firs overhead provide the funereal crepe.

The last line seems to be a kind of hidden reference to the specific man of whom Melville was writing, and its connection with a reference in another one of his poems — Clarel — is an element that leads many scholars to think that man was Hawthorne.  In any case,  the icy “cloistral vine” seems to refer to the secluded place where the man lived or was buried (a cloister is a monastery, to be “cloistered” is to be enclosed and separated from the world), and the “shyest grape” to the man himself, who was shy like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and so possibly was Hawthorne himself.

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne had close ties to A...
Nathaniel Hawthorne

There is something very outdated for us in this rather unpleasant mixture of autobiography, nature, and funereal accoutrements, and some obvious awkwardness in such expressions as “And houseless there the snowbird flits.”  It reminds me of those old “mourning pictures” that were once painted or sewn, showing a sad figure standing beside an urn-topped tomb among rather depressing foliage.

It all only confirms the feeling that had Melville not written the poem, we would never have heard of it.  So again, today it is more of historic than poetic interest — something of concern to students of Melville’s life and writings, but not of much interest to anyone else.

David


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